Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Twisted Fairy Tales: Cinderella

A quick rap against wood; I wondered who would be in the forest at that time of night as I clutched my baby against my breast, but when my husband pushed open the door the only thing I saw was a tiny, wriggling, pink baby in a straw basket.

We named her Lily.

I raised her as my own, along with my biological daughter, Ellen. The two were the best of friends and the worst of enemies. You know how sisters are. They were different as night and day. Ellen was fair with dark hair, like mine. Lily's was woven sunlight. Ellen always had her nose in a book. Lily was forever wandering off and talking to the animals.

The years passed quickly, as they do, and the girls turned sixteen. Since we had no way of knowing what Lily's birthday was, we celebrated them on the same day. Truth be told, we were quite poor, and it helped to only have to make one cake.

That evening, after the last crumb of our special dinner was swallowed, there was a knock on the door. I recalled the night fifteen years and some months earlier, and a pang of fear pulsed through me. I don't know why I felt uneasy. Call it instinct, mother's intuition. I stood in front of both of the girls as my husband, just like that night, answered the door.

A tall man stood just beyond, dressed in garments that indicated he was a courtier of some kind. His hat pressed against his chest, he bowed slightly and then smiled. "I've come to invite your daughters to a royal gala, to be held at the palace next Saturday." Eyes sparkling, he held out a creamy white envelope. "All the young ladies from the village are invited to attend."

My husband took the invitation and handed it to me, which I opened slowly, relishing the moment. It wasn't every day I had the privilege of handling stationery from the castle. The calligraphy was breathtaking, the color of the ink a deep blood red. Running my fingers over the words, I was a bit envious that the mothers were not invited. I brushed the ugly thought away and beamed at the girls. "How lovely!"

Ellen looked up from her book and scowled. "I can't think of anything I'd enjoy less."

"Ellen!" I scolded, stealing a glance at our visitor. He appeared amused.

Lily was biting her nails. "But I haven't anything to wear," she said.

"You may borrow my wedding gown," I suggested. "I've been saving it for you girls."

"It'll be too big," Lily pouted.

"Then I'll take it in," I replied, annoyed.

"How am I to behave?" Lily asked, flicking her eyes toward the man. "I've never been anywhere fancy before."

The man took a step forward and shot me a glance. "May I?"

I nodded.

"Dear lady," he said to Lily, comfortingly. "May I offer you a bit of advice?"

She dropped her hand from her mouth, shoulders relaxing. "Please."

"Just be your sweet self. Be real. Be authentic." I thought he was going to stop there, but he continued: "Be yourself, but don't brag too much about your accomplishments. Feel good about yourself, but never show it. Be charming, but not overly so because then people will assume your personality is false. Enjoy the food, but don't eat too much or you'll lose that lovely figure."

It was at this point I started to get angry. Lila had enough problems with her self-esteem to sort through all this contradictory advice. And I could barely get her to eat anything as it was. I wanted to ask the man to leave, but somehow that seemed rude.

He went on and on. "Be smart, but never make a man feel stupid. If you meet someone worth kissing, do it, but expect that word will get around. People think less of girls who are easy. Ha ha, people don't usually take strumpets seriously. Especially princes!"

Furious, I cut in. "Sir, may I ask who you think you are?"

"Well, I'm Prince Prospero, of course."

I stared at the man, and it dawned on me why this man's features seemed so familiar. I'd seen him riding by, waving proudly, during parades. It seemed odd that he'd come around personally to deliver invitations to his ball. There was something almost... nefarious about it. Specifically the way he spoke to Lily. As though he were grooming her.

But for what?

My mind was made up.

"I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

He turned toward me in surprise, but when my husband stepped toward him, he raised his hands and backed away. "Your loss," he smirked.

When the door closed behind him, I turned toward Lily.

"Beautiful girl," I said. "If anyone ever tries to tell you that who you are is not enough, you spit in their face. Do you hear me? You don't need anyone like that telling you how to live your life, even if he's the handsomest man in the world, even if he's a prince. Do you understand me, young lady?"

She tilted her chin up rebelliously.

And I knew, no matter what I said, she would do what she damn well pleased.

Play On, Playah

I'm a bit of a gamer.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not all that coordinated, so I do have a bit of trouble with first person shooter games. Which sucks because I've just started playing Bioshock Infinite and have died approximately half a million times. The story, though--the part I love!!!--is amazing.

I adore games, but they take so much time, something I don't have a lot of... especially heading back into a revision. The only way I can justify playing Bioshock Infinite is that it does have an ending, so at some point I'll finish the game and be able to focus on my book. (Also, I don't have a deadline on this revision. My editor told me to relax and have fun with it, play around. I'm sure she didn't mean with video games, but I'm taking a breather before I head back into the revision cave.)

So I feel good about Bioshock Infinite because I'll enjoy the story, reach the end, and be done with it.

Contrast this with other games I've played in the past, like World of Warcraft or the Sims, games that have no ending. Games that just suck your life away. I remember the moment several years ago when I realized I'd been sitting on the couch for five hours, playing the Sims, helping them achieve their life goals and build relationships. All this while my own life was suffering.

Games are great for a little vacation, but you can't let them take over your life.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Midnight Masquerade

This year's prom theme is midnight masquerade.

At first I thought the concept was kind of lame, but then I started thinking of all the fun we could have, wandering around in masks, no one knowing who anyone else is. There's a certain exhilarating freedom that comes along with being in disguise. Inhibitions are cast aside. Truths are revealed, lies are woven. The secrets we hold deep inside manifest on the outside, in a weird way, if that makes any sense.

I know it doesn't.

That's sort of the point.

Hours I spent, hunched over my mask, surrounded by tubes of paint and bottles of glitter and bits of feather. I'm quite pleased with the result, I'm happy to say. At first glance, you might think my mask is one color: black. But in the right light, if you tilt it just so, you'll see a rainbow shimmering.

I'm doubling with my best friend, Lil. Actually, I don't know if I should refer to her as my best friend since I only met her last week, but there was an incident in the cafeteria where this dude tripped over his own shoelaces and dumped a full bottle of Lipton iced tea all over her. I was the one who led her to the bathroom and got her cleaned up, and ever since then we've been hanging out. I think she kind of likes me. Or, at least, she tolerates me.

I should tell you: I'm not the most popular person in the world.

Anyway, her mask is red silk. It goes with her dress, which is so tight, it's practically painted on. But she's so tiny she can pull that sort of thing off. I've got more curves, and not all in the right places, so I had to choose something a little more conservative.

So here we are, staring at ourselves in the mirror in the girls' bathroom, the place where shit always gets real. I open my purse and pull out a flask filled with cake-flavored vodka that my mom bought to make jello shots for her birthday party last year.

I hold it out to Lil, but she shakes her head. "Not my drug of choice," she says, winking.

The wink I give back to her is not because I know anything about her favorite vice but because I know everyone's got their addiction, the thing that helps them escape reality on occasion. Whether it's love, literature, little kittens batting around balls of yellow yarn, everybody's got their thing.

"So what do you think of Paul?" I ask.

Paul's this guy I used to date in middle school, until we realized a mutual obsession with World of Warcraft was nothing to base a relationship on. Also, I'm not really good with guys. Take Jared, the guy I'm here with tonight. There wasn't a lot of thinking involved. We were both standing in line for gyros last Tuesday. He asked. I said yes, mostly because he was the only guy who wanted to take me.

Lil shrugs. "He's quiet. Kind of awkward."

"That's just until you get to know him," I say, taking a swig from my flask. Wincing,  I continue. "He's really a good guy, if you adjust your expectations."

"What do you mean?"

I stash the flask back in my purse, dig out a tube of lipstick--nude, of course--and lean toward the mirror. My eyes are dark behind the mask. Ghostly. After reapplying my lipstick, I glance at Lil. She is studying me curiously.

"I just mean he's kind of... unpredictable. You've gotta go with the flow, just follow his lead. And... if you really like him... don't act so desperate."

"I'm not acting desperate," Lil blurts, her face turning red.

No wonder I don't have any friends.

I roll my eyes. "Honey, you've been following him around like a lapdog all night. Guys don't like that. Just do your own thing. Be yourself. Talk about the stuff you find interesting. Relax a little."

"I am relaxed," Lil insists.

"If you say so." After tucking my lipstick back in my purse, I fluff my hair one last time and head for the exit.

Outside, Paul and Jared are standing beside a poster that shouts, "Join us for an evening of delicious revelry!" Beneath those words looms a gaunt, creepy dude in a mask. It's supposed to be the Red Death from that Edgar Allan Poe story we had to read in English.

I should know.

I'm the one who designed it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Ah, Young Love (Young Heartbreak)

This morning I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about her teenage daughter. Let's call her Veronica. She's a senior and had been dating a guy who was a year older than her and went off to college last fall. We'll name him Brad. For a while, Veronica and Brad tried to make it work, but it became apparent that the two lifestyles were just not going to happily coincide.

So they broke up.

It was the typical breakup. My colleague spent several weeks doing Vampire Diaries marathons with Veronica, sharing cartons of Chubby Hubby, listening to the teary "Why doesn't he want me?" types of questions that we all ask when something ends. She wisely advised her daughter not to call the boy, encouraged her to go out and do things to keep her mind off him.

Veronica began to heal. She started to smile again, enjoyed spending time with her friends, got a date to prom, cut her hair into an adorable bob. Started planning her own college experience, at a separate school, one more appropriate for her journey to become a writer.

But last night she slipped up.

You see, Brad is attending classes at Iowa State, where the riots broke out on Tuesday evening. Under the guise of checking to make sure he was okay, Veronica texted Brad. An amicable conversation ensued. But then she had to take it to the next level, and she told Brad that she missed him.



And then, against her better judgment, she tried to call him.



Then he texted her: Don't try to call me again.

Fast forward to a few minutes later when my colleague found her daughter sobbing on her bed. Sniffling, Veronica explained what had happened. My colleague listened for a few minutes, nodding, and then said, "Look, I know you really don't want me to take Brad's side on this, but what he did was the right thing. Lots of times people leave things ambiguous during breakups, and then there's the neverending back and forth. What he gave you was a clean break. It hurts a lot right now, but he's not jerking you around. There are no mixed signals."

Upon consideration, I realized how right my colleague was. After college, I went through a terrible breakup. We'd been together for almost three years, and it was really hard to let go. One of us was always calling the other up with the "I miss you" opening, and we'd fall right back into the unhealthy relationship. It took a year to escape that miserable yo-yoing.

If I could go back, I'd tell the guy to just stop calling me.

It would have saved us both from a lot of pain.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

34 Years, 34 Things

This morning, as I was lying in bed (in considerable physical pain, but we'll not go there), I thought about birthdays. And how they generally suck when you're older. You still have all the normal responsibilities, but none of the fun.

When you're little, your mom makes you a chocolate bundt cake with M&Ms stuck to it and everyone sings and you blow out the candles. When you're grown, you might swing by Scratch to pick up some cupcakes after your doctor's appointment. Maybe.

The one good thing about getting older is that, as you gain experience, you learn. So I thought I'd share some things I've learned, one for every year I've been alive.

1. Guacamole always costs extra.

2. A walk around the lake can soothe almost any heartache.

3. To make a change, you must want it more than anything and then do whatever it takes to guarantee your success. Get obsessed, get relentless.

4. You cannot have it all. If you sacrifice all extra hours for your career, your family life will suffer. If you get too absorbed in your neverending to-do list, you let friendships fade. There is no such thing as balance.

5. I am far from perfect. I make mistakes. I hurt people. I am thoughtless. Sometimes. However, I teach and write and love with all my heart. My mood changes an average of five times an hour. I am complicated. I am human.

6. Don't bleach your hair. It will never go back to normal.

7. My favorite moments in life are spent cuddling with my babies in front of the fire.

8. A book a day can keep reality away.

9. You can only escape pain for so long, and when you return, it hurts just as much.

10. Wow, 34 is a lot of things.

11. I'm not sure I've learned 34 things in my life.

12. Perseverance is key.

13. Where's my burrito?

14. You can find a quote from The Simpsons to fit every situation in life.

15. Also Labyrinth.

16. Everyone sucks at one time or another. Some people more, some people less, but everyone does.

17. Everyone also has good points. My colleague told me a secret she has whenever she doesn't like someone. She picks one good thing about them and focuses on that, however small. Like they have really cool nail polish or they said something unexpectedly funny. It's all about focus.

18. When I was a teenager, I took a boombox out to the street and danced with my friends. Now I dance in my kitchen. It's just not the same.

19. Words are more intoxicating than liquor.

20. And more seductive.

21. Death is real.

22. I wish it weren't.

23. But it is.

24. But so is buffalo chicken dip! And flowers! And chubby, kissable baby cheeks!

25. Sometimes people just need you to see them.

26. Family, real family, is everything. They will stand by you no matter what.

27. Singing someone to sleep comforts the singer almost as much as it does the listener.

28. The biggest gift you can give someone is your time.

29. You were born a certain way, with strengths and weaknesses, and though you can constantly improve yourself, you will never become a different person. Nor should you want to.

30. Ambition is a double-edged sword. It can drive you to achieve more than you ever knew possible, but it's best friends with envy, that rotten whore who will destroy your life if you let her.

31. All you can do is be the best you can be at any given moment, for yourself and the people around you. And if you slip up, try to do better tomorrow.

32. If you have a terrible day, a bubble bath will make you feel better than chocolate. Throw in a pedicure and a good book, and you're on your way to bliss.

33. Everything is beautiful. Even pain.

34. Close your eyes. Breathe. This is your life, right now. And it is enough.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Light in the Dark

Shortly after my mother passed away, I stood in the room where I last saw her. She and my father had just purchased a house near Des Moines so they could be closer to their grandkids. The weekend before she died, they came and stayed in that house for a couple of days.

I remembered my mother crouched on the floor with my children, playing with the Little People castle she'd picked out just for them so they'd have something to play with when they visited. I was sitting on the couch, talking with my grandfather, who had also come to visit. There was a moment when I looked down and realized my mother was trying to lift herself onto the couch next to me. I don't know if I was talking or lost in thought or what... but I didn't automatically reach over and hold out my hand to her.

She had to ask me to help her up.

Maybe I was in denial that she was so sick. Maybe I was oblivious. Whatever it was, that moment will haunt me for the rest of my life. That I didn't  just offer my hand and pull her up next to me.

I had to be asked.

Guilt is part of the grieving process. You think of all the things you should have said, things you could have done differently. I didn't call her in the few days before she died. I could have talked to her one more time. I've been so absorbed in book stuff the last couple of years. I should have made more time to go visit.

Anyway, all these things went through my head as I stood in that living room a few weeks after she died, looking at the pictures my father displayed over the mantle of the fireplace. I stared at my mother's picture, and I got angry. (This is another stage of grief, and I seem to fly from one to another without any warning, moment to moment.)

I actually said out loud: "You didn't prepare me for this. Why didn't you prepare me? I don't know what to do with this."

Sobbing, I left the house and drove to the storage garage, where I was supposed to meet some movers that were coming from our old house in Cedar Rapids. My father was out of town, and I had the code to let them in. Before I met them, I tried to cover up my splotchy face with makeup, but I'm pretty sure it was obvious that I'd been crying.

I opened the garage for them and then sat in my car as they did their thing, typing on my laptop because I had a revision due. After a while, I just couldn't take it anymore. I turned off my computer and started crying again.

Suddenly there was a crashing noise, and I looked up just in time to see a large filing cabinet slide off the dolly and tip onto its side, spilling papers everywhere. I got out of my car and ran toward the girl who was gathering the papers in a panic. As I helped her to pick up the documents, I noticed a stack of notebooks that had fallen out of the cabinet.

My mother's journals.

Look, I'm not saying I believe that my mother was reaching out to me or whatever... I'm not saying that, but... yeah. All I know is that I took them all home and flipped through each one, carefully examining the pages on which she'd recorded our lives. I felt closer to her than ever as I realized that her world was so like mine is now, with the grocery lists and weight charts and the note to remind her of my brother's dentist appointment. It was soothing, to touch those pages she'd turned. She was in the handwriting, in the smell of the paper. She was there.

I visited her grave not too long ago. It's not something I do regularly, but I was having a terrible day and really wanted her guidance. Resting my cheek against the cold tombstone, I asked her for help.

There was nothing.

She wasn't there.

But as I plodded through the snow, back to my car, I heard her voice in my head. She gave me the advice I needed. And I realized she's still here, inside of me. I knew what she would say. What she'd think. I didn't need her to stand in front of me and tell me what I already knew.

I didn't have to ask.

She'll reach out when I need her. Always.

Because she's my mom.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fairy Tales No More

I have a routine for processing edit letters. It involves the couch, a box of Kleenex, and some wine. So when I received an edit letter during parent-teacher conferences last week, I had to improvise. Luckily my colleague was more than willing to stuff giant chocolate chip cookies into his mouth and talk like Cookie Monster until I laughed and relaxed enough to get through the (long, long) evening. 

Typically I freak out after receiving an edit letter. I only see the negative. No matter how many times my editor reassures me that we're making progress and this is an ambitious book and I'm more than capable of making the changes, I read: "YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK." Only after rereading the suggested changes a few times and letting the new vision sink in do I realize that the criticism is not about ME at all; it's about creating the best possible book. And my editor (as I've mentioned before) is a genius; there's a reason I trust her with my book babies. 

So, yeah, I'm headed into another rewrite...

THUS no more twisted fairy tales. At least not for a while. I've gotta pour all my creative energy into ELT. (Of course, this morning I kept thinking about the geocaching thriller I was working on two summers ago and would like to revisit... but... one thing at a time.)

Let's not even talk about the 150 essays that came in last week.

Deep breaths.