Choices: Are You Proud of Yourself?

Stormy Weather.

Stormy Weather.

Miles run yesterday: 4.5

Choices we make on an average day: 312 (a purely scientific number)

Packets of oatmeal I eat each morning: 2

One day the summer after I graduated from college, I stood in the warehouse of a special effects design studio.

There were masks, molds, goopy goop, clay and long tables filled with evidence of an artist at work.

I never really knew the boy/man who owned it, the one who created monsters and zombies for movies. He had sat nearby in my high school homeroom each day without us ever exchanging more than a “good morning.” But my mom knew his family through her work at the bank, and she scored us a tour through his little shop of horrible, ghoulish creations.

Back in high school, homerooms consisted of kids with last names alphabetically similar to our own. One girl with my same last name sat in front of me for four years in a row. She was a cheerleader who wore sweat pants with words printed across the bum. She had an annoying habit of announcing, “I am so proud of myself!” several times in the 15 minutes we spent desk-to-desk.

At a time when “preppy” was considered so mid-1980s, one of the boys, a football player, wore a neatly ironed button-down shirt most days. Sometimes in a pastel pink.

One kid who sat nearby revered the band Rush and smelled of marijuana at an hour of the day when my Wheaties were just barely making an appearance in my belly.

So by the time I was post-college, the guy who always sat quietly at the back of the room who created this whole Hollywood life for himself without fitting into the expected college-grad school-corporate-job mold surprised me. As he proudly showed off his portfolio with professional photos of grisly masks used in real, mass-produced films, I wondered: what had I done during my pizza-eating, falling-in-love, broadcast-journalism-unpaid-journalism-internship college career?

I was so predictable.

Not long after leaving the horror fest, I started waiting tables and met our high school’s former mascot. After college, instead of getting a job in his field (so predictable!), he decided to get a job in Tahiti at a Club Med there. He taught windsurfing.

There may have been a low point that day when I was forced to carry out 12 Diet Coke refills in a row. Windsurfing. Tahiti. Really?

Recently, I had lunch with a friend who wondered why she wasn’t as successful as some of her friends, friends who had traveled the world teaching in Africa, hosting national news broadcasts and writing stories about Haiti and its recovery.

I swallowed my bite of barbecue sandwich and eyed her across the table.

Do they have two gorgeous children? I asked her. When they fly home from Africa, do they have a partner to tell about their terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day?

No, she said. No, they don’t.

And they are probably perfectly happy with that fact, I said. But she wouldn’t be; she made the choice years ago to take a different path.

I am reminded almost daily of the paths we take, the choices we make in our lives that create unique selves. Our choices add up to lots of stories, to a whole life filled with color.

Some things we can’t control: illness, acts of nature, deaths of family members or close friends.

But the things we can control; what of those? Are you making the choices you will be happy with years from now?

What is one choice you have made lately that makes you feel proud of yourself?

Storytelling Superheroes

Detail vs. Big Picture: Do you focus on the tiny detail at the center or how the bright yellow petals make you feel?

Detail vs. Big Picture: Do you focus on the tiny detail at the center or how the bright yellow petals make you feel?

Miles run today: 4.5

Hours school was delayed today: 3

Wintry accumulation: 0

My college best friend and one-time roommate had a superpower.

She could remember any conversation verbatim and recite it back 15 times to 15 different listeners in exactly the same way.

From this, you may infer that:

a.) she was an excellent student, recalling every single tidbit a professor uttered, and

b.) listening to one side of her multiple phone calls reciting the same experience over and over was both maddening and fascinating.

And Lord help you if you ever changed your mind. My whole life, things have come out of my mouth that I can’t recall five minutes later. And I might have a whole other opinion five days from now.

We would be standing in someone’s room, and I would say, “Wow, Julie, that is a gorgeous orange comforter you have!”

And my best friend would say, “You said last month that you hate the color orange. In fact, you said, ‘Please kill me if I ever wear, decorate or eat something orange.”

Awkward.

But probably true, given her total recall.

She had the kind of memory for minute conversational details that any writer would love to be able to access. On the stand at a Congressional hearing, she would be an ideal witness, reciting with perfect clarity words spoken by colleagues or friends nine years earlier. No “I cannot recalls” for her. No sirree bob.

Lyrics to every song written between 1975 and 1994? Not a problem.

One night, my best friend, a few other friends and I were heading out on the town. One of our friends fell down the concrete steps of our dorm headfirst, in slow motion, then popped up, unscathed, and proceeded to carry on a previous conversation. My best friend was able to tell the story of the exact song we had been listening to (“Divine Thing” by the Soup Dragons), The Slow-Motion Fall and all the way up to the last thread of conversation (a wild night in Shallotte).

I lived the experience, then heard about it at least seven times with the boring parts left in when retold to other friends, each time exactly the way it happened.

Over the years, I have decided that storytelling requires two things: a good memory and an ability to know what to leave out.

My mom is a natural storyteller, something I didn’t realize until I was grown.

Didn’t every child’s parents tell about the boy who came to school with no shoes? Or the scientist who walked through the chemistry lab carrying bubbling beakers while wearing full, Ebola-level-clearance gear?

My mom can recall names, dates and stories from each era of her life; she (mostly) edits out the boring parts. Unlike my college best friend, however, the details may be slightly editorialized or ahem, embellished.

My mom has some really good stories.

The difference between experiencing situations with my mom and my college best friend is that with my college best friend, I wished she would change it up a little each time she told the story. Just for the sake of her BFF.

And with my mom, well… I often felt that I didn’t live the same event. Or that maybe I had missed something.

We would go to a store, have to return something, and come home.

Here is how the dinner conversation played out as my mom explained the situation to my dad:

“So, I marched right up there to the desk and told the cashier (she was about 22 and couldn’t stop chewing gum; I wanted to say something to her, but I didn’t), ‘This hose doesn’t work. It is the most poorly engineered gardening implement I’ve ever seen. I demand my money back.'”

I would sit there, chewing my stir fry, wondering if my mom had maybe visited a different store than the one I had.

“And then she said, ‘Well…’ and I said, ‘If you can’t do any better than that, I will take my business elsewhere,’ and I slammed my hand down on the counter. That pretty much woke her up. She opened that cash register and refunded my money.”

My dad would say something like, “Good for you, honey,” and my mom would smile.

I would think: There was no slamming. There was no demanding. My mom was perfectly nice to the cashier. The cashier seemed like she wanted to give the money back.

But the stories always sounded pretty good, and the big picture was the same, so I learned from her that the actual details were less important than what you did to the story: the editing, the tone, the description, the way you felt about the event.

And I always wondered how I would be represented by the storytellers in my life, considering I didn’t remember my own utterances word-for-word as my college best friend did, and I did plenty of things to make my mom less than happy. She could have a field day telling stories about me.

Ultimately, I took a page from their books: I learned to remember, use the details I needed and editorialize when the mood hit me. Correction: I’m still learning.

What about you? How did you learn to experience, synthesize and share your stories?

Liquids and Things That Go Loud in the Night

At least he's not scary.

At least he’s not scary.

Miles run today: 8

Inches of snow we’ve gotten from major storm system headed our way: 0

Gallons of milk bought for major storm: 1 (I am not sure why running out of milk is such a big fear.)

Setting: our kitchen, before breakfast.

My husband: post-coffee.

Me: pre-coffee.

Me: You turned the water on very loudly last night.

Him: I turned the water on. A little bit.

Me: It was loud, like a tsunami.

Him: I got that impression, from your obnoxious “shushing.” I just needed more water. Hmph.

Me: Where’s the coffee?

Back when I was a single girl and waiting tables, we had a name for the things that woke us up in the middle of the night, sweat pouring from our foreheads, imminent danger close at hand: Waitmares.

“I didn’t get that Diet Coke refill out to table 16!”

I would sit up in bed and feel relieved that table 16 would live to drink another day.

Always, it was the drinks.

After we had first one baby, then two, I would often awake to phantom baby cries.

Again with the drinks. I know now that “Crib number 16, more drinks!” is probably what my daughter was screaming all those nights at 2 and 4 a.m.

Of course, there were the very real baby wake-up calls, and then there was the much worse scenario:

The bound-out-of-bed-to-feed-a-crying-baby when the baby was sleeping, well… like a… nevermind. Phantom baby cries were the worst, because you knew that the real cries would be coming just about the time you fell back asleep.

Argh.

Back when the kids were little, we had carpet in our bedroom. Illness or a horrible troll nightmare would bring a ghosty little child tiptoeing up to my bedside, the body inches from mine without me waking from the dream world.

Then the tiny fingers would brush my shoulder… “Mo-ommy?” a little voice would whisper. “My throat hurts.”

Yowza!

Now, my son’s large, thudding man-feet hit the room’s hardwood floors so I get an early-warning signal.

More liquids needed: Children’s Motrin.

The other day, my husband, who finds it exhilarating to wake up at 4:45 a.m., regarded me with wide-awake eyes across the breakfast table.

Him: Am I really going to have to refill my water glass downstairs in the middle of the night?

Me: Your water sounds were aggressive and way out of line.

Him: Seriously?

Then I kissed him on the top of the head and poured some more coffee.

More liquids needed: this was going to be a multi-liquid day.

With a Name Like Viva

Standing in line makes me feel all knotted up like the tree roots. But I was cool and still like the lake beyond. And then I went for a run.

Standing in line makes me feel all knotted up like the tree roots. But I was cool and still like the lake beyond. And then I went for a run.

Words written on my blog since Sunday: 0

Minutes I stood in line at the cable store Tuesday: 63

Temperature outside at 3 p.m.: 35 (I’m ready for summer.)

Her name was Viva, and she wanted to help me.

I glanced back at the line wrapping around the small space and wondered at my good fortune. Finally!

So I lost over an hour of my life on Tuesday. It’s an hour I’ll never get back, folks. And while I used to think that Hell on Earth was tech support, I now know that the real Hell is Standing in Line.

There was Viva, cool as a cucumber.

All I had to do that Tuesday afternoon, a day when both kids were out of school, was return a cable box and pay a prorated fee, a nebulous amount they could not reckon over the phone.

The rough dimensions of the cable store: your family room.

Number of people in line at cable store when we arrived: 13

Average time employees spent with each person: 5-9 minutes

People in line behind us when we left: 17

Temperature outside cable store: approx. 25

Temperature inside cable store: approx. 81

General attitude of people in line at cable store: less than stellar

But Viva was fine.

One key point about lines: when you finally work your way to the front, you are alarmingly thankful. You become pliable, conciliatory.

Viva called me to her desk, and I rested the cable box, wires and remote on the ledge, balancing the weight there until she would relieve me of its burden.

I waited 15 minutes for that privilege.

Posted around Viva’s cubby were memos of varying legibility. I am fairly certain they were written in code so that outsiders could not understand.

I got the distinct feeling that if I walked around to view the world from Viva’s perspective that her cubby would sport these gems:

“Your mother does not work here.”

“This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way.”

But Viva did not let her good humor slip. She was neither kind nor cruel, neither ebullient nor dazed. She may have been one of those aliens from Men in Black.

I began to suspect that her solution to my problem involved stalling.

I noted that each time an employee finished with the person at her desk, the next person in line would scoot up with no break in between.

My prorating problem became Viva’s break.

I was like a walk on a tropical beach for Viva, a tall glass of lemonade after cutting the grass on a hot summer’s day, a gentle wave licking her magenta-painted toenails.

But as I felt the breath of the man behind me in line, I was not enjoying the experience as much as Viva was, her fingers skipping happily over the computer keyboard.

I was not entirely sure I was going to make it out of there alive, folks. I was a little concerned that my epitaph would read: Anne Woodman. Died at the counter of the cable store.

And that would be sad.

So when the kids and I finally made it out into the icy wind, we shrieked like cable-free banshees.

Later, at dinner, when my husband started to get irritated about how much they charged us for the so-called prorated fee, I gave him The Look.

I took a sip of wine, remembered to breathe deeply and said:

“If you don’t like it, I’m sure Viva will be happy to see you.”

After all, she probably needs a break.

I Spy

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

Miles run today: 5

Temperature at 3:45 p.m. (in January!): 63

Stars I give to Carrie Rubin’s novel, The Seneca Scourge: 5 (It was so good. I know, I’m late to the party.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m a little miffed I wasn’t recruited for the CIA.

Back when I was 10 or 11, my friends and I often wrote up elaborate spy missions. We devised long forms with official-sounding terms: Location. Description. Activity. Conversation. Action to Take.

We brainstormed about who we could shadow; someone who, when overheard, would provide scintillating tidbits for us to scribble in our notes.

My sister, four and a half years younger than we were, was often the quarry.

We would crouch in the guest room, the one next to hers, waiting for her to say something. Anything. But as she was usually alone, the espionage forms remained blank for long minutes, and our legs developed cramps.

Location: her room

Description: age 6 1/2, brown hair, brown eyes

Activity: combing her doll’s hair

Conversation: N/A (I learned that one from my mom filling out medical forms at the doctor’s office.)

Action to Take: Find a new subject. Who says stuff.

By high school, we were more mobile.

We drove to the MARTA station and took the train to the end of the line: the Atlanta airport, one of the busiest in America.

Back in the glory days of air travel, random teenagers from the ‘burbs wandering through the terminals weren’t considered a security threat. Out of sheer boredom, we watched families arriving from Europe, couples reuniting after long absences, and business travelers in rumpled suits retrieving their suitcases from baggage claim.

Sometimes we would play, “That’s Your Boyfriend,” a game that today seems horribly cruel but provided us with hours of free entertainment.

You would find the most unwashed, outdated, grizzly man at the airport and present him to your friend as a gift. “Hey, girl, That’s Your Boyfriend.”

To our credit, we never pointed.

When my dad found out about it, he was horrified. “You do know that those men are other people’s fathers, don’t you? A group of teenage girls looking in his direction, giggling? The poor men probably think their zipper is unzipped or something.”

Now at the ripe old age of many of our “That’s Your Boyfriend” subjects, I still watch people and wonder about their lives.

People are curious about other people. It’s in our nature. And if you are a writer, you’ll understand that we want to know why, and how, and what makes her tick.

A few months ago, I was standing in line at our local warehouse store. The man in front of me, age 50, brown hair, mustache, stubbly facial hair, jeans circa 1995, logo t-shirt, was fascinating. I wanted my old Spy forms back.

Here is what he bought:

One case of Corona

One 55-pound bag of dog food

Two 20-pound bags of Dixie Crystals sugar

I’m sure you can imagine what I wanted to ask him: what time is the margarita party, and how many limes will you need me to pick up first?

Was the dog food thing just to put me off the scent of the real story here? I imagined a Mel-Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon existence for him.

Or maybe he was lonely and baked homemade brownies for the homeless each Tuesday afternoon while sipping a beer.

Or maybe he and his dog filled up a plastic swimming pool with colored sugar water and splashed around on warm days in late fall.

Or maybe he baked large cakes for prisoners with nefarious tools hidden inside.

I kept my mouth shut.

But I am glad that I’ve found a career and vocation that allows me to ask a lot of questions and then write about the answers.

With each person I meet, with each person I interview, I find I gain no more insight into what makes people tick. But I do gain compassion: I never, ever play “That’s Your Boyfriend” anymore.

And I gain many more questions than I’m able to answer, which makes me happy.

Do you people-watch? Where is your favorite place to go to wonder about people’s lives? What was your biggest surprise while people-watching?

Spenders and Savers: Can’t We Be Friends?

I don't understand why everyone doesn't rush out to buy milk when they hear snow is on the way. Joke all you want.

I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t rush out to buy milk when they hear snow is on the way. Joke all you want.

Miles run today: 8

Gallons of milk purchased yesterday in anticipation of 2-4″ of snow (actual accumulation: 1/4″): 2

Dollars spent on said milk: 7.80

My friend and I were sitting in our social media class the other day, analyzing all sorts of information about our favorite subject: ourselves.

Ten year goals, five year goals, things that make us unique… our fingers were skipping over the keys like those bendable jump roping kids in a Christmas parade.

Until my fingers kept skipping, and my friend’s didn’t.

Subject: “I Love to Spend Money On…”

My fingers were happy:

1. Boots

2. Trips

3. Things for the kids

4. Clothes

5. Good food

6. Wine

7. Going out with friends…

Until I noticed that my friend’s fingers were not so happy. My eyebrows raised, I glanced at her empty page and tried to cover up the computer screen with my own exhaustive list.

“I hate to spend money,” she said.

“You hate to spend money on wasteful things, like food?”

“I hate to spend money,” she said. “On anything.”

“What about a vacation?”

“No, not really.”

“Or fun stuff for the kids?”

“Maybe… but no, not that either.”

“Not even Disney?”

[Anne trivia break here: When I heard one of the Disney marketing guys speak several years ago, he said that the state sending the most visitors to Disney was New Jersey and that the average family saves for 10 years to afford the vacation.]

“Not even Disney. I hated spending money on that, too.”

I do not have words for this situation.

I remember my grandmother telling me that one of the best things about not having much money was having the satisfaction of saving up for something and eventually being able to buy it. When she got to the point where she could afford to get and do the things she wanted, some of the fun went away.

Being a (conservative) spender at heart, I can agree with her. Early on in our marriage, a fun evening out was having a cup of coffee with friends or roller-blading in an empty parking lot for hours. If we ever bought a new CD or a bottle of cheap wine, it was Party Central.

At that time–15 years ago, to be exact–my husband and I ended up sitting in the office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

My husband hadn’t been allowed to work for the five months after our wedding while we waited for INS to process his paperwork. (If his plan was to marry a well-off American woman and spend his days watching “Cops,” he could have chosen a more well-heeled candidate; we ate a lot of salads and beans.)

The woman behind the desk was scrutinizing a printout of our checks; my husband and I sat holding hands and scrutinizing the cinderblock walls.

The vulnerability I experienced was akin to wearing a white paper gown at my annual physical exam, and in less well-appointed offices.

The INS lady held the papers out to us and turned them towards me. “Do you see that you have signed all of these checks except one?”

I giggled nervously and scanned the checks: rent, water bill, electrical bill, gas bill, internet bill, doctor co-pay… they were hardly evidence of out-of-control spending.

I looked at my husband, a much better-looking prospective green card holder than Gerard Depardieu.

“I guess I’m the one who pays the bills,” I said, and I felt the blush creeping up into my hairline.

She shook her head and took the papers back.

Good news: my husband got his green card.

Bad news: I still love to spend money on:

1. Boots

2. Trips

3. Fun trail mix

4. Pajamas with birds on them

5. Fluffy towels

6. Sweet tea

7. Door handles for my car

What about you? Is spending such a drag? Please, be honest.

And if you lie and say you hate spending money, please tell me which one thing makes you happy to spend money on.

 

 

 

Follow These Rules and Live

Is your life gothic or epic or merely suburban?

Is your life gothic or epic or merely suburban?

Miles I ran today: 4.5

Temperature when I ran: 69

Excellent memoir I just beta-read: 1

[Content of conversation below may have been altered to suit my needs. Sorry, Mom.]

Setting: The mid-’90s

Me: Mom, why didn’t you do some horrible thing in my childhood so I could write a best-selling memoir? You gave me no material. Couldn’t you have beat me up a little bit?

Mom: You were obnoxious enough for me to think about it. Several times.

Me: But by having self-control, you have left me with nothing. Nothing. To. Write. About.

Mom: I weep for you.

Back in the ’90s, there was a rash of tragic, horrible, tell-all books about alcoholic parents and people chasing other people with scissors and heroin overdoses and running away from home.

It was enough to make any writer feel a bit, well, under-prepared for writing a best-selling memoir. Or anything that anyone might want to read.

But then, a gift:

At least one of those writers lied. Big time.

And then another gift:

Elementary school teachers started teaching about writing in terms of “small moments.”

And then another gift:

Blogs.

All of us who had childhoods full of homemade cake and Atari and mean words from other kids but no near-death experiences were given the opportunity to write for other people who were A-okay reading about the Little Things In Life.

Writers like Elizabeth Berg flourished.

There is a small moment in her collection of short stories, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, when the main character (MC) and her husband are preparing for their grown kids to come over for Thanksgiving dinner. The MC sees a small stain on the crotch of her husband’s khakis, and she is annoyed by it because (and I paraphrase) “we all know what that is.”

I must have read that part 12 times for the sheer genius of it.

And as my husband pointed out, there are dozens of small moments in Gone Girl. It’s like a writer’s workshop of how to incorporate details without overwhelming the reader.

He re-read me a sentence where author Gillian Flynn writes about the torn felt of a mini-golf hole, which allows the reader to fill in the rest of the scene. She doesn’t need to tell us that the mini-golf building has crumbling paint or that the plastic palm trees have torn places.

Today, after spending my early adulthood wondering if I had any scrap of material to write about, I see material everywhere.

Like last weekend.

We got out from under the evil clutches of the cable company and bought an antenna for our TV.

Victory!

I was wandering around the house a few days later, picking up miscellaneous bits and pieces and relocating them to the trash can, when something caught my eye, typed in all caps on the antennae instructions:

Follow These Rules and Live.

Somewhere, there is a technical writer with a sense of humor in the face of boring material.

And I want to thank her for the name of my future memoir.