Today a weird thing happened.
I ended up with two-and-a-half hours with absolutely nothing to do.
And to be honest, it freaked the hell out of me.
Today is the last day of my spring semester—last two classes, last regularly-scheduled office hours (although I promised to make myself available one more time), last time my alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. for what I hope is a very long time, last sad bagged lunch eaten between student visits, last time flossing in the tiny mirror in my office (until this fall, at least).
In five days, thirty-seven final portfolios are due, and I’ll be sitting in my yoga pants with my seventh cup of coffee googling “screen fatigue” and promising myself that I find a way to make it less painful in the future. But that’s a still-distant horror.
Right now I’m in the calm before the storm. Everything up to and besides those portfolios is graded, and for the moment I’ve escaped campus and 96-degree heat to freeze in a Starbucks with a venti black iced tea and wait for my final class.
The lack of immediate stresses is, frankly… stressful.
Maybe I don’t know how to fill my time anymore when I’m not reading or writing or teaching, when I don’t have a deadline staring me in the face or a stream of student emails.
Maybe I’ve forgotten how to relax.
I physically can’t sit in front of a television any more, without itching to get up and do something else. My husband considers this a sickness, especially during baseball season, but I’m too busy to follow the plot of anything. I’ve begun to watch exclusively HGTV, and preferably the first five minutes of a show (with the old house in disarray) and the last ten (the remodeled/new house in perfect gleaming condition). For the rest of the hour/half hour, I’ve muted the television to grade an essay, or I’ve wandered into another room to sort laundry.
Recently, getting a manicure (which is not a regular thing, but was a matter of dire necessity after heavy-duty yard work), I thought I might burst through my skin, I was that anxious.
“Hold still,” the manicurist said for the dozenth time, operating the tiny brush with patient strokes.
“Sorry,” I said.
She shook her head. “So tense. What do you do—you work in finance?”
This morning, I remembered the tiny spot on the band of my wedding ring where one of the small diamonds is missing. I first noticed this last July (the last time I felt fully relaxed) when I was on vacation in Oregon, and I forgot about it until today.
I added “visit jeweler” to my to-do list.
And then I added “make new to-do list,” because that would solve so many problems.
Today, I spent too much time on Facebook and used too many angry emojis. Maybe I’ve met some kind of quota, at least for the week.
I sent my husband a long rambling message, and he replied with an emoji, and that felt about right.
Then I rediscovered Pinterest, and my long-forgotten “someday, my kitchen” board. Off and on, I wished I had a tweezer in my purse.
The thing to do is ease into it, I know that. You never see marathoners cross the finish line and stop right there. (Well, maybe you do—I haven’t paid that close of attention, as marathoning is not my particular addiction.) But I have a feeling that stress can’t be ditched cold turkey.
Maybe I’ll work on the mother of all to-do lists (MOATDL) first.
And chase it with five new Pinterest boards.
Last week, I left home for my 8 a.m. doctor’s appointment—showered and dressed, my purse stuffed with my wallet and Kindle and a water bottle, my phone resting in the console, Morning Edition on the radio.
Everything was going fine, until I made it a few blocks from home and realize I had no idea where I was going.
Sure, it was a doctor’s appointment. I knew who I was going to see—Dr. K—and what I was seeing him about (ahem, patellar dislocation, the result of being chased by a tiger or falling off a ladder—you pick). I knew what was going to happen—Dr. K was going to reexamine my knee, which had recently been through four weeks of physical therapy, and fit me for a brace to that I could return, however slowly, to the treadmill.
The trouble was, I had no idea where I was going.
I pulled to the side of the road, suddenly sweating and scared. I felt this way once in an airport and another time when I took the wrong freeway exit on the way to San Francisco, but this time, I was literally a few blocks from my home, returning to a place I’d been only four weeks earlier. I could picture the inside of Dr. K’s office, but that wasn’t much help—a small rectangular room with an examination table and a blood pressure machine on the wall, its Velcro strap dangling, the desk with a monitor, the two chairs. I could remember, but only vaguely, Dr. K’s face. We’d only met once, and I’d classified him immediately as someone who would be the kindly older neighbor in a sitcom—pleasantly distracted, a wearer of khaki pants and a braided leather belt, comfortable walking shoes.
But where was his office?
I ran through the possibilities in my mind, based on places where I’d seen medical professionals in the past—near the hospital in the center of the city, by the Trader Joe’s near the freeway, in the massive complex where I’d gone for the MRI that had in fact determined that I wasn’t crazy, that my persistent limp wasn’t just “in my head”, that there was a reason I released a blood-curdling scream every time someone tapped me on the knee. I tried, parked on the side of the road, a sort of self-induced hypnosis. Picture yourself parking in the lot. Imagine walking through the entry doors.
I had no idea where I was going, and by this time, I had only a few minutes to get there. Thank goodness for technology and the near-constant stream of communication from my online health care service. I followed the link in an email, logged into my account (somehow I remembered that password), and learned that I was indeed headed, however unconsciously, in the right direction. My body knew something my mind hadn’t grasped, a sort of cerebral muscle memory.
Relax, I told myself. Just get there.
Later, I could figure out whether I was in fact losing my mind.
As it turned out, the parking lot near the doctor’s office was being resurfaced, so I had to park in an unfamiliar place and enter through the back of the building. This was probably the reason why I didn’t recognize the reception areas, and why I stood frozen in the middle of the lobby until a woman peered around the frosted glass partition and smiled at me. “You’re here for Dr. K, right?” she asked, and I broke into a relieved grin.
It was my Jason Bourne moment.
Wait! You remember me? I was here before?
As a side note:
In this Washington Post article on Alzheimer’s Disease, Fredrick Kunkle writes the following:
“ 'You shouldn’t automatically fret about dementia if your car keys go missing. It’s when you start forgetting truly important stuff that you should worry. It’s also not necessarily forgetting where your keys are — in fact, I don’t know where my keys are right now — it’s forgetting what keys are for. Or not knowing what a key is for until you put it in your freezer,' Snyder says. 'It’s that type of change in memory.' "
It’s unclear whether Kunkle would consider forgetting the location of a doctor’s office to be in the category of “truly important stuff’.
Here’s what happened (or here’s how I later rationalized all of this to myself):
I’d had my first visit with Dr. K on July 13 at eight in the morning, which was approximately eleven hours after returning from a day-long drive back from Lincoln City, Oregon, site of a long overdue family vacation complete with parents and sisters and brothers-in-law and nieces and nephews ranging from 3 to 23, complete with sun and sand and sunsets and bocce ball and jarts and margaritas and Moscow mules and two 1,000-piece puzzles. (Lincoln City is gorgeous, by the way, and it’s where you should go next.)
The morning after my visit with Dr. K, I started physical therapy, which I continued three times a week. The following Friday, I was supposed to fly to San Diego to speak on a panel at Comic Con. Southwest’s computer disaster happened, and we ended up flying to Los Angeles the following morning, renting a car to get to San Diego, rushing around the Convention Center with 100,000 other people, returning to the airport only a few hours later, then heading home bleary-eyed after our flight—well, let’s just say we were awake for 23 hours, and I slept on and off for the next 18.
During the month between visits to see Dr. K, I was in the middle of wrapping up the first draft of my next book, devoting about six hours a day to solid writing and another two or three to rereads and edits, sometimes arriving at Starbucks as the store was opening and returning later to write until it closed.
In short, it was a combination of travel brain and book brain, and that’s how I forgot all about my previous visit to Dr. K’s office.
Other things I have done on book brain:
I’d like to announce here that I have it all figured out, the way to juggle being a professional writer and an educator and a wife and a family member and a friend and a pet owner and a person who likes inane trivia and a person who likes complicated shoes and a person who needs to remember her bulky brace when she goes to the gym.
But of course, it would be a lie.
Only this morning, I left home for the seven millionth time without my cell phone.
This fall, for the first time since 2011, I’ll only be teaching on one campus, at one university. I now have only one “work-related” key on my keychain. I’m teaching 12 units, down from 18. I’m teaching two days per week, down from four, and a maximum of 60 students, down from 120.
I’m taking steps to simplify my life, to do the things I love with the people I love and say no to the rest.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Or I’ll text you, and ask you to please remind me exactly where we said we would meet.
This is not a blog post about dresses.
This is a blog post about dogs.
Some background information, in the way of a story.
Three years ago, I came home from work via the grocery store and pulled into my driveway, and as I got out of my car, I noticed something unusual. My neighbor (and friend, truthfully) was across the street at the empty house, on his knees, his rear end facing me. I recognize an adventure when I see one, so I left my groceries to wilt and melt and fester, and I crossed the street to join him.
"It's that little dog," my neighbor explained, and at that same moment, said little dog appeared from the bushes--skinny, black with a white throat, giant ears angled downward. I recognized her immediately as a little dog who had been loose in our neighborhood for months. I'd first spotted her during the winter while walking Baxter, the world's most spoiled beagle, and she'd almost seemed like a mirage--a tiny black and white flash darting into an alley and then gone when I turned the corner.
The little black dog assessed the situation with its beady black eyes, and then darted directly between my neighbor and me, eluding our outstretched arms. We followed her on a mad tear throughout the neighborhood's hedges and bushes, and down to another empty property, where we tag-teamed her, trapping her in a bush. My neighbor got hold of her, and she went limp; later, I would realize that she had wanted to be caught, that maybe she had been wanting it for months, and that it was what she wanted more than anything.
She stared at us, and my neighbor and I stared at each other, and I imagine we were all asking ourselves the same question: What now?
"I already have four dogs," my neighbor pointed out. It was true--his brood even included a three-legged dog. He'd done his share for the desperate dogs of the world.
"I have a husband who will kill me," I pointed out. This wasn't true--kill was an exaggeration. Recently, we'd been at a party where everyone seemed to be announcing a pregnancy, and a bottle of wine in, I'd blurted out: "We're thinking about adopting another dog!" I hadn't cleared this announcement with W., who regarded me with raised eyebrows from across the room. At the time we had two cats, both horrible bullies to Baxter, and it was something I'd been thinking for quite a while. Baxter needed a friend. And I loved dogs.
I ended up taking the LBD to our backyard, setting out food and water bowls and then watching through the window as she sat on the concrete patio looking up at me. Honestly, I'd participated in the LBD rescue as a way to keep the dog safe, to get her off the streets, and to find her a home.
The only trouble was that five seconds into the process, I'd fallen in love with her.
W. tells the next part of the story to whomever will listen. He's probably told it to you already, but here it goes:
When he left for work, we had one dog. When he came home, we had two.
Actually, he came home to find a note from me, affixed from the doorframe.
There's a small dog in the backyard. I'll explain later.
My husband is not a cruel person. We once rescued two kittens from the middle of the road in the middle of the night, he's recently developed an affinity for our neighbor's giant black cat, and he simply can't watch ASPCA commercials. (Neither can I. When I hear the opening chords of Sarah MacLachlan's "Angel," my eyes start to water.) If I'd begged and coaxed and pleaded and brought him down to the animal shelter one day, he might have happily adopted another dog. Instead, I'd shocked him with it--leaving a note that informed him succinctly that our lives had changed, again, and then returning home with a new food bowl, a collar and a leash, clear signals of my intentions.
There was also the fact that this dog was tiny--not on the scale of dogs W. had ever been interested in, the golden retrievers and black labs and German Shepherds of the world. Our overweight beagle may have been the smallest dog to catch his attention. But this LBD? Its neck slipped loose from an extra small collar; its feet were skinny claws.
W. set out on a valiant quest to find the dog's owners. He knocked on doors. He stapled fliers to telephone poles. He posted on Facebook. He checked Craigslist and local lost dog websites. He mentioned the dog--our dog, by this time--to anyone who liked dogs or had ever shown the remotest interest in owning a pet. It was embarrassing, really.
I called the animal shelter, and was told to bring the dog in. This was how people found their lost dogs, the woman on the phone explained. In the background, I heard a high-pitched yipping. She asked me to describe the dog, and I guessed that it was some blend of chihuahua, judging by its size and feet. She hesitated, then told me that they were overrun with chihuahuas. "But it has seven days to be claimed before..." she trailed off.
I thanked her and ended the call. No freaking way.
Up until this point, the LBD had been living in our backyard, barely eating and rarely coming out of the Dogloo where I'd stashed a blanket. She was wary of me, and didn't know what to make of dear, blundering Baxter who must have thought it was a miracle that one day he had been an only dog, and the next day he had a sibling.
I loaded the dog into the cat carrier, and she huddled in a corner during our trip to the vet. This was where I learned that she wasn't a chihuahua at all, but a rat terrier--the toy version. At the front desk, I explained that we needed to check first of all for a microchip--there wasn't one--and then that she was going to need the works: a flea bath, worming, shots. I needed to know if she'd been spayed, and if she hadn't, we needed to schedule that, too.
The receptionist wrote this all down, faithfully. Then she looked up at me. "What's the dog's name?"
I hesitated. W. had specifically instructed me not to name her, and I'd resisted the urge myself, knowing the importance of a name to a pet and its owners. "She doesn't have a name," I said finally. "Not yet."
"Well, then," the receptionist said briskly, undeterred. "We'll just call her Little Girl DeBoard." She wrote the name in capital letters across the intake form, scooped up the tiny, shivering mass from the cat carrier, and headed off to the examination room.
And that, kids, is the story of how LG got her name.
W. came around, eventually.
It may have helped that I reminded him that in 2006, we'd traveled to Spain and I hadn't stopped him when he decided to run with the bulls in Pamplona, even though I hadn't been able to ascertain exactly how this was covered by our life insurance policy. At the time, he'd promised me a "get out of jail free card", and this seemed as good a time as any to cash it in.
When he came home that night, LG and I were snuggled together on the couch. This was, and is, her thing--she likes to sit directly next to or on top of the people in her life. Her favorite spot to perch these days is on the back of Will's neck when he sits on the couch. When we visit my parents, she claims my dad's lap.
We gave crate training a half-assed shot, and after three nights of listening to her whine, high-pitched and nonstop, we opened the door. She immediately ran into our bedroom and dove underneath the sheets to sleep in a tiny hump at the foot of the bed. Now I find it almost impossible to sleep without her, my furry friend, my footwarmer extraordinaire.
After a week of being scared and clingy, LG became our protector. When the mailman steps onto our porch in the late afternoons, LG is waiting with the fiercest bark that can possibly come from a seven-pound dog. When someone pushes a baby stroller down the street, LG lets them have it. When the neighbor recovering from a stroke inches his way past our house, LG reminds him that he has no business being in her territory. Don't even get me started on the neighbor's wandering cat.
She's fierce, and funny, and wonderful.
Recently, we spotted another LBD (this time a little brown dog) running through our neighborhood. It had a limp and a wary, watching eye, and this time, it was W. who fell hard for it.
(Part II... to come!)
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo recommends fully cleaning your own space (assorted knickknacks/pile of sweaters/thousands of spiral bound notebooks/office supplies/teaching files) rather than tackling your partner's space (concert t-shirts, crumbling paperbacks, reporter's notebooks). The idea is that if you set a good example, your partner will fall in line.
In theory, it's a beautiful idea.
On Saturday, W. helped me with the scary shelving unit at the back of the garage. A few short months ago, the shelving unit wasn't even visible--it was merely a dark shadow emerging from behind stacks of empty cardboard boxes, large Tupperware bins that serve as a sort of clothing hospice, and a heap of recycling we were going to bring in "next weekend".
Now the shelving unit is visible again, and it turns out for the last five years or so, while neither W. nor I has managed to venture back there, it has been quietly accumulating masses of cobwebs. They hardly resemble the shiny spiderwebs that occasionally appear on our front porch, spun overnight in what seems to be a burst of optimism. These webs are heavy with dust and thick as clumps of dryer lint.
In the dim lighting of the garage, they give us pause.
We begin with the paint cans, which I'd mostly identified already, in previous weeks--matching and labeling or drying and tossing. From the beginning, I try to establish order, designating: a keep pile, a donate pile and a trash pile. But whenever I find myself engrossed in one task or another--squirting down a dusty plastic bin with a half-gallon of all-purpose cleaner, say--I turn back to see that a new pile has appeared, one that defies the categorization of "keep, donate, trash."
"What's this?" I demand, after stubbing my toe on a giant container of windshield wiper fluid--one of three, each full to the top with a blue-blue liquid. "Keep or donate?"
"That's the undecided pile," W. says.
No, no, nonono, I interrupt. We're only touching things once. We're making a decision on the spot. My explanation is less eloquent than Marie Kondo's, and more practical, too--it leaves out the weirdness of things having feelings or the idea that something like windshield wiper fluid might "spark joy".
"I use the Will DeBoard method," W. explains. "Touch twenty times, move to a new spot, and make a decision three months later."
I can almost hear MK's gasp.
We uncover, in that back corner, enough dust to make us open the garage door, exposing our still considerable pile of junk to the neighborhood. Under the dust is a mini-hardware store of DIY supplies, purchased at a time when we had more manageable lives with defined "days off" each week. Sanding supplies, a tub of varnish that has leaked, spackle and wood filler that has hardened into cement, C clamps from a project I can't remember. It turns out that we have two cans of WD-40 and three tubs of Drano, as well as seventeen cans of black spray paint.
"What's that?" I ask, pointing to something on the third shelf, fully visible from my vantage point on the other side of the garage, but not to W., standing directly in front of the shelf. "There's something back there. It's kind of ghostly looking."
W. bends down for a closer look. It is ghostly-looking, whatever it is or was--wrapped in cobwebs, dust particles shining in the light from the open garage door. "I don't see anything," W. says, inching slowly backward. In the next moment, he decides something in the backyard needs his attention.
I wrap my arms up to the wrists in plastic bags and attack the third shelf. Wedged in the back is a crumpled pile of painter's sheeting and one of the giant floor sponges we used in the process of refinishing our old floors.
Marie Kondo references the way things feel when they aren't confined, but allowed to relax in a natural state. There's a particular passage about why socks should not be balled that is (unintentionally, I'm sure) one of the funniest things I've ever read.
[Here it is: The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled.... Store the socks on edge, just as you did for clothing. You'll be amazed at how little space you need compared to your 'potato ball days,' and you'll notice your socks breathing a sigh of relief at being untied" (Kondo 81-83).]
But in that moment when I free the giant orange sponge from its trap of cobweb-covered sheeting and it seems to literally breath a sigh of relief, I think I finally understand.
W. pronounces us done rather early in the process, forgetting his new piles which are now scattered around the garage--a tub of Prestone, a mysterious item in an Old Navy bag, dried-up sticks of plant food. We've now created the problem of having numerous empty Tupperware containers, and for the moment I make a new stack along the back of the garage. It's safer to donate those as well, before they mysteriously fill with other crap we don't need--but that's a project for another Saturday.
In the end, we step back to look at our work, admiring the lack of cobwebs and the two empty shelves, and we feel pretty damn proud.
Also, I'm feeling optimistic. I know enough not to push it at this moment, although I feel strangely invigorated, like I could roll up my sleeves and empty the contents of an entire closet into the hallway and sort, sort, sort, Marie Kondo-style.
W. wraps a dirty arm around me, and I smile.
Maybe tonight we'll go through his concert t-shirts.
I’ve been purging.
I don’t know exactly where it’s come from, this desire to pull open drawers, to sort into keep and toss piles, to load up the back of the Rav and drop it all at Goodwill, pulling out of the parking lot quickly before I have time to change my mind. But since January, I’ve made maybe a dozen of these trips, sometimes with the trunk full, sometimes with only a few things waiting on the backseat, calling out to me in that special way of old sweaters, jars of bath crystals and picture frames still in their cardboard packages.
Don’t worry, I think, as I dump them onto the folding table at the donation drop-off center. Really, you’re better off this way.
I have been watching—guilty-pleasure watching—episodes of Hoarders. My husband wants nothing to do with it; he shakes his head in disgust when he sees what’s on TV; at the first mention of a dead pet found beneath the pile of rotted food in the kitchen (and that always, always happens), he demands that the channel be changed.
Also, I did recently buy The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. There’s a certain level of crazy in the book that cannot be overlooked, but some shockingly good common sense, too.
And I’ve been thinking—a luxury that my last few semesters of madness didn’t allow, but the more sane pace of this semester does. There’s a left-digit change in my near future, and I feel in many ways that I’ll be moving on to other things. I’ve done that already, I realize when I find a box of books from my teacher credentialing program. This year marks the year I’ve not been a high school teacher as long as I was one, and without me noticing it, the date to renew my credential has come and gone.
W. has been busy with work, and I’ve found myself with uninterrupted time on Saturday mornings, and the purging has been happening then, with the pets staring wide-eyed from their respective corners. One night, W. opens the linen closet, and instead of towels and sheets spilling out haphazardly, he is greeted by short, orderly piles.
“Did we get rid of a lot of stuff?” he asks. “There’s all this empty space in the closets.”
“I’ve been spring cleaning,” I tell him.
The garage, I determined sometime in the middle of 2015, was going to need a major overhaul. The garage represented everything that was wrong with our lives (and dare I say it, America). It stank of so much abundance that perfectly usable things could be placed out there and never even moved for ten years. There had initially been an order, an attempt at organization—suitcases here, pet stuff there, paint cans here, laundry stuff there. And then at some point, that system disappeared and the room became a hold-all for plastic tubs full of halfway discarded clothing, towering tiers of empty boxes, dropped socks, a million golf balls rattling around loose, and the office supplies I’d packed hastily into bins when I left my job teaching junior high, vowing never to return.
I knew it needed a serious cleaning, the kind that required a cleared calendar, good weather (way too hot in the summer to even contemplate) and a rented trash container from the city. So, overwhelmed by the chaos, I did the only thing I could think to do at the time.
I posted a sign on the door leading from the kitchen to the garage. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK, it says. AND NEVER AFTER DARK.
Sometimes, friends see that sign and think it’s for them. They hesitate, hand on the doorknob, ready to turn. But no, I tell them—that sign is for me.
I decided in January that the best way to handle the garage was to give it an hour of my time each week and hope to be done by June. Every Saturday, wearing old jeans and tennis shoes, my hair pulled back and head covered (spiders have crisscrossed the rafters with their webs, reveling in our neglect), I prop up my laptop to listen to last week’s This American Life and I dig in.
At times, it goes pretty fast. I slice through empty boxes with a sharp blade, flattening them beneath my feet as I go. At other times, it’s a bit like an archaeological dig. I find a laptop box from two laptops ago, and wonder why I’ve kept it. I uncover the Christmas tree stand I used years ago when I still decorated the house for the holidays next to a bag full of dusty aluminum cans that never made it to recycling. There are boxes and boxes of notebooks full of my writing—I know I can’t bear to part with them just yet, so it’s dangerous to even crack the cover of the box.
Occasionally, the cat flap squeaks on its hinge, and Baxter pokes his head into the garage to sniff the air, see what I’m doing.
Three weekends in, I begin to suspect that I have a problem with paper products. The fifth weekend, this is confirmed when I find another stash of napkins, paper plates, cups. I am/we are prepared for the world’s largest picnic, if not the zombie apocalypse. I dedicate two full shelves on the industrial-strength organizer to paper plates, and then shove the rest in a giant trash bag and deliver it to Goodwill. I imagine the worker sorting this bag, wondering who raided a Walmart, what party was canceled last minute.
Yesterday I reached the paint section in this hardware store that is my life, and I dusted off the tops of cans. What I found was a short history of our house—beginning with the Mallard Green that used to be our exterior trim, and on through each of the rooms—Lemon Meringue, Bread Basket, Classic Ivory, Camelcoat, the disputed blue in the office that I’ve threatened to paint over so often, I’ve become the Girl Who Cried Paintbrush.
At one point, I bought three different quarts of high-gloss exterior for the front door, then talked myself out of the bolder colors.
I hesitate over these colors, then decide to keep them.
Maybe someday I’ll go for it.
There’s enough room, at this very moment, to stand on the south side of the garage, reach out my arms, and spin in a wide circle without hitting anything other than air and the occasional spider web. It’s the smallest of small dents in the mess, but there’s hope. There’s light at the end of the tunnel—or at least, from the room’s only window, which was previously blocked by the box for the world’s largest at-home telescope and now emits a cheery, sunny view of the outside world.
It’s not a bad thing.
A funny thing about writing: It’s both an incredibly private, intimate act and (I suppose, if you’re persistent and lucky) something that gets shared with the world.
Which means, essentially, that the hours and hours (… and hours) that you spend alone or semi-alone or for-all-intents-and-purposes alone with your manuscript may one day translate to a book sitting on a shelf, and you the reader may walk past the shelf and do a double-take, because there’s the physical proof that you the writer really did all that work.
It’s awesome. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. (Erm: It’s the stuff of which dreams are made.) And then, at times, it’s incredibly unnerving.
Case in point: The Drowning Girls.
Or as she’s known around my house, Baby #3.
In the public life cycle of a book, The Drowning Girls is in its nascent state. Advanced reader copies are out there, circling amongst a handpicked group of writers and bloggers and reviewers, and I imagine the books, lovingly packaged in bubble wrap, being transferred from shipping center to shipping center, being loaded and unloaded, and finally being hand-delivered onto a doorstep. Later the package is opened, the book set aside for the time being or the spine immediately cracked open—and that’s where I have to stop imagining, or one of two things will happen: I’ll become a bit queasy, or my head will explode.
In its other, more private life, The Drowning Girls is eighteen months old, this no-longer-tiny thing I’ve nursed from idea through touch-and-go illnesses and minor missteps and finally, to triumphs. Those of you who know me in my private life know that there were times I wasn’t sure TDG was going to make it to its present state. (Add them up: stress, self-doubt, inhibitions, distractions from all angles.) TDG is responsible for a white streak that has formed on the right side of my head, springing from my scalp. (Think Stacy London, but less striking.) I credit TDG both for weight gain and weight loss, for making new friends and losing touch with old, for "above average" alcohol consumption, for sleepless nights, for bad decisions.
In other words, I’ve lost a healthy sense of perspective.
Here’s how it goes:
Someone will love the book and proclaim their public love on Goodreads or Twitter or Amazon or Facebook or a blog, and the writer me feels a rush of love and warmth and gratitude, a sort of cosmic alignment of hopes and fears and dreams. Or someone will give it a three-star ‘meh’ rating and I’ll feel this rush of annoyance, because clearly that reader missed something, or maybe he/she just needs me to sit down and explain the book to them. (This is unfair and not entirely charitable, but it’s a real feeling.)
Then there is two-star star rating and (thankfully rare) the one-star. There's a horrible wish every writer must have to contact the writer of the one-star review. Perhaps the rater made an error, a simple misclick on the keyboard. Perhaps the person can be reasoned with, talked to, cajoled, bribed. But no--none of these things are appropriate, of course. And my husband, thankfully, talks me out of these baser impulses. (Truth: He reads all the reviews, and once things get going, I come to a point where I don't.) There's nothing left to do but privately seethe about the person who clearly didn't even read the book, or merely stumbled across it by accident and felt cheated at its lack of vampires or werewolves (or vampires and werewolves). There's nothing to do but assume that the account is fake, created by the student who I popped for plagiarism last semester.
On the other hand, it may not be personal at all. Perhaps the account is held by a troll or a cyborg or a bot. Maybe by a vampire.
Or a werewolf.
The best thing to do, of course, is not to visit those sites.
When I’m writing, I enable an app that disables my wireless connection, because distractions abound—emails, social media, random google searches I feel compelled to perform at that exact moment. I’m generally good at this sort of discipline—my time is in short supply, and I can’t afford to find myself watching a cat video or building a new Pinterest board for a remodel that may never happen.
But this early in the game, I’m propelled by a relentless curiosity, an obsessive sort of nervousness.
Will they love it, or won’t they?
I do, but then, I’ve got a different perspective.
I sat with her when she was nothing but a rough outline, a two-thousand word sketch, a tangle of words I was too embarrassed to share with anyone other than my beagle.
Early reviews, when I've dared to peek, have been good. They've been better than good, really -- some from writers I admire, bloggers I've chatted with, and a few, wonderfully, from people who don't know me and therefore don't feel any compulsion to say nice things.
They are not all from my mother, hiding behind fake profiles.
In fact, I hand-delivered a copy to her only last week, and out of everyone, I'm most nervous about what she'll think.
At this point, it's all a waiting game.
(Did I mention The Drowning Girls publishes on April 26?)
Today --in fifty minutes, to be exact-- my fantasy life stops and real life begins again. At that time I'll be in my car, laptop bag packed, on my way to a meeting that will launch the new semester.
Which is why right now, I'm speeding through the last two episodes of Veronica Mars.
Here's the thing: I missed VM the first time around. This was 2005 or so, and I would have been teaching high school by day and grading English papers by night, and I'd pretty much reached my saturation point with teenagers in real life.
But I've had a blissful month off from teaching, and somehow I managed to fill that time quite handily with binge-watching sessions of the world's feistiest teenage detective, interspersed with the housekeeping chores I'd ignored for the last six months. I watched Veronica and Duncan while I sorted through my closet (he was kind of a bore, frankly). I watched Veronica and Logan while I emptied out the boxes and papers and assorted other junk that had gathered in the spare bedroom. And I watched Veronica and Piz while sorting through a basket of toiletries (why, oh why, would anyone ever bring home tiny bottles of shampoo and lotion at the end of a vacation?).
It didn't stop there. Last year I was too busy to take on Serial, the This American Life podcast, and so I binge-listened to the story of Adnan Syed while I took down every book from our bookshelves, dusted and re-alphabetized. Have I mentioned that we own four thousand books, give or take?
Around New Year's, W. and I started Making a Murderer, and we were instantly hooked. I have two connections that made me even more interested in the Stephen Avery case-- my dad's family is from Manitowoc, and every bit of scenery felt familiar to me. Also, a friend at Netflix helped bring it to life. Basically, there was zero chance I wasn't going to watch this.
In other words, for the past four-ish weeks, I've been doing nothing but solving crimes -- call me the armchair investigator, if you will. I've gone to sleep with visions of crime scenes dancing in my head. I've theorized and discussed in an endless loop -- what if, and why didn't they present this evidence, and is it possible that. I haven't solved anything, mind you, but I've given my brain a nice little workout.
But now it's time to hang up my crime-fighting hat (is there a crime-fighting hat?) and get back to real life. There are lectures to be planned and students to advise and yes, soon enough, papers to grade.
Just don't get too comfortable, criminals.
I'll be back.
I'm back. Where have I been, you ask?
It's a fair question. I used to blog every week. Monday mornings, like clockwork, I posted my random thoughts, which were usually based on things I'd observed or things my husband or pets had done, and it was all good.
And then, and then. Life became complicated. I mean this in a good way.
Writing used to be something that was purely a creative outlet for me, a way to burn off steam, a place to create and move on. And then a crazy thing happened. I became a professional writer, which means that I have a publishing contract and deadline, and I started taking my little creative hobby a lot more seriously. Which meant, I figured--there's no time for a blog. I've got to get my act together! And so, the blog languished, and other parts of my writing life thrived.
But now, before the dust settles on this new year, I'm going to try to do both.
So watch out, because more random thoughts are coming your way.
Paula Treick DeBoard