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Janked, and Janked Again

Definition of janked :. (jăngkt) 1. (v.) The state of being beaten up, drunk, or in any way not of sound mind. Often describing something with a decisively negative connotation. 2. (adj.) Describing something as stupid or dumb. Often with a decisively negative connotation.

“Janked” is, and has for some time, been my favorite word. I use it often, to the dismay of my son who apparently wishes for a mother whose syntax more closely resembles that of Donna Reed to that of Kim Basinger in “Eight Mile.” I tell him fairly often that it is a highly useful descriptor, and that some things really are “janked.” Yesterday, for example, could serve as a third definition

The day began with a trip to see my doctor. I adore her; she is my age, smart, funny, and eminently sensible. None of this mitigated in any way the fact that my recent blood tests indicated a combination of blood sugar and cholesterol high enough to make the richest of pastries. As it turned out, the blood sugar thing was a fluke – I had swigged a gigantic glass of soda before heading out for a “fasting” blood draw, believing that it was Diet Sierra Mist. It was, in fact, the real deal, practically bursting with corn syrup and leading to my embarrassingly candied blood. What we could not laugh away was the cholesterol, mine by birthright and eating habits. I am old, I am collecting an assortment of pill bottles resembling that of an ancient crone, and I can no longer pretend that I am in the fair blush of youth.   Arriving home from the doctor’s office, I fought the nearly irresistible urge to eat a pound of bacon (so there, arterial plaque!) and took a phone call from my father. My mother was not well, and needed someone to sit with her while he went to a doctor’s appointment of his own. When I got to their house it was clear that she was wretchedly sick, and somewhat confused. With my father’s permission I called her primary physician’s office and spoke with a lovely human being who was willing to work around HPPA with me to the extent that she could tell me that if the patient was a woman who fit the exact profile of my mother, that hypothetical person might well be dehydrated, at the least, and should be taken to the Emergency Room for evaluation and care. Not unfamiliar with this drill, Dad and I worked as a team; he talked her into leaving her comfortable bed and going back to the world of sterility and invasion, and I helped her get dressed and into the car. This process took, literally, hours, and by the time I watched them drive off to the hospital, lump in my throat and theologically muddled prayers for protection in my heart, it was time to pick Sam up from school.

Waiting in front of the school, watching the last long-legged, bright-mittened stragglers hauling saxophones and book bags as they trudged across the tundra, my cell phone rang. “Mrs. Nichols?” said a vaguely familiar voice. “This is Mr. X, Sam’s algebra teacher? I have him here in the office, waiting to see the assistant principal.” First I thought about the fact that I had never had a chance to put on any makeup, having been engaged in someone or other’s medical issues since leaving the house at 9:00.  I had, possibly, the faint residue of black eyeliner on my upper lids and a few odd clumps of mascara, giving me the air of an aging prostitute with rather poor access to soap and water. He was still talking. “…made a rather strange comment. That’s what I’m really concerned about, here.”   “What sort of comment? To you, or to another student?” He hesitated.   “Well, not really either. Can I tell you what it was? I guess I can tell you what it was. You’re his parent.” I waited, faintly hopeful that this session of Guess the Infraction was coming to a close. “He said something about hurting himself.” This was not what I had expected. I know, of COURSE I know that many parents are oblivious to their children’s true mental state, particularly as they enter adolescence, but I am close to Sam, and could not imagine that the blithe spirit who thumps up and down the stairs singing Eminem songs off-key was harboring suicidal thoughts. But what if I’d read it all wrong? What if I was a terrible parent? The weight of the day, my increased physical dilapidation, my mother’s perpetual illness and despair, and my son’s possible secret misery brought swift, hot tears to my eyes.

“Well, I guess we need to talk about that” I submitted lamely.

“Oh I don’t think he meant it,” came the jovial, avuncular response. “I think he meant it as a joke. The thing is, you know, in my position as a teacher I can’t just ignore things like that. I’ll bring him out and remand him to you, if that’s okay.” Sam was successfully “remanded,” I made him apologize, and there was much helpless shrugging and smiling all around. It was weird. After we were in the car with the door closed, I sprung.

“What in God’s name were you-“

“I was kidding! He asked if we all understood this one thing, and I raised my hand and said I wasn’t sure, and he asked if there were other people who didn’t get it, and there were, so he said maybe we needed a little homework after all, to practice. So then I said ‘great, I’m going to kill myself now.’ You say stuff like that all the time.” He closed with a rhetorical flourish worthy of William F. Buckley.   “You’re right,” I said, “I do. You have to understand the position he’s in, though.”

“I do. Can we go to Walgreen’s?” We could. I needed chocolate.

Later that evening, after chocolate, a restless nap and a faint return of my usual joie de vivre, I walked, barefoot into my office to check my e-mail. Feeling something clinging to the bottom of my right foot, I reflexively dragged it across the top of my left foot to scrape it off. There was a moment of shocking agony, and I looked down to see a crimson line across my white flesh, already letting go enough of my (very fatty) blood to puddle on the hardwood. I had found the broken piece of glass from the beaker I broke.

Still later, after the cleaning and bandaging of the foot, the cleaning of the floor, the cursing of God and the phone call from the hospital to say that my mother was resting comfortably, but would have to be admitted, I decided the Day of the Jank-all was well and truly over. If I went to bed right then, barring natural disaster or untimely death, I would awaken the next day and start over.

This morning, the basement drain filled with raw sewage, and even our super-long snake couldn’t reach the obstruction. The plumber is here now, he can’t give us an estimate probably because the company’s liability policy doesn’t cover the deaths of customers who faint, hit their heads in their own basements and drown in sewage. My mother has called to ask why I haven’t been in to the hospital yet. My son has texted to ask if I can pick up a Little Caesar’s pizza and take it in at lunchtime.

I am thinking of a new word now, one that may resonate with everyone who is living life on a daily basis: Rejanked.

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The Key to a Happy Life

Happy families lose their keys; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but can undoubtedly locate a front door key with little difficulty.

Leo TolstoyAnna Karenina, Chapter 1, first line

 

Last Friday night, we needed a key to our house. Most, if not all of you, probably have such a key and could locate it in a matter of seconds. “Why,” you might say, astonished at such a ridiculous query, “it’s on my key ring in my purse! Where else would it be?” Those of you given to athletic feats of organization might also be able to cite the location of duplicate keys at the homes of trusted neighbors and friends, under a potted plant near the front porch, or hung neatly on some sort of pegboard or set of hooks, shining rigidly in the hopes of future deployment. Here, among the savages, there is no such certainty.

We needed a key because, for my son’s fourteenth birthday party, we elected to use my husband’s hotel “points” to get two rooms at a nearby Comfort Inn. One was for six boys to stay up all night playing Call of Duty, eating Cheetos, drinking Mountain Dew and calling girls on their cell phones. The other (adjoining, of course) gave us a base from which to monitor them through the connecting door and utter variations on “keep it down” approximately 7,000 times between 7:00PM and 11:00AM. Although we knew we could easily dispatch one adult back to the house to feed and walk our dogs, it occurred to us that we should probably lock the house between those visits. Again, those of you leading traditional lives are widening your eyes and thinking, “well of COURSE you have to lock your house! Don’t you lock it every time you leave?”

The answer is pretty much that we do not. When we moved into this house eleven years ago, the inspector told us that the beautiful, original 1912 front door with its gracious woodwork and central pane of glass would make it incredibly easy to break in. “Replace it,” he said, “or get a big dog.” I wanted the door, and I always want dogs, so the next time Rob left for a work trip I repaired immediately to the Humane Society where I adopted not only the dog I had seen in the newspaper and intended to add to the family, but the rambunctious beagle-terrier mix who seemed so improbably happy to see Sam and me looking through the bars of his cage. Problem solved: we had two dogs, one biggish and one small, both loud enough to scare the living daylights out of anyone foolish enough to attempt to burgle our house.

Between the dogs and the fact that all of our neighbors are undergraduates who are awake (and often outside smoking various things) at all hours, we felt fine with our policy of leaving the house unlocked when we went to the grocery store, or out to dinner. We didn’t travel much, as a family, and when we did leave for longer than twelve hours we had to hire someone to take care of the animals, and we gave that person a house key. Because at one time, we had some house keys. I had one on my key chain, Rob and Sam each had one, and several were disbursed to reliable pet-sitter types who either kept them between times, or left them in the mailbox for us so that we could return them to the neat row of hooks next to the door.

I don’t know what happened, it was some sort of incremental Loss of Key Consciousness, but by Friday, when it occurred to us that one dog was stone deaf and the other was likely to be sleeping under the covers upstairs when the intruder smashed the door in, there were no keys. My key had fallen off the gigantic key ring I carry, which features a bead, which unscrews to “open” the ring to admit new keys. Unfortunately, it unscrews at inopportune moments, and some time in November it disgorged everything but my work keys and my car key into a snow bank at the edge of the mall parking lot. I think. Sam’s key, along with his entire key ring was confiscated by his gym teacher because of his refusal to “dress out” for class, whatever that means. (If it were “dress up,” I would care, but “dressing out” sounds really aggressive and gym-teacherish). There were no keys on the hooks by the door. I started calling everyone to whom we had ever given a house key, realized that more than half of them now lived in other states, and gave up. Desperate, I even called my father who organizes his saw blades by diameter and his handkerchiefs by whiteness, and asked if we had ever given my parents a key. “You don’t have a key to your own house?” he asked, incredulous. “You won’t even be able to get copies made if you can’t find at least one.”

Defeated, slatternly, courting danger, we left the house unlocked, took the boys to an R –rated movie, and carted them off to terrorize small children at the hotel pool before eating toxic junk food. Around 11:30, as I lay on the King-sized bed watching “Criminal Minds,” Rob returned from the dog walking mission. As he took his coat off, I told him I was kind of worried about leaving the house open all night.

“Oh, it’s locked” he said as he picked through the melting ice and unwrapped a plastic cup. “I found a house key on my key ring. I didn’t think to look there.”

That key is the seed, the hard, glittering embodiment of promise that some day, somehow, we will grow a new crop of keys, place them confidently, proudly cite their respective locations, and be Proactive towards life. After my nap.

 

 

 

 

A Toe in the Water?

When I wrote a month or so ago about “not writing a book,” I got  such good advice. The most useful, I think, was the notion that if one does not have a passionate and burning desire to write a book, if one is not literallypossessed by an idea, it isn’t the right time. I’m sure there are exceptions if one churns out something formulaic, or has a contract to write the next book in an existing series, but neither of those scenarios fits my fledgling novelist status. I am starting fresh, my regrettably unpainted toenail inching towards the shark-infested waters.

So this morning, I had an idea. I knew it was a good one because I felt that whoosh of intense feeling, a heedless rush like a sip of brandy doing its fine work as I fought to maintain control and make order in my head. The fact that I couldn’t stop it, and that it lit me up without my consent and refused to be categorized, organized or otherwise domesticated was a sign that I was in the presence of a power outside my prim, intellectual garden. This was passion. This was it. (I think).

My first impulse was to blog about the general topic of the book. Just a sample, mind you, not the whole thing. I wanted approval, some kind of green light, thumbs-up, attention, encouragement and validation. The need for a pat on the head and a word of praise has always been my drug of choice. I thought maybe I would just write a little post, just to see if people liked it. I started to write, I was in the proverbial groove, and a voice (Moses? God? Barry White?) said “don’t spill it!” Seriously. I was just sitting at my desk typing and I heard a voice warning me that if I didn’t hold my vision close and let it grow, I would surely be letting it die of exposure. I had to protect my vision from my neurosis, which is harder work than a sane person might think.

Then there was this whole other issue about the autobiographical nature of my idea. Without a doubt, real live people would see themselves in my writing, or, worse yet, think that they did. Would I have to change everything to the point where it was no longer really the story I wanted to tell? Would I have to contact all living players and let them know my plans? Could I become ruthless and uninhibited, writing what I needed to write despite the ghost chorus in my head wailing “but you made it look like I…?” I have nothing awful to say about anybody, honestly, but I know that any version of life coming from my own experience will necessarily conflict with the memories and perceptions of other people.

I know I should just write the damned thing. Five hundred pages a day, an hour a day, some kind of reasonable, disciplined schedule for cranking it out without diluting it by writing blog posts or gutting it by trying to avoid hurt feelings. I am looking at my toe nervously, wondering if just a quick coat of blue sparkly polish would hasten the movement of sharks towards my sheltered area of the shore.

The Middle

I try to fight the urge to be hip and non-conformist merely for the sake of refusing to follow fashion. If I needed a reminder, I found it the other day on Cracked.com, in a piece that elegantly and hilariously laid out for me the inherent ridiculousness of making choices solely on the basis that they are not mainstream. Some things that “everybody likes” are good, and everybody likes them for a reason.

I am, however, bothered by the homogeneity of a world in which The Middle is elevated, celebrated and often the only game in town. I like the soft center of a good oatmeal cookie, but the real sensual delight for me is in the edges with their crisp and concentrated essence. In restaurant offering, perfume, clothing, books and popular music these days, I see a pattern of sameness and safeness that undoubtedly comes from the need to survive in a tough economy, but which seems to leave the world all soft center with no crispy surprises.

I have always loved perfume, and the scents that attract me tend to be strong and not typically “pretty.” I love the sharpness of chypre, the surprise of masculine leather or tobacco note, or a dark and moody incense. I have noticed that all perfumes available in local stores smell the same to me these days; they are all sweet, inoffensive, and virtually indistinguishable from one another in their floral/vanilla/laundry soapiness. Perfumes that I loved in their original incarnation have been re-formulated to hew to the safe middle ground; Chanel’s Coco is now the lighter “Coco Mademoiselle,” and most of the beautiful, interesting Dior fragrances I used to love have been made over into crowd pleasers. Although I am not a drugstore perfume buyer, I did recently engage in a little sniff testing which revealed the not surprising fact that they all smell pretty much the same – like Christmas cookies with flowers in them.

According to an article in “Elle” magazine, mainstream perfumers have figured out the notes that are non-threatening and perceived as pleasant by most people; that’s what sells, and that’s what’s available at Macy’s and Walgreens. If I want to smell like something that arouses my senses and makes me feel powerful, sensual or simply like myself, I have to stalk the online outlets that sell vintage scents and the products of perfumers catering to those who do not wish to smell like Floral FusionGlade or Apple Mango Tango Gain. I do not want to smell like freshly baked cookies, spring flowers or fresh laundry. I want to smell like a Parisian prostitute who has tumbled out of bed and wandered into a cathedral redolent with incense, by way of the opulent leather seats of a vintage Rolls Royce. This is not about nonconformity for its own sake; it is a matter of self-expression and making life juicy.

I could go on about this forever; most movies are either predictable action thrillers or predictable love stories, most bestsellers are chick lit or police procedurals, most Top Forty songs involve idiotic lyrics and a smattering of auto-tuned Bieber or Spears, and most restaurants in this town serve dumbed-down and denatured versions of “Italian,” “Mexican” or “Chinese” food and/or a safe assortment of salad-with-chicken, burgers, and preternaturally huge platters of nachos. There are fringier options, but they are always fraught with difficulty, particularly in my neck of the woods. We had one art film house which went broke and folded, so there is Netflix. There are a few interesting, authentic restaurants in this town, but they struggle, and often close before we’ve had a chance to try them. Books and music are easier, but there are almost no independent booksellers in the college town that I live in. The Middle sells, and unless one lives in a city, The Middle is what’s available.

I am bitchy, arch, elitist, and probably many other things I can’t think of at the moment. I readily admit that. I have mellowed considerably through my years as a mother, an observer of humanity, and an appreciatrix of looking below the surface. I read the “Twilight” books, I have been known to enjoy a family dinner at Olive Garden, and I’ll readily admit that some bestsellers and blockbuster movies are popular precisely because they’re really, really excellent. A lot of the time, though, wading through the pillowy softness of the warm, sweet and safe Middle, I am longing for the disarming, potentially offensive wakeup call of all that is crisp and edgy. I so adore the bite of chypre scent, the crisp surprise of pig ear, and the tumble of thoughts at the end of a movie that raises more questions than it answers. Those are the edges where the sugar is a little burnt, but infinitely more interesting for its complexity.

Why Don’t You Like Me?

I could be wholesome
I could be loathsome
I guess I’m a little bit shy
Why don’t you like me?
Why don’t you like me without making me try?

-Mika, “Grace Kelly”
She is a tall, slender, imperiously elegant member of the Congregation, and she hates me. Well, at the very least she doesn’t like me very much. There is something in the way she looks at me, rather as if she had discovered the leavings of an unhealthy Great Dane on the bottom of her Ferragamo flat, something that summons the keenest pangs of the desire to please. I want a breakthrough, a redemption, some acknowledgement that I am good in some, small way. I would settle for a watery smile, but what I really want is that moment in a romance novel when the Guy She Hates from the Start but Who makes Her Feel All Tingly abandons his icy haughteur and admits that he is crazy about her. The walls come tumbling down, juices flow (so to speak) and there is usually a kiss. I want a breakthrough.
Yesterday was the Advent Tea, an annual event put on by a fleet of  women at the church in which I work. They did all the planning and cooking; I merely provided platters and made enough coffee and tea to fill Lake Michigan.
For a variety of reasons neither germane nor particularly interesting, I found myself needing to empty part of my gigantic 1940s coffee maker into a bucket so that I could make a new batch. As the steam from the coffee fogged my glasses,  I heard Her voice behind me: “What are you doing with that coffee?”
No one has ever asked me what I was doing with the coffee. In general, as long as they have it when they need it, they would prefer not to be in that particular loop. “Well,” I sputtered, “it’s complicated, but I was just-”
“Do you have any more regular?” she pointed a manicured finger at one side of the machine.
“I’m sorry, I don’t. That’s why I’m doing this. I can have some made in about five minutes, and I’d be happy to bring it to you, but I-”
“Never mind,” she waved briefly and dismissively “we’ll get some from another table.” I had clearly failed, failed spectacularly, and was most likely wasting coffee to boot. I was wasting coffee. I was in a bind, I had never assisted with that event, the demands turned out to be rather different than the organizers expected, and I had made a judgment call that it was acceptable to let a gallon of watery decaf die in order that ten better gallons might spring up, Phoenix-like, in its place.
After the Tea, the Cleanup Committee began the process of clearing the tables, wrapping up the centerpieces, distributing leftover cookies, and washing the dishes. As I climbed on a stool to clean out the inside of my antique coffee machine, I was thinking that my feet hurt, that the event had been a great success, and that I really loved the sweet, wise older women in their assorted Christmas sweaters. She slid into my peripheral vision. She was not wearing a Christmas sweater.
“Ann, what’s being done with those pots that are piled up in the kitchen? They need to be cleaned. They’re expensive pieces of equipment.”
“It’s okay,” I assured her, “they’re going to be recycled. The guys just haven’t taken them yet.”
“Those are perfectly good pots – why aren’t they being cleaned and used?” I was six years old, I had broken a vase. My cheeks were hot and I wanted to be rescued. I decided to go with disarming candor, which often works really well for me.
“We tried to clean them – my first week doing a lot of cooking here I wasn’t used to the stove and those pots have really thin bottoms. A couple of people tried to get them clean, but we decided since there were so many of them we could-”
“People could use those pots.” People could. They could use them as planters, or to hold umbrellas near the front door. They could not, under any circumstances use them as vessels in which to cook food in a licensed kitchen. I regret having destroyed them, but they came into the church kitchen around the time I learned to use a cup without handles, they served a long time, and I had, until that moment, felt okay about the fact that they would be recycled and lead another life.
“I, uhm, we-”
If you’re just throwing them away, may I take one to use at my cottage?”
“Yes” I managed, trying a smile. “That would be fine. Take as many as you can use.”
“Well I can’t possibly use more than one” she replied, as if I had suggested that she wear colored nail polish or do something whimsical in her garden. She walked away, leaving me to look at her erect, regal back as I sunk deeply into a thorough understanding of my failings. I had wasted coffee, wasted valuable equipment, and no matter how many people told me I was doing a great job, it was all smoke. I was a loser.
I’ll never know what I did to offend her. It may be my status as The Help, it may be my black nail polish or my lug-soled, lace up Granny in Combat boots. Possibly, it’s the fact that everything about her bespeaks elegant restraint and the refusal of excess, and everything about me says that I enjoy food, and drama, laughing too loud and talking too much. It may be the fact that she smells the need to please, and that I let her push my buttons while I shuck, jive, step and fetch.
Maybe, she’s just not very nice and I need to stop worrying about her. Do you think she’d like that?

 

 

Psych: Tales of Trauma

Just before Thanksgiving, the cooking questions started. Two extremely intelligent, competent women of my acquaintance were traumatized by culinary red alert situations -in one case, cooking a turkey, in the other, making roux. Both friends had, I believe, been placed on high alert by what I like to think of as Tales of Trauma. “I brined, it was too salty, I didn’t brine, I didn’t put the foil on in time, I basted, I didn’t baste, the timer thingie didn’t pop up, I browned my roux, I didn’t brown my roux, my roux was lumpy, my sauce didn’t thicken” etc. ad nauseum. I explained in a calm and level tone that there was no rocket science involved in either operation. I have brined, not brined, basted, not basted, tented and not tented, and the turkey is always pretty good. The only thing that really matters is that you have a meat thermometer to prevent the untimely deaths of family and friends. As for the roux, it always works if you follow the directions and whisk the lumps out. No terror required.

The Thanksgiving-related fear got me thinking about all the times that people have knowingly, and possibly gleefully frightened me about various things with Tales of Trauma. Dental work is a popular arena. I have had many root canals and had my wisdom teeth pulled over the years, and I have noticed that many folks have a story to tell about The Pain, The Vicodin, The Infections, and The Days Off Work. I know that bad things happen, but what is gained from telling someone bound to endure a root canal about the time that you/your spouse/your child/a guy from work had a botched procedure and ended up howling in pain in the middle of the night? Is it a kind of hazing, like law school or a fraternity? Does it give some strange satisfaction, or confer some invisible mantle of status? As it turns out, I have never required anything more than Aleve after a root canal, never had a bad result, and always felt rather better than I did before. I like telling people exactly that.

Women are victimized by Tales of Trauma regarding all manner of “female stuff” from mammograms to childbirth. Speculums too cold, doctors too rough, stirrups too humiliating and questions too embarrassing. It benefits no woman or girl to frighten her about medical examinations that are essential for maintaining health, and can be lifesavers. I do, of course, appreciate a gentle, compassionate physician or mammographer, but if I have a complaint I direct it to someone in a position to make a change rather than repeating my stories endlessly to those about to face the annual music. Because, seriously, why?! Why does anyone feel in any way better because they have bragging rights as Most Abused Pelvic Exam Recipient 2010?

Childbirth is, perhaps, the traditional apex of Tales of Trauma. Birth stories including minutes logged in labor, level of excruciating pain, episiotomies (ick), and epidurals administered too late are legion. Five seconds after my pregnancy was confirmed I found myself recalling, in crystalline detail, every story of morning sickness, pre-eclampsia, spinal taps, and all manner of painful and frightening possibilities that I had ever been told. (And if you grow up female, you have been told those stories, or at least overheard them, hundreds of times). As it turned out, I had a complicated pregnancy that featured pre-term labor, eight weeks of hospital bed rest and a preemie. I have made it my personal mission to tell every pregnant woman who asks that even with the “bad stuff,” I was not often miserable, and I had a beautiful, healthy baby. I can’t stop wondering, though, about the equally common choice to create a Lifetime movie in the presence of other women who may be haunted by the notion that pregnancy and childbirth are horrors that must be endured.

If someone asks a direct question because he knows that you have basted, had a root canal or worried through a battery of genetic tests during pregnancy, an honest and thorough answer is always warranted. It is compassionate, in fact, to share your experiences with a worried sort who is facing something unknown. Sometimes it’s incredibly comforting to know that you are not the only one who had raw turkey close to the bone, or those weird fake contractions.  There is a line, though, between sharing useful information (“dating is harder when you’re older, but I met and married somebody at 35 and I know it can be done”) and recounting Tales of Trauma calculated to cause stress and panic (“It’s awful out there – every guy I meet has something wrong with him and one just stole all my money and my Cartier watch”).

As is so often the case, I have no answers, and no solutions. Instead, I extend an invitation to join me in taking the pledge against telling Tales of Trauma. There’s so much really scary stuff in the world, why manufacture more?

 

Not Writing a Novel

I never write about writing; my aversion to discussing inspiration, mechanics, process, rules and editing is nearly pathological. I have never taken a creative writing course, belonged to a writing group or read much about writing aside from “Bird by Bird,” which terrified me so much that it sat by my bed for nearly three years before I forced myself to pick it up. (And was, I must say, richly rewarded for my courage). I am not afraid of criticism; when I write for money I can re-work a piece until my brain grows numb and I fear that if I have to think of one more way to say “attractive” or “exciting” I will explode, leaving tiny, frustrated shards of myself all over my office. I just don’t like to look at the man behind the curtain; writing has always been a kind of magic best left untamed and unexamined.

As part of this belief in myself as a unique and special snowflake, I have smugly bypassed Writer’s Block for my entire life. I am sympathetic, I smile with kindly condescension at those struggling desperately for a string of words, a paragraph, an idea that sets them in motion, but I’ve always got something in the works. There are so many things that light a spark for me, things read, seen, heard, felt and remembered, that my riches embarrass me. I could blog every day if I had time, writing enough short essays to paper Versailles. What I can’t do, it seems, is write a book.

Less than a year ago an agent approached me. She had read my work and wondered if I had ever thought of writing a book. I was ecstatic, validated, terrified and intimidated. It was The Opportunity of a Lifetime, and a chance to get past the half-a-novel-in-a-drawer stage. Yes, I said, yes I will, I can, and I want to and oh yes! (Apologies to James Joyce). She asked me to send her what I considered my “best stuff.” I was sure that she would be so dazzled by my existing work that she would write back and say, “You are the next Elizabeth Gilbert/Carolyn Knapp/Mary Karr. We’ll just put together a collection of your piercing, vivid, beautifully wrought essays and sell it to Harper Collins. Get your hair cut for the jacket picture.”

As it turns out, there is all this business stuff I didn’t know about. It’s hard to sell anything these days, and a memoir is unlikely to sell unless the writer has a “hook.” I do not have an alcoholic mother, an eating disorder, a tumultuous childhood in a gypsy caravan, or any other distinguishing pathos sufficient to interest readers of memoir. I brightly suggested the “I was snarky and cynical but now am mellow and wise” theme; I was told that it wasn’t very strong. I proposed a book based on the essays about my mother’s illness, which might appeal to (and help) others similarly situated; that was another Fail. She suggested fiction. I wept.

I tried all summer. I had a huge chunk of novel written years ago that I tried to re-work. It proved so difficult to mesh my current style and psyche with my vintage self that I gave up. I started other books and deleted them. I kept a notebook with ideas in it, all of which went into blog posts. I began to see blogging as a kind of literary crack that was giving me cheap highs while taking the resources I needed to do Real Writing. It came easily, I got feedback right away, and it made me feel good. Never mind that every insight, image and observation I had was being sucked into one post or another, never to be seen again. I was failing. I wept.

My writing time was limited, and I told myself stories about all the writers who had day jobs at the customs house or practicing medicine and managed to write novels. I would be disciplined, I told myself, I would get up at 5:00 every day and write for two hours or I would write a chapter a day or I would write 500 words. Four months later, there is no novel. There are folders on my desktop with names like “Old Book,” “Book Abt Hgh Schl Grl” and “Book.” In none of those folders are the contents particularly promising. I am panicked by the idea that I have to sustain something for hundreds of pages, keep it alive past 1000 words, draw fully realized characters, say something meaningful, and think about the same piece of writing for months. I fear the lack of feedback and forsaking the high of completion and praise. I say things like “I don’t really write fiction” but I am a terrible, terrible coward who really has no idea whether I can write fiction or not. I write what’s easy, and what gives me instant gratification.

It is National Novel Writing Month, and I’m not. (Writing a novel). I am thinking about it though, wondering whether I can invent characters and stories informed by my thoughts and experiences. I have a much lighter load at work after today and it will last for at least two months. I could try again to get around this strange kind of writer’s block in which I can produce essays with the greatest of ease but not get past the second page of a novel without wanting to flee. I could stick to it, make myself keep going when it seems pointless, holding my best thoughts close and saving them instead of compulsively squandering them on the quick high of a blog post. We’ll see.

It was a dark, and stormy night.

Call me Ishmael.

All my life, I have pretended that I had an audience waiting breathlessly to see what I would do next.