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Procrastination, and the Subversive Feminism of The Little Mermaid

Writing a second book made me a better writer. The upside to that is I think I’m a better writer. The downside is that I don’t think my first book is well-written anymore. I’m too attached to it to can it, so now I have to go back and fix my first book using the skill I think I gained from writing the second, but no doubt one day there will be a third and nothing I ever wrote previous will be adequate.

So I decided to update my list of favorite Disney movies instead. Made more sense to me.

I know this is the update the world has been waiting for. You’re welcome. (Spoiler alert: that’s a reference to a newly-minted top five fave). Having a daughter has had a funny way of clearing a cloud of nostalgia from my life. My personal fondness for things doesn’t hold the same weight or value as it once did, now that I can experience the joy in her eyes when she loves something new. Nothing beats that. And so, I give you, the completely unnecessary update to my ranking of every Disney movie.

  1. The Little Mermaid
  2. Sleeping Beauty
  3. Tangled
  4. Moana
  5. Frozen
  6. Lilo & Stitch
  7. Alice in Wonderland
  8. Lady and the Tramp
  9. Pocahontas
  10. Pinocchio
  11. The Lion King
  12. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  13. The Sword in the Stone
  14. Robin Hood
  15. Peter Pan
  16. Aladdin
  17. Brother Bear
  18. Bolt
  19. Mulan
  20. Cinderella
  21. Bambi
  22. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  23. The Princess and the Frog
  24. Zootopia
  25. Dumbo
  26. Fantasia
  27. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  28. Beauty and the Beast
  29. Big Hero 6
  30. Wreck-It Ralph
  31. Ralph Breaks the Internet
  32. Frozen 2
  33. Oliver & Company
  34. The Jungle Book
  35. The Rescuers Down Under
  36. Fantasia 2000
  37. The Aristocats
  38. One Hundred and One Dalmatians
  39. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  40. Hercules
  41. The Rescuers
  42. Winnie-the-Pooh (the new one)
  43. The Fox and the Hound
  44. The Great Mouse Detective
  45. Tarzan
  46. The Emperor’s New Groove

I still have only seen the following in snippets, so did not include:

  • Saludos Amigos
  • The Three Caballeros
  • Make Mine Music
  • Fun and Fancy Free
  • Melody Time
  • The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (I’ve seen The Legend of Sleepy Hollow which would rank highly, but I’ve never seen Wind in the Willows and definitely haven’t seen them together in this packaged film)
  • The Black Cauldron
  • Dinosaur
  • Treasure Planet
  • Home on the Range (this is when things got real tough for the Studios)
  • Chicken Little
  • Meet the Robinsons

There you have it. The holy trinity of modern-day Disney has moved its way into the top five. *Crosses self* “In the name of Elsa, Moana, and the lost princess Rapunzel.” What can I say? I easily fall in love with my daughter’s worldview.

I don’t think anything can budge my top two. The Little Mermaid was my Frozen. The first song I ever knew by heart was Part of Your World. We sang it on the playground in first grade over, and over, and over. My generation of girlfriends grew up tossing our hair up and out of swimming pools because that’s what Ariel did when she grew legs and burst out of the sea. A lot of people I know have criticized The Little Mermaid as some sort of misogynistic manifesto because it’s about a girl who gives up her voice to be with a guy. I urge those people to look deeper. I could write an essay on how The Little Mermaid is in fact a feminist fairytale. Ugh, I can’t help myself. I’ll go into it.

The Little Mermaid works for me with two important premises. One. I like my protagonists imperfect. I want them to have flaws and dreams that are so at odds with each other they lead them to make bad decisions. I will root for a hero not because she is perfect (how boring) but because she is imperfect like I am, and manages to overcome her foibles to prevail over the dragon, or whatever.

Two. Giving up her voice to Ursula is a bad decision. This should be evident by the fact that she is making a deal with a devil, but based on how many people think LM is sending some sort of message to girls that giving up your voice for a guy is a good thing, I feel it needs to be said. Trust that your kids know the difference between a virtue and a terrible mistake. I was the kid watching The Little Mermaid. I got it.

With those two givens in mind, here’s my take.

Like so many fairytales, The Little Mermaid features a hero who wants more than her circumstances can give her. In Ariel’s case, her circumstances have placed her in the center of a patriarchal world with strict and insurmountable boundaries. She is one daughter in a veritable army of daughters of King Triton. There’s no mother in sight, though that’s never explained. Just a hyper-masculine father, and bunch of girls named by him who, when the movie begins, are paraded out with great pageantry to look lovely and sing pretty songs. That’s what is expected of them, and of Ariel.

But she skips out on that.

She doesn’t show up to her own debut. Instead, she is literally off with her best friend searching for treasure and fighting sharks. She wants to do her own thing: explore, learn, expand her world. Even with sharks around. She is curious and ambitious, and her father doesn’t like it. He wants her to use her voice to sing pretty and be pleasant. She wants to use her voice to ask questions.

Betcha on land, they understand.
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters.
Bright young women. Sick of swimming.
Ready to stand.
And ready to know what the people know.
Ask them my questions, and get some answers.
What is a fire? And why does it—what’s the word—burn!

Remember, she hasn’t seen Eric yet. So even though this song is called Part of Your World, she is yearning that she wants to be “Part of THAT world,” and it has nothing to do with a guy. She just wants to know things about a world that seems so exciting, and one that everyone else seems to misunderstand.

Then she meets a guy, and yes that’s the carrot that leads her to openly defy her father. But let’s talk about that. She is defying him, but not at first. She loves her father and would want to share her feelings with him; she is desperate for him to understand, but he refuses. Like so many fairytales, The Little Mermaid is about the blossoming sexuality of a young woman and how the forces in her life try to control it, because they fear it. So King Triton destroys everything that matters to her. All of her treasures, especially the likeness of her new prince. Blows it up with his big magical man-stick.

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Do you not remember being a teenager? I do. I remember being so misunderstood, especially when it came to the guys I liked, that I made some pretty bad decisions. So Ariel, desperate and alone, runs off to seek help from the only other place she thinks she might find it, a witch. She trades her voice for what she believes is her last chance to be happy because she does not fit in at home.

Let’s talk about Ursula for a moment, and why she’s the most badass of all. Many of the characters in The Little Mermaid were shaped and developed by Howard Ashman, a lyricist and playwright with roots in musical theatre. He modeled Ursula after the legendary drag queen, Divine. Can we talk about how revolutionary that was for a Disney film in the late-eighties? Other than the army of indoctrinated daughters, Ursula is the only other female character in the film and thus Ariel’s only role model. It’s never explicit what the circumstances were, but we do hear Ursula go on about a time when she was in power, but has been banned from palace life which is why she now hates Triton so much. Let me just cut to the chase with my theory. The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, right at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Our country had been ravaged by an AIDS epidemic completely ignored and stigmatized by its president (sounds familiar), and second-wave feminism felt like a thing of the distant past. The Little Mermaid was shaped and developed by a gay man who just a few years later would die himself of AIDS. I think Divine—I mean Ursula—represents all of that, and is fucking angry about it. If Triton represents the conservative patriarchy of Ronald Reagan’s America, then Ariel is the tool with which Ursula seeks her revenge.

So yes Ariel runs off and gives her voice to the sea witch. Ursula is very convincing in all the ways she sings about the performative power of being a woman (drag queen, remember), but frankly she straight up tells her the cost of contorting yourself to please a guy. “I’m a very busy woman and I haven’t got all day. It won’t cost much, just your voice!”

I say again, it should be very evident that this is a bad decision. Why do you think Ursula wants her voice? What could be the reason? Could it be because our villain knows that a young woman’s voice is actually the most important thing she has in forging her path in the world, and developing relationships? And therefore by taking that away from Ariel she knows she stands the best chance of Ariel failing, and thus possessing her soul for eternity—really pissing off her dad?

But there’s another layer here that gives Ariel some power, or at the very least commands our sympathy for her. Why else might Ariel be so willing to give up her voice? Oh I don’t know, could it be because that’s the only thing about her that her father ever seemed to care about, at the expense of all her other interests? He wanted to hear her pretty singing voice, and that’s about it, so what does she turn around and do? In a bold act of defiance, however misguided, she gives away the only thing he valued. If the only thing about me that my father cared about was my pretty hair, you know what I would do? I’d cut that shit. If all he cared about was my pretty voice? I might trade it to a Sea Witch to get out of that patriarchal prison.

But of course, you shouldn’t give up your voice to be with a guy. Ursula knows this. Sebastian knows this. Flounder knows. And her daddio, King Man-Stick certainly knows this. Perhaps this lesson is more of a home run in the source material when our little mermaid continues to evaporate after giving away her voice, until she is nothing but foam on the sea and wind. Pretty sad. Disney wasn’t going to end a movie like that, so we get a chance for our hero to be redeemed thanks to the loyalty of her friends, and the love of her father. Triton’s redemption pulls on this new parent’s heartstrings the most. Sebastian says to him, “Like I always say, Your Majesty. Children got to be free to lead their own lives.”

“Then there’s just one problem,” Triton responds. “How much I’m going to miss her.” And he bestows her with her own pair of legs to do with as she pleases, and lets her go.

I love the ending. It’s as layered as an onion. Our villain, Ursula, has been run through with the jagged, phallic end of a broken down ship, and sinks to the bottom of the sea. Don’t think I need to unpack the metaphor there. (I also just realized, in writing this, why there were so many phallic Easter eggs in the movie, like on the poster and at the wedding scene. These were legendary in the 90s. Funny, makes so much sense now. But I digress). Ariel runs off and marries her prince. Who knows if she ever found out what fire was. Or why it burns. I imagine maybe not. I imagine that if Ursula had survived, she’d shake her head at Ariel, watching her trade one patriarchy for another, and sing in her divinely gravelly voice, “Good luck.”

I’m just going to say it. My generation of women has at times felt hamstrung by the rigid demands and definitions of second-wave feminism. We were Ariel, trapped between two worlds which Triton and Ursula represent. So maybe Ursula was also a victim of Triton’s Sea. And maybe Ursula helped get her out for her own reasons. Maybe it was messy, and misguided, and manipulative. But she’s out. She found her voice, and now at least Ariel’s got a chance. At least she gets to choose. And that, my friends, is how The Little Mermaid raised a generation of third-wave feminists.

You’re welcome.

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Something I found in quarantine

I miss my grandfather. He was a handsome Austrian fellow with piercing blue eyes and a mischievous grin. He died when I was 17 years old and I miss him. Here are some of the things that made him cool. He was a veteran of World War 2. He fought in the Pacific and looked better in a sailor uniform than Frank Sinatra. He taught me how to play poker. That was family game night. He was married to my grandmother for over 65 years. He used to sometimes swear in broken German. My grandmother would swear back in broken Italian. His name was Nick Sigl, but spelled Nicolaus. Isn’t that the coolest spelling? Nicolaus Sigl. Just try spelling it without looking at it.

He used to make this dish called Grout Fleckla. For years I have been haunted by the fact that I don’t remember much about the dish except that I loved it. It was savory, I think it involved noodles, and maybe onions? In addition to my frequent requests for it at family dinners, I asked him to make Grout Fleckla for me whenever there was any kind of cultural event at my school. All the families would bring their traditions and foods to share, and I can’t say I’ve ever had a strong sense of cultural identity, but there was Grout Fleckla. It was distinctly German, and distinctly Sigl.

I have known for some time that it could not have actually been called Grout Fleckla, but that was the phonetic experience of my young brain when met with my grandfather’s thick German accent (only employed when he actually spoke German). His command of the language may have declined over the years, but his commitment to the accent never wavered. It never occurred to me that in this, the year 2020, I now have any number of ways to look up the correct name of the dish. I don’t know why that is, except maybe the feeling of having lost something takes a stronger hold in our brains than the possibility it could be found, so when something like Google was invented, I never entertained the notion that I could sleuth out my grandfather’s dish. I think I also assumed it was unique to us, his invention. I had decided some time before that the recipe—whatever it was called—died with him, and I’ve mourned it ever since.

A few weeks ago, in the beginning of this quarantine, I decided to make a frittata. I don’t cook much, but this quarantine has made some kind of a chef of all of us. Frittatas are usually my husband’s specialty, but he was playing with the baby so I was on frittata duty. Frittatas in our house aren’t just crust-less quiches; they involve noodles. We will not go carbless in the Light house. Frittatas come about when we have leftover pasta and the next morning we put them in a cast iron skillet with a bunch of eggs, cheese, and veggies. I started by sautéing a ton of onions and garlic. While those caramelized, I rifled through the fridge in search of veggies and saw we had a head of cabbage. I chopped that up and threw it in. Once the cabbage softened, I added the noodles.

And that’s when it happened. I’m getting all flustered thinking about it. Something happened in my nose. The smell of sautéed onions and garlic mingling with the cabbage and noodles sent me into an overwhelming sense memory of being with my grandfather and eating Grout Fleckla. Oh my God. It wasn’t Grout. It was Kraut. Cabbage. And for the first time in nearly twenty years it dawned on me, I can look this up. I could have, for years, found a way to look this up. I’ve stalked old boyfriends with less information to go by, but now, I had cabbage.

Opens Google.
Search: German noodle dish kraut…

I didn’t even have to type kraut, actually. As soon as I entered German noodle dish my results came up. Krautfleckerl. “An Austrian pasta with caramelized cabbage.” I felt like I found my grandfather. I thought he was lost. Now I can visit him in more than just a dream. I can taste this dish again and memories are so much easier to access with your mouth and your nose than with your brain.

I finished the frittata, but the next night I looked up a recipe and made Krautfleckerl. As I served it to my family, I could picture my grandfather holding a large aluminum tray full of the savory noodles, wearing a bomber jacket with a fur trim, and polyester pants, helping me bring a bit of Austrian, a bit of Sigl, to share with whomever might be interested. 

If that’s you, if you’re interested, here is the recipe for Krautfleckerl. Though I might always call it Grout Fleckla.

I pulled this specific recipe from a restaurant in Vienna, but you could vary it. As long as you’ve got noodles, cabbage, onions, garlic, and caraway seeds, you’ll get the flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 white Onion
  • 1 (head of) cabbage
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp. of caraway seeds
  • 1/2 c butter
  • Pasta, your choice on the shape but I think goes best with a Papardelle or Campanelle, or even an egg noodle
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic

Preparation:

Cut the cabbage (white, without stalk) into squares, cut onion finely and chop garlic. Let the sugar and the caraway caramelize in a big pot. Now add the half of the butter, the onion and the garlic, stir. Add the cabbage, salt and stir again. Let it steam for about 30 minutes with a closed lid.
Bring sufficient water to a boil, add salt and cook the pasta until al dente. Strain, rinse in cold water and allow it to drain well. Chop parsley. Mix the pasta with the cabbage and stir. Add the rest of the butter and season with parsley and pepper. Serve while warm.

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Pandemic Day: I have no idea

I was having a panic attack just now, so I went out on my balcony to breathe. I am very lucky to have a balcony, especially one that overlooks the ocean. I said the following words, which kind of look like a poem all put together, but really they’re just words that helped me. Maybe that’s all poems really are. I thought I’d write them down. They’re pretty sentimental, but sometimes those are the words that help the most. Sometimes.

The sky is still up there
Catalina still floats in the Sea.
This tree is here
Still stands.
The birds still fly
The birds still have to eat lizards
The lizards must still avoid the birds
I wish I was a bird
But I am not a lizard.
The flowers are blooming

Right now

And Catalina still floats in the Sea

The sun is there
Pushing
Pushing out, further way, from something
We still spin around it for some reason.
The wind is merciful
The Sea is in us
And Catalina still floats.

But it’s not floating at all.
It’s not going anywhere.
It’s right there still.
As far as I’ll know, always.

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Pandemic – Day 7

The nighttime is the hardest. That is when my child goes to bed and I don’t have her joyful ignorance to anchor me in the present moment. It’s when I read news, and fret. It’s when I try to write. Then I think about the futility of what I’m writing. It’s trite, meaningless. I think about the possibility that there may not be a publishing industry to return to. Or perhaps the world will be more thirsty than ever for books, if we spend so much of our lives socially distant from one another. But my book? Still not my book, surely. It’s too stupid.

I thought that I better write these things down. I thought that might be important.

Everything feels enormous today. It’s unnerving for the entire world to be talking about the same thing. We’re not meant to be that unified, I don’t think. A little diversity of interests, conversation, that’s what made social media a pleasant distraction. Not the hammer on my psyche that it is now.

Even the cool shit that people are making is heavy. The live-streamed concerts, and poetry readings, and creative videos are heavy–no matter how joyful–because of the need from which they spring. We need art more than ever, but my God, I was never prepared for my art to matter that much.

I’m worried that this will change the world beyond recognition or repair.

I’m worried that it won’t, and what the fuck was this all for?

I’m worried that industries will become obsolete. That we’ll slip into a Depression. That most of my friends, and I, will be destitute. I’m worried about finances, okay? It sucks.

I’m worried for my daughter. That our little ship of isolation, her mom and her dad, won’t be enough to keep her stimulated. She was thriving in daycare. She is so social. I’m worried that she won’t get to play with other kids for so long. Too long.

I’m worried about my parents, all of whom are immuno-compromised.

I’m worried that my dreams don’t matter any more.

I’m worried that there are certain people I may never see again.

I’m worried that not enough people will take this seriously and too many people will get sick.

I’m worried for our doctors, nurses, first responders. Everyone out there.

I’m worried we won’t get a general election.

I’m worried that that fucking volcano in Yellowstone is going to erupt.

There it is, a short list. But you know what? I can breathe through all of that, for now. I can take it day by day. What I can’t take are these days. I love my little family. I miss other humans. I took for granted my social spirit. I miss people. I miss you. How long will we last like this? Who will break first? The economy? Our spirits? The fever?

The only way I’ve ever known how to get through anything is to really go through it. Deep into it. So, sorry, I can’t look on the bright side right now. I have to make my way through the deep end. Words have been a trusty tool. Words bring me comfort. Always. So I just keep writing. Writing into the darkest parts of this. Like one day it will matter. If it ever did.

Peace.

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I Used to be a Runner

Am I even allowed to call this a running blog anymore if I’ve only run once since December? Maybe not. Dang, this whole working full-time/being a mom/creative/person with a clean house thing is tough. I have zero time to run. I could let other things go, but I don’t want to. Here’s what my day looks like. Maybe you can help me figure out where to fit it in:

7:00 AM – Wake up, get ready, get Z ready for daycare

7:45 AM – Drive Z to daycare, myself to work

9:00 AM – 5:30 PM – Werk

5:30 PM – 6:30 PM – Drive home

6:30 PM – 8:30 PM – Spend precious time with baby and husband, have dinner, get baby to bed

8:30 PM – 9:00 PM – Clean up the food hurricane that the baby caused in the kitchen

9:00 PM – 9:30 PM – Veg out on the couch a bit

9:30 PM – 11:00 PM – Either write, or watch TV, or catch up with husband

11:00 PM – Bed

Start it all up again the next day.

Where does running fit into this? I know you’re going to say I need to get up earlier. I know I do. It’s hard though. I do not do well on less than eight hours of sleep which means I would need to go to bed earlier which means I will have less time to write/veg/talk. And maybe that’s what I need to do, but like I said at the top, I don’t really want to trim anything off this schedule that already provides so little time for relaxing, decompressing, being creative. What I need is another half hour added to the day. Who do I talk to about that?

 

The only running I do lately is running after her. Maybe, for this season of life, that can be enough.

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How to be Honest

I am writing a personal book, the most personal thing I’ve written besides some things I’ve written on this blog. I went back to read old posts to get somehow in touch with past feelings, but I mostly cringed and hid a lot of this blog’s history from view. Here’s what I learned about writing, from the horror of reading one’s early attempts:

  • Be honest. If it’s untrue, it will suck.
  • Don’t try to be clever. If you try to be clever, then you’re not clever. Cleverness is something that you might stumble upon in service of a story but it should never be something you’re trying to achieve. See bullet point one.
  • If it can be more simple, it should be.
  • If in reviewing your writing something bothers you more than one time, it will always bother you. Change it.
  • You almost never need to use an exclamation point. Stop yelling.
  • If you don’t know what you meant by something, your audience sure as hell won’t either. Change it.
  • Sometimes something sounds really good in your head and it’s shit on paper. I don’t have a solution for this, except maybe keep evaluating if it fulfills bullet point one.
  • You rarely need an adverb. Find a better verb. This is also true for adjectives. Trust the noun.
  • Writers stress about commas much more than readers I think, but you probably don’t need them as much you as you think you do.
  • You probably overuse the words just and very.
  • Once you figure out how to use a semicolon or an em dash, you’ll be tempted to use them all the time, and then you’ll read like a pretentious fool. It’s not the 19th century; cool it with the punctuation.
  • You’ll have a hard time taking your own advice.
  • The sentences that you feel the most attached to, the most precious with, are the ones that will make you cringe the most when you read them a year later. Therefore:
  • Don’t be precious with anything.
  • No matter how good and seasoned a writer you are, you will occasionally mix up your and you’re. Be kind to yourself.
  • If you keep writing, you will get better at it. So keep writing.

Zelda’s Teeth

For this brief, tiny, delicate moment in time, you smile at me with bare gums. They are so sweet.

Then you have two teeth. And you will never smile at me with a toothless grin ever again.

Huh.

For this next brief moment you have only two tiny bottom teeth, but soon it will be three. Teeth move on.

You can do nothing but kick, smile, cry, sleep, or laugh when placed down on your back. You are stuck, not always happy about it.

But now you can roll.

Now you can scoot.

Now you can crawl.

Now you can climb up onto my legs and look me in the eyes. You are so proud of yourself every time that you do. I’m proud too, but also a little bit sad.

For a tiny window longer, you can’t yet walk beside me. You are still in baby position. You are in my arms.

You have no words. For only a second more, you tell me how you feel with coos, laughs, shouts, cries, and the occasional consonant. Tomorrow you’ll have words, and we’ll never communicate like this again. We’ll have new ways of talking to each other that we’ll love, but it won’t be like this.

You don’t always sleep through the night. Some nights you do. Some nights will soon be all nights, and there will be a last time we cuddle in the dark in the quiet hours, just you and me, and the bubbling fish tank. Soon you will sleep in your own room, with your things, and your own dreams.

We nurse. My body grew your body, and it still does. In the blink of an eye you will be done. But thank God it’s not today. Thank God my breast still comforts you. I thank God, I really do, for the bundle of your little body curled into mine as you stare into my eyes and play with my hair, drinking milk and loving each other. I’m not ready for the tomorrow when that ends. I never will be.

Today you had apples for the first time.

And broccoli.

And shrimp.

And mango.

You do not like cottage cheese.

We have ice cream in our future. You still possess a brain that has never experienced the wonder of ice cream. I can’t wait for that tomorrow.

Your teeth are coming in. They hurt you. The newness hurts; I know, baby. But soon they won’t hurt anymore. Soon you’ll have all your teeth, like me. And one day they will hurt again but not from their newness. From their oldness. From something called a cavity, which is a kind of hole that rots. Try not to let that happen. You do have some control over it.

Zelda, everything you are as a baby is like lightning. So bright, stunning, then it’s gone. I’m writing it down for you. To catch it in a bottle. It’s a bottle you might be interested in someday. I always will be.

I love the you of tomorrow. I love watching you learn, but I’ll miss your crawling, your coos, your milky breath, your whole body in my arms. I don’t want to go back, Zelda, but I wouldn’t mind the chance to relive a few of these moments. Just for a second. I’ll miss those two little front teeth featured solo on your sweet, perfect, baby gums.

Oh. There’s tooth number three. And the moment is gone.

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What Does a Writer Look Like?

In which I write a blog post pontificating about what a successful writer’s life looks like. Not just an average writer, a mediocre writer, a casual writer, but a great writer. A flourishing writer. A prolific writer. What’s the behavior? What’s the schedule? How does the obsession to write manifest? I’m pretty sure it does not involve writing a blog post about writing, but perhaps therein lies the crux of my problem. I’d rather sit around and think about being a writer all day than actually buckle up and be one.

I think a successful writer writes as often as she can. I think she has to write; she doesn’t have to convince herself to write. A fish has to swim, a bird’s gotta fly, a writer must write. Like she’s running out of time. She looks for the opportunity, she doesn’t try to avoid it. I don’t write enough.

I think a successful writer can be a mom, but she probably pulls out her laptop and writes after the kids go to bed. She doesn’t collapse onto the couch and veg out with Netflix for the next three hours with a beer. She doesn’t mindlessly scroll through Facebook and Instagram. She doesn’t spend the time that her kid is asleep looking at videos and pictures of said kid. Okay maybe she does that, she is a mom after all. But she writes. She let’s the dishes stay dirty, and she has no idea what’s happening on Game of Thrones. When the kid is asleep, she writes.

She knows the value of an hour. A successful writer gets up an hour early if that’s the only time in the day to write. She doesn’t use her lunch hour to sample makeup at Sephora. She passes on happy hour because with everyone out of the office she knows that she can sneak in a writing session. Which brings me to socializing in general.

She doesn’t. Not when an idea has started budding. Not when she has a choice between hanging out or writing, between brunch or writing, between drinks or writing. She writes. She has come to be very unpopular.

She probably has a lucky pen, or glasses, or journal, or a writing sweater. I have those. That’s something. She salivates over cozy writing spaces with warm oak desktops, amber lamps, and coffee cups. I do. Points for me.

Everything I’m describing here? I love the idea of it. I love to fancy myself a madwoman, obsessing over plot points and character arcs. An eccentric who must lock herself away until the manuscript is done. A veritable storm of ideas. I like that idea.

But I’m not that. I love to sleep. I love to Netflix and chill. I love to look at pictures of my daughter while she’s sleeping. I love happy hours, and socializing, and blogging about writing. I love social media, and makeup. I love to waste time. So what, then? Can I ever be a flourishing writer if I don’t obsess over it? I have no idea. I’m not Type A. I’m short on grit. I guess I’ll just open the file for my novel and find out what happens. I’ll just write a bit, and maybe eventually it will add up to something. Maybe I’ll be the world’s most successful lazy novelist. A new mode. Write like you’ve got plenty of time. Your novel will be shorter, but you’ll be oh so relaxed.

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Zelda: A Birth Story

Three months ago my daughter, Zelda, was born. This is my and Zelda’s birth story.

On the evening of June 6, I sat in my living room with Brad and my mom, contemplating middle names for Zelda, coming up with some pretty silly options like Bluebell, and laughing about how convenient it would be if I went into labor in the wee hours of the morning, giving us time to get to the hospital before traffic. Well. Zelda was listening.

At 3:30am on June 7 I awoke to the strange sensation of warm syrup pouring over my legs. It gushed, but gently like molasses, not violently like gushing water. I turned to Brad and whispered, “I think my water broke,” which interestingly mirrored the exact same way I told him I was pregnant—waking him up in the early morning hours and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant.”

We got out of bed and confirmed what I had suspected all the day prior, Zelda had decided to begin her journey into the world. I got myself cleaned up and went into the living room to try and get some more sleep on the couch, in anticipation of what would surely be a long day ahead. I should have been apprehensive that my water had broken, since it essentially started a clock on getting baby into the world. My birth wish was to labor at home as long possible and give birth without any pain medication or Pitocin, but with broken water you can only wait so long before you have to speed things up due to the risk of infection. How long exactly is up for debate, but according to my doctor they want you to come into labor & delivery immediately. If I didn’t start contractions soon I’d need to be induced, but for some reason I wasn’t worried. I had a feeling that Zelda had it figured out.

An hour later, around 4:30 am, I started feeling contractions. Thank goodness. Now I get to describe what labor feels like! Oh, goodie. If you’re like me, I was dying to know. At this stage, contractions felt like totally manageable waves of intense menstrual cramps. With some deep breaths I could talk and laugh through them. At 5:00 am Brad called the hospital to see what they wanted us to do, since my water had broken. I knew they’d tell us to come in; that was their policy. Sure enough, the nurse told Brad to get our things together and come in right away. Sigh. Okay. We took our time gathering our things and headed out the door at 6:30 am to go to the hospital. So much for laboring at home as long as possible. Little did I know, however, it was a blessing in disguise. If we’d waited longer, it would have been one ugly car ride, maybe one that involved the birthing of a baby. My body and Zelda were ready and raring to go.

I’d imagined that the car ride to the hospital would be excruciating, thinking I’d be much further along in labor, but this was quite pleasant. Brad and I couldn’t contain our disbelief and excitement. We counted my contractions. We talked about, things. I can’t remember what, though, but I know there were things talked about. Probably involved the wonder of bringing a human into the world. I wasn’t in horrible pain. It was fun. I was having fun. Hilarious.

We arrived at the hospital around 7:00 am. The triage nurse greeted me.

“You been better?” she asked.

“No, actually, I’m really excited,” I replied.

I was. I’d always been as curious about labor and delivery as I’d been about pregnancy and motherhood, and now here I was; I was about to find out. The nurse gave me a smile like she knew what I was in for even if I didn’t. (She was right.) They admitted me ,and soon I had my own room with my own pair of awesome nurses and it sort of felt like I’d checked into a hotel. One of those weird ones that monitors your food and makes you do activities.

My contractions, which at home were about 6 minutes apart, had already picked up to 2-3 minutes apart and it was only 10:00 am.

Tips for mimicking a home birth while laboring in the hospital. Essential oil diffuser, speaker and playlists queued up, things that you can touch that feel like comfort. In my case I brought my sketch book, pencils, and Kindle. I knew I wouldn’t really want to draw or read, but having them there comforted me. Oh, and snacks. If the hospital’s policy is to not allow you to eat, ignore them. Sneak in snacks. I didn’t eat much, but a handful of cashews when my energy dipped was a lifesaver.

Contractions got more intense as time passed quickly. They still felt like menstrual cramps, but with the added sensation that I was being squeezed around the lower abdomen by a belt that had been lit on fire. Still manageable though. I was able to walk around, lean against the wall, squat, and my favorite coping technique at this point was to essentially slow dance with my husband. I swayed to some new age music, leaned into him and vocalized. My Linklater voice training came in so handy at this point. Lots of deep, humm mumm mumm maaas. Thanks, Boston University.

Before you think my labor story sounds like a smug fairytale, don’t worry, I’m getting to the good stuff. The truth, though, was that everything up until this point really had been incredibly pleasant and manageable. The pain was indeed painful, but what I read was true, it triggered a steady rush of endorphins that made me feel a bit drunk on love.

At noon everything changed.

You know the library ghost in Ghostbusters? How she looks all peaceful and harmless?

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To look at her you think, “Hey, ghosts aren’t so bad.” And then you get a little too close and she turns into this, and all hell breaks loose.

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Yeah, it was like that. It’s called Transition.

I’d read about it. We learned about it in our childbirth prep class. Transition would be the time I’d want to give up, but it also meant I was so close to pushing that if I could manage my way through transition I could most likely make it through labor without intervention. It was all true. Still, nothing could have prepared me for that kind of pain. Nothing. Nuh. Thing.

Let me take a step back. At about 11:30 am my contractions had gotten pretty intense and close together—about one minute apart, sometimes coming in double and triple waves. I was having a hard time catching my breath and apparently so was Zelda. Suddenly about six or seven doctors and nurses rushed into the room, prepping equipment and looking nervous. I was a bit out of it but I knew it wasn’t good. A calm but firm OB came up to me and Brad and told us that the baby’s heart rate had dropped and wasn’t coming back up like it should. They needed to see the heart rate come up immediately, so I had to get in bed and be put on oxygen and hooked up to all kinds of monitors. I wasn’t made nervous by the sudden frenzy. Either I knew that Zelda and I would work it out, or I was just too distracted by pain to clock the gravity of the situation.

I got in bed like a good patient. They put a fetal monitor directly into the birth canal, the kind that screws into the baby’s skull. Poor baby. They gave me oxygen which actually was quite pleasant, and it seemed that in short order Zelda’s heart rate improved. The doctors cleared the room, but with strict orders that I’d have to stay in bed and could no longer move around at will. I feel strongly that this confinement increased the pain of transition. Perhaps more than any other time during labor, the transition phase is when it’s most crucial to be able to change position, get in the shower, lean on a birthing ball, whatever. But I was stuck in bed, laying on my side and doing whatever I could to survive the pain from that position.

How can I describe it? At this point I can’t remember it, thank God, but I do remember my reaction to it. I remember feeling like I was being sawed in half. A cramp would start in my midsection and then radiate throughout my whole body until I was no longer in control, the contraction was in control. It was like every inch of my insides was being wringed like wet laundry. I had to scream. I wanted to throw up, not because I was nauseous but because it felt like whatever was inside of me was going to be squeezed out whether I liked it or not. I tried to breathe through it, vocalize through it, even kick my legs up in the air like I was in a Jazzercise class, (that’s actually pretty much the only thing that helped) but ultimately there was no match for this adversary. The contractions were kicking my butt. Physically I couldn’t quell the pain, so I tried to do so mentally. Sometimes I focused on the pain, intensely. Sometimes I tried to distract myself by focusing on something else. The most effective mental trick seemed to be to focus on it so intensely that eventually I began to disassociate the pain from myself. I remember repeating the mantra in my head, “I’m being sawed in half. It’s okay. I’m being sawed in half.” For some reason, it helped. Other images that came to mind at the time were the end of Braveheart when William Wallace is disemboweled. That felt about right. Also The Exorcist.

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I’m telling you guys, it was intense. It felt like, this cannot be a good thing. It felt like I was being broken—like I was going to die. My plan was to forego an epidural or any other drug. Brad and I had made a pact going into labor that if I asked for the epidural four times, he’d get the doctor to administer it, but before that he would try to talk me out of it by getting me to change position, giving me a massage, getting me in the shower, etc. Being confined to the bed, experiencing William Wallace torture pain? I begged for that epidural four times in quick succession. I knew that I was in transition, which meant that I knew I was close and should try to push through, but at the time the thought of surviving that pain for even ten minutes, one minute . . . I couldn’t do it. Let me rephrase that. I couldn’t imagine doing it, but doing it is exactly what I did.

At this point my designated nurses had been called to another delivery. The hospital was experiencing an unprecedented number of deliveries all at once, and no it wasn’t a full moon, just an auspicious Thursday. So when I finally begged for the epidural for the fifth time, my mom went to find a nurse, and since mine were otherwise occupied a new nurse came into the room to help me. Her name was Chanelle, and she was not a human but an angel. Something about her just calmed me immediately. She was real with me. She said the anesthesiologist was giving someone else an epidural (all those deliveries) and wouldn’t be ready for me for at least thirty minutes. I wanted to die. She offered me analgesics (loopy drugs) but she was straight with me and said, “Look, I can give you these and they may help, but they may not. And they’re going to make you sleepy and your baby sleepy and you’ll still be in pain, but you’ll be sleepy.” I knew going in that I didn’t want analgesics, especially this late into labor, and thanks to her candor I did not cave. At this point I just wanted Chanelle to stay by my bed and hold my hand.

I asked her if she could check me again to see how close I was. She didn’t want to because my water had broken and they avoid going up there to decrease any risk of infection. But I desperately wanted to know how much longer I was to suffer. So I was sneaky. I asked her how we would know when it was time to push, and Chanelle said I would feel an overwhelming need. Like I couldn’t not push. I’d heard this from other women, but so far I only felt the need to push a little bit. It was certainly not overwhelming. I was desperate to move out of transition though, so I lied a little bit and said, “Yes! I need to push!” Chanelle agreed to check me when I said that, and sure enough I was fully dilated and effaced. I knew it. No need for an epidural. They cancelled the anesthesiologist. Thank you, Jesus! Chanelle went to tell my designated nurses that it was pushing time and in short order they were back in the room with me. Chanelle, I didn’t get to see you again after that except for a brief thank you in the hallway as they wheeled me to post-partum. If by some fluke you ever read this, you are the angel that got me through transition. Your candor and your warm, straightforward energy, saved me. Thank you!

What can I say about pushing? It hurt but nothing like transition. I was so relieved to be out of that phase, like giddy relieved. I was talking again and even cracking jokes. I was glad to have an objective, something actionable to do besides just survive. It was nice to feel engaged, but yeah, it did hurt. The nurses had me push during contractions, which is the most effective thing to do but it’s quite uncomfortable. It felt to me as if I had a really bad bruise on my insides, and when I’d push it was as if someone was kneading into that bruise with all their might. Unpleasant, but manageable. Mostly it was exhausting.

My God it was exhausting. I pushed for three hours! Most of my labor progressed really quickly, except for this part. I don’t think most women push for that long. Maybe the pain was preventing me from pushing as hard as I could have, or maybe I was just exhausted from transition, or maybe I was a little scared that I was about to meet my little human, but for whatever reason my body did not respond quickly to pushing her out. Three hours. I pushed in many different positions. On all fours. Squatting. All the positions I’d read about in Ina May to let gravity help get the baby out. Ironically, the most comfortable position really was on my back. So there you go. It’s not only for the convenience of the doctors.

Brad, my mom, and the nurses were so encouraging and cheered me on as her little head made its way down the birth canal. At one point they got me a mirror so I could see her. Whoa. That was wild. First of all, because my lady parts did not look like my lady parts, and secondly because, whoa, there’s a human head. The mirror was cool, but I had them take it away because it actually messed with my mind. When I’d push, I thought I was making a lot of progress getting her out, but then I’d look in the mirror and still only see a tiny peek of her head and feel defeated. I preferred to close my eyes and envision her whole head popping out.

And eventually it did! Despite my pleas for the nurse to grab her by her tuft of hair and yank her out, or get a little lasso around her tummy and pull, I was in fact the one that pushed her out. At about 3:30 pm the nurses brought in a table with a bunch of medical equipment and a bright light, and then the midwife walked in and I knew that meant I was close. The OB or midwife only shows up when it’s time to catch the baby, and my midwife was here! Hurray! About three rounds of pushing later and crowning was happening. The midwife abruptly told me to stop pushing because I was tearing, and then told me to cough. I coughed my baby out. Oh, and the whole tearing thing? I didn’t feel it, at all. In fact, pushing Zelda out was completely painless. Not sure if that was all the natural endorphins rushing through me, or my body just numbed itself, but I really didn’t feel it. No ring of fire, nothing but excitement and sweet relief and a fair amount of pressure. I coughed and coughed, and out pops her head. To get the rest of her out the midwife had me blow like I was blowing out birthday candles. The rest of her, shoulders and everything else, squirmed out and it felt super weird. Not painful, but not numb. I could really feel this living thing wriggling out of me, and it was absolutely amazing.

I was completely overwhelmed with relief as the midwife pulled her out and placed her on my chest. I moaned louder than any orgasm I’ve ever had, so I guess that’s why they say childbirth can be orgasmic. It’s really just overwhelming, mind-blowing, universe-expanding relief.

And then there was this person on me, and my entire world shifted. They suctioned her nose and there was her first cry, like an entirely new sound had been invented in a split second. A new color that had never been seen before burst into existence. A new element for the table. My Zelda. My perfect baby. I held her to my chest and marveled at her pinkness, her warmth, the way she felt both stiff and squishy. Her hands. Those perfect hands. Nothing had ever been so perfect as those hands.

I wept, and told my Mom how much I loved her, and told Brad how much I loved him, and how grateful I was for their help. They truly were amazing coaches. Brad, you are my rock and my foundation, and you have a future as a doula if you ever want a career change. I was in awe of you, but also knew the role would suit you like a glove.

I kept saying to my mom, my husband, the nurses, God, whoever would listen, I cried over and over again how much I loved my baby. “I love her. I love her so much,” I said. I didn’t even see her face until several minutes later because of how she was placed on my chest for skin to skin. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need to see her face. I felt her warmth and the beat of her heart, and I knew everything about her instantly, and I loved her with enough power to create a new universe.

I caressed her back and sunk into the euphoria of the moment, smiling as the midwife stitched up my vagina. She kept trying to warn me about little pricks of pain here and there and I almost laughed. She could’ve done anything down there and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. One, because childbirth, and two because I was so drunk on love hormones and endorphins, I couldn’t feel pain if I wanted to.

Zelda is now three months old, and every day I get to know her a little bit better, all the while grappling with the paradox that I knew her all along. There is such a thing as love at first sight. And first smell. And first touch. I am a warrior, and I have been charged with protecting a most precious soul. I will stay at my post no matter the circumstances. My life now has purpose, for what can be more purposeful than complete and perfect love? My baby is in the world now. Zelda, whom I loved instantly.

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A Familiar Beast

I have questions about rejection. I do hope you’ll bite and share your thoughts in the comments. As a student of the arts, I met rejection at a young age. I’ll never forget silently weeping in the back seat of our car when I found out that I wasn’t cast as a Von Trapp child in The Sound of Music when I was 12 years old. I was relegated to the chorus of nuns—or, rather, novices. Not even a full-fledged nun. The dealer of rejection in that instance was the director, aka my mom. I don’t blame her. She was my director and she made the best casting decision for the show. In hindsight that was a very important lesson for me to learn as an artist; nothing has ever been handed to me. But yeah, rejection was personal from early on.

We’re told repeatedly that rejection is an unavoidable element of our artistic lives, like a smelly beast with whom we must learn to live. I get it, but man, some days that beast is smellier than others. On those days I stop and ask myself in earnest, why? Why am I doing this? Will the glimmers of success or artistic satisfaction make the years of rejection bearable? I mean really, this is haaaarrrd. Will it be worth it? I don’t know the answer, but I theorize that even with “success” the beast will not leave me alone. I imagine it will change shape, change color, change smells, but the rejection will continue at every level in different forms, won’t it? In the form of bad reviews, higher stakes losses, chronic self-doubt, disappointing second novels, etc. So why? Why the torment?

Then I started asking more questions. Is this beast unique to the arts? Is there something about artistic fields that lend themselves to more rejection? Or does rejection exist equally elsewhere? Do my friends in STEM fields, or law, academia, business, entrepreneurs—do you experience the same frequency of rejection as my friends in theatre, film, TV, visual art, music, publishing? Are you as well-acquainted with the beast? Maybe you’re just better at keeping him on a leash. I’m genuinely curious because I’ve been so entrenched in the arts for so long that I fear my field of vision has become quite narrow. I also want to feel less alone. I want affirmation that I should not abandon my art for another path because a new beast will in fact be waiting for me on the “easier” roads. Is that true? Or is there a less painful but equally gratifying way to walk through life other than that of a perpetually rejected artist? My non-artist friends, enlighten me.

He shouts and hogs the bed. He never bathes. His claws are sharp. No I’m not talking about Brad! Brad is an angel and takes very good care of his nails. It’s the beast. My invisible housemate. On the other side of my horrible beast is a tiny promise of glory. Is it real? A trick? If it’s not a trick, is it worth it? I don’t know, but beasty and I know each other so well at this point, even without the taste of glory . . . I’d probably miss him. And that, my friends, is the true madness of the arts.

 

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