Friday, February 18, 2011

Seeing the Color

There are a number of things that differentiate people who write. And not in some highfalutin, elitist way. And I don't just mean professional writers or writers who have work published. I mean writers in the broadest sense of the word. Those who write letters and long e-mails and meticulously crafted Facebook status updates. Those whose love to read and cherish words, especially when they are strung together in prescient and precise metaphors and similes. Take this one from my new favorite book, This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathon Tropper (do yourself a favor and read it): "These middle-aged women in the early stages of disrepair…genetics help some more than others, but they are all like melting ice cream bars, slowly sliding down the stick as they come apart." My goodness, that's good. But I digress.

What do these people have in common? Many things, I suppose, but certainly the art of observation. Of taking in their surroundings, appreciating the nuances, the absurdities, the cliches, the beauty, the offensive. (This is, by the way, what makes Tropper's work so brilliant, so engaging, so freaking hilarious. Apologies, this post is apparently now doubling as a plug for my new favorite book.) A dear friend of mine sums up this quality as seeing the color in life, and seeing it as brightly in the grocery store as in the Yosemite Valley. This week, while I was traveling for work, there was plenty of color to see. Is there a better place than the airport, where time seems to melt and bend, to take stock of your surroundings, welcome epiphanies, and consider the existential? Okay, well, maybe I left the epiphanies and the existential for another day, but what follows are my observations from four airports in two days:

A woman, late twenties, early thirties, dressed fashionably with all the trappings of upper middle class-dom, an iphone, a Netbook, a purse with a name I recognized. The first time I looked her way, she had three fingers in her mouth. And I mean in there. Up to the second knuckle. Okay, that's fine. We all get that pesky popcorn kernel wedged between a molar now and then. And if you don't have floss, who am I to begrudge you going in for it. (I will spare you a diatribe on the germ factor in airports . . .). When I looked at her a second time, probably five minutes later, her fingers are still in there, deep enough to tickle her uvula. Only those time she was taking a different angle, leading me to believe this was not a battle against a popcorn kernel shell. The next time, 15ish minutes later (and before you wonder who's the strange one here, she was in my direct line of sight to the gate from which I'd be boarding), Fingers. Still. In. Mouth. And, again, we're not talking biting off a hangnail. We're talking four fingers all in. So I had to wonder, what is going on there? Is it a fetish? Did she just have oral surgery? What would make someone who appears to conform to social norms flout them so obviously right there in the mini micro brew at the Portland airport?

I accidentally walked into the men's restroom at the Spokane airport (no, I wasn't drunk or tired or anything, really, other than, wait for it . . ., nonobservant). I skated in, somehow missing the five unoccupied urinals on the wall, with no problem. When I went to leave, those urinals had occupants so I had to hide in the stall and wait for the entitled to exit. Eventually they did. And neither washed their hands. What is that, men?

A Medicare eligible woman with a nose ring. Nothing else about her tipped its hat toward counter culture. That intrigued me. And not because I have some misguided notion that people with the wisdom of years subscribe strictly to the mainstream. I understand that people now in their 60s were doing things in the 60s and 70s that I've never imagined. I get that. But let's be honest, those folks, if they still embrace the spirit of that time on into their golden years, usually wear it on their skin in the form of tattoos or something else other than piercings. Nose rings seem so, I don't know, Portlandia. So 90s. So Eddie Vedder. And I'm interested in when this woman decided to pierce her nose and what led her to finally say, yeah, let's do this.

I could go on and on, but this post is already much too long so I will leave you with this. A woman who walked to the plane with me, wearing polyester slacks, the kind with the coarse seam down the front and an elastic waist. The kind my kindergarten teacher used to wear in, lo, 1978. She was talkative, steady on her feet, younger than the woman with the nose ring, and headed to Spokane. She told me with pride that she hadn't flown in 30 years. 30 years. Almost as long as I've been alive. (Yes, if you've done your math, you know that's a little generous to me). So why was she there? What finally spurred her to get on a plane after 30 years? A funeral? She certainly didn't have an air of mourning or sadness about her. A graduation? Not the right time of year.

There are so many questions and so many possible explanations for all of these things. And, in reality, I could have struck up conversation on all accounts and found answers. But that's the thing about writing and observations; if I had asked, I couldn't craft my own characters and write my own endings.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


In an uncharacteristic move (and a possibly unsettling one for those who know me), I'm keeping this brief. In short, I’ve had an epiphany, courtesy of my kids fighting over the last of the gummi cherry hearts. It goes like this: to achieve balance, sanity, success as a writer, I must get my Roshambo on . . . play a little Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Let’s start with Paper, the medium of my chosen art form (ignoring, for the purposes of this strained metaphor, the Kindle and all Kindle-like devices). You wanna write? Then do it. Get your ideas on paper. Sit down and scratch out some prose. And do it often. But remember, as even the youngest Roshambo player quickly learns, you can't throw Paper every time and expect to win. At some point, those Scissors have to come along . . .

. . . and shear off the useless, the superfluous, that which hinders forward progress. Yes, I’m talking about cutting from manuscripts (you should have seen the carnage from our first professional edit), but also about life. Sure, it’s nice to make homemade confections for your kid’s bake sale, but what are those gooey chocolately squares doing for your characters, your plot, your agent search? A whole lot of nothing. Carve away the unnecessary. Stop by the bakery on the way home and call it good. Get some wine while you're at it. It helps.

And don't forget the Rock. (Anyone else picturing Dwayne Johnson? Shirtless? But I digress...) I’m relying on homonyms here to make this work but, again, it’s my strained metaphor so my prerogative. Rock. Not a stone for skipping, but Rock as in I Wanna Rock and R.O.C.K. in the USA and, dare I say it, Rock Lobster. In other words, ROCK! Surround yourself with kick-ass music. With transcendental art. With film and theatre and dance and paintings and clothing and humor and food that beckon your muse. That expand your mind creatively. Talk with people who challenge and inspire you. And then take that inspiration (and your glass of Cab, and one of the brownies you pilfered before shipping 'em off to a bunch of ungrateful third-graders), and start throwing Paper all over again.