When I was a kid, much to my feminist mother’s chagrin, I adored Barbies. I spent my allowance money on Day-to-Night Barbie, Pretty-in-Pink Barbie, and Barbie and the Rockers. One entire corner of my room was drenched in Barbie pink. The Barbies’ house, built by my father, contained everything from a refrigerator with fake food, to tiny pink coat hangers, to a goddamned Barbie toilet.
Thirty years later, that same Barbie house, with a paired-down menagerie of accessories, still adorned a wall of my adult house. When my friend, Kelly, came to visit, her daughter rebranded Barbie in a more sophisticated light, referring to the dolls as “the Barbaras.” Since Barb’s over 60 years old now, I think she deserves the extra respect.
National Barbie Day, which was actually yesterday (I know, you’re pissed you missed your chance to celebrate), conjures mixed feelings for me. I’m nostalgic for the time my best childhood friend, Kim, and I spent weaving storylines inspired by our favorite soap opera, Santa Barbara. (It just now occurred to me how appropriate that title is for Barbie play.) I’m also inclined to snort at how ridiculous Barbie’s tiny waist and permanently high-heeled feet are and to ponder the effect that has on young people’s body image.
It turns out, though, that Barbie, despite her nefarious image by the 1970s, began as sort of a feminist icon. And, maybe it’s time for her to take it a step further.
That doesn’t sound like a revelation until you try to write one.
Starting a book is easy. You’re lying in bed one morning, and you get a flash of brilliant story, running through your mind in full technicolor. You run downstairs in your underwear, flip open your laptop and start tippity-typing away, eager to capture the scenes on paper. This is the part they always show in movies — the writer version of the Rocky training montage. Pages ripped out of typewriters, pencils behind ears, many cups of coffee consumed.
Then, you get to the hard part.
You spend hours, days, months, years, writing and staring off into space thinking about your story. (Daydreaming as a work-related activity is one of the few perks of being a writer.) Your characters are selfish friends who take up all your time and energy and don’t give anything in return. Writing a book is, as far as I can tell in my extensive experience of one completed manuscript, five percent blinding flash of inspiration. The other 95 percent is tentatively typing things you know you’re going to have to redo, all while secretly fearing the whole thing is shit. It’s a lonely endeavor — just you and your imaginary people.
You’ve decided you need accountability.
You tell your real-life friends, relatives and strangers in line behind you in the grocery store, that you’re writing a book. They ask how it’s going periodically, and even though you have no real answer, it does sort of keep you on track. Then one day, they ask, “How’s the book coming?” And you finally get to say, with a triumphant flourish, “It’s finished!” often followed by, “No, you can’t read it (because I’m secretly still afraid it’s shit.)”
The hard slog up the mountain is over.
You have written the denouement and the conclusion. You have typed “The End.” (For real, I did that.) You rise from your desk chair, stretch your aching, hunched back, holler to your spouse and open a bottle of wine in celebration. But then you stand on top of that massive mound of paper, ink and tears and look up to realize you’ve only just climbed a foothill. The big, bad specter of editing and rewriting is looming over you, daring you to start scaling it. It’s enough to make you cry. Or to put off even looking at your story again for at least six months.
That’s where I am right now.
I am reading every single word of that “completed” manuscript, rife with inconsistencies, plot holes and typos. I am rewriting the entire thing because that’s the only way I know how to do it. I am starting to hate my characters and my story. I am sick of them, and because they are now real, I fear they are also sick of me and my waffling on what they get to do, feel and say. It all convinces me even further that I’ve written a B-minus novel at best.
So, if you were wondering whatever happened after I wrote that post ALMOST A YEAR AGO about being done with my novel, there it is. It’s done. And it’s so not done.
Writing a book is not hard.
It is excruciating to the point that sometimes I want to delete the whole file and all the sub-files of notes and pretend the whole damned thing never existed. It’s like having a baby; if you knew what it was going to be like before you started the process, it would never happen.
I once heard a favorite author of mine speak, and it took her six years to get her first book published. At the time, my jaw dropped, but at the rate I’m going, I may be editing my own AARP application before I get this thing done.
And yet it will happen.
I keep getting derailed by my own insecurity and laziness, but damnit, I will slog through this swamp of a story, clean it up and see it published one way or another. By that time, though, instead of reading like commentary on current social standards, it may be more of a historical novel.
I could pretend this post is intended as advice for the young writer or a reality check for anyone considering starting a novel, but really it is entirely selfish. I needed to vent, to complain, and let’s be real, avoid editing. Now I can get back to rewriting the book….oh, will you look at the time! Well, there’s no way I can start now.
My ninth-grade English teacher was obsessed with Charles Dickens. She made all of her classes read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. She was a member of the Dickens Society and attended Dickens-themed soireés where all the guests donned 19th-century garb and spoke in 87-word, obtusely-structured sentences. I assume.
We had to memorize the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, which didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized it takes up the ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF THE BOOK. I still fail to understand how it can be “good writing” when you have to go back and re-read the first part of the sentence because, by the end, you’ve forgotten what the subject and verb were.
I remember parts of that sentence. My brain cannot recall where I put my phone or what time a soccer game is, but it holds onto useless detritus like my childhood phone number, the lyrics to an old Velveeta cheese commercial and, yes, the beginnings of famous novels I don’t even like.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is how it begins. It then trails on for another sixteen lines with a series of very similar (and unnecessary) oxymorons. “Epoch of belief, age of incredulity…blah, blah, blah, noisiest authorities…blah, blah, blah…superlative degree of comparison only.” WTF, brain?
I hate it when he’s right.
BUT. Despite his mellifluous method of stating it, I’ve grudgingly decided Dickens had a point. That sentence applies to just about every era on the timeline of significant history. The heroics of the American Revolution alongside the appropriation and slaughter of indigenous peoples. The discovery of radiation’s miraculous cancer-killing properties and the deaths of thousands of innocent people in the form of a bomb. A new awakening for feminist activism but spurred by the election of a presidential misogynist.
My own, private heaven/hell/Idaho
It even works on a personal level. My twenties were filled with fun, friends, partying and carefree selfishness without guilt. I had a job and nothing to pay for except myself. And I cried a lot, lost four pregnancies and was in an unhealthy relationship.
My 30’s were an incredible time of self-discovery. I felt confident in myself as a person. Jason’s and my relationship grew deeper and wider. I had kids and discovered a love like I’d never known. I also worried a lot about fucking up and struggled with breastfeeding to the point of tears. I mourned the loss of time to myself. It was great and terrible, just like Oz.
The best of times weren’t that good.
I read somewhere that we recreate good times as better than they actually were. We look back on an overall fun vacation and remember playing in the ocean, relaxing on the sand, snuggling in bed with a mate. We forget the one rainy day we were bored, the lost luggage or the fight we had on the plane on the way home.
It’s helpful when thinking about now. With all the challenges — worry about kids, working on relationships, concern over finances and all the stuff I am constantly forgetting (with the exception of outdated commercial jingles) — I know I will look back on these years and smile wistfully to myself. I’ll remember the kids young and not yet jaded by adult experience. I’ll recall learning to be a writer, the freedom to work from home, and the security of the built-in social network that comes with school-age children. Overall, this is a good time.
There have been some true, worst of times, where the “best of” part was indistinguishable: the immediate aftermath of my miscarriages, the throes of divorce, intense struggles with depression and loneliness. In comparison with those, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Why didn’t you just say so?
So, what I took 618 words (Dickens would be proud) and 15 minutes of your life that you can’t get back to say is this: PERSPECTIVE.
“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”
(I never get to use the partial Shakespearean quotes that float around my brain, so now I’m just showing off. This is where you nod, virtually pat me on the head and roll your eyes. Go ahead. I totally deserve it.)
So I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, and the past two Januarys, I’ve ranted here and here about why. But I have in recent years, used the beginning of the year to reflect on how I could make my life a little better and set a focus for the upcoming months. That may sound like a bullshit way of saying “New Year’s resolution,” but thinking about it as a focus has less baggage for me. The term “resolution” makes me feel like I have to come up with a socially acceptable goal related to exercise or finances and achieve it so I have thus performed the act of being a good, responsible adult for the approval of everyone else…..
…or, more realistically, failed at it and felt like I also am failing at being the right kind of person who exercises, eats right, saves her money and never says an unkind or negative word. Then, I can simultaneously feel like a bad person whilst feeling resentful about social pressure to make and keep resolutions.
Some of you relate to this. Others of you are thinking, Jeezus, why do you have to make things so complicated? Others, I don’t know; I’m just lucky, I guess.
What Happened Over the Holidays
I had kind of forgotten about setting my yearly intention until I read Candid Kay’s recent blog about how she does pretty much the same thing, picking a word she can focus on for the new year. Then, I remembered this that happened over the holidays:
We were in Telluride, staying with Jason’s family, for a ski vacation. This particular day, lots was happening. Our oldest wanted to ski, the youngest didn’t, a bunch of the family was going snowmobiling, and it was approximately six degrees outside. Jason and I were trying to decide which of us would ski with the oldest and which would snowmobile with the youngest, when he asked me, “But what do YOU want to do?”
I suddenly noticed I was thinking, “Well I should probably spend time with this one, Jason probably wants to go skiing, but I should take advantage of my lift ticket I’ve already activated today…” It was all practicality and what other people might want. So when I paused and asked myself, “Yeah, April, what do YOU want to do?” I couldn’t even tell what that was. In the midst of that house full of people, noise, wants and needs, I couldn’t begin to discern what my own were. I silently excused myself to the bedroom to think, because I hate crying in public. I was distressed I could be so out of touch with my own desires.
I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want.
Not being able to tell what I want is a pattern born from a people-pleasing past and having small children, who until their recent maturity, haven’t known Moms even had preferences. So my focus for 2020 is to take the time and space to figure out what I want to do, whether it’s what movie to see or which direction to take my career. That doesn’t mean I never compromise (in a family of four, it’s inevitable) but I, at the very least, want to KNOW what I’d prefer. I don’t want to perform my life so that everyone can see that I am a “good person.” I want to feel it for myself.
So, do you set a New Year’s resolution, intention or focus? Do you say “screw it” to the whole idea? What’s your take on it? What are your plans, if any, for the upcoming months?
So many people have asked me, “But what happened to the crickets?? Did they survive?!” that I decided to do an update. And I have the ulterior motive of showing off the original story at its new home, The Syndrome Mag. Thank you to the editors there for thinking it was funny and helping me make it even better.
I also have to give props to Maggie Dove, who writes RomCom Dojo. It was her piece in the same publication that gave me the idea The Syndrome Mag might like a story about dead crickets. Also, she is super sarcastic and funny, and I rub my hands together like a small child in a candy store every time one of her posts hits my inbox.
Anyway, yes, some of the crickets came back from being cryogenically frozen like Han Solo. They didn’t stumble around blind like he did, though. Or maybe they did; with crickets, it’s hard to tell. The other 950 insects stayed very much dead, and I had to extract the survivors from the piles of their compatriots’ carcasses, which they were surprisingly intent on burying themselves in.
I blame the post office. Our mail carrier is aggressively grumpy, and we all give him a wide birth. The crickets were left in a package locker overnight, and I wasn’t notified via text until the next day they were there. It got down below 30 degrees that night. Grumpy mail dude probably doesn’t give a shit about keeping crickets alive (which makes him remarkably like most people).
The company, Josh’s Frogs, from whence the crickets came, however, gave superb customer service and shipped me replacement crickets, all of which arrived alive. I think they threw in some extras for my trouble because there seem to be WAY more of them than usual.
Our beardie, Splynter, is now reveling in her abundance of deliciousness, or she would be if she were still eating crickets. Apparently, she’s fasting now. Figures.
That’s what I’m looking at right now — 1,000 belly-up insects in a rectangular receptacle. I paid 30 dollars for them.
If that sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard, to be fair to me, they were supposed to be alive. I bet most of you would give 30 dollars to get rid of a thousand crickets and wouldn’t dream of paying a third party, through Amazon, to carefully pack and send you (supposed to be) live crickets, but let me back up.
We have a bearded dragon. My youngest child has been obsessed with lizards since he was a toddler, so we gave in and got him one for Christmas last year. We did all the research on lights, substrates, tank size, and food. Bearded dragons, especially growing ones, like to eat crickets. No problem. Go by the local pet store every now and then and pick some up.
It turns out our beardie likes to eat LOTS of crickets — like 20 or 30 each feeding sometimes, even though she’s supposed to be about done growing. I don’t know where she puts them; she’s a very svelte-looking dragon. And she’s about the laziest being I’ve ever encountered.
The trips to the pet store and the money spent on a la carte crickets were starting to add up, so I began ordering them in bulk from (of course) Amazon. Here’s the thing: when you’re housing crickets a thousand at a time, even though they’re only going to get eaten, you have to supply accommodations of a certain quality.
Your pet is only as healthy as the crickets she eats, so you want to feed those buggers some quality food — potatoes, carrots, or the slimy, orange cubes you can also get (like everything else) on Amazon. Crickets need water, too, but you can’t give them too much at a time, or they drown in it because they have brains the size of cricket heads. So not only have you taken on the care and feeding of a reptile, but you also have to feed and care for their food. Fine. Whatever.
So this afternoon, when I opened a box of one hundred percent dead crickets, I was vexed, irritated, irate, annoyed, indignant, and I wrote a strongly-worded email to the company (through Amazon) asking for a refund. In a huff, I sent Jason a text, told him what happened, and asked him to pick up the high-priced crickets at the pet store on his way home.
I was just lying down for a nap to calm my nerves after the disconcerting experience of opening the mass grave that had arrived at my home via mail when my phone rang.
Jason: Hey, the pet store lady says they’re probably not dead. They just went dormant because of the cold weather. You didn’t throw them away, did you?
Me: No, of course not. Why would I throw away a perfectly good box of dead crickets? (In truth, I did still have them — you know, for proof so I could get my 30 dollars back.)
Jason: She says just to wait a few hours and see if they come to. Maybe put them by the space heater in your office.
So that’s what I did. Now I am sitting here typing next to a box of one thousand maybe-not-all-dead crickets incubating next to a space heater. Just call me Miracle Max. They’ve got their favorite egg carton pieces in there and a bunch of premium, orange, slimy food cubes in case they’re hungry when they wake up.
I AM NURSING A HOARD OF FUCKING CRICKETS BACK TO HEALTH.
This is one of those things no one tells you about parenting: that you will find yourself doing the most ridiculous of things in the name of your children’s interests. My office is now a cricket infirmary because my kid likes lizards. How the hell did we get here?
It’s absurd, yes, but secretly, I love it. Let me explain, lest you get the wrong idea that a box of passed-out insects would make an excellent Christmas present for me. I love that my kids take me with them into exploring things I’d never have delved into otherwise. After all, if I hadn’t been playing cricket nursemaid this afternoon, I’d probably have been working, so it’s a good tradeoff. (Sorry, I would’ve had that to you by five o’clock, but our pet’s dinner had a medical emergency.) Also, if this kind of ridiculous shit didn’t happen from time to time, what would I have so much fun complaining about? But really, please don’t send me a box of dead crickets.
I’m not sure what this post is about. I just got tired of seeing my poem, The Doldrums, at the top of the list. It’s a good poem, but it is depressing, and I need a break from it. That poem is not how I feel about life, generally speaking, but it was how I felt that one day that I wrote it.
Over the years, I have learned to wait out my emotions. I can start the day feeling lethargic and unmotivated, move on to serene, through energetic, then punch my way through pissed off, and end up feeling grateful I have a family. Then, it’s lunchtime.
I used to try to fix my negative emotions: Why am I feeling this way? Do I need a new job, new relationship, new approach to life? No, odds are, I need a nap, a coffee, a run, or just some time, and it’ll pass. These days, I don’t spend too much time analyzing myself if I wake up feeling irritable or sad. I try to do some things to help my mood, and I know it probably won’t last too long.
There’s this fine balance between acknowledging emotions and wallowing in them, between moving on with life in the face of them and denying them. Wallowing too long can send you tumbling to the bottom of the pit from whence it feels impossible to extract yourself. Denial is like trying to cram silly putty into a too-small container — you can’t get the lid on; it’s going to pop out somewhere and make a mess.
I’ve been both places many times. I’ve been in the pit, where everything seems pointless and terrible, and there are no stairs, no handholds to climb my way out. I’ve been through denial, which is like pretending a volcano is dormant and then it blows half its top off and spews lava over all with the misfortune of being near. I don’t want to be either of those places again if I can help it.
Wrestling with depression and PMDD does make me appreciate the good days, like today, where I can feel the warmth of the goodness of my life. And it has made me stronger, forced me to improve my emotional coping skills.
I do what I call “real self-care” — not expensive spa days or massages, but things like getting enough sleep and allowing myself alone time. I know that the doldrums are not a reality, but the filmy lens through which I see things that particular day. It is a real feeling, and it deserves acknowledgment. It craves its own poem, and I shan’t deny it. (We start talking poetry, and I start saying things like “shan’t.” I’m so pretentious sometimes.) That is what allows me to let it go, to move past it.
The thing is, when I look not just at the doldrums or the shallows but at the whole ocean, there are storms, shipwrecks, beautiful sunsets, pretty shells, calm and choppy waters. There is the rare tsunami and the occasional island paradise. But you don’t get to stay in one place, and if you try, you’ll drift anyway. Or that weather will come to you. Change is inevitable.
That ocean is not just confined to this earth. It is vast and limitless. Who knows what great and terrible things lie within its depths — structures, beings, ideas we can discover, ponder, and some beyond the limits of our human imaginations.
The only sure thing I know we have is our lives on this earth, and the time we have here is too short not to spend it appreciating the full and complex range of human emotion.