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Friday, March 28, 2008

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The last day of our acquaintance...

...was Wednesday. I locked the front door at 10:17 p.m., and drove the last van-load away in the dark, crying hard. Ten years.

Goodbye. And thank you.


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Saturday, March 22, 2008

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Hi! My name is Svetlana and I am from Ukraine. This is about your article "Call Mrs. Fix-it." I can not stress enough how angry I was reading it! How dare you compare tragedy in Chernobyl and your stupid washing machine? Do you know how many people died in there? How many children were born with birth defects? Children with cancer and leukemia waiting for their turn to die?It was a much bigger tragedy than 911. Why don't you compare your washing machine to what happened on September 11? Shame on you! Or you just mention Chernobyl to show off (Hey, I know what it is! Do you?) What is your biggest problem—house selling?

(edited for spelling and punctuation—you can read the original in the comments section of this post).


I was sixteen years old and standing in Mr. Gregory's room waiting for math class to begin when I heard about Chernobyl. I remember feeling sick with fear. I remember wondering how many people had died and would die. It was, and remains, horrifying.

Ironically, I scolded my husband for comparing something to a "tsunami" just the other day. People invoke "holocaust" and "Nazi" just as casually, and I have no doubt that before long, September 11 will find its way into the vernacular as a metaphor for miniscule inconveniences. I don't know what the half-life is for human trauma, at what point the reference becomes dilute enough for the culture to re-ingest it without harm, maybe even heal from a hair of the dog that bit; the homeopathy of words.

When I read your comment, I thought, maybe I should have compared it to a meltdown instead, kept it generic, something a writer should avoid (I almost added, "like the plague"). A good writer has to reach past "tree" and grab "sycamore," past "bird" and pick up "crow."

Sometimes we overreach.

I am sorry if my metaphor caused pain. I did not mean to be insensitive to others' suffering. As for my biggest problems, I do not write about them here. But I don't see how the unavoidable fact that somebody, somewhere, is having a better or worse experience, cancels out one's own.

I'm curious to know what the rest of you think.


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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

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The secret lives of houses

So, the "for sale" sign went up on a Thursday. Saturday night, our house was sold. Sunday, we went out and picked out our new house.

I didn't want to write about it until it was official. It's official: we closed both deals today. Our heads have been spinning at about 78 rpm for the past month. Bring over your old Al Jolson records.

Understand something: we are the people who routinely spend an hour driving around trying to decide where to spend thirty-five bucks on supper. By extrapolation, this process should have taken us a year. I guess if you include all my hand-wringing leading up to the decision, it sort of did.

I can hardly tell you now, what that was all about. I am so in love with our new house and neighborhood, so excited to be getting a fresh start. I don't know why I have to learn this particular lesson over and over; why letting go of the familiar is so damn hard for me. I hope not to forget it again for a little while.

I wrote back in the fall that I felt this house had been withdrawing its energy from us. Turns out, it was making eyes at someone. Patrick got to meet one of the buyers at the inspection, and heard the story. The couple who bought it have been in love with it for four years. Their agent had shown them a hundred houses, and none would do. Finally, a friend asked, "What is it you're looking for?"

"I'll show you," she said, and took her past our house, her crush, on the very evening the "for sale" sign went up. Patrick said the inspector could have reported blood pouring from the walls, and she would have still wanted this house. Her house.

I am so happy for her, for them, and for us. I wanted someone who would "get" this place the minute they walked in, and they did. I can leave now, knowing it will be loved.

Just in case I didn't get the point that it wasn't all about me after all, the day after our offer was accepted on the new house, we took the kids back over for another look, and saw that the seller was there.

"I think it would be nice for you guys to meet," our agent said. Patrick got out of the car ahead of me, and I stayed behind a moment to unload the boys. When I looked up, Patrick was hugging a strange man.

"Well, that's just inappropriate," I thought.

I started to walk over, slightly embarrassed over my husband's low personal boundaries, and extended my hand.





The man who sold us our new house is one of those old friends who turns up rarely and always unexpectedly in our lives, but with whom we have always had a deep and immediate connection. We had lost track of him years ago. He'd moved to Colorado, but had come home to move his aging mother out of the home his father had built for them in the fifties. She was also having a hard time letting go. He was so happy he'd be able to tell her that a family with children would be moving in, that three boisterous boys would be climbing the trees and slamming the doors, displacing all the old ghosts with young life. We made him promise to bring her to visit us in the summer, and to beg her to bring her photo albums.

As I get older, I get softer and softer toward refrigerator magnet theology. You know, "God never closes a door without opening a window," that sort of thing. I'm thinking of having this one tattooed on my forehead, in a cross-stitch pattern:

God never does works on just one person's problem at a time.

You can see some "before" photos of the new house in the flickr set (link in right sidebar). There's about a month's worth of painting and flooring to be done before we can move in, but the tile in the main bathroom stays. Because if ever a family needed a big dose of pink, it's this one.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

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All Points Bulletin

You are a mature, experienced literary agent/editor with a passion beyond reason for good writing and writers. You have an eye for vision, and an ear for voice. Where others see only the pitch in front of them, you can discern the arc of a body of work. You'll follow it all the way, too, if you think it might lead to gold.

You would not deign to use the word "brand" as a verb, without irony, to the face of any writer, but you are practical. You can and will speak any language necessary to the people who get books in the hands of readers. You will find that I am similarly pragmatic. Until I tell you I am taking a couple of years off in between books to put out a poetry collection with a small press in northern Minnesota you've never heard of. But you love poetry, so we're cool.

You are looking for people whose principle talent is writing, not marketing. If this blog were a room we could both stand in, and I gestured around to the stacks and stacks of essays and stories, and showed you my nearly accidental publication credits and said, "There are books in here somewhere. Please help me find them," you wouldn't roll your eyes and slam the door. You would pick up one manila folder, then another, and you would see what needs to happen next, and you would tell me what to do. I would do it, too. Just ask my realtor.

You believe your role is more than just brokering a commodity; you think of yourself as a collaborator. You bring more than signatures to a contract; you bring direction. You bring faith. You are creating something too. You get emotionally invested in the projects you take on. You have cried alone at your desk when a manuscript has met with success or failure. You are one of the last of your kind. Most people say you no longer exist at all, except in myth. But I believe in you.

Please find me.


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Sunday, March 16, 2008

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Gonna Send 5 Copies to My Mother

Guess which of these headlines from the cover of the April issue of Good Housekeeping goes with my essay on page 217:
WIN! A Maid for a Year!

6 Metabolism Mistakes

America's Sweetheart Shares Her Painful Past

"She Drives Me Crazy!"

The answer is none! And yet somehow, all! This is my third time being featured in the magazine, by the way. They are very nice to me, the Hearsts. Last month they featured my friend Alice. You never know who will pop up there. Why don't you subscribe?

In the meantime, you can find the April issue on sale now at every neighborhood grocery store in the country but mine, apparently. I happened across a copy in the drugstore yesterday, and flipped it open to see my husband's smiling face. My first thought was how his mom would have busted with pride. The cover of Rolling Stone magazine wouldn't have phased her. But a picture of her golden, impossible boy in Good Housekeeping? Big time.

So this one's for you, Millie. Thanks for letting me have him.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

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There is a mini-dumpster in my driveway, three-quarters full of junk that Patrick and our nine-year-old hauled from our garage and attic last weekend.

I've been keeping clear of it, because I was afraid the eco-guilt would cause me to start picking stuff back out of it like a five-year-old on the night before a yard sale. With every trip they took down the stairs, I wondered if we were sending someone else's treasure to the landfill.

This morning, I had to go and peer in. Junk. About 98 per cent pure.

And we've been living with it and paying for the space to keep it all these years. As flylady says, treating our home like a landfill. If I'm not comfortable treating the landfill as a landfill, why am I any more comfortable treating my living space as one? It's crazy.

Sometimes I wonder if people like us are carrying around an unfair share of society's guilt. We've been a single car family for all but two of our twelve years together. We cloth diapered two of our three kids. We fill two recycle bins every week. There are about three pieces of furniture in this house that are less than twenty years old (and believe me, the rest are not fancy antiques). I know we are part of the problem, but are we THE problem?

This move is about downsizing and simplifying, but first and foremost, it is about restructuring. About rebuilding our financial house on bedrock instead of sand. Of unhitching our horse from behind the wagon. Of surgically reattaching the tail to the back of the dog. You get the idea. It's from the ground up.

We have gone without so many of the basics for so long while trying to attack our money problems from the top down. We put our debts ahead of the most elemental things. Health care (for us, not the kids, who have been covered by a wonderful state program that we will sadly probably not qualify for much longer). Emergency savings. Taxes. We've been living retroactively, constantly trying to catch up, never able to gain traction on today, let alone tomorrow.

Looking into that dumpster was like looking at a rotten tooth that had to be pulled. I can't believe I held onto what was hurting us for so long.

It's going to take a while; barring unforeseen developments, a few years at least. But step by step, we're going to get our house in order. The past no longer comes ahead of today.


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Monday, March 10, 2008

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Melt Your Heart

It snowed! Twice! In March, in Little Rock. Unheard of. After telling the boys to abandon hope for this year, they got two days of actual inches of the stuff. They made snowballs and snowboulders and drank hot chocolate, and the next day, spring would pick up right where it left off. Forty-eight hours of winter, all told, with a three day rest in between and book-ended by days in the mid to high 50s. A winter that all winters should be modelled on, in my opinion.

I envy my sister many of the fruits of her choice to stay in my hometown of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, and raise her family there. Suiting up small kids in snow suits, hats, scarfs, mitten and boots every day for four months of the year is not one of them. Mornings are hard enough. Neither do I miss shoveling driveways, the cold weather equivalent of trying to bail water out of a hole dug in the sand at the water's edge. A hole big enough to fit your car in. With a plough driving by every few hours to help push all the water back in.

Okay, there's no equivalent. That's why I live here, with scant regret for the hassle of northern winters. But I admit, I had quite forgotten that in addition to delivering a children's amusement park to your yard, a good snowfall can do this:


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Monday, March 03, 2008

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What a country.

I've been a fan of Leah Peterson's blogger interview series for as long as I've been a blogger (blog blog bloggity blog!). When she retired the series, she retired a fond daydream of mine with it. No way would I would never be in that number.

Enter Neil Kramer and the Great Interview Experiment, like a fairy godmother with a magic wand. Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo (I think that's yiddish for abracadabra). Put 'em together and what have you got?

Me, being interviewed by Leah:

When and why did you start blogging?

In the summer of 2005, I went home to Newfoundland for a month. I set up a Yahoo 360 blog as a travel diary to share with friends back in Arkansas. I thought it would just be a little travelogue, with vacation photographs. I sat down to write about some moose that we saw,and wound up writing about my expatriate experience; how it feels to live so far from home, and what it means to not really belong to one culture or the other.

It took me totally by surprise. I had never thought of myself as a prose writer. I had been a poet before I had children, and I hadn't yet figured out how to be that with small kids, because I had neither the time, nor the emotional space for poetry. But blogging can tolerate interruptions. I can (and do) blog with a child in my lap. I can get up and pour juice or apply a band-aid, and come back to it. And there is feedback. I'm very extroverted, and that makes it hard to be alone with my writing for long stretches. Creating a blog post feels more conversational. There's a receiving end.

Do you have any tips for people wanting to get their writing published in magazines etc.?

Write well.

The magazine stuff has been so surreal. An editor at Good Housekeeping found Notes last spring, and two posts have now been adapted for print, with more coming. I read somewhere that putting your best work out on your blog and hoping to get published in print is like putting your resume on your doorstep and hoping to get a job. Isn't that pithy? I almost believed it. Like I almost believed the advice to not put essay-length posts on the blog, but keep it light and short. I went to a Blogher workshop last summer where it was said that being a generalist will guarantee that your blog will never go anywhere. So much for conventional wisdom.

I write what I have to write, and I try to stay in forward motion. I tell myself the outcome is not my business—the work will get where it needs to go. I obey little nudges, and once in a blue moon, they actually work out. I had two guest columns in the Globe & Mail (Canada's equivalent of the Washington Post) because it popped into my head that they might fit well there. The editor agreed.

It's so easy to query and submit now. Learn the rules of querying, follow them, and then just keep writing, even though you never hear back, or a mailbot writes to say you suck. Rejection doesn't get any easier, but the acceptances make it all worthwhile. At the very least, you've still got your blog. Somebody, somewhere, gives a damn.

What were you like as a child?

A daydreamer and dawdler. Also precocious, sensitive and bossy. I haven't changed much.

Are your children like you?

I really work hard at seeing my kids for who they are themselves, because I think too many parents project their own stuff onto their children. But yes, there are a few undeniable traits we share. It's easy to see little me in my nine-year-old when he is carrying the weight of the world around or being a know-it-all. And the way my middle son can tune into his interior world for long stretches is very much like me. I think by the time the youngest arrived on the scene, all the available projections were used up, and he was free to be completely himself.

What's your favorite music?

Whatever I am listening to. I have wildly eclectic (some might say indiscriminate) taste. I try to keep up with the trendy stuff—indie rock, emo and even commercial pop. But there are a few staples I keep coming back to, mainly folk and alt-country. Tom Petty is the musical version of my very favorite pair of jeans. It sounds trite to say music is really important to me, because I can't imagine that it isn't for everybody, but music is REALLY important to me. My three children are a direct result of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville album. You'd think she'd come over and babysit once in a while.

You recently wrote about some very personal financial issues. Do you regret it? What kind of feedback did you get? Would you do it again?

Opening up about our financial struggles last year was as naked as I have ever gotten on the blog. It got to the point where I couldn't not write about it. My husband's freelance design business had flat-lined for months. We were facing foreclosure warnings, utility shut-offs. It was all that was going on with me. It was starting to feel artificial to keep writing around it.

I did worry that people might judge, tell us to suck it up, get a couple of real jobs. I got the opposite response. My readers were incredibly supportive. They wrote to tell me what my writing was worth to them, they shared their own struggles, they even told me to put up advertising! It was the most amazing vote of confidence, and it kept me going.

Not only would I do it again, I am doing it again. I recently signed on as a blogger for AOL's money blog, WalletPop, and I will be sharing more as we wobble our way toward something like financial security.

Your writing seems to be so often inspired. Where do you find inspiration?

One of the great things about blogging is that you become an observer as well as an actor in your own life. The cliche is that bloggers are self-absorbed (like other writers aren't), but the absorption is really with life. Even the most everyday, mundane happening can be rich with story. It's an exercise in mindfulness.

I think one of the reasons people respond to personal blogs is the way it makes them think about the vividness of their own everyday experience.

Would you share one of your favorite poems that you've written?

This one was written for my middle son, on the eve of his fifth birthday.

Jars of Clay

All my poetry is broken.
Though it held up
to years and years
of life decanted.
Amphorae for two marriages.
An urn for my father’s ashes.
A corked bottle
with a scroll in it
for exile.

A vessel for every memory
regret, and desire
and not one of them
not all of them
could hold one drop of you,
four years old and crouched
in the garden, your hands
cupped around small life,
a rapt and tender god.

(Kyran Pittman, All Rights Reserved)

I'd love to hear about how you became a mail-order bride.

Ha! You'll have to wait until I get a book deal (or we get drunk together at Blogher). But you get an advance copy. xo

Any words of wisdom to share with the masses?

Drop everything and run toward the person you are.

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World Class MonoBlog

Did anyone catch this weekend's Saturday Night Live opening monologue with Ellen Page of Juno, and Andy Samberg as blogger/stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody?

CD: What's your dental damage, Kermit the Blog? I mean, ex-squeeze me for writing you a world-class monoblog.

EP: Okay, you're using the word "blog" entirely too much.

DC: What the blog are you blogging about, Sonic the Hedge-Blog?

EP: Okay, alright...

DC: Blog the Bounty Hunter! Captain's blog! Snoopy Bloggy Blog featuring Nate Blog!

SO freaking funny. I am pretty sure this is what I sound like to my offline friends. Hopefully they have learned to ignore it as a kind of tic.

I'm finally getting to work on something I've looked forward to a very long time. I'll try and have it up later today or tonight. In the meantime, have you seen Stuff White People Like? They totally have my number.


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