Latchkey OG

“You were made for this,” the owner of Biker Barre, who’s also a dear friend, said as I assembled a plan for how Capitol Hill’s favorite indoor cycling + barre studio could provide online content to clients during the COVID shutdown. “You should be head of FEMA.”

I’m not always great in an emergency but I feel like I’m crushing this one. After all, I excel at social distancing (aka preparing to introvert) and I follow the rules, skills that stem from my being the Latchkey OG. 

I was nine years old when my mom asked if I felt comfortable taking care of my little brother (7) after school until she got home from work. Even at a young age, I knew I’d be more attentive than Debi, who was 16 and had two kids of her own. I knew I’d be nicer to my brother than Betty, who abided by a 50s style of governing kids. I knew I’d be less naughty than Gloria, whose boyfriend would give us money to go to 7-11 for ice cream while they made out (and probably more) on the couch. Hey, it was the 70s!

But there were strict rules to being a latchkey kid. I had to hold my brother’s hand crossing the one street that separated our elementary school from our house. (He probably still has the bruises from my tight grip.) I could make us a healthy snack when we got home—usually mayonnaise sandwiches, which are delicious, don’t @ me. We could not answer the door under any circumstance. No talking to strangers or taking their candy or helping find their lost puppies. And if the phone rang, never let on to the caller that mom wasn’t home because that person could take advantage of two unaccompanied kids. 

Like much of Gen X, I’ve been basically prepping for the worst for forty years.

An aside: Mom instituted one rule we didn’t follow: we weren’t allowed to watch the Brady Bunch. The problem was, I loved the Brady Bunch, and given I was keeping my brother safe and fed, I thought I deserved screen time with this televised blended family. I’d turn it on, but pretend to be asleep on the couch when she got home so that I wouldn’t get in trouble. Remember, these were the old timey days when we had to get up out of our seats and walk all the way over to the TV to flip the channel or turn it off.

Seriously, this all relates to the COVID-19 crisis.

When I saw the meme floating around about Gen X being well suited to meet the challenges posed by the coronavirus, I felt a sense of validation. Yes, I stocked my cabinets with non-perishable foods, but I did not hoard toilet paper. Yes, I started following the CDC guidelines to socially distance well before most people took them seriously. (A friend reported from Arlington, Virginia today that the restaurants were packed at lunch. GO HOME, PEOPLE.) In my house, we wash our hands on the regular and do not rely on that now scarce commodity, hand sanitizer. 

I prepare the best I can (hold your brother’s hand!) but gird for the worst (that strange person who calls the house might come and get you). 

Not much changes. Growing up, I’d lie in bed hoping (praying?) we wouldn’t get into a nuclear war with the USSR in the middle of the night. When I was a sophomore in high school in Maine, my English class watched the Challenger explode on live TV and then after, we continued with our previously scheduled lesson until the bell rang. At age 21, high school friends were shipped off to Iraq for the first Gulf War. (Ironically, I heard from one of those friends yesterday. He reached out to tell me that my recent blog posts are comforting in this time of uncertainty.) In our middle age, Gen X has already experienced multiple economy crashes and wars, not to mention 9/11. In some ways, it we’ve been playing crisis whack-a-mole our entire lives.

And it’s an understatement to call our current circumstances unsettling, posing wake up at 3:18 and don’t fall back to sleep levels of stress. Outwardly, I make comfort food for Jack and Colin. Try to stick to schedule. Meditate. This morning, I live streamed yoga taught by my sister.

I’m wearing my best latchkey kid “my mom can’t come to the phone right now” face. Being organized and prepared gives me a sense of control. But inside, I’m scared like I’ve never been before.

 

What to expect when expecting a pandemic

The last few days have stirred up a frenetic energy reserved for the anticipation of a big snow storm. The toilet paper aisle at grocery stores is ravaged, pantries are stocked with dry goods that wouldn’t normally make a weekly shopping list, kids are out of school, and some offices have ordered teleworking. But instead of the excited uncertainty that comes with a storm hitting a region unaccustomed to dealing with winter weather—how many inches of snow will we get and how long will the kids be home?—the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing with it a heavy sense of dread.

The unknown is frightening. We don’t know whether schools are truly out until the end of the month or until June. We don’t know whether our hospitals can manage the heavy load of the sick.Will the food we bought last two weeks of self-isolation or two months? We don’t know whether our favorite small businesses will survive extended closures or mandatory confinement zoning. Or if two weeks paid sick leave is near enough for those working in an economy not friendly to time off. And not that there is ever a great time for a pandemic, but we don’t know whether that nagging sore throat is caused by seasonal allergies (thanks, tree pollen) or the coronavirus. 

There are some things we do know. For one, social distancing helps contain the spread of the virus. I’m grateful to Gov. Larry Hogan for swiftly making the call to close Maryland schools, even while I acknowledge the privilege embedded in my relief. My kids are in high school; they don’t need supervision, at least on the same level as an elementary aged child. They don’t rely on school lunch for their square meal of the day. Also, I work from home—and don’t have to worry about taking unscheduled leave.

Not everyone is as lucky.

On Twitter— which I generally categorize as a worthless time suck—people in other countries at peak infection beg us to learn from their response (or lack thereof). Epidemiologists say stay home, the most effective way to contain the spread. But our grocery stores are chock full of shoppers and the bike and barre classes are full at the boutique fitness studio I manage as part of my side hustle.

Americans: we are nothing if not predictable and self-centered. We hear what isn’t being said. Hoard toilet paper, hand sanitizer, shredded cheese (seriously, Wegmans was cleared out the day I went shopping) even though grocery store execs assure the only disruption in the supply chain is the one being caused by recent hoarding. We share the debunked “internal email” purporting to be from Stanford doctors about cold and hot drinks and deep breaths to the count of ten. (I shudder to think of the other fake news being spread.) Some even think, “I’m healthy” and flock to bars where they stand shoulder to shoulder with people who look healthy but could be carrying the virus anyway.

The president’s lack of leadership hasn’t helped. While he defaults to his typical posture of first denying there’s a problem, then working overtime to cover his ass, we get mixed messages. Maybe we wouldn’t be hoarding items from our snowstorm list while simultaneously practicing a weak definition of social distancing if we had a better understanding of the gravity of the situation, a sense of doom the president has worked hard to obscure.

As it is, we don’t know what to expect, except that our collective condition from the health of loved ones to the economy will get worse before it gets better. While it’s hard to plan for the unknown, as we hunker down we can suspend expectation, extend grace to those around us, and listen to those in the know. 

quiet your thinking brain…

If you’ve been in a yoga class, you might have heard some version of “quiet your thinking brain.”

Eliminate the monkey chatter.

Clear your head of thoughts.

Let go of anything not serving you.

Yeah, right… these prompts led me to ponder my grocery list or otherwise mentally fidget, wondering how much longer we’d have to recline (or worse—sit) in stillness before we could actually “do” yoga (i.e. move the body). Then in yoga teacher training, one of our assignments was daily meditation. Most days, I practiced the minimum recommended amount of five minutes. For six months I made time every day but never achieved stillness of mind, never felt the nirvana others raved about. Meditating was a chore, and after I graduated with my 200-hour certification, I stopped.

Last April, my sister was visiting and told me about her daily meditation practice and how it helped her cope with anxiety, emotions and stress. She recommend I download the app Insight Timer and while I’d once downloaded Headspace to no avail, I gave it a try. Skeptical and open at the same time, I started off easy, listening to a few guided meditations, recordings where people with soothing voices (British accents reel me in) taught me seven ways to welcome the new day or to visualize abundance pouring into my open head. Gradually, I traded these vocal guides for a timer.

Now I serve as my own guide.

To inspire a vibrant practice, I set up a meditation space in my office/yoga room, complete with candles and other personal items for inspiration. But just as often I greet (and/or close) the day from the comfort of my own bed. I might sit in front of the window if the sun or moonlight is shining in. When negative energy overcomes me, I try to take a time out. I’m not always able to redirect my thoughts, but at least the practice of conscious breathing and breaking from device-land soothes and grounds.

It isn’t always easy, but today marks 365 days in a row of meditating.

I get it, meditating isn’t for everybody. But honestly, I didn’t think it was for me, and now it’s such a part of my morning routine, I’d no sooner forget to meditate than to brush my teeth. On days I don’t do either, hell has really broken loose.

I don’t have time, I hear people say. But if you have time to scan social media feeds, you have time to put your phone down, close your eyes, and focus on the rise and fall of your breath. If you have time to read this post, you have time to sit in stillness. Who cares if you spend those initial minutes trying to remember what you forgot to buy at Target? Taking quiet time for yourself each day is the least you deserve.

This year in writing

In the spirit of retrospection—and also recognizing that without Facebook to update the friendly masses on my writerly aspirations, contributing to my underused blog is the best way to let the world know what I’m up—I feel the urge to share the latest and greatest adventures in writing.

I started off the year working on a new novel (yes, this marks number three for those keeping score) written mostly during November 2016 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated). In January, I joined a critique group (recently dubbed La Madeleine Writers in honor of the Bethesda cafe where we convene) which meets monthly, inspires daily. I recruited new beta readers and when those readers funneled back dissatisfaction with the novel’s ending, I edited, wrote and rewrote and found new suckers readers to take on a revised version.

Then I edited and wrote and rewrote some more.

As a self-imposed May 31st deadline to have a query-ready manuscript approached (for those who don’t know, I amicably broke up with my previous agent in 2016) I snuck in writing/editing time when I could, mostly at five o’clock in the morning before sun, kids, and cats rise. I started with a light pitch in June, sending the manuscript to a handful of literary agents.

While those queries did not yield a match, one agent provided feedback. Detailed feedback. And engaged in a back and forth exchange where I could ask questions, which she promptly answered. If you aren’t a writer struggling to forge this impossible seeming professional relationship, you don’t understand how glorious and rare unsolicited feedback is in a world of form letter email rejections. (The process isn’t unlike online dating.) Her suggestions made my manuscript stronger, even if we didn’t find happily ever after.

In August, I submitted my novel for #PitchWars, an online contest pairing aspiring authors (aka mentees) with agented/published authors or others in the industry (aka mentors). Mentors help mentees edit their novel/pitch in preparation for an agent showcase round, where matches are made in heaven. I wasn’t selected as a mentee, but made a writer friend out of my dream mentor. Her advice has helped me improve in immeasurable ways, and she always responds immediately to my “what do you think if I xxx” texts.

In November, I hired Hyphen Craft, an editing service recently established by former literary agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock. She honed my Twitter pitches for #PitMad and reviewed my submission package (i.e. query letter, synopsis and first ten pages) advising on what grabs—and holds—an agent’s attention. In the process of all that fine-tooth comb editing, together we realized my working title didn’t convey the serious aspect of the manuscript. I vowed to spend Christmas batting around ideas when out of the blue, I got an email from her with an inspired (secret, for now) title suggestion. That’s working overtime!

Also over Christmas, I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, and while he doesn’t know me—and doubtfully remembers the time I went to a birthday party at his house when I was 12 years old—his words helped propel an aspiring author (and fellow Mainer) forward during a time of despair. So as the new year approaches, I continue to edit, write and rewrite. I have no deadline in mind, but I maintain hope I’ll find my perfect literary match.

Then maybe I’ll try online dating again.

My favorite reads of 2017

I just added to Goodreads the latest (and probably last) read in 2017, marking 110 books read this year, 35 more than the goal I set in January.

I hear you ask: how do you have so much time to read? And to that question I respond, I wish I had more time. To be a good writer, I have to be a voracious reader. Thus the librarian recognizes me, Amazon gift cards put a smile on my face and a stack of untouched books pouts next to my bed, each wanting to be the next up. Also facilitating my reading appetite, I gave up cable TV in 2015 and Facebook in 2016, two conduits of time suckage. I sleep and read better without the digital distractions. Not that I don’t partake in social media (hello, Twitter) or watch TV; Project Runway, Game of Thrones, the Bachelor franchise and Veep vie for my attention. But I like books better. And I love recommending books. Not every story is for everybody, thus I put careful consideration into what books I push on which friends. But hands down, the following were my favorite reads of 2017.

Fiction:

Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge. The last book I read in 2017 is one of my favorites. This gripping account of castaways stranded on a remote island reeled me in and left me sobbing.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The most anticipated book of 2017 did not disappoint as the story effortlessly floated between points of view (so hard for the writer to pull off). I cared about each character and felt their absence once I was done reading.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. No one conveys disaffected suburbia better than Perrotta and this tale made me laugh out loud. As a Gen-X-er, it was refreshing to read about a woman my age taking on life’s challenges from parenthood to dating.

Touch by Courtney Maum. I cannot stop thinking about this book and how prophetic the notion that someday our digitally obsessed culture may pay for human touch. This work of fiction inspired real life efforts to connect on a deeper level than our handheld devices permit.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The old school Hollywood glamour and grit of this novel kept me turning pages and the love stories gutted me. I read the last 150 pages on an airplane, where my body heaving sobs earned me sympathetic glances and the offer of a package of tissues.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. I felt like I was taking that New Year’s Eve walk with Lillian, who in my perfect book world could meet A Gentleman in Moscow. A lifetime of ups and downs recounted in one night, this story will forever make me look at New Year’s Eve—and a life well lived—differently.

Nonfiction:

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. I am not including my dad’s book just because he’s my dad. Hudson Booksellers listed it as a top ten of 2017, as did the Washington Independent Review of Books. This account of a little-known troop of Jewish naturalized American soldiers returning to their homelands to fight Hitler tells a story of redemption, patriotism and bravery.

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden. I am a sucker for gut-wrenching stories and listening to Biden talk about his son’s illness and death gave me new perspective on the former Vice President, his family’s strength, and what it means to be a public servant. I only rolled my eyes a few times.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. I like nonfiction books that teach me something I don’t already know, and though I live in an urban area not immune to poverty, reading the housing struggles of the Milwaukee families profiled in this work reminded me how even when times are tough, how very lucky I am to have a roof over my head and not have to choose between food or shelter.

What were the books you couldn’t put down? Give me your recommendations. I’m preparing my list for 2018.

Happy reading!

hello, 2017

Two days ago, I stood waist-deep in the Hawaiian surf and braced against the push-pull of the ocean. I dug my toes in the sand and tightened through the core as stronger swells moved by and through me; I relaxed slightly when I detected the undertow had let up. Yet I remained vigilant against the natural force more powerful than me; 2016’s many surprises trained me well.

I contemplated my goals for the new year. Some I could count. Lose weight. Write more. Double the yoga hours I teach. Go on x number of dates. Save money. Volunteer. But many I couldn’t. Put the phone down. Listen better. Be more patient, thoughtful, present. Experiment. I grew agitated with this exercise. Should I set 17 goals? Or one for each month of the year? One quantifiable and one unquantifiable a quarter? A combination of work, family, creativity, travel?

A new swell of bigger waves moved in and I tried something. I didn’t grip so hard. Sure, the tide pulled me a little this way and pushed a little that way. That is life. I don’t want to constantly brace for the next big one. And I don’t want to make a super specific list of goals. Instead I’m recommitting to living an authentic life. When I focus on manifesting what makes me happy and healthy, I naturally achieve the named and unnamed goals embedded in body, mind and spirit.

If I can do that I will truly experience a happy new year.

NaNoWriMo: when failure is success

A few years ago, my writer friend, I’ll call her Pav, asked if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. I grew up in the 70s, so I thought she was saying Na-Nu Na-Nu, and if you have to look that up, you’re too young to read my blog.

NaNoWriMo —short for National Novel Writing Month— always falls in November. Because absolutely nothing big happens in November, us creative types have gobs of extra time to commit to the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. (For those who don’t speak word count, that’s about 200 pages of a book.) The “rules”state that a writer starts with a fresh page and a great idea and lets the goal spur along the creative process, with the comfort of knowing lots of other neurotic writers are struggling right along with you.

In late summer, I started work on a new novel. Then my efforts stalled, not for lack of a storyline, but because I wasn’t dedicating time to write. I decided I needed NaNoWriMo to return my focus to the work and develop the habit of scheduling writing time into my day. (Also to fire up my competitive spirit even though I broke the start with a blank page rule.)

I set a daily goal of 1700 words, but in the first week, tried to outdo that pace to account for visitors at Thanksgiving and other distractions. I ended up with two zero-word days (Thursday after the election and Monday before Thanksgiving). I had one 3062-word day, which was exhausting (especially since I also baked two pies the same day). In the end, on my last day, I wrote 3,058 words, ending the challenge 362 words short of the goal.

At first I was disappointed. I failed. (You can imagine the hysterics. “I’m never going to be a published author.”) But I took a step back and viewed my accomplishment from a different angle. I started off NaNoWriMo with a hodgepodge of words and scenes with the ultimate goal of ending the challenge with the first draft of a novel. I achieved that goal. Now I get to cut. And edit. And pare down the times I added a bunch of “that” phrases to boost my word count. Kidding on the last point. Sort of.

Hey, we are motivated by what we are motivated by, and word count goals work for me. The days I found hard to make my 1700, I cut huge passages or left placeholders because the scene hadn’t come to me. I had the ending written when I started this process, but my story went in a different direction. Now I need to fix it.

The challenge over, I feel a little rutterless today, but my novel deserves a night away from me. Goal number one for tomorrow: begin to rewrite the end.