Schrodinger’s cat for writers

Melinda's cat

So I mentioned that I currently have work out for submission. This is a good place for a writer to be because it means I’m getting my work out there. I try to be in this place as much as possible. If you are a writer, you should be doing this too. (Go us!)

But the unavoidable truth about being in this place, I suppose for all writers or anyone waiting to find out any kind of results, is that you think about it a lot. You try to ignore it, but at the same time can’t help wondering, with stars in your eyes, What if I actually won? How cool would that be? 

It’s always fun to dream, but dreaming also makes you aware that the results could come at any minute. In my case, one contest I sent something to said they’d respond in January. Well, it’s January 28 today, and there’s not much month left. I know this state where I haven’t won or lost, where I am both a winner and a loser, is short-lived.

So, I’m trying to live in the moment right now. Trying not to think about it. If you need me, I will be checking my e-mail and trying not to check my e-mail.

How does your cat feel about writing?

TRI-X Pan; an ode to film photography

TRI-X Pan blur

In 1998, pictures were made by exposing sensitive film to light, triggering a chemical reaction that burned the image, in a somewhat precarious state, onto the film. It was my senior year at Black River High School and I remember sitting slumped in the plastic seat watching Mr. Shaffer, my art teacher, discuss images of early American photography that he’d projected from slides on the wall of our darkened classroom. Mr. Shaffer was a middle-aged bearded man who always dressed in khakis, an oxford shirt, and a dignified tie. He had a respectful and unobtrusive manner that was difficult not to like, even for an apathetic teenager. As he clicked through the slides, I thought about how fantastic it was to look at pictures of real people who had lives and accomplishments long before I was born. And I liked what it meant for people to be able to take and share pictures of their lives.

At this point in my high school career, I was more interested in sleeping and smoking cigarettes in the parking lot than in doing homework and paying attention in class. I was ready to get the hell out of there. But I liked the idea of photography class; it was playing with light. I remember taking dutiful notes.

Mr. Shaffer demonstrated how to load a roll of film–he recommended TRI-X Pan–into the back of the SLR camera. He showed us how to adjust the aperture. We talked about film speed, lighting, and shooting conditions. He showed us how to use the light meter to make sure the numbers we’d chosen would give us the picture we wanted. And then he led us around the school to take pictures.

Taking pictures in this manner, it turned out, wasn’t as easy as Mr. Shaffer made it look. And then getting those pictures from the roll of film without ruining it by exposing it to light meant working with our hands obscured inside a special bag with arm holes to remove the film from the roll, wind it onto a spool (making sure it’s not touching itself anywhere), and place it in a canister where it was safe from the light. We used various timed chemical washes to fix those images on the film. Mr. Shaffer made us contact sheets from the negatives, which we viewed through a magnifying glass to decide which images to make into larger prints. Only after all of this did we enter what turned out to be my favorite place in the entire school: the darkroom.

red scale blur

The sturdy cement walls blocked out sound and light, and the air was tinged with the faint the faint chemical smell of processing film. But the darkroom wasn’t easy either. Making prints required a keen eye in the red light to focus the projector, and I can’t see that well. The exposure had to be timed in seconds, then after a few more timed baths, the image appeared and remained fixed in light. And it turns out I’m not that great at timing things either. (I also struggle in kitchens and chemistry labs.)

As much as I loved looking at pictures by Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans, each step in the film photography process, I realized while floundering to remember and execute, was an opportunity to make a mistake. Film photography was hard.

One day, after succeeding passably at all the steps, I produced an image of a still life for one of Mr. Shaffer’s assignments. The exercise was to photograph something in which a black object appeared lighter than a white object. Playing with light. And I was thrilled that I’d succeeded at creating such a simple illusion because I’d pretty much messed up every other picture I tried to make in the whole class. Anyways, Mr. Shaffer gave me his critique, which was always delivered with care and encouragement. He was pleased that I’d manipulated the light successfully, but he said, “It’s a little out of focus, though.” He stopped there for a moment and looked me in the eyes, perhaps wondering if they worked. Then he said, “You can work on that.”

I looked at my picture of the black fabric and white styrofoam ball and saw then the blurriness I hadn’t previously noticed. Maybe I chose not to notice. But in that moment, looking at Mr. Shaffer’s kind face and Windsor knot, and then looking back at my picture, I didn’t care. After everything I’d done to produce the picture, the result of so many chemical reactions, I still appreciated the results despite the mistakes. It sill looked kind of cool, and Mr. Shaffer gave me a B+.

This is what I think about today, in 2015, when I use my thumb to snap a picture on my iPhone, which automatically reads the light, and use an app to apply a filter that makes it look more like film. It’s delightful in it’s simplicity, but not quite the same. A whole different art form in a way. My early, humbling experiences with film photography are probably why I still find such joy in looking at film pictures. Maybe it’s all those chemical reactions. I like to think Mr. Shaffer would be pleased to know, I’m still working on it today. And I still love the potential of a fresh roll of TRI-X Pan.

Now it’s your turn! Commenting means a little part of you also misses film photography, or 1998.

Funny wild animal memes

Raise your hand if you love a funny wild animal meme! This post is for you.

1. The happiest alligator in the swamp.

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2. The Shakespeare bear.

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3. Otters in ‘Nam.

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4. I needed this…

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5. Koala word play.

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6. Doggie door hazards.

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7. Sinister bear.

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8. I don’t know why this one makes me laugh so hard.

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9. Run!

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10. Penguin drama.

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11. Indifferent hunger.

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12. Hippopotamus girlfriends.

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13. We need to talk…

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14. Things aren’t going as planned.

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15. This guy should go back inside and call it a day.

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16. Squirrel interruption.

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17. The honest raccoon.

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18. Silly kitty.

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19. That will do it.

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20. And last, but not least, my favorite: the concerned shark.

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Oh, the internet is so fun. Which one was your favorite? Do you have one to share?

9 reasons to go take a walk

My grandparents taught me how to take walks. My brother and I spent a week or so with them in Belpre, Ohio, every summer as kids and we took at least two walks a day. My grandpa would walk us to the diner in the morning for breakfast, where I’d eat eggs over-medium and toast with jelly, and then we’d walk home when we were done. After lunch, we’d take a quick jaunt around the neighborhood, often accompanied by my grandmother. When we needed something to do to pass the late afternoon hours, my brother and I would walk the placid streets, lined with brick ranch-style houses built in the sixties and seventies, or we’d follow the rusted railroad tracks for blocks. Walking was our primary mode of transportation as well as our source of entertainment.

9 reasons to take a walk

I never gave walking much thought as a kid, except that I liked it, especially at my grandparents’ house because their neighborhood had sidewalks (mine had corn fields). Now, as a person who spends her working life sitting in front of a computer, I have to think about taking care of myself. And when I think of all the good and bad habits I’ve acquired and let slip over the years, walking is one of my favorites for the following reasons.

1. Fresh air. Sunlight. The great outdoors. I’m lucky because I have sidewalks and a partially wooded walking trail nearby, so part of the way is like walking in the woods.

2. Walking is a way for desk people like me to get much-needed exercise. I like being active, but I’m not really a workout person. Every time I get a gym membership, I don’t go often enough to make it feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.  And as much as I admire the idea, I can never get the breathing right when I try to run. But I can walk long and far. I can walk (and have) for days. I started walking my dog every day in college and lost weight that I’d been fighting with since I was fourteen. As long as I take walks, my jeans fit. I’ll take it!

3. It makes you smarter. Walking and thinking go hand-in-hand. Exercise in general promotes brain health, and your walk is the perfect time for letting your thoughts wander and your mind clear. Focus on your breathing; feel the solid earth under your feet; look up at the sky; acknowledge your thoughts and then let them go. Ahhh.

4. The human body evolved to walk. Moving at about 3 miles per hour, we can cover great distances, a skill that has served us well over the millennia. Sometimes when I’m out there, feeling the rhythm of my feet on the ground and inhaling the air into my lungs, I feel connected to, not only my grandparents, but my way-back, prehistoric ancestors as well.

5. Sometimes you see really cool stuff. Yesterday, for example, I saw a pair of hooded mergansers and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

6. It’s relaxing. When I’m frustrated or anxious or feeling creatively incapable, the best way to make it all go away is take a walk.

7. It’s a good way to keep an eye on things around the neighborhood (which is code for being nosy). I learned the art of neighborhood gossip from my grandma, who loved to be in the know. And it’s a skill I’ve learned to appreciate in adulthood because keeping an eye out gives me something to talk about with my neighbors.

8. You can listen to whatever you want, like a podcast or an audiobook or great music. Yesterday I listened to the first half of the Black Keys’ Brothers and the first half of the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World. Good stuff when you want to drown out the traffic sounds.

9. Walking wears out the kids. This, my dear reader, is what killing two birds with one stone is all about. Walking is exercise and a kid-friendly activity at the same time. After doing this mom thing for nine years, my most important piece of parenting advice is this: wear them out. You may have to leave the iPod at home, but your little ones will return from your journey calm and weary.

Now, if you will excuse me, baby girl has started doing destructive, off-limits things–like breaking open my ribbon box and pulling papers out of my file drawer–to get my attention. The sidewalk calls.

A day in this mom’s writing life

It’s 3:20 a.m. and baby girl is awake and yelling for me. After putting her back to bed twice, we’re officially up at 4:37 and I’m standing barefoot on the cold tile floor and making coffee.

writer mom

At 5:15 both little ones are up and I have turned on Dragon Tales (thank you, Netflix). I’m curled up with them on the couch. I’m on my iPhone scrolling for something to read. I find: this, this, this, and this.

By 6:09, the kids are climbing all over me and the couch is no longer a bed-like haven, but a crowded tangle of blankets, dry cereal, and little hands that can’t keep to themselves. Dragon Tales is no longer working. So I’m off the couch, pouring my second cup of coffee, and starting to get a handle on the day.

At 7:41 I’m dressed, with eyeliner on (I’m doing better than I was yesterday). Breakfast of raisin toast has been served. My eldest’s lunch is packed. I started the daily load of laundry, swept the cat litter off the floor, made my to-do list, put a kid on timeout, and cleaned the pots that I didn’t have the energy to scrub last night after dinner.

Matt takes Myron to school on his way to work. By 8:27 I have cleaned my desk somewhat and dug out the dress-up clothes for the kids, which they’ve spread across the living room. The best thing about Tuesdays and Thursdays (the days my middle kiddo doesn’t go to preschool) is that they sometimes play nice and watch television for an hour or two in the morning, allowing me to get some work done. I am starting that work now.

At 9:25 I sit back to gaze at my word count for the morning: 627 words. This is a good thing. Then, as if the gods of productivity were fucking me, my computer freezes up on the words I haven’t saved. A shock of panic runs through me. I click frantically. Nothing happens. More frantic clicking, accompanied by plenty of hushed swearing. Still nothing. For a second I consider handwriting what I can see on my computer screen, but then I quickly dismiss that because I’m too lazy. Instead, I take the risk and restart. After a few tense minutes of waiting, my computer is back to life and seems to be working fine. I click to open Word–the moment of truth–and get a positive sign. Do I want to recover the document? Yes I do. And then there they are, my words, all 627 present and accounted for. Thank you, gods of productivity. I am sorry about what I said earlier and I promise to save more frequently. Thrilled, I keep writing.

By 9:51 tension is building between the little ones, attention is needed, so writing time is over. But I save and close with 1,011 new words for the day, which is decent. I feel like I’ve accomplished something.

It’s raining a fine mist, so taking a walk, which I try to do every day, will have to wait. But I still need to do something to wear the kids out. Errands. By 10:45, the dress-up clothes are picked up, all the regular clothes the kids have shed throughout the morning are back on their bodies, and we’re heading for the library.

After a mad dash to pile as many books in the stroller as possible and banging on the keys of the children’s computers at the library, we leave and head to Publix. Taking the kids to the store can be a challenge, but it’s one of those chores I usually do with them because I prefer to use my kid-free time to write or read or drink beer with friends. So, I make good lists, strap them both into one of those carts that are designed for women who have so many children they don’t know what to do, shop quickly, and try to resist the urge to scream at them when they can’t keep their hands off each other. (No screaming! Today my self control feels boundless.) At 1:17, we’re done at Publix and heading home for lunch.

Groceries are unloaded, lunch of peanut butter and jelly is served, and at 2:12, the two little ones are down for their nap. After wiggling out from under the smallest, I am confronting the next big task on my list: trying to figure out how to organize my CV. As I start looking at other creative writers’ CVs, it’s pretty clear this is going to turn into an exercise of self-loathing and asking myself, “Melinda, what the hell have you been doing for the past ten years?” I spend the next hour doing this, then Matt comes home to relieve me from little-one duty and I go pick up the eldest from school, a task that today includes going to the PTO meeting.

It’s been drizzling all day. I listen to Weezer’s Maladroit while waiting in the after-school traffic. (I found this CD, which I’d kind of forgotten I had, when I cleaned out the cabinet for random things on my desk on New Year’s Day. I have been listening to it almost every day since!) When I park and enter the school, I find that the PTO meeting has been cancelled (the unexpected gift of time!) and take my kid home. It’s 4:00 and I go back to the CV. I start making headway, power through the self-hatred, and don’t stop before dinner, except to check my e-mail, something I miraculously have managed not to do since pre-dawn. I have work out for submission, which makes me nervous because I should hear any day now, and so I seem to swing between compulsive e-mail checking and total e-mail ignoring. Today it’s just ads.

Matt made dinner: quesadillas, which we all sit down to eat, in the usual circus fashion, at 5:45. After dinner, Matt takes the kids upstairs for their baths, I read a few pieces from the publications I wish I’d been pitching for the past five years and, Google “how to build CV,” but don’t find anything that will make me look more successful than I am. I realize that I can’t really feel bad about having so few publishing credits if I’ve only given a half-assed effort to get my work out there. I make a note in my planner to look for more markets for my writing. Tomorrow. I decide not to drink a beer. Then I fold the laundry I didn’t get to earlier.

7:53 and it’s almost bedtime. Not that I’m counting down the minutes or anything. Little girl and I read Olivia Measures Up four times. I let the little kids climb all over me until they go to bed at 8, and then I hang out with the eldest until he goes to bed at 8:30. Then I finish the dishes, straighten up the kitchen, and do all the other boring little things that get me ready for morning and keep the house from falling into chaos.

By 9:13, I am in bed, my eyeliner has been haphazardly washed from my face, and my teeth are brushed. I do not intend to fall asleep this early; I intend to read fifty pages of the book I started the other day. But I have a habit of falling asleep in my books. I’m not sure why.