We were taking a break on a rocky outcropping at 13,400 ft when I was hit by a terrible headache. My temples throbbed as my heart pounded in my head. The pressure was sudden and acute. I felt as if my blood vessels might burst.
“Vamos,” our guide said. “Time to go.”
We were on day two of a three-day trek across the Andes that would take us across twenty miles and up to 15,600 ft. We had already ascended about 1000 ft that morning, but had twice as far to go until we hit the summit of Sicllaccasa Mountain, before we could begin the sharp descent to our camp for the night.
I’d spent months preparing for this trek, hiking seven or eight hilly miles every weekend day. But I soon realized that no amount of exercise at sea level was going to help me breathe freely at that altitude, and all of my “training” seemed naïve, absurd. I got winded after walking only short distances, my heart hammering in my chest. I just couldn’t catch my breath.
All around me, other members of my group were taking swigs from their water bottles and zipping up their backpacks, ready to get back on the trail. I remained where I was with my head in my hands, trying not to panic. I couldn’t stand up, let alone resume our breathless hike up the mountain. My fingers and toes prickled with sharp pins and needles as anxiety washed over me. What if I physically couldn’t go on? What would happen to me? Certainly they couldn’t leave me behind. But was it too late to turn back? Could I even make the trek back down the mountain? And how mortified would I be to give up? To FAIL? What would everyone think of me?
As my panic increased, so did my heart rate and the pain in my head. I had to do something.
I fished through my backpack for some ibuprofen, and then managed to get to my feet and seek out our guide, Gerson.
“Do you have anymore magic potion?” I asked, referring to the golden liquid that acted essentially as herbal smelling salts, calming both the mind and the belly. He had passed it around on the bumpy ride to the trailhead.
Gerson eyed me carefully. “How are you feeling?”
“My head hurts,” I whispered, grateful that my sunglasses disguised the tears welling up in my eyes.
He nodded. “Ah, okay. You’ll be okay. Just take your time and keep breathing.”
I would have laughed if I wasn’t on the verge of tears. Keep breathing? I could barely think of anything else.
But I closed my eyes and tried to marshal all of my yoga Zen to calm my breathing, to slow down my heart. To stop the pounding in my head. And after a moment, it started to work.
“Ready to go?” Gerson asked a couple minutes later. And to my surprise, I was.
In less than five minutes, I had gone from a state of total panic to an unexpected but welcome sense of peace.
You got this, I told myself.
I continued my yoga breathing, repeating “slow and steady” over and over again in my head, until I found my rhythm. Until I found my breath.
We made it to the summit about three hours later, exhausted but exhilarated and a little delirious from the lack of oxygen. The wind whipped through my hair and clothes, and my eyes filled with tears due to the cold, a powerful sense of triumph, and the beauty of the snow-capped peaks and the valley far below. I was so damn happy to be there.
(Note to self: Whatever happens, DON’T PANIC. Just take your time and keep breathing.)
While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.
Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?
A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.
I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?
Yes and no.
Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.
But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.
In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.
As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!
*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.
Jury duty is a little like dating. You want a date to go well, but if it doesn’t, you want it to go terribly wrong so at least you have a good story to tell your friends. The “meh” dates are zero net gain. No love connection, no horror stories. You can only hope that the food is decent.
I had to report for jury duty last week. I’ve been summoned probably fifteen times in my life, had to show up five or six of them, and served twice. I am all for the “judged by a panel of ones’ peers” philosophy, however it doesn’t seem fair that some of those peers are called every February like clockwork. But I digress.
I took an Uber to the courthouse, and it seemed deliciously ominous when the driver dropped me off beside a street sign that stated: “No Parking: Homicide Only.” I had been summoned to criminal court. Would I be placed on an assault case? Armed robbery? Now it seemed that murder was a real option.
At 9 am, I filed into the jury assembly room and pulled out my laptop, prepared to document every gripping moment, every compelling character. But most of my fellow perspective jurors looked tired or bored. Resigned. They played games on their phones or typed away on their laptops. One or two of them pulled out real paperback books or magazines. A young woman in a hoodie closed her eyes and rested her head on the arm of her chair. A thin man with graying hair and a Where’s Waldo striped shirt walked the perimeter of the room, his hands wedged into the pockets of his bright red trousers.
We were all waiting for something to happen.
I didn’t want to serve. Sitting in that assembly room was disrupting my life. I had deadlines at work. I had plans in the evenings that I would have to cancel so that I could meet my deadlines at work.
I also kind of wanted to serve. How many movies and TV shows have I watched about crime and the justice system? I’ve been binging on The Killing for the last several weeks, trying to unravel who really killed Rosie Larsen. I have willingly handed over my free time on countless occasions for make believe crimes, and now here was the real life experience right before me.
We waited around for a while, watched the standard issue PSA video about what it means to serve on a jury, and then waited some more. At 10:30, the clerk announced that we were all free to go, that we had fulfilled our service for the year. I figured the defendant had weighed out his or her chances and took a plea deal.
I headed back to work, feeling disappointed. As storytellers, writers are always looking for the good parts, the key elements, and to trim out the fat. But much of life is fat. And my jury duty experience wasn’t really worth writing about.
My middle school years were fraught with uncomfortable hormone changes and psychological torment from other girls. During the first week of sixth grade, a girl I’d never met before called me a slut. “What are you looking at, Slut?” she sneered.
I didn’t actually know what a slut was, but understood that it must be something very bad. When I got home from school, I looked the word up in the dictionary and was even more confused. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never even held hands with one. Why was this girl calling me a slut?
For weeks, I avoided the girl and yet she always seemed to find me. “What, are you scared of me, Slut?” she taunted.
Eventually, she grew tired of me and presumably found someone new to torture. But this was just the first of many utterly perplexing and completely devastating incidents of girl-on-girl emotional violence. So I would have never predicted that, 30 years later, I’d write a book for ‘Tween girls, who are very possibly the meanest human beings in the world.
But even the meanest human beings in the world need books.
While I’m certain I tried my hand at the Mean Card more than once during this terrible age, mostly I read books and listened to music and wrote bad poetry about how mean everyone was. I’d outgrown Judy Blume but wasn’t yet ready for J.D. Salinger. At the time, what I enjoyed most of all was a good mystery with coming-of-age characters and enough of an “adult” theme to keep it interesting. And this is what I endeavor to achieve in my ‘Tween book.
My ‘Tween book started off as a National Novel Writing Month exercise two years ago, and has been collecting dust ever since. Last week, I decided to pull it out and get down to work. I mean, I should do something productive while I wait for my beta readers’ feedback on my grown-up novel, right?
And to kick it off right, I’ve included below a short excerpt for all the ‘Tween novel lovers out there. Or perhaps just for those of you who are kind enough to indulge me.
I have fought and won a difficult battle over the last couple of weeks: I have resisted the temptation to add to the Internet slush pile of self-reflective odes to David Bowie’s creative genius, and Alan Rickman’s acting talent and purring voice. Instead I wrote a tribute to someone who is still very much alive: my cat.
Yes, my cat.
My cat, Buddy, will be 16 years old in May. His back legs don’t work as well these days, and he’s developed the unfortunate habit of peeing on any floor-bound item that vaguely resembles fabric. He is on twice daily pain medication and special food. He is an old man, and his body and mind are showing the symptoms.
He was nine weeks old and fit in the palm of my hand when I brought him home. I was worried that my older cat would squash him, but the very first time they came face to face, Buddy leapt onto her back and started chewing on her head. She didn’t speak to me for weeks.
Buddy jumped up onto the table and counter tops, crawled up my legs, flung himself onto my shoulders, and ran across my head in the middle of the night. He shredded my plants and gnawed off the heads of flowers. “Why must you destroy everything that is beautiful?” I exclaimed, but he was too busy climbing the screen door to listen.
I’d never had a kitten before and asked a friend if Buddy’s insane energy level was normal. He said, “That’s the thing about kittens: they’re really fun. But they’re really fun all the damn time.”
I lived near a busy street and intended for Buddy to be an indoor cat. But he had other ideas. One night, he slipped out through an accidentally unlatched door. I spent hours walking through the neighborhood, calling his name and trying not to picture him hit by a car, dead in a ditch. When he returned the next day, he was covered in dirt and cobwebs but clearly thrilled by his experience. After that, I understood that it is the cat and not the owner that decides whether he’s indoor or outdoor.
When Buddy was almost two years old, we moved to a hillside apartment surrounded by mature trees and dense bushes that housed a multitude of suburban wildlife. This is where Buddy perfected the art of evisceration. When I spotted the first flailing, disembodied lizard tail on the living room floor, I screamed like a little girl. Within a couple of months, Buddy had caught on to the lizards’ trick and I was escorting disgruntled tailless lizards out of my apartment on a daily basis. Then came the mice, the birds, the snakes, the occasional large insect. I recognized the sickly sweet smell of death the moment I walked through my front door, it was just a matter of finding the body. The vision of the dead mole tucked up into my comforter still haunts me to this day. I scooped them all into the Dustpan of Death and tossed them out into the bushes.
One time, Buddy watched with disdain as I discarded a mouse he’d left on the ledge above my bed. The next morning, the mouse’s head was perched on my doormat.
Buddy honed his surgical skills and soon left not bodies but body parts behind. Intestines. Hearts. Feet. At least they were easier to clean up.
There was the time he got stuck up in a redwood tree for eight hours. The time he was locked in my neighbor’s shed for two days. The times he came home with rips in his ears and one of his toes hanging off. The time…
My cat was a psychopathic murderer who was always getting into trouble. But there was no doubting his affection for me. When he wasn’t busy destroying the natural world, he loved nothing more than to roll around on my lap and have his head scratched. I started to ever-so-slightly understand how the parents of serial killers must feel. “I know he does terrible things, but really he’s such a sweet boy when he’s at home with me.”
The murders stopped six years later when we left the quiet suburbs for Oakland. Although we moved to a residential street, there are not nearly as many critters hiding out in the decorative shrubbery around my building. And while Buddy continued to prowl around the neighborhood on a daily basis, his territory had shrunk considerably and he started spending more time indoors with me, indulging in the comfort of the couch. At nine years old, he was finally starting to settle down. By the age of eleven, he had transformed from the frisky kitten that couldn’t sit still if a butterfly flapped its wings on the other side of the world into a lazy lap cat.
He is sitting on my lap as I write this, butting his hard little head into my bicep.
A little over a year ago, he had a spinal aneurysm and couldn’t use his back legs. He also lost control of his bladder. I washed the caked litter and urine and feces from his butt and legs, and held him and fed him salmon and did everything I could think of to make his last days more comfortable. Within a week, he regained some use of his legs, but they would never be the same. He can no longer get up onto the couch by himself, or the bed. He can no longer go outside.
Sometimes he meows all night for no reason. Sometimes when I’m not giving him the attention he wants, he taunts the dog so that she’ll growl at him and I have to step in. About six months ago, he stopped using his litter box. I’ve thrown away one destroyed area rug and put another in storage, along with all bath and floor mats.
He peed on my Hello Kitty slippers.
But despite all of his (our) suffering and his loss of independence, he is still happy to curl up in my lap and have his head scratched.
A few weeks ago, late on New Years’ Eve – I looked around at my slumbering cat, dog, and boyfriend – and I made this wish: I hope we are all still together this time next year.
This is love.
To paraphrase my high school drama teacher: “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole.”
We were in rehearsal for the spring play, in which I was playing the part of the villain. Ms. Quinn was a standard issue Bitter Betty: middle-aged, single, sour and dour, and went out of her way to squash other people’s joy. As far as I was concerned, she was plain old mean for the sake of being mean.
I was not exactly thrilled to have been cast in this role, a fact which must have been clear to my drama teacher because he took me aside and told me that in his many years in the theater, he’d loved playing villains most of all. The trick, he explained, was to get to the heart of a character, to understand his or her motivations, to view the world from behind his or her eyes. “Nobody thinks they’re an a**hole,” he said. “Ms. Quinn feels completely justified in her behavior. And it’s your job to figure out why.”
His words stuck with me. Long after I’d decided that terrible heartbreak and betrayal in Ms. Quinn’s youth had turned her into a serious killjoy, I was eager to tip my psychoanalyst hat at friends and enemies alike. Why did that bitch Stacey pick fights with girls who were smaller than her? Perhaps she was bullied at home. Why did Joanna sleep around with so many loser guys? Clearly she wasn’t getting enough attention at home, and also her parents provided a terrible model for relationships. I was drunk with understanding for these people’s bad behavior! But it didn’t take long for me to realize that just because I understood (or thought I understood) their behavior, I still didn’t like it.
Two weeks ago at my last writers’ group meeting, one of the members made this comment on the chapter I had submitted: “I feel sorry for Alice and I’m glad she identified her problem, but I’m still not crazy about her. She’s fundamentally selfish and I don’t really expect her to change. At the same time, I don’t think I need to like Alice. She’s interesting, which is at least as important.”
I’ve never been so pleased to hear that someone dislikes one of my characters! While Alice is not a villain, she is a certainly a complicated person with a lot of character flaws. There are of course many legitimate reasons for these flaws, which is part of the reason why I love her so much*. But, as evidenced by that feedback, like her or not, Alice is interesting and genuine enough to evoke an emotional reaction. And isn’t that what we strive for in our writing? To create characters – a**hole or not – that are compelling and believable?
To this day, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why people behave they way they do. Unfortunately, this includes a few real life a**holes, and one in particular who will remain unnamed. And I still don’t like them (him), even if I understand that his passive aggressive behavior and accusatory tone is rooted in profound insecurity. (Clears throat).
Perhaps the a**hole in question will turn up in one of my novels some day. In the meantime, I will strive to keep the a**holes in my life on the page.
*Also, I love her because I created her. So there’s that.
There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Memoir is 90% fiction and fiction is 90% memoir.”*
While I’ve never plugged a real life experience “as is” into a work of fiction, my experiences absolutely inform my characters and story lines. For instance, I recently dug into my own life for inspiration, and struck gold with a shower scene that received rave reviews from my writers’ group.
Let me explain.
I’ve been struggling to establish attraction and intimacy between two of the characters in my novel-in-progress. The consistent feedback from my beta readers is: “I’m not totally sure what they see in each other”. The triumphant shower scene was inspired by the time my boyfriend and I spent ten minutes in the shower spotting dog faces in the granite pattern. I’d done this in private for years, and was oddly exhilarated to share it with him. It was a small moment, but it brought us a little closer.
Most writers reflect on their own experiences for inspiration, but what about when we are inspired smack dab in the middle of said experience?
Just this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were dancing (badly) to bossa nova music – in my living room and in our underwear. We giggled as we stepped on each others bare feet, fully aware of how ridiculous we must look. And as I snuggled into him, I thought, “You know, this could be a good scene to show more intimacy between Alice and Patrick.” But then it hit me: I wasn’t in the middle of a “scene”. I was in the middle of real life. And I was missing it, buried in my thoughts about my novel.
So I snapped myself back into the present, and tucked away that nugget of inspiration for later. Stay tuned on that account.
And in the meantime, I will leave you with that short but sweet shower scene “Inspired by a True Event!”
I’d always found showering with someone else a little awkward, taking turns washing shampoo out of your hair, standing there naked in the bright bathroom light. The first time I’d showered with Patrick, I stood with my arms across my chest, shivering, until he pulled me under the water, pressed his wet skin against mine.
“Do you see the faces?” he asked, pointing to the granite walls. “In the pattern of the stone. See, two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” he said, tracing the shapes with his finger. And right before my eyes, the indistinct forms came together into a woman’s face, complete with long wavy hair. “And here’s a dog’s face,” Patrick said, pointing to the left of the woman. “And a cat over here.”
I’d showered every day in that bathroom for two years and had never once noticed the faces looking back at me. But now they were everywhere.
“This one looks like a horse,” I said, my eyes searching over the granite. I’d completely forgotten to feel awkward. “And this one looks like a walrus, if you tilt your head a little. And here’s a bear!”
It was such a dumb thing to get excited about, but I couldn’t help myself.
We spotted faces in the granite until the hot water ran out. And from then on, every morning when I showered, I looked for new faces so that I could point them out to Patrick the next time he was over.
If we were going to break up, I was going to have to move. How could I ever shower in my bathroom again?
* Percentages are approximate