Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Her 19-word writing career (and rodents the size of bulldogs)

This bulldog-sized rodent is native to Central America. 
 I hope I never see one up close, unless it's in the damn zoo.

Every contractor can tell a story about seriously underbidding on a job – the plumber who forgot that all the pipes were lead, the carpenter who didn’t realize that the house was nothing but crooked walls and plaster – that sort of thing. A couple weeks ago, I was approached by a travel web site to create some content. I asked questions about the scope of the project, and got some webby answers about subsections and character counts. I still felt baffled. “Perhaps I’m just acting all print-centric and looking for a word count, and that’s not the way the world works anymore,” I thought, always the first cheerleader to run out on the field in the “Julie Sucks” halftime show. “I’m sure I’ll be able to write 20 pages a day,” I thought. “What could go wrong?”

Turns out that I, the person who can usually offer a very long list of reasons why anything, anywhere, could possibly go wrong, had failed to consider this project thoroughly enough. Here’s the one part that wasn’t in the job description: I needed to write 15,000 total words of well-researched, snappy and character-count-correct copy. I was able to complete about five pages a day if I kept my fingers – and brain – moving fast, not the 20 I had originally estimated. And, I realized, I was making a fraction of my current professional rate, a really big fraction. Or do I mean a really small one? (See why I’m a writer and not a professional fractionator?)

I logged a lot of hours on this virtual round-the-world writing jaunt, starting at about 3 a.m. every day, when I’d wake up in a cold sweat, realizing how many more descriptions I had to write that day. As I kept working, stopping just long enough to wiggle my fingers to get the blood flowing, I tried to stem the self pity that was oozing out of my home office, down the stairs and onto everyone who passed by on the sidewalk outside. To accomplish this, I thought of two things. First, I remembered that I wasn’t a coal miner or a cop, and that the only things getting tired were my creativity and my fingers. And second, I remembered back to a few times in those fat and happy days of 2007 (Remember then? When you weren’t scared all the time?), when agencies, desperate with overwork and looming deadlines, had happily sent me tidy sums for completing writing projects that were only mildly vexing, or time-consuming, or possibly a teeny bit annoying.

Of course, I had already been paid for those jobs way back in 2007, so the money was spent long ago on trips to the emergency room, groceries, grade school tuition, dermatologists, triple-ply toilet paper and boatloads of daughter-approved hair care products. I wish I’d had the foresight to have taken a few of those gigs on “deferred payment,” with the proviso that a check would be cut only during times of financial crisis, national and/or personal. I’d be getting one of those babies in the mail right about …. now.

But that’s all paid-for toilet paper under the bridge (a phrase I just made up but think I will continue using), and did not provide much solace to me, last week, making my way through my Slough of Despond (which is, I hope, the only Pilgrim’s Progress reference you’ll encounter this week). But then, just when things were looking bleak, one of my children entered the sad, dreary picture, and things got a little bleaker still.

My children usually adopt a very firm policy of refusing to offer any sympathy to me, on the principles of 1) It will just encourage her and 2) Was that mom’s voice? I thought I heard something through my earbuds. I managed to pierce Emma’s protective shell, however, because, while she was ignoring my kvetching about worn out brainpan and fingers, she quickly picked up my distress over what I considered to be the overly  modest payment (like “Amish girl” modest, I’m not kidding).

“Really? I would like to have that much money,” she mused aloud, “Maybe I could be a writer. Could I ever get a job like yours, Mom?” Since she calls me “Mom” about once a year, I was instantly suspicious. But still, maybe she’d want to follow in my limping, energy-drained footsteps one day. “Okay,” I said. “You can write one page, as an audition. Then maybe I’ll recommend you to the editor for the next project, if there is one.” She looked happy. I think I even saw her teeth, a rare occurrence for me, but apparently a quite common one for tall, handsome college men.

“But if I have to correct ONE mistake – a run-on sentence, a fragment, anything – then the whole deal is off.” She looked less happy, and I knew why. My girls have grown accustomed to 24-7 access to an in-house copy editor. (I’m not exaggerating; I have been woken out of a sound sleep to proofread an essay that was due the next day.) As I’ve heard is the case with privileged people, when you have staff, you forget how to do things for yourself. As a result, my kids are terrible proofreaders, especially in light of their reputed intellectual capacities.

While we sat together at the kitchen counter, I showed Emma a list of topics I was working on that day: Central America, Eco-Travel, Fishing and Destinations for Bachelorette Parties. Guess which one she picked. I handed her an instruction sheet. “Here are the SEO keywords you need to include in a 150-word intro. Then you need to write about these four featured cities in 325 characters each, and the next six cities in 110 characters each. I’ve been getting a first draft done in about 45 minutes, so try not to take longer than that. I’m going to be proofing the pages I wrote this morning and eating my sandwich, so I’ll be right here if you have any questions.”

I started reading, eating and waiting for the quick tap-tap of my very smart daughter as she cranked out this work that could be done by a roomful of monkeys (as she’d indicated in past remarks about my chosen career). Tap. pausepausepause Tap. Tap. pausepausepause. “I could do this,” she finally said, “except for the beginning part. It would all be easy after the beginning.”

“That’s called the lead,” I told her through a mouthful of turkey. “It’s always the hardest part. You have to write that, or no deal.” Tap. pausepausepause Tap. Tap. pausepausepause.

“How’s this?” she said, turning her laptop screen toward me. “Your friend is getting married. You should have a party. You should go to one of these good places.” 

I looked her in the eye, suddenly the editor, not the mom. “Is this the best you’ve got?”

“Yeah, I erased the other two. They were worse.”

I chewed my sandwich reflectively, waiting for the stench of her lead to clear the room.

“I give up,” she said, finally. “I don’t want to be a writer.”

“Well,” I said, “You gave it 19 words. I think that’s fair. Hemingway only had six.”


There’s a story that someone bet him he couldn’t write a story in six words, and he wrote “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”

No one can twist the moral out of a story and ego-boost it quite like this kid. “Well, I wrote 13 more words than Hemingway did,” she self-esteemedly said (and if that’s not an adverb, it should become one, exclusively for this generation). “Good for me.” She went back to Facebook, I went back to work, and the project continued on, and on, and on.

As with all life challenges, I did learn a few things while writing those 15,000 words, and I share them here now:

First thing I learned: There is some truly bad travel writing out there on the interwebs. One site described a location as “dripping with history,” a thought that made me get up from my desk right away and go wash my hands.

Second thing I learned: I would most like to have a beer with the characters who write content for Lonely Planet. Their description of why it would be fun to visit Central America included this sentence: “Wander through dense jungle to find Mayan pyramids that date back a millennium as bulldog-sized rodents scurry past and howler monkeys commute in the treetops above you.” Hoo boy, when can I book my ticket, fellas? Can I bring a rodent back home as a souvenir?

Third thing I learned: After researching and writing about 370 destinations, all over the globe, I was able to compile this list of dream vacations:
1.     New York
2.     New York
3.     New York
4.     New York
5.     New York
6.     New York
7.     New York
8.     San Francisco
9.     New York
10.  That place with the bulldog-sized rodents and overhead-commuting howler monkeys (Just kidding, I really meant New York)

Fourth thing I learned: Hey Julie, it might be good to ask a few more questions the next time you’re bidding on a project.

Fifth thing I learned: Emma won’t be enrolling in journalism school anytime soon. Ditto that MFA program for creative writing.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Boys and Dogs

I received a message from an old friend, commenting on my post about the deportation drama that was playing on every screen of our multiplex last week. She has always been one of the wisest and wittiest women I know, and I grieved when she moved away several years ago. If Erica Bachman still lived next door, if Lisa were just up the road in Carver County, if Debbie and Joel were two blocks over … what would be the impact on my quality of life? “Hypothetical,” is the correct answer, of course, because that’s never going to happen, but I like to think that it could be so. And, to return to my point, I miss her, and I treasure her messages.

The one she sent this week contained a couple good laughs and a sense of hope, and that’s a lot to cram into one email. (I’d reproduce the whole thing here, but I’ve lost it on my phone, which has a funky “every other key is operational” thing going these days, having gotten the memo from Mechanical Shit Headquarters that, for the gears and gadgets residing in this household, Now is the Time to Break.)

My friend, the one whose message I inadvertently deleted, is the mother of a grown-up boy, a man really, and I am happy to report that he is a college-graduate with a good job in a place that has nice weather. In her message, she reminded me there was a time when the bookmakers would not have put much money on the possibility of this spirited lad enjoying such a regular, grownup life. Grimmer scenarios would, at several points in his progress, have had much better odds. Still, every success has its cost. She told me that, while she’s glad that he is an upstanding member of society, she also has a full head of grey hair to show for her efforts.

I remember when he was a teenager, and she was earning those grey hairs. I probably know only a tiny sliver of the stories from that time, but there were some doozies. Did I mention that he was spirited? From my “I have two little girls” perch, I watched her alligator-wrestle for the soul of a teenage boy, and I wondered, idly, what that would be like, right before we went back to painting each others’ nails and baking cupcakes. These days, after living nine months with my own spirited teenage boy as an exchange student, I think I might have a better idea what it was like for her. One thing is certain:  I know I should have bought her a lot more cocktails back then, because she deserved them.

As I was missing her this week, I also remembered her adventures in dog ownership, which were happening around the same time as the Boy Struggles. Someone must have decided that This Boy Needs a Dog, because the family ended up with the only neurotic black lab I’ve ever met. And I’m not using that word lightly, because the poor thing had an actual DSM-disorder with her compulsive overeating. She needed to be the residential dog at a bulimia clinic, not the pet of my poor friend, who suffered through many awful incidents with this canine, including the time the dog ate an entire wrapped parcel of cookies that had been sitting at the front door, ready to be mailed to my friend’s niece at college. After the binge came the purge, and my friend was cleaning up dog poop, semi-digested stamps and very unsavory-looking Styrofoam peanuts for quite some time. The dog was probably hiding upstairs, trying to get all four paws on the bathroom scale to see if she was still so bloated.

My friend hated that dog, and she grew more vocal in her declarations of what she’d like to do with it, including many muttered desires for the dog to “visit the farm” in a way that seemed, well, permanent.

Now at that same time, in addition to my two very pleasant girls, I also had a dog – a purebred Golden Retriever. He was handsome, stupid and low-maintenance. He liked the cat, he liked us, and he loooooovved beautiful women. It was like living with George Hamilton, only not as tan. My life, as I see it from my friend’s perspective, was pretty damn easy. I’m sure she looked up every now and then from her battles with a spirited boy and a neurotic dog and wished I would just shut up about the Barbie sleepovers already.

Time has a way of bringing things around, though. Now my friend has that successful son, and a teenage daughter who loves to play soccer in a wholesomely competitive way. She has no pets, the neurotic dog having been pawned off, finally, on the soft-hearted daughter of one of her friends, a girl who wanted to be a vet and who was sure that a little therapy would cure poor Tubby. The dog did have a grand finale, though, one which I still like to conjure up as a mental image whenever I need a laugh. On the road trip to give this dog to the optimistic future vet, my friend and her son stopped at her sister’s house for dinner. The St. Louis style pork butts were on the grill, and life was good. Then the brother-in-law, unaware of the dog’s “issues,” came in through a side door and put a platter of cooked butts on the table. The next thing she saw, my friend reports, was the portly black lab streaking around the dining room table, pork butt clamped between her smiling jaws, cursing brother-in-law in hot pursuit. “She looked pretty happy,” my friend had to admit. “But God, I hated that dog.”

Hating a dog was something I couldn’t quite understand at the time, since I was living with that well-behaved canine version of George Hamilton. But these days, I live with two rescue dogs – a Chihuahua who only pees on the rug when he’s nervous, which is always, and an enormous hound who only has aggression issues toward our oppressed cat, any dog over 50 pounds, and every single person who walks by our house. The barking is ceaseless. The smell is odious. I talk about the farm quite a bit.

So here we are, full circle. I know more than I knew ten years ago – I know about teenage boys and how they will break your spirit, and your heart. I know about how it feels to be the pet of an animal that does whatever it damn well pleases and allows you the pleasure of cleaning up after it.

But if I’ve learned anything from experiencing these bitter slices of life, it’s that I need to take them with the grace and good humor my friend has never failed to display.

And also, whenever I am sad, I think about that dog running around the dining room table with her Pork Butt Prize, because that’s an image worth savoring.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Happy Seeds

I know for a fact that Disneyland is not the happiest place on earth. Face it, after about 1 p.m. on any given day, it’s the stickiest, crankiest, most “shut up and have fun, we're paying for this, dammit" place, just saying.

Until last week, I had thought the happiest place on earth was the sno-cone line at the annual Tangletown Fourth of July post-parade picnic, held at Fuller Park in Minneapolis. For the past several years, my family has volunteered to staff the sno-cone booth, and we've discovered that people seem congenitally unable to frown while they are waiting for a sno-cone, even when they are waiting in a long, long line, like the year the very nice but somewhat shaky-on-the-motor-skills senior citizen begged for a chance to “help out,” and ended up tossing more cones in the bushes than delivering them to parched citizens. “That’s okay,” people would say, kindly. “I can wait.” And then they did. While smiling.

Are these the same people who honk if I’m two seconds late going at the green light at Nicollet and 34th, when I’m still in a post-yoga haze? Seems like it. Sno-cones just do something to make people happier, and, it seems, more patient. But last week, I found something that has a more powerful effect on even the most winter-battered psyches, and it was in the last place I’d ever suspect.

As a freelancer, I work at a lot of different companies, and I see a big variety in corporate styles, from “is the nerf gun war before or after that client meeting?” to “here’s your grindstone, there’s your nose, you know what to do.” I find that companies which make an actual product – cars, pharmaceuticals, agriculture – tend to be more serious-minded than the folks who trade in a life of ideas (and nerf guns), but I like the way my work allows me to mix it up and see all the ways that people get things done for a living.

Last week, I was at one of my more serious-minded customers (read:  they actually make something), there to help with a quarterly meeting. A contact at the headquarters had sent me a big box of vegetable seeds, and I thought it might be nice to distribute them after the meeting, so I set up some piles of watermelon, lettuce, corn and tomato seed packets on a back table.

When the director who runs these meetings arrived for his mic check, I asked if he’d be willing to make an announcement about the seed packets. “What kind of seeds?” he asked, visibly brightening, and when I told him I had lettuce back there, he made a quick detour before starting his presentation. “I love fresh lettuce!” he said, reading the back of the packet with such a non-serious-guy look on his face. It was a look I was about to see a lot more of, because after the meeting wrapped up, he made a charming announcement about growing together, starting now, and encouraged people to pick up some seeds in the back of the room.

I have sat through a lot of corporate meetings in my time, at many different companies. No one leaves these things with a spring in their step, let me just say. When the guy in charge dismisses everyone, there tends to be a moment of collective thought-gathering, followed by a general shoulder slump, as everyone realizes that yet another hour has gone by, along with a recollection of all the work that needs to be finished before the end of the day.

But at this meeting, people jumped out of their chairs right away. They quickly formed a tidy queue for the table in the back, and they were, I noticed, chattering happily with each other while they waited. Up at the table, confessions were being made, advice being asked, bonds formed. “I just don’t have enough sun!” “Do you promise that I can grow these in a container?” “I always kill tomatoes!” “If I end up with too many zucchini, will you take some off my hands?” 

Even after people had gotten their seeds, they stayed in the room, in cocktail-party-ish clumps, but with seed packets where the cocktails might have been. I’ve observed these very same folks when we have celebratory cake and punch after special events, and they’re contented enough to get a mid-day sugar fix, but this was something different.

And it went on for the rest of the day. I saw people carrying their seeds into conference rooms, looking for some advice from green-thumb colleagues before they had to dig into the agenda. As I was leaving, I ran into a woman on the stairs, and she had her packets sorted into a definite upright and sideways system. “I’ve been upstairs asking around,” she told me, “And these sideways one are going to go on my back patio, because someone told me I could use string instead of a tepee for the pole beans. And these,” she said, shaking the last packet, “I’m putting right outside my patio door, so I can pick tomatoes for lunch.” The thought practically seemed to make her swoon.

I can’t think of anything else I could have handed out that would have lightened people’s moods so significantly. Free cars for everyone? You’d just have to buy insurance. Cash? You’d spend it at the grocery store on the way home. But seeds? These were little packets of potential summer, delivered on the first nice day of spring after a very, very long winter. They were nothing but possibility, and it turns out that’s what people in these parts really, really needed. We may not have been the happiest place on earth when it was snowing on us in April, but there, for a moment in a corporate conference room last week, I believe that we honestly were.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Deportation Diet

“The thing about teenagers,” a friend once told me several years ago at a school mommies' cocktail party, back when my own kids were still young and fresh and had not yet reached their expiration dates for adorableness, “is that they don’t need you at all for long patches of time, but then they really, really need you, like BAM.” She sloshed a little bit of wine up the side of her glass as she leaned forward to emphasize the “BAM,” and I thought again about how much I admired this woman, from her up-from-the-bootstraps single parenting, to her fabulous peroxided hair, to the astonishing flying buttresses of her well-foundationed bosoms. I wondered if I could ever possibly be as cool as she was.

“Every Sunday morning,” she went on, “I’m standing there in my kitchen, getting a cup of coffee, and these kids start coming up from my basement, right? And I didn’t even know they’d been in the house the night before.” I gulped. I would never be as cool as she was, I decided. Strangers in my basement? Guerilla sleepovers? Not in my house.

Three Sunday mornings ago, I stood in my kitchen, washing dishes, and a bit of movement from the direction of the basement caught my eye. I looked up from the sudsy water to find four very large young men standing at the kitchen counter, shuffling around in their stockinged feet and searching for their shoes in the mountain at the back door. I recognized only one of the young men, and vaguely at that; the others were complete strangers. “Thanks,” they muttered, avoiding eye contact as they let themselves out the back door, and I nodded briskly and went back to my chores. And there I was, deep in the heart of adolescent BAM.

I’ve been living with three teenagers in the house since last summer, and it’s been an experience I can only compare to working in the emergency room at a very, very poorly run hospital, in which I serve as chief administrator, doctor and head nurse. There are long periods of tedium, followed by utterly unexpected floods of panic, trouble and adrenaline. (In my life’s version of E.R., though, there is no George Clooney. Christ, there isn’t even a vending machine).

As of today, I have officially been a mother for 17 years and 315 days, not that I’m counting, and I’ll let you in on a little secret – I’m ready to go off my shift and take a vacation for a couple or fifty weeks. Really, really ready. I can look in the mirror and see for myself the damage that this gig has wreaked, like one of those presidential before-and-after photos, but in my case, it would be a president who battled an alien invasion and a nuclear holocaust. And did not, I’d like to emphasis, win re-election or save the planet.

In the latest installment of the cut-rate, Clooney-less E.R. in which I live, the exchange student decided, during last weekend’s choir trip to Memphis, that it would be a brilliant idea to hole up with his three roommates in their room at the Hilton and smoke a massive amount of weed. When the guy on the floor above called the front desk to complain about the stench – or perhaps just to ask if there’d been some sort of shift in the time-space continuum and he’d been suddenly transported back to 1973 – the choir director and assistant principal were summoned to the lads’ room. May the angels bless these poor, long-suffering public servants, standing in their bathrobes in front of the four stupidest young men in the upper Midwest, asking, possibly just to satisfy their own curiosity, what these geniuses had been thinking. “We had the window open,” was the utterly logical retort from the blazed boys, “AND we turned on the bathroom fan.”

Next stop? Call the parents at 2:30 on Saturday morning, and tell them that their darlings are a)suspended and b)being sent home on the next Greyhound out of Tennessee. Oh, and Frenchie?  Immediate deportation,  a sentence delivered to me via a 3 a.m. call to the exchange program’s liaison. (A woman, by the way, with two little kids, an exchange student of her own, and a recently completed course of breast cancer chemotherapy. She and I could start a little “We Really Do Not Need This” club.)

So, after surviving the most singularly horrible winter the state of Minnesota could possibly throw Mr. Cannabis’ way, he managed to be shipped home before going to prom, graduating or even seeing a green leaf on a tree. On second thought, he’s clearly had more than his fair share of leaves already. Man, I hope that was some wicked good weed in Memphis. It would have to have been, to be worth all this.

I’ve had plenty of opportunities, these past few months, to observe how our family reacts in a crisis. One of the strangest twists in this particular episode is that our boy decided that the single family member with whom he could most safely communicate was – wait for it – Emma. We discovered this at 3:15 a.m. on Saturday, when she burst into the War Room/Home Office where we’d bunkered down for our muttered and overlapping Telephone Calls of Shame. She shouted continuous news feeds at us, with all the facts we’d just been told by the school authorities, like a mix of Wolf Blitzer, North Korean tv news and some really, really bad acid. Saying “Thanks honey, we already know that,” just fueled her frenzy to provide a new scoop, and her rapidly tapping fingers sought out ever-fresher updates on the load of excrement into which we’d just landed. If you wonder how Emma sounds at three in the morning when your stomach is twisting itself into yet another ulcer-producing knot, I will tell you – she sounds like the waterboarder must sound right before you decide to confess everything, betray your deepest principles and guarantee yourself a lifetime at Gitmo. It was, needless to say, a long night.

Meanwhile, the newly discovered member of the Doobie brothers continued to send her a stream of remorseful and increasingly hungover texts over the course of his very long bus ride home, several-hour stopover in Chicago included. And why did he choose Emma as his source of solace, you might ask – the person who has flown a hot red flag of contempt in his face for many months, and who has been the Cassandra of Southwest Minneapolis in predicting just this exact outcome? (“He’s Gonna Get Deported,” that new 45 by Emma and the Mellow Harshers! Check out the B Side: “I Told You So/The Bad Parents' Blues.”)

All I could assume was that he figured Emma was the one person he hadn't disappointed. She’d always known he was going to do something this dumb, or even dumber, and now he’d done it, so she was the one he turned for solace. The rest of the family – the naïve-nerds, who had always gotten plenty of his own contempt-flag waved about in our faces, except when he needed money or a ride – we’d been rooting for him, warning him and trying to help him make it through. What a bunch of chumps, I can hear Emma saying, as she received yet another badly spelled text from Mary Jane. 

Emma has been, not surprisingly, quite upbeat over this whole thing, mostly because she rallies very well in a crisis (You picked the right family, honey!), and also because in answer to the question: Which would you rather hear, I love you or You were right, guess which one she picks. (Actually, I surrender isn’t included in that series, or she’d have a different choice.)

I had plenty of time to think while he was making his way home on the Greyhound and saying his endless series of goodbyes this week. So I did what I always do when I have too much to think about – I cook. (On 9/11, I made six different batches of waffles to freeze and eat during the nuclear winter that I was sure was the next thing on the world’s docket, and I think we ate those damn things for the next three years, but that’s another story). I made mesquite-rubbed chicken wings. Sourdough bread. Lasagna. And even, as I was so tired on Saturday night that I was weaving in the kitchen and leaning against the counter for support, chocolate chip cookies. When he left this morning for the airport, I handed him a little plastic to-go bag of them, not that he really needed any more little plastic bags of treats either, now that I think of it. Still, as a start to his Deportation Diet, I guess it was the best possible choice. He really loved my Tollhouse cookies, and his constant ravenous hunger is beginning to make more sense. At least the grocery bills will be lower.

I have no idea what this kid is going to do with his life from now on. He offers handfuls of vague remorse, along with the deeply felt regret that he got caught, as if they're fresh and shiny pennies, newly minted. But to someone who has lived the life I've lived for as many years as I've lived it, they are tarnished and worthless. Still, maybe sometime, some years from now, he’ll be sitting in a circle in the basement of some wicked-looking fifteenth-century cathedral, right after everyone says “Bonjour Weedhead,” and talking through his journey on the douze étapes. Maybe he’ll get better, or at least a little smarter. Dear Jesus on the Cross, I don’t think he could get any dumber.

And as for me, here is what I want, just long enough for me to catch my breath – I want the shit storm to stop, the one I’ve been vainly pushing my little dollar-store umbrella up against since that day last October when I looked at my friend Joel’s Facebook page and wondered why people were posting, “We can’t believe you’re gone! Rest in Peace, we love you.” In these past six months, I’ve been facing enough crises to deplete every molecule of my being, and right now, I am in the E.R. of my own too-eventful life, looking around for George Clooney and seeing only an endless stream of shuffling, shoeless, eye-contact-avoiding teenagers.

And don’t you dare leave a comment on this blog telling me to “Hang in there!!!!!!” or I will find your address, come to your house and personally stab you through the heart with an exclamation point. I know where to buy punctuation illegally, and I am not fucking around.

Just say a prayer for me and for my family, a quiet and simple one. I don’t care if you’re an atheist, just try.

And say one for Monsieur La Whackyweed, too. He’s going to need it.