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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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The man was clearly on his way to work. I wondered if he would get his nice suit dirty, removing the nuts from the hub, handling the spare. The woman stood beside her car. Because I was on foot, and overheard, I know that he was saving her from a long wait for a tow to the service station.

Not that I would know, but he seemed to have the procedure well in hand. They probably both resumed their separate ways by the time I opened my front door. There was nothing remarkable about the scene at all: just a couple of ordinary people in an ordinary situation.

But to me it played like it was it was slo-mo, hi-def, as the most ordinary scenes have these past few weeks.

Most of you have probably heard by now that a Little Rock television news anchor died here on Saturday, after being savagely beaten in her home, in a "safe" neighborhood, not far from us. I don't watch the local news much, and I didn't recognize her name until I saw her photograph and remembered meeting her very briefly when I took my Tiger cub den on a tour of her station last year. She was very young, and very pretty, and they say she was good at her job. I'll leave it to people who knew her to eulogize her properly.

The attack has shaken many of us here to the core. An assault like that is not an assault on one person, it's an assault on an entire community. The intruder breaks in through one house, and enters everyone's. We lie awake at night, listening for footsteps, cars stopping, dogs barking. Our faith in humanity, in the safety of our homes, in simple goodness, has been vandalized. Trashed.

I don't believe such events are purposeful. I don't think they are part of "God's plan." We all lament, "why," but the answer is something our bodies are born knowing: we are mortal. We feel, we hurt, we die. Cancer cells multiply, food gets caught in an airway, a mind twists and breaks. And coldly, logically, there is death. No mystery at all, really.

The meaning is not in the tragedy. There is no order in the chaos. The meaning is in life. The order is in the ordinary. A man kneels on the side of the road to change a woman's flat tire. He picks up a lug wrench, turns the nut, and you remember, this, this is how we are.


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Saturday, October 25, 2008

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I have to say, this look didn't cost anywhere near $150K. But it did take a heck of a lot of hairspray.


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Friday, October 24, 2008

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Ferris Bueller's Day Off

A friend told me she was in a therapy session recently, and the therapist quoted my blog to her.

Oh god, I thought. I've become Ferris Bueller.

It's a wonder I have any friends left.

These are strange days. Once, I sat in the car pool line, the checkout lane, the crappy waiting room of the kids' medicaid dental office and I dreamed. The dream went something like this:


VOICE: Who is this Kyran Pittman? Bring her to me!

Yeah, that dream. Sometimes I'd let it play out all the way to the phone ringing, with an editor or agent on the line, but I'd snap out of it pretty quick. Who was I kidding?

"I'm going to be the lady who writes poems for the Christmas party every year," I wept to a friend one day, after another rejection letter arrived.

My queries took on a doomed tone.

"If you are reading this cover letter, you should probably fire your assistant," I wrote to one agent.

Then one day, independent of anything I was doing except writing on this blog, the phone rang.

It was the New York publishing world.

Dreams that come true are both exactly and yet nothing at all how you thought they would be.

It has been exactly as thrilling as I dreamed it would be to break into the glossies, go to New York, see my name and photo on the newsstand shelf, get approached by agents and editors, and begin work on a book. If nothing else happens from here, if it all evaporates tomorrow, if my coach turns back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, I still got to go to the ball. It has already exceeded anything I dared dream. I'm very, very grateful.

But there's plenty I didn't see coming. Like how I would be on that fantasy phone call to my New York agent, but still be sitting in the kids medicaid dental clinic (time zone mix-up). Wearing a giant Louis Vuitton bag, for an extra shot of irony. Or how I'd be making a per word fee that sounds great, but spread out over a year is not getting me out of the medicaid dentist's office anytime soon. On a per hour basis, McDonald's would probably pay better. Plus benefits. Or how restrained I'd have to learn to be in speaking about any of this stuff to the people in my life, when my impulse is to grab everyone and say, holy hell, you won't believe what happened to me today. Not everybody wants to hear it.

I couldn't know how incredibly compressed it would all be.

I took a phone call one day that was straight out of that dream script, and what I mostly remember about it was thinking, I have got to hang up on this guy or I'm going to miss my story deadline.

If it sounds like whining, it isn't meant to be. These are the things that make me laugh and keep me grounded. I don't know if they are properly called "ironic," but I think it's what Alanis was trying to get at.

Life is exciting, but my days are really very boring (m-o-o-n spells paradox, laws, yes). I put in several twelve-hour days this week, making what I hope are last revisions on a big article that has not been anywhere near as fun as trying on Prada. Or even getting salt in a paper cut.

And the book. Everyday (everyday, everyday), I write the book.

Not this day. I'm taking the rest of the day off from writing to just be a Mom. I'm going to make the beds, deliver a classroom snack, and take my kids to a Halloween party. I'm even going to dress up myself, if I can find a pair of rimless glasses and a two-piece dress suit. You betcha.


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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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The Force is Strong in This One


We usually manage two camping trips a year, taking full advantage of both weekends in Arkansas during which you will neither suffocate from heat or turn blue from the cold. There is one in October, and one in April. At no time can you rule out the possibility that you and your family will be carried off by mosquitos, but one has to live life.

Last April, we were camped out in a two bedroom condo while our new house was being made ready, so there was no need to manufacture the experience of five of us crammed into a tiny, temporary space with a minimum of cooking equipment. We even got to go caving in the understairs closet during the tornadoes. Outward Bound couldn't test your mettle like those six weeks.

But come October, I was ready to hit the wild again.

As I have mentioned before, my husband is not enamored of camping. He is forty-five years old and likes neither his mattress or his toilet pulled out from under him. Also, he complains about the effort to reward ratio involved in camping: two days of packing and unpacking, setting up and breaking down, loading and unloading; to four slices of bacon and cold, runny eggs.

It takes a strategic mix of threats, bribery, and aspersions on his manhood to get him to commit to a date. This year, I threw in a deluxe air mattress and a promise to ban the children from it, made possible by a new, three-room tent won with debit card reward points and large enough to be visible from space.

I also picked the weekend of our cub scout's pack campout so as to have the full weight of societal and patriarchal obligation behind me.

I am the Rumsfield of the domestic agenda, the Emperor Palpatine. Resistance is futile.

Mission accomplished. We camped last weekend, much to the delight of me and my two oldest sons. Patrick was a good sport. It fell to the Littlest Who to do the complaining I'd have missed otherwise. "I want to go home," he wailed every night when he and his brothers were tucked into their wing of the tent. More dramatically, "I can't feel my legs," when asked to walk more than ten feet under his own steam.

"I'm dead," he told me at one point, when I pleaded with him to pick up the pace to more than an inch a minute.

"You're not dead," I argued. "How can you still be walking?"

"I'm dead walking."

And what do you think our zombie was howling as we pulled away from the campground on Sunday?


If I didn't need a shower so badly, I wouldn't have wanted to go home yet either.



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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

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Maps and Legends

My nine year old son woke up before dawn to read the last pages of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone. I peeked over his shoulder to read these beloved old words:

A Snake, slipping easily along the coping which bounded the holy earth, said, "Now then, Wart, if you were once able to walk with three hundred ribs at once, surely you can coordinate a few little muscles here and there? Make everything work together, as you have been learning to do ever sice God let the amphibia crawl out of the sea. Fold your powers together, with the spirit of your mind, and it will come out like butter. Come along, homo sapiens, for all we humble friends of yours are waiting here to cheer."

The Wart walked up the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Everything I need to know about being human, I learned in The Once and Future King, of which The Sword in the Stone is but the first part. It is my favorite book in the whole wide world, and has been since I was a little older than my son.

I kissed his head.

"You remind me of Wart," I whispered. One of my choices of names for him was Arthur. It would have suited.

The greatest books are maps of our own journey. The characters who resonate most are proxies for our own deepest truth. In this house, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is practically a sacred text. For Patrick, it is Sam Gamgee's story, whereas for me, it is Aragorn's. One is about persistence and faith; the other, like Wart's, about becoming what you are. You wouldn't have to know either of us very long or especially well to know that those are our stories.

Who tells yours?


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Monday, October 13, 2008

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The Next Five Feet

We had dinner with some writer friends a couple of weeks ago, writers who have each published several books, and one of them told me, "Writing a book is like driving a car in heavy fog at night. You can only see about five feet in front of you at a time, but eventually you get where you're going."

Or you hit a moose and wind up in the ditch, I thought. What do landlocked Southerners know about fog?

But I didn't say it, and besides, she was right, or I have at least made up my mind to proceed on faith that she is.

And so I am inching along through the fog, no idea yet where I'm going, but reasonably confident I'll get there. In another week or so, I hope to have enough of the road illuminated to convince my agent and, hopefully, an editor of the same.

I've settled into something like a daily routine. I start staring at my word processor as soon as I get the kids off to school and the second pot of coffee has brewed. I stare for about ten minutes. I type something. I get coffee. I stare another fifteen minutes. I delete half of what I typed. More coffee. I type something else, and decide that what I typed before needs to be cut and pasted somewhere else. More staring. Patrick wanders in about midmorning, wondering if I've become desperate enough to welcome a distraction.

"Go away," I say.

I keep this up for four to five hours a day. If I'm lucky, I come out of it with two or three pages I'm happy with. Meanwhile, the breakfast dishes are still on the table, nobody has clean clothes, and I can't tear myself away to go into the grocery store for longer than it takes to buy a frozen pizza and a gallon of milk.

When I'm not staring/writing, I read books by those who've gone boldly off into the fog before me: Anna Quindlen, Joan Didion, Calvin Trillin, Kate Braestrup, Ann Patchett's gorgeous Truth & Beauty. I'm cramming like I haven't since high school.

At night I pray like I haven't since I was in grade school. I pray with a list in hand: inspiration, success, and an advance big enough for someone to come and clear the breakfast dishes.

I'm honestly not sure if I brushed my teeth this morning.

I can't think of any time I felt more alive.


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Thursday, October 09, 2008

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Through the Glass Darkly

I don't write much in the way of opinion on politics or religion here. Partly because I have a sick need for everyone to like me (OR EVERYBODY DIES). And partly because we live in a time of such polarity, a stated opinion tends to assign people to one camp or the other, and I think my humanity and yours transcends that. I want people with many points of view to always feel welcome here. God forbid I should ever occupy a space, on or offline, where my only discourse is with people who think and believe as I do. Don't even get me started on Olberman, Kos, Fox News or "Christian" talk radio.

But believe me, I do have opinions. And in my opinion, if Jesus of Galilee were to run for office in this election, Sarah Palin would be standing at the podium with a hammer in one hand and a box of nails in the other, ranting about every traitorous tax collector, radical and prostitute he ever broke bread with.

(No, I'm not comparing Barack Obama to Jesus. In such a vacuum of leadership, both sides need to be on guard against messianic craving. I just think people who live by the sword of religious self-righteousness should be prepared to fall on it.)

Earlier in the primaries, I took comfort in believing that even my personal worst case scenario, a McCain presidency, would be okay. I don't believe that anymore. I believe Senator McCain crossed over to the dark side of ambition and power when he chose his running mate. Every new, desperate day of his waning campaign only deepens my disappointment, and strengthens my conviction that Barack Obama is the man for this precipitous moment in the history of this great country, a country that is a little more than two hundred years old, an adolescent in the life of nations.

America, it's time to lose the swagger, and come of age. Barack Obama is not and can never be, the end-all, be-all. But in him, I believe we have both the substance and the symbol to bring us — a moment late, a little breathless, but finally — into the new millennium.

I sat in my car yesterday, listening to undecided voters on the radio voice their fears about Obama. So much fear. Fear of retribution for the racial sins of the nation. Fear of losing a foothold on the middle class. Fear of annihilation. Fear of everything new, uncertain and unknown. I was literally moved to tears. My mothering heart went out to these frightened people. I wished I could sit with them and tell them all I have learned — and have had to learn over and over —about making decisions from a place of fear. What a dark and shrinking place it is from which to live, how once you consign your world view to that small and airless room, you find all the windows face out to your worst fears.

I think Sarah Palin and John McCain are trying to herd as many people into that bunker as possible. And I'm still not going to tell anyone how they must vote. But please don't cast your ballot—for anyone—from in there.


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Public Health Alert


A childhood that does not include the deep, cheek-to-bark, tailbone-to-root, limb-to-limb friendship of at least one tree is a malnourished childhood, lacking in nutrients essential to the prevention of rickets of the soul.


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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

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Tortoise Smack

At 3:36 this morning, I was seriously thinking about taking down the blog, giving up on the book, putting the magazine pieces in a scrapbook and returning to civilian life. Possibly in South America under an assumed identity.

Writing a book is hard. Moreover, anyone I try whining to about it just shrugs and agrees that it's hard. It takes me half a day to arrange and rearrange a paltry few hundred words and sometimes days to recover. Then I pick up this week's copy of Entertainment Weekly and learn that bestselling author Nicholas Sparks gets up at 5:30 every morning, works out for two hours, runs for 40 minutes and churns out 2,000 words. Every single motherloving day.

I've never read any of his books, but I might have to buy some now just to deface the author photos and write heckling marginalia. Sucks to your two thousand words, Sparksy. I got two more words for you, pal. Put those in your Notebook.


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Sunday, October 05, 2008

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The Kindness of Strangers

Looking in my closet yesterday morning was a lot like scrolling through 200-plus channels on tv and not finding anything to watch. Good Housekeeping magazine gave me a six thousand dollar wardrobe this spring, and I had nothing to wear.

No, I haven't changed my mind about the garments I fell in love with when I wrote my article about investment dressing. I still say if you have five hundred dollars to burn, you could do a lot worse than a Prada pencil skirt. I wear the hell out of mine.

The bones of my wardrobe are good. It's just that I don't have much to flesh them out with. I've been getting by all summer on the same few t-shirts and tunics, but now it's fall, and I doubt the Loro Piana cashmere will hold up to five days a week of peanut butter sandwich making. I really needed some new tops.

There were a lot of ironies inherent in my doing that particular story, not the least of which is that I don't like to shop very much. But I was feeling a little blue to begin with yesterday, and I told myself that a little retail therapy might not be a bad thing. I'd have loved to been whisked off to 5th Avenue where beautiful and kind shop girls would bring me frothing hot cups of cappuccino and chrome racks of couture, but this is real life, so off I went to the mall to rifle through the clearance racks.

I must have spent an hour and a half doing just that. Then a half an hour in a fitting room. Then another 30 minutes in the checkout line, where I realized it was "Bring Your Mother, BFF, and Boyfriend to Forever21 Day." Only to ring up my selections (a half dozen painstakingly matched t's and cropped sweaters to the tune of forty dollars) and realize that I had left my wallet in the car.

(insert expletive of choice here)

So much for retail therapy. My mood had gone from blue to black. No problem, the sales clerk told me. She'd bag the clothes and hold them until I got back, just come straight to the counter.

I would have just gone home and called it a day, but I had too much invested already. So I ran to the parking lot, grabbed my wallet, and ran back down to the store.

"Excuse me, " I said to the person at the front of the line, as I dashed up to the cash register and handed the clerk my debit card. The person was one of the boyfriends. He was called immediately to the next register, but he looked thoroughly pissed off all the same. As soon as he stepped up to the counter, he complained about "people breaking in line."

"I'm so sorry," I said to him. "I left my wallet in my car and had to come back."

He was not even a little bit appeased. He didn't care where I'd been, or how my morning had been going, or where my day now seemed headed. He had been waiting in line with his girlfriend and her BFF, and I came out of nowhere and took his place at the register. As far as he was concerned, that was my whole story.

I felt so terrible. I really wanted to stop him and explain that the sales clerk had told me to come directly to the register. That I was having a really bad day. In fact, kind of a bad time, and I'm not sure why, except that I feel very much apart from lately, and not much a part of, in a way that I haven't since I was about thirteen. That I'm really a good person. At least, I think I am. I try to be.

Thinking all this, and realizing how badly I needed to make this total stranger be okay with me, IN THE MALL, FOR GODSSAKE made me feel so pitiful, I can't tell you.

Like falling through a rabbit hole and landing back in grade eight, a door I can't fit, a key I can't reach, no matter how big I stretch or how small I shrink.

It's frightening to me, as a mom, to think how terrible children can be to each other. Worse to remember how hard a child can be on herself. My parents told me all my life I was beautiful and lovable, and I believed them until a few "mean girls" told me differently. Then I was angry with my parents for lying to me. Especially my father.

"You have to think about what you do, Kyran," he told me once, in the middle of one of his interminable lectures. "People will pay attention."

What I felt then went beyond anger. It was rage. How could he say that? Didn't he see that I was nobody? Who would ever care what I did or said? How would it ever matter? I stared at the carpet and hated him for being so blind to my reality.

I kept my head down a lot that year. I stared at the sidewalk as I walked to and from school, so I wouldn't have to endure the bus. I stared at my lunch box at the cafeteria table. I stared at my feet in the locker room. I stared down at the grass the day my father introduced me to an old friend of his who was in town for a folk festival.

"Jesus, Al," Brooks said, "she's beautiful."

I looked up quickly to see if he was making fun of me. His kind face was sincere. I looked back down, confused. He had to be lying, but I didn't know why.

Brooks Diamond, where ever you are, God love you for that off-the-cuff comment you probably forgot in a second. It took a long time, but it was in that second I began to believe you. I think of it every time I see a gangly thirteen-year-old hanging his or her head down, who has let ideas about "pretty" and "cool" keep them from believing in their own beauty.

I was a long way from pretty or cool. I was a gawky girl with thick glasses, big lips and bad skin. I guessed everyday at what to wear, what to say, how to act, and almost always guessed wrong. I showed up at junior high at a particularly awkward moment, and just as Boyfriend decided yesterday that my story is Rude Diva, my new classmates decided that mine was Loser, from cover to cover. All she wrote.

I don't think they were really mean girls. I think they were acting out a familiar bit of human theatre where someone has to play the Outsider, and that part fell to me and a few unlucky others. I'm willing to believe that Mean Girls was a page or two in their own story and not the whole book.

A thirteen-year-old doesn't have that perspective, doesn't understand that the opinions of others, good or bad, are just vehicles speeding by, dust on the horizon. I believed those girls had it right and my dad had it wrong. For someone to see us as we exist beyond that one difficult moment, to affirm that there is more than meets the eye, restore to us the dignity of context--well, that is the ultimate kindness of strangers, isn't it? A kindness that sometimes flows less freely between people who are cast more intimately together, where the tendency is to nail down roles, forgetting that this theatre is improv, every single day.

Brooks was my good Samaritan that day. I was in another kind of ditch yesterday. As I got back in my van, I checked my Blackberry and saw that a reader had taken time out of their own Saturday to sit down and compose a note telling me how much my article meant to them (thank you, Kim). Then in the supermarket, another very lovely someone stopped to tell me the same about my blog.

My head was far down enough that I had to fight the old urge to dismiss. Yeah, but... wouldn't think those nice things if you knew me day in, and day out, if you had to deal with my thoughts as they roll off my tongue and not arranged and considered carefully on the page or screen. If you lived with me and felt shut out sometimes when I turn inward to process something and then appear to share it with the whole world as if you didn't rank any higher than a stranger halfway across the world. You'd get fed up with hearing me whine or gush about the latest rejection or big break. You'd know that I sometimes yell at my children, that I am often not ready for a close-up, that there are no coffee mugs in our kitchen cupboard that say World's Greatest anything. You'd get tired of me. I do.

I'll never have to be thirteen again, thank God. But a little thirteen will always be in me. A while back, I caught a snippet of a Radio KSUX over the airwaves. I turned down the volume, but I guess I hadn't realized I'd left the tuner on that station. It's been on so constantly, at such a low level, I hadn't really noticed that "Not Good Enough" had become background noise.

I think plenty of people near and dear to me have been trying to interrupt that broadcast with an Important Service Announcement You Dummy. My girlfriend Lennie and my husband for starters. But sometimes it takes an unfamiliar voice to break through, to winch you out of the ditch. The kindness of strangers.


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Thursday, October 02, 2008

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Message in a Box


I hauled the plastic bin marked "Halloween" out of the attic yesterday, just before it was time to get the boys from school. When they saw it, they fell on it like a trio of raccoons on a picnic cooler. You'd think it literally contained Halloween.

This will be the first seasonal holiday we celebrate in our new house, the first time we get to play dress-up with it since moving in. The familiar trimmings were welcomed with joy, like opening the door to find a cat that went missing long ago. The mildewed scarecrow and the plastic jack-o-lanterns link this new Halloween to all our Halloweens before.

While I was trying to figure out where the old things belonged in the new space, my middle child pulled out a shopping bag of stuff I'd bought at the day-after Halloween sale at Target, last year. There was a set of vinyl placemats, three spooky t-shirts, and a little bobble-head witch. I had forgotten all about it, but God, it took me back in an instant.

I love that sale. Overnight, all things Halloween are marked down to a song. Through the years, I've stocked a suitcase full of the same premium costumes I had to steer the kids away from the week before. Decorative knick-nacks I couldn't justify buying at full price are suddenly yard-sale priced. If you've got twenty-five or fifty dollars to burn, you can pick up enough stuff to trim the whole house next year.

I remember deciding I could spend ten dollars. It was a splurge. We were fighting desperately to keep our house, and we were losing. Patrick's freelance income for the month of October was two hundred and seventy five dollars. We'd exhausted our credit and savings, and were overdrawn emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

It was a very hard time. You'd have to peer far into the spaces between those six short words to know just how hard.

In a flash, the boys were in their new shirts. I bought them all a size large at the time. I think they were two dollars each. They fit perfectly.

"Can we put out the placemats?"

"Of course!" The boys set the table with the bright plastic mats and paper plates I'd bought on sale the year before last. We all stood back to admire the purples and oranges against our lime-green dining room wall.

"Look how it all goes together," I said, to myself, as much as to them. "When I packed this stuff away last year, we didn't know we'd be unpacking it in a new house, on a new table." I thought then that giving up that house would be one of the worst things that could happen to us. It was the last thing I wanted.

"It's perfect!" somebody said.

"It is," I said, amazed. I remember being drawn to the colors in the placemats, though they existed nowhere in our home at the time. I believe in the lives of houses, that it is they who do the choosing. The squares of lime and orange catching my eye through the fog like a distant flare, signalling the way forward, the way home.



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