Thursday, January 21, 2010

Making the American Dream

The day has finally come and it has been a long time coming. This week my 200th book review for Authorlink was posted.

I started work for Authorlink as a horror book reviewer in August 2002 and quickly branched out to all genres and nonfiction. What can I say? I'm a voracious reader. In the years between 2002 and 2007, I reviewed a few books each year, but then went into over driver in 2007 and most of the books I've read and reviewed fell between 2007 and now. Last year I read and reviewed 44 books, 68 the year before. Last year was a slow year and that total does not include the books I read for pleasure or books I reviewed that came to me directly, and there were a lot of those. I keep the files, but I don't keep track of the numbers on a monthly basis. No need, except for times like this when a hallmark has been reached, like 200 reviews. Time to hit up the boss for a raise.

Since being off work this week to lower my stress levels and take it easy so my back doesn't seize up on me any more, I find that strange thoughts traipse through my mind at all hours of the day and night, although I have been sleeping better (got a whole uninterrupted six hours last night). Last night, I couldn't get Snoqualmie out of my head, and Snohomish followed closely behind in lock-step. Neither word, names of cities in Washington state, had anything to do with the movies I watched, the books I read (I'm reading three right now) or the stories I tinkered with. Two random words that seemed to come from someone else's head and wandered through mine. I did find them on someone else's journal this morning, but it makes sense; she lives in Washington and visited Snoqualmie recently. I didn't. It's not the only strange occurrence recently.

Uncle Bob called me yesterday -- I was asleep at the time -- and left me a message. He received (finally) the box of books I sent and had sent the book meant for someone else to them that day, having received his copy from North Carolina that morning. He called to tell me I owe Mom royalties on my story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family, the one I wrote about my ex-husband's mother who was late for her own funeral. It was called "On Esther Time". "Sounds just like Annabelle (Mom's middle name and one she despises), except for the dead part," he said.

"No," I agreed, "she not dead yet."

He really enjoyed the story and, he reminded me, even though he doesn't read fiction, he's going to read my novel and give me some pointers about romance and sex. I can't wait. Yes, I want to hear about sex from my uncle. Ewwww. He's kidding. I hope he's kidding.

As we usually do, Uncle Bob and I ended up talking about life and being happy. He asked me if I was going to get strange when I'm rich and famous and start wearing necklaces and rings on all my fingers and toes and bracelets covering my arms. "No, Uncle Bob, that's just not me. I have one necklace I wear all the time. I'm not a big fan of wearing jewelry." He was talking about Mom and Hoity-Toity, both of whom would cover every square centimeter of their bodies in jewels, gold, platinum and silver (if they can't get gold and platinum) if they could afford it. I think of them as dragons wearing their hoards. That's good then," he said. "But you're happy." It wasn't quite a question, more of a cautious statement. "Yes, I'm happy. Not as happy as if I could write full time and not have to work (except for this week and my upcoming vacation), but happy."

"That's good. Thats good." He seemed pleased with my answer and he said he never doubted I would keep my head on straight. It made me wonder if he was happy and if he'd spent his life doing what he loved.

"When I started in the machine shop, I hated it. Didn't want to get up every morning and go into work, but I had a family to feed and clothe. Took me a while to get my mind right. I didn't have much education and it was a good job, so I decided to get my mind right. Then I looked forward to going to work."

"Would you rather have rehabbed houses for a living?"

"No, that's just another part time job with a different boss." He meant his wife, Aunt Lois.

"So, you don't like taking old houses and making them look good?"

"Not really."

The more we talked, the more I realized just how amazing my uncle is. He came from a wealthy family who had everything during the Depression when most people had nothing. He decided to make it on his own and, after one hitch in the Air Force, which he didn't like, he got a job in Columbus in a machine shop. He owned a house, a little two-bedroom stucco ranch on five acres out in the country north of Columbus, but not much else. He worked on cars and did all his own maintenance and he put in a huge garden on the five acres every year that was canned and frozen for the coming year until new crops could be sown and harvested. His house was right across the road from a dairy farm and he got all his milk in milk cans fresh from the cow. I can still remember Uncle Bob sitting in a chair in the kitchen and talking while he shook a car full of cream until it became butter and the smell of fresh milk every morning when we took the lid off the milk can.

My uncle took that little house and turned it from a pink stucco block into a wooden dream house with four bedrooms, a finished basement, a three-car garage and a breezeway he sold for ten times what he paid for it in the 1950s. He sold that house and bought a rundown farm that he rehabbed into a beautiful home, sold it at a profit, bought another farm house, rehabbed it, sold it for a huge profit and built the house he always wanted just across the road from where he started. He had 30 acres and a much bigger garden yielding even more food to be canned and frozen for the coming year. He's added to his real estate binges with a house on Lake Erie he sold to his oldest daughter Laura, a house on the Muskingum River and several houses in Florida, one of which was on Pine Island opposite Sanibel in the Gulf. He's slowing down and now has only three houses: the house he built, a house on the Muskingum River and a little place in Florida on the Gulf. He loves to fish.

He told me if he had to do it all over again, he'd buy old house, rehab them and flip them, taking the profit to buy, rehab and flip more properties. He has the magic touch with building, construction and carpentry and Aunt Lois is a talented decorator. "I wouldn't put so much work into a house to flip, not like I put into my own homes," he said. He puts a lot of love and work into each of the houses he's owned and rescued from entropy and age. You should've seen the first old farm house he renovated. It was a dump, and it was worlds away from five kids and two cousins sharing the same bath water every night.

Uncle Bob's happiest moments are when tax time rolls around and he owes the government money. "It means I made lots of money that year and I look forward to paying." It's not a popular thought, certainly not in these political times when everyone wants the rich to pay to carry the rest of the country who are less fortunate. By those standards, my uncle is very rich; he's in the top 10% of the country in terms of earnings -- and he's retired. He's rich in other ways, too. He has a huge family he loves and cares for and a life that continues to include his gardens and rehabbing and travel from Columbus to the river to Florida and back in his yearly circuit, and he still pays taxes with a big smile every year.

When I think of the American Dream, I don't think of wealth and owning a home, but happiness. For my uncle that happiness is in work, hard work, and paying taxes, raising his family and enjoying what he does. That's the American Dream for me -- enjoying what I do. I enjoy writing and I get to do more of it every year. I'll have to pay taxes this year, too, but, following my uncle's lead, I'm looking forward to it because it means I'm getting closer to my dream -- living on writing alone. I don't need to be wealthy, although I wouldn't turn it down either. I don't need to be famous, although I wouldn't walk away from it as long as I didn't have to make personal appearances. I don't need much, just the freedom to live the way I choose instead of the way I must. In some ways, I am like my uncle. I do my best at the job that pays the bills. I don't like it, but I do get some satisfaction from being at the top of my profession in terms of quality of work. Without this job, I couldn't pursue writing, so I'm glad to have a job that gives me that freedom. I've written over 200 book reviews for one company, hundreds of articles and short stories, edited millions of words and seen my own stories and books published, and all because of a job I didn't choose, but took when it was offered. It's not my dream job, but it's getting me where I want to go, just as being a machinist gave my uncle the money to raise his family and help him pay for the materials to rehab his home, sell it and set him on the path that led him to realize his dreams, and that's what it's all about.

The American Dream is what you make it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Creative Stretching

Movies and books and sleeping, mostly sleeping, have been the shape of my days for a few days now, as happens infrequently when my back decides to go on a slide slip and leaves me with an acute awareness of how things work and don't work -- mostly don't work. I've been out of it for five days due to a bout of muscle spasming and a slight shift of a lower back disc. It happens.

The last time when we left our intrepid adventuring author she was touting the benefits of doing more than sleeping in bed in response to Tim's doctor's claims that a bed is to sleep as floors, counters and other furniture are to sex. That is not to say that Tim, sweet young man that he is, was in any way involved in things to do in bed other than giving me the idea. He'd be a prodigious young man indeed if his talents stretched from New Jersey all the way to Colorado. And, no, the pictures of nether parts my sister sent me were not Tim's but someone she knows very well and has known for y-e-a-r-s, so now you can stop emailing and calling for details. Some details are meant to remain hidden.

I'm in a strange mood today, bouncing from sleep to reading to trying to find a position in which my open mouth does not emit a high pitched scream of sirens bearing down on a stalled car in the middle of the main drag, although sirens were definitely screaming last evening, at least a two-alarm blaze in practice heralded by the thunderous boom of, well, thunder. At least it sounded like thunder. It was probably nothing more than hollow booming echoes from somewhere people were engaged in actual work and not lollygagging around the house in search of comfort and quiet, especially since ear plugs don't deafen the noise of your own screams. There it is, screaming again. If I keep this up, everyone will believe I'm in actual pain, which is not the case at all. As long as I breathe shallowly and don't move too much, I'm fine.

I did have one interesting few hours this weekend when I looked over a friend's novel. As I do whenever I critique a novel and don't have it in a format where I can -- as one friend would have it -- bleed all over the digital page, I keep a pad and pencil at hand to take notes. There was about a page of notes (the usual things: grammar, spelling, extra words, etc.) and a sense at the end of the book that I had been had. The book was good and I've read enough YA novels to know good when I see it -- from my perspective. Intrigue, really good red herrings, memorable characters and a satisfying ending were all there. The big flash is that during the time I read the manuscript I didn't think about my back, except when Nature forced me to rise and attend to the necessities. No doubt the author, a misguided soul who actually reads this blog, will be surprised to see his experience sandwiched between the mundane daily maunderings and sirens screaming. He shouldn't be. After all this time, he should have figured out I only mention things and people worth mentioning. He's one of them.

In the course of writing I often change the names of the guilty and the innocent just to keep things even, but the stories are all about people I actually know or have known, and I have known a lot of people. Comes with the territory when you've traveled as much as I have over the past nearly fifty-five years. I'm not shy -- never have been -- about approaching people and talking to strangers. It was one of the things that worried my parents most when I was a child. I didn't understand that stranger didn't mean potential acquaintance and possibly friend. I'm still indiscriminate that way. I talk to anyone and anyone talks to me.

For instance, this morning a young man (I say young, although I don't really know, because most people seem young to me these days) contacted me about what kind of radio he should buy starting out as a newly licensed amateur radio operator. He had some very strange ideas about power, believing that it isn't possible to reach someone across the country, let alone across the world, without a big rig -- radiowise, of course. I yanked that idea out from under him and gave him the name of a reputable ham radio operator who has proven that you can reach anywhere in the world on 5 watts of power and a long piece of wire. He's pretty amazing that way. I also explained, in my capacity as team contact, that he could talk to old and grizzled professionals at the exam session next month who would be glad to talk first radios and their attributes and drawbacks. I could practically see the glow in his words and on his face when he thanked me. That's me, a fount of trivia and information, none of which is trivial.

Since pain has a tendency to make it difficult for me to concentrate on editing and writing, I decided to take up pencil and paper and do a little sketching, stretching creative muscles I've not used in over a decade. I was surprised to find my muscles in fairly good shape once I took off the restraints and let go the worry and recognizable human features appeared on the page. I've decided, like many other creative people, that I need more than one medium in which to work in order to remain fresh and creative. Drawing and painting have always provided me with new creative energy and fueled my writing as much as watching people and researching and reading. I've occasionally considered writing a children's book and doing all the art work. Maybe one day I shall. Right now I'm in search of creative fuel and different creative muscles to flex, hence the drawing. Unfortunately, sketching with charcoal and sepia are not enough. I need color, the feel of chalk and brush between my fingers as I play with color. I'm sure there will be knives involved at some point; I can feel the handle in my grip and the joy of slashing through layers of colors to open a gash for the light to pour through. That would be a palette knife for those of you worried I might pick up a carving or butcher's knife.

Music has also been helpful in boosting creativity, and I don't mean just Mozart's brain-boosting rivers and streamlets of skirling notes, but all kinds of music. I do have to draw the line at anything with vocals because I have a tendency to begin singing and that throws off the writing. I reserve vocals for cleaning and chores because I forget how tedious bagging trash, vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing toilets and tiles and other household chores are when I sing.

There are so many creative outlets and most of us tend to choose one and ignore the rest, concentrating on getting it right. It is in the exercise of many different arts that we return refreshed and renewed to our primary art, and for me that's writing. Painting. Drawing. Singing. Dancing.