Fortune Cookie, 3:40 a.m.

As many people in my online writing circles already know, I gave birth to Maverick (that’s his code name, not his real name) early Thursday morning. My water broke a little after midnight, and four hours later I had a new baby! (Like it’s that easy. And didn’t involve lots of shouting and disillusionment and internal requests for a cesarean section and/or lots of drugs. But I didn’t say those out loud. Mostly I said, “Get it OUT!” and “I’m never doing this again!”) (God bless patient nurses.) (Who are probably investing in ear plugs, if they haven’t already lost their hearing.)

Z is doing great with Maverick, she just LOVES him, wants to pet and kiss him all the time. And poke his little eyes – I don’t know what that’s about. (Actually, I have a few guesses. It’s hard sharing Mommy and Daddy.)

For some reason, his cry doesn’t bother me as much as Z’s did. Maybe because it’s a different pitch (he sounds like a baby pterodactyl, or, as Homes said, a Swainson’s Hawk). Or because his scrunchy little face looks so funny when he does it. I feel kinda bad, because sometimes I laugh when he cries.

He’s still learning the difference between nocturnal beings (creatures that are awake at night, i.e. NOT US) and diurnal beings (creatures that are awake in the day and sleep at night, i.e. US), so I’ve been awake a lot at night. Once, on a trip through the kitchen for ibuprofin, I spotted a bag of fortune cookies. And thought. 3:40 a.m. Not a bad time for a fortune cookie. I wish I could say the fortune was something illuminating and dreamy and perfect for my situation, but I think it was actually about riches coming my way next month.

And that’s okay. Because not everything is illuminating, or dreamy, or perfect. Sometimes things scream, and don’t sleep when (or where) they’re supposed to. We love them anyway.

To My Graduating Students*

*and to my students who graduated last year – I’m sorry I didn’t think to do this for you then, so now everybody’s included in this commencement address.

First: I am so proud of you.

Second: I don’t know where this blog post is going, so just hang out for a couple of minutes. It might meander like our discussions on Of Mice and Men or The Cask of Amontillado.

Whether you go to a four-year college, a junior college, a technical school, or no school at all, you will be making choices every single day. Sometimes these choices won’t be important, like, “Do I ask the dude making my sandwich to put mayo on both sides, or just one?” or “Do I straighten my hair today or let it go curly?” or “Do I call my girlfriend now or wait until after I finish this episode of [whatever show is popular at the moment]?”

Sometimes the choices will be very important, like, “Do I blow off writing this paper and just copy it from the internet?” [If you were truly a student of mine, this answer would be, “No, I will write this paper and learn while I’m doing it!”] Other important choices might be, “Do I get into the car with this dude I just met at the club?” or “Do I sample the mystery substance everyone seems to be having so much fun with at the party, or do I amuse myself taking photos of them to post on Facebook later, and make sure none of them die from whatever side effects the mystery substance has?”

The point is: the future is filled with choices, and you are responsible for making the choices. It might be overwhelming, as it often was to me in college. The sheer mountain of choices scared the crap out of me. And sometimes you’re going to shine, and other times you’re going to fail. You will fail. It will happen. (I think J. K. Rowling covered this point in her address to Harvard graduates in 2008. Click here to read that.)

Failing can bring you to surprising new places. It can be an opportunity. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck, because it does. But take some responsibility for it. You get to make the choices, from here until forever.

I hope you choose:

  • to not get into the car with strange men
  • to make wise choices about sex
  • to pass on the drugs but still have fun with your friends
  • to work your asses off on school work. You’re choosing, paying to be in school now. No one’s making you. Work for your dreams.
  • to always be kind and gentle with every single person you meet. Even if they cut you off in traffic or steal your umbrella or cheat on you or sit on your iPhone and crush it into a million bits
  • to surround yourselves with people who make you smile
  • to remember your home. Your home. Full of people who care about you and are cheering for you. This is where you come from, and even if it might seem like a small nothing town after you’ve moved away to Way Cool City Full of Beautiful People, this is your home, and we love you
  • to write letters and postcards – not only emails and texts – to your friends and family
  • to reward yourself with a trip to the beach or a hike or somewhere outdoors when the daily grind gets to be too much
  • to vote for leaders you believe in
  • to form relationships  with surprising and interesting people
  • to put your money on what’s really important. Think about where you want your life to go; spend accordingly
  • to fall in love
  • to let people go when it is time (and to trust your instincts of when that time is right)
  • to avoid worrying about what other people might think of your path in life. It’s yours; own it and be happy. If you can’t be happy, change it by making new choices
  • to learn and practice the art of making conversation with adults. You are an adult now. Talk to your professors, your bosses, and other adults
  • to be the change you wish to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi)

I love you all. If you think I’ve forgotten about you for one day since I quit teaching to raise Z, you’re wrong. I taught you English, but you taught me so much more. I delight in memories of being your teacher. I delight in the choices you make, especially when those choices are conscious, purposeful, and full of intent to make your lives, and the world, delightful, fanciful, creative, kind, gentle, and peaceful.

Thank you for being who you are. Never stop.

Dear Blog.

Dear Blog,

We’ve had a pretty good year. In fact, I think we just passed our one-year anniversary. Quick investigation reveals January 29th as our first blog post together…I didn’t bring you flowers or anything. Oops.

The truth is, Blog, that when we began our relationship I was in between projects. Putting the finishing revisions on one manuscript, getting ready to begin another…and I didn’t realize what  a time investment you would be. At first I planned to do five posts a week. That lasted all of about, I don’t know, two weeks? That’s a generous guess.

Then we cut it down to three, which is doable. Oh, Blog, I don’t know how to say this, but…I’m seeing someone else. I’ve been seeing her for awhile now. When you and I took that break a couple of weeks ago, things started getting serious between me and her. She’s…oh, she’s high-maintenance and it’s all ups and downs. One minute I think she’s the best thing in the whole world, and the next minute I’m ready to cast her into the fireplace. She is completely bewitching, absorbing, and all-around mind-bending. Every step forward with her revisions brings me three steps back, and she’s a headache and a pain and she makes me want to scream sometimes and I LOVE EVERY MINUTE I SPEND WITH HER.

My current manuscript. Sigh. Even draped in her myriad imperfections, she is divine.

I feel a passion for her that I just don’t feel for you anymore.

Can we still be friends?

I think we should still see each other, but maybe slow things down a bit. Our dates might not be as regular. Definitely we should get together at least once a week. Miss you already! Bye!

With care, gratitude, and respect,

*Beth

NiFtY Author: Matt Coonfield

I have a very special NiFtY Author Interview for you today, featuring one of my favorite people in the world: my little brother. He hasn’t always been my favorite person. There was this time once when we were playing Legos and he was obviously wrong about something, and we weren’t very good friends right then…but I digress.

Here’s his interview. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll throw tomatoes and have to clean off your computer screen. Good luck with that.

BH: What’s your one-paragraph pitch for your work-in-progress?

MC: I don’t want to give away too much. I am actually quite paranoid. The short version is a young man named Ray starts a civil war in the ghost world in an odd and adventurous way.

BH: What was the biggest challenge in finishing your first draft?

MC: Honestly my biggest challenge has always been me. I am a big lazy hurdle that I just can’t jump. I don’t like to write when it is hard, when I have to grind it out. Generally I only like to write when it is flowing. Anyone who writes knows what I am talking about. When you can churn out twenty pages a day and the only reason you stop is fear of carpal tunnel. When your thoughts are practically jumping on to the paper for you. That is when I like to write. When this doesn’t happen I start a new book. Oddly I have never finished one until now.

BH: Can you compare Ray, the main character in your work-in-progress, to anyone you know in real life?

MC: I guess parts of him are me of course or parts of me if that makes sense. I’m not schizo or anything but I like to pretend I am Jared from The Pretender. I have hidden Matt compartments that I draw from and one of them happens to be a teenage ghost-hunting ghost, conveniently enough.

BH: I understand you’re working closely with somebody else on this project. What is his role in your project?

MC: As I mentioned earlier I am notoriously lazy when it comes to writing. My partner’s name is Don and he is basically my dentist. That is to say he pulls teeth. We have only been working together a short time and I am considering buying another cell phone and not giving him the number. Other than that he does all the things I hate: paperwork, typing, forms, queries. Once he offered to paint my garage if I promised to write more.

BH: What is your experience like, working with another person? What are the pros and cons of this arrangement?

MC: Well Don can be quite persistent sometimes calling me four or five times a day. I had to get used to it at first but we’ve come to an understanding now. He has given me 100 percent artistic say so, which was a condition when we first started, but even then sometimes he feels adamant about something and I hate to put my foot down too much. There is one scene in particular in the book that he wrote and it makes me leery but I have let it go so far.

BH: One of the things about your writing that impresses me is all the crazy ideas you come up with—ideas that you can make work. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?

MC: Well… My faith is definitely an inspiration to me. Really I don’t think I could write without the Bible. Not that my stories are Christian but the right and wrongs for me come straight from the source. After that I steal them. I guess it sounds weird to say that right after my Jesus plug but it is honestly what happens. I always read things, good and bad, and I can see the improvements that need to happen. I see a tweak that if the author had seen could have changed his whole piece for the better. When I find those tweaks early enough in a book or combine them with other tweaks I get really excited about what I can do with it and when I get excited….

BH: What is your writing schedule like?

MC:  I try to fit it in between reading and Pokemon but too often I am forced to combine two of the three to make up for time.

BH: How has your writing changed—either the scheduling or the experience itself—after becoming a father?

MC: My scheduling has definitely become more intense. The very reason I had agreed to work with my coauthor in the first place is money. I need it. I can’t sell a book if I don’t finish one so I brought on Don to help me finish my books. The experience hasn’t changed in the least, I just have a deeper well to draw from.

BH: What does your writing workspace look like?

MC: My writing workspace looks suspiciously like the cab of a Nissan Frontier. Much to the chagrin of my typist most of my good ideas come when I should be paying attention to the road. This makes for some very peculiar handwriting and possibly the next unfinished series. We all know how well it worked out for the Canterbury Tales. Don’t judge me.

BH: Just remind me to avoid the road when inspiration hits. What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

MC: A notebook.

Beth and Matt Read Catching Fire

BH: You told me recently that Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is not your favorite book, but it made it into your “top ten.” What is your Top Ten?

MC: The Bible, X-Men, Dracula, Death in the Long Grass, The Night the Bear Ate Goomba, Yvain, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, The Great Divorce, God’s Grandeur.

BH: Twilight didn’t make it into your Top Ten, but we both admit we enjoyed it. What, exactly, is so compelling about that Twilight series? Why are these books so popular, in your opinion?

MC: Stephenie did something real special and it took her like a whole month. She tapped into something that was important to young women and made it interesting to young men. She took elements of comic books (which is why it translated so well to graphic novel), Fabio, and Mythology and made it her own. She didn’t follow rules, and she didn’t heed the pressure to omit her beliefs, i.e. her morals. I don’t think it was the best writing in the world but I loved it and I respect what she did… except for the huge let down in the end. That pissed me off but since the plot was ripped off another story what can you say?

BH: What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

MC: Write down what you are feeling now matter how silly it sounds. It will make sense to everyone.

BH: Why do you want to be published?

MC: I would like to be superficial and say it is to finance my laziness but the truth is I want to be able to talk about it with someone, someone who liked what I wrote and who wants to talk with me about it.

BH: Who is your real-life writing role model? [Hint: the answer should be someone you grew up with. Who maybe lived down the hall from you. She had a pink room for a few years. And a cat named Apricot.]

MC: C.S. Lewis, Stan Lee, and Patrick F. McManus. I hate to admit but my sister’s love for all things academic never made sense to me as a child. I get it now and all those years may have rubbed off on me a bit.

BH: Eh, that’s practically saying that your sister taught you everything you know. Any words or advice to other writers for keeping the hope alive?

MC: Give up. The market is closed. You can’t do it.

BH: Hmm. Yep, that’s my brother.

Thanks, Matt, for the fun interview!

That Niggling Question

There comes a time in every mother’s life when she asks herself: “Am I raising a sociopath?”

Oh, you mean you’ve never asked that question? Never? So your kid has never said, with a sweet smile on her face, “That baby is crying!” And she looks, well, happy about it, or proud or something. Like she orchestrated the other child’s tears. And the look of horror on your face.

It wouldn’t bother me if this had happened only once. But any time there is a child crying, or even whining, in the library, at Target, the grocery store, a birthday party, anywhere, she says this. All creepily. She looks a little like Jack Nicholson when she says it (Nicholson in The Shining, Batman, whatever). And I put on my sad face, and say, “Yes, the baby is very sad. Poor baby.”

And Z just stands there, smiling.

So here’s a list of criteria for antisocial personality disorder (also called sociopathy), researched on that paragon of scientific truthfulness, Wikipedia, and how Z fits the mold:

1. Persistent lying or stealing. Do you have to go potty? No. Are you sure? No. Do you have to go? No. SHE GOES. Then there’s: Hey, that’s my DS! Leave it alone! Come back here! SHE RUNS OFF WITH DS.

2. Apparent lack of remorse or empathy for others. See smiling while other children cry, above.

3. Cruelty to animals. All I can say is, Poor Clark. Her tail will never be the same.

4. Poor behavioral controls. We’re talking about a two-year-old, here.

5. A history of childhood conduct disorder. Already in the making.

6. Recurring difficulties with the law. Two words: time out.

7. Tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others. Um, yup. Not only were my boundaries violated during the sixteen months of breastfeeding, but there’s the constant skirt-tugging. And the hug-attacks on her little friends that often leave them crying.

8. Substance abuse. Her addiction to goldfish crackers counts, I think.

9. Aggressive, often violent behavior. She bit me today. Then she said, “Biting Mommy.”

10. Inability to tolerate boredom. Wow. It’s like the people writing this list actually know my daughter. Were they here yesterday afternoon? [Checking home for hidden cameras right now.]

11. Disregard for safety. She runs everywhere without even looking at the ground. She almost fell into the fish pond at the Butterfly Pavilion in Denver. She ran around with a fork before dinner last night.

Well, there you have it. I am raising a sociopath.

But she’s so freakin’ cute. And she’s my sociopath. And I love her so.

Any Other Name

She calls me “Mom Mom.” It’s kind of cute, I guess, but it’s what I called my grandmother. So it makes me feel like I should be calling jeans “dungarees,” complaining about the dry heat of California, expounding on the benefits of sleeping without underpants, and sending post cards from far-off places.

Mom Mom would absolutely love Z. As would my grandfather (plain old “Grandpa”) and Husband’s grandmother (“Mama Nona”), and so many other friends and family who have passed away. It gets me thinking, and remembering, and above all, hoping we can make these people come alive in our memories, so that she can learn about them too. I’ve never felt I had much of a heritage, because I’m a mixture of so many ethnicities no one ever bothered to keep track. Husband’s half-Italian, so we get a lot of through-the-generations-traditions from his side.

I think my “heritage” will have to come from the people I love, and I think I’ll need to remember them, find photographs of them, and tell Z all about them. I’ll need help from my family in remembering, but that’s what family is for, right?

And of course, we invent our own traditions and family culture as we go along, momming, writing, playing with our kids. It’s all (forgive the soft, poetastic description) part of the richness of life.

As far as my name, I won’t ask Z to call me anything different. But I’ve re-spelled my name to “Mamam” in my head. It has a European feel to it (“Maman” is French), so I can get on board with that. Especially if it erases those images of commando sleeping habits from my brain.

Lettuce Have a Moment of Silence

Not for anything you know, like, serious. My winter garden is far, far past its prime, and I’ve got to tear up the lingerers.

The Few, the Proud, the Romaine

The sad thing: I don’t know if you can see the little reddish bits in the background, but those are my red-leaf lettuce seedlings, looking super-scrumptious. But I just learned that lettuce doesn’t do well here in summer, and it’s hard to learn that something I’ve nurtured might not thrive. (Like my first novel. But when I actually think about that one, all I really feel is relief.)

But so much that I grow does thrive. I’ve got more tomato plants than the fields down the road (this is an exaggeration. Sort of), and carrots doing their carrot thing below the soil, and strawberries sunflowers and anything else I can make room for. It’s work, but it’s fun work. And Z loves the strawberries. Sometimes a little too early.

Mother’s Day is Sunday (in case you’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t noticed all the cards, flowers, and the bombardment of advertisements thrown at you in every medium). I’m looking forward to having Saturday off, and then Sunday to enjoy my family. And yes, I’m hoping for a present. A little material recognition of how well I take care of Z, and how I keep our house tidy and the dishes done (okay, maybe not those last two).

At the same time I’m really grateful for Z. Sure she can be an Unholy Terror of Screaming Proportions. But she makes me laugh all the time. I’d get her a present in honor of Mother’s Day…except it would just be another thing for me to avoid picking up when I don’t clean the house.