Monday, June 26, 2006

Ellie Mae Clampett Goes to Aspen

Blogging is a type of writing, right? I don’t need to feel guilty about sitting in an Aspen Starbucks blogging instead of working on a novel or studying craft, right?

It’s beautiful here. The house is remarkable. But I’m left with this sense that I’ve just packed up the truck and moved to Bever-leeee.

The trip here was only mildly eventful. At the Phoenix airport, while waiting on my (late) connecting flight I looked down at a young woman who was reading a manuscript and realized it was mine. I introduced myself and thought we’d have a chatty moment or two about our hopes for the week. She said, “Oh.” Not “Hey, I liked your story” or “Funny line on page three” or even “What do you think Ron Carlson will be like as workshop leader?” I asked who she was and was not surprised to learn she was the author of the only story in the whole pile that I hated—writing that gives the impression of depth but wherein there is no there there.

The flight was delayed, the plane was tiny, and when I got on I stepped on a pair of abandoned sunglasses and broke them. I though, shamefully, “I’m so glad those were someone else’s sunglasses and not my own.” Then last night when I unpacked my own sunglasses were broken in two. I’m not sure what the message there was from the universe: be more remorseful when you break people’s things? Always keep your sunglasses in a hard shell protective case? What?

Unfriendly Writer Woman ended up being my seat mate. I tried again to engage her by commenting on her rapid-fire line editing, but she just smiled that smile that is not really a smile but more of a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign. So I turned on my iPod. Later, when the plane hit the most horrendous single-moment of turbulence I’ve ever experienced—we’re talking “Tower of Terror” style drop—my glass of water went flying and then water all over the ceiling that rained down on her for the rest of the trip, I felt like, well, maybe there is something to the whole karma deal. (But I still don’t think my sunglasses should have broken.)

D & L, my hosts, were not at the airport to greet me. The American West delay threatened to make them late to the YoYo Ma concert. A woman gave me a note from L with directions to the house and a suggestion to take a cab.

The house is indescribable, though of course I will try. Where I’m from, when people are “having a house built” what it means is that a new house is being built in a former forest or cornfield and it looks, basically, like the other houses near it. This is a house. With an architect and a lot of square footage and a view.

The entrance to the house is a curving gravel lane flanked by pines, Aspens, and wildflowers (L is a landscape architect). From the outside you can tell that it’s going to be something special inside, but it doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself—no big Tammy Wynnette-esque pillars out front. (Dark wood, lots of glass, maybe Neo Prairie style if such a thing exists??) D has a little office building in the front garden, all glass. Lots of sculpture, flowers, stepping stones, and a formidable entrance.

Hannah the Golden Retriever greeted me as soon as I opened the door. She immediately tried to crawl up onto me and started whining with joy that someone was giving her some attention.

The entry hall was so breathtaking that I had a hard time moving further into the house. Gorgeous hardwood, four giant medieval-looking figures, twice my height lined the corridor, a big vase of fresh flowers, artwork. I can’t even begin to think of how to do it justice.

I told Hannah that I needed to find my room (L had left directions to the room and instructions for how to avoid altitude sickness—drink lots of water and lie down flat for a half an hour as soon as you arrive). Hannah very regally walked me to my room and stood at the door like a bellhop, awaiting her tip.

My room is huge—cathedral ceiling with a ladder that goes up to a loft, an entire wall of windows overlooking the Rockies, a door out on to the back patio, beautiful, unique antique furnishings, literary readings placed out on the desk for my perusal, a bar of lemon verbena soap awaiting me in the shower, fluffy duvet, what must be 6,000 thread count sheets, not to mention the fluffy robe, towels, and flip flops. Also, in the closet—a hanging metal skeleton!

A river rushes down the incline off the patio. I went out to hear it and locked myself out of my room, so had to traipse through the yard (more wildflowers! More view!) back to the front door, where Hannah greeted me again and insisted I look at the living room and kitchen. Wow. One huge room, huge cathedral-sized windows, lots of exposed wood, big firepace, books, artwork. Every where there are little wooden artists dummies, sitting in windows, hanging on picture frames, doing acrobatics across a bulkhead.

Hannah insisted I play tug of war with her, which I’m used to with my Scottie, though it turns out Golden Retrievers can do a LOT more tugging. I finally had to cry uncle.

After my altitude treatment, I decided I’d walk to The Gant where Summer Words is being held this year. D had told me it was a 15 minute walk. Sure. For someone who is fit, athletic, and used to this altitude. Forty minutes later I lumbered into the reception area, just in time to meet Ron Carlson, get my name tag, say hello to the Countess who was on the Ireland trip with me in November. Then I found my friend H who was looking for me, so we went off to have dinner, talk about writing, and catch up. She very graciously drove me back to The House and went off to set up her camper. (People who can do grown-up things like set up campers amaze me.)

I sat on the patio watching the sun set behind the Rockies and waited for my hosts to return. When they did, we talked a little and then I tumbled in my Princess and the Pea bed. I can’t believe I had doubts that this house would be less exciting than the Hotel Jerome.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Fruitless Sneaks

I hate snakes. Call it irrational, girly, predictable, whatever you want, but I seriously think all snake should die. I don't feel this way about spiders or mice--in fact, I regularly spring the traps set at the Dog House because it seems like bad, bad karma to eighty-six something so cute who is just out there trying to make a living like the rest of us. But snakes are a different story & I'm not even from a part of the world where they are poisonous.

Today, I let the dog out and two seconds later heard this awful caterwauling on the kitchen deck. I looked out in time to see a giant snake coiled up and ready to lunge at my sweet Scottie, who has a ferocious bark that should have scared the snake off. I called the dog in but the snake then glared at us, still coiled, through the window. He opened his mouth, wide, to show us what he was made of (though possibly he was just yawning and completely bored by us). The Scottie whimpered, desperate to give the snake what for. I poked at the glass and made noises meant to scare it off, but the snake just stared at me, sitting on its snake-haunches, ready to attack. He didn't leave until we walked away from the window and let him "win." I haven't let the dog out since.

There are a lot of fantastical things in the Bible--people turning to pillars of salt, burning bushes, walking on water--but I've never had a problem with believing any of it. Today, though, I'm thinking the whole Garden of Eden story is a real crock. What self-respecting woman would talk to a snake? I just don't think it would happen. They are all side-windy and slithery and awful.

At school, I regularly have female students--usually those with tattoos of pentagrams who smell of patchouli--who insist that snakes are wonderful, loving pets, but I never believe them. I think its for affect. I'm sorry--you can't curl up with a snake and watch old "Frasier" reruns, like the Scottie Dog and I did last night. What you can do with a pet snake is take it out of its aquarium in an attempt to make guests uncomfortable. That's about it. I've always thought how awful it was that cats were regularly murdered in medieval times (and beyond) because they were associated with witchcraft. How ignorant and heartless, I'd think. But snakes? It just seems like the truth--they are evil and must die.

Several years ago I had a student who was not a native speaker of English who wrote a paper in which she talked frequently about "sneaks." At the time, I pictured people who were out to get her, sneaking around her neighborhood, maybe painting racial epithets on her garage door or rifling through her garbage. After the third read-thru, it dawned on me that "sneaks" were really SNAKES. The paper was about how much she hated sneaks. Here, here.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Summer of a Dormouse

Yesterday, my BABY half-brother graduated from high school. Technically, I’m old enough to be his mother (my father and step-mother didn’t adopt him until I was 21), but normally, I feel like I’m just a few years older than he is, possibly because I never learned to be a grown-up. I can still remember the joy I had when I was in graduate school and listening to little five year old him espouse the joys of “Beavis and Butthead” not because he “got” it but because he wanted to emulate anything his cool older brother did. All three of us were the same age in that moment, liking something irreverent and silly, no matter how inappropriate the show was for a five year old. Or a ten year old, for that matter. Or somebody working on her master’s degree. I was raised as an only child and was basically adult when both boys were born, so these moments of sibling camaraderie are few and far between.

But then on a milestone like graduation, I’m forced to admit how old I am and reflect on his childhood and how quickly it went and how mostly I didn’t witness it because we lived in two different cities and I was busy. It seems like two years ago that I met him for the first time, played with his chubby toes, and looked into his little almond old man eyes and felt a sorry for him, that he’d just been hanging out in a Korean orphanage, minding his own baby business when he was plucked from his crib, flown around the world and deposited into the loving arms of a family that is not bad, but at the very best, is pathologically dysfunctional.

And now he is a grown-up, who doesn’t have to have the time for me if he doesn’t want to. How quickly the tables do shift.

I rode the 40 minutes to the graduation with my step-mother and her new husband, Not My Dad. I never miss Dad so much as I do when I am around NMD, and he is telling his silly jokes, spouting off his rigid religious views, or implying that my whole family is screwed up because we’re introverts and not extroverts like his family. He’s not a bad man, makes the step-mother happy, and seems to care about my brothers. But when he speaks, what I want to hear is my dad’s voice, having a discussion, cracking off some line & then laughing. What a good laugh my dad had. Also, Dad would never have told a joke about knowing my step-mother ‘biblically’ and expected laughs for it. His wit was cleverer and slightly more tasteful in mixed company. (Also, Dad would have been aware of the frightening images he was scarring the listener with!) But, there you go. Not only do you not get to pick your family (biological or adoptive), but you also don’t get to pick your second round step-families. So you laugh when it is expected and you are appreciative when NMD buys you a sundae at Friendly’s.

In other news, I have sent off five chapters to Aspen to be considered by fellow workshoppers and two agents I’m paying $35 a pop to “consult” with. The manuscript was due—in Aspen—on Wednesday, to be considered for the agent lottery, so of course I was still writing it all on Tuesday and mailing it out for $36 via Fed Ex at 4:30 in the afternoon. One day I hope to discover why my writing is better when I put myself into fit of terror and self-loathing at the eleventh hour. I don’t know that the chapters are “good” but certainly they are better than the swill I’d written a few weeks earlier when I wasn’t under the gun. I think in the perfect world (for me), I would have an agent/editor/publisher who would, at least once a week, call and say, “Look. Your stuff is due tomorrow or your career is over and, what’s more, we’re going to take out commercial time on major networks to tell the world what a horrible, lazy person you are if you don’t meet this deadline.” Then I’d write. I’d write regularly and well.