Archive | Musings

Buddhism

Spirit rock
Two women with bibles in their hands just knocked on my door.

They kindly asked if I struggled with anxiety, and suggested that I reference my bible Matthew 6:18 for some guidance on how to deal with it. I thanked them (because we all deal with anxiety) and I told them we’re a buddhist household. I own a bible, a beautiful one that belonged to my mother when she was a child, but I keep it on the shelf for reference. I find it comes in handy when I’m writing, particularly when I’m writing religious characters.

This stumped them. I’ve had the experience before. You tell a bible thumper that you’re buddhist and they just don’t know what to say. They know buddhism is a religion (though I prefer to think of it as a philosophy), but they don’t know much about it. They smiled and continued with the script: It’s good to have somewhere to turn when anxiety builds up.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I spent all last week in silent meditation at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Norther California (pictured above – isn’t it beautiful?). No talking, no writing, no reading. Just me, and 100 or so other people, sitting silently with our own thoughts. People think it’s the silence that’s hard, but for me, it’s not reading. I have trouble falling asleep at night without reading.

This was the third retreat I’ve done, and the shortest. Still, even just having a few days to be quiet and meditate is such a welcome change of pace. My hubby and I try to make space for each other to go once a year, but for many years I’ve chosen to do writing retreats instead. Taking this time felt like a nod to balance in my life.

Anyhow, I didn’t tell the nice ladies at the door all this. I simply thanked them for their care and concern and wished them luck on their walk. Next time I think I will invite them in for coffee. I would LOVE to know what motivates them. How is it that they spend their days walking from house to house singing the word of the lord? There’s a story there.

But I already have a story, and right now, that’s what I need to be working on.

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For the Dads who Have to Leave

pool dad words

It is a messy world we live in. We fall in love, then out again. We find jobs and lose them. Sometimes things just don’t work out like we plan.

For me, things got messy when I was eight and my parents got divorced. For myriad reasons, my dad had to leave. My memory of this period is hazy, but I have pieced together a rough family history that includes him traveling all over the world as a helicopter pilot, stopping in from time to time.

As a kid, I would have told you that it was no big deal. That was how my parents framed it. They remained friends, albeit long-distance, and my mom provided a loving, reliable home for my sister and me. We never moved, not once. With the exception of my dad, my childhood was pretty normal, but I really did miss him. A lot.

A couple weeks back, I was talking with a friend whose ex just left the country for a job in New Zealand. They have a hilarious and sensitive eight-year-old daughter together. As my friend told me about this tough transition, I found myself struck by how familiar the situation was. It was as if I was talking to my mom, thirty years ago, and it gave me a whole new perspective on my childhood. Since then, I’ve thought a bit about I would say to my dad, if I could go back thirty years and give him some advice.

If you’re a dad who has to leave, consider this:

  1. You have to own that you are abandoning your kid. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but if you aren’t around (physically in the room with them) on a regular basis, that’s what is happening. This will make your kiddo sad, or angry, or both, and that sucks. Don’t try to pretend that she’s not sad, or try to make her feel good about this shitty situation. No puppies. Sit with her before you go and feel sad together. Let her see that you’re sad too. If she’s younger, help her put words to her feelings (sad, scared, upset) so she can better understand them. This will probably make you uncomfortable, but you’re the grown up. Deal with it.
  2. Call once a week, at the same time every week. Calling more often will be tough logistically on both ends, but less isn’t enough. Kids thrive on consistency, and you leaving will rip a hole in that, so a phone call every week is the least you can do. Don’t flake. Do whatever you have to do to not flake. This is something my dad got right, and though there were times that it felt like a chore, every Sunday evening at 6 (my time), it was a major bridge in our relationship. And this was 30 years ago when phones were harder to come by. You have no excuse.
  3. Don’t forget her birthday. Mark you calendar. In fact, mark it a month ahead of time. Buy something (anything – it doesn’t have to be expensive), wrap it nicely, and mail it with time to spare. If you are international, it will take longer to get a package to her, so plan ahead. Birthdays are a big deal to kids. This is one of those little things that will matter.
  4. Don’t drop in unannounced. If you don’t see her very often, it will be tempting to surprise your kiddo by stopping by or flying in without notice. Of course she wants to see you. Of course she will be excited. That’s not the point. This ties back to the whole consistency thing. Let your kid know exactly when she will see you again and then stick to it. When you are with her, make sure she knows when you’re leaving. Never sneak out when she’s sleeping. Teary goodbyes suck, but you’re the grown up. Deal with it.
  5. Have your kid visit. Notice I said visit. Seeing other parts of the world is a great opportunity, no question, but having two homes sucks. Having a group of school friends at mom’s house and a group of summer friends at dad’s house is not cool. I call this disjointed custody. If both parents live in the same city, joint custody makes sense, but if you live far enough away that your kid has to fly to see you, don’t make them uproot their lives to come stay with you for long periods of time (like whole summer vacations). It will fuck up their lives. They can visit for a week and you can be super fun dad, but then send them home to their regular lives.
  6. Pay your child support. Parenting is hard. Doing it alone makes it even harder. Don’t be a deadbeat dad.

I can’t promise that adhering to my list will work any magic, but I hope it can be of use to the dads out there, who, for whatever reason, have to go.

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Creative Community

The kids’ school tagged a teacher-development day onto this three-day weekend to make it a whopping four-day extravaganza. So I’m sitting here, in the airport, on a Tuesday, after four fantastic days in Northern California, with mixed feelings about returning to Los Angeles.

I love Northern California for its beautiful hills, wonderful food, and old Victorian houses, but upon reflection, Southern California feels like a much more literary place. For all its faults, the writers I know (and know of) in Los Angeles are much more my kind of writers and these days, my community is everything to me.

There’s a grit to Southern California that appeals to my literary sensibilities. Visiting San Francisco this weekend, after nine years away, it was clear that The City is a tech city now. No two ways about it.

That’s not to say tech isn’t creative – it is. In fact, one of the things I love about visiting is that it’s a chance to catch up on the cool new apps and gadgets my friends are using. This weekend was no exception, and I am headed home with four new apps on my phone, but tech ingenuity is different than artistic expression.

I am much more interested in the larger questions addressed by art: What does it mean to fall in love? How do we reconcile with the path not taken? What do we do when zombies attack? These are the questions I’m interested in. And I am endlessly fascinated by the way writers explore them.

So, once again, I have confirmed that I’m a SoCal girl now.

hollywood sign

On a side note, tonight my writing class is critiquing the pages I submitted. I’m a little nervous to hear what they have to say, as the pages I sent in are new. This will be the first time anyone has read them. I let you know how it goes.

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I am Voting for Hillary Because She Has a Vagina

Yes, that’s right, I said it. I am voting for Hillary because she has a vagina and you can’t stop me.

I can already hear the men in my life protesting (hi dad). You can’t choose whom you’re voting for based on what’s hanging, or not hanging, between their legs. To that I say: like hell I can’t.

Hillary Penis Free

What are we really doing in an election? We are choosing someone to represent us in the governmental goings on of our country. If you’re a man, then the county has been represented by someone like you since its very inception. Everyone ever elected to presidential office in the US has had a dick.

The dicks have been running the show for a long time, and frankly, I’m unimpressed.

So this year, given the opportunity to vote for a representative who actual represents me, as an American woman, I’m voting for Hillary.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not voting for Hillary JUST because she is a woman and I wouldn’t vote for JUST any woman. Take Palin, for instance. There’s not enough guacamole in Mexico to make me vote for that nut job.

But given two good choices (one male, one female), I’m giving the woman an extra ten points simply for being her.

I know a lot of people will object and I suspect that most of those people are male. So guys, take a minute and try to imagine a country where every president has been female. Just attempt to conjure a history wherein only a fraction of our representatives (from mayor on up to the senate) are men. Consider what it would be like to live in a country where men made 79 cents for every dollar a woman made – and that was considered improvement.

The truth is, if you are a white man in America, you have no perspective on this.

And ladies, I understand you may not agree. You may honestly think the men are doing a fine job. For all I know, you would prefer to elect a former reality TV star that derides anyone who isn’t a white male. You might also be a redneck idiot.

Take a moment, ladies, and consider who it is you really want to represent you. Then vote accordingly.

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My Mid-Life Crisis (in a nutshell)

I revealed myself a bit on Friday. I am (f)unemployed.

But April, weren’t you just bragging about your great new job?

Why, yes. Yes I was.

Last March I started a new job at an engineering firm. It actually was pretty great. As far as professional writing jobs go, it was more than great, it was unbelievable. I worked four days a week, got paid a totally decent salary, and I loved the people.

The biggest downside was that I got very lonely. My office (I had my own office!) was a small windowless room. I sat there all day by myself. As nice as the people were, I had very little interaction with them. When I took the job, we had agreed that I would work from my “home” office, which is really the corner of Daniel’s office. I love it there. Daniel and I can talk and share music, and I know a lot of the other people in the building, so it’s very friendly. But working remotely didn’t work out. So I was commuting half an hour each way, to sit alone all day. I left as the kids were waking up and came home just before bedtime. It began to wear on me. If it’s one thing I cannot tolerate, it’s anything that gets in the way of my time with my kiddos.

But that wasn’t why I had to quit. Not completely.

By August, I was truly depressed. I was also drinking too much, which really wasn’t helping. It got to the point that I had to come clean to the HR lady at work. I was just sitting at my computer all day staring. Doing nothing. I figured I had to tell someone what was going on, or I was likely to get fired. She was very understanding. She insisted that I take a leave of absence immediately and take care of myself.

So I did. I was even able to get some disability pay to soften the blow financially. It’s embarrassing to apply for disability pay. All my life I’ve told myself to just suck it up, but I couldn’t any more. It was all I could do to get out of bed in the morning.

I enrolled in a treatment program at a place called Refuge Recovery here in LA. What immediately became clear was that my depression had actually begun to build in the fall of 2014 when I took a class called The Meaningful Life, taught by George Hass. It blew apart my entire sense of self, and sent me spiraling into depression. If you ever get the chance to take it, I highly recommend it.

Yes, I know that sounds ass backwards. But here’s the thing. I had been cruising along feeling pretty meh about life. My family is amazing, but everything else felt like just getting along, marching towards death. I think it’s fair to describe it as a mid-life crisis. It’s cliché, but I was overwhelmed by the sense that “there must be more to life than this.” When I took the class, which was largely meditation based, I began to understand what really mattered to me. It’s the people in my life, both family and friends. Real connections with people I love.

This realization and my super-lonely work environment were completely opposed to each other, but I didn’t think there was anything to be done about it.

To quiet the unhappy feelings, I drank, which helped temporarily, but only compounded my problems in the morning when I was too tired (or hung-over) to get up and write. I stopped writing. I stopped exercising.

That’s when things really got bad. That’s where I was when I went into the HR lady’s office and ended up taking a leave of absence.

That was five months ago. Officially, I quit in December, though I hadn’t been to work in three months by then. In my outpatient program, I dove deep into the mess that had been stirred up by the Meaningful Life class. I had a psychiatrist, two therapists, and daily group sessions. I meditated a lot.

I don’t know where I’m going from here. I quit drinking. I’m writing daily, exercising three times a week, and trying to figure out what I want to do to earn a paycheck.

Funempoyed isn’t quite the right word. I still have tough days. I’m still working through some hard shit. But the feeling that there must be more has evaporated. I feel like I’m living a life that is much more authentic to the life I had hoped to have. When I do take a job, it will be somewhere with people, doing something that I really care about. I don’t know what that is yet, but I have hope that I will figure it out. Or maybe I’ll go back to freelance (even though I said I never would). I don’t know.

I’m making an effort to spend time with a friend every day (be it coffee, lunch or going for a run), to foster real connection with the people I hold dear, share what’s going on with me and hear what’s happening in their lives. It’s not something I have a lot of practice with, which sounds odd, but it’s true.

As midlife crises go, this one is much cheaper than a sports car, and I get the sense that ten years down the road, the value will have only increased.

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Best Books of 2015 (says me)

Okay, folks, here it is, just under the wire. My best-of list for 2015. As a quick disclaimer, it’s a list of the best books I HAVE READ in the past twelve months. Not a list of the best books published in the last 12 months. (My blog, my list.)

Best Books 2015

So here goes. (No spoilers, promise)

The best books I read in 2015, in no particular order, were…

The Golem and the Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker
I love, love, love this book. It’s magical, but grounded. It’s a love story, but not. It’s almost historical fiction, painting a New York of old with amazing detail, but it’s much more the story of these two characters – the golem and the jinni. A must read.

The Signature of All Things (2013) by Elizabeth Gilbert
Stunning. This woman can write. I loved this book so much that I slipped my Kindle underneath my papers at work and turned my back so no one would see that I shifted the work aside and just fell into the story. I couldn’t put it down, and then felt kind of depressed when it was over. It is also highly discussion-worthy. If you’ve read it, please let me know because I am dying to debate some of its finer points with a friend.

The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern
My friend Brian McGackin bashed this one on his own blog. I was shocked. It was fantastic. A love story told in the setting of a magical circus, created by an eccentric old rich guy trying to win a bet. The story telling is highly visual, which is a real feat given that most of the things she describes are completely fabricated. Inventive and engaging.

Purity (2015) by Jonathan Franzen
My favorite Franzen yet.

The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd
This one took a few pages to grab me, but by the mid-point I was totally hooked. Her characters were based on real people, dealing with slavery, religion, family, and politics in the 1800s. It was a beautifully woven story.

The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot (2014) by Bill Collier
I think this was the only nonfiction I read this year. It is my dad’s memoir. I love it, and though I may be biased, being his daughter and all, it has been really well reviewed on Amazon and he’s sold over 2000 copies so far (go dad!). It’s definitely worth checking out. You can buy a copy on Amazon.

So there it is. I would love to hear your favorites. I am always on the lookout for recommendations, though Brian’s picks will be a bit suspect after his panning of The Night Circus.

Happy New Year!

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Updating My Dreams

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, I have officially made the decision to let go of working as a freelance writer ever again. I love my job, I only work four days a week, which leaves me some solid time on Mondays to work on my fiction, and I get a regular, totally respectable paycheck.

I’ve been sitting with this choice for a few weeks, and am more and more comfortable with it. I don’t know why it took so long to realize what a good set up I’ve managed to land myself in. And I’m so glad I did realize before I did something drastic. Sometimes, when the writing isn’t going well, I get a little crazy.

Anyhow, I noticed a couple days ago that my dream board needed updating. Don’t laugh, I have a dream board. I give full credit to my hippie parents, who are big on visualizing outcomes. Besides, if Oprah does it (and she does), then there must be something to it because that woman is amazing. I mean seriously. How cool is it that she puts herself on the cover of her magazine every month? I love that shit.

So the dream board. I made it about year ago. It has the cover of my novel (or at least a hand-drawn version of how I see it looking), and the next, and some tiny little fake checks made out to me from fancy publishing agencies. It had the covers of all the magazines I was going to write for with mockups of the articles I was going to write (with my byline of course). It had a little drawing of me and Daniel and the kids flying off to some exotic place on one of my writing assignments.

Well, half of it was still good. The other half needed to change. And I had a few free minutes (yeah, being done with all that wedding craziness!), so I grabbed some scissors and glue and went to it. When she saw what I was doing my daughter asked: Don’t you want to travel with us anymore? And I said: Of course I do, but not for work. Which reminded me to grab a travel magazine I had been reading and add it to my pile of supplies.

Here’s how it came out:
Writer's Dream Board

You’ll see three book covers there. The Feathered Tale of Tallulah Jones, Book 2 (I have a title but don’t like it), and the Northern California book, which I’m told WILL some day be published. I also left one article. I have, ever since I received Issue #1 in the mail years ago, dreamed of writing a Spin The Globe piece for Afar magazine. If you don’t know that magazine, you should totally check it out. Best travel mag going. You’ll also see an outline for my third novel with a SOLD tag on it. The fine print dictates a bidding war and a seven-figure sale price.

The best change is that I got rid of all that extra freelance business and wallpapered the board with travel images: Great Barrier Reef, Zion, Yellowstone, mountain biking, SCUBA diving, hiking. These are the things I want most outside of work. Adventures with my family. And the coolest thing of all? Even if I don’t make seven figures on any of my books, I have a steady job that allows me to save up for these kind of vacations.

In short, I’m feeling pretty good about my choices lately. I hung the new board over my dresser and see it every day. My folks, and Oprah, say there’s power in that.

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Ditching the Laptop: FAIL

If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve been experimenting with the possibility of ditching the laptop and sticking with just my iPad.

The backstory is that when I started my last job (back in 2011), the company bought me a computer. At that point I gave my laptop, which was getting pretty old anyway, to my mom. Then, when I left that job and took this new job, I had to return the “new” computer. My sister-in-law had just bought a new laptop, so she was good enough to let me borrow her old computer, but it was super slow (which is why she got a new one).

Because it was so slow, I was using my iPad more and more for everything, and finally I decided to try making it my main computing device. Well, I can officially report now that the experiment has failed.

MacBook Air

There’s something so pretty about a new computer. All fresh and clean and full of potential. Like you could do anything with it. And it’s so fast. And it’s almost as light as the iPad, if not as compact. And I didn’t realize how much I missed the full-sized keyboard.

So, that’s that. It was a worthwhile experiment, but I just couldn’t make the iPad work like I wanted it to. I need to be able to jump around, from research to writing to email. There’s a fluidity that the laptop has that (at least so far) the iPad can’t match.

Onward and upward!

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Comparing Prose

I recently re-read Lonesome Dove. I wanted to read it more critically this time, to really consider why it captivated me so excruciatingly the first time I read it. At nearly 1000 pages, the worst thing about it is that it’s not longer. I feel like I could live in that book. If I had to choose one story to take to a deserted island, that would be it. And it held up on the second read, just as it had on the first.

So I got to thinking, what is it about McMurtry’s writing that is so effing awesome? Well, down at the good old Silver Lake Public Library I found myself a few other books by the man and set to reading. What I discovered was that I don’t actually love all of his writing. I couldn’t even finish Leaving Cheyenne. But I couldn’t quite say why. This seemed like a tremendous opportunity.

I pulled a passage from Leaving Cheyenne at random:

When we got to Molly’s she bandaged my hand and we sat up in the kitchen, eating all the stray food and talking over old times. We were all in high spirits and Johnny told us a lot of stories about life on the plains. Finally me and him slept awhile on her living room floor, and about sunup she came in in her nightgown and bathrobe and woke us up and cooked the best breakfast I ever ate.

Then I flipped to a page of Lonesome Dove:

By the time she got to her back porch the rain was slackening and the sun was already striking little rainbows through the sparkle of drops that still fell. Pea had walked on home, the water dripping more slowly from his hat. He never mentioned the incident to anyone, knowing it would mean unmerciful teasing if it ever got out. But he remembered it. When he lay on the porch half drunk and it floated up in his mind, things got mixed into the memory that he hadn’t even known he was noticing, such as the smell of Mary’s wet flesh. He hadn’t meant to smell her, and hadn’t made any effort to, and yet, the very night after it happened the first thing he remembered was that Mary had smelled different from any other wet thing he had ever smelled.

In looking at these two passages, as a writer, the first difference I see is in the detail. The first passage just sort of tells what they did. The second has the most wonderful details: little rainbows through the sparkle of drops, the smell of Mary’s wet flesh. And I love the phrase “different from any other wet thing he had ever smelled.” It made me giggle, and it evokes the smell of wet things. Wet things smell different than dry things.

The second thing I notice is the passing of time. Both passages cover the better part of a day, but the second has more context to the passing: the water dripping from his hat on the walk home, laying on the porch half drunk thinking of this woman. Compare that to “me and him slept a while on her living room floor.” I guess you could chalk that up to details as well. Maybe that’s why Lonesome Dove is so long. It’s all the details. But I’ll tell you, it’s those details that make it absolutely delicious.

The third is the narrator. Lonesome Dove is third person, jumping from character to character (to character – there are a lot of them), while Leaving Cheyenne is first person, which is inherently limiting. You just can’t tell as grand a story from first person. The main character in Leaving Cheyenne would never notice rainbows in raindrops. It just wouldn’t fit.

My novel is in first person, but I really feel like it needs to be. It’s a personal story. It’s subjective. It does limit perspective a bit, but I think the lesson here is to bring the details, make it visceral. My character is not above noting details, so I think there is reason to aspire to the heights of Lonesome Dove.  Not that I could ever write something as genius as that, but a girl can dream…

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Why I Love Instagram

notebookAs I mentioned in my last post, my one goal for 2015 is to start actively taking notes about the world around me. As writers, the one thing we must be is observant, and I think the practice of actively looking and (most importantly) taking notes is critical.

So I found myself a lovely little notebook that fits easily in my purse, and I’ve taken a note on SOMETHING almost everyday. Like everything else in life, I find that the more I do it, the easier it gets – the more I begin to notice things that I need to jot down. It reminds me of the reason I love Instagram.

I’m a social media dabbler. I have a Facebook page, and I sometimes tweet, but my favorite platform by far is Instagram. My love for it developed pretty quickly when I found myself looking for beauty, everywhere I went. I still take the obligatory head-on shots of the kiddos posing arm in arm, but I dig a little deeper when I start to think about how something might look with an interesting filter. I’ll try a different angle, wait patiently for an unusual shot, or set up something in the background to give it depth. And I’m a novice compared to a lot of Instagramers. Truth be told, the results are fun, but it’s the frame of mind that I love the most.

It’s like a much simpler form of my writer’s notebook, which works the same way, insofar as it pushes me to consider things, to look more closely, to try to find the story, but with Instagram, once I’m done, I tap a button and share the moment with my friends. Honestly, I wish all of my friends were on Instagram. It’s the best.

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