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Hopelessly in Happy

Okay. So blogs tend to be bottom-heavy. We dump things in them. Snarky observations. Bad days. Laments. Link-shock.

Not today. I am going to take a few minutes to say–whoa, it’s been a good day. Very good day. Yes, it’s only noon. Things can take a dive at any moment–but all is well in Deanna-ville.

Babysat for my friend Stephanie and the girls had a blast with her (see image one in the ball pond.) Stephanie arrived back to collect the baby just before my photo appointment showed. The girls stayed quietly downstairs and played while I did the sitting.

The mom almost cried at the images. Her daughter had never smiled in a picture before. She asked just “how big” could she order one.

Now I’m free to chat with friends, play with girls, and learn new web site software. I have to put up a site from our scooter tour of Austin yesterday–which involved the Hike & Bike Trail, visiting Stevie’s statue, the pedestrian bridge over town lake, City Hall, the Governor’s Mansion, Whole Foods, and of course, Zilker park for snow cones and play. This mirrors our “red wagon” tour last year where we hit all the highlights of Austin in one day–Capitol, Congress, UT, Mount Bonnell. I want my girls to love their hometown. So far, they do.

Yep. It’s all good.

Popcorn Summer

This has been the summer of the movie. The girls saw the requisite new releases, Over the Hedge and Cars. We also saw lots of kid film festival reruns–Wallace and Gromit, March of the Penguins, Shrek, Nanny McPhee, Jimmy Neutron, and many more. We took in at least one movie a week, sometimes two. Slipping out of the triple digit heat and into the air conditioned world of cinema has been our favorite retreat now that both girls are old enough to sit still.

This week definitely got off schedule. Our pick for Tuesday, Curious George, got filled up and we were sent to Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Five minutes from the end, the screen filled with an image of melting celluloid and the movie stopped. We didn’t get to see the rest.

Today we headed out early to ensure a seat. Realizing the overwhelming popularity of the inquisitive monkey, Regal Westgate added a second screen. We found a seat easily and the girls laughed more than at any movie this summer. The little jungle ape was infectiously cute. As the credits came up, Elizabeth, the younger, slapped her hands against the red armrest and said, “Well that’s it. Summer’s last movie!” She hopped up and we followed her through the crowd out into the hall.

Cheaper by the Dozen 2 had not let out yet. “Should we sneak in and see the end?” I asked Emily. She nodded. We slipped into the theater and stood by the wall. The scenes splashing across the screen were only seconds before the point it had cut off on Tuesday.

Now, I’ll admit, I’m a sap. I don’t think we’ve watched a summer movie yet that didn’t make me cry. But the end to Cheaper 2–Good Lord. I’m bawling. Steve Martin gets his first grandchild, the big speech about perfect parents not exisiting, but many greats ones. The last summer at Lake Winetka and the first baby. It’s too much.

We walk out of the cold and into the hot sun. Both girls take a hand as we cross the busy parking lot, leaving behind the smell of popcorn for the hazy heat of asphalt crisscrossed with fading yellow stripes. I realize that so many of their firsts are behind them–first baths, first tooth, first steps, first day of school. We have more to go, surely, but at what point does the seesaw tip the other way, when you have more lasts than firsts? When does a parent look at a child and realize–they’ve grown up. They’re leaving. They’re leading their own lives.

We got to the car and Emily kept my hand even though little Elizabeth dropped hers and leaned against the car with an exhausted sigh. “Mama?” Emily said. “Didn’t we get just a little more summer movie? We thought we were done but we got just a little bit more.”

I held her still, hoping to imprint the way such a small hand feels in my bigger, not quite yet old one. “That’s right, Emily. We did.”

Emily whistled in her self conscious way, knowing she’d made some symbolic point–bonus for proving Elizabeth wrong. How often do we get one last little taste of something that is ending? It’s like the son coming back out the airport tunnel for one more quick hug. Or the unexpected chance to stop back by your grandparents’ house before it is sold, months after they leave it empty.

A movie isn’t a death. A snippet of a story isn’t the return of lost time. But sometimes little things remind you of big ones–that everything about our lives is finite, mommies only get so long to hold their children in their lap, and that popcorn summers all too quickly give way to school days, education, maturity, and the empty nest.

Parking Karma

I have good parking karma. When my mom was in town last weekend, still very sick and weak and unable to walk long distances, I got a front row spot, and I mean the very FRONT spot, at every single store we visited–four of them one afternoon.

Mom was aghast. “This is Austin,” she said, gesturing to the SUVs circling the lot with malicious carnality. “How did you manage all these good spots?” She was relieved, no doubt. The temperature was over 100 and she lost energy fast, as she has since eight rounds of chemo and twenty rounds of radiation.

I explained. “I never ever, not once, cut someone off for a parking spot. If I am alone in the car, I never take a front spot, even when it’s open. I leave it for someone who needs it–someone with little kids, or someone older, or just tired or in a hurry. I park near the back and walk.”

We entered the craft store to a rush of air conditioning. “And so this gets you good spots when you need it.”

“Almost always,” I said. “That’s why everyone else always makes me drive to Sixth Street!”

I wished this karma worked with more critical parts of my life. Since high school I have helped others with their writing–fixing term papers, editing newspaper stories. In college my friend Janel and I would escape to empty computer labs and pace the room, spouting lead sentences for our Daily Texan features to each other until they satisfied our critical ears.

In my novel group, I’ve critiqued endlessly, read entire newbie novels, rewritten query letters and reviewed synopses. Sometimes I’ve put in days or weeks of work to help someone else. The other day I did a bit of research to help a friend send a killer proposal to the very same agent I had also sent my book to. And her novel is superior to mine, a better fit even for the agency.

But the karma fails here. Others do read my stories and give me valid criticism when I ask, although I’ve found sometimes they feel they can’t help me figure out what dissatisfies me about a particular work. And I have had stories published, which I suppose is more than some ever manage, so I should be grateful.

But the big payoff, the super proud moment of some national publication, some prestigious lit mag, or the Holy Grail–a novel contract–eludes me despite this being the third time in my life I have devoted all my energy to it.

Maybe some small parts of our social network, like parking, work into the weave of the universe’s checks and balances easily, not unlike needlepoint on a tapestry, one long thread that helps create a larger more complex image.

But the big things–wealth, fame, approval, validation, reward–those are independent of how we act or live or help others. They are random, unprejudiced, rare. Not merit based or even considerate of need. Like the lottery. I know that in order to win, you have to buy the tickets. You have to get in the game. And I’ve done that, devoted years of creative energy and time, sometimes with great sacrifice, like spending all the grocery money on Quick Picks, just to take the chance. But fate isn’t Karmic when it comes to this.

I remain the one everyone says they owe. But fail myself. No debts. But no bonus either.

Instead I revel in my little glory. A rainy day. Two pouty kids. A desperate need for Kraft Easy Mac–right NOW! And a car slides out of a spot by the grocery store door. So I take it.

Star Spangled Innocence

I grew up a die-hard patriot. Be true to the red, white and blue. Let freedom ring. Be all that you can be. God bless America!

I maintained a relatively untarnished view of our country through Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Hostages. Inflation. Gulf War. Stain on a Dress.

September 11 found me riding the wave of refreshed national pride like most every other American. Bound by fear and anger and revulsion, United We Stood, singing Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA.

I liked the optimistic buoyancy of my youthful patriotism, and it still seems best to infuse my two daughters with it. As we decorated scooters yesterday, I thought of this, but still, even as opportunities arose to explain about national pride and history, I let them slide by. Sometimes it’s really really hard to love your country. This has been one of those times.

I need not have worried. Some things come with childhood–innocence, joy, believing in the good in things, and patriotism for patriotism’s sake. Today Elizabeth found a forgotten flag under a chair and said, “Mama, this one fell off my scooter!”

I told her, “No, it’s an extra. You can keep it.”

She ran to the front door and struggled to unlock it.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I have to see if it still waves!”

“Waves?” I asked her, opening the door.

“Yes! Over the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

I watched her, standing framed by the entry and looking out in the street, holding up her flag to the blinding light of the noonday sun, the day after North Korea tested its long-range missiles, notably long enough to reach the US, on a national holiday, just to be provocative.

She doesn’t need to know that, not yet. Nor of her enemies, enemies of the state, who plan their terror or their futures as players in an international stage for power.

She just needs to know where she’s from, that it can get better, and no matter the problem, we can get rid of it in about four years because that is how democracy works. How America works.

The Great Parade Competition

This Fourth of July, as we have since the girls were born, we gussied up some mode of kiddie transportation and traversed the route for the neighborhood holiday parade.

In some years, the competition between moms has been fierce for high-profile prizes such as Best Decorated Stroller, Most Colorful Bicycle, and Most Patriotic Wagon. Some years we have won (BDS 2003); others we’ve suffered the agony of defeat.

My best friend and nemesis, Stephanie, usually takes multiple prizes and this year was no exception. She snagged MCB and also the tricycle category, although we think a toddler with a bow-bedecked trike got robbed as Steph’s daughter’s “tricycle” was actually a bike with big training wheels. We would have demanded a recount, hanging chads and all. But it was clearly a liberal ballot.

During the parade this year, the girls rode scooters, an edgy category as the slender frame of this mode of transport does not provide much room for creativity. We did the best we could with flag and ribbon. I think the coup de grace, however, was Emily shedding her unflagging tomboyishness and donning a skirt my mom made for me in the 1976 Bi-centennial. The 30 year old outfit attracts attention with its red, white, and blue panels and trim.

Emily wanted to dash ahead and exploit the long smooth street leading up to the Country Club with daring speed. Elizabeth lagged behind with her dad about a quarter mile back. I lamented the loss of the duo, as I felt their matching scooter set was an asset sure to bring in the win, but girls will be girls.

We walked the grounds of the Club, moonjumping and water dunk boothing and eating cookies. We all grew edgy as the band finished their number and the neighborhood president took the mike to announce the winners. This was mainly, however, because Elizabeth demanded a flamingo balloon and we had picked the wrong twister. “Jelly Bean does those,” the clown said, pointing to a woman across the field with a snaking line leading from her table.

“Just make it pink, and fast,” I said. “She won’t know.” We had no time for flamingo hunting at a time like this!

And Elizabeth accepted her pink tangle without question.

We approached the stage and listened to categories. Emily was a bit tense, I noticed. She knew what was happening, and that she might win or lose. I wondered what would happen if one sister won and the other didn’t. I closed my eyes, sweat dripping between my shoulder blades. Howling, no doubt, would be involved.

“And we have two sisters taking the scooter category!” the man said. “Emily and Elizabeth!”

What were the odds of that? They must have been chosen separately, and when the entry numbers compared to names, decided they should share the prize. The girls headed up to the bandstand without prodding and accepted their prizes.

There must have been a parent on that judging panel who understood sibling rivalry. Thank God for that.

Have a good holiday, everyone.

Still Lives

Through some strange shimmer in the space-time that governs the internet, an old Wired Magazine article that I was quoted in is apparently coming up high in the search engines for “stillborn photo.”

Women are emailing me suddenly, asking me to restore their images of babies, lifeless and dark, small errant angels out of place among the breathing grieving world of their parents, family, siblings, doctors, living beings.

I have not done this sort of work in years. When my miscarriage web site became too popular, averaging half a million hits a week, I had to take down the information about these services as I was too inundated with images. Every day, another ding of my inbox, another lost child’s picture affixed to another disconsolate message. I’d hardened myself after years of running the site, stories that could break down other people were common to me, it took something extraordinary to bring my well-worn tears. But the pictures. I kept looking at them, looking for something that might give me another clue, another small detail of what my baby would have looked like, had I the courage at 28 to see him face to face, to wail and push and painfully bring him into the world for an instant, to look at his features before they took him away.

But I chose instead an easier route, a surgery, and recovered in less than a day. No tiny blanket bloodied by his umbilical cord. No child weighing mere ounces yet still completely formed. No searing memory preserved on delicate paper, colored crystals on a page.

I stopped accepting the images completely when I was pregnant with Elizabeth. I had lost her twin and the arrival of a stillborn image at the same gestational week as she was then sent me into a terror. I couldn’t open my inbox. I couldn’t load the picture. I remember stumbling through rooms of the house, holding my belly, sobbing to the point of throwing up. The sonograms of my first baby as well as Emily hung on the wall, and seeing them brought me to my knees, to my side, head on the carpet. They could not ask this of me anymore, to bring their babies on screen so that I might fix the color, repair the skin, take away the bruises. I could not do it anymore. Death was too close, between my heart and my belly, my oxygen and my blood. I found two other people who did restorations and sent everyone to them.

I shudder now when my inbox dings. I am not as hard as I once was, reading those stories every day. I have not looked at such images in a long time. And I’m afraid, once I do, it will all rush back, the crying, the fear, the memories of blood sliding across white tile, trying to catch it with my hands as if to stuff it back inside, make it stop, make it not happen.

But the internet has spoken, and I cannot control that. I look at these emails, both saying the same thing–they found the article about me, and would I please work on their baby’s picture? What do I tell them now?

I remember that article well–the one where they said I used the word gruesome to describe these babies. I would sue them if I could. These babies are not that, not ever, and to say I used that word is to say that my baby, the one never photographed, never documented, never held, is also that. How dare they.

I will sit here, my two little girls sleeping in their beds, as space-time shifts, as other mothers cry over their losses, and think of other babies, other lives, and of the night, still and black, black and still.

Dancer Babe

I haven’t done a mommy blog in a while, all caught up in the novel stuff.

In the meantime, my little one had a recital!

The girls all dressed in their feathery flapper duds and did a ballet number to “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”

I have some behind the scenes footage as I was the “stage mom” and stayed backstage with the girls rather than actually see the performance.

Elizabeth did great! She sang loud and didn’t get mad and push anybody over, which if I have forced you to watch some of the rehearsal videos I took, happened regularly!

And Emily is recovering well from her teeth incident. Lip swelling down. Tooth fairy did right by her.

Writing on the Road: Novels and Dreams

An unfinished novel is like an interrupted dream.
I come to the end of this journey designated specifically for completing a second draft of Helena the Muse and see so much more work than I could have imagined in any waking state. I am still groggy, half asleep, and feel unsated, the vision incomplete, as though I had only begun the hard leg of my travels, with many bug stings and limb lashes and hard ground to sleep on still to go.

I regret, perhaps, traveling so far. I stayed primarily in the Ozarks, near Eureka Springs, revisiting my adolescent trip there and camping next to lakes and rivers. But the drive time was long and took up much time. Still, listening to Hawking was edifying if not distracting, Missouri can count me as a visitor thanks to my inability to navigate while learning about singularity in black holes. And on the long road back to Texas I listened to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which had an overstory punctuated by flashbacks like mine. I pulled over in the Ouachita National Forest to scratch out a diagram of her story structure, seeing its efficiency and lamenting the complexity of mine.

So I drove back to my old home town and parked myself at the public library, making outline after outline until I had a better handle on my overstory and the subplots within them. I think it is more streamlined now and hopefully works better.

And yet, still so much new writing to do, so much clean up.

My main goal now is to get the first 50 pages, the most an agent might ask for at the conference, as perfect as possible. This is a huge task, as each time I write a new version of the opening scenes, I hate them more. I want it to move; I must get background in. It’s frustrating and taxing and twice yesterday I wanted to hurl my laptop across the room but instead sat in a little study room, hiding on the floor behind the table and just cried instead.

It will get done. One way or another. It’s just a longer and harder road than I thought it would be. And as for dreaming, sleep is a luxury I can ill afford. Prepare yourself for the dark circle eyed Deanna, the pale wan version, until July.

If only a novel were like an uninterrupted dream, comfortable, languorous, and eternal.

Writing on the Road: Onward

The third campsite required 10 miles of driving down a dirt road to locate. And caretaker “Bob” was a flirt (despite grandfatherly age) so I spent a lot of time nodding at his endless stories and looking on longingly as my laptop battery slowly ebbed. He took the picture.

The book has undergone the re-org and now I work frantically to write new scenes and fix a kajillion consistency errors. I don’t think I’ll be done before I head back Wednesday. I mainly just try to keep going past lethargy, sick-of-the-bookness, and jolts of weird frenetic anxiety.

Writing on the Road: Detriments to Working

So, I think I’m going to escape the world and work on this book! Ha! Between driving, being chased by scary jaws-looking trucks (check out my side mirror–this guy drove beside me for 100 miles!), finding a campsite and surviving frightening nights alone in the dark, who has freaking time to write? I’m better off with a studio and two rugrats! I swear EVERYONE wants to talk to me. Do I look that friendly? Can I pass myself off as stuck up for a while?

I spent about four hours copying every plot point onto notecards last night and this morning. I can’t quite get a handle on what to do. I just keep working, letting the small problems occur to me–dropped characters, missing exposition, too-brief dialogue–and hope the big picture comes through eventually.

Yesterday I made friends with a squirrel (although if he ever confesses to being the scary little rodent who hurled himself between my rainfly and my inner tent wall last night, our affair is OVER) and this morning he hung out as I scribbled cards, often shaking his tail at me if I was not paying attention, as if to say, “Throw me a bone here, woman, I’m cute!” I took a hike along a trail that bordered the shore of the lake where I camped, and when I returned, there he was again. He seemed a bit sad when I packed up my tent, but alas, I had to get to the library, where I could have wireless and more distractions (like blogging) to keep me from figuring out what is wrong with my book.

Maybe I’ll just declare it healthy and go sightseeing.

Hope everyone back home is doing well. I’m in state #4, although #3 was visited solely due to navigational error. Big navigational error. Blame the scary truck. Oh, and Stephen Hawkings. I do not appear to have the brain power to listen to lectures on quantum mechanics and drive simultaneously (especially since I am texting Kurt every five minutes too.) And negotiating turns in the … mountains …

Hey. I know what’s missing. Red wine and coke. Surely that’s to be had somewhere around here.