Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oooops...Make That Seven and 1/2 Times

I’m sitting on the pool deck, reading BENT ROAD out loud as I review it one last time before returning it to the publisher. I’ve been sun screened. My sunglasses are wide enough to keep the sun from sneaking into my peripheral vision. A glass of iced tea is sweating on the table next to me. The manuscript is loose, not bound. It’s always windy near the water. A stack of pages lifts up. I jump, stumble over my fallen chair, and before I regain my footing, half my manuscript is floating in our kidney shaped pool. I reach out to slap a hand over the stack of pages that remains on the table, tip my drink, and now the rescued half is soaking up iced green tea.

One of the first questions a writer gets after she finally sells a novel is….so, how does it feel? For a good long time, the writer doesn’t know how to answer this question. How does it feel? Well, the desk that she writes at is still the same. The friends who read and critique her first drafts are still the same. The tea she drinks, the slippers she likes to wear when she props up her feet, the computer she uses are all the same. It feels…the same.

Yes, life is basically unchanged, except then the writer realizes, when she sits down to write, that now someone is actually going to read her work. In tennis, we call it point panic. The player does fine in practice. Her stokes are smooth. Her serve is precise. Her footwork is light and quick. And then she plays a match. It’s no longer practice. Her hands become stiff. Her topspin forehands sail long, her first serve hits the fence and her feet seemingly grow four sizes as she tries to flop around the court.

After this realization that readers will now read her work, a few weeks pass, okay maybe a month. There is much googling and surfing. She becomes well versed in the blog of every editor and agent online. She tries many ways to get started again. She takes her computer onto the dock, but the glare is too bad to write there. She moves to the deck. Too much shade and that breeze is a bit cool. The coffee shop is too crowded, the library too noisy, the house too quiet. After many attempts, she sets aside the computer for a week, takes up bike riding, and when she isn’t paying attention, the point panic disappears. The writer is writing again. How does it feel to sell a book? It feels great. But mostly, now that I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my next novel, I’m happy that my forehands are dropping in again and that my footwork is still pretty good for a gal my age.

After I right the tipped glass, I yell for help. My family comes running, and we fish out the soggy manuscript. Red ink is seeping across the pages, though I haven’t used much because I haven’t found many changes. It’s a copy, right, my husband says, reminding me of what I should already know. Yes, it’s a copy. The original is still on my desk. So I wring it out the water-logged version, write down the page numbers that are smeared with a bit of red ink, and once dry, I run it through the shredder. Then I start again, reading the novel aloud, one more time. When I’m done, it’ll be seven and a half times that I’ve read the entire thing aloud. I’ll still be hoarse come Monday.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Something Light

I'm keeping it short and sweet today. No school for the kids, and as mentioned earlier, I am re-reading BENT ROAD for the last time before handing it back to the publisher. I'm often asked how many re-writes I have done for the novel. The true answer-I have no idea. I do know that I have read the book out loud to myself at least six times. This is the best way to catch the clumsy sentences or the dialogue that sounds as if spoken by cardboard cutouts. As to re-writes...there have been many. Many. Too many. In any event, I have a several pages to get through today and the next day and the next. I'll be hoarse when I return, having mumbled through my book one more time.

In the mean time, Congratulations to Michael Koryta. His novel-SO COLD THE RIVER-was named of one of the "18 Books We Can't Wait to Read This Summer" by Entertainment Weekly. It's due out this June.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Coffee, a Bagel and a Crying Baby

There are days—I imagine for most writers—when we have to get out of the house. We toss aside our PJs, brush our hair, dress in clothes that button, snap and zip, and pull on a pair of shoes. That’s why I find myself at Panera Bread today. I needed to get out of the house. A crying baby, actually he’s about two years old, finds himself at the table next to me.

Certain tasks are easier to undertake in a coffee-shop setting. My task today is to review the first-pass page proofs for BENT ROAD. (First-pass page proofs is a technical term that I stole from the instruction letter I received from the Penguin production department.)

I would say this is the third phase of the editorial process—at least from my perspective. As I’ve mentioned before, the coach just put me in the game, so I have much to learn. The first phase once the book is sold includes the editor and author working together to perfect things like structure and plot and those other elements I wrote about on Monday. The editor flags the 294 times the author used the word shrug in the manuscript. She identifies every opportunity to wrench more suspense out of the story, to escalate the tension, to up the stakes for each and every character. The editor loves the book as much as the author loves it, and the author breathes her first sigh of relief because her book is in such gifted hands.

After this phase, the manuscript moves on to a copyeditor. While I have met my editor, I have not met the copyeditor. I know him or her only by the initials CE, which stands for copyeditor and not his/her name. (I assume.) These initials tagged all of the comments that CE left for me in the electronic version of the manuscript. Among many other things, CE caught all of my typos and dangling modifiers. I even once used the word set when I should have used sit. Or was it sit when I should have used set. This is akin to an accountant mixing up her debit and credits. Should I ever meet CE, I will blush over this error.

Following the copyediting phase—and again I speak only from my limited experience because I can’t possibly appreciate or understand all that transpires on a book’s behalf within the publisher’s walls—the first-pass page proofs are produced. (Say that fast three times.) During this phase, the pages are laid in the font and style chosen for book by professional designers. They appear as they will in final print. This is the last time I will be able to make any changes, add a few commas, cut repetitive words, catch all the sentences that clunk.

Back at my table, the young boy still crying next to me some ten minutes later, I pull the manuscript I am to review from a waterproof mailer. I am appreciative of the waterproof nature of the large envelop as I rescued it from the path of a sprinkler head earlier in the day. I wonder momentarily why the boy continues to scream for Mama when Mama is sitting directly across from him. Grandma, too, it appears, also sits at the table.

I slide two rubberbands from around the manuscript and slip them on my wrist, an old habit from my public accounting days. I’m taking my time because the boy is still screaming. He throws bits of bagel at his mother. He doesn’t mess with Grandma. All of the other patrons seated in the outside dining have left. I have too much spread across my table to make a quick exit.

The title, BENT ROAD, is printed across the first page of the manuscript. Next page, blank. Next page, title page. (I know the name of this page because it’s the one an author signs. It’s also the page that includes the author’s name.) Next page, publisher’s information and disclaimer that the book is a work of fiction. Next page…

There are a few moments that most writers dream about. Lunch with a literary agent. Yes, I had this pleasure. Drinks in Soho with an editor. Yes, I’ve also had this pleasure. As I stare down on the next page, I think that any passers-by will assume that my eyes glisten because the boy at the next table has been crying for fifteen minutes, but in fact it’s because I have turned to the dedication page. It’s another one of those dreams that I think all of us writers share.

My moment passes, my eyes clear, and the boy still screams. Grandma appears to have finished her coffee and they are packing up, leaving a splattering of bagels bits on the patio for the seagulls. Using my novelist’s eye, I wonder what story lies behind these three. Perhaps the boy has screamed for his mama for fifteen minutes because, in fact, the woman across from him is not his mama. Perhaps Grandma is not Grandma but really she is a …..No. Only a Mother could have such patience. I give a nod as they pass, because yes, I remember those days when I thought the tears might never stop, and flip to the next page….blank.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Art of Revision

So, to date, I haven’t written much about BENT ROAD, the novel I have coming out early next year. But a question that I often get about its publication is why it takes so long for a book to show up in a bookstore. I thought I’d talk a bit about that today, keeping in mind that this is my first novel, which makes me a rookie. I am recently off the bench, with little experience in the field or at the plate. (I’ve sat on many little league bleachers over the years.) Perhaps a terrible cliché, but entirely accurate.

The process of selling a book doesn’t start with the contract, or the agent or the manuscript. It starts about ten years earlier—more for some, less for others—when a writer begins to write. He or she, we’ll call her a she, usually writes badly in the beginning, sometimes very badly. The writer extends herself to other writers and teachers who tell her the writing is bad. They mark up her manuscripts with red ink and she begins to improve. She learns about revision. This is a key word, the most crucial word, that the writer will learn. .

Revision is not what most of us learned about in high school. It doesn’t mean re-reading something once, running the spell checker and pressing print. It means the writer must analyze characterization and structure. She must cut every adverb on the page. I mean…EVERY SINGLE ADVERB. She can add a few back later if she feels she must. Revision means the writer must identify her plot points and hope that she finds a few. It means making sure that her characters don’t sit around and think most of the time, because for some reason, writers like to do that. Perhaps because they (and by they I mean me) spend so much time sitting around and thinking. Revision means the writer must make certain that people will like her characters—harder than you would think because you readers are supposed to like, or at least understand, even the worst bad guys. Revision means deciding what her characters want, and then should she find, happily, that they do want something, she must decide what they need. Two entirely different questions.

Revision means knowing the difference between conflict and action, because they, too, are entirely different, and mistaking one for the other will doom a manuscript. During revision, the writer will verify that her points of view have integrity. Is third person the best choice? What about first? Second person is too risky. She’s not strong enough for second. Though the reader may not care if the writer cheats with her POV (technical term that means point of view) other writers will, and she lives in constant fear of that. Revision means sniffing out coincidence in her plot and if she finds it, getting rid of it. And if she can’t get rid of it, she will shred the manuscript and start over. Revision means understanding the pathetic fallacy and the intentional fallacy and the fallacy of imitative form and ignoring the forth fallacy because she just can’t figure it out.

Revision means remembering her characters’ names and changing a few if she finds that every one begins with the letter J or that three of them rhyme. She must find a way—either via excel or a spiral notebook or yellow sticky notes posted all over her office—to track what happens on which date during what time of day in whose house on what street. She must catch the roses that are blooming in December and the cell phone that rings even though it died when her character left the doctor’s office. She will return to those sticky notes that don’t stick so well in the Florida humidity so she can double-check if the floor in the main character’s kitchen is linoleum or oak. And if the babysitter died on a Tuesday and three days later the family goes to church, can it possibly be Sunday? And what was the husband’s name again, and does he have two sons and a daughter or two daughters and a son, and how quickly does a body decompose after someone has died, and what if they die in June instead of January, and what is the name of that thingy on the fence that holds the gate in place. You know, that latch thingy.

Revision means knowing her narrative distance. Actually, first it means learning what narrative distance means, which takes the writer many years, and then identifying that distance and establishing consistency and feeling like she is teetering on the edge of a rocky gorge all the while. The writer must also grow a tougher hide so she can cut her most beloved scenes and characters when she realizes they don’t belong in the story. This tough hide is also useful when, even after ten years, she still writes sentences and paragraphs and scenes and chapters and stories that are bad. But now she realizes that bad writing will always come first. Then she will cut every adverb, and I mean every single adverb, and after much revision, her bad writing might be good.

Revision took a bit longer than I thought, so we’ll talk about the rest on another day. I’ll title it PART II.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Granola Bar and a Backpack

I found the granola bar when I was cleaning out my closet a few weeks ago. It was tucked in the side pocket of an old backpack, forgotten on the top shelf behind the concert t-shirts that I can’t bring myself to part with. I last used the bag on a trip to Boston. Summer of 2007, I think, but I’m not too good with dates. Could have been earlier, could have been later. I was going there to attend the Solstice Writers’ Conference at Pine Manor College. A briefcase had been too reminiscent of my life as an accountant, so I took a backpack instead—royal blue and embossed with a giant letter S. (My daughter’s initial.)

It’s late afternoon when I get off the plane in Boston. My two writing friends meet at the airport—the Swede from Sweden and Ace from Cape Cod. We drive through one of the Boston tunnels that seems on the verge of springing a leak and twenty minutes later, could have been more, could have been less, we arrive at Pine Manor. The 60 acres of wooded grounds are green and rolling and Starbucks is within walking distance. At the stone building with a REGISTRATION sign planted out front, we cross our names off the list, loop our nametags around our necks and study our itineraries. The conference director points us toward our dorms—yes dorms. Just like in college. Chipped laminate dresser, sticky tile floor, lumpy mattress.

Once settled, we join the rest of the attendees for orientation. The conference administrator escorts us to the library, points out the lecture hall and walks us through the cafeteria. At each stop along our tour, one of the attendees unfolds a small wooden chair, the type you might take on a camping trip, and sits until we continue to our next destination. Then she stands—slowly as if her joints ache—and refolds her chair. She’s in the non-fiction class, she says.

We go to lectures in the morning and attend breakout classes in the afternoon. I am in the novel class. The Swede and Ace are in short story. My class runs long almost every day, so my friends wait for me outside in the car, sometimes calling my cell phone that I have set on vibrate. It buzzes in my blue backpack. I look around, as if wondering who forgot to turn off their phone. “Where the hell are you?” they yell in tandem when they leave me messages. And when I finally emerge, my blue backpack flung over my shoulder, we go to eat at the Cheesecake Factory. It’s our favorite place, though we never order cheesecake.

After dinner, we go to readings and enjoy cocktails with the other students and writers. There are poets and novelist, agents and editors. The non-fiction writer doesn’t need her portable chair because there are large armchairs and cushioned window seats. All of us stay up too late, sleep too little, awake just in time to get breakfast in the campus cafeteria. No to-go coffee cups, which is why we are thankful for the nearby Starbucks.

For six days we attend lectures, participate in class, enjoy the readings We have a free day midweek and we go to Boston’s North End. We visit the Old North Church where we sit in the pew labeled for visitors and wanders. We walk until we can find a cigar shop, because someone wants cigars, and then we settle in a small café where we drink Chianti and eat salad made with strawberries, candied pecans and silky goat cheese.

On the last night of the conference, some of the students host a small party. The woman with the portable chair invites me to stop by. She made pie, peach I think. She must be local, must have gone home on our day off and baked it in her own kitchen. Ace and the Swede go back to their rooms, but I go for pie. It’s raining. I have a slice, sip white wine, but I don’t care much for it. (The white wine, I mean. The pie is delicious).

I chat with the non-fiction writers, many of whom I haven’t met yet even though it’s the last day of the conference. Most are writing memoirs. The woman with portable chair is among them. She is dying, she tells me over pie. She had cancer in the 70s, and the treatment that saved her then is killing her now. She is nearly done with her memoir, but has been struggling with her last chapter. How does one end a memoir about dying? But she is quite excited, because during the conference she has found her ending. As her death has drawn near, she has begun teaching her husband how to prepare his favorite foods. She’ll write about the two of them together, in their kitchen, dicing, sautéing, kneading, blending. She is happier knowing he will be able to fix his favorite dishes when she is gone.

Everyone packs up the next day to head home. From the small two-story dormitories, attendees drift outside, haggard after a long week, dragging their suitcases behind, tossing them in their trunks. The writer with the portable chair waves. “I thought you might get hungry, since you have a long flight.” And she hands me a chocolate chip granola bar. I let my blue backpack slide off my shoulder, tuck the bar in a side pocket and say thank you.

I don’t remember her name and don’t know if she ever published her book. If anyone out there attended the Solstice Writers’ Conference, perhaps you remember. I’d love to find her on Amazon and to read her story. I’d love to pass on the title so all of you could read it. And to finish my story, when I was done weeding out my closet, I returned the backpack—the granola bar still tucked in the side pocket—to its spot on the top shelf behind the concert t-shirts that I just can’t seem to part with.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gone The Way Of The Typewriter

It is 1995 and I am working as a financial analyst in the strategy and marketing division of a major greeting card company. When people first hear that I work for this company, they smile and say, “Oh, are you a writer?” I shake my head. “No, an accountant.” And their smile instantly fades.

I am corporate, which is to say I wear a suit to work every day. I wear a silk blouse, gold earrings the size of half dollars (because it is the 1990s) and pantyhose. The corporate men wear the comparable uniform—blue suit, red tie, starched cotton shirt. We represent the business cogs—accounting, purchasing, sales, inventory control, the jobs that are no fun at cocktail parties. And then there are the artists and writers and the sculptures who design the Christmas ornaments. They wear jeans, even those with holes in the knees, let their sideburns grow long and wear sneakers. They go on retreats to country estates where they find inspiration. We corporate types find our inspiration from inside a 6X8 cubicle where we drink vending-machine coffee.

Occasionally, these two worlds meet so that the artist and writers can present their upcoming product lines. Sitting in the back of the room during one of these meetings, I watch as various designs of gift wrap are displayed. The artists are excited about a brown and gold fish design. I think it’s rather unattractive, but I’m an accountant, and my opinion doesn’t matter. Instead, I concern myself with brand equity and product placement, branding and breakeven points. As the artists begin a parade of the latest greeting card designs, I wonder about the cost of the flocking, flitter and gold embossing on the front of the cards. Each process will drive up production costs and down profit margins. One of the cards that is held up with pride pictures a tiny yellow bird nestled in a patch of long, green grass. The women in the audience smile and a few oooos and ahhhhhs leak out. The copy inside the card reads….You’re One Cute Chick. A few chuckles and on to the next card.

The products are beautiful, creative, born from the very best artists and writers in the industry. They are the company’s best hope of fighting a trend we all fear is coming. More and more people are beginning to use email, and even a few are starting to send their thank you and birthday greetings via internet cards. Cell phones are more common. One day, they might be small enough to carry in our pockets. People seem busier, more haggard. They don’t take time to write anymore. Some don’t even bother sending anniversary cards or thank you notes. Units are falling. Costs are rising. Not a good trend.

After the gift wrap and greeting cards have been presented, the merchandisers show-off a new plan for product display that is sure to entice our customers back to the card aisle. Next, we see the expertly coordinated party goods line, but is it enough to draw our customers out of Wal Mart and back to the card shops? We accountants think about our forecasts and our profit and loss statements and we consider what these lovely products might mean to our shareholders’ equity. We are sad to think that greeting cards might go the way of typewriters and record players.

As the meeting draws to an end, one of the blue-suited accountants sitting in the back of the room raises his hand. “Can you go back to the card with the bird on the front?” he says. He is a tall, handsome fellow, broad through the shoulders, sharp square jaw, clear blue eyes. I can say these things because he is my husband. The artists and writers fish around for the card, and one of them lifts it proudly. He shows us the art work and then reads it to us like a teacher reading to his class. The handsome fellow grew up on a farm in western Kansas. He knows about birds. “That’s a baby duck on the front of your card. Not a baby chicken,” the handsome fellow says. The smiles fade, replaced by pinched brows. “It’s a cute duckling,” he says. “Not a cute chick.”

It’s many years later, and I haven’t worked for that company since shortly after the chicken and duck debacle. I’m the writer now, no longer the accountant. Sometimes I even wear jeans with holes in the keens. I suppose the greeting card industry has continued to suffer as E-vites and E-cards are now commonplace. But over the last several months, I have found myself in the position of thanking a good many people as my novel has worked its way through the publication process. These are important thank yous, ones that I know I can’t properly express, but I do know they belong on a heavy-stock greeting card or crisp sheet of stationery—handwritten, signed and addressed. A lithographer does not design an email, a text has no flocking and a facebook posting will never have a handcrafted beveled edge.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Back to the Business of Biking

So, this is the view from the island where I ride my bike. I ride here because it offers miles of bike paths—less chance of getting clipped by a car—and a great view. (Shout out to Barry C. who, while riding his bike, was wearing a helmet when recently hit by a car. The paramedics say the helmet saved his life.)

I chose a new course for my ride yesterday. I unloaded my bike from the car, popped in the earphones and headed north. Even with the wind in my face, I rode at a good speed. After about ten minutes, I reached the bridge that leads off the island, turned around to retrace my path, and then it hit me. A strong head wind. That’s the tricky thing about bike riding on an island. The wind behaves oddly, sometimes blowing onshore; sometimes, off. Sometimes, as was the case yesterday, I ride into the wind both coming and going.

So I turned up the ipod, tucked my head and started to pedal harder. Minivans and SUVs sped past me on the nearby road, all of them headed to the beach. They were probably wondering why I was moving so slowly. Inside their air-conditioned cars, they couldn’t feel the strong wind I was fighting. I imaged they were judging me, figuring me to be a beginner, maybe wondering why it was taking me so long and why I pedaled so slowly. But those people in the minivan don’t know how long it takes to master the craft of writing. They don’t know how bad a first draft can be and how long it takes to create a plot that will keep a reader turning the page. They don’t know how many rules there are to learn and how hard it is to keep writing when you wonder if anyone will ever read your work. They don’t know how easy it is to write beginnings and how excruciating it is to write middles. Oh….but wait…we are supposed to be talking about bike riding.

So I made it to the T in the bike path and turned east. The pedaling got easier, but along this stretch, I have to watch for cars turning into parking lots. I’ve gotten pretty good at slowing down just enough to look left, right, forward and back without coming to a complete stop, though I do tend to wobble and sometimes catch my Achilles on the pedal.

Along this stretch, I also have to watch out for other bikers, walkers and rollerbladers, and so am careful to hug my side of the bike path. Not all the other bikers are so accommodating. Yesterday, I came across one dressed in a pink cycling jersey and six panel lycra shorts. She rode down the middle of the path, didn’t bother drifting to the left when she saw me coming. She pedaled fast, even through the parking lot entrances, but then stopped under a shade tree because she wasn’t accustomed to the Florida heat. She had manicured nails and a fancy bike, though I knew her thin tires would cause her trouble if she hit a patch of sand. I wanted to tell her to slow down, to humble herself to the craft. She needs to appreciate the importance of point of view and the delicate nature of her plot points. She needs to understand that being a writer means struggling through 750 words a day, everyday. Oh…but wait….we’re supposed to be talking about bike riding.

It’s also common to come across tourists along the bike path. They ride bikes they’ve rented from the stand near the north beach or sometimes a whole gaggle of them pile in a contraption that resembles a pedal-powered golf cart. They wear gauzy swimsuit cover-ups and floppy straw hats and are generally polite. Even if they are riding their bikes side by side, taking up most of the bike path, as soon as they see me coming, one will drift behind the other and we pass easily. These riders are new to riding, but willing to do the work. Whether they are pedaling into the wind or with it, they are smiling. They find the hard work pleasant. They have respect for the rules of the craft and are willing to pay their dues. Oh…but wait….we’re supposed to be talking about bike riding.

I slowed down as I approached the north beach. This is the stretch where I see the most tourists, even a few college kids. Yesterday, one of them zipped by me, riding into the same head wind as me, and yet pedaling much faster, with much greater ease. I thought maybe it was a short burst, a sprint, and that she would tire up ahead, but she kept pedaling, faster it seemed. She checked for traffic with a smooth glance over her shoulder, didn’t have to slow down, and her bike didn’t wobble like mine. She knows the rules, seems to come by them naturally. She knows them so well, she knows when she can break them. She is younger than me, a better athlete than me, probably has a snazzier ipod than me. Perhaps she plays soccer, or maybe basketball for her college, and that’s why she’s in such great shape. But she’s wearing flip flops, for God’s sake. It seems so much easier for some writers. They don’t seem to struggle. I suppose they do, they just don’t complain about it. They probably write 1500 words a day, maybe three or four thousand on weekends. They are more disciplined, more motivated. They are writers worth learning from. They put their butts in a seat every day and they work. Oh…but wait…we’re supposed to be talking about bike riding.

So after the girl in the flip flops disappeared down a stretch of the bike path I have yet to reach, I turned around and headed back to my car. I was riding with the wind, planned it that way. Up ahead, a rollerblader was coming toward me. He wore a helmet and black braces on his knees and wrists. As we drew closer to one another, he drifted left. I drifted right. His nose was painted white by a heavy layer of zinc oxide. He must have been eighty, and because of the ease with which I pedaled, I knew he’s skating into a heavy head wind. But he was smiling. He has worked hard for many years, churned out many great books. He knows the rules, respects the craft, has embraced the hard work. (Of course the he could be a she. I think you know where I’m going with this by now. And this in no way implies that all great and accomplished writers are in their eighties.) Oh….but wait….we’re supposed to be talking about bike riding.

I smiled as I approached this man. In return, he—with his bad knees, white frizzy hair that poked out from under his helmet and knobby elbows—gave me a wink. I looked back at him, wobbled a bit and then made the final turn that would lead me back to the car. I was surprised to find myself riding into the wind again. I guess I didn’t plan so well after all. But I thought of the rollerblader who has logged many more miles than I, and I lowered my head, poked the buttons on my ipod until a Jimmy Buffett song came on—because all things are possible with Jimmy Buffet in your ears—and I got back to the business of writing…I mean biking.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Six Weeks of Spring Break

My husband and I went out this past Friday night and did something we haven’t done in a very long time. We spent more money—way more money—on liquor than we did on food. We braced ourselves for the tourist traffic that has flooded our neighborhood in recent weeks, called a few friends to join us, and enjoyed cocktails and dinner at the beach.

Here, on the west central coast of Florida, it’s high tourist season, also known as spring break. Spring break doesn’t designate a single week in this part of the country. In the Tampa Bay area, spring break lasts about six weeks. It includes every spring break of every family in every school in every city in the country. Perhaps other countries, too, but I don’t know if they have spring break elsewhere in the world. And every one of those families, haggard by another school year, makes its way to our beaches.

Life changes in many ways during spring break season. Breakfast out on the weekends is nearly impossible. The quaint, seaside hangouts that we enjoy ten and a half months of the year become overrun with tourists who snake out the door, throw food to the seagulls and park in our secret spots. Because we live on an island, we must paddle every weekend against the tide when we plan our comings and goings. That is to say, when the spring breakers from Omaha or Cincinnati are driving onto the island, toting coolers packed with Gatorade and Subway sandwiches and bottles of SPF 70 tucked in their beach bags, we are free to make our way to Home Depo or a high school ball game. They are coming, we are going. But we dare not return until the tide shifts and those tourists—always burned on the tips of their ears and the backs of their legs because no one remembers to sunscreen those spots—return to their rooms at the Holiday Inn. Then, we are coming and they are, at long last, going. This system temporarily fails every twenty minutes on the hour because the draw bridge goes up. How this influences the tide is always unpredictable.

None of this is to say we don’t care for our tourists from Dallas and Topeka. They are the lifeblood of most businesses in this area. They eat our seafood, drink our margaritas and enjoy our miniature golf. Luckily, we are blessed with family-style tourists. We are a G rated area—okay maybe PG13 along certain stretches of the beach. We don’t tend to draw the R rated college crowd. So yes, we are thankful for the migration that makes its way south during March and early April. We can eat our pancakes and drink our mimosas at home during these few weeks. But please, remember the tops of your ears and the backs of your legs, and never, under any circumstances, feed the seagulls. And like this last Friday night, when my husband and I spent more on Cabernet (me) and Michelob (him), than we did on Alfredo (me) and Blackened Chicken (him), we might set aside our regularly scheduled activities to join you once in a while.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Welcome....and please come again

Andrew, my oldest, was about six years old, and he and I were playing catch in the back yard. We had only recently moved to Florida from Kansas City and were still getting used to Geckos darting under foot. Andrew stood in the scant shade of a newly planted coconut palm (By the way, coconut milk is not sweet. It is watery and a bit stale, though not bad when mixed with rum and pineapple juice.) I stood near the waist-high fence that ran along the seawall, separating our yard from the canal we overlooked. Rearing back, Andrew threw. The ball flew wide and high. I stumbled backward, stretched my glove over the fence and caught it before it sailed into the water. Holding up my fair catch like a centerfielder, I glanced down, and there I saw it—a long, broad shadow, drifting through the water, almost close enough to brush up against the barnacles that grew along the seawall. I dropped my glove and the ball and summonsed my son, just like my mother had summonsed me thirty-some years earlier.

I was nine years old and living in Manhattan, Kansas when my mother called me to the family room. She sat me in front of our black and white television set, which hummed and took a few minutes to warm up when she turned it on. “Watch and remember. This might never happen again,” she said or something to that effect. “Sit and remember.” On the screen, a balding man sat at a wooden desk. Flanked by two flags, he leaned forward and rested on his forearms. He held a stack of white paper between his two hands, and spoke slowly, reading from the papers. One at a time, he set each sheet aside. I don’t remember his words, am certain I didn’t understand them at the time, but I remember that moment—August 8, 1974—because my mother told me to. It was the day Richard Nixon resigned as the 37th President of our country.

Andrew tossed aside his glove and joined me. Quietly, I unlatched the gate that opened onto our dock. “Look here,” I whispered, taking Andrew’s hand and leading him onto the catwalk. He squatted next me, looked down into the water and shrugged.

“A manatee,” I said. “It’s a manatee.”

The shadow grew darker as the manatee surfaced. His wrinkled nose broke through and his tail stirred up small circular currents that grew larger as they spread through the water. He had whiskers and a snout like a walrus. The gray, spongy skin on his back was marred by a long white scar—given to him by a propeller no doubt. He floated for a moment, where the shallow water was warmest, blew out a loud puff of air, and then sank until he was only a shadow again.

“Remember this,” I said to my son. “Sit and remember.”

I wanted to make a moment for him as lasting as the one my mother made for me, albeit more pleasant. “You might never see this again.” Another shrug, and Andrew grabbed his mitt and the ball. He was going inside because I threw like a girl.

I told my husband, Bill, about the manatee that night over dinner. I should have had a camera, couldn’t believe I didn’t have a camera. Savanna, my daughter, was too young to care much. Andrew poked at his food and asked if Bill would throw with him from now on. Clearly, he was not going to remember the manatee like I remembered Richard Nixon.

We saw another manatee the next day. Same warm, sunny, shallow spot. And again the next. I caught the third sighting on video. During the warm months, we see them almost every day. After eleven years, we don’t always run onto the dock anymore when we spot the round swells in the water created by the manatee’s paddle-like tail. Sometimes we watch from the deck or through the sliding glass doors that run along the back of our house.

The moral of the story…I guess we never know what will make something memorable. Richard Nixon, yes. Manatee, no. So, here at my blog, I’ll be trying many things and hopefully you’ll find something of interest—something worth remembering—and you’ll come again. I’ll write about the release of my new novel when I have something interesting to share, will occasionally write about writing, and other times about things like coconuts and manatees. My hope is to post on Mondays and Thursdays. I promise not to throw like a girl and next time I see a manatee in the canal, I’ll post a picture here for all of you to enjoy.