Sunday, April 16, 2017

Kids off the street

This is not a picture of my old
boss Frank's hand. It's a picture
of  writers getting their
"kids off the street."
My first serious boss, Frank, used to say, when he was getting ready to shake up management for some reason, "Okay, kids off the street." 

Maybe he meant it was time to get those hooligans back in line. But I prefer to think he was getting ready to duel in front of the executive management saloon. 

"Kids off the street. This is going to get serious."
I don't get enough opportunities to use that fantastic expression. I search for them. 
It's challenging for me to write some perspective pieces and not feel I'm oversharing. As much as I love to write "worked for me" or "what I learned" stories, I hate oversharing. However, I know that insight you want to share often comes from experience you'd rather forget. You have to find the "sweet spot" (a term that will be featured in next week's pet peeves post). 

It doesn't always mean discussing the underwear of your life (parents, kids, husband, friends or anyone who done you wrong), but what you do choose, you have to write in full if you don't want your followers to be only blog hackers in India and family members who have loved you since your teeth were too big for your face.  
I see some writers do this as easily as they breathe. Not me. Mwriting leans toward the anodyne, a word I'm pretty sure I also learned from Frank.

Still. As life shows you more about what really affects people, and as you gain confidence in your skills to write about it, you can grow tired of being so close to the vest. 
Write real, or stay home, right?

You want those kids off the street so you can duel it out with the person in the way, which is writer-you.
I faced this recently when I wrote about the empty-nest marriage, which, in my opinion, rivals new parenthood and retirement in terms of shared events that can affect two participants differently. The empty nest marriage, for better or worse, is not the one you started with.  
Ask me how I know. 
For twenty-five percent of couples, the empty-nest marriage doesn't even occur at all. The kids leave Mom and Dad and Mom and Dad leave each other.    
For the other seventy-five percent,  the empty-nest marriage is a new town. It can change everything from the way you eat and entertain yourselves, to the type of conversations you'll have, to the friends you see more of because your kids no longer have to be in the same math class for you to find common ground. 
This topic is close to my heart because one of the finest things my husband and I have accomplished was to make our lives into a story of us again. But I appreciate it most because it didn't happen without our share of, as my daughter would say,  "honest moments." 

Those moments did not urge us back to the center of our old relationship, but to the middle of a new one. 
The new one  is better. We have more fun. We laugh more. We have new jokes. We go to Lowes together to buy plants. He talks to the dog to entertain me, and I do small things to make his life nicer. We both look younger. 

It's lovely.

But the happy ending wasn't what readers wanted to know about who contacted me after I wrote that piece. They wanted to know about those "honest moments."

What's my point? 

I have two.

Balance is everything. I mind my own business the way I don't let my undergarments show. But once in a while, someone will need to know you understand their discomfort because you've talked about your own. 
  

Someone will make you remember you have good reason for the thing or two you have to say. 

Someone will need you to get the kids off the street. 

You know who you are. Thank you, and you're welcome.

And second, if you really want to, you can find a way to use the expression: "Kids off the street," and you really will feel a little like a badass.

Ask me how I know.



Sunday, April 9, 2017

Write like nobody's going to read it.

I love this book more
every time I write it and
my book knows it
.
Recently, I was talking to my husband about the novel I began submitting a couple of years ago, and then put on hold pending I don't know what; maybe one of those epiphanies I have when I'm applying mascara.   
I just stopped sending it out. 

It didn't seem worth the trouble.

But, it didn't seem right to desert it, either.
"Why don't you take out everything that wasn't fun to write and start over?" asked my husband. 
As many of you know, I have been writing this novel for – I'm not kidding – ten years. 
It is my third. It has been the most difficult to write. It is the most well written. It was the least fun to write and rewrite and rewrite again. 
The first novel was squeaky clean. There was not a single F-word, not the hint of a sex scene. The plot, a stretch to begin with, was layered with so many contrived, improbable twists it was like one of those houses with too many additions that sprawl in all directions.  
The second novel was better but had "pacing" issues which, for a reader, is like a non-reader watching a moderately interesting two-hour movie for eight hours.   
But book 3, this is the one that has been there all along saying, "Hot! Warm, no, no, COLD! COLD! Here! I'm RIGHT HERE!"
I dance with it, I fight with it, I yell at it, I ask it what it wants from me, I stare at it, and then I say  "Maybe we need to take a break,"  and I put it away and think about non-fiction. 
I tell everyone I've-stopped-writing-fiction-and-this-time-I mean-it, and they look at me the way you look at someone who's finally broken up with an asshat and say,  "It's probably just as well." 
Then I write it some more. 
Why can't I stop?  
I took my husband's advice. I dumped a third of the book including characters that even I started to dislike as I wrote them. I started over, writing it like I was creating a movie one scene at a time. The process seemed too easy. It seemed novice. It seemed unsophisticated. 
But mostly, it was fun. 
It was fun to play with an idea, and not develop it, and then delete it. 
It was fun not to wonder who else would like this story. 

It was fun to write like nobody would read it. 
It was fun the way skiing or driving with the top down is. It doesn't make you richer or more attractive, it's just easy. You don't do it because you hope to be famous or competitive. You do it because it's fun.
It's fun. 
I've been having more fun than I expected to since that chat. I'm happier, I look better and have been laughing more. This made me think of people who don't have enough fun. Is that you?

If it is, consider this:
If you were told that a person you love needed to have more fun for their mental health, would you not do everything to be sure they did? You'd be creative. But you'd try. Because it was important.
Be the person you love, have fun before you forget what it feels like.

But mostly, have fun before it becomes not worth the trouble.


Love,
Susan 




Sunday, April 2, 2017

What's happening to us?

"Really?"
                   ---Gus Bonifant

"The final straw was a little girl using an iPad with the volume on high, a device her parents refused to turn down despite repeated requests from the staff at Caruso’s, an upscale Italian restaurant in Mooresville, N.C."
---The Washington Post, reporting on a restaurant that banned children under five, and doubled its business.

There are people, many of them, who feel the restaurant's position is anti-child. There are, or will be others who will feel this is a violation of a child's rights. 

There are others, like me,  who know small children should be allowed to be small children, and see this as a ban on inconsiderate parents who don't care if you planned your expensive date night two weeks ago and hired a sitter. 

What happened to the rights of people who are just minding their own business, or maybe just trying to steer clear of the ones who demand their rights and some of everyone else's?

Not long ago, I sat down on a plane next to a man who had already taken off his shoes, opened a fragrant stir-fry meal of steak and peppers, propped open his tablet and tuned into an episode of Orange is the New Black which featured a protracted scene of prison you-know-what, right there for me and the small children across the aisle to behold.

Last week, I ate lunch with my father in a bar, a nice one with windows and landscaping. A man was at the bar with friends telling a loud story so laced with the f-word, I started to think I wouldn't mind being punched if I could just go over and say,  "Excuse me, every woman here would like to meet your wife who 'makes a big f****** case out of everything,' and fix her up with a guy who at least knows how to act in public."

What's happening to us?

Everyone – male, female, child, adult, gay, straight, big or little, of all colors – deserves the right to be who they are in peace. But too many assert their right to do what they wish, irrespective of the needs and comfort of others who share their space. It's always been that way, but now we have the opportunity to sound off from the stands, whether we understand the whole story or not.  

Last week, the United Airlines leggings issue hit the internet because of a bystander's swift and incendiary tweet which reported, falsely, that two passengers were refused passage because of their wardrobe choices. Quickly, we learned that these were family members of an employee who are, like the employee is, expected to represent the airline in behavior and dress while traveling (for free) on an employee pass. They had violated the dress code.

This went on for days. Delta made fun of them, celebrities weighed in. There was abundant talk of body-shaming, and discrimination, and unfair this, and unfair that, and rights, rights, rights. 

I wondered, why are we still on this?  I have no doubt that this confrontation at the gate happened between an unknowing traveler and the kind of recalcitrant gate employee so many of us have had the misfortune to observe, but it's still beside the point. 

It is the airline's "right" to project what the airline considers a professional image. Employees or family of employees traveling (for free) are not told what to wear, but what not to wear. Have a problem with the gate agent for not seeking an exception if it was called for, but don't have a problem with an airline's stated expectations that their professional image be upheld by anyone acting as a representative. 

I sat next to a pilot once who was traveling to see family.  He had a few days off, he was looking forward to seeing his old neighborhood. He was dressed in his uniform, and he was unfailingly sweet to his seatmate, man who talked for several years (in a monotone) about how to make maple syrup. 

Shouldn't he have been able to wear jeans and an every day shirt, have a few pops, talk too loud on his cell phone, and let his hair down on this first day of his vacation? His airline-employer says no.

How is it different from banks who want their male employees to wear ties, or doctor's offices that don't want their employees to have facial piercings, or restaurants who don't want their employees to come to work unwashed with dirty hair?

We have become so preoccupied with self-centered living, so concerned that our own needs are met first and foremost, and so willing to believe we've been discriminated against when we've simply not been given our way. We are becoming a nation of spoiled, entitled, pajama-wearing, stir-fry-eating plane people. And, I'm not just saying that because the power went out this morning.

It isn't that examples of genuine consideration for others aren't everywhere. If you look, they are. What's happening to us, is that you have to look past so many other me-first behaviors to see them. 





Sunday, March 26, 2017

You only have one of you


I don't know who said this but we
could be friends.

The writer Anne Lamott says about inner critics: “Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent.”

Inner critics are a universal problem among writers; one of my inner critics was in my office before I got there the other day to remind me that 85% of the agents I submitted my novel to a couple of years ago, said "No."

"I wasn't sure you remembered that," said my inner critic.

When my kids were  younger, and they were leaving to go back to school, or away on a trip, or to the store for hot sauce, I used to say: "Be careful out there. I only have one of you."

Be careful out there. You only have one of you.

Be careful when you talk to yourself in reproachful, doubtful, reprimanding ways. Be careful when you feel small next to the fortune of others, or pummeled by fate, or unable to see past obstacles. Remember that while you have an inner critic, you also have an inner butler-defender who carries your tray of weapons: grace, resilience and your good glasses. 

Life is hard enough, already.
Don't make it harder.

You may not need more.
You may have enough, already.

You probably don't need attention.
You may just need to like your own company more.

Life is hard enough, already.
Don't make it harder.

Our libraries of intuition and instincts grow more powerful by the day
Learn to trust your own judgment.

We are more likable when we are being who we are without explaining.
Don't try to organize what others think of you.

We make it about avoiding mistakes, but we forget:
Normal life requires we understand the flaws in order to enjoy the improvements

We want to look back on a perfect present in the perfect future, but we forget:
It is not possible to do or know all the things we'll wish we did or knew in hindsight.

We shape and knead life, like bread dough until it looks like we want it to, but we forget:
We can't live inside a life we've put on display, we can only stand to the side of it.

You only have one of you. Be who you are.
Notice the things you are, that you once wished you could be. 
Know when it's enough, already.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Yelp responsibly

These are stars, also known as weapons.
Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. 
In our small community, where everyone knows each other or at least has stood in the same grocery line, opportunities to gossip are everywhere. But most of us understand where that line lies. Most of us know that a slanderous word can make an outcast of a regular person. 
One of our regular people is Bill, a server in his mid-fifties who specializes in fine dining. 
It's a challenge for high-end restaurants to stay in this area. We're fussy. We're close enough to other towns with excellent restaurants to be impatient. Word of mouth goes a long way.  I've seen great places leave just when you thought everything was fine.    
Bill has worked in all of them. For years, he worked in more than one at a time. 
I met Bill fifteen years ago, when he was a shipping associate at a Mailbox store. I was mailing my manuscript to an agent for the first time and he was at the counter. 
It was the most important thing I'd ever done as a writer and I was nervous. When Bill learned of the contents, he called an associate over to cover him and motioned me to the "other counter" for special attention. Then, he took over. We would want to be sure it was signed for, we would want the packaging to be weatherproof, we would want the name of the agent prominently displayed. 
Was I put off by this? Of course not.  I was touched by a stranger's wish to lend expertise to something that was important to another stranger. 
After Bill moved on to serving, and I moved on in my writing career, he still asked how the book was doing as he filled my water glass. 
Bill is self-styled; a host as much as a server. He's a learned food and wine expert and will educate you too, if you let him. He banters with his customers and remembers the entrees they love. His wine suggestions have become my favorites. He knows your favorite table and puts you there when you forget to ask for it. 
A month ago, our newest nice restaurant opened.  
Our fingers are crossed because only one month in, it's wonderful.  The dress is whatever-you're-wearing-right-now, the fare is upscale. The decor is warm and chic, the lighting is perfect, the music is right, it has copper table tops, and it is staffed by servers who have worked with the owner for a long time, including Bill. 
Only weeks after it opened, its Facebook page glowed with praise. Yelp reviews cheered its start. Wonderful! Loved it! Can't wait to come back! Not a single review criticized the food, the wine, the wait. But one, a blistering one, attacked Bill. 
Leaving one star, the reviewer shared that Bill had not only suggested a wine other than what the reviewer had selected, but had, uninvited, gone on to explain why it paired better with an entree as if he were some "New York sommelier." Challenged, and deeply embarrassed in front of friends and family, the reviewer said, his night had been ruined. He suggested that any diner seated at Bill's station ask for another server.   
I imagined Bill reading this about himself.  
Venting online is not a measured act.  We post our angry reviews when we're mad and frustrated, sometimes an hour or two later, possibly fueled by alcohol. We do it anonymously, using identifiers like "123catsrule" because we've learned in our cyber-existence to view human beings as comments. We do it because we're emotional and want all those eyes to know why.  We do it because we half-believe words have no teeth, sitting there on a screen. But they do. 
Companies go out of business over bad Yelp reviews. People lose jobs. 
Does anyone ask to see the manager anymore?
Had the reviewer  taken his grievance to the chef/owner (a call or email still works), not only would he have expressed his disappointment to the person most interested in doing something about it, he might have walked away with a complimentary meal to look forward to. Bill might have been privately counseled, but he would have been spared public humiliation. 
On the Saturday night following the review, I saw Bill at work.  He was busy, moving quickly. When I stopped him to ask how he was, he offered a nod, and a brief "Fine," before rushing away to tend to his station.
Troubling issues and good reasons to speak up are everywhere now. The opportunity to do so anonymously is more than a powerful thing. To a punitive Yelp reviewer who considers it a duty to call out an individual by name, and warn others away from him, it is a weapon. 
You can, you shouldn't.



Monday, March 13, 2017

Pet Peeves #8, featuring the word "unfortunately," and the Microsoft scam guy

Bring your peeves
The other day, a Twitter follower who was not a fifth grade gamer in a hoodie offered a suggestion for this, the eighth edition of Pet Peeves. 
I am going to start including "Reader Peeves" when readers are nice enough to share.
There will be rules, though.  Peeves must be authorized, which means I have to have experienced them and forgotten to write them down. If I'm sent a peeve that talks about bad service in Business Class  (you know who you are), I just won't be able to include it, because I've had nothing but lovely service in those seats, and very good Bloody Marys.
Herewith: 
1. Anything that is still handled by regular mail. I've noticed that conversations with customer service reps (CSR's) who have just told you that you can't handle a complicated thing online tend to involve the word "unfortunately" a lot.
Real life example:

Customer service rep (CSR): "I'll send you a form and all you need to do is fill it out and send it back with your signature."
Me: "Can't we do this online?"
CSR: "Unfortunately, we can't. We need a signature."
Me: "Can't you do an e-signature?"
CSR: "Unfortunately we can't. We need it to be hand-written, so we know it's the authorized person."
Me: "How do you know it's authorized?"
CSR: "Unfortunately, we can only assume if the form has gone to the intended person's address."
Me: "But if I send you actual mail, I won't have a confirmation of receipt unless I go to the post office and send it registered mail."
CSR: "Unfortunately, that's true."
And here is where a quick online task turns into a week-long process while I watch for the form and try not throw it away because 97% of actual mail is junk, then scribble information on the form which will look like a three-year-old filled it out because typing has ruined my handwriting. Then, I will have to search the drawer where we keep dead dinosaur cell phones for a stamp before I realize that I can just get one at the post office where all they do is handle dinosaur mail. 
2. The Microsoft scam guy (MSG). He's been around since 2009 but if you don't already know about him, read about it here.  I hate scams, but this one is worth toying with to avoid feeling peeved.
MSG: "Hello, my name is (whatever) and I'm calling from Microsoft about your computer."
Me: "No you're not, ha ha."
MSG: (click)
MSG: "Hello, my name is (whatever) and  I'm calling from Microsoft."
Me: "Yes, I've been expecting your call.You're going to fix my computer, right?"
MSG: (click)
MSG: "Hello, my name is (whatever) and  I'm calling from Microsoft
Me:  "No you're not. You scammed my mother two years ago. You should be ashamed of yourself."
MSG: (click) 
But my favorite response was offered by a family friend: "What computer? I don't have a computer. Computers are the devil. Are you trying to sell me a devil computer?"
3. I just can't stop complaining about hold music. It should be against the law. 
I will "continue to hold, until the next available representative...etc" when I am sure you won't force me to listen to "Shake it off" with those strange descending lines that make me think of people walking downstairs. 
4. Being cornered by intense people with strong opinions who want me to be as upset as they are even when I'm not even close to being upset at all. People like this tend to keep complaining,  even as you stay in your happy and keep saying, "I know, that's a bummer. I know, that's a bummer." 
5.Chain status updates that tell me that someone I really like is deciding which Facebook friends to cut loose based on whether I am willing to cut and paste (not share) their status for three hours. I don't understand what this accomplishes other than to force the same request upon my friends that I don't like having forced upon me. 
Only a little more annoying are chain status updates that say things like "Share if you love your husband/kids/mom/God," or, "Share if you believe animals deserve to be loved," and so on. 
6. Passwords that must contain three or four characters like %$#@* and an alpha/numeric combo that you will never remember and which will force you to use the "forgot password?" link every time you come back, which will force you to wait for the email that allows you to reset your password before you can finish your task, which you will have forgotten about because now there's a photo gallery on msn.com that shows interior shots of the Mary Tyler Moore house.
9. Facebook ads that I am seeing because my Facebook friends have "liked" the products being shown. I don't need products that color roots before my next stylist appointment, and I know if a friend "likes"that the color of the season at Ann Taylor is Kelly green, I'll still never wear it.
The newsfeed is so crammed with ads now, it's like the old days when a 30 minute show was ten minutes Frasier and twenty minutes food and bathroom breaks. 
Last, but not least, I give you Reader Peeves:
1. From reader Gina:
"7 to 10 business days." Just say 2 weeks! The misuse/overuse of the word "curated." Or, "low-hanging fruit."
Thank you, reader Gina. Agree, agree, and agree.
2. From reader Larry:
Misuse of the words "plethora" and "myriad." 
Thank you reader Larry. I think I agree that plethora should remain a medical term that nobody understands rather than become a word that people use because they're tired of saying "many." 
3. Saying "real" instead of "really." It's not "real simple" Martha, it's "really simple." And it's not "real hard," it's "really hard." 

This is a posthumous salute to my husband's high school English teacher, Mr. Richard A. Ertzman, who I understand was real, and elegant and serious about really speaking correctly. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Shoes on the wrong feet

Here is a picture of Gus, pretending to not hear me calling him.
Every year, either because winter starts to feel like a long, sad movie, or because my birthday is around the corner, I enter a stretch of strange discomfort, like shoes on the wrong feet. 
It has to do with inventory and the feeling of change in the air. What have I accomplished? What's next? What's my work in progress? How am I doing?

And so on.
It's common, this process of taking stock, but it makes no difference. You still wake up tired when your mind has been interviewing you all night, wanting to know where you'll be ten years from now.   
If I write when I'm like this, I don't write well. If I can get in the zone, I'm too distractible to stay there. I consume celebrity news like mental potato chips ("Some stars can't stop working together!") or read Word docs from 2004 to decide if I might still need them, or take pictures of Gus not looking at me when I call him. 
I can feel my mind going to sleep when this happens which is the way depression starts if you don't come up with a way to turn that frown upside down, and fast.
Two kinds of people just read that. Those who know that depression isn't about "what's wrong," and those who don't, and still ask depressed people, "What's wrong?" which is something depressed people can't answer because depression is not a reaction to something. Depression is winding up at a place inside your head where there are no windows or doors to show how you got in or will get out. 
And because I fear depression like dark rooms where there may be spiders, I don't linger in that state for long. Instead, I do something spontaneous to rupture the ennui.  Last year, I cancelled my day, put the top down, drove to the beach, and came home with a fetching car tan. 

Once again, I've been waiting for clarity, the way a jogger bounces at the curb, waiting for the light to change. But this year, I made some soft rules to make it easier for clarity to find me.  

I'll share.
The first one is to be quiet enough to hear the things you're telling yourself. "I don't want to," or, "Why bother," or, "It doesn't matter" are ass-kicking words. If those words were signs they would be orange with the word CAUTION on them. 
The second one is to move. Change the furniture around. Do laundry. Clean a drawer. Not hard stuff, just productive stuff. Move.

The third soft rule is the easiest and most important and it is to stop trying to create the future in the present. Instead, improve on simple daily things and let the future create itself. There are small ways we live each day which by themselves don't seem pivotal to success or happiness, but which, when improved together can deliver a very effective ass-kick. 


Sleep enough. 
Eat better 
Stay in touch with your peer group as well as your parents and children. 
Hydrate - it's more important than you think. 
Journal for a few minutes every morning or evening  to capture the thoughts that peppered your day, or will influence the day that's coming.  

Waiting for clarity starts with those uncomfortable questions we ask ourselves about what we're missing, what we need, why things don't feel as they should.  

But with kind attention to yourself, it can end with a feeling of having something you were missing, something you deserve, the belief that it is enough, and the desire to do something good with it. 

Now that you've fixed your shoes.