The following account was inspired by real, somewhat fictionalized events. While originally written a while back, the content has been updated to reflect new bits of Crazy. Any resemblance to actual people might, indeed, be true. But for legal purposes, most assuredly, is not.
It never fails. The one time you go out grocery shopping wearing sweatpants/yoga pants, with your hair a mess, and yesterday’s makeup on – you run into an old acquaintance. Guy or girl – it doesn’t really matter.
There you are, in the frozen foods aisle, clutching what is possibly the most unhealthy instant food known to man (some form of pot pie made with lard and baby pandas), and the Acquaintance approaches. She resembled the Jabberwocky crossed with Bellatrix Lestrange (confession: I initially wrote Beatrice. Maybe I have the Inferno on the brain?). Evil laughter echoes softly in the distance.
You’re trapped. There’s nothing to hide behind, because the aisle’s layout has left you out in the open. You are easy prey for this person you vaguely remember. Maybe you knew her (hello, gender bias) from school, an old job, or the gym. She isn’t Hitler (and it isn’t springtime), but she’s not Mary Sunshine, either. You stifle the urge to bolt, and you smile. She smiles.
And then she pounces on you like a mountain lion. You can almost feel your soul ripping in half, while she shrieks with disproportionate glee, and starts updating you about her life – at Warp Speed. (If only you could remove her dilithium crystals, all would be well.)
As she’s yapping, you recall, acutely, why you two never hung out in the first place. You don’t really know much about each other. You once were vaguely associated because of circumstances. But she wants to be your BEST FRIEND, like OHMYGOD, and she knows next to nothing about you. (Not that she has yet, in her ten minute Diatribe of DOOM, stopped to ask – hey, how are you?)
You smile, again, desperately trying to conjure up an exit strategy. Short of throwing the Unhealthy Meal at her, and running for the hills, there is none. Still, you briefly consider doing just that, but then remember how delicious those calories will taste for dinner (along with the wine you will undoubtedly need to wash away the memory of this encounter). And you really must help keep the Baby Panda population in check. Your civic duty and all that.
A decade and a half later, she is still talking. She’s sharing every intimate detail of her life with you, since you last saw each other three years ago. At this point, you know that her husband has a vasectomy, that he bought her a pair of Uggs for Christmas, and that she doesn’t really find him attractive. Then she tell you how many centimeters she was dilated when she arrived at the hospital to give birth to her first Mini Monster – and the subsequent three children that followed. You file this away to share with your therapist. You also note that you’re NEVER having children, because Sweet Mother of Coffee, the human body should not expel a watermelon…or tear. (Pause. Cringe. Move on.)
At some point, the She Monster decides that you two should exchange BFF bracelets, wear matching outfits to the Sock Hop, and have a pillow fight while wearing only underwear. (Let me perpetuate that stereotype for fun.)
Or, barring that, HAVE LUNCH. But only on the third Thursday of the month, because her life is so crazy and that’s the only day she’s free.
You smile and open your mouth to explain that you are busy EVERY third Thursday, because you have to get your liver removed. Every month. Like Prometheus. But you don’t get the chance. The HALF A SECOND it took you to open your mouth just gave her time to breathe.
And the next thing you know, she’s shoving her business card (with her cell number, home number, beeper number, email, house line, fax line, and address written on the back) at you. I know what you are thinking: who the HELL has a beeper anymore? Aside from the year 1998 and drug dealers. You smile (somewhat nervously) and REALLY hope it’s not the latter.
She then asks for your cell phone number. And you totally, internally PANIC. Because she seems like the type of person to call you seventy times a day, at all hours of the day, to ask your opinion about paint swatches or the shelf life of Mallomars.
You stall for the three seconds you can manage by pretending to cough. She is staring at you, half frothing at the mouth and half doe-eyed, nearly in tears as if you have just savagely eaten a baby panda in front of her – while simultaneous clubbing a baby seal.
You have two choices and not a lot of time to choose. You can either relinquish your cell number (and possibly whatever bit of peace you have in your life), or tell her one of the following things:
- I don’t have a cell phone. (If your cell phone is visible, this will be a problem. Try option two.) Then pretend like you’re anti-technology, even if you have a purse with an Apple Mac sticker on it.
- I am changing cell phone numbers/carriers at the moment, so I’ll call you when I get my new number.
- No hablo ingles. Lo siento.
- Here’s my number – and give her the WRONG number.
This then will go one of two ways. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book (should there be hyphens there? I can’t think), it will either end well (you will escape, relatively unharmed with a fantastic story to tell everyone you’ve ever met – or pull a Barney Stintson and BLOG about it. Lemon Law, anyone?)…or you will DIE. Figuratively, of course.
An Overwhelming Acquaintance can be, well, overwhelming. If a particularly vicious one gets her tentacles around your life, it’s difficult to disentangle without repercussions, extensive drama, moving, or changing your cell phone number. Twice. Oh, and hiding yourself on Facebook.
So, when deciding what to do in that Three Second Window, choose wisely. Otherwise, you will end up like THIS guy:
I have a wretched fear of writing short stories. This isn’t one of those inexplicable fears, either (like, say, the fear of clowns – which, by the way, are freakish and scary). It all started during my first semester of college. Or maybe it was the second semester.
I wrote what turned out to be a ridiculously bad short story. So bad that, after the fact, I deleted from my hard drive and shredded all available paper copies. If it were possible, I would’ve burned it and danced around the embers.
I had a favorite English professor who (whom?) I trusted. I valued his opinion. Since I wanted to start writing more seriously, I asked him to look at my short story. (Prior to that, I was mostly a poet. And still learning. A lot.) The Damned Story (as it shall henceforth be known) was meant to be a symbolic masterpiece. (Feel free to snarf your coffee while laughing at that.) I thought about the unique meanings found in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and I thought, Hey! I’m going to write a short story with a lot of sketchy symbolism.
I still cringe whenever I think about it, even though it’s been about ten years. The whole ordeal left me feeling embarrassed, as if I’d just walked into gym class, buck naked.
Why? I mean, aside from the obvious feeble attempt at something I’d never tried? The reaction of my professor was pretty jarring. Not in a constructive way, but in the way that made me feel wretched and a little ashamed.
I emailed him my story. He had agreed to read it prior. Then…a week went by. Nothing. No response. No “I got your story.” We had class, and he said nothing. So, I mustered up my courage and went down to his office to ask him about it. He told me that he hadn’t gotten it. It was a lie. A bad one. He babbled something about how he didn’t have time, anyway (so, resending it wasn’t an option). By the end of the conversation, I was ready to go cry in my Shakespeare. (Honestly, he wasn’t a bad guy or a bad professor – but this was a flaming mistake of hideous proportions.)
The next semester, I wrote another short story. It had taken me months. I didn’t want to fail again, as I had. I didn’t want the embarrassment that comes with that kind of learning, especially if there was no chance of a cushioned landing. For whatever masochistic reason, I asked that same professor to read it. He agreed.
A few days later, he informed me that it was “much better” than my last story. The story he’d claimed to never have gotten or read. And I looked at him, and said, “Yeah, you said that you never read it.” And he proceeded to turn the color of a very ripe tomato. Once again, I had that I Need to Flee feeling, but I didn’t.
The problem was this: that was the wrong way for him to handle the situation. I didn’t learn anything from it, except that my short stories were so terrible that my professor had to lie about them in order to save face. (His or mine? Who knows.) All I learned from it was that I should probably NEVER write a short story again. Ever. Upon penalty of DEATH. Or the Pain.
I didn’t for many, many years. I’m not kidding. I shunned them so spectacularly that Dwight Schrute would be proud.
Until a few years ago. I wrote one. It didn’t fill me with an all-consuming sense of shame. Sure, I knew it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but the wording in a certain paragraph wasn’t bad. And I liked a small bit of dialogue. Since then, I’ve written a lot more. Some were hopeful little duds. Some I’ve shared here. I sent one or two out as submissions.
Every time I write something, I learn something new. (I also learn by reading, but that’s another story.). No one taught me how to write a short story. Learning the basics is one thing, but mostly you learn by doing. By writing. From there, you have a basis on which to improve. A starting point.
My short stories no long make me feel panicky, sick to my stomach, or like I should be flogged by French monkeys. (What? All monkeys are French. Didn’t you know that? Also, mad props to the person who tells me what tv show that’s from. Plus, see the Eddie Izzard sketch. Le singe est sur la branche.)
The lesson here is this: be careful who you share your work with – and take criticism as it’s given. The very grave error my professor committed was failing to teach. Ironic, I know. But if he had sat me down and given me feedback – even just to point out the myriad of ways The Damned Story didn’t work, I would’ve been better off. I would’ve been enlightened. I would’ve had a starting point besides complete abject terror.
You only improve by doing. People can give you helpful feedback, but it might be wise to choose carefully. I thought I did, because I respected my professor. He wasn’t a creative writing teacher. And, as it turned out, he was a terrible liar.
Don’t be afraid of bumbling your way through things. Do what scares you. That’s good advice for life and writing. Write a character a life. Give the madwoman in the attic a voice. Remember that And sometimes, a kiss might kill you – but you don’t know, until you try.
(I know that I said I’d tell you about my college English professor and his influence over my short story writing. That’s been postponed for this post.)
Over the years, I’ve had some odd neighbors. They are mostly harmless. One was an aspiring opera singer. Another was possibility growing pot. And there was one baked me a pie. Sounds good, right? In theory, it was. In practice, it had so much bourbon in it that my liver nearly imploded with that first bite. I tried to eat it – and failed. That is a tragedy, because a) it was chocolate and b) I like alcohol. Sadly, I am tiny and cannot handle an entire bottle of bourbon without wanting to drunk dial ex boyfriends.
…where was I? Right. Neighbors.
I have a neighbor who, by all accounts, is an air-breathing mammal. She waves when she sees me, never mind that it was the middle of the day and she was wearing a flannel shirt and silk boxer shorts. In the rain. With flip flops…while feeding her animals that are numerous enough to populate several classic Disney movies. Never mind that until recently (this past month) I’d only seen her son twice, and I had begun to wonder if he was chained up in the basement with the monkey. (The French monkey for those keeping up.) Never mind the fact that her husband is the most androgynous human being I’ve ever seen in my entire life (nothing wrong with that – but I neatly ate my own toes when I asked a really tragic question as a result of the indeterminate gender), and I still have yet to learn his name. If it’s Pat, I might die laughing.
However, neighbor-small talk aside, I’ve hit my limit. There is a giant baseball stadium light blazing like a supernova in their yard. Alone, that wouldn’t be a problem. It’s really none of my business if The Lady Neighbor wants to run up her electric bill or cause planes to be confused about where the runway really is.
Except that it’s shining in my damn window. It is angled right toward my house, and it is nearly blinding. I know it’s movable, because she occasionally faces it toward the back of her own property. So, why turn it toward others? I do not know. I DO know that it illuminates the side of the building like a giant, unforgiving strobe light. It’s harsh light, too, the kind that make imperfections leap and sing like a circus of horror.
Suddenly, I feel like I’m in that terrible movie, Lakeview Terrace. (I want those hours of my life back, DAMN IT.) There’s no safety issue, here. These are normal floodlights. And there’s no structural reason why this Economy-sized Light needs to be pointed in my direction.
So, what do I do? This is not a Hatfield and McCoy level incident – but it’s tricky. It’s not as if I can randomly ask her why she feels the need to stave off the very concept of darkness. Perhaps she merely has a raging fear of the dark. Or she’s suffering from a severe case of SAD. Or she wants to keep vampires at bay. Or, perhaps, she just really wants a large collection of moths.
What I do know is that between the hours of 8 and 11, it is like Daylight on Crack. I don’t even need to keep any lights on. (Yay! Fringe benefit!) I feel that the only solution to this problem is to fight fire with fire. Sure, I could be an adult and talk to her about it. Then again, I’m still young enough to think it’s a good idea to climb over the fence, dodge her dogs, try not to get trampled or bitten by various wildlife, and thieve away the offending bright lights. (Not that I would do that, but it almost sounds appealing.)
Of course, I could just get up early on the weekend and start blasting Cher in the backyard. I’ve heard that’s quite effective.
All my life, I’ve had this rule: don’t ask my opinion if you don’t really want the answer.
This has gotten me into trouble. A lot. Because I will tell you if an outfit’s unflattering – or if you’re being a jerk. If you ask me, I’m not going to lie.
Where writing is concerned, I’ve had to force myself to stick my code. (Parley? Wait, not that code.) Writing is an occasionally fragile, intensely personal thing. Like an unflattering nickname, something someone says might get lodged in your brain, only to rear its head during an unfortunate instance. (Tomorrow, I’ll tell you the story about my college English professor and how his opinion – painfully – stuck.)
It’s very rare that I’ll offer to read someone else’s work. There needs to be a certain level of trust. Once, I made the mistake of volunteering to read a friend of a friend’s first chapter of a novel. (It was an incomplete novel, with a very vague outline, and the writer only had the first chapter written.) Worst mistake EVER. Or, at least, since the invention of decaf coffee.
It was a very painful experience. Probably for both of us. The person didn’t like what I had to say. He became resentful. I felt like a bitch. I don’t like feeling like that, because I’m the least bitchy person in existence (unless you steal or hide the coffee).
I didn’t care for some of the story’s plot points, but I could live with that. I offered constructive, non-scathing criticism. I wasn’t mean or rude. I tried very hard to spare this guy’s feelings. He seemed genuinely interesting in learning. (I should point out that I taught English Lit for a bit.)
He wasn’t interested at all. He got angry. He questioned everything I said in a hostile manner. He eventually dropped all contact, which was probably best for the both of us.
He didn’t want the truth. He didn’t want anything resembling the Truth. He couldn’t handle the truth. It was a hard lesson, and he wasn’t the only one who learned it.
Since then, I only help my close friends. There’s a small circle of people who I go to for beta reading. These are people I trust. If they need my help, I offer.
I still get twitchy when someone I’m not close to asks for my help. Let me clarify that – I get especially twitchy if someone asks me, “Is my writing good?” or “Is the story good enough?” or “Is it good enough to publish?”
The half-lie would be: I don’t know.
I can certainly tell you if it looks like your writing has been strung together by blind apes, plunking away at a typewriter. But I can’t tell you if something is good enough, because writing is so subjective. An editor may love you. A magazine might rave about your stunning imagery. I might worry that you’re a serial killer who dresses up like a clown to stalk his victims. (Sorry, that’s probably too Stephen King.)
The honest answer: I can’t answer that. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but that’s something you have to decide for yourself. Is the story the best story that you can make it? Are you comfortable with it?
It feels like a cop out, I know. But it isn’t. Whenever I ask someone to read a story of mine, I only ask, “What doesn’t work? What do you think is missing? Is there anything that seems out of place?”
I want to know what I can do to improve what I’ve created. I’ll never really think that something I’ve written is good enough, because I’m a perfectionist. I’m neurotic. I’m the person who always thought she failed a test, or her paper – and felt slightly panicked whenever the outcome was out of my hands.
That kind of thing, if my college psychology courses are to be believed, either holds you back or motivates you. I believe it’s a motivating factor. That’s not to say I’m not assailed by doubts that rival the shrieking eels crossed with a jabberwocky – with a dash of Pennywise the Clown thrown in.
Everyone wrote writes has doubts. Don’t let them eat you up. Don’t let them live your life for you. Whatever you do, don’t feed them, or get them wet, after midnight.
Don’t ask just anyone to read your writing. Don’t critique just anyone’s writing.
And for coffee’s sake – don’t ask me a question that you don’t want me to answer honestly. (Yes, I think your boyfriend’s weird. No, your clothing doesn’t match. And NO – I don’t think decaf counts as coffee. That’s coffee flavored water. Caprice?)
Case and point: in the basement was the top of a toilet bowel tank, old sink faucets, and a giant drawer full of nails. Oh, and a toaster that is from the 70s. It still works.
Not to mention enough pots, pans, and kitchen utensils to stock a very busy restaurant. I’m really not kidding.
A few weekends ago, I began to help clean out my grandfather’s house. When my grandmother died, there was no need. My grandpa happily still lived there, though he never could bring himself to sleep in their bed. The couch in the parlor (as he called it) was his. I don’t think he could bear to be in the bedroom, because it reminded him of his wife.
It was weird being there, without my grandfather. Not just weird. Incomplete.
Something left the room, when he died. The silence was more defined. There was a noticeable absence, like puzzle with a clearly missing center. Part of the picture of was gone, and the house was less of a home – and more of a place.
It is a thing full of memories, though. The giant wisteria bush, outside, that my grandmother painstaking shaped into a tree. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Most of my memories center around holidays, meals, and watching really bad tv. Once, there was a Japanese puppet show – in Japanese. It was bizarre and fascinating. I was a strange kid, I’ll admit that.
What’s left in that house is a collection of a lifetime. Several lifetimes, in fact. The house has been in the family for a very long time – my great grandparents owned it, originally. I now have pictures of my great grandfather tending the giant garden – which is now a parking lot. Or a supermarket, depending on the direction you’re looking. There’s even a picture of my great grandfather in a suit. He is smirking. I never knew him, but judging by that wise guy smirk, I probably would have liked him.
There’s an overused e.e. cummings poem, “i carry your heart in my heart,” that keeps coming to mind. Because something ended – a person is gone. And whoever that person is – whether the loss is familial or a friend – it physically aches. It reminds us how fragile life is, how we need to forgive more often, and how we shouldn’t take things (people, time, life, and love) for granted.
My grandfather’s gone, but not his memory. Not who he was, or his crazy stories. He was a war hero and a good person. He helped everyone he could, even the neighbor’s kid. He also had a ridiculously awesome sense of humor.
I was going through some stuff on my bookshelf, tonight. (I’m constantly rearranging things.) Tucked into an old diary was something I’d written in lavender ink at least a few years back.
It was a wish letter. You write down everything that you want, as if it will happen. For instance, if you want to win the lottery, you write, “Soon, I will win the lottery. And it will be great. I’ll buy a pony.”
Something like that.
Except I didn’t write that I’d win the lottery. I didn’t even remember writing it, until I found the sheet of notebook paper. Then the memory seemed to come loose. I remembered writing it. I remember how I felt at the time, and I remember being very careful in choosing my words.
Everything I wrote came true. Every single thing. And something about that made me shiver a little, because while everything happened, everything did not happen with the same outcome or intentions as I’d hoped.
I couldn’t capture the way it would all end up – just that it would happen. It seems a lot like the end of a fairytale, where we’re told The End or They Lived Happily Ever After. You think, then what? What’s next? When you find out, it’s not always pretty. The facts might still be there, but tone matters, doesn’t it? Motivations matter, too. They change things.
Of course, I had no way of knowing that any of that stuff would really happen. It’s just something that I do when life’s crazy, or I’m frustrated with a situation. It’s similar to writing a letter I’ll never send. I’m just putting it out there.
And it’s just so damn funny. Not really funny ha-ha, but…damned strange. I believe in the power of positive thinking. A good attitude helps make life better. It can make a difference in so much. But I can’t stop thinking about how the wish went wrong.
Things go awry, even when we don’t mean that to happen. We set out on one path, only to find ourselves on another – wondering what happened. Hopefully, there aren’t any wolves. Or giants. Or witches. Often, there are. (But witches can be good.)
I suppose it’s odd how things work out. How things happen, or don’t happen – and what we gain, or lose, in the process. Perhaps wishing isn’t magic, as we’re told in childhood. Wish upon a star. Make a wish when you cross the railroad tracks. Make a wish when you blow out your birthday candles. (That last one better be true, damn it.)
But I think wishing for something often sets a person on the path toward that Wish – whatever it is. It’s probably wise to be careful what the wish is and how loud it’s spoken. Then again, wishes aren’t really about practicality. They’re about hope and desire – something slightly out of reach.
I don’t wish too often – and I don’t wish particularly well. (Othello lent me a bit of his phrasing – about loving not too wisely but too well.) But there is hope still ingrained within the act of wishing – of writing something down and making it more solid than it was previously.
Write down your wishes, your dreams. Write down your hopes. Perhaps that will be the beginning of your journey toward them. (Unless your name is Anthony – and you’re hoping to send people to that cornfield. In that case, you’re grounded.)
For whatever you’re wishing or hoping for, I hope you get it. And I hope that it’s better than you dared dream it would be.
There is no right time to fall in love – and there’s certainly no right time to fall out of it.
It boggles my mind, sometimes, how often we live our lives by someone else’s clock. Oh, this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I should be doing. I’m falling woefully behind.
As if life is made with a checklist, and nothing more. That is, in my caffeinated opinion, the lowest form of bullshit. There’s no set path to happiness. There’s no right way to navigate life. You are, yourself, the starring character in a fairytale. You have to find your way through the wood, dodging the wolves and the evil queens, as well as the occasional spindle.
But then there is love, which is never rushed or reasoned out. It isn’t easily recognized. Sometimes, you run from it. Sometimes, it purses, and other times – not so much. There’s one thing Taylor Swift and I both know: love doesn’t ride in on a white horse.
If love does…get thyself to a doctor. You might have a concussion. Or very high fever. (One of my friends once hallucinated bears.)
Given that V-Day is quickly approaching, the conversations on or about love have multiplied like rabbit tribbles. That’s worse than regular tribbles, in case you didn’t know.
And here is what I believe. Are you ready?
We make too many excuses. We find reasons to avoid love, because it’s scary. It bites. It sometimes wakes you up in the night. I don’t think there’s a right time or a good time to find or fall in love. If you wait for the perfect opportunity, you will always miss it. It does not exist.
Let me repeat: it does not exist.
I’m reminded of something Anton Chekhov wrote in his short story On Love (or About Love, depending on the translation). It’s something I’ve held close over the years, a warning – a beacon. A lighthouse of crazy, perhaps. But still, it’s true.
“…and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was. I understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”
For that, you can blame the tv show Once and Again, which was one of my absolute favorites – until it was given the ax. I’m still waiting for the third season to come out of DVD, btw.
I digress. Sometimes, those things that keep us from loving, and living, are self-made. They are barriers we erect with fear and bullshit.
If you have an opportunity to love, take it. Don’t run away from it. The timing doesn’t matter. You create the time if it comes down to it. Anything else is less than true. And it’s less than you deserve.
So, that is my advice to you – whether or not you asked for it. Whether or not you expected it. What you do with it is up to you.
Maybe Grace Manning says it better than I do.