Thursday, March 31, 2011

Because I love rejection so much...

My ex-husband kindly wrote me to say he was sorry that I was not accepted to grad school. "It's okay," I wrote back, "because writers are used to rejection." Oh, the rejection letters we receive and then let pile up in a drawer of our desk.

This week, I started returning to my original roots as a writer--submitting creative work to journals. I sent out two pieces so far. One was an experimental prose-like wandering about love. And I sent it to a source that will likely reject me outright.  I once worked as an intern for the very nice editor who, as I discovered painfully later, found my personality to conflict with the office M.O. (And I cannot apologize enough for that, but I was not entirely myself that year. Lesson learned. Can we move on now?)

The second piece was a nearly 9000 word novelette, as some term it. I have had this one for at least 7 years and I still find the story to be very strong. I picked it up again, reworked some aspects of it, and after years of looking for the right home for it, submitted it to a journal that specializes in the "long short story." The chances of that rejection are strong as the journal has a 2 percent acceptance rate.

So why try at all? Eventually, somebody somewhere will find something I write acceptable, and my greater failure would be to quit writing. I am tired, however, of hearing people quote Thomas Edison who said about his own efforts to create the lightbulb that he had just found 2000 ways to not make one. Such a nice thing for Edison to have said, but I am sure he would sit over a beer once in a while and moan over his not-yet-lighting bulb project.

The potential of rejection always will  loom. One day, though, I might be able to say to my children, "Honey, I've been there. I know it's hard, but you have to keep trying. Your efforts will pay off." In the meantime, I'll keep writing, and I have decided to push the freelance biz harder than I have. It's time to embrace a little more self-confidence, own my talent, and define my own worth.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sucking It Up and Wearing the Big Girl Pants: No MATX PhD

This week, I contacted VCU and learned that I was not accepted into the program for which I had applied. The official letter has yet to arrive, but I received a very compassionate and brief email from the head of admissions for the MATX PhD.

So far, the professional academics in my life are greatly surprised. I wish I could say I was, having grown fairly accustomed to rejection in general. Writing an associate yesterday, I said that while I was surely disappointed, I was at least relieved that other choices could open themselves. With family being so far, being locked into our current location another two to three years may not be in our best interest. Only time will tell. Luckily, everyone has been very kind about my rejection. A freshly delivered arrangement of flowers, sent by my parents, perches on a bookshelf by the window.  The blooms have already started to open. Perhaps, this is a sign of hope.

Yesterday, I decided not to take this setback too personally, and I wrote the gentleman at VCU to let me know what I could do to improve my chances of acceptance should I apply again. What I wondered was this: how can I continue to grow? In the meantime, I try not to grapple too much with the feeling of rejection--something everyone experiences and ultimately overcomes. Maybe I have finally learned to cope better with it.

What I separate from rejection is the alternative choices I am meant to walk. I wish I knew what that was exactly. I created a plan B for myself when I applied to school—renewing a teaching license for neighboring states, for example. I also wish to take additional coursework in graphic design, computer animation, and certain copywriting software, et cetera. We’ll see what happens.

Until I am sure of what to do and where to go, I’ll keep editing test prep material for this little firm, I’ll still enjoy some creative writing on the side, and I will continue to enjoy my children and their schools, as I did today. And yes, I’ll try hard not to sulk too much about not getting my way on this one.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Great Saltine Truce of 2011

Recently, my husband was bothered that I did not have Saltines in the pantry. I told him to use the Ritz crackers we had, and when those were gone, I would restock on Monday (I had already made the second trip of the week and had $18 of grocery budget left before pay period, but did not say so). This was not an okay answer. Apparently, in certain circles, Ritz are relegated to cheese and other tasteful canapé-associated items. Saltines are for soups, he insisted, and having soup with the wrong cracker was some kind of taboo. Ultimately, I decided that arguing about crackers would cost us more emotionally than the $2.50 to buy them and the $1 of gas it cost to go round trip from the house.

Later, I found myself musing about crackers. Growing up, Ritz crackers were too expensive for us to buy—having them was an absolute treat. We had Saltines, which as a result, I despised for years, and still only purchase with reluctance. Saltines have fallen on that list of food items that I associate with other pantry-stretchers my mother employed during our leanest years. This food had nutritional value, but having had to resort to it so often, I employ these items as seldom as possible: tuna casserole, cube steak, canned mixed vegetables, canned vegetables in general, and American cheese—those being just some of what I can remember. In college, canned tuna, macaroni and cheese, and ramen noodle soup became food budget fillers in the dorm. After graduation, I could not eat either of the former two items for years. I still won’t eat ramen noodle soup. I have not touched American cheese in years; its plastic consistency and texture is repulsive.

When I told my father about my husband’s rationale for crackers he responded humorously with an email from which I have copied the following:

Crackers. Oyster crackers are for soup; Saltines are utility outfielders; Ritz crackers are basically conveyances for solids and near liquids, and Waverly are upper middle class but with the same function. Kaveli crackers are truly upper class conveyances of delicate solids. Rice crackers are sought by Veggans and health advocates. The most ambitious use of a saltine was one by *Jimmy Faulkner: bacon wrapped cracker run in a microwave. Crackers, glorious crackers.

I suppose we should all be allowed our favorites. I won’t buy Hunt’s ketchup, for example; it’s too acidic. Nor will I purchase Hellman’s sandwich dressing (it ain’t mayo, baby). I prefer applesauce that does not have additional sugar or high fructose corn syrup. I enjoy hot tea produced by Twinings or the other “hot tea specialty” brands, as Lipton’s black tea brews better for cold-consumption. Most readers here know how I feel about coffee, but when out or in the homes of friends, I’ll still drink weak or generic coffee simply for the warmth, the comfort, the ritual, and the social engagement it seems to foster.

I’ll take peace over particulars any day.

*Note on the Jimmy Faulkner comment—Jimmy, the nephew of the famed William Faulkner, once made this bacon concoction for my parents claiming all the while that this was a special treat. My father recalled that the soggy cracker and bacon mess was awful.  I told him that it was “redneck dumplings”. 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Primary Lessons With Race

Apparently, it's never too early to learn how to get along with others who may appear different from yourself.

My son attends a pre-school with a high minority enrollment. It's a wonderful place and has been the best learning environment that he has experienced to date. One of the benefits of his attendance at this pre-school is that, due to the number of minority members in his class, he has become friends with many kinds of kids. Children here range from low-income to upper middle class. They reside in the beautiful historic district and the modest ranch homes on the edge of the city. Their parents span the labor range--from house painters to lawyers, regardless of race. Families also come from all over the world--not just the States, but Mexico, Asia, and Western Europe. I love seeing that this group, with its diverse dynamic, works together.

One day, I sat with my son at school breakfast. Across from him sat two little children, one lean little blonde haired fair-skinned boy and a chubby, taller girl of African American descent. The two children could not appear more different. Nor did they share the same accent or dialect. The little girl flung her arm around the boy's neck.

"He's my brother!" she announced proudly.
"Of course he is! I can see the family resemblance!" I said.

Later, I took my son's teacher aside and shared the story. As we stood there laughing, she said that this place taught the children one of the finest lessons--there are obvious differences, she said, but we are all friends here. So this past weekend, another classmate, Briana, asked my son to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. My husband happily escorted our little fellow to see his friends, but because my spouse is not in the school as often as I am, he does not know the little faces and names of all these wee children.

"Which one is Briana?" my husband asked Tiny.
"The brown one," answered our boy simply. My husband laughed and sent me a picture, my sandy haired son happily engaged with a dozen brown faces. I hope these days of getting along stay within the hearts of all these children forever. I wish it were always this simple, too.

The following day, I took the children roller skating at a rink in a predominantly black neighborhood on a different side of town. While we were among the few white folk there, what I noticed most of all was the enormous number of families skating together--moms and dads with children. I loved watching my little almost-five-year-old son, who could barely skate himself, stop to help other children that had fallen. He made friends with a number of moms and dads who coached their kids from the safe outskirts of the rink. My daughter clung to the rink rail and giggled with other kids who tried to scoot past her without falling themselves. We had a delightful time.

When we left, a gentleman stopped me for conversation, passed me his business card, and invited me to an adult skate night that the rink holds weekly. I ended up contacting him later. He emailed me to say that had he thought of saying so when we met, he would have recommended a rink in a neighborhood where we "might feel more comfortable" (as he so eloquently stated). I responded that my children and I are comfortable anywhere people are polite and welcoming, and that frankly, I thought it was important that my little ones experience city life, a place where real people exist, not just one socio-economic dynamic.

I am not blind to cultural differences, to problems relating to race or income levels, and I don't tout the phrase, "It's just color." History is deeper than appearance alone. Neighborhoods are still segregated in a rather unspoken way.  Children of  less-fortunate families and neighborhoods are bused into the better districts in hopes of providing better environments for one group and providing a well-rounded social education for all. (Busing--a difficult topic, and one for another day). My son, being so young, so unselfconsciously discusses color, while my daughter hesitates and expresses concern. My hope for my children is that they recognize they are ambassadors for all they represent, not just their own fair skin color, but their family history, their home, their schools, and for crying out loud, their mother's hard work to rear them with manners, education, empathy, and social graces. I hope that their ability to be at home in a variety of social settings and environments comforts not just them, but those around them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Critters for Company

A girlfriend once introduced me to the family frog. Fred, whose shocking size nears the circumference of a lunch plate, has refused to leave her property and has taken up residence in the chemical waters of the backyard pool. For his health and safety, Fred has been encouraged to leave many times. He has been carried down the long drive way to the ditch, dropped gently over the fence, and practically bussed to another state. However, Fred has always returned. My friend struck a truce with this frog and now he claims the pool at night while the kids enjoy the pool during the day.

Seemingly, we all have our special creatures—the ones that adopt us, that is. Last year, we enjoyed Portia, the little yard rabbit. Once timid, she became bolder with age and maturity. I would see her closer to the back deck and had direct evidence that she visited our house bunny for a while. This year, I have yet to see her. One of her kin was in the front yard this week though. We spotted her during an early morning attempt to soothe my son’s croupy cough with the pre-dawn air.

We still have Charlie, a grey cat that escorts neighborhood children to and from the bus stop most days of the week. He will also join my family for walks with the dog—at a safe distance, of course. Periodically, I will open my front door and there is Charlie sitting and waiting. “You have this house confused with yours,” I tell him, but two hours later, a peek out the windows shows that Charlie insists that, at least temporarily, he plans to nap here.

This week, we had a newer visitor. Cheetah is one of those swirled inky kitties that one sees on Meowmix commercials. Having been inspired by Charlie, as he has socialized many of the neighborhood cats, she too will escort the children of her feeder’s family to and from the bus stop, even in the rain. Coming home from my son’s school Monday, Cheetah scampered across the street to greet us, rolled around between my feet for a while, and entertained my son. (He would love a cat of his own, but I tell him no and that I have enough mouths to feed.)

Years ago, my mother had squirrels—a love-hate relationship, really, as they would yell at her about having been kicked out of the attic by the painter she hired. She had all kinds of amusing antics to report about them, including the time that a squirrel was so angry with her that he buried a stick (end pointing up) in the yard. And among the other pesky visitors we’ve had have been rats. My first husband was so upset about Ned, who moved into our first home and took up residence in the backside of our gas stove, that I was left to set the trap and kill the little beast. The day I succeeded was both triumphant and awful.  Years later in another home, we had a rat that used to horde my dog’s food. One day, I opened the door to the garage and there he was, sportily jaunting from the dog food bowl to his hole in the wall with a large chunk of kibble in his mouth. He stopped, paused, practically waved hello, and then continued without panic on his happy trot across the floor. I tried, but never could trap him.

I know of a wild burro and horse who happily adopted the humans that lived next door to them.  I have heard stories about deer and moose who have insisted on visiting across fences like old friends.  Really, these visitors are some of the best to have—so long as they poop outside and don’t chew holes in your walls.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peacemaking, Bacteria-Free

One afternoon when winter broke enough to make outdoor play comfortable, I sent my children outside with playmates.  At one point, the neighbor’s six year old boy pushed open my door with complaints about my preschool age son. The boy stood there and vented, his mucky hands waving and mouth completely encrusted with a circle of dried chocolate pudding. I had been watching and listening to the kids play through open windows. His arrival, therefore, was no real surprise, but the amount of dirt encasing his skin astounded me.

After listening to the child’s rant, I decided that no one was in danger of imminent death, gave a warning for the little man to recite to my son, and then announced he was not to leave the house until we washed him up. Angrily, the boy stomped and told me he hated washing—an obvious fact considering his grimy appearance. He passed his dirty hands over surfaces I had just polished or sanitized as I gently pushed him to the kitchen sink.

“Trust me--your mother will appreciate this,” I stated flatly. Minutes later, clean and with new impatience, he marched out of my home—reluctant to return with more tattling due to the threat of being sanitized by his playmate’s mother.

Tales like this remind me of classic childhood—the consistency of child behavior across generations. Dirty boys with comedic complaints about playmates, spells of arguing and making up, and new games of pretend created. Afternoons rolling in the yard, hair carrying smithereens of crushed leaves, arms smeared with soil--these moments, are really, as some would say, golden, even when tinged with dirt.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A jewel of a conversation overheard at a recent art exhibit...

An older couple were scrutinizing a piece of cubist art and listening to an audio tape that described the piece.

"It says there is genitalia in that painting, but I can't find it!" complained the woman to her husband. "I have looked and looked! And I can't find it!"

"Well, that's ok. I'll help you," said the husband. They marched off to carefully search the painting for the missing vagina.

I hope they were both satisfied.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Post-Mortem Amusement

My sister called me crying over a certain detail regarding handling her father-in-law’s death. When I heard what the matter was—trying to fit all his ashes into an empty Bacardi box—I started to laugh. I told her that death and funerals foster the best of stories, that she would be amused by this later, and everything would be okay. Fortunately, she ultimately was able to see the humor in trying to squeeze a man into a box the size of a liquor bottle.

A good friend of mine once told me about his father’s passing. My friend and his brother were young folk—maybe nine and eleven. They sat on the bed watching their mother wring her hands and pace about the room in search of “socks that stand up”. She needed to gather the clothes that the funeral home had requested in order to dress the body for the wake. All of a sudden, one of the boys piped up, “But Mom, where Dad is, he doesn’t need socks that stand up.” The mother broke into a fit of laughter and tension ebbed from the room.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral years ago, a wheelchair-bound great aunt had to be carried out of the wake because she would not stop her hysterical crying and yelling. Watching the great aunt flail and sob suddenly struck me as one of those movie-moments where things are so bad, they’re funny. My then-husband had seen a chiropractor for an emergency appointment only an hour or two before the wake because he had pinched a nerve and could not move his neck or bend over--and here we were watching this normally confined woman practically claw her way across the carpet. Something about her uncontrolled expression lifted our mood and we took a deep breath. I waited for the next eyebrow-raising event to happen, but even the fact that someone had worn a prom dress to the funeral seemed to pale next to the memory of the theater-style yelling and carrying on. 

Last week, my sister told me that she found out someone had tried to order barbeque for 80 people (in her name, no less) and have it sent to the funeral home. Last I heard, funerals weren’t the place for a barbeque buffet. I can’t see people sucking ribs next to the casket, can you? As we cackled about other absurdities she was experiencing in her planning of the memorial service, I told her another story:

Once, there was a man who was so devoted to his wealth that he had asked his wife to bury him with his money. When he died, she wrote a check and slipped it into his pocket as his body lay in the casket at the wake. Problem solved. I wonder if the wife laughed about it later. I sure hope so.