Category Archives: 500 Words

500 Words: But I Am Doing Something

GoodTimeGirlsoftheAlaska1614_fEvery reader goes through this.  We’re enjoying our book in a public space and someone walks up and starts a conversation because, clearly, we’re just waiting for them to talk to us.  Usually these people are someone we don’t know.

Reading while traveling can be an exercise fraught with invasion of privacy.  Some people don’t understand why I travel alone, and most really don’t recognize that I welcome the solitude.

I was a member of the local NHL team’s booster club, which was also on this trip, but I wasn’t traveling with them.  We were on a cruise ship in Alaska, and I would often encounter someone I knew.  When I’d traveled with them before, I would get comments about how sorry they were I was traveling alone.  Sometimes people would try to “adopt” me so I wouldn’t be alone.    It’s a completely foreign concept to them, this wanting to be alone.

One day I’d been sitting at a table in the pizza restaurant completely absorbed in Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush by Lael Morgan.  I hadn’t been paying much to my surroundings until this guy from the booster club saw me and sat down at my table while saying, “Oh you’re not doing anything.  I’ll sit here.”  Like he was the gift of companionship I’d been anxiously awaiting.

As an introvert, I don’t think well on my feet to begin with.  I could have said something like, “I am doing something, I’m reading.”  But no, I didn’t say a word.  I was also one of those women afraid to say anything for fear I’d be viewed as rude.  No one taught me that other people were often being rude to me and I could say something.

So, mouth agape, I looked up from my book.  Mind you, it is obvious that I’m reading, the book is wide open on the table and my head is inches from it as I read the salacious tales of the women making their living the only way they knew how during the Yukon Gold Rush.  It has always surprised me when people think reading constitutes “doing nothing.”

He didn’t ask if he could join me or what I was reading.  He just sat down and launched into talking.  After a few awkward minutes, my pizza was ready and he wandered off.

People, seriously.  If you see someone reading, and you do not know them, do not interrupt them.  Readers are perfectly happy being left to their reading.  Do not just walk up  and start talking because it’s rude.  Really rude.  If you do know them but they aren’t expecting you, ask before you sit down and start talking.

While most readers appear mild-mannered, some will resent the interruption and make you forget who your mama is.  It might be tempting to believe they’re really just waiting for someone to talk to.  Don’t give into the temptation that you are just the person to rescue them.  Trust me, you’re probably not.

500 Words: Butt-In-Chair

Butt-in-Chair MeansI got it.  The advice I’d been reading most of my life finally hit home.  Finally.  Sometimes I’m  really slow.

This is my work now.  Developing the discipline of meeting myself at the computer every day and creating.

If none of what I have been doing looking for a job has been working, and my heart longs to create, why not just spend my energy there?

I thought talent and creativity just came into being. Really.  My father was a musician with perfect pitch, yet I never saw him practice or sweat over a composition.  We only model what we see, and if creativity seems to come out of nowhere, how was I supposed to know it took practice?

I didn’t know it was a craft to be honed, and that the way to hone it was to create all the time. Instead of creating,  I would go back to not creating and worrying incessantly about how to pay the bills.  My dysthymia would become full-blown depression and I would lie in bed and cry.  (I still worry incessantly about bills.)

Then I read a book of essays by Anne Lamott about life.  I hit the part about “shitty first drafts.”  Seriously, that’s what this crazy writer up the freeway from me in Mill Valley called them, “shitty first drafts.”  Well, huh, I thought.

It began to sink in.  This advice I’d been reading most of my life began to hit home.  It was the very realization that I have to put my butt in the chair every day and do something.  Butt-in-chair does not mean  publishable every day, nor does it mean a strict word count or number of hours.  Why Anne Lamott was the one who got through is anyone’s guess.

What “shitty first draft” and butt-in-chair mean to me is, go to work.  Every day.  Go to work and create.  If it’s shitty, who cares?  I don’t even have to care.  The only care I should have is that my butt is in the chair and I am working.  Two hundred words a day, five hundred?  Doesn’t matter.  Hands on keyboard, butt in chair, go.

Thank you to all the mentors I’ve never met.  To Richard Kadrey who shared a picture of one of his outlines.  To Wil Wheaton who writes honestly about his own depression and anxiety, and who taught me the two best words to string together; “depression lies.”  To Anne Lamott who taught me about shitty first drafts and letting go.  To Annie Liebovitz who makes it look effortless but who said “I’m happy if I get one shot a year I really like,” while I was in the same room with her.  To Gordon Atkinson whose writing resonated with me while he was RLP and who was open about his own process.

It’s really called discipline, or work ethic, or something silly like that.  But to me, it’s shitty first drafts and butt-in-chair every day.  No lie, it’s that simple and that difficult.

500 Words: The Friend I Want to Be

Don – 2001

Meet my friend Don, who died too young from cancer at the age of 57 in 2014.  We were friends for over 30 years and I’ve never felt so helpless as  when he was dying.

Throughout our lives together Don challenged me to be better.  Whether  thinking  through a problem, or how to take a breath and not to take things so personally.  I learned by watching, and he changed me greatly.

Over the years he pulled me through scrapes with a patience and generosity that sometimes made me stand in awe.  We frustrated each other, laughed together and helped each other.

He’s the only friend I’ve had who would sit across the table from me and read while having a burger at our favorite place.  We both loved to read and we were that comfortable with each other.  It just seemed natural for this to be one of our shared activities.

One of his great loves was playing blues bass guitar.  When he joined a band, I became the band photographer because it was a way to practice my own craft.  As members came and went, I watched him guide and mentor many of them.

One was a singer with a great raw talent whose confidence would get shaken occasionally.  He would buy CDs of the great blues singers, including Candye Kane, and tell her, “This is what you need to learn to do.  This is how the greats sing.”  He taught her about the blues in general and sat with her while she learned new songs.  He treated many others with the same mentorship.

Ten years before he died, I moved into my own apartment. Often he would contact me to say, “If you’re not listening to/reading/watching xyz, you really should be.  I think you’d like it.”  He was almost always right.  Almost.

As maddening as he could be, Don taught patience, compassion, and a level of generosity far beyond what I already knew.  We often talked about what friends did for each other, especially when one was in crisis mode.  I would tell people that of course I was going to help Don, it’s what friends do.  There were things I would rather not have done for him (a certain pee bottle comes to mind), and I did them anyway because he needed me.

He reinforced the notion that true friends will do everything in their power for each other.  In learning to be the friend I wanted, belief in myself became stronger, and the friends I wanted to have began appearing.  I strove to be more kind, patient, compassionate, tolerant and generous.  I can’t imagine living my life any other way.  I’m not sure Don understood how instrumental he was in these lessons.

As his epitaph, Don’s father chose, “A gentle man.”  How perfect.   Don was indeed gentle, and he is missed.  I give thanks for all the things he taught me and strive to continue living the lessons I learned from him.

500 Words: Hey 19

1978

Hey 19, look at you with that luscious body!  Damn, if only you knew how beautiful you were.

I’m sorry you grew up in a household which didn’t teach you about loving yourself.  Which didn’t teach you about self-esteem and confidence.  For being surrounded by the constant talk about needing to go on a diet.  And for the doctors who told you to lose weight without talking about nutrition or healthy eating.  Who threatened to put you on diet pills if you didn’t lose weight.

I’m looking at you and wishing you had just known how wonderful you were.  How you didn’t have to let men touch you if you didn’t want them to, and how sex wasn’t affection.  I’m wishing you knew how powerful you were, how strong your body was.

This is the body which marched with the high school band in parades and half-time shows.  And danced at the discos in its polyester diva clothed glory.

I want you to know all messages you received about needing to diet were bullshit.  Look at you!  How I wish you could have seen your body the way it was, not the trumped up image of being fat which led to buying clothes which were almost always too big, and rarely flattering.  I wish you could have looked in the mirror and seen lovely, beautiful, awesome you; not the fat girl you thought no one loved.

You lived in a household where nobody valued you, and in a society hung up on beauty standards no one could reach.  That part hasn’t changed, but there are women now who push against the idea that we have to shape our bodies to meet expectations.

Feminism was just entering the national conversation.  But you, my awesome 19, were confused and unsettled, there was no way you could have known what any of that meant.  You weren’t allowed to say “no,” or think about what you might really want to do with your life.  You were expected to just go along, and so you did.

Healthy body image wasn’t really a thing then.  Your stupendous 155 pounds were deemed too many, and that was that.  So you yo-yo dieted, along with every other girl in America, believing that you were too fat to be worthy of anything good.

It’s 35 years later as I write this.  Sighing deeply when this picture filtered to the top, I wish I could take you aside and tell you how beautiful and worthy you were.  I wish you could know self-esteem and confidence, believing what you wanted was important and worth pursuing.  I wish I could have taught you how to believe in yourself and ignore the judgmental people around you.

Your parents’ divorce had nothing to do with you.  It really wasn’t your responsibility to provide emotional support for them.  I wish you could have known that.

I wish we could have talked about the importance of owning and wearing good bras.  And better looking glasses.