Monday, August 29, 2011

The Least Interesting Topic of All

Last week I was asked to submit a short bio of myself, to be sent out with my novel to potential publishers. I was feeling pretty great about all three hundred pages of the novel, but to write a short paragraph about myself? Hello, palm sweats and nausea.

When I started this blog it was mostly out of curiosity. What in the world would I say? Could I keep it going? Would anyone other than my husband read it (without me asking every four seconds, "Have you read my blog yet?")? I have some friends who write excellent blogs (one is here) -- and although this intimidated me, I started to see this little site as a public writing exercise, a chance to experiment in a new genre.

When I write fiction, I have an internal editor that kicks in, that starts shaping the words as they come out my fingertips - moving a word here, a sentence there, trimming adjectives like stray eyebrow hairs. In the back of my mind, I'm always thinking about useful things like plot and character and where the story is going and how I'll know when I'm there. But when I set out to write about myself, the early drafts are always a muddled mess. I'll read them over and think: Thank God I didn't post this.

So yesterday morning at *bucks, I sat down to make a short list of things to include in my bio. Now, I'm quite aware that this bio was supposed to focus on my writing, but in my muddled-mess-of-a-first-draft, this is what came out:

"Who wants to know that I wouldn’t miss Project Runway for the world, that I limit myself to a single episode of Hoarders per month, that I read everything that I can get my hands on, including ingredients and usage instructions on the backs of beauty products? That, when I have a waist, I have an affinity for wide belts and when I don’t, I rotate through an unhealthy collection of cardigans? That I believe I truly should have been a spelling bee champion at least once in my life, and would sign up for an adult spelling bee in a heartbeat? I can drop literary references and play the snob; other times I sit mute, afraid to be the smart girl in the room. Nothing is better to me than the five minutes in the morning when Will and I are still in bed and Baxter sandwiches himself between us like a sturdy-limbed two-year-old. I have always loved to bake, but have only recently learned to cook. In a recent period of unemployment, I wrote a letter to a local baker, offering to be an unpaid intern for a few weeks. I almost sent it. I have trouble deleting things from my inbox. I’ve had a bad run of luck with laptops. I can say no – but it hurts."

Stop: Breathe.

My laptop was smoking, and the woman next to me had subtly shifted her shoulder so that her back was to me.

Okay -- this is the non-essential information, I told myself, drawing an imaginary line in teacher-red ink through the paragraph. Now you have to focus.

Once, a student told me he couldn’t write about himself for his personal essay, because he basically couldn’t stop himself from lying (exaggerating, he said) to make himself seem better than he was. "I just want to be interesting," he told me. "I want someone to read this and think: Yes! We need him at our college!"

“No, you have to be honest. Be you,” I remember telling him, “but be the best you.”

But now I can sympathize. What is the best me?

Forty-five minutes later, my skinny vanilla latte drained of the last drop, here's what I came up with:

Paula T D is a writer, latte drinker and all-around slave to public education. Her first novels – written in the back seat of a station wagon where her parents let her jostle around from California to Wisconsin and back, unprotected by a seat belt – were sadly lost in one move or another. Face of the Earth is her first novel to survive. Previously, her writing has appeared in deCOMP, Cantaraville, The Shine Journal, Staccato Fiction and The Sycamore Review, where her short story “Casualties” placed second in the Wabash Prize, judged by Tobias Wolff. A recent graduation of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, she has been invited to read at the AWP Annual Conference and Bookfair in Chicago, 2012. In her down time, Paula takes long walks with her husband and their beagle/child. She often records her thoughts here:

Whew. And now, I wait for the right person to find it.

Monday, August 22, 2011


We have new neighbors.

The house in question has been empty for the better part of two years, bringing all the usual things that go along with vacancies -- towering weeds, telephone books tossed onto the porch, and foot traffic in and out the backyard gate which was always, always open.

Will and I had been in the house years before -- in one of the long periods of vacancy sandwiching its brief period of occupancy. We were with our realtor, riding in his impersonal, neat-as-a-pin sedan, and we parked across the street at another house for sale.

"It looks like they've converted the garage to a den," our realtor said, snapping on light switches as we trailed behind. It had been converted, indeed -- into a strange, wood-paneled room with built-in stone benches lining three of its walls. It was the perfect arrangement for a hunting lodge in the mountains, or the meeting of a secret society that required a password, special handshake and torchlit votes.

I shivered.

Our realtor, walking ahead, discovered a burnt patch in the hardwood floor. (Animal sacrifices????) "Um, guys," he said, holding out both arms as a barrier, so we wouldn't go a step further. "It's a no. Believe me, you'll thank me some day."

We nodded, defering to his wisdom. It was sobering to realize exactly what was in our price range.

We ended up buying the home down the street -- a solid little house that proved a blank slate for our lives. But I've watched that other house, feeling somewhat reassured when it was occupied and vaguely uneasy when it was not.

Then one Friday a For Rent sign was posted in the front yard. Within a week, the new neighbors were moving in. I watched the scene from the kitchen window. It was difficult not to stare, the way it would be difficult to sit in the stands and not watch the circus perform. People and furniture spilled out of trucks, no fewer than twelve children ran circles on the yard, a horse-trailer was parked on the street, and a boat was parked diagonally across the driveway.

"Looks like the whole family is helping with the move," Will remarked, joining me at the window.

I nodded grimly, beginning to suspect the truth.

By Sunday night, there were still six pick-up trucks parked along the block. I counted eighteen people crowded onto the front porch, in the sort of temporary seating that I feared would be permanent. The sheer number of people was overwhelming, as was the way those people stopped and half-turned in my direction whenever Baxter and I walked by. What about the hunting lodge? I wondered. Why couldn't they all gather in there, maybe raise a glass of mead and sing of the adventures of a hero?

"Have you met our new neighbors?" asked D. from the house on the corner, watering his lawn.

I confessed to only watching them from the window. "What about you?"

I observed him closely. D. is the most upbeat, positive person I have ever met, but he struggled to get this one out. "I think they have thirteen kids," he said, and his smile, although still a smile, was bleak.

I'm a neighborhood watch coordinator; it's my job to shake hands and make friendly, and eventually, that's what I'll do. I'll suck it up, I'll get over my snobbishness, I'll back away from the window, cross the street and extend my hand. Eighteen times, if that's what it takes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Letters to Mrs. D.

I ask my students on the first day of school to write me a letter. Not only does it set the tone for what English/Language Arts is all about, but I've learned it's the only time all year a junior high student will be completely honest.

Step one. Tell me about yourself, I say.

This is where I learn who loves football, who just moved to town, who has gone to five different schools, who has three brothers and two sisters, who has pets, who plays the ukelele. They are surprisingly candid: I have two parents but both of them hate me. They are resigned to circumstances: I'm from a broken home, and all I can say is that I've survived it.

Step two. What do you love and what do you hate about Language Arts? And don't hold back, I tell them.

The responses are varied: I love L.A.! It's my favorite class! It's easy for me because I already speak the language (there is always, always, at least one who says that). I love to read books, but I hate to read any book a teacher assigns. I hate all books except one, and our school library doesn't carry it. I love to write stories. I hate to write essays. I don't hate hate L.A. I like writing essays because for some reason I'm good at it and always get an A. One student tells me: Last year I completely screwed around in your class, but this year I'm making a fresh start. It's a new me. Another writes: Yours is my fave class!!! But why do you assign SO MUCH HOMEWORK? A third tries this reverse bribe: I'll turn in all my homework if you make that bean dip again! A new student writes: I can't tell yet if I like you. (Fair enough.)

Step three. And now, I say, set three goals for yourself this school year:

It's shocking how many of them plan to be valedictorian (37), to get an A in Language Arts, to get no grade lower than a B in every subject. Some are more practical: I just want to pass. I just want to graduate. I'm just going to try to stay out of trouble.


One of the eighth grade boys lurks near my desk at the beginning of lunch. I'm trying to answer an email that needs just the right wording.

"So, you like to write?" he asks me.

"I love it," I tell him.

"What have you written?"

And for some reason, I tell him what I haven't even told my colleagues. "Well, um. I wrote a novel last year, and actually... well, I'm hoping that it gets published within the next year." My heart beats a little faster, saying that.

He nods, shaking his head so that the hair hanging in his eyes is somewhat dispersed. "Cool. That's cool."

"What about you. Do you like to write?" I ask him.

"Yeah," he shrugs. "So far I've written five novels and seventeen short stories."

"Oh. Well, that's great," I say. I wonder what my paltry one-as-yet-unpublished novel sounds like to him.

He shrugs again and wanders off, throwing these words over his shoulder: "I'm going to write a lot more this year, though."

Sometimes teaching makes me smile.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You Won't Feel a Thing

Everyone, it turns out, has a gall bladder story.

It's like an appendix -- one of those extra parts we apparently don't really need, something that can be removed without much difficulty. Between my three sisters and me, we have a grand total of zero appendixes, and that's even counting the sister who started with two. For a while, every time the phone rang at night, it was with news that someone from Will's family was in the ER with a hot appendix. Now I keep a careful eye on Will's own abdomen -- it's only a matter of time, I tell him.

"You know, your grandfather had his gall bladder out," my mom says, in what is probably intended as a pep talk. "That was in 1999." See? Proof that a person can live for 12 years without this extra bit of tissue. Then she begins listing family friends -- Pam too, and what about Katie? She got out of the hospital only last week.

Armando, our brother-in-law, had his out, Will reminds me. Yes -- I remember. The waiting area, the hospital room, cracking jokes with Dad before Armando even came out of the anathesia.

I mention this to Mona, the sole person on earth who can tame the beast that is my hair. At the moment I have silver foils sticking out of my head; I look like a pale, somewhat lumpy Christmas tree. "Oh! Well you know, I had my gall bladder out..." she begins. What follows is a medical horror story that pauses only when it's time to stick me under the dryer, resumes for the shampoo, and finishes during my cut.

It's only a laparoscopy, everyone points out. I'll be back on my feet in no time -- my sister's co-worker, I'm told, was back at work in three days. No one mentions that the last time I was scheduled for a laparoscopy I spent seven days in the hospital.

I'm in no hurry to be cut open again, and besides -- I've had exactly one really bad stomach ache that may or may not have been my gall bladder. Who gets a tonsillectomy after one bout with tonsilitis? I'm too cynical not to ask: Would this option be suggested to me if I didn't have double health insurance coverage?

Will provides the theme music for my musings: "Losing My Gall Bladder" to the tune of "Losing My Religion." Meanwhile, I start to wonder if a bad gall bladder can get me out of chores like taking the trash out, washing my car, emptying the dishwasher.


I want to explore other options first, I tell my doctor -- like a change in diet. I'm 35, and it's time to kiss fried and fatty goodbye. I quote some passages from things I've read online about people who have just as much pain after gall bladder surgery as they did before, and other people who live with their gall stones, pain-free.

"I understand your concerns," my doctor says.

For the first time ever, I have her full attention. We're sitting in chairs, facing each other. It feels empowering to sit in a doctor's office fully clothed, in control of my dignity.

"Let's say I have one or maybe two more attacks, and there are no other obvious causes..."

She nods. "Then it will be time to come back."

I agree. We shake hands on the deal and I head back to the lobby, feeling suddenly much better.

A gall bladder is a terrible thing to waste.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Speaking Too Soon

Although I was mostly feeling better by the time I finally had my sonogram -- to see if there were other possible causes for my gastroenteritis -- I went ahead with the procedure anyway. Let's just say that for someone who is already complaining about stomach tenderness and "unexplained gas" (sorry for the high-tech medical jargon), an abdominal ultrasound is a painful, painful thing.

You basically lay on your back while a plastic wand smeared with cold, translucent jelly is butted up against your ribs, and you think cheerful things, like: I wonder why she keeps looking at that spot. Is that my pancreas? It must be my pancreas. Fabulous - I have pancreatic cancer. I've got six months to go, maybe. But I feel fine! Almost fine! I'm going to have to go "out of network" to get a second opinion, and how does one begin to do that? How many days of sick leave do I have again?

"Lay on your side," the technician says, and so you do. It's a very strange sensation, like an alien abduction must be. There's nowhere to put your arm, although you try a dozen different possibilities. Over the head is weird, on top of the breast is uncomfortable. Maybe if you can reach the arm back, behind yourself... "If you can keep still," the technician reprimands gently. You busy yourself by staring at the monitor, which looks exactly like the screen for a pelvic ultrasound, except there's no baby in there. Other things surface randomly - kidneys, the gall bladder, the liver - like bubbles rising to the surface of a pond.

The technician is infuriatingly professional. It's her job to do the procedure; it's the doctor's job to interpret the results. She doesn't even allow a "hmm" to pass her lips; there's no hope of getting a "Looks good!" either. "I'll send the results to your doctor," she says at the end, snapping off her gloves.

Half an hour later, I was home, listening to my answering machine. Someone had left a message that essentially asked, "Hello?... Hello?... Hello?" for thirty seconds without providing a name or number. I listened to the message again, suddenly convinced that this was my doctor's voice. She was calling me with THE NEWS.

Shaking, I dialed my doctor's phone number, which goes not to her office but to a call routing service. "I think someone may have tried to leave a message for me," I said, lamely. "I just had a test done, and maybe someone is trying to tell me the results?"

"I can leave a message for the doctor, if she hasn't gone home for the day," a female voice says smoothly.

"Yes -- thank you. It's very important."

At this point I'm too keyed up to read, write or look at curriculum. There's nothing to do but turn on Millionnaire Matchmaker and wonder how people get so messed up.

An hour later, I dive for the phone when it rings. It's a physican assistant from my doctor's office, the one who gave me a T-DAP shot last week and told me jokes while we waited to see if I had a reaction to the vaccine.

"Hi, Paula," he says. "I see that you called for your test results. Doctor told me to pass on a phone number to you, so we can go ahead and get you scheduled."

"Scheduled?" I repeated, a pen in my hand.

"Yep -- hope you don't have any plans for a while. It looks like you'll be getting your gall bladder removed."