Dying in Bliss

Alas Air France 447. It’s looking like we’ll never get to know what happened. What with the whole black-box-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean thing.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a plane-crash, well, “obsession” is probably a fair word. I find that a big part of this is the wanting to know what happened. I can’t help but envision those final moments. What was it like for the passengers? Were they sleeping when the plane hit the ocean? Had they already vaporized before that?

However, I’m finding that knowing doesn’t provide full satisfaction either. In fact, knowing too much can be a real detriment to enjoying life. I work on tap water — I know what I’m talking about here. Sometimes the illusion of safety is what gets you on the plane in the first place, and in the 211th place also. Which is why I’m kind of sorry that I read the cockpit recorder transcript from Colgan Flight 3407. You know the one, the turboprop plane that iced up and fell from the sky like a big rock onto someone’s house in Buffalo, NY.

The kind of plane I fly on all the time between Denver and Laramie, through blizzards, etc.

You trust in your pilots. You have to. And you make certain assumptions in that trust: that they’re not exhausted, that they’re well trained, that they know what they’re doing.

You can read the whole transcript of course. I confess I skimmed. The interesting part is at the end, of course.

Which is also the really scary part. For example:

“I’ve never seen deicing conditions. I’ve never deiced. I’ve never seen any–I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know, I’d’ve freaked out. I’d’ve like seen this much ice and thought oh my gosh we were going to crash.”

That was from the young co-pilot who was only making $16K and had to still live with her parents, commuting from Seattle.

The pilot has asked her to see if there’s ice on her side of the plane, too. He talks about being a Florida guy, how all his flying hours are around the Phoenix area, how he’d like more flying time in the Northeast before he upgrades to a bigger plane. He does the wrong thing when the plane stalls.

One of the worst parts is the top of page 55, where they reel of the standard spiel about cell phones, seat backs and tray tables. Meanwhile the pilots are saying to each other “son of a gun, look at all that ice — wonder why we’re not crashing?”

Not that any of the passengers could have done anything. Except trust that their pilots have the knowledge to take care of everyone on the plane.

Sometimes knowledge is power. No matter unblissful it might be to know.

Lilacs for Terry

This time last year, I ordered flowers for David’s Cousin Terry.

I remember it because I called the florist in Seattle and asked if she could do lilacs. The shop was next to the big medical center performing Terry’s latest MOAS. (Mother of All Surgeries, as Terry’s sister dubbed them — a good name since the surgeries were too complex for a simple word like “bypass” or “extraction.” They seemed involve opening Terry up and scraping cancer off every surface they could reach and clipping pieces off of whatever organs were too far gone to clean.) So the florist was helpful, had a listing of patients, but wasn’t sure if she could find lilacs or not.

When she asked me what the card should say, I answered that I’d like it to say “The lilacs are blooming here — come home soon.”

She paused a moment. “I’ll find some lilacs,” she promised me.

I don’t know if she did or not. You don’t expect a thank-you note from someone who’s had her third MOAS. And by Thanksgiving, Terry was gone.

The funeral was Catholic and obnoxious, with the priest talking about how joyful Terry would be to be rejoined with her maker. How all the pain she suffered was for a reason. I wanted to stand up and shout that, no, there was nothing joyful about this. That she died far too young and in conditions no one should have to go through and that her death was a waste of a vivacious and beautiful woman.

But I bowed my head and pretended to pray.

Life Lessons

I bought more flowers yesterday. It’s that time of year. When all the potted plants go outside and get supplemented with fresh annuals.

So, there I am, browsing through the Kmart offerings, since I’m all about the inexpensive and temporary this summer. Transient me. They have those tall, many-shelved carts, that they wheel out to the sidewalk on sunny days. One row against the brick building, one at the edge of the walk, creating an aisle between. (Tip: dig deep to the back for the impatiens that haven’t gotten sunburnt.)

This young mother and her little girl walk by. The girl is two or three, wearing a cute denim sundress. Mom has her hands full of petunia six packs. It’s a gorgeous day.

“I think I’ll just take this off,” announces the little girl.

I glance down and she is already slipping the buckles on her straps and shucking her dress to her ankles.

“No!” Mom yelps, shoving her flowers onto the nearest open ledge. She’s down on her knees, pulling the dress back up. “We can’t just run around in our panties! It’s indecent exposure.”

I laugh at this and the mother rolls her eyes at me.

We wonder how we learn things.

Let the Sun Shine In

I must have spring fever.

Or summer fever, since today is the last day of May and it’s finally summer in Laramie. Characteristically having skipped spring altogether.

We turned the heat off yesterday and took off the storm windows to replace them with screens, in preparation for our open house. A steady stream of people came through, our agent reported, while we were off hiking. It feels like the switch has turned on and we’ll get an offer soon. Apparently we very nearly had an offer before, but the woman decided against our house because she was afraid her grandchildren would drown themselves in the back yard fish pond. What? Oh, two feet deep. Yeah.

But my mind is quiet today.

I know, not like me. But it’s better than I was last week, when I posted on Facebook that I was “of two minds. Or three. Or four or more. Like a tree in which there is a flock of grackles.” Now the chirping and fluttering has diminished. Robins are singing in the happy warmth. A juvenile hawk whistles nearby. I feel good about my plans to revise Obsidian.

Apparently a storm hit Vedauwoo right after we were hiking up there: three to five inches of hail. But for us, the sun shone.

At Julianne’s birthday party last night, her photographer husband told me he’d hear our radio debate about the voice in my book. I asked what his vote was. He says he creates for the joy of it. If people like it fine, if not fine. He doesn’t worry about it. I’m not worried either.

But I do know what I want.

Selling Out

I’m not sure if I believe such a thing as “selling out” exists, even as I’m thinking of doing it.

Alas, the irony.

Over the past few years, I’ve desultorily pursued the history of the term. I wrote to The Word Detective about it. (He didn’t answer.) The Wikipedia article on the topic is tagged with warnings that its neutrality and factual accuracy are disputed.

The trouble with the concept of selling out is that it requires that you accept certain assumptions. If selling out is compromising artistic integrity for commercial gain, then you have to accept that there is such a thing as artistic integrity. And that making money automatically compromises it.

I had a great conversation last night, both on air and off, with two writers, Julianne Couch and Paul Bergstraesser. We were doing the final show of Speaking of Writing on our little community radio station. Julianne has been keeping the show going for five years now and I’ve been a co-host most of that time. Paul is a recent addition to the UW English Dept faculty and has been co-hosting also.

Julianne asked me to share my recent agent rejection. I thought it would be boring to read on air, but Paul — who I was meeting in person for the first time — jumped in and said I should, that “this is in the trenches stuff!”

I’ll just share this bit from the agent with you here:

I finally had the chance, over the long weekend, to give this manuscript my full undivided attention and see it through. You are such a terrific, vivid story-teller, and I really was absorbed by this fantastical world and intrigued by its bizarre rules and culture. However, though I could gush and say many wonderful things about this novel (and indeed I wouldn’t have kept reading at any point if I hadn’t been truly enjoying it) I want to say upfront that I don’t think it’s for me. I think that you are two kinds of writer in this prose. There is the Jeffe the Writer who is highly literary and has a beautiful, sometimes surprising turn of phrase that catches the reader off-guard, and there is the Jeffe the Writer who is more informal and intimate with the reader, with the classic approachable style that makes for great commercial fiction. I see both of these writers inside you, but they conflict pretty often on the page in this novel. You are clearly both versatile and professional, with a wide range and diverse capabilities, but I think that there’s an uneven quality to this prose that was disconcerting and sometimes distracting for me, as if you would have been better off sticking to one style or the other.

She went on to give me very specific plot critique, but this is the part that broke my heart. And caused my mini-crisis of this week. Plot stuff is an easy fix. My writing style though — should I consider altering the way I wrote this book to make it more commercial?

Paul stared at me like I was an idiot. “Of course!” he says.

After the show we retired to Bud’s Bar, official watering hole of Speaking of Writing, where they pour Jamesons with a very free hand. We wished that conversation had been recorded, too. We talked about whether there’s such a thing as selling out, as artistic integrity. We all agreed that making our living as writers is the brass ring — everything else is gravy. As Paul pointed out to me in a most pragmatic way, it’s still me writing it and, as authors, we often change our style depending on the audience, whether for a magazine article or an anthology. Then he asked what kind of fool was I to bypass an opportunity like this. Fix this to have a commercial style and I can write all the lyrical stuff I want.

Maybe it was the four fingers of neat Jamesons, but it felt like an epiphany.

So, I’m going to try it. The big question now is whether I can do it. I might have to look for a good critique partner(s) who can help me untangle the two voices from each other.

Anyone out there interested? I’m willing to trade anything but sexual favors. Even if you ply me with Jamesons.

Wisteria Hysteria

This morning, I finished putting out the plants.

Another annual ritual completed. A labor-intensive one. We have this sunroom, one of the things I love most about this house, where I overwinter all sorts of potted plants. Once I feel more or less confident that the spring snows are over, I begin shifting the plants out to the patio, gradually hardening them off.

For those who aren’t experienced with this, indoor plants transpire more moisture through their leaves, because it’s a moister, more contained environment. When you move a plant outdoors, especially in our arid climate with the intense mountain sun, you have to do it gradually, to allow the plant to acclimatize. The leaves get waxier in some cases, and the transpiration pores shrink. Depending on the plant, they also develop a bit of “sunscreen.” Putting an indoor plant outdoors and leaving it there is akin to sticking a Wyoming person on the beach in Florida for the day. Not pretty.

So the first day, you put the plant out for an hour or so and bring it back in. Becauase I have way too many plants, on this schedule, by the time I got them all out, it was just about time to bring them back in again. The second day they can stay out for three to four hours. The third day, yesterday, they stayed out all day and came in at night.

Finally this morning I set them out in the permanent summer spots. No more dragging back and forth. There they’ll stay, unless we get a freak snow storm, which hopefully I’ll know about before it hits.

It doesn’t escape me that this is another last, the last time I’ll perform this ritual in this house. With our move in mid- to late August, the plants will all be still in their places. On my list: find out if I can bring plants into Canada. It sounds silly — maybe not worrying about whether a carpet is happy silly — but some of these plants I’ve had for twenty years. The bougainvillea that David and I bought in the first apartment we shared, back in 1991. There’s my hibiscus, inherited from Val when she moved to Seattle, grown from her grandmother’s plant in Casper more than twenty years ago. I really want to take the orchid David gave me for Valentine’s in ’95 — I’d love to give it a climate where it might do more than subsist.

Perhaps I’ll have a big plant sale. Maybe I’ll just give them all away to good homes and start new.

I won’t have this ritual in Victoria, I think. Freezes there are less rare. I don’t know if people leave plants out all year and only bring them in when there’s threat of frost. Something I’ll learn.

I do know this: the first thing I’m going to do is plant wisteria. Always wanted wisteria.

Not Meant to Be

When I started this blog, I made myself a deal that I could blog about whatever was on my mind at that moment.

This was mainly intended to cut myself some slack and relieve some of the pressure that I imagined posting every day would create. After all, I have rules about my other writing: how much I need to write every day, what I can work on. All designed to keep me focused and moving forward. For the blog, while I keep a list of ideas for those days when my mind is blank, I thought it would be easier just to “let” myself write about whatever struck my fancy.

It’s become a very different exercise over time. Several times, I’ve hesitated to write what was on my mind, because I thought it might annoy people or because it felt too intimate to throw out there. At those times, I reminded myself of my rule, which now had a double edge. Not only could I write whatever was on my mind, I should. It’s been interesting, because those things I most hesitated to throw out there are the ones that people have commented on most. And usually not in a mean way.

My friend commented that this is like public journalling. And while I bridle at that idea, I think she has a point. Perhaps all personal essays are a form of public journalling. While I don’t regard myself as an especially confessional person, it is important to me to explore life through writing. My head is the only one I get to be inside, so I am my own experimental subject. Subject A. All of my observations are terribly subjective and I have an “n” of one.


A couple of readers have commented that lately I “sound” weary or stressed. My first reaction was to clean that up. Some of it is vanity, I suppose, wanting to present a good front. I also want this to be interesting and I suspect my angst isn’t all that fascinating.

But I go back to the rule. Life isn’t always about the perkitude.

Last night my dream prom date rejected me. I got The Email, which is the antipode of The Call. If it’s true that the agents call only if they’re interested, then it’s equally true that, once they have your full manuscript and are deciding whether to represent you, they only email if it’s a no.

It’s a long an detailed email, full of really useful feedback and some less so. This is one of the hardest parts of the writing business, deciding which criticisms to take and when to stick to your own belief in what you’re trying to do. It’s easy to be too stubborn, to refuse to change in the face of good advice. You also run the risk of trying to be everything to everyone, following everyone else’s direction until what you’ve written is, at best, no longer your own, and at worst, a muddled mess of nothing.

The wonderful author Cynthia Eden (who has a new book coming out that she’s giving away, so I’m giving her a shameless plug here) gave me some good advice. She said she uses the rule of three: that if she gets the same criticism three times from different sources, she takes a hard look at it. This is maybe simple advice, but it comes at a good time for me.

I still have my other potential prom date, so we’ll see how that goes. We’ll see what her criticisms are, as she did indicate she had things for me to fix. Which is fine, if they’ll really improve the book and if her plan is a good one.

The worst thing about not getting invited to the prom, is the fear that you’ll never get to go. Which is, of course, a complete loss of perspective. There are other proms, other dances. Hell, you can put on a pretty dress and dance in your living room. Just because you thought something was coming together in a seredipitous way, that it might be meant to be, doesn’t mean it is.

My friend, the writer Julianne Couch, says she doesn’t believe in “meant to be.” In the same breath she worried about a piece of carpet being unhappy, since it was uselessly stored in her garage. “You don’t believe in fate, but you believe in the sentience of inanimate objects?” I asked her. She blinked at me and said “Yes, I just don’t believe in the big animate carpet in the sky directing our lives.”

I don’t either. Carpet is carpet. I think it’s fair to say it’s “happiest” when its doing a carpet job. I write for much that same reason. And I’m reliably informed by writers who write for a living that I’m lucky that my salary is not connected to what I write; I have a freedom they don’t have.

Today, Subject A will revisit her goals as a writer. Interesting that my heroine is always seeking to answer the same question: what do I really want?

So many things.

Another Tuesday

Much is made, in the writing world, of The Call.

This is supposed to be the definitive moment, when the agent or editor calls you and says they want to represent you or publish your book. This is the moment of triumph, the realization of all the hard work.

Only it’s not.

Maybe this is just a life thing. People seem to ask for the bests. The best day. The most precious memory. The most amazing year of your life. I’m often struck by the lack of, well, imagination in people’s answers. My wedding day, they’ll say. Or the day my child was born. I find myself wondering if, like favorite books, this answer isn’t dressed up for public consumption. My answer to best day of my life is much like my answer to my favorite book: it depends. Different moments stand out for different reasons. The feel of warm ocean water, a particular kiss, the way the light falls on the leaves.

And, maybe this is just me, but I’m not sure I believe in the triumphal single moment.

Maybe because our life-movies never end there, with the battle won, the cheering crowds, the trophy clenched in hand while tears run down the cheeks. While those scenes fade to black, perhaps followed with a bit of text explaining what that person went on to do, or how many happy years they went on to live, our own lives continue on, much the same as before.

An agent called me this morning. On another blog, that might be the title. Followed by various forms of “Squee!” It was a rushed call: she didn’t necessarily offer me representation, I didn’t get to ask my questions. She wants to send me notes on my novel. I’m not sure of her plan, but I’m willing to look at what she sends.

Maybe because she’s not THE agent. My prom date analogy thus continues. You don’t want to turn down a date to prom, but you don’t want to go with a guy you don’t like, either. Especially when he hasn’t really asked yet, when he’s hinted he might have to see my dress first. So this doesn’t feel triumphal at all. However, I learned the lesson early on that pining for that one boy to notice you leads to a lot of lonely nights at home.

Agents always give the advice that you should carefully research first. That a bad agent is worse than no agent. Pick the one you like, they say, one you’re sure you’ll love to work with. They never seem to comprehend that, once you pick your perfect agent, if they decline, your life still continues. That most of us are working our way down the list. This is a no-brainer. This is how life works. No one applies only to Harvard.

A writer-friend of mine commented on Facebook that she found out her book made the NYT Bestseller List, and then her cat puked and she had to clean it up. I’ve gotten calls before — great ones about publishing my book or offering me jobs or promotions, saying I’ve won fellowships. There are greater and lesser glows to them all. None of them were the best moments of my life so far. And cleaning up hairballs aren’t the worst either.

Sometimes it gets wearing, that one day seems much like the next. Another Memorial Weekend; another week of work. Our lives move in a relentless stream, neither uphill nor down. Maybe the point isn’t to seek those highs, the moments of brilliant perfection. Maybe we should be looking for the pleasure in the daily flow, the joy in both a phone call and in caring for the cats.

In Memoriam, Ad Infinitum

It seems like most of the pundits like to spend a moment on Memorial Day talking about returning meaning to the day.

Actually, it seems like EVERY holiday there has to be someone talking about returning meaning to the day. As if there’s something wrong with enjoying a day off and spending it in hedonistic ways.

I’m thinking this is an American thing. Since I’m so international now. But last Monday was Victoria Day in, well, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (I have to specify this now because you WOULD NOT believe how many people hear “Columbia” and right away think of South America.) However, if you’re thinking that Victoria Day is to Victoria what Bailey Days is to Bailey, Colorado, you’re not thinking British enough. They’re celebrating the queen. Which seems to involve having a parade and hanging out. There were no articles in the paper musing over the true meaning of the day, or asking people to devote thought at an arranged time:

As Memorial Day approaches, it is time to pause and consider the true meaning of this holiday. Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values. While we should honor these heroes every day for the profound contribution they have made to securing our Nation’s freedom, we should honor them especially on Memorial Day.

That was from an end-of-days executive order from President Clinton. It’s a patriotic thing. Everyone agrees that it’s wonderful to salute and revere our soldiers. Everyone can feel good about saying nice words, giving a toast, devoting a thought. On this one day. Well besides Veterans Day. And Independance Day. And Flag Day. Actually, there are fully seven military holidays.

Memorial Day means nothing to me. My dad was a US Air Force fighter pilot who died in the line of duty when I was three years old. I went through a brief spell when I was a teenager, when I was swept up in the holiday. I suggested to my mom that we drive down to the cemetary at the academy in Colorado Springs to decorate his grave on Memorial Day.

“Why?” she asked me. “Do you think he’s there?”

No. No, I didn’t. She said we could go, but that she didn’t think he was there either, amidst those rows of stark white identical stones. It wouldn’t be for him that we were going. It’s something to think about, how much the dead care about their graves and what the living do with them. Restoring the “meaning” of a holiday like Memorial Day is generating a particular show for the living.

It’s interesting to me that Memorial Day is the modern version of Decoration Day, which was the day that graves were decorated. Official versions of this day were acknowledged by various states following the Civil War. Unofficially, this puts me in mind of rituals like the Day of the Dead. These are less patriotic and sanitized and speak more towards the pagan connection to visitations from the dead. The Day of the Dead is ascribed to Mexican and Latino practices, but this kind of ritual has been prevalent for ages in the Celtic and Roman cultures also. For example:

On Palm Sunday, in several villages in South Wales, a custom prevails of cleaning the grave-stones of departed friends and acquaintances, andornamenting them with flowers, &c. On the Saturday preceding, a troop ofservant girls go to the churchyard with pails and brushes, to renovatethe various mementos of affection, clean the letters, and take awaythe weeds. The next morning their young mistresses attend,with thegracefulness of innocence in their countenances, and the roses of healthand beauty blooming on their cheeks. According to their fancy, and according to the state of the season, they place on the stonessnow-drops, crocuses, lilies of the valley, and roses.

Nothing about the military dead there.

I don’t mind so much the effort to restore meaning. What I mind is the modification of meaning to serve political ends. So, if you pause today, at the recommended time or no, to reflect upon the meaning of this day, make it your own.

Overdoing It

We are tired.

Both of us just tanked yesterday.

We tried for another bike ride, this time on beach road around the point, up through the beautiful homes in Oak Bay, none of which our agent showed us because, well, $1 million wasn’t really in our price range, with intention of tooling around U. Vic. and checking it out.

I wrote in the morning, David read. We went to an early lunch and met with our realtor to sign the final papers and headed for our ride, hoping our stiff and creaky muscles would loosen up.

They did, but somewhere around the Victoria golf course, we realized we had nothing left. I found us a reasonably direct route back to town (thanks to Debra’s terrific real estate maps!) and we turned in the bikes. Then vegged. Ordered food in.

This morning, I still feel wrung out.
A year ago, almost exactly, we were here checking out schools; we rented bikes and rode over to Langford. That was only about 10 miles round trip, compared to the 17 miles we biked up to Sidney on Thursday. I barely made it. So, it was nice to be in good enough condition to do this — a year of working out paid off and I’m finally in decent physical condition again. I felt good when we got back from the ride.
But yesterday… yesterday I was tired.
It’s not just the ride either. Somehow this whole effort still feels huge. Committing to the house here; waiting to sell our beloved Laramie house. Planning out things like how to transfer money and whether USAA will give us homeowners insurance here. The Canadians won’t gurantee that when we show up with our animal family and the moving van full of stuff that they’ll let us in. This is apparently the official posture. No certainty unless you’re a citizen.
Sometimes it all feels daunting.
I’ve moved before. And to places where I knew no one. I want to be here; I love our new house. Why does it feel like such a major effort?
I even feel a little weepy.
However, The Bay store over past the harbour is having a major designer shoe sale. And the sun is bright and warm. I’m talking to the agent Tuesday morning.
Maybe I’ll have some ice cream, too.