Sunday, October 30, 2011

Novelty items

On Saturday, Will met me in the parking lot of the big box grocery store, armed with our weekly list. I was coming from one direction and he was coming from another, so it was a relief to see his Honda pull up next to me, to see that I hadn't been stood up.

This was a significant moment. For the third time in our thirteen year history, we were shopping for groceries together.

I remember the first time well, because we were a new couple. Walking the aisles of a grocery store together, pushing a cart together, looking at chips and dip and bottles of beer together -- it all seemed significant. We had entered the Shared Grocery Bill phase of our relationship.

I cannot actually recall a second time, but it's been thirteen years. There must have been a second time.

This time, our third shared grocery experience, Will produced the folded list. Half of it was in my handwriting -- yogurt, cereal bars, ingredients for the pumpkin chocolate chip mini-loaves that have been my staple this season. The bottom half was in Will's handwriting -- burritos, steak, parsley flakes.

"That's it?" I ask.

"I reserve the right to make twenty-seven impulse purchases," Will says, and commandeers the cart.

This explains, to some extent, the reason why I generally do the grocery shopping by myself. I make careful lists, noting the events I'll be baking for, checking the inventory in our pantry. I stick to the list, watch the prices, and approach the register with an estimate of the cost. I am, after all, half German and half Dutch.

Will is the impulse buy king, which, I'll admit, makes life interesting. It's always a pleasure to find boxes of Junior Mints tucked into the freezer door, or a cheese I've never heard of and can't pronounce waiting on the counter. He tends to see my list as a set of gentle suggestions, not imperatives. "Couldn't find these things," he'll report, indicating cream cheese or tomato paste. Once I sent him off with a list of four items and he came home with nine, including one item from my list.

Also, the trip tends to take somewhat longer with Will, due to constant doubling back and rerouting. "Did we miss the cheese aisle?" he asks, baffled, as we wend our way to the frozen food.

"We just came from there," I point out.

"We did?"

At the register, we split up according to our strengths. Will plucks items from the cart and plunks them onto the conveyor belt. I arrange them according to size and shape, thinking of how I'll bag them.

When I look up, I notice the woman behind me rolling her eyes at her husband, and I instantly understand this eyeroll is directed at me. But I forge calmly on. Excuse me for liking things to be in a certain order.

While I bag, Will strikes up a conversation with the cashier, who couldn't seem less interested. But it's obvious that for Will, this is a novelty experience.

"Let me ask you -- what's the biggest order you've ever rung up?" he persists.

The cashier considers. "Eight hundred dollars, and they paid cash."

"Whoa!" Will throws up his hands. While the line waits behind us, he considers. "I bet it was some kind of group, and they were heading out on a camping trip or something."

The cashier shrugs, tears off the receipt, and I notice the couple behind us is openly chuckling now.

I place Will's final impulse buy -- cheddar cheese and sour cream chips -- into our cart, and as we head for the door, I suddenly realize that Will and I are something of a novelty ourselves.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I've Always Been a Writer

I wrote my first novel when I was nine years old and my family was driving cross country from California to Wisconsin, with infrequent stops along I-80. I filled up an entire wide-ruled notebook, using the front and back of each page. When I got to the end of the notebook, I figured the story must be done.

I used to write at night in the top bunk, a flashlight balanced against my pillow.

In high school, I wrote long, tortured poems about the boys I loved who didn't love me back. I finished my school assignments and in my extra time I wrote poems on sheets of binder paper and passed them to friends in the hallway between classes.

I majored in literature and writing in college. I started each assignment early - I really did. I was a nerd's nerd. I wrote for the student newspaper, the yearbook, the alumni quarterly. Sometimes my writing wasn't noticed. Sometimes it earned me praise. Sometimes it got me into trouble.

After college, I freelanced, writing about real estate and bridal showcases and county fairs and yard sales. I wrote press releases for companies I knew were dishonest; I wrote a "Marketing Tip of the Day" column -- marveling that anyone would pay any attention to me, a person who knew not a lick about marketing.

Then I married a writer.

I took a job teaching English, thinking, this is only temporary. Thinking: I'll teach during the week and write on the weekends, on holidays, during the summers. I would write five pages in a spurt and walk away from it, returning never. I started teaching a creative writing class and when my students pretended to write in their journals for ten minutes, I really did write in mine, finding for the first time in years the discipline of writing, the routine that serves as a launching pad for creativity.

I took a leap of faith and the burden of new financial responsiblity when I enrolled in an MFA program. I burned my brains out writing, I sweated every sentence, I grappled with character and plot, I cried and laughed and loved every second of it.

One day I wrote a three-page scene about a wrestler on the mats, with his girlfriend watching from the stands. I owed my mentor twenty-five pages and was three pages short, so I included this scene with my submission, adding, I don't know what this is, exactly, just an idea I had. He wrote back: It feels like there's more to the story. Why don't you keep going?

So I did. I wrote hundreds of pages, keeping maybe one out of every three or four. I spent more time with these characters than I did with my own friends and family. I researched the 1970s, Wisconsin, wrestling, Vietnam, forensics. Will gave me tips on wrestling, even showing me the "arm bar" on our cat, Copper. I shared the story first eagerly with sisters and friends and then cautiously, wondering exactly what I was writing. There was always a chapter, a paragraph, a word that needed revising.

Last January I signed with an agent, someone who read my book in a weekend and fell in love with it. I was teaching again by this time, and writing on weekend mornings. In August my revisions were finished; in September it was submitted to publishers. Somewhere around this time I stopped sleeping and took up full-time worrying. What if my book - my baby - wasn't good, or wasn't good enough? I was glad for the distraction of 175 junior high students, their drama, their pestering questions.

And then I got the offer, from Mira Books. They wanted to publish not just Face of the Earth, but my next book, too -- a book that right now is a collection of vignettes waiting to be linked. I told my family and the friends who had been with me from the beginning, cheering me on from the sidelines. My parents took Will and me out to dinner at a place that doesn't rhyme with "Crapplebees." I hesitated to say anything publicly (and by that I mean here, and on Facebook), because I was still pinching myself. Was this really happening? Was it happening to me? Amidst the emails of congratulations, one friend wrote, "You were always this."

He's right.

I've always been a writer.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

...For no reason at all.

The man at the table next to me looks like he’s just come from the gym. Actually, he looks like he lives in a gym, because those are seriously the biggest biceps I have ever seen, and he has the smooth, hairless look of someone who regularly oils up for bodybuilding competitions. He boots up his laptop and pulls out a book titled “Refrigeration 1994.” In 1994 I was a senior in high school. I have one of those senior pictures with the big number blocks 9 and 4, and in the picture I have huge, very curly hair. My last purchase of pink lipstick probably dates to 1994, also. My hair has changed considerably, and I have to believe that refrigeration has changed considerably during that time as well. When he reads, he rocks forward and back from the waist as if he’s in a catatonic state. He would have been right at home in an audition for Cuckoo’s Nest, a background character scuttling out of the way of Nurse Ratched. He wears a wedding band. His fingernails are very well groomed; they put mine to shame.

At the next table over is a man reading today’s edition of New York Times, out loud to himself in a not particularly quiet monotone. The name on his plastic Frappuccino cup is “Mark.” He reads nonstop, one word after another, pausing only to follow the jump to an inside page.

An intense-looking blonde woman comes over with her coffee, sees rocking man, reading-to-self man and me (woman avoiding novel revisions), then turns and heads for an outdoor table.

A fiftyish-woman comes in sporting baggy overalls and gray pigtails. She reminds me of a carnival attraction –the young woman with the old face. For no reason at all, she grins broadly at me, and for no reason at all, I grin right back.

In general, I’m against sequins on jeans, but what walks through the door next gives me immediate pause. This woman is older, sixtyish, wearing black heeled sandals, black jeans with tiny sequins on the pockets, a black and white shirt with a black scarf wrapped around the waist, and a black cardigan. She has a serious diamond on her finger. Her companion (tallest woman to walk into this brach of Starbucks today, I’m convinced), is also wearing black and white, which leads me to believe they are caterers or wedding planners or hostesses at a restaurant downtown. They are fantastically overdressed and impeccably groomed for a Saturday afternoon latte.

I start to wonder what I’ll look like when I’m in my fifties, sixties. Will I go the pigtail route or the sequined jeans route? Will I ever have my life together enough to have my fingernails and toenails painted at the same time?

I take a long sip of my latte, which has cooled considerably, and wait to see what comes through the door next.