So You Think You’re Ready For An Agent

brian-kLast week, I attended my second Chesapeake Writing Workshop in Arlington, VA. Our speaker was Brian A. Klems, Online Editor for Writer’s Digest. The workshop covered some of the basic nuts and bolts of publishing and offered the opportunity to not only pitch (for a fee) some of the agents on hand, but also to have the first page of your work read aloud and critiqued live by a panel of four agents–sort of like The Voice, but for writing.

The “Writers Got Talent” portion of the day didn’t really hold any surprises for me, but a handful of some of the more seasoned attendees noticed that the mood in the room, as page after page was rejected by the agents (some after just a line or two, not even making it to the end of the page), grew increasingly hostile. Some of these aspiring writers in the audience were really angry at the agents, who were, I’m sorry to say, just doing their jobs, the same ones they do every single day, at a pace that can drop hundreds of submissions a day into their inboxes. agent

I’ll be honest, I felt bad for the agents on hand, because I’m sure they could hear the grumblings and see the glares (though they’re agents, so they are unbelievably tough), so I took a lot of notes on the comments the agents were making, because as writers, folks, these are the kinds of things we ignore at our peril. Think you’re ready to submit to an agent? Read through my notes first–you just might thank me someday. Not sure what some of these things mean? Well, that right there’s a red flag for you, but send me a message–I’m happy to clarify.

WHY AGENTS STOP READING:

  • Not to an agent’s taste (means you didn’t research your agent thoroughly enough)
  • Cliches
  • Opening with a time or a date
  • Opening with a line of dialogue with no sense of character, context, or setting
  • Beginning in media res
  • Voice issues
  • Overwhelming words/”Purple Writing“/Overwriting
  • Predicability
  • Clunky, too many descriptors
  • Unoriginal
  • Too much passive voice/telling, not showing
  • Using Film/TV storytelling techniques, like prologues or infodumps, that don’t work in written fiction
  • Switching narrators w/out contest
  • Abuse of reader trust
  • Too much exposition, not enough scene
  • Directly addressing the reader
  • Flat or dated humor
  • Out-of-context breaking of the 4th wall
  • Lack of world-building in dystopian genre
  • Dialogue that’s for the benefit of the reader and not organic to the characters
  • Writing not polished enough
  • Delaying investment in character
  • Heavily covered topics, like funerals, covered in the same old way
  • Starting with backstory or dialogue or character’s inner thoughts rather than scene–does not mean lines of dialogue
  • Lack of familiarity with the intended genre of your work

I could go on, but that’s a pretty long list as it is. The bottom line is, you only get a minute or two to make that good strong impression on an agent, so your query letter and your submission better be outstanding. Good luck, and keep writing!

It bears repeating: Agents are NOT the enemy.

Just so we’re clear: Agents are NOT the enemy.

here-in-the-middle-cover-front-for-blog

Thesis Emesis

thesis-cover-imageWell, it’s official: I’ve submitted the first draft of my thesis for review, and the process was just as much of a pain in the ass as I’d heard it would be.

From a body of program work comprising more than thirty pieces, I needed to select a maximum of sixty pages. In preparation, I spent weeks revisiting all of them, trying to identify which pieces felt strongest, and ultimately narrowed it down to five.

I’d been contemplating doing a collection of linked stories, but initially, I worried that the five pieces I thought were my strongest didn’t have a readily apparent link. The more time I spent with them, however, the clearer their connection became. Once I understood that, the rest of the process suddenly seemed like a piece of cake:

cake_30

If my rough draft were a cake.

But you don’t sacrifice this much time, blood and sweat and tears and coffee addiction, working on something, only to stop at the finish line–even if you are ready to vomit.

Needless to say, after several days more of revising; six hours of formatting (Can we just all agree that the phrase “Should adhere to official university and program format and style” is code for “You are now entering the ninth circle of Hell”?); one wasted hour of tracking down ink for the new printer; one hour of printing; one hour of reprinting; one hour of obsessively line-checking each page; one hour of driving into D.C. to hand-deliver the draft; ten minutes of arguing with the parking garage attendant that yes, I LITERALLY* ONLY NEED TEN MINUTES BECAUSE I’M JUST DROPPING SOMETHING OFF SO PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD LET ME PARK HERE AND I’LL GIVE YOU ALL THE CASH IN MY WALLET; five minutes of hyperventilating in front of the locked door to a clearly empty office; two minutes of grateful weeping on the shoulder of the office staffer who promised to get my thesis to my advisor; thirty seconds of sprinting back to the garage to make my ten-minute window; and one hour of driving home from D.C. (my sincerest apologies to all the motorists I passed on the way, who clearly did not appreciate the volume of my music), the job was done: I could finally relax…

Me, at every stoplight.

Me, at every stoplight.

…at least until the revision process with my faculty advisor begins.

*Acceptable usage in this case–and ONLY in this case.

The Beginning of the End

Thesis funnyYes, dear readers, it’s been a while since I posted–no excuses, just ordinary busy. I am, however, getting ready to be even busier, as I will, at last, be starting my thesis class later this month. When the class ends in December, I will (I hope) be awarded my M.A. in Fiction Writing, something I’ve been working steadily towards since 2005, when I entered my first M.A. program at DePaul University.

Big changes usually require a bit of looking back, and this one is no different. Many of you over the years have asked me what one actually does in an M.A. in Writing program, so I thought I’d share a few of the pieces I’ve written over the course of the program. I won’t share any fiction (that can bar it from being published by others later, and I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot). Instead, I’m just going to pass along a few of the academic papers I had to write that you might find illuminating, at least on the topic of what the hell I’ve been doing for the last eleven years.

The first one I’m sharing was the culminating paper for my Contemporary Authors course, the second course I took at Johns Hopkins. It’s part imitation of those authors’ styles, part general impressions of the course, and part analysis of what effect studying those authors might have had on my own writing. The original layout does not translate perfectly into a blog page, as it was intended to be read as a hard copy; I apologize in advance for that.

I won’t say “Enjoy,” even though I secretly hope you do. Be sure to read the footnotes; they matter.


Julia Tagliere

Contemporary Authors—Fall 2014

Paper 3

 

Who Do I Think I Am (as a Writer), Now?

All in.

Go big or go home.

Balls to the wall.

“Don’t be afraid to risk failure.”

Well, I’m here, aren’t I?

 

Wednesday

The fluorescent lights flutter pleasantly surprised eyelashes when we begin our Shit and Nonshit lists.

“DiazProustDidionChabon.”

“Oh, yes! PynchonWallaceUpdikeMailer!”

Round-robin to me. “Well…I always liked Fun with Dick and Jane?”

Disgruntled Easter Island Heads dismiss me.

Wednesday

Prof. B. glows in the blue light of the projector that projects nothing. “I am the Great and Powerful Oz,” he says, impishly waiting for the rest of us to get it.

“But what about the curtain?” I ask.

“There is no curtain,” Easter Island Heads chant.

WEDNESDAY

“So the mimesisaporiatexturearc fulfills our kinesis subtextually, no?” Prof B. grins.

“Exactly,” the Easter Island heads coo in chorus, anticipating the question crouching ashamed in my throat.

The 8:15 alarm gnashes its little fangs again. No one is glowing anymore but especially me. My minutes in this class are numbered.

[Johnson, Wolff]

And now for a little background music:

When MD[1] was a very little girl, she thought she could unzip the scar on the back of her head[2] in order to retrieve the stories hidden therein. Her mother told her that Dr. Manno[3] inserted a piece of Saran Wrap inside her skull to prevent “future ossification of the fibrous sutures,” but MD, clever little girl that she was, recognized a gross oversimplification when she heard one. She chose instead to believe that all the possible stories of the universe had been imprinted on an infinite scroll inside her head. Thus began MD’s lifelong obsession: The Retrieval Project. [Appendix 1, MD’s “Johns Hopkins Purpose Statement,” available upon request. Please send an SASE.]

Surgery 1

[MD, post-surgery.]                                                     

 

 

 

Surgery 2

[MD awakens, plotting.][4]

 

 

 

Fruitless attempts followed, beginning at age eleven with a ghastly poem[5] about her mother’s impending death sixteen years later, but more often than not, life [see Timeline 1] rather than writing intruded.[6]

Timeline 1

 

 

 

Timeline 2

[Timeline 1, In honorem Carson]

But finally, one day she published an article in a national writing magazine, and then a short story, and then a novel, and then a second novel, and then she was featured in another magazine, and thus captured the attention of a Very Important Agent who blessed her work and decreed that all MD had to do for the rest of her life was keep unzipping that zipper.[7]

Or, maybe MD did give up, and for very long periods of time.

It’s also possible that what really happened was that she never gave up on resuming the quest.

[Johnson, Galchen, Wolff, Carson, Foster Wallace]

 

Whew. I’m glad that’s over.

What I attempted to do with the preceding pages is not only provide a sense of the writer persona I brought to class, but also to demonstrate that I can at least imitate some of the stylistic and structural techniques employed by the authors we’ve been studying this semester. I did this to show that I recognize how those techniques can heighten the experience of even humdrum and ordinary narratives (such as mine), as well as impose upon the reader a very contemporary-feeling level of interactivity.

But while I am able to mimic some of those techniques, and hopefully some of their desired effects, I don’t necessarily feel that they are my way, either as a writer or as a reader. You see, while I fully appreciate that these authors we’ve studied are bringing a new set of tools to my toolbox, I don’t know how many of them apply to the works to which I am drawn, either as a reader or as a writer.

You said in class this week that there are people who “luxuriate in the possibility of multiple meanings” and there are people who don’t. As a reader, I definitely fall into the latter category. I have a conventional taste, a taste for works that don’t leave me hanging, that don’t force me to read a line a dozen times over and still not understand what happened. I prefer works that are more plot- and character-driven to those that play games of time and consciousness on the reader, and find myself incredibly frustrated by unresolved endings. I don’t believe in a consistently happy ending (how dull) but I do believe in an ending, not the feeling that the author has deliberately stopped the story short of resolution and left the rest up to me. Because I prefer reading those works, I also end up writing those types of works myself.

When we first started reading Wolff, I disliked him, because I didn’t know “what happened” at the end of his stories. Our in-class discussions about why we don’t know with any certainty (that what happened is not necessarily the point) definitely helped alleviate my discomfort and led to a greater appreciation, but still, I would not choose to go back and read Wolff for enjoyment—it’s not to my taste to go without some stronger sense of resolution.

I don’t feel I need to dwell much more on Wallace and Johnson’s works, given that I wrote my first two papers on them, except to say that I think it’s obvious that I greatly prefer Johnson’s nonfiction to his fiction. While I appreciated the fiction techniques he used, I didn’t find them enjoyable—the sensation of never quite understanding what’s going on, of never quite being sure what is real and what is imagined, is discomfiting for me.

You can imagine then, that I found Atmospheric Disturbances unpleasant and perhaps even irritating (and you would not be mistaken, for reasons I have already mentioned in class but which include her “smashing the fourth wall” and messing around with confusing and alternate realities); and while I was prepared to be thoroughly aggravated by Nox, to be honest, I found myself (unwillingly, maybe) pleasantly compelled.  I’m still not sure how I feel about a work of this nature being mass-produced[8] but found myself drawn into her attempts to solve the mystery of her brother, occasionally amused by unexpected glimpses of humor, and moved by her lovely language. But am I chomping at the bit to go read more of her work? Absolutely not.

So to recap, of the authors we’ve read, to this point, I have not fully engaged with any one of them other than Foster Wallace and (very grudgingly) Johnson’s Seek.

Then I start reading Stoner.

Right from the first page, I connect with the characters, the setting, the plot—it feels like coming home to a warm blanket and a cup of cocoa after fighting my way through the storms of all those other “challenging” works. Williams is not throwing obstacles of time and place and character mindfucks[9] at me left and right à la Johnson (fiction); he’s not inserting himself in the story in a distracting and irritating fashion à la Galchen; he’s not giving me a blank page and assuming that I will enjoy being asked as a reader to imagine what’s on it à la Carson. He does none of the things that I found so challenging about the other authors, and that very inaction, for lack of a better word, produces in me a profound contentment as I read. And I know, from Williams’ own words, exactly why: It’s contained in the interview at the beginning of Stoner, where Williams addresses the (apparently contemporary) movement of turning stories into “something to be studied and understood rather than experienced…as if [they] were a kind of puzzle.” His quote, “My God, to read without joy is stupid,” (xiii) sums up my whole disconnect perfectly.

These other authors we’ve read produced a number of effects on me as a reader, but I can honestly say I would not describe any of them as joy, and that is The Big Barrier standing between not just me and these authors, but also between me and the moniker of “Contemporary Author,” if the term is to be defined by works such as these.

Many of the pieces we read (in particular, Atmospheric Disturbances and Jesus’ Son) struck me as more about reader manipulation than about producing joy in the reader by the telling of a good story, and the sense I was getting in class that some out there may consider Williams overly conventional, dull, and worthy of fading away, saddens me.

Perhaps the joy I felt was magnified by Williams’ juxtaposition with those other, “more-challenging” authors. Would I have found Stoner as enjoyable if I hadn’t just fought my way through Galchen and Carson? There’s no way of knowing for sure, but I think the answer, based on past experiences, may well be yes.

I can’t speak for any joy produced in others by my own writing, but I think it’s safe to say that overt reader manipulation usually[10] takes a pretty comfy back seat to plot and character—well, maybe not comfy, hardly more than a rumble seat, really. But it’s also safe to say that, having read these works and seen how highly acclaimed they are, as well as having something I enjoyed reading be dismissed by others in class, unnerves me, makes me question my own writing. A sample of what me, myself, and I are asking each other:

 

  • Am I too conventional, too prosaic, a throwback, a literary Luddite, because I dislike these authors and their works?
  • What tools from those we’ve studied can I, or would I, apply to my own writing that might help expand on deeper themes and meaning without veering into that deep space of blatant reader manipulation that I dislike so much myself as a reader?
  • If this is what the “literary world” (publishers, readers, agents, etc.) is looking for when they say things like “conceptually dazzling,” “original,” or “unique,” if I don’t adapt, is there, then, still a place for a writer like me? Or am I marked for obscurity, doomed to fade away as you seemed to predict Stoner will, before I ever truly begin?
  • If there isn’t a place in the world of Contemporary Authors for me, do I even give a rat’s ass? Or will I continue to read and attempt to write those things that give me, and hopefully my readers, joy?

 

Wow, that is some conversation we’re having. But don’t lose heart, for, after belching out all of these questions, the three of us decide to take a look at my bookshelves and we see not Carson, not Johnson, and certainly not Galchen, but Tan, Patchett, Gaiman, Martin (George R.R.), Hosseini, and others, and we realize that there are thousands of writers out there creating engaging, compelling stories—stories that are a joy to read; stories that one doesn’t have to solve like a puzzle in order to understand; stories that honor that vital contract[11] between writer and reader, the one that says, in part (at least in my version):

 

  • I will provide the transportation for this journey. All you have to do is fasten your seatbelt, put your head back against the seat, and relax. I am in charge, but I won’t abuse my awesome power.
  • I will try not to confuse you.
  • I will do my utmost to keep my personal shit to myself. You didn’t open this book to learn about me. If you did, you’re in the wrong section of the bookstore—biographies are in the back.
  • I will not ask you to provide the ending for me. That’s my job.
  • I will endeavor to keep you engaged and wanting to turn the next page and the next page and the next page until there are no more pages to turn, then I will write “The End” and I will mean it, because I know if I bore you, piss you off, or betray you, you will leave, never to return again.

 

So, this is my answer to the question “Who do I think I am, Now?” after finishing this class. Hopefully, it’s illuminated some of my thought and growth processes this semester, illustrated that I was paying attention in class, and etched another sloppy hash mark onto my timeline-in-progress.

On the other hand, maybe the preceding pages are just the Carsonesque artifacts of another graduate student who panicked at topic level and is just trying to bullshit her way through a paper in any way she can.

Well?

[Wolff, Carson, Galchen]

[1] “Middle Daughter” or “Motherless Daughter.” Abbreviating periods omitted to distinguish from Medical Doctor.

[2] May or may not have resulted from craniotomy, a treatment for craniosynostosis.

[3] MD’s pediatric neurosurgeon

[4] Two can play this game, Ms. Galchen.

[5] “Mommy:” “Mommy, will you bounce me on your leg? /Mommy, will you fry me an egg?”

[6] Timeline explained:  x (MD) wanted y (to release her stories) in the worst possible way and, in Wolff-like fashion, surmounted a number of obstacles on her quest to do so [Appendix 1], obstacles that ultimately result in her sitting in a Contemporary Authors class in Fall 2014, bashing her brains out against an impenetrable wall of challenging works and wondering if the scroll of stories beneath her zippered skull are truly stories that can ever be written—should be written—or if all along those “guided dreams” were just some propofol-soaked surgical waste that Dr. Manno bobbled, dropped, forgot, and zipped into her brain along with the scrap of plastic and perhaps a blood-soaked sponge.

[7] Some of these things actually happened.

[8] Okay, no, that’s a lie; I know exactly how I feel. Really? Blank pages? Dictionary entries? Photos so blurry you can’t make out an image at all? How is this worthy?

[9] A tiny nod here—(a chin bob, really) to Johnsonian profanity, as well as being one of my favorite and most precise Carlinisms.

[10] Okay, I’ll grant that there is some limited mindfucking that goes on in some of my pieces, but it tends to be around plot twists rather than around technique or skewed subjectivity. You might be surprised by a turn or a development, but in order to understand it, you won’t first have to do the literary equivalent of finding The One Correct Puzzle Piece in a Chinese puzzle box containing a thousand identical pieces while blindfolded in a dark room on a pitching ship on a horizonless sea without a compass and fighting the worst bout of seasickness you’ve ever had. (Yeah, that’s kind of how I felt while I was reading Galchen. I didn’t like it.)

[11] For works of fiction only; we require a completely different contract for nonfiction.

 

It’s Conference Time!

Well, so much for blogging more regularly (New Year’s Resolution #9). Who knew four months could fly by so quickly? In my defense, I have managed to keep some of my other resolutions: I have read 19 books already this year, putting me at 38% of my Goodreads Reading Challenge of 50; I did finish Ulysses (Why did Joyce put the best chapters last?); I am three weeks out from running in the Maryland Half Marathon (I can’t feel my legs anymore, so I feel like I’m close to ready); I’m still resolutely NOT Silver Fox; if the Post-It Notes stucPost it notesk all over my desk are any indicator, I’ve ditched my white board lists completely (sorry, all you fuchsia trees out there); and I’ve been pretty successful at that “live in the moment” attitude.

Sadly, some of my other resolutions have fallen by the wayside: I wrote one entry in a journal, but misplaced it the next day and haven’t tried it since; my hour-long attempts at working on anything have blown up to 2-4 hours instead; and my dog can legitimately now be called, if not a true coffee table, then at least a fuzzy gray pouf, though I’m still working on that one.

Part of what’s been keeping me so busy (other than doing my best impression of a Gump groupie) has been my classes this year; they’ve been cool and challenging and the work load has been tough (duh, it is graduate-level, I know). One of the really cool things going on in my current class has been visits from different authors whose books we’ve studied this semester. We’ve had Michele Brafman, author of Washing the Dead; Leslie Pietrzyk, of This Angel on my Chest; Ellen Bryson, author of The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno; and tonight, Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) will be visiting (but I’ll miss it, because of parenting stuff I just can’t miss, because those things matter, too, and many times, they matter more).

Hearing these authors talk about their inspiration, their very different processes, their experiences with and without agents, their paths to publication, their highs and lows and how they’ve handled them, has been incredibly interesting and illuminating. Each talk has been unique, each Q&A has yielded more insights and tips, and I feel very fortunate for having had these opportunities.

However, not everyone has access to grad-level writing classes and visiting authors; that’s precisely why writing conferences and other literary events are so very important–how else can you find answers to those questions, connect with other writers, find inspiration or comfort in the experiences of more experienced authors?

Photo Credit: http://firstdraftwriters.blogspot.com/

Photo Credit: http://firstdraftwriters.blogspot.com/

I’m very excited that the next couple of months hold several different events for me: First up is this weekend’s Conversations & Connections event, hosted by Barrelhouse magazine. I attended this one two years ago, and it was fantastic. The readings, the networking, the panelists, the speed-dating (with editors, don’t worry) were all outstanding. I hear it’s going to be sold out again this year, so if you didn’t get your ticket yet, better luck next time! The weekend after that, I’ll be attending the Washington Writer’s Conference: Books Alive 2016, for the first time, and I’m pretty excited by the lineup (Don’t believe me? Check it out here. ). It’s always exciting to try a new conference for the first time.

Speaking of trying things for the first time, that brings me to the last writers’ event I’ll be participating in this spring: the Johns Hopkins University Conference on Craft, a week-long residential writing experience, with this year’s theme of “Writing the Sea.” I love to write, I love the sea–what’s not to love?

I’ve been attending different writing events for a decade now, in multiple states, and I can honestly say that each one of them has brought value to me as a writer, whether it’s learning about the business side of writing, making connections with agents, or finding new friends within the big, wide world of the Writing Community. If you’ve never tried a conference before, I heartily recommend doing so. There are so many out there to choose from, it’s easy to find one that’s a good fit for you–and that’s good for you, too (here are just a few reasons why you should consider attending one).

Julia BW

In case you’ve forgotten what I look like. 🙂

Maybe I’ll even see you at one of these–be sure and say hi.

Cheers! 🙂

 

 

Resolutions, Shmesolutions

It’s January 2016, and all I can think is “Where the hell did 2007 go?” Mind like a steel trap, I know–prone to rusting in damp weather.

But that rusty state of mind is precisely why I feel compelled to jump on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon: If I don’t write down a few goals in a fashion that makes me nominally accountable for achieving them, by the time December 2016 rolls around, I will forget what the hell it was I meant to do this year.

So, my list, in no particular order:

  1. Meet my 2016 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 50 books this year. Think that’s funny? Last year, I pledged to read 100. Yeah, that didn’t happen, mostly because of Resolution 2:
  2. Finish reading Ulysses. It’s been on my list for two years running now; I figure if I actually do that this year, that counts for at least 20 normal books.
  3. Mayyyybe…just maybe, I might be the tiniest bit interested in trying a half marathon. This runnerone might be more along the lines of a fantasy, rather than a resolution, but I’m listing it anyway because as we all know, NYR’s are all about optimism (and laughter; lots of laughter).
  4. Walk my dog more often–we’re both suffering from post-holiday bingeing (but at least my doctor didn’t tell me I’m starting to look like a coffee table).
  5. Postpone going all Silver Fox for my hair color another year. Sorry, just can’t do it.
  6. Apply the 1-Hour Rule more often. This is my new rule for time management: I will split my day up into 1-hour segments, allowing an hour for each activity on my to-do list. This should allow me to be more efficient, so I should be able to finish everything on my list by 2019, give or take a year.
  7. Switch back to writing my to-do list on paper instead of my white board, first, so I feel a greater sense of accomplishment, and second, once I erase it, I can’t remember what I did.
  8. Start keeping a journal. This blog is, i suppose, a journal of sorts, but I’m pretty restrictive on the more personal details of my life online–after all, we wouldn’t want anyone to post pirated video of me
    Photo credit: http://thatswhatlisathinks.com/2013/10/

    Photo credit: http://thatswhatlisathinks.com/2013/10/

    and my chubby Weimaraner waddling off our New Year’s Resolution wagon, now would we?

  9. Blog more regularly. Well, here I am, so I can check that one off the list. Wait–I have to do this again?
  10. Be more present in the moment–deeper conversations, better listening, longer hugs, and much more gratitude. Life is short; drink it in.

Well, there you have it. I could probably go on, but since I’m already four minutes late to write in my journal and seventeen minutes late to walk my coffee table, I’ve gotta run. Happy New Year!

2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition

FaulknerBlowing one’s own horn is something I think many writers struggle with; that’s why it feels so good when someone else decides to do the honors for you:

I’m beyond pleased to announce that my story, “Te Absolvo,” has won Best Short Story in the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Awards, sponsored by the Tallahatchie Riverfest Literary Association.

I wasn’t able to attend the awards luncheon (logistics stink sometimes), but if you’re interested, The New Albany Gazette printed up a sweet article about the awards ceremony; it even rated a bit of local TV coverage (woohoo!).

Ask any writer (myself included), and they’ll probably tell you they don’t write for awards or publication–they write because they love to write. But ask any one of those same writers that same question after they’ve received an award or been published, and they’ll tell you those things sure don’t suck.

Many thanks to the Tallahatchie Riverfest Literary Association and the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany for selecting my story; I’m honored. To read “Te Absolvo,” click here.

Thanks for a Great Summer, Boredom!

For the first time in over a decade, this summer, I did not sign my kids up for a single damned thing. No sports clinics. No camps. No lessons. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Nuthin’. And let me tell you, the first day of summer break this year was one of the most terrifying days I’ve ever experienced as a parent. What was I thinking? What in the heck was I going to do with them all summer? How many days left until school starts?

Well, today is their first day back to school, and somehow, we survived. How’d it go? Well, I think now, with (of course) perfect hindsight, this may well have been one of the best summers we’ve ever had, because boredom, as it turns out, is a very good thing:

  • It motivates: My daughter cleaned out her closet voluntarily, which was inconceivable; until this summer, we all thought Kids Choosing to Clean Closets signaled the End of Days.
  • It stimulates: This is her copy of Moby Dick, her summer reading assignment. Annotated and cross-referenced. Take that, SparkNotes.MD
  • It inspires: We started watching Jeopardy as a family this summer, leading to some amazing conversations about history, culture, books, etc. (Of course, we also started watching Family Feud with Steve Harvey, which sparked some amazing conversations with our adolescent sons about how many different words there are for boobs and sex. You can’t win ‘em all.)
  • It incentivizes: All three kids now know how to use the oven and clean their own bathrooms. ‘nuff said.
  • It educates: With no camps, clinics, or lessons to eat up the day (or our budget), we were free to spend time each week at different museums and zoos. We “swam” at an indoor beach; stumbled upon DC’s beautiful memorial to fallen police officers; learned about real-life spies; petted jellyfish and rays, watched sharks eat, and made the acquaintance of the astonishing mantis shrimp.
    mantis

    Mantis Shrimp at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

    bubbles

    The Beach Exhibit at the National Building Museum

    National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial

  • It liberates: We all know how to use the DC Metro now, myself included; they no longer have to worry about Mom forgetting how to get home.
  • It makes the old feel new again: Let’s just say, I am no longer the Queen of Monopoly; my eldest son, the Slum King, now rules the land (once we let him out of jail). mono+jail
  • It permits, among other things: sleeping in; quiet time; binge-watching and binge-gaming (Seriously: my sons both declared they were, at long last, bored of video games); conversations, both silly and deep; silliest face and grossest belching contests (judges were split on whether that last one deserved a space in the Summer Debriefing); and staying up late to watch the ends of movies we know so well we can all quote them in chorus (“No more rhymes now, I mean it. Anybody want a peanut?”).PRINCESSBRIDE

I don’t want you to think for a minute that every day of this long, hot summer was a perfect idyll; that would be a bald-faced lie. While boredom allows for a lot of cool things to take place, it also allows for a fair share of unpleasantness (*inspired by actual events):

  •  It irritates: “How many damned times are you going to watch that same episode of Modern Family before you shower?”
  • It aggravates: “You’re sitting in my spot!” “I took the dog out last time!” “How do three people manage to use twenty-nine glasses in four hours?”
  • It peeves: “He’s putting his feet on me.” “She threw her wrapper at me.” “He’s kicking my chair, on purpose.”

And, inevitably:

  • It bores. “Oh, my God…how many days left ‘til school starts?” (*uttered by each one of us at least once during the past three months).

But the side effect of all that boredom this year, something that had been missing from all our past, scheduled-to-the-nanosecond summers without my even noticing it, is that (when it wasn’t suffocating us), boredom actually inspired a lot of creativity in my kids. It restored their interest in the world around them (they watch the news now, probably because they tired of watching everything else). It fostered a renewed camaraderie with their siblings (because when “someone” leaves the fridge open and the milk spoils, or “someone” spills crap all over the couch, United We Stand is the best defense). Boredom, in the end, can take a lot of the credit for us all feeling ready for the school year to begin again at last–because we didn’t have anything else left to do (and the fridge and pantry were just about empty, anyway).

So yeah—this first day, maybe people will ask our kids “What’d you do this summer?” and maybe they’ll say “Nuthin’.” But I already know, that along with all that “nuthin’’” we did this summer, we also found the time for a whole lot of something special, and we have boredom to thank for it.

 

 

We All Matter

toleranceOne of the things I love most about my Facebook family is the diversity of my Friends list [Warning: If you are offended by recognizing yourself as one of the following, you should probably stop reading.] My list includes bleeding-heart liberals and crusty old conservatives; tree-hugging hippy freaks and gun-toting rednecks; ivory-towered PhDs and high school dropouts; clean livers and potheads; warriors and pacifists; public aid recipients and one percenters; artists, plumbers, lawyers, writers, teachers, administrative assistants, executives, police officers, electricians, DJs, musicians, doctors, movers, and accountants; every color of the rainbow; Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists; going-straight-to-Hell atheists and Bible-thumping firebreathers; parents, kids, grandparents, DINKs and SINKs (is that a thing?); young, old, married, divorced, and widowed; gay, straight, bi, and transgender—in others words, PEOPLE.

You know why my list is diverse? Because, unlike a growing number of people these days, instead of confining my respect, tolerance, compassion, and friendship to a select few who look just like me, talk just like me, think just like me, and advocate just like me, I choose to try to understand and accept all people. Because ALL PEOPLE, no matter which group you feel you fit into—no matter the color of your skin, the size of your pocketbook, the doctrine of your faith, or the bent of your politics—are the same: They live, they laugh, they cry, they die, they bleed, they hurt, they work, they hope, they fear, they love their families, they want the best for their children and communities, and they are entitled to the same rights that are supposed to belong to every single person in this country.

But these are divisive days we live in, days when it’s easier to make a blanket accusation about an entire group of people and their actions, based upon misguided generalizations and media-fueled fear-mongering, than it is to take the time to talk to each other, to learn about each other, and to understand that, as different as we are, we are so much more the same.

We hate because we fear, we fear because we don’t understand, we don’t understand because we don’t listen, and we don’t listen because we fear. It is a vicious cycle that always comes right back to FEAR, a cycle that must be broken, with respectful dialogue, with patience, with compassion, with open-mindedness—but especially with courage.

In these divisive days—days of riots, days of electing new leaders, days of landmark SCOTUS arguments—it is more important than ever to reach out to each other, to understand each other’s dreams and fears, to learn how we can work together to achieve those dreams for ALL, and put those fears to rest, for ALL.

dalai-lama-leader-quote-in-the-practice-of-tolerance-ones-enemy-isWorking hard to secure the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not equal to trying to take away the rights of others. That is fear talking, the kind of fear that keeps our society in a perpetual cycle of bigotry, inequality, intolerance, and hatred. Being afraid is natural; change is frightening. But wouldn’t it be better to understand what it is that’s making you fearful? Shine a light on that darkness, the light of understanding. Talk to someone in That Other Group, whether it’s African American protesters fighting for justice; good, dedicated cops trying to keep us all safe; women fighting for equal pay; gays and lesbians fighting for the right to marry; or Christians fighting to preserve the teachings of their faith in the face of the secular changes taking root all around them. TALK TO EACH OTHER, because that’s how we learn how alike we really are, and when you understand that, right down to your very bones, NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE.

If you agree with me, please, share this, and find ways to start dialogues in your own community. If you disagree with me, because you just can’t find the courage to step outside the group to which you belong, to set aside the narrow ideology you feel compelled to promote long enough to give reasoned, thoughtful weight to the hopes and fears of other people—people who are more like you than they are different—then feel free to unfriend me now. Although my FB friends are many and diverse, I must draw the line at people who refuse to look at a bigger world than just the barbed wire fences they’ve built around their tiny patches of yard.

We all must listen, we all must respect, we all must work together for freedom and justice for all, because WE ALL MATTER.

Earth Day, Every Day

meIn a world of 7 billion people, finding unspoiled and undeveloped spaces is becoming increasingly difficult; during Spring Break in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when it seems like all 7 billion of those people are staying at your hotel, it can feel nearly impossible.

We were lucky on our recent trip, then, to spend a single glorious afternoon on a kayak tour to Waties Island, South Carolina’s northernmost barrier island. Named for William Waties, Jr., an Indian trader who discovered and claimed the land in 1735, Waties Island comprises more than fourteen hundred acres of protected natural and pristine habitat. Acquired by the Tighlman family in 1995, the island today is part of Carolina Coastal University, and serves as part of its Marine Science program and as an ecological research facility. Access is by permission only, and is limited to 50 people at a time on the island itself, 100 on the upland section.

pan

When you set foot on shore, the results of such concerted, forward-thinking preservation are immediately visible: Wide-open, unobstructed views, as far as the eye can see; a beach so untouched by human contact that the patterns formed in the sand by the rippling waves resemble Zen gardens of astonishing geometric precision. pattern

horseshoeDriftwood, shells, and marine life are on abundant display: We saw horseshoe crabs, fish, and even a ray, languidly enjoying the warmth of a temporary pool that would later release it to the tide.

water

It is a place where one can stand on the silver edge of the world, far, far away from the dreck and dross of modern civilization, and just breathe. Breathe.

The tour allots only a precious 45 minutes on the island; I imagine it’s part of how they keep it so pristine. We strolled, we waded, picking up an occasional treasure and taking never-do-it-justice pictures, but mostly, we allowed ourselves to experience the profound, cleansing, spiritual renewal that comes only from worshipping in such a pure, sacred temple.

141And yet—even here, in one of the most unspoiled, undeveloped spots I’ve ever visited, there were still signs, insidious and distressing, of the unrelenting presence of humankind, and of the damage we have wrought, and continue to wreak, on this beautiful planet of ours. I carried two bags that afternoon: In one, I placed a handful of shells and driftwood; in the other, I placed trash.

Some of the trash had a more recent feel to it: an Oreo snack bag; a still-shiny, flattened juice pouch, no doubt dropped by a careless, visiting child too young to have learned better (one hopes it was a child); a crushed, empty water bottle. One item I found—the hefty, number-emblazoned metal plate, pictured here—defied explanation. Was it part of an address plaque? A boat-slip marker? How had something so heavy, so undriftable, wound up here, in this beautiful place?

The saddest pieces I gathered, however, were those tangled into the flotsam and jetsam at the water’s edge: a subtle pattern of plastic wrappers, inextricably woven to the aquatic plants and driftwood lining the shore.

To be clear, relative to every other beach I’ve ever visited, Waties Island seemed, at first glance, to be completely untouched by human hand, breathtaking in its innocence. No buildings, no wires, no cars, no billboards—just exquisite natural beauty. Perhaps that is why seeing our undeniable environmental impact moved me so deeply: Here? Even here?

There are other places in the world like Waties Island, I know, ones I hope to see, preserved and unspoiled and lovely beyond the spoken or written word; but every day, the cavalier leavings of our daily lives encroach upon them a little more—a bottle here, a wrapper there.

When we left the island and began the paddle back, I carried two bags: one of shells and driftwood, one of trash. But I also carried a question: How long before even these holy sanctuaries succumb, too?

It’s Earth Day, today and every day. Do your part.

Tagliere

 

Do Happy Proud: International Day of Happiness 2015

International-day-of-Happiness

Wow, International Day of Happiness 2015 is here! We should totally celebrate, so here are some suggestions:

1.) Practice gratitude: Look at your life, and just for today, think of all the things that are going right. Thank someone.Who knows? Maybe it’ll become a habit.

2.) Smile. smile-1

3.) Pay someone a compliment.

4.) Call an old friend.

5.) Help someone else. This is one of the best ways I know to increase your level of happiness. Not sure where to start? You can start doing happy proud on a small scale, like picking up something someone dropped, offering to hold a door, or not driving like an ass. Maybe you’d like to work a little bigger Happy magic today, like picking up someone else’s groceries, gas, or meal. Want to think even bigger? How about signing up to give blood, volunteering somewhere, or donating to a charitable organization today? I’ll post some suggested links below, but really, the opportunities to make someone else happy today are limitless–just use your imagination, and watch those smiles bloom!

Happy International Day of Happiness, everyone–tell me how you’re celebrating!

http://www.redcrossblood.org/donating-blood

http://www.operationsmile.org/

http://www.childrenscancer.org/

The Humane Society of the United States

Volunteers of America