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Friday, February 28, 2014

Whoops Baby

     Today I’m grateful I wasn’t aborted. You see, as a result of my writing I’ve been thinking quite often of my childhood and it has finally dawned on me that if things hadn’t fallen into line exactly the way they did, I would’ve been so aborted. If my mom wasn’t a devout Catholic, if she was forced to get genetic testing—as a result of being too old to have a baby—if she went with her gut and probably with the advice of my father—she should’ve not gone through with the pregnancy that resulted in me.
     This was a secret my family kept from me my whole life—and hats off to them. Every single member of my family can keep a secret like a pro and they passed that wonderful talent on to me. The problem is that now that I am writing, the secrets are coming out. No wonder I’ve never been encouraged to write (except by teachers)!
     I became aware of this trend in high school, although it began much earlier. I met a girl named Claudine. One day we were talking and we found out we had something in common. There was a substantial age gap between us and our other siblings. Claudine’s was eleven years between her and a sister. Mine was thirteen and eleven years respectively between my sister and my brother.
     “You’re a whoops too!” Claudine said that day.
A small Whoopsie.
     “What?” I was astonished. My family had never come out and said it this way (In contrast, to poor Claudine, whose situation had become a family joke.) But even as my new friend went on to elaborate (she felt she needed to, thanks to my blank face), I knew, I knew, exactly what she meant. I also knew that she was right. I was a whoops, just like her. How had I never known this before?
     I mean, I guess I should’ve gotten a clue when I was snooping around in my parents’ room and found the discharge papers from my father’s court-ordered commitment to a mental institution. It should've been obvious then that I was not born into an ideal situation. One of the sections contained a scrawled warning from a psychiatrist that “The patient has a young daughter and if sent home in his psychotic state, he could kill her.”
    That was shocking, but I was under the impression that it must’ve been a mistake. A whoops diagnosis. Because nothing ever happened. My father watched me all the time when I was a child, while my mom, brother and sister were at work or with their friends—and I survived it. 
     These doctor’s orders were in the drawer that also held all of my dad’s racing tickets from the track (a self-prescribed treatment for his bipolar disorder and the only one he ever stuck with). There were additionally some notes from a marriage counseling session they’d been to. I gathered from the notes that my father was supposed to write down three things my mother shouldn’t do anymore if their marriage was to survive. I can’t remember the other two, but the third was: “Don’t use sex as a weapon.” Being ten at the time, I cringed at that one. Ick. My parents were having sex. Up until then, I’d figured they hadn’t touched each other since my conception. They had an extremely rocky relationship, so it was hard to imagine them being intimate. 
     I saw that one again when my husband and I were going to the marriage classes required by the Catholic Church. It is a staple in counseling situations, kind of like Marriage for Dummies. Don’t use sex as a weapon. Duh. I could say with complete confidence to the mature Catholic couple mentoring us that I already knew this, but I didn’t dare tell them how I’d come upon the information.
     Anyway, from the moment I found out I was a whoops (which I should’ve known all along), I was on a quest to prove that I deserved to be alive. I got all A’s in school, never skipped my classes or did drugs. Never even drank. My teachers loved me. My family, not so much.
     They saw me as a spoiled brat who never had to work for anything. And also a bit of a freak, since they liked to drink and skip classes every once in a while. More power to them. They didn’t have to prove that they deserved to be alive. I guess my problem was that I expected everyone to be grateful that I got by without causing any trouble. They weren't. From comments thrown out recently, they expected me to maintain better contact with them after they moved out. Although my brother and sister were off at college or busy building careers, they counted on me to monitor the situation at home and call them to check up on their progress in life. And I didn't. I never called. A high school student at the time, I figured they'd appreciate my silence. They didn't need to know about my parents’ disintegrating marriage. Or maybe I told myself they should've known about it, in very much the same manner I should've known I was a Whoops.
     Over the years, whenever I complained about the mental abuse going on at home, they’d assure me it was worse when they were young. I never asked how they knew that. Instead I said, “What happened?”  Apparently, they’d suffered physical abuse—which I can’t really say I had. I mean, there were a few slaps thrown in here and there—but nothing that sent me to the hospital. The treatment I received in my parents’ care alternated between being berated and being ignored. It wasn't physical, but, looking back, it was abuse. "You're lucky," my sister had said. "Mom has really mellowed out."
A Complicated Whoopsie
Okay, so fast-forward thirty years to my family now—which I’m determined to make functional (if it’s the last thing I do). Here are some of the steps I'm taking toward a functional family unit. My ADHD daughter is in therapy, because I already see some indications she might be bipolar (although psychiatrists—or quacks as my father used to call them—don’t diagnose that disorder until the teenage years) and I got quickly into therapy when I caught myself saying some of the things to my children that my mother used to say to me. I’m out now, but an interaction with my brother has got me thinking I might need to reassess that decision. I had asked him to do a school project for my youngest child and when I called to remind him to send it back (and offer to reimburse him for shipping), he yelled at me and said something so painful about my children that I can’t retype it here. The gist is apparently he’s too busy to do Flat Stanley and feels as if he spends his time during visits to Michigan being an invisible person at a bunch of kid functions. Granted, he’s already done Flat Stanley once and I should’ve asked someone else. But there’s no one else. I'd do it myself, but any parent knows that you can’t do Flat Stanley for your kids. I would give anything to be able to.

     Anyway, the real reason I am blogging today about gratitude for small things is that I’m grateful to have not been aborted. At least I think I am. I guess I’m just confused. I’ve always been Pro-Choice—even though I too am Catholic—and now I know why. As a whoops baby, I could’ve--and probably should’ve--been aborted because the only real contribution I’ve made to the world is my kids. And if people (especially my immediate family) see them as an inconvenience—although my husband has assured me they’re his life—maybe my mother didn’t do anyone any favors when she decided to keep that baby in the face of her disintegrating marriage to a mentally ill man. All I know is that it’s really, really hard to constantly have to prove you deserve to be alive. Just something to think about if you’re on either side of this debate.
Grown-up Whoopsie
     Before anyone suspects that I am suicidal (because this does sound grim), have faith. I'm not. I would never do that to my kids. I am only ranting because this seems a safe venue to do so. I'm completely confident that no one from my family will ever happen upon this blog. I also have one last small thing to celebrate: the older gentleman who approached me about eight years ago. He came up in a grocery store, where I was shopping with my daughters (then two and four) and said, "One more. Just like these two." Of course by that he meant that I should have another beautiful child like the ones in my cart. And at the time I was considering just that. I took the advice of a perfect stranger--maybe he was an angel?--and have never regretted it. Not even when the third beautiful child came home with another freaking Flat Stanley in his back pack. Seriously, I'm grateful for that man's random act of kindness and his astonishing precognition. For who knew that someday I'd need the words of a stranger to counter the hurtful comments of a family member? 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Celebrate the Moments of Your Life

     I've always been a complete sucker for advertising, and this ad constitutes a milestone celebration in the skewed world of advertising. As a child I'd watch the ads and then leave the room when the program came on (unless it was, like, Dallas or The Dukes of Hazard). How poetic that I grew up to be a copywriter! That's what I'm grateful for today. Although I no longer work, unless you count writing books and raising kids--which most people don't--I'm so honored to have had that experience.
     I didn't plan to work in advertising. When I graduated from college, the economy was similar to this one (maybe this one is a fraction worse, because I was at least able to hold down a retail job that provided benefits all through college). I wanted to be a movie director! The only problem was I lived in Detroit, not New York or L.A. I did a few unpaid internships at a radio station and then another unpaid one at a PR firm, which eventually became paid. All while still working at J.C Penney for the benefits. I was on an academic scholarship and maintained the good grades necessary to keep it, but it still took me about two-and-a-half years to find a job after the internships ended. I finally got a bite from an advertising agency. The position was secretarial for the PR director. That was my in.
Is this kid being 'scattered' or imaginative?
     I was a horrible secretary, but the job entailed other things at which I was marginally better. I was expected to contribute to the employee newsletter, maintain a catalog of press clippings, write the occasional press release about new hires, represent the department in an in-house volunteer organization that handled charity events and corporate parties, and relieve the switchboard operator once a month at lunch time. I handled expense reports, ran copies, arranged for meetings, ordered food for them, tidied conference rooms--it was truly a Jack-of-All Trades position. I would've liked it a lot better if my boss didn't act as though I was failing somehow.
     The best thing about my job was that my desk was situated smack in the middle of the Creative department. I had a writer in an office directly across from me. Listening to him answer his phone was quite amusing: "This is (Name changed to protect the innocent)" Pause while the other person asked how he was. "I'm naked! How are you?" They were truly the most lovable bunch of nuts in the history of the universe, in my opinion. It didn't hurt that they were treated a bit like gods. I was starstruck. The writer's art director partner would stop by as I clipped articles, the newsprint turning my fingers black. He'd check out the sports page while making small talk, and probably wondered what the hell I was doing cutting holes in the paper! By that time, I was wondering as well.
      One day my boss took me into her office and told me I was "scattered and unfocused." I was devastated. Up until then, I'd always been an overachiever and while I knew I was failing at the secretarial portion of the job, I told myself it was because I hadn't really been prepared in my college classes, which were all theory-based or writing intensive. Nothing useful! That night I applied at a bank to be a teller, because my boss also told me she was giving the PR coordinator job to one of our interns.
The best way to celebrate
     Before I took my job in banking, another opened at the agency. In proofreading. While they were generally looked down upon, a proofreader got to read every ad that went out. I needed my boss's permission to apply and she jumped at the chance to get rid of me! So I started in proofing and eventually took a shot at writing in the same style as the ads. The art director who used to stop by my desk was now an associate creative director on the non-automotive accounts (which are very desirable in Detroit advertising, because the car industry has so many downturns). I stopped by to visit him this time and pitched some headlines, which he liked. Once again, I was working for free, but I was building a reputation as someone who could write ads. And--lucky for me--my friend Don was way more supportive than the boss I had in PR. When a writing job opened up, I had samples, and I got the position even though a bunch of other writer wannabes applied. Turns out I could be less "scattered and unfocused" when I wanted to be.
     So today, I'm grateful to Don, to the advertising industry and my proofreading colleagues (who felt like family from the first) and even to the boss that rejected me. In fact, mostly to her! All the rejection I've had over the years is a little easier to handle when there's a little voice in the back of my head saying: "Who's to say this person is right?" Because one time, she wasn't. Now join me in some General Foods International Coffee--or a nice birthday s'more--to celebrate the small things.

Monday, February 17, 2014

You Know You've Made It When You Become a Muppet

     I took a silly quiz on facebook and discovered that my Sesame Street character soul mate is The Count Von Count. Dude, I never even knew The Count’s full name, but he and I might as well be twins. I share The Count’s exuberance when it comes to education, although I’m not as big on math as he is. I love his accent and his house. (Which reminds me, when can I move into the castle?) I love the rain and thunderstorms that The Count’s very presence seems to stir up. Those superimposed numbers in the sky? That sometimes happens to me! I’m also a fan of scary movies, bats, jokes and peanut butter sandwiches—just like him. I like to count, although I’m not as obsessive about it as my Sesame Street familiar. In other words, I was completely satisfied with the results of this quiz, unlike so many I’ve taken before. It quickly dawned on me that any of the Sesame Street characters would’ve been just as enjoyable to be compared to. I mean, even Oscar has his moments. (If you could see my family room right now, you’d see definite parallels—I might as well be living in a trash heap, and I’m accordingly grouchy.)
     The writers of this timeless kids show have cornered the market on taking the absolute best traits of humanity and personifying them with utter brilliance in these lovable muppets. Every character is so relatable. It’s pure genius. There is a lesson to be learned from watching Sesame Street, even at my age. I figure if I could just harness a fraction of this skill in my YA stories, I’d have some truly memorable characters in my books that would appeal to today’s youth and beyond.
     Which got me thinking of the blog I always wanted to write, the one that argues you’ve made it when they base a Muppet on you. In my opinion, only then will you have truly arrived.
     All my friends know I would someday like to be a published author. I’m old enough and I’ve reached enough goals to know that even if this milestone comes to be, I’ll still occasionally fall victim to the same doubts and insecurities I face now. I can tell by following the blogs of authors who have made it. They don’t seem like they've discovered the secret of the universe. They seem like normal, everyday people--relatably human. But if I became a Muppet…
     I can’t help but imagine there is no way I would ever doubt myself again. I would be a FUZZY PUPPET GOD! Interestingly enough, there is another connection between the Muppets and making it big. Amanda Hocking put her first book up on amazon to get enough money to attend an exhibition on Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets. You can read the story here.
     And then scroll through the people already in the hallowed club of Muppetdom.
Richard Belzer
Matt Lauer
 (My husband's lookalike)
Ann Curry
Willard Scott
Al Roker
While I’m super jealous, I won't count myself out. Someday I, too, might end up a Muppet. (Tell me, is that more or less likely than publication?) Until then, I guess I'll have to settle for being The Count on a facebook quiz.

Friday, February 14, 2014

No Small Victory

    I've already devoted one blog to my oldest daughter. This one is for my middle one.
She has ADHD and needs medication. Because of the snow, we haven't been getting our mail. It wasn't a big deal (all we receive are bills, anyway) until it came time to call the pediatrician and get Brianna's prescription mailed to us. Then we were like "Oh, wow. We have to shovel out our mailbox." The doctor's office is about thirty-five miles away, so the office mails us the script every month. It would be a drag to have to drive all the way there. (ADHD meds are controlled, so the doctors can't simply call them in to the pharmacy.) The office is so accommodating because we've been going there since the kids were born. I love that there is at least one doctor still in the practice who gave my kids their very first checkup in the hospital. We didn't want to give that up when we moved to our new house. Anyway, we got the prescription today, which means Brianna had to go to school un-medicated for two days, Thursday and Friday. So I guess I'm thankful that she didn't clock anyone or wind up in the office. She didn't do anything super weird, like pulling up her shirt on a whim or posting something inappropriate on facebook. What's more, she pigged out at lunch and dinner without the medication killing her appetite, which is great, because she could stand to put on a few pounds. I'm thrilled also that her brother got an invite to spend the night over a friend's house, because she tends to pick on him more when she doesn't get her medicine. We should be safe for the rest of the weekend.

     The thing that breaks my heart is Brianna hoped that because she was so "good" without her medicine, it meant she could go off it indefinitely. Granted, when she stops taking the meds, her creative, impulsive, bubbly personality comes out. Unfortunately, so do the jitters, the utter inability to control her flailing limbs and the tendency to blurt out whatever fleeting thought goes through her mind. If you didn't know better, you'd think that she was drunk without her medicine. But she insists she had two good days, during which she didn't "cry in a corner:" I don't believe she really cries in a corner--her dramatic side also comes out during these lapses--but it does make her more sullen, a bit moody and totally anti-food. There is no doubt she's way more fun without it. But her fun side also leads to trouble. So I'm thankful for the option of the meds that help her navigate the labyrinth of the public school district in which she's enrolled. I'm thankful that there's hope for greater understanding of the ADHD child, in light of the media attention that parallel challenges like autism and Asperger's are getting. Most of all, I'm thankful that Brianna put forth the effort to get through these two days without incident and that we were able to talk about the pitfalls she might have and acknowledge how challenging it could be for her. The ADHD child has to work so much harder than a kid without the disorder. And she was so proud to be able to pull off "normal" if only for two days.
     As the daughter of a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, a man who never managed to follow his treatment or stay on his meds for any period of time, I marvel that my eleven-year-old daughter is coping so well with the reality of ADHD. I hope it's a trend that extends into adulthood. (Okay, deep down I hope hormonal changes might affect her brain chemistry in a positive way and make the disorder a thing of the past, but for now, we're celebrating small things!)

Friday, February 7, 2014

I've Got Wry But I'm Not a Writer

 I’m so excited to be able to finally say that I have finished my mystery/thriller submission for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest this year. Although one would imagine this to be a big thing to celebrate, it has been designated small as more of a nod to all the work that lies ahead. Already revised many, many times, the manuscript is now with my wonderful, beautiful, all-good, very lovely critique group, who will chime in with revisions in about a month. After those revisions I will begin querying—no matter how far along in the contest I get. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that I need a plan at every step, so I framed out exactly how long I’ll allow myself to entice nibbles. After that period has expired, I will seriously investigate self-publishing. Because, while I feel my book is excellent and ready for publication at this distinct point in time, that feeling can whoosh out with one repeated word. This time I’m determined not to let that hold me back.  
     In the meantime, I’d like to ponder a method I often use in lieu of an outline to keep my writing on track. In The Makegood Murder, I’ve aligned my story with a truly great song from a group I admire. The story has nothing to do with the song, of course--I’d never infringe upon anyone’s copyright--but it has given me pages and pages of inspiration. I’ve listened to the song many times over the course of writing and I’ve incorporated it into the narrative by having one of my characters use it as his ringtone. (He’s a cop, so his choice makes sense in an ironic way.) 
Many a daydream has been composed to the tune of All These Things That I’ve Done, the most satisfying of which is the one featuring the opening credits of the movie version of my book. (Yeah, I know I have to get the damn thing published first. A girl can daydream! Killjoys.)
     I’m not the first writer to do this, obviously. I’ve seen many songs quoted at the beginning of various books—as I’m sure you all have. Wally Lamb’s book titles are verses from songs. Colleen Hoover has blogged about The Avett Brothers’ influence in her YA and New Adult romances and has even hooked up with a musician for the launch of her newest book. (A stroke of marketing genius, in my opinion.)
     Now my biggest fear is that the greatness of the song has overflowed, inflating my affection for the book. Am I overestimating The Makegood Murder simply because allusions to a great song are weaved throughout? Only time will tell. Until then, I wonder if anyone else has had a song inspire them?