Monday, August 30, 2010

Weekend Writer

A few weeks ago, I started teaching again. The plan was for me to teach during the day and write three nights a week. Or two – at least two. Okay, one. Absolutely one.

Here’s how it’s going.

Week one was crazy. I spent ten hours a day at school and the rest of the time in front of the TV, too exhausted to move. My body was asking me: Really? We’re doing this again? My dog, transitioning from two walks a day to one, was asking the same thing.

So it wasn’t until Friday of week one that I packed up my laptop (Will’s, really – did I mention that my laptop died? Could the universe please stop sending me messages?) and headed for the Borders cafĂ©. I almost made it, too. But somehow I ended up in the bedding aisle at T.J. Maxx. I don’t need bedding and I haven’t been inside T.J. Maxx in the better part of a year –but suddenly it seemed crucial that I be there. I fingered 500-thread count sheets discounted to $29.99. I tried out pillows – a favorite pastime. Finally, I snapped out of my funk, marched my behind to Borders, ordered an espresso with an extra shot, and went at it. Well – sort of. It had been exactly twelve days since I found out I got the teaching job and my life went into full-blown chaos, so I’d been away from my manuscript for a full twelve days. I was kind of scared to return to it. It was like suddenly returning to a friend I’d been avoiding, and there was a stiff awkwardness to my rhythm. I had a checklist for my novel revision, but those things all seemed too overwhelming to implement. Read over for references to the 1970s. Um, no. Instead, I fiddled with a few sentences, possibly making them worse. The next morning I hit Starbucks, which was simultaneously overrun by youth soccer players who definitely didn’t need caffeine in the first place. It was slow going, but I did get somewhere.

Week two. All I thought about was organizing curriculum, planning writing proficiencies, and how in the world I was ever going to fit in with my new colleagues. Exactly no writing happened again until Friday night. Will went to a football game, and I escaped again to Borders. I ended up writing something entirely unrelated to my novel, more as therapy. And then I read over things. Not bad, I kept thinking, grinning to myself. Who is responsible for this genius? Oh, right – me. I had managed to forget entire lines, if not scenes, of my novel.

Week three. It’s only Monday, and I’m in Starbucks, sipping an unsweetened ice tea lemonade and eavesdropping on the conversation of a couple next to me and trying to figure out how I know the man sprawled on the chaise lounge. I’ve even opened my novel file – it’s right underneath this one. This – in the world of the weekend writer – feels like a huge accomplishment.

Watch out, world. Here I come.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Animal Kingdom

This is what it’s like to live in a house ruled by animals.

One warm night you are asleep next to your husband, your body cooled by a slight breeze through the open bedroom windows. The down comforter, truly useless in such circumstances, is heaped between your body and his. One cat is perched on your hip – it’s where he prefers to wait, if not actually sleep, during the night. You have already rolled to the side, forcing him off your hip, twenty times – but he keeps coming back. Somewhere in the darkness the other cat is also waiting. Your dog, meanwhile, is under the bed making the strange helpless yelps that indicate a go
od dream.

You are aware of all of these things sub-consciously, while lost in a dream that is a strange amalgam of seventh grade curriculum, lines from your revised novel and conspiracies from the book on your night stand.

And then, all feline hell breaks loose.

One of your cats has apparently tried to jump from one windowsill to the other, sending a lamp crashing and all three pets scuttling into frantic movement. One claws your arm as he makes his way over your body into the safety of the hallway. You sit up. In the dim glow from the backyard solar lighting, you locate the lamp, balancing precariously between a table and the wall. Thankfully a glass of water from earlier in the evening is undisturbed. Your husband, despite the tremendous crash three feet from his head and being trampled by at least four feet, is still asleep.

You feel it is your duty to alert him to the fact that you are awake. You nudge him. “Did you hear that? One of the cats knocked over a lamp.”

He begins speaking as if you are in the middle of a long conversation, which is confusing but familiar. In half-wakened states, he likes to take charge of situations. What he tells you now begins with, “What you don’t understand is how it started.”

“You’re sleeping. You’re not making any sense,” you argue. All you want is for him to lean over, pick up the lamp, and fall back asleep. The lamp is closer to him. It is only fair.

“You’re the one who doesn’t make any sense,” he says. While this might be true in a general way, it is not true now – but you decide to give up. The cats have abandoned the bedroom perhaps for the rest of the night, but the dog is back, leaning his wet nose into the palm of your hand, which dangles over the edge of the bed. “I’m going back to sleep,” you tell your husband, with great dignity. He gives a general snore in response.

You fumble for the alarm, pressing its Indiglo switch. 3:06. Your alarm will go off in less than three hours, and unfortunately, you realize you are now wide awake. The dog licks your hand idly.

You close your eyes. You will yourself back to sleep. No – you are too uncomfortable, and everything must be adjusted before sleep can resume: sheets, pillow, hair, which lies hot on your neck. Much better. Now: sleep.

Count sheep. Listen to the cats, still traumatized, prowl the hallway. Husband’s breath, dog’s sigh, a truck lumbering by, blocks away. Check the clock. 3:09. Is this even possible? Have you disturbed the space/time continuum?

Come on – you need this sleep. There’s so much to do tomorrow – walk the dog, fold laundry, grade poems, plan what in the world you’re teaching this trimester. Oh, damn. Nevermind. You are now officially wide awake.

You fumble for your book light, reach for your book. You have been on page 105 in
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest for the last three days, bogged down in the inner workings of the Swedish Secret Police. You sigh and read until 4:30, when your eyelids droop again.

The next thing you know, of course, your alarm clock has begun its maddening beeps – gentle, then insistent. Sunlight floods the room. The dog stretches, ready for breakfast. A cat has once again settled onto your hip, and the other cat once again sits in the windowsill, his fur pressed against the screen.

You stretch, then pick your way through strewn blankets and pillows to the other side of the room, where you right the toppled lamp.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Official End of Summer

On Friday, a small group of us gathered for dinner at a friend’s house. We numbered six; five of us (including, as of tomorrow, me) are teachers. Will is the lone man out, but since he’s an expert on high school sports, he moves smoothly through our conversations.

I was almost too tired to put on a smile. It was the end of a whirlwind week that began on Monday, when I put on a suit and summoned my friendliest expression and interviewed for a job teaching seventh and eighth grade Language Arts. I didn’t tell Will I was interviewing; I had only mentioned, with extreme casualness, that I applied in the first place. Teaching isn’t my long range plan, but short term, it allows me to pay off bills, get ahead and pursue the long range plan (writing) in the future.

On Tuesday morning, I got the call: The job was mine. “I’m so excited!” I said to the person in Human Resources, and this was true. But my mind was already reeling – thinking of what needed to be done to set up a classroom, and the freedom I was leaving behind. While still on the phone discussing my units and benefits, I emailed Will: “Got a job. Dinner’s on me.” That afternoon I drove to the school and picked up my keys.

Wednesday was spent signing papers at the district office and filling two Walmart shopping carts with all the stuff I was going to need – all the stuff I’d essentially left behind at my last teaching job, since some of it had been purchased with school funds, and besides, I was done with teaching, anyway, wasn’t I? Notebooks, lined paper, pencils, crates, manila folders, Sharpies, dry erase markers. I ended up spending $160 on items ranging anywhere from ten cents to two bucks apiece.

Thursday I spent cleaning in my new classroom, sorting into piles of things that may be useful (ancient curriculum binders) and things that definitely wouldn’t (three mismatched shoes). I met my new colleagues. I drew posters, determined to cover as much of the light gray walls as possible.

Will had Friday off and helped me move desks, hook up my computer and – surprising both of us – complete an art project for my “Word Wall”. I ran copies, skimmed through textbooks, made frantic lists of things to do over the weekend. So I was exhausted when we finally got in my car for the trip to Hughson – if I allowed myself to close my eyes, I would have been asleep instantly.

But the company was fantastic, our friends’ remodel so gorgeous I offered my housesitting services, the food melt-in-my-mouth delicious. Four kids wandered around the periphery, kicking soccer balls and racing each other. The sun went down and the night was gorgeous, the sky a velvety black dotted helter-skelter with stars. The kids started it, dragging blankets to the backyard, and we adults joined them, settling onto our backs. We spotted the Big Dipper, the North Star, a few planes that might have been UFOs – you never know.

In a week, we would all be back in school, back in the rhythm of bells ringing and pledging to the flag, passing out papers and collecting homework. Our time would not be our own. My time would belong to hordes of twelve-to-fourteen year-olds and I’ll be lucky, I know, if I escape grading papers for an evening or two of writing.

But it’s just a change of circumstance, not a change of essentials. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

State of Mind

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’d never been to New York before our trip this summer. My personal experience with the city was limited to a view of the Manhattan skyline from the Newark terminal and a wait in an endless line at JFK. (I was also passed a counterfeit $10 bill and the most rubbery chicken sandwich of my life at a Burger King at JFK, but since I have almost forgiven New York in general for the incident, it only bears noting in parentheses.) Other than airport vendors hawking “I [heart] NY” t-shirts, I really could have been anywhere.

This unintentional avoidance of New York was becoming a source of shame for two people who consider themselves travelers and, for that matter, writers. We’ve stood at the base of the Jungfrau in Grindelwald, Switzerland; we’ve taken a boat up the Bosphorus in Istanbul, where Europe meets Asia; last summer, I got a healthy sunburn on Great Blasket Island, which is considered so remote that Ireland no longer lets its residents live there. Not visiting New York City was just plain silly.

But even though it was my first official visit, New York felt instantly familiar to me, from the moment we stepped off the train at Penn Station. I’ve seen, after all, a few thousand episodes of Seinfeld and Law and Order, not to mention dozens of movies with New York as a backdrop. A glance at my bookshelves reveals my recent mental journeys to the city: Motherless Brooklyn, Netherland, Lowboy. And of course, during the fall of 2001, Manhattan was an ever-present fixture on my TV screen.

So in a way I’d grasped the essence of New York without ever physically being there – the swarms of people of every race, religion, nationality, social class; the crowded, clacking subways; the overwhelming glitz of Times Square; the stately museums with stern-faced docents…

What this west-coast, dry-heat-loving girl had failed to envision, however, was what it would be like to experience the city under oppressive humidity and crushing heat. I saw New York through the sweat that had dripped into my eyes: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the almost airless subway tunnels. I sweated through every shirt in my bulging suitcase; I sought refuge in front of the dinky air conditioner in our hotel room, blasting away at a constant 68 degrees. I watched, with a growing sense of despair, as recording rising temperatures, with record highs predicted. For Saturday, July 24, the local news warned of 97 degree heat. “Stay inside if you possibly can,” the weatherman advised. It didn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

Oddly enough, no one else in New York seemed to be sweating. While twin semi-circles of sweat sprouted under my breasts, everyone else walked happily – if purposefully – down the streets of the Upper West Side. I checked carefully for beads of sweat on foreheads, for swamp pits lurking in underarms and at the backs of knees. While I fanned myself with a pizza menu on the subway platform, wishing I could stand over a grate Marilyn Monroe-style, New Yorkers calmly read from their Kindles. Even Will (who had showered three times a day when we were in Wisconsin, cursing the humidity all the while) didn’t appear to be bothered.

“I’m dying,” I croaked, when we were exactly halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge. Moving another step was impossible; I was going to have to stay there forever, suspended between boroughs, watching bodies float by in the East River. I flicked sweat from my face, noting that my bangs were completely plastered to my forehead. I felt for my water bottle – only a few, precious swigs left. “I can’t go on,” I gasped.

Will didn’t hear; he was ten yards ahead of me and presumably nestled in a pocket of clean, cool air. He turned around, grinning. “Isn’t this fantastic?” he said. “I could see us living here, couldn’t you?”

I didn’t answer. I was thinking of how I would love to visit New York again – maybe in the fall, when the leaves in Central Park were changing red and gold, maybe in the winter, when I could schlep through the snow and slip on the ice and see a glorious cloud of white air emerge from my lips with each breath. While sweat slid over my eyeballs, I stood perfectly still, with visions of mittens and snow boots dancing through my head.

Now that’s my idea of New York.