Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Advice to the lovelorn Benicia Herald contributor

Never pursue a distancer.

This is a cardinal rule in love.  Because neediness is not sexy.  Begging never pays.

So, if the man of your dreams takes a step back, you take one too.  Or, at the very least, stand your ground.

If you advance toward a distancer, you will most likely set in motion a fruitless and embarrassing series of desperate actions that will leave you feeling foolish at best.

That’s how it seems these days with the Benicia Herald. 

We had a sweet little love affair.  Is it over?

Oh, maybe some would say it was one-sided.  Contributors contributed.  The Herald accepted.  It might seem that the paper got the better end of the deal.  Who wouldn’t want to sit back and receive what he required without effort or acknowledgement?

The Herald needed us, or so we thought.  We filled the pages.  Why, without us, the character – and characters – of our town are absent.  Our small town paper’s charm is diminished.  

In his farewell, the out-going editor said we made up an important thread in the fabric of the community.  Our contributions, he said, made our little hometown paper “a gem.”  We’re left with dry reports of impersonal city government, the generic community calendar and another full-page map of First Street merchants.

The paper has stepped away from us.  Or more accurately, Publisher David Payne has.

From one person’s limited viewpoint, Mr. Payne keeps the Herald like a step-child – neglected and listless for want of support and appreciation.  His talented editorial staff and reporters, forced to accept that he finds their needs a nuisance, decided not to pursue their relationship with him.  They left him for cleaner, shinier shores where they will likely be treated well and paid better.

Reliable sources say Mr. Payne hired one promising candidate, but apparently she took a closer look and excused herself.  Scuttlebutt has it that interviews continue, but Mr. Payne “hasn’t found anyone he likes.”  That works both ways, of course.

Why doesn’t the Herald report its own story?  The only mention of the shake up comprised a one sentence “pardon our construction” disclaimer below the date and weather report two weeks ago.

And now, contributors cannot get a return phone call or email.  Articles submitted garner no response, no ink.  What are we to think in a case like this?

Should we pursue the Herald?  Plead with it to accept our work?  Take us back!  Please take us back!

Advice to the lovelorn says ‘no.’

We can, at best, stand our ground.  Wait to see if the new Herald will be the same Herald – the one we loved and that loved us.  The one that seemed to value our work even if we weren’t paid for it. 

And here I am – writing again.  For what?  Page 4 goes to the Chamber of Commerce.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

Remodeling the empty nest

You can thank me for the rain.

I was dancing the ‘happy dance,’ got carried away, flung my arms in the air and twirled around, singing “the hills are alive!” like Julie Andrews.  The rain came as an unintended consequence. 

Is it wrong that I dance behind the door?  Am I a bad person because I do the jig in the upstairs hallway in delirious anticipation of something that hasn’t even happened? 

Dear God, please let it happen!

Of course, I’m way out in front on this one.  But I can’t stop myself – the kid is going on job interviews!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Haa le-e looooo jah!

I know.  I should pace myself.  An interview does not a job make.  So sayeth Yoda.

Let’s play it out, Carolyn.  Take a deep breath:  He has to get the job first.  Exhale.

OK.  But, let’s say he gets the job. 

It’ll be a good job.  The kind that sorta makes me mad because he would be making more money at entry level than I made after 10 full years as a classroom teacher. 

But all right.  He gets the good job.  He still will need to stay here in that perfectly lovely bedroom which he’s transfigured into a dormitory laundry room hovel.  He’ll need to save a few months’ salary, fix that old truck so it runs; sell it and the wimpy girlie car his grandpa gave him; combine that money to buy an affordable, dependable babe-magnet form of transportation.  That’ll take time.

He’ll need first and last month’s rent and a security deposit.  By my calculations …

I know - I don’t match the PsychologyToday description of a parent facing empty nest syndrome.  By their definition the emotions attendant with the eminent departure of my grown up child would include loneliness and depression.

And that would not be me.  Oh I love the kid.  SO much.  But, no.  Not lonely or depressed at the prospect.

For one thing, it won’t be the first time he’s gone, if he goes.  He’s one of those ricochet kids you hear so much about. 

He left at 19 and ping-ponged around making funky forays into various scenarios, some of them star-crossed and others ill-fated.  Then he boomeranged, a bit forlorn but still a contender.  Still the sweet, smart, good-hearted, funny, handsome, single boy – er, young man – our hopes are pinned on.

And now, he’s completing his schooling – round two – and about to launch.  He’s flapping his fledgling wings.  He’s testing the waters.  He has his finger up, checking the wind.  He’s thinking of going.  He’ll go!  I just know it!  He’ll go!

So I’m following the advice of Psychology Today, the Mayo Clinic, Circle of Moms and Wikihow, getting myself ready for the inevitable impact of the kid’s exit. 

They pretty much agree on the basics for anxious parents who are fearful of the melancholy when they have no more children in the home to follow around behind, closing doors, turning off lights and handing money.

Oh!  Who will I buy groceries and toothpaste for, if not my spouse and myself?  Who will I remind to take the out trash, bring in the newspaper, unwad his clothes and put them away?

Who will tell me when I have bad breath?  Or that he’s out of shampoo or shaving cream or toilet paper? 

According to the empty nest gurus, I should take up a new hobby or schedule a massage.  Or plan a ritual of release!  Maybe I'll light a candle, chant “adieu” and waft the smoke into the corners of his room.

Sure.  I’ll miss the kid.  I will!  It’s been so sweet having him here and having it confirmed he’s a really good guy. 

I’ll gladly set up his kitchen with a rice cooker and crock pot and spices and dishes and hand-me-down pans.  I’ll call him on Thursdays and text on the weekend.  I’ll invite him to movies and he’ll never go and sit next to me with popcorn and elbow me at the good parts like he used to.

Uh oh.

A little sadness.  Some premature nostalgia.  But no worries – no job yet. 

Take your time Bud.  I can dance later.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Advice to the Dearly Departing

I know how this works.  Seen it before.  Lived through it.

Twelve years of my 30 in education were spent in the role of principal.  It’s a high-profile position in the community of students, parents, faculty, staff and district personnel. 

One of the most interesting parts of the job was learning to accept that all those constituents felt free to comment on my performance, using their own criteria.  Fair enough.  Public servant and all.

Still, there were times when I felt shackled by the “polite protocol.”  It seemed that almost everyone had an opinion to impart about me, my school, my students, my teachers, my parking lot, my standings in the football league, my school food, my quad, my litter…  And they all held license to “share” those judgments with me – sometimes with their outside voices – whether we were in my office, at the game, at Mary’s Pizza Shack, or in the produce department of Trader Joe’s

Yes!  Free to express themselves, they expressed!  My charge was to remain circumspect.  Maybe all those years of repression carry the fault for my pontificating now!

To be sure, I heard many good suggestions and tried to implement them all.  Sundry acrimonious complaints also found their way to my ears accompanied by no recommendations for remedy.  Some folks felt righteous indignation about their issue and demanded that I figure “it” out and fix it.

Disclaimer:  NONE of that outweighed the sheer joy of working with young people every day. 

Because of that frequent and dependable sense of exhilaration, I rarely missed a day on the front.  It ennobled the struggle to give those kids a leg up.

It’s not hard to understand how a person in that position begins to think of her legacy.  Was I helping?  Did I make a difference? 

People told me I did, but being on the ground there, at the epicenter, I couldn’t always see the ripples.

When I retired, each those groups did truly nice things for me, showering me with gifts, parties, notes and hugs. 

E.g.:  A happy-go-lucky senior said, “Mrs. Plath, you’re the Randy Johnson of principals!”  Wow – in the same sentence with the Big Unit!

A Latino girl who lived below the poverty line shyly asked to keep a windbreaker with my name embroidered on it, to remember me by – and probably to keep warm.

A young Indian student came to my office and touched my feet.  A gesture of reverence and respect, he said.  Thinking of it still brings me to tears.

But also, at the very moment I announced my retirement, a disheartening conversation began repeating itself.  With group after group, it went like this:

Me:  I’m retiring effective the end of this school year.
Them:  Who’s taking your place?

Talk about an ego deflator!

No time for nostalgia!  The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen!

I had to acknowledge that I would be forgotten.  In about four years, the cycle of students through a high school, the institutional memory of me, me, me would have faded. 

Teaching staffs turn over.  Fewer and fewer remain at that site to remember what fun we had, what lives we touched and touched us. 

Now, five years out, my contributions have merged into the fabric of the way things have always been.  Or, maybe a few stand in contrast to what the new guy has done.  That’s about it.

I have yearbooks from all those years; the students’ inscriptions call the good parts back to mind.  I confess to going there now and then.  Pull one off the shelf in the guest room closet.  Sit on the corner of the bed and leaf through.  Ah!  2010!  That was a very good year!

But when I sing along with Bruce Springsteen about my glory days, it’s a solo performance based on my own revisionist history.  And, that’s the only way to go:  Wipe out, as best you can, the cranky insults tossed from the sidelines by second-guessers.

Elevate and expand the myriad, if small, instances of soul-building positivity.  I had a great run.

That’s my counsel.  It’s an editor’s job, after all – making the best of the good, the bad and the unprintable.

Best wishes to you, Marc Ethier.

Fare Thee well!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sit down and write!

I believe a dose of Methylphenidate might get me off the dime.

You know, Ritalin.  Stimulant.  Schedule II controlled substance.

Yes – Ritalin treats attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and, counterintuitively, narcolepsy.

Those are precisely my symptoms:  I fluctuate between flitting about cheerfully dusting knickknacks and deep snoring sleep.

And I’ve built up a tolerance to Starbucks.  Desperate times.

I have a job to do, yet in spite of my good will and determination, I ping pong between distraction, an inexplicable urge to rearrange furniture and the powerful draw of that sunny spot on the comforter next to the cat.

Euphemistically, I linger in the pre-writing stage. 

 Pre-writing is that stage of writing we scribes sometimes love because it adds to our mystery.  Here’s the beauty of it:  When you’re an enigma, you don’t have to answer pragmatic questions like, “What are you doing in there?”

I am at the keyboard in my enchanted place, here in my study with my special stuff all around me:  My crystal ball; this molded glass head full of black and butter and kidney beans; the electric piano that I can still barely play; a light-up globe with a broken switch; a black-and-white photo of my brother and me, ages five and three, on our dad’s Harley-Davidson. 

This is my happy place.  Here convene the elements of alchemy.

After all, writing is magic, right?  One minute writers behave within the parameters of normalcy.  We go to lunch.  We converse, make eye contact.  We listen and respond.  We turn a phrase and keep the banter lively.

Next minute we are seized with inspiration, jump up, run to the computer and gush, like Old Faithful.  Or we speak furtively into our cell phone recorders or snag the proverbial napkin and dash off our pithy insights – the seeds of the next screenplay, the lynchpin of the story arc.

Either that or our eyes glaze over as we make a mental note and then sit later, in the quiet of the night, bleary-eyed in front of a glowing screen trying to call that pearl back to consciousness.

We love it when non-writers express wonder at what we do.  No need to dispel that misapprehension!  They don’t know that we marvel too.  More accurately, we don’t know what the heck we’re doing, much less how we go about doing it.  We wonder too – if we will ever actually get a word on the page.

Or, like Hemingway, we dismiss the act sardonically:  “Writing is easy.  All you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

Oh, we love the drama!

We love the precariousness of it.  The fear.  The teetering on a tightrope suspended high above solid ground. 

Nobody asks anybody why he doesn’t write!  So you would think, when one is stuck in the mystical, infuriating prewriting phase, that person could simply stand up, correct her posture, and say, “Balderdash!” with some satisfaction before turning her attention to…what?  Anything she wants!  Anything else!  Bookkeeping, let’s say.  Or archeology.

But writers cannot quit:  They know the mandate – a writer can’t not write.   Even when suspended in the air.

So yes.  Here we are – prewriting.

The prewriting stage encompasses key features of a writing project including, but not limited to choosing your topic, identifying your audience and purpose, brainstorming ideas, organizing information, sorting laundry, solving murders with Lt. Joe Kenda, communing with your cat, staring into the ether and look!  An osprey over the water! 

You know, doing almost anything but pecking out sentences on the screen.

And I’ve outgrown caffeine – the gateway drug. 

I considered drinking.  I wouldn’t be the first writer to slosh along for a good while.  Alcohol would facilitate the napping.  So there’s that.

But I think you need to be a Dorothy Parker – really good and well established – to get away with it.  Someone like me could find herself inebriated and alone at the Algonquin.

That’s no good.

So yes, if I can find an unscrupulous doctor, I think I’ll try Ritalin.  That’s what it’s come to.

My topic?  Well!  If you have to ask!  My audience??  Apologies, Dear Reader.  It’s all for you.

Purpose?  There’s the rub. 

And look!  A cloud shaped like a penguin!