Monday, August 20, 2018

This year, my family went on a repeat vacation. Now, I think a lot of families go to the same beloved  location each year as a matter of course. We've never visited the same place twice before. This year, we returned to upstate New York. We got a picture of my daughter by the same stalactite in Howe's Cavern that we did when she was four. My son refused to recreate the picture of himself hugging Taughannock Falls. I wanted to recreate the picture of my daughter falling asleep on my husband's shoulders, but he refused to let her climb up on there, and I have to admit, the whole exercise probably would have injured them both.

Moms generally end up carrying everybody's stuff. Historically, we have carried a bulky purse or a diaper bag, so it's a no-brainer. I don't carry a purse on vacation. When the kids were small, I carried them for large chunks of every day. After all, if you plan to sightsee for miles every day, the wee ones will need a little help. Or a lot of help. I think of it as an exercise regimen, and it was a point of pride with me that I could carry them as long as they needed. By my son's twelfth birthday, I called a halt to it.  He weighed almost as much as I did by that time, and he had the physical wherewithal to keep up on his own.

Oh, nostalgia, you pernicious beast! At Fort Ticonderoga, my boy waxed melodramatic. His feet were tired. Wouldn't I carry him? He didn't expect I would. Or did he? So far, he had refused to recreate a single moment. Did he know I wouldn't be able to resist picking him up like I had done so many times before? Did he understand I would rise to the challenge?

And so, I crouched and held my hands out to grab his legs. He hesitated a little, but then he climbed onto my back like a possum (or a moose, but they don't carry their young that way) and I walked half a dozen steps before he started to sag and I feared we'd tip over backward. When I tried to put him down, he didn't let go, and we had a screaming moment--I screamed, he laughed--before he relented and let his feet down.

Immediately after, the little one had to be carried, too. She has to do everything he does, and she's still smaller than me, so I carried her quite a ways.

I have a 16-year old and an 18-year old. I can still pick them up and carry them around, and since it's a joke, it's okay. They're my babies. I don't ever want to let them go, and I consider it a blessing that they don't want to leave me. Someday, though, they'll go. I can't carry them forever, and though I'm sure they'll check in if they need something, they'll develop separate lives. It's the way things are supposed to be.

How many more family vacations will happen with the four of us? I'll carry on as long as I can.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A lot of writers say it's important to arrange a schedule and keep to it. Whether you write at the same time of day, commit to a certain number of words a day, or just grab ten minutes whenever you can--writing becomes a daily commitment. Habitual behaviors keep us well practiced in any field. I keep a schedule for myself that includes at least a couple of hours each weekday morning.

Life gets busier every year, it seems. Afternoons and evenings pile full of activities and commitments. I have two teenage children, three dogs, and an inability to choose between writing and music. Therefore, music gets the evening and writing gets the morning.

Problem: the Plot Sisters (my writing group) meet in the evening on the same night as I sometimes sub for a regional orchestra. This year, I have missed more than two straight months of Plot Sisters meetings. I haven't written much of anything. Sure, I keep up with their manuscripts, sending comments digitally in time for meetings I can't attend. During my writing mornings, I shuffle words around on my manuscript and make no progress.

I've been reading books, watching movies--even viewing Breaking Bad in its entirety because so many writers recommended it. These things distract, rather than inspire me. I have nothing to say. My manuscripts bore me, which is distressing. If I'm not interested, why would anyone else be?

With a little schedule tweaking, I make it back to the Plot Sisters. I'll have to skip one rehearsal a month in two different musical groups, but it's more than worth it. I've met with these women for five years now, and our relationship is important. At my computer, I write very little. Maybe it's a slump. I begin to wonder if I have the determination needed to continue.

Then, my turn comes. I have to share something. I scrape up a chapter here, a chapter there. They hang together somewhat. I felt inspired when I wrote them, but that feeling faded months ago.

We meet. They critique. Positive comments come in a generous and honest spirit. But the magic happens when they tell me what they don't understand, what doesn't work. They even tell me I've spent a whole chapter in a character's head and no action happens.

The light snaps on. Brilliant, lively, captivating. I know now what to do. I can fix all these problems. I feel glee--I've never spent a whole chapter in a character's head. If I could jump up and click my heels together, I would do it. This is progress!

And so, with thanks to my Plot Sisters, I have found inspiration again.

This post is a reminder: The screen gives us nothing. The schedule has no soul. We need our people.

P.S. Thanks to all five of you. I wouldn't have made it this far alone.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

My first go at writing with an outline

It usually takes me several years to finish a first draft. When I get caught in the middle, I change the beginning again and again, until the beginning is a whole new story. Then I tackle the middle. Don't even talk to me about the climax. Don't even think about talking to me about the end.

I recently finished a manuscript. Then I went through and changed some stuff. I removed some scenes, changed the order of some others. I already removed a bunch of characters while I was wrestling with the beginning. I've thrown out more setting and plot ideas than even exist in the book.

Instead of starting over with an idea and muddling through, like I always do, I decided to try something new. My finished manuscript is a fantasy. Fantasies always run in packs. I need a sequel. But I can't write it the way I usually do. The world is mostly built. The characters are set. I can't change them. I can't just wade in and see what happens.

And so, I try my hand at writing an outline. Now, I've heard a lot of people write outlines chapter by chapter. I'm not nearly that organized. I write notes about character development. I meander along, dragging paragraphs down the page. How will these characters react to this? What will the villain be doing about that? Where should the manuscript start? Whose should be the first voice to speak? Do I need new voices?

I'm telling you, I'll have to edit the outline for a month before it's an outline.

But I am more focused. I know what each character has to do. I know what the climax will be (wow!). I've even found a plot for the next book. But I still don't know where to start. I'm blogging about it, did you notice? Instead of writing the manuscript, I'm blogging about it.

Time to stop consulting my notes. Time to stop blogging. Time to write. In another several years, I'll let you know what I've come up with.

My Dachshund Friday

At first, I decided not to run with Levi. He only weighs 8 pounds. He's afraid of everything. His feet are tender and I'm pretty sure his vision is terrible. But it's not fair that the other guys got to try. I sneak Levi out of the house and get his leash on. His tail whips the air, but he keeps quieter than Theodore ever could. I don't understand how two dogs of the same breed can be so different.

Levi empties his bowels in the neighbor's yard. I'm thinking it's panic, but I'm still grateful he got it out of the way early enough for me to leave the bag at home. Levi runs alongside me, but he drags almost immediately. His ears are pinned behind his head like they always are when he's scared.

"Don't worry," I tell him. "I'll keep you safe."

He doesn't believe me. The ears stay back.

I wish he trusted me, but I can't really blame him for feeling insecure. Levi would never see danger coming. He won't recognize familiar people coming until they're standing right in front of him. Even then, it may be the sound of voices that clues him in. Levi jumps when leaves blow past and other dogs put him into a tailspin. He almost runs in front of a car when he sees a mailbox on the corner. Who knows what the mailbox wanted to do to him?

It's easy to be patient with him, though. After all, I never expected he'd be able to do this. At home, sometimes his toenails break off and he leaves bloody paw prints on the floor. Running four miles could wreak havoc with his manicure. I might have to carry him home.

But, slow as he is, scared as he is, Levi keeps running. We turn the corner and head south. The road stretches out in front of us, wide open. On this stretch, there's no sidewalk, so we have to get into the street. Levi picks up speed. His ears relax. He runs into the middle of the lane. I can't believe it. I wonder if he sees the space and realizes nothing will jump out at him like it could in the more enclosed space of the sidewalk--or does he realize we're headed for home and he's running to safety as fast as he can? Either way, this is a much nicer pace.

Levi's doing so well, I don't even cut our loop short. We run the whole route and Levi doesn't show any signs of flagging. Finally, I slow to a walk. "Good boy! You did such a good job."

He ignores me. No tail wagging. No adoring look as he walks with me. Levi's normally affectionate, so I don't understand the cold shoulder. At home, I get the adoring look. He tries to lick my nose and then heads off to play with the others. I realize, with wonder, that this was the smoothest run yet. Go figure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Running with a Mini-Dachshund

Theodore has a fuse as short as his dachshund legs. When he runs, he doesn't mess around. If I didn't have a leash on him, he'd take off down the sidewalk like a rocket, his sharp nose hissing as it cut the air. But he does wear a leash, so instead, I hear his even breath as his body curls and uncurls with each surging step. Even with the mass of my body holding us back, he cuts nearly a minute off my time in the first mile.

I keep the leash taut and follow him. I can't keep up, but I don't want to gag him, either. Theodore won't keep up the pace much longer than a mile. Every time he sees a dog, he speeds up. Life, for him, is a race he has to win. Sure, his legs are short, but man, does he have a spine.

I would like to have a running companion, rather than a competitor. Before we're done, he'll tire and I'll have to walk with him. If he'd just slow down a little at the start, he'd have the stamina to finish strong. But I can't convince Theodore of that.

We speed up to pass an old Lab who's just out for a tinkle. As we turn the corner the road stretches out ahead of us without a dog in sight. Theodore slows down. I slow with him, not quite to walking. The zipper on my ankle passes Theodore's red collar and he's off again. He darts forward until his tail waves at me.

I don't speed up. No need to push him. We run for a while. He falls in step with me until I pass the red boundary, at which point he always runs ahead. Occasionally, he glances back at me and I wonder what the looks mean. I'd like to think he's saying, "Thanks for bringing me. This is fun!" But I suspect his look means, "Is that all you have, human?"

A car passes us and Theodore tries to keep up with it until it turns the corner at the end of the block. Almost immediately, he sees a squirrel and puts on a furious burst of speed. The squirrel climbs a tree. Theodore looks for it, but can't figure where it went. We continue on our way. He seems calm. I'm a little embarrassed to be seen with him if he doesn't know squirrels can climb. But I should be glad. I'm not sure what I would do if Theodore decided to chase a squirrel up a tree.

In a few blocks, Theodore stops running. I'm happy with it. He's run nearly three miles. Pretty good for a jogging newbie. I tell him what a good job he's done. Instead of turning toward home, I figure we can walk the rest of the route. In a block or two, though, he starts to run again. Not a dog or squirrel in sight. No cars passing. He just decides to run, so I follow. After all, I do this run three times a week.

Our pace is slow. The leash is never taut, so I keep the end bundled in my hand. I don't want him to trip on it. My pant leg passes his collar. Five steps, six, he lets me keep the position. Then he pulls in front of me. I let him pass, but don't slow down. He does slow down, though. My shin brushes the tip of his tail and he goes off like I lit his fuse. Run, run, run. But he's tired now. He doesn't keep up the pace.

We turn toward home. I stay behind the line of his collar. At our street, I pull him to a walk. "Let's cool down."

He walks ahead of me with his head high and a bounce in his step. The meaning is clear. "You stopped running. I win."

We cross into our own yard. Theodore slows down so his collar is even with the zipper at my ankle. We walk side by side down the driveway.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Running In the Street with a Dog

I've been running with a friend three times a week for more than a decade, but our schedules don't allow for it anymore. My three dogs take turns playing surrogate, so I won't have to run alone. This blog post sets down for posterity our progress. First up: Ollie, the Monday partner.

On the sidewalk, Ollie poops approximately three blocks from my home, too far away from my own garbage cans to deposit the poop right at the beginning. So, I run with the poopy bag swinging from my wrist, wafting odor like incense at a religious parade.

My passion is running. Ollie's passion is smelling pee. I don't even notice the spots other dogs have left behind, so it always surprises me when he darts across the front of my running feet to sniff a fencepost, and then back the other way to press his nose against a tree. I could think of it as low hurdles, or even an uneven game of jump rope, but I don't. I think he's trying to kill me.

My human buddy never once did this. The closest she came was to occasionally bump my elbow with her own. So, Ollie and I run in the street, where there are no fence posts or trees. Ollie doesn't sniff anything. He runs behind me in a dejected manner, but we're both a lot safer.

I get that most drivers don't like runners in the street. I get it. They don't want to hit me with their car. I don't want them to hit me with their car, either. But, seriously, I trust them not to dart across the lane a lot more than I trust Ollie.

Ollie drags to such a slow rate that I stop running and walk alongside him. He's almost twelve now, so he might not have the stamina to run for long. Ollie notices I've stopped and slows down even more. He can't be that tired. In a few minutes, I take off running again and he speeds up alongside me. Still, he keeps the leash taut as he hangs back.

I plod along, hoping he'll get in better shape if we keep doing this. Halfway home, another dog walks past on the sidewalk. Like a much younger dog, Ollie slips out of his collar and runs to play. Well, that won't fly. I slip him back into his collar. "Don't try to tell my you're too tired to run. Come on."

I'm not sure Ollie is smart enough to fake fatigue. If he was faking, I'm pretty sure he doesn't realize he's been busted. He creeps alongside me, and I wonder what, if anything, is going on in his mind. He's not much of a conversationalist.

Then I notice the poopy bag is no longer swinging. Not that I notice it's holding still. I notice it's gone. Somewhere on our four-mile run, I've lost it. A truly stellar person would go back looking for it, but I don't. Ollie is pretending to be short on energy and I'm short on patience. Hopefully, I'll find it Wednesday.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Walking in the Dark

When I go camping with my family, my husband always carries a flashlight to the bathhouse at night. I never do. Usually, there are enough electric lights that you can see where you're headed even if you can't see what's under your feet. My daughter and I walk together, eyeing the dim, buzzing light ahead. We feel our steps. There is anticipation during the journey, a sense of fulfillment when we creak open the bathhouse door.

I learned young the beauty of walking in the darkness. In my childhood, campgrounds in State Parks rarely had more than a few electric lights. My parents shunned amenities, partly on principal, and partly due to the expense. Our little pop-up camper stood in the darkness. My father ran a cord attached to a lightbulb around  the metal arm that supported the canvas over his bed. He clipped a lampshade to the dangling bulb and stayed up late reading while moths danced around the light.

Later, when he went to sleep, the camper sat silent, dark, and mysterious while the insects played muzak in the background. I woke and took a trip to the bathhouse to use the bathroom. The click of the camper door seemed magnified in the night, though I closed it as quietly as I could. In a campground, everything seems loud in the dark and you have to take care not to disturb the neighbors.

When I looked up, I saw no stars, only blackness. Thick trees blotted out the sky. I could hear the wind in their leaves, but I couldn't see them, either. I held my hand in front of my face and saw nothing. I believed the trees were there, but my own body felt unreal. I had no body to see. I was the darkness. Absence of flesh met absence of light. I could reach out and hold the dark in my disembodied hands.

With each step, I felt the ground and the air. I held my formless hands out so they could taste the darkness like a reptile scented the air. When my feet crunched pine needles and sank in the soft earth, I knew I had left the path. I felt thick-veined roots under my feet and knew I had found it again. Each step was magic.

Then I saw the dim blue light on the bath house. When I could see my destination, the spell was broken. I followed my eyes.

The world is brighter these days. Even in the wilderness, it is hard to find true darkness. Intuitively, my daughter yearns to feel the magic. She walks sometimes with her eyes closed. She asks me to keep her from walking into anything and I wonder how she feels. With me beside her, she can hear my steps, feel the nearness of my form. It's not the same as being alone with the darkness.

And I wonder, what was it that I found in the darkness? What mystery followed me? Could I give it a name and call it friend? That moment shines in my memory, but I was all alone and I didn't see a thing.