Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Like There's No Tomorrow

It was bedtime, the witching hour for complicated questions about life, philosophy, outer space, and trigonometry. The child who had once waxed eloquent about "negative infinity meeting infinity on the other side of the universe" was at it again.

"I have some questions," he said. He always had questions, but especially at this hour, when my brain had already gone to bed. He was twelve, that magical time when kids start to gain energy, somehow sapping it right out of their parents. Just standing near him, I could feel my batteries draining.

"You really need to read your book," I yawned. My tween bookworm was behind in "reading points" for school, because he insisted on reading everything but the approved curriculum. Much like me, he didn't appreciate being told what to read or do.

"Okay, Mom," he said, feigning cooperation. I knew his next move would be to change the topic of conversation.

"Really, you need to read a lot," I gave him the mom-glare, complete with raised eyebrow. "You need to catch up so you have enough reading points. You need to read like there's no tomorrow."

Oops. That was enough of an opening for him to put me into the Nascar wall. I knew it, he knew it, and he took a big breath and did it.

"Mom," he sighed(with twelve you get eyeroll), "If there's no tomorrow, why would I read?"

"Oooh, here we go," I murmured and sat down, getting comfortable and yawning again.

"If there's no tomorrow, why not do something fun? The reading points won't matter anyway. They're not due for another month. And since there's no tomorrow-"

"It's an expression. I didn't make it up. It's just an...expression." Suddenly my bed was so very distant.

"But it doesn't make sense." He had a valid point. "If there's no tomorrow, I'd much rather play video games..."

"I know, I get it," I sighed. "I'm just not up to defending the concept right now." Never mind the minor detail that he was absolutely right.

We know very little about tomorrow. And in that sense, we need to make the most of today. We need to hug more, hate less. Less calls, more contact. Less fluff talk, more action. Corny, but true. Too many manipulative mind games, verbal diarrhea, saying one thing, doing another, by people who pretend to be friends when all they want is someone to listen to them rant. And they'd been sucking the life out of me, to the point that I was too exhausted to listen to my own son.

It was time to cull the herd.

No more long-winded, circular monologues from people who were always too "swamped" to listen to my thoughts, yet thought nothing of wasting literally hours of my time. No time for that, and frankly for me, finally I told them - I had no time for them.

My son had just read The Phantom Tollbooth, where "killing time" was considered murder. It was a valid point. Saying you'll show up and blowing it off, whether it's a lunch, a listen, or an entire relationship, should be criminal. I couldn't have them arrested, but I realized I could eliminate them, so I did. Life is too short. Tick, tick, tick....

My mind had wandered off to an ugly place, a wasteland of broken promises. Josie the dog wandered in, wondering what was taking me so long to get to bed. She saw the perturbed look on my face and made a u-turn out the door. Smart dog.

I looked up. My son had his arms out, waiting for a hug. He beckoned me back from the needy vanity I had thought was love but was only a selfish, cruel farce. Smart kid, patiently waiting for his mom to come around, to heal, to home.

Truly there is no time but now. I mustered up the last bit of energy I had. I hugged and listened to my son. He hugged and listened to me. And that, I realized, is all that matters. The busy busy phonies who had wasted so much of my time in the past would go on forever, however long that was, chasin' their tails and chattin' the world dry. But now they'd do it elsewhere. Now, here in my son's heart, I was untouchable. Suddenly I didn't care about tomorrow, because I had fully embraced today.

Finally, fabulously, I was lucky in love.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Humorous Heroine

The following will appear in "Tough Times, Tough People," available June 16th at your local bookstore.

“Annie,” he said, “It’s time to move on.” I had heard rumors about layoffs, but my head reeled. This was coming from a place I had given twelve years of my life, working weekends, working late, covering multiple positions, and generally nurturing the company like it was my own. Yet it had been bought out by a financial conglomerate and so, like many others, I was gone. Within a month, over 10% of the company would be dismissed. It was musical chairs played to the tune of a corporate funeral dirge.

Remember playing musical chairs? You’d walk tentatively in a circle around the seats, enough chairs for all but one unlucky soul, waiting for the music to stop, then diving for a seat. Remember how you felt when you were the one left standing with nowhere to sit? That’s what unemployment feels like. But you not only don’t have a chair. You feel like you don’t have a chance.

My upbringing had taught me that if you worked hard, you’d be rewarded. I always gave my best effort, putting my personal needs last. My ex-husband had taken advantage of this character trait, and now, I realized, so had my company. A corporate acquisition, coupled with numerous layers of executive incompetence and extravagance, and again my faith was shattered. A bitter lesson learned twice.

I’m a single mother of two boys, struggling to pay a mortgage. We were already running on a tight budget, no fancy vacations or meals out, still paying off an expensive divorce. At least, I had reasoned, I was working and feeding my kids. Now I felt dizzy and rudderless.

In a way I was relieved to be rid of the job, since it was far from my heart’s desire. My kids were happy I was out. “You never liked that job anyway, Mom,” my eldest said. I was surprised he had noticed. I guess it showed more than I realized. Yet, like any parent, my primary goal was to provide for my family. I figured my heart’s true calling could wait until my kids were well established and out on their own. This downsizing had certainly tweaked my career path.

Still, I had my boys, a bit of savings, and a resilient attitude. I thought of J. K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” series. A single mom in desperate straits, she had written an incredible series of books, pulling herself up by her own bootstraps, out of the gutter and into the gold. It would be a long shot, but maybe, I reasoned, I could do the same.

I’d been writing stories about my childhood and posting them on my web blog. As the daughter of two city people who had moved to the country and started a farm, I had an unusual upbringing, full of wacky happenings and unusual situations. The stories were popular, and for years people had encouraged me to write, so I mused – why not put them all in a book? My parents would soon celebrate their 50th anniversary. This could be a nice gift for them AND for me, if I could get it published.

I always wanted to write for a living but never dared make the jump and leave my day job. What a time to follow my star, but the timing was beyond my control. So I rolled with it as best I could. Every day I spent hours writing the book, then scouring the want ads. No success in my job search, but finally the book was done. I started pitching it to agencies, gaining interest, getting turned down, re-pitching, re-writing, and never giving up. While Life was giving me lemons, I wasn’t exactly making lemonade. I was picking up the lemons and pitching them back at Life. Hard.

Around the same time, I met a man who was pursuing his heart’s ambition of becoming a country music singer/songwriter. What a pair of dreamers we were! Still, he had tremendous talent. I helped him craft his biography, a Web page, press releases, stories for the local newspapers and music magazines, and eventually his first CD. Finally he signed a recording contract. I was thrilled for him, and happy to have helped.

Yet the thrill rang a little hollow. Again I had put someone else first. Yes, I loved him dearly, but this was the classic female faux pas. We’re natural nurturers, helping others succeed and grow. I had to focus on giving my life’s dream a serious effort. And now my livelihood, and that of my children, depended on it.

I wrote for newspapers, magazines - any publication that would have me. I wrote humorous stories, amusing anecdotes, light-hearted tales that would ease a worried world. These were especially troubled times for the print media since, in a financial downturn, the first thing most companies cut is advertising. It seemed everyone was panicking, hunkering down until this fiscal tornado was over. Still, I reasoned, the world needed a hero. Or at least a heroine with a sense of humor.

“I saw your column in the paper,” my son’s teacher said. “I loved it! I read all your stories. They make me laugh. Please keep writing!”

“I saw your Thanksgiving story in the newspaper,” my accountant said. “Hilarious!”
Sure, I thought. I’ll keep writing. But my financial hourglass was quickly running out of sand.
Then something strange occurred. I had read about it happening before, during the Great Depression. I first noticed it with the film industry– annual revenue was, surprisingly…UP!

People were tired of hiding from bad times. They wanted to escape, at least for a couple of hours. While they weren’t taking big vacations, they still needed to get away from it all. They did this by going to the movies in record numbers. Tiny breaks from reality, but sorely needed. Could it be the beginning of a turn-around?

One afternoon I stopped by a bookstore. It was full of people. It seems the publishing industry was experiencing the same trend as the film business. Book sales were starting to rise. Inspired, literary agents responded, and inquiries for my manuscript increased. My new book was humorous, light, and odd – could it help people forget how difficult times were? I was convinced it was a matter of time before it sold. Still, I was afraid to hope.

In the meantime, my boyfriend’s record company sent him on a concert tour. Before he left, we had a heart-to-heart talk. Even though we’d be apart, we promised each other that we’d stay close - whatever we would face, we would face together. With renewed strength and confidence, my stories began selling. More newspapers picked up my columns.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.” I’m fine with that. I write to ease the tough times, help people see the lighter side. Now I can share it with the world. And I’ve never been happier.

Quite a quirky fairy tale ending! But thank you, tough times. You freed me from a soulless job and shook me out of my comfort zone, enabling me to find true love and follow my heart’s work. I wouldn’t have done it without you.

Life isn’t always what you expect it to be. Sometimes that’s a good thing.