The hardest button

buttons, buttons

As I reach blindly under my bed for a missing sock, my hand brushes against cold metal.

Aha!

I grab the forgotten box, next to the runaway woolen sock, and pull it out from under the dusty recess.

It’s my grandmother’s button box. I’ve had it for more than a year. I found it buried under bags and boxes at my mother’s house. She’d had it for many years, back when we were emptying my grandparents’ house after they moved to assisted living.

This box has a history. Primarily, it was utilitarian: providing a place to store lost buttons as well as offering replacements for gaping garments. I recall it appearing on the table as a diversionary tactic, one of the many employed by my grandma. She had others: the felt board and shapes, the finger-sized puppets, the coloring books and crayons. But, oh, those buttons, they had so many possibilities. We’d sort them into shapes and colors, engineer roads and patterns, glue them to other things as craft projects. Once we made absolutely hideous bracelets using lengths of elastic. While others in the family inherited my late grandma’s rocking chair, her mantel clock, and her jewelry, I got the button box.

Yeah, I’m simple like that sometimes.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the buttons. It’s comforting to know they are with me. I look at them as a great puzzle. All the pieces are in front of me, I just don’t know yet what to do with them.

And speaking of the hardest button to button, I’ve worked hard to meet my 1,000 words a day writing challenge. No, I’m nowhere near the goal (if I’d done this every day since Jan. 1, it would be 41,000 words. I have a mere 24,531 words logged, but some of those are carried over from last year. So, yeah, a lot less than the goal, but the idea is to write as often as I can, especially when the story is kicking to get out.  Yesterday I wrote all 1,000 words in cursive, with a pencil, into a small notebook in my purse before transcribing it to the computer. The rule is, if I start writing, I need to keep going until I reach 1,000 words.

Let me clarify that almost none of what I have written is worthy of reading. It’s a jumbled mess, much like the box of buttons. I have a few chapters I’ve polished and revised. My central story idea keeps shifting, like a restless fetus. I’m just doing this thing anyway.  Even if nothing comes of it, I keep sifting though my thoughts, much like I bury my hands in that metal box of plastic buttons, feeling each individual’s weight and texture, savoring the soft click-clack as they slip through my fingers.

Here’s to getting outside the box once in a while.

 

 

Let’s try this again

It’s the second day of a new year.

I’ve had this book in my hands for three days. Already it’s marked up, pages dog-eared, margins filled with notes and ideas. I am inspired.

My head is ready to explode.

The year that’s gone was one of amazement. I surprised myself. I let go and allowed the river of life to carry me on its current. I still feel as if I am on the edge of something I cannot identify.

Again.

A marathon runner told me to hang on to my running goals, even if it seems I’m nowhere closer to them than when I started. He told me it can take up to seven years  to achieve a goal. And that’s OK. What? It’s not OK. Make it OK.

Apply those words to anything: running, writing, cooking, whatever. I am aspiring to 1,000 words most days. That’s double the typical blog post.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the book I’m reading. It’s my starting point. What’s yours?

“So okay – there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ”
― Stephen KingOn Writing

 

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mem-wahr

My books of choice are fiction. I love to let go and ride the currents of a good story. I crave the escape. Lately, however, I’ve come ashore, kicking around in the memoir/humor/social commentary shelves at the local library.

This is due entirely to an interest in writing a book. I’m getting some encouragement, and, frankly, everyone else is writing a book, why not me? When I signed up for NaNoWriMo in November, I asked for ideas on Facebook. One idea — made by a childhood friend (one who knows I have a story or two) –stood out from the rest:

“Write about yourself, same genre as David Sedaris. You would keep anyone entertained.”

I will not even pretend to be as funny or engaging as Mr. Sedaris, but wow, what if?

What if?

I picked up “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” and fell in love. I gorged myself on his special brand of sardonic wit.  I get him.

He had a pet spider (I did, too) that he named and took to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Unbeknownst to my mother, I smuggled my pet toad into a high-end gift shop and it got out of the box I had hidden in my backpack. Before I could stop it, Herbie hopped into one of those tall Ming dynasty-ish vases. It took some creative distraction of the store staff to topple that vase and coax that brown lump out. To this day, I get all hive-covered when I go into one of those Waterford Crystal type stores. I feel the guilt of a toad smuggler wash over me the minute I cross the threshold.)

He attracts all the town criminals and freaks to his yard (that’s my speciality), dug up all his dead pets to see how they were doing (did that), wanted to and did watch a real autopsy (did that, too,) and was a chain smoker (*cough*) who struggled to quit. I’ve done all these things. We are practically twins.

Then I read “Bossypants” by Tina Fey; the “Idiot Girls Guide“series by Laurie Notaro; and ”I’m Really Sad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron. (Let me pause here to ask: is her name pronounced EE-frahn or eff-RAWN? Blame it on my late father, but I tend to go heavy on the Es, as he did. I say things such as “The days are long at the EEEEE-quayter,” instead of “The ehQUAYter is halfway between the two poles.”)

I can’t get enough. These lives, these wacky experiences couldn’t be anything less than the truth — the pathetic, funny and wonderful truth. I laughed until tears streamed down my face. I laughed and snorted and carried on until David Sedaris was officially banned from the bedroom night stand. Over and over I fell in love.

My husband is getting a little worried about all this unrequited love blurring my vision.

“What’s wrong with me? he asks. Do I gotta go gay on you, cross dress, write a rom-com? Get on NPR? What?

Most of all, these talented funny writers inspired me enough to give it a go. The hardest thing is letting go of fear, doubt, self-consciousness and laziness. My life may be nothing more than a series of stupid incidents, a handful of tragedies, a lot of mischief and mayhem, and a dark closet stuffed with bad decisions, but I’ve had a few turns of good luck and nice people who like me to keep things cheerful. So it’s balanced — enough.

Whenever I’m asked about writing a book, I always say I’ll wait until everyone in my immediate family is dead so they won’t kill me when they read it.  That family of mine? The ones who aren’t dead? They have that damn longevity gene. At this rate, if I don’t act now, I’ll be dictating to a ghost writer from my nursing home bed. No more.

If I can’t retire early on the spoils of my success, why not just write what really happened and buy a cup of coffee? Time is running out. Already I have a knee that sounds like a crinkling chip bag when I bend it, and an irrational fear of electricity, cameras, and overhead flourescent lighting.

So, I’ve set up an online site and the outline for this project. I’m compiling archived blog posts with fresh material to someday, with hope, publish something. I’m not in a rush but I do like the idea of having a goal.

It’s a first step. One that sounds like a crumpled chip bag.

 

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Letter of complaint

Dear Dearest NaBloPoMo,

It’s just not the same the second time around, is it? Is it you? Is it me? Is it just us together, a pot of hot chemistry when we first met and now nothing but a tepid bowl of funk?

I think it’s me, mostly. I was working it to get that quiet, studious guy, NaNoWriMo, (You know, the one who looks a little like Harry Potter on steroids?) to take me on a monthlong odyssey. I mistook a friendly tip of the hat for an overture. When midnight struck, his white carriage was not waiting at my gate.

I felt stood up.

I think it might be you, too, Mr. Rebound Guy. We bumped into each other by the gate. You had room on the bus. I said yes.  We ran through the grass hand-in-hand for days before we looked each other in the face and jumped back in fright.

“Oh, it’s you.”

It’s like this: You keep me up way past my bedtime too many nights to count. My husband is getting steamed. He says that if I’m going to have you on the side for 30 days, I need to do it on my time, out of his sight.

You distract me on a daily basis, forcing me to evaluate every chance encounter, change in wind direction, twitch of a cat’s whisker, as a possible post. I’m forced to carry a big notebook and several pens with me everywhere I go, in the event of a word hemorrhage.

Sure, I knew what I was getting myself into with you. You’re insatiable, demanding and thankless. But you’re also a disciplinarian and you’ve helped me carve bouquets of flowers out of piles of dirt.

You have beaten me senseless, stripped me raw, stolen almost all my ideas and thoughts.

And yet, I can’t — won’t — quit you. We are in this thing together for another 13 days.

Promise me one thing? When this is over? Don’t kiss me. Don’t leave a note. Just go. We’ll pretend it never happened.

Love always,

Me

 

 

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Open eyes

I found your writing.

You call yourself a writer but where are your words? Why are they hidden?

Writer is a big word in my book. You don’t just throw that around lightly.

When I was in college, learning about writing by real writers, they said you aren’t a writer until someone pays you for your words. That one stuck with me over the years.

I’ll admit, I worried about this writer business. What if you’re better? What if you are
a painfully bad writer? Where do we go from there?

Some writers dwell within the neatly spaced paragraphs of their published work and others just make a mess of their keyboards.  Do the good writers even know they’re good? Do bad writers realize they are bad? Is everyone really just a scared kid on the inside?

I think It’s like that with painters and piano players, too.

They all turn themselves inside out to show you their guts. Sometimes it too much to bear, all this beauty and blood.

I found your writing.

It scared me it was so good.

Now, 

I’m twisted inside out.

I feel as if I’ve taken a secret lover. I can’t breathe. I know too much, too fast.  

I feel your pain, I said out loud.

But I don’t feel your pain.  I don’t know your pain. What I mean is: Your words made me feel my pain. That is the only pain I know. And I wanted to take that hurt child — was it me or you? — into my heart. Maybe that’s what they mean by compassion.

 Maybe I can trade jealousy for admiration. Maybe I can break the wild horses that run uncontrolled across my mind.

I want to take a picture of this moment so I can see myself with open eyes.

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Fumbling toward clarity

Last spring I started volunteering in Detroit Public Schools as a literacy tutor. Those few months were a warm-up for the challenges of this school year.

This year I am matched with two first-grade girls. We meet for an hour on Thursdays. We read and practice writing sentences. But it’s more than that.

Right before winter break, Girl No. 1 grabbed me in an awkward hug outside her classroom.

“Are you gonna miss me?” she asked, head down but dark eyes peering up, wide and pleading.

“Of course I’ll miss you,” I said.

“Are you my friend?”

“Yes. I am your friend.”

She asks me these questions every week.

Sometimes she throws a curve ball.

“Do you wear panties with flowers on them?” she asks in mock seriousness. I make a face. She tosses back her head, quaking with giggles that make her hair beads click.

Here we go again with this one. She’s smart, but plagued by dark moods and sharp shifts in temperament. I’m guessing these emotional storms get in the way of learning.

“Back to work, my friend,” I say, grabbing the reader. We begin going over long and short vowel sounds.

Girl No. 2 is a different chapter in the story we are writing. She struggles. The alphabet. Words. Sounds. Putting it all together is a major challenge. Additionally, she is almost impossible to reign in. The sighing radiator, padding feet in the hallway, leaves and wrappers swirling about in the courtyard outside all compete for her attention. At our last meeting, I detected the slightest movement toward progress with her. She didn’t ask me if I’d miss her. She didn’t want a hug or even a pat on the back.

Ah, these kids. Some weeks I feel the warmth of pride as they grasp a concept. Other weeks, panic rises in my throat as I hear things that drag me down dark roads: What kind of lives do these girls live? What messages play on their daily soundtrack? How can a young child have so much anger, sadness and resignation?

I know some of the answers. Although we lived on different streets, came up in different eras, these girls and I  have something in common. I had trouble learning. I didn’t achieve my academic potential.  I spent far more time in detention/the principal’s office/ time out than in the classroom. Teachers, counselors and social workers constantly leaned in to ask: “What is bothering you? What is wrong?”

If we stick to letters and words and simple readers, I’m good.

But when I start hearing and seeing the reasons why we are together in this stifling storage room, crushed together in a small wooden corral, in this crumbling building in a crumbling city, I want to run out the door. In the next beat I think I should be here every day for an hour. How else can I make a difference?

I guess this is similar to how new teachers feel. Touching young lives. Making a difference. How many seasoned educators are bitter, burned out, cynical? I know two such teachers who quit the system. They advised me to be cautious in taking on this quest. I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

But I’m doing it anyway, in spite of bureaucracy, politics, cynicism, doubt, bitterness, fear, and every thing else.

Why do I do this? To help them? To help me? To figure out what to do next with my life?

All of the above.

SpongeBrain SquarePeg

Photo by Dan Storey 15 via Creative Commons

I’ve been table hopping book clubs for a while now, seeking the right fit, a good mix, and  readers of a similar stripe.

I’ve joined short-lived book clubs and tried to get into book clubs that apparently cannot spare an extra chair. My last two club meetings were clear examples of a square peg not fitting into the round roles.

‘Are you in my mother’s garden club?’

Since last fall, the young librarians at our up-and-coming library  have been hosting book parties: book club meetings in a trendy local bar. The experimental gatherings were wildly popular, attracting a wide array of readers. I felt right at home going alone to the first few meetings. Not so much last time, when I found myself sitting in a busy bar at an empty table keeping watch over a flock of “reserved for book party” placards. This was after I went to every busy table asking, “Book club? Excuse me, is this the book club?” and getting shoulder shrugs and quizzical looks in reply.

Moments before I gave up the table, the placards and I were joined by a raucous group of fresh-faced and firm-butted 20-somethings. Easily I had 20 years on them. I told myself, “Oh, so what?” and ordered a giant glass of white wine.

While I won’t say the evening was a disaster — I actually had some nice conversations with them based on my asking a litany of questions about their lives — I found it excruciatingly difficult to discuss the featured book. It was written by a 20-something about 20-somethings.  On more than one occasion, they referred to the book’s narrator as a “liberal douche” and a “fatalist fuckwad.” I am not an educator. Maybe teachers would know how to handle this scenario a little better. I am also not a U.N. ambassador, so the diplomacy thing started to wear thin after the first 30 minutes. Finally, I resigned myself to being outnumbered.

While the group had me beat in the education credentials department, (All had or were finishing graduate  degrees, which they admitted were keeping them busy until they could find work in this downturned economy.) I had them beat with life miles logged. Not that I could get any of them to recognize or respect that. While I was willing to listen to their literary analyses of the book, their listing of  the author’s fatal flaws and amateur writing errors,  I felt like their mother when I attempted to break down some possible themes of the book based on life experience.  In other words: Someday when you are in your 40s, you will look back at all the self-involved shit of your 20s and see it through a different lens.

It was like I was sitting face-to-face with my own insufferable 25-year-old self: perpetual college student, angsty literary freak wrapped in layers of  irony and cynicism.

Eventually I realized they were just smashed.  I finished my wine and excused myself.

They may have been smirking at me just a little.

‘Did you go to school with my granddaughter?’

My community center book club experience wasn’t much better. In this case, I was easily 30 years younger than all the participants. While in the former case, all the attendees cradled iPhones and Blackberries in their palms to text each other from across the table,  the ones at this gathering were all about their manila folders of news clippings and mimeographs of book lists dating back to the Reagan administration. Conversation about the book of the month followed a very formal road until it ran out of gas. Then those in attendance slipped into what must be their usual banter: an update of ailments, hospital visit recaps, and their hatred and distrust of the Internet and computers.  While the hipsters barely waved bye to me when I left, I felt the tips of this group’s claws piercing my skin. They wanted phone numbers. They handed me several mimeographed sheets with margin notes written in pencil. They looked forward to me joining their ranks. They needed new blood, they said.

In both book groups I felt a  generational disconnect and a distinct imbalance in the reader demographic. To the older folks I was this young whippersnapper who didn’t a Viceroy from a victory garden.  To the hipsters, I was their mom.

More often than not, I’ve found myself in the equivalent of sitting in the wrong lecture hall in college and too afraid to get up and walk out.

The older I get, the more I feel my brain is like an old sponge. It still has the power to absorb but some of the content is questionable.

This post, by the way, has been rotting in my drafts folder since May.  At one time it was a fresh writing prompt  offered by the lovely San Diego Momma.

Street note

note2

'What about fiting in with the kids at the school and what if they don't like how you are dressed?'

As I was loading up the car to go to a birthday party on Sunday, a cluster of papers caught my eye. One was a piece of  lined paper folded in eights and tucked into my fence by the garage. Below it was a crumpled paper bag, a plastic cup and an empty pint of Jose Cuervo Gold. (After reading the note, I wonder if the items are connected.)

I unfolded the paper. Written in blue ink in the penmanship of what looks like a preteen boy with a shaky command of the language is a heartbreaking string of words. Here’s what it said:

“Do you think that it is bad for kids to move? I do because they have to meet other kids and make new friends at the new school. They have to get along with teachers and get use to how the teacher teaches.

If you start the new school in 1/2 of the year that is bad because they might have a test as the end of  that trimester. You miss all of the information at the begging of that. So you’d had to learn the stuff that they are learning now.

What about  fiting in with the kids at the school and what if they don’t like how you are dressed. They can beat you up just for not look cool. What about lunch you don’t know anyone from the school so who are you going to sit by and no one likes you because you don’t dress like them. Maybe that is why no one want to sit by you @ lunch.”

I live two blocks from a combined high school/middle school. The note could be real. I’m imaging a plainly dressed boy in a plaid flannel shirt, a coat with a hood and jeans, sitting cross-legged on my driveway chewing a ham sandwich and writing this note. For one moment I entertain the idea that the boy is washing down his sandwich with tequila shots, but discard that image in the  too-damned-depressing bin.

I imagine the boy hearing the bell ring, folding the note and tucking it in the fence, tossing his lunch bag on my driveway and following the sidewalk back to his personal hell. I wonder if he wanted someone to read it, to know his pain, to hear his soul  cry out with the agony of forced segregation. If that  is true, then here is your validation, sad young man.

Of course, it might be a joke or a class assignment that fell out of backpack. Perhaps a neighbor out walking her dog picked it up and tucked it in the fence in the off-chance that the student might look for and find his note.  But being who I am, I’m clinging to my first impression of lonely new kid eating his lunch off-campus to avoid the pain of social rejection.

I know that one.

My family moved the summer between my sixth- and seventh-grade year. For most of seventh grade I was alone. This was a shock to me. We moved from a very warm, tight-knit community of people who were all about the same economically to one in which there were defined lines of status. Needless to say, we were on the wrong side of the line. That was made apparent on the first day of school when the two girls walking in front of me  kept turning around, eyeing my JC Penney clothes up and down, and whispering to each other. In my old neighborhood, my friends thought my shoes and socks and shirts were cool.

All of seventh grade I managed to find two friends, both of whom were transplants like me. But before I made those friends, lunchtime, gym class and free times were  long stretches of agony.  The new school kids didn’t think my jokes were funny like my old friends did. They didn’t think my style was worthy of praise or emulation, only ridicule and scorn. I’m sure I penned many notes to no one that read much like the one in my fence. I wonder if any blew out of my backpack and landed in a nearby yard?

God, it sucks to be the new kid.

Flannel-plaid-wearing boy with the blue ink pen, I hear your cry for help. I understand. I  wish you strength and courage. It will get better someday. I promise.

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Hey, maybe I'll start a blog

grandma

Traffic: I owe it all to these babies

If I had a dime for every time someone said to me, “Hey, you should start a blog,” I’d have a bunch of dimes.

They say to me: “I saw on Oprah/The Today Show/The View this woman who left her job/was fired /suffered from post-partum depression/chewed off her right arm and started writing about it on the Internet. Now she makes like $100,000 a month just blogging,  using the good arm, of course. I wish I could write. I would totally do that. You should do that.”

As I’m listening to these kind suggestions, offered to me because I am formerly of the newspaper business (which hardly exists anymore outside of Hollywood movies) I’m thinking of my humble home on the Net, how it’s remained largely a secret and doesn’t pay me a dime.

Then I explain that I know of whom they speak, the SuperBlogger Queens of the Universe. It’s probably too late in the game to dethrone these tiara wearers, but that’s no reason to shut down my little cobbler shop situated in the back alley of the kingdom.

In spite of a recession of rich ideas, a scarcity of traffic leading to generous ad revenue, this week I observe two years of blogging.

What I’ve learned in two years:

  • Writing and maintaining a blog is work. The more you work it, the bigger the returns. It’s a high-maintenance relationship. Have flowers, chocolates and wine at the ready.
  • Even though I call myself a Zombie , I have no affinity for the flesh-eating undead. I did like “Shaun of the Dead,” but on the whole I don’t care for zombie movies. This does not stop the zombies from  stalking me. In fact, there’s one knocking at my window right now … 
  • My readers all seem to be West of the Rockies, South of the Mason-Dixon Line or East of the Allegheny Mountains. Why? Don’t know. Just glad to have all 10 of you. 
  • Believe it or not, the name MomZombie is a compromise between two earlier titles: Fluffy Chicks in a Basket and the totally emo Bleeding Soul on Edge of Jagged Razor Blade. It all has to do with too little sleep and too much caffeine.
  •  You like it when I humiliate myself. Boy, those stats really skyrocket when I take one for the team. 
  • For more than a year, Grandma Cleavage (see above), was the top search term for my blog. I’ve since purchased an underwire for this site.
  • Latest searches: Zombie yogurt, Zombie Killer Moms, Big Asses in Bathing Suits, Wooden Picnic Table, Herman Munster  in a bathing suit.
  •  

     

    munster

    Sorry, I could not find Herman Munster in a bathing suit.

     If you are reading this, thank you.

Justification, punk

While assembling an online profile about myself recently (more on that later) I mentioned that not only am I driven to write, but I also write while driving.

This, naturally, elicited a response: “What?! You write while driving?” 

Yeah. I keep lots of notepads and pens in my console and when an idea slams me between the eyes, usually at 70 mph on the Interstate, I’m ready.

This goes back to my reporter days. Way back. Before Wi-Fi. Before laptops and modems were commonplace. Back in those days a reporter drove to a city council meeting, took notes and watched the clock, balancing the need to stay long enough to “get the story” against how much time it would take to commute  to the office and  file the story before deadline.

One of the ways to beat the clock was the write the story’s lead while driving back to the office. Sometimes I’d dictate into a portable tape recorder. But most of the time I’d just reach over to the passenger seat, grab a pen and begin scribbling on my notepad.

I didn’t take my eyes off the road. I kept one hand on the wheel.  At a red light, I’d make adjustments for legibility, clarity. I got quite good at it.

I still do it. My best ideas come to me while driving.

Recently, while driving — but not writing — I tuned in to NPR.  “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross (Dec. 31 broadcast date; sorry couldn’t get a link to stick) was on, featuring an interview with former Punk rockers Mick Jones of the Clash and Tony James of Gen X. They are now in a band called Carbon/Silicon.

genx

Tony James (left) and Billy Idol of Gen X

After a bit of banter about Jones’ and James’ musical roots, Gross asked them where they get their ideas, how they write their songs. And this is where my car probably swerved into the next lane rather unexpectedly as I let go of the wheel and pumped my fists while shouting “Yes!”
They said they write while on the bus (or in the bath, can’t always understand those Brit accents) and while driving.
Yes! Yes! Yes! Exoneration, justification and cred all in one.
Just when I was feeling like my usual dorky self, my Midwestern, semi-weird, mom self, I realized I have something in common with British punk rockers.
Who the hell knew?