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Please be warned. If you are going to read this blog, you have to understand that I'm a little bit weird. John Wayne is my internal editor. Grover the Muppet is my internal cheerleader. I know! I know! Weird.
I'm the author of Tips on Having A Gay (ex) Boyfriend (May 2007/Paperback May 2008), Love and Other Uses For Duct Tape (March 2008), Girl, Hero (July 2008), Need (January 2009), Moe Berg's Story (Spring 2009).
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First off, I need a disclaimer: I am not a good person. I screw up all the time. I lose my temper. I make huge mistakes. I am impatient. I ignore people if they use me too much instead of just embracing the fact that at least I am good enough to be used.
And I am writing that disclaimer because I am totally okay with letting everyone know how flawed I am. This blog post isn't about me saying I'm a wonderful person. I know I'm not. I'm just a person. What this blog post is really about is me trying to figure out why people are so afraid of being good, being kind; why so many people rejoice in putting other people down.
So before I went on vacation, I wrote a blog post about the tremendous community response to a fire at a local restaurant that also provided housing upstairs. Link here: http://carriejones.livejournal.com/371399.html
There is no way to go "over the top" when your post is about volunteers and professionals doing dangerous things for others.
Today, a man told me that the post (which reran in our local newspaper) was "over the top" and that it was "schmaltzy."
There was no point in him telling me that. It wasn't good-natured kidding. It wasn't kind. It was meant to make me feel badly.
To make it even better, he then asked me, a writer, if I knew what schmaltz meant.
And I wanted to say, "Yes, it is chicken or goose fat used for frying," but I thought that would be showing off so instead I just tried to joke it off and say, "Yes. I am good at schmaltz."
"That's an oxymoron," he said.
I gave up. I just wanted him to go away.
The thing is, I don't mind being good at being sentimental, which isn't an oxymoron. I'm actually the least sentimental person in my family, not counting my daughter. So, my sentimental threshold is pretty high.
What he saw as schmaltzy, I saw as seeing good in people and applauding them for it. I don't mind acknowledging that while people can suck, that they can also be self-sacrificing and brave and kind. That the drug dealer in the trailer down the street can be the same guy who runs into a burning building to wake everyone up before the fire department comes. And in the case of this specific blog that Mr. I Love to Be Mean was mentioning, I REALLY didn't mind embracing how brave the firefighters in so many communities were that night, or how great the people in our community were about coming together and helping those who were now jobless and homeless.
But that didn't matter to him. What mattered to him was making me feel low. And he did.
The people that I talk about in that post deserve all the kudos they can get. They deserve more kudos that I can hope to give them.
I helped him find his name button (We were at a meeting) and he said, "Well, at least you're good for something."
And I thought for a second, "I am not good for anything."
And I thought for a second, "Why is he so mean? Why does he love hurting other people?"
And I thought for a second, "I must deserve it."
I laughed. As soon as I could, I went into the bathroom and hid for awhile (two minutes) because I didn't feel like I was good enough to be there any more. All the brave in me vanished with his word.
One fireman holds a ladder, surrounded by smoke. Another is on the roof. This man is the support for the other. He will not let go of that ladder until the other guy is down and safe.
But even though I am so far from being a good person, a perfect person, a mistake-free person, I don't deserve random acts of meanness anymore than anyone else does. And he doesn't deserve to be able to do that to me, to other people, to anyone.
Later on when people were eating, and I was going from table to table doing random official duties, he turned to the man next to him and said, "Did you read that bullshit she wrote?"
And I whirled around and spat out, "You need to be nice."
Thrilling, brilliant come-back, I know. And yes, I was shaking. And yes, I finished what I needed to do and left the meeting early. And yes, I am easily hurt and sensitive and all that stuff. I am a big wuss. I am the first to admit it.
The thing is? That "bullshit" that I wrote? That was part of my heart. And he stabbed right through whatever invisible forecefield I might occasionally have and pierced me.
Every time we write or speak honestly about how we see the world, we open ourselves up to hurt. We are vulnerable to the meanness. And that's why it is so much easier to be mean. When you are mean, you build a wall. When you are mean, you can't be vulnerable. When you are mean, you hide, you attack, and you make that first strike because seeing good? Applauding people for their good parts and not just bitching about their bad? That's what makes you vulnerable. You're vulnerable because you open yourself up to the possibility that people can be good, that you can be good, if you try harder, if you love harder, if you care more.
Sometimes when you do that? People who are supposed to exemplify bringing good will and friendship to others (as bode by their club affiliation) will strike at you.
Because the truth is that if you try to see the good in others or your community, you might make others realize how much meanness has clouded their own sight, their own hearts.
If you pride yourself on taking other people down? If you are the type of person who tells others to "toughen up," or who thinks bigotry is funny, or who thinks that seeing good is "schmaltz?" I am sorry for you. I hope some day you can learn to be consistently kind, to others, and to yourself. I hope that you don't spend your life making other people upset, shake, or cry, or just freaking avoid you. Because you are missing out in the good that is in this world, in other people, and even in yourself.
This is what I post around Sept. 11 of every year. I am so sorry if you’ve read it before. A lot of things have changed in my life in 13 years. I went from being a newspaper reporter and city councilor to an editor to unemployed to a novelist. But how I feel about heroes will never change.
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It's hard not to think about September 11 without thinking about loss. That’s how it should be. But I do know that so many heroes that we never hear about worked hard on that day. It's important to remember them too, because they are, I think, what it truly means to be an American and a person.
My uncle, Charlie, who lives in Maplewood, NJ was just across the shore when he saw the plane go into one of the tall towers in New York City. He is over 80. He is a doctor. He was in World War II. He hates war.
He told me when he saw that plane full of people go into that tower full of people he said, "Jesus Christ... Jesus Christ..."
He mumbled it for a second, a prayer, a plea, a name, a hope. He said his heart sank right into the bottom of his feet as he stood there watching. He said like he felt like he stood there on the shore forever. He didn't. He moved after a second. He went right over towards the towers, towards the death and the hurt and the terror and the screaming, and the whole time in his head he kept repeating those words, that name.... Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
He started to help people. He was over 80 breathing in all kinds of horrible things into lungs that were already tired and aged, but that didn't stop him. He'd helped people all his life. He had served his country all his life. Nobody would have thought anything if he had turned around, walked away, got in his car and drove back to Maplewood.
Charlie would have thought something though if he did that.
He could have never done that.
My former father-in-law, Ben, also over 80, is an EMT. He became one when he was 65. After years of being an executive, he wanted to feel like he did something good in his life, something helpful. He was part of the Red Cross disaster team. He went over to the site too, got grit out of people's eyes, helped them breathe, helped them cope.
You ask him what it was like and he shakes his head slowly and says in his deep/hoarse voice, "God, that was an awful scene. Just an awful scene."
Charlie and Ben weren't firemen on duty or police officers like so many heroes that day were. They weren't official first responders. What I love about them is that they made the choice. They chose to go. They chose to help and they didn't give a poop about how old they were, about how many people they'd already helped. They didn't care about the ache in their bones or the fact that both their hearts are starting to fail. They cared about something else. They cared about people. So they went.
They will always be my heroes. They are just two of many, many stories that happened on that day and on others. People can do awful things. We can hurt our loves, bomb each other, scream words of hate, glorify ignorance with bats and cars, ignore a smile of a cashier, be too busy to pay attention to a child. But we can do beautiful things, too. We can love, and heal, we can put other's first, rush to a scene of mayhem, put ourselves in peril on the off chance that we might be able to save a life, get grit out of an eye, give comfort, give a hug. And that... that is what makes people worth it. That is what makes people magic. That is what makes people heroes over and over again. So, I will remember Ben and Charlie and so many others today. I won't ignore the hate and pain and sorrow that happens on Sept. 11 or on any day of war or violence, but I choese to remember the good, too. I choose to remember the heroes.
Normally, I love my town a lot. It's a tiny tourist-focused town in Downeast Maine on the coast. Every year hundreds of thousands of people flock here, checking out the mountains and the hiking and the kayaking and the whale watching and Diver Ed.
But yesterday, I was walking to the grocery store in my bright blue hoodie and white skirt, clutching my disposable grocery bag, and basically trotting down the side walk, happy and oblivious. A friend texts me that walking and texting can result in walking into poles. I laugh. This is true for me, especially. Everyone knows that. I am pretty happy but then the people from away approach.
They are very metro-dressed, all perfectly coiffed, all in dark colors and well fitting clothes. They stare at me. And the look they give me is what I call: DISGUST. Or maybe, DOES SHE HAVE SOMETHING CONTAGIOUS?
And I feel? Dehumanized. I wish I could re-enact this look for you so you could understand it. Maybe there's a gif, actually.
That is the look. And I am super sensitive so all of me is just sort of crushed inside, but then I saw Tim Searchfield playing football on the lawn of his Bed and Breakfast and we talk about our kids and I feel slightly human again. But I didn't tell him about the DISGUST look because I was too horrified.
Then I saw Vicki Hall, the owner of the Portside Grill. Vicki is a smiley person. She is a safe person. She was also walking her dog and if I talk to her, I will totally get to pet her dog. So I blurted out my whole story, all the insecurity, everything and I sounded like I am in fourth grade.
And what did Vicki do?
She told me that it was okay, that they were ridiculous and that I was not disgust-worthy.
She made me a bit more human again, a bit stronger. She talked about work at the restaurant, her hurt knee, how excited she was about November when she could hang out at a beach and have a vacation.
And we left each other and went on with our late afternoons. She saved my hurt insides because she cared.
A couple hours later her business was on fire. A couple hours later her business, her workers' jobs were gone.
The Portside Grill is on lower Cottage Street in Bar Harbor. The buildings are close together down there, sometimes touching. They are older, usually, and wooden, usually. There are propane tanks in alleys. There are apartments above the businesses.
It was on fire.
At least seven fire departments responded. Most of our area firefighters are volunteers. Some stayed all night, working, making sure that fire didn't spread. I am not much of a firefighter, at all. Basically, I am the lowest and least trained, the weakest and least knowedgable. All I got to do was move people away, take pictures to make sure everything was documented, and to occasionally help in tiny bits. I did this little tiny bit and still when I went home I was sick from the smoke. I was sick for hours.
But the other people?
They were big time heroes. They were the put-your-life-on-the line heroes. They were the fighters who didn't look back, who just did.
And that is why I love Bar Harbor (despite the occasionally evil tourists).
I love Bar Harbor because:
1. I had to prop up one firefighter as I walked him to the recovery area after he was in the building. This is a strapping guy. He is fit. He worked so hard he could barely stand. He recovered. He went back in again.
He did because they cared.
2. People from all sorts of restaurants brought food and drink for the firefighters as they worked all night. Pizza. Chicken wings. Protein bars. Water. Gatorade. They set up tables. They wanted to do more.
They did because they cared.
3. Cops cordoned off the streets, stood there in thick-can't-see smoke with no protective gear and just did it. A police sergeant pushed water bottles into firefighters' hands as they staggered up the alley towards the recovery center.
One firefighter said, "That Shaun Farrar. He knew just what I needed. Just shoved that water into my hand. God, what a life-saving. Love that guy."
The cops did it because they cared.
4. People are offering pet-care, food, places to stay, jobs for the displaced workers and now homeless people. People are offering everything they can.
They did because they cared.
Those are examples of people trying to help.
5. Fancy hotels took homeless residents in for the night. At least the night.
They did because they cared.
6. People like Vicki who just lost her business is spending most of her time, pleaing for jobs for her workers.
She is doing that because she cares. Same way she cared about me during my tiny emotional crisis. She cares. So. Much.
7. Firefighters sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to one of the ambulance attendants at 1 a.m.
They did because they cared.
8. Firefighters went into a building to get a woman's medication.
They didn't have to. They did because they cared.
9. A police sgt. tried to calm a comforting child who had been sleeping in an upstairs apartment when the fire started and he tried so hard to help that childthat multiple people pulled me aside to tell me about it.
They did because they cared. He did because he cared.
This is the police sgt before going on duty, that same afternoon. He is thinking about going on vacation the next day. He is not thinking about fires.
10. Firefighters turned the knobs on each other's breathing tanks, helped hoist them on, verified that they were full with enough air over and over again. Firefighters climbed ladders and roofs, entered burning buildings, walked down streets so thick with smoke that you couldn't see. EMTs checked vital signs, breathing, hydration, body heat. Firefighters stayed throughout the night protecting that street even after the fire was taken down. Firefighters who just sent their kids off to school for the first time that day.Firefighters and EMTs who need places to live, who can sometimes barely scrap rent and food money together.
Volunteers. Full-timers. People.
They did because they care. They do it because they care.
I am so proud of the people in my community. They bicker over politics. They fight about town managers and property lines, land use ordinances, development and occasionally the school, but when it matters? When it really matters?
So, Emily the cutie (that is her official name), started her junior year at college today on the same day that people around here are posting their adorable first-day-of-school-kid pictures.
And I miss her and worry about her CONSTANTLY because that's how I am.
But, anyway, I found this old Livejournal post from December 2005, from my first month blogging, from when people actually commented on my blog and I actually knew everyone who did. All very weird.
My daughter wants to quit sixth grade.
Yesterday, as a result of a student rep meeting, the school stopped serving cookies.
Em, my daughter, said at the student rep meeting that it seemed strange to her that the school sells cookies for a quarter and salad for a dollar, when there’s this big “Healthy Eating Campaign.” She said it made it easier for rich kids to eat healthy. She said buying a cookie is more convenient than no more salads.
The principal wrote in the minutes, “Kids question cost of healthy food vs cookies.”
The cook read it, thought, “They want no snack food. I’ll get rid of the cookies.”
Now. there are no more cookies. Now, there is no more ice cream. Not Em’s intention. Nor did she know it was happening. She likes cookies. She loves ice cream. She just doesn’t eat them all the time.
So, yesterday, a mean eighth grader named Sebastian spent all of recess running around demanding to know whose fault it was. Someone said Em mentioned something about cookies at a rep meeting. Sebastian with an ever-growing gang of followers found some of Em’s friends and surrounded them.
“Do you know Emily?” they demanded. “Where is she?”
“She’s in Mr. Stackpole’s room, working on an essay.”
The bell rang. Three eighth grade boys sprinted for Mr. Stackpole’s room, where ring leader, Sebastian yelled in Emily’s face, “There are no cookies! There are no cookies! Bitch!”
Em had no idea what he was talking about. She tried to ignore them. They didn’t stop. Her classmates filtered in.
“You took our cookies!” Sebastian screamed.
Em gave in, looked up at the face of a big eighth grade boy, who easily outweighs her by a hundred pounds and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Yes, Em does say sentences like that. I hear them all the time, especially when I ask her if she’s ready for school.
So, the boys leave when the teacher comes. Em is filled in about the cookie thing. All the 7th and 8th graders are angry at her. The principal talks about it at the honors banquets. Emily, really, really, really does not want to go to school again.
“I’m afraid of eighth grade boys,” she tells me this morning. “I’m really afraid of them.”
“That’s okay,” I tell her.
“Is that what men are like?” she says. “I think I’m afraid of men.”
I nod. “Not all men. Not all boys. Not all people are like that. Girls are mean too, right?”
“Yeah,” she says and stares out the window, “But boys are so big.”
And as I'm reading this post, I'm sort of wondering how this event helped shape Emily into the awesome person she is today. How awesome?
1. She could be my body guard.
2. She goes to Harvard and has a super-high GPA but she is still nice and not pretentious.
3. She still thinks healthy choices should be as inexpensive as not-so-healthy choices
I am proud of her, so super proud of her. Not because she is strong or smart, but because she has so much integrity and so much will, because she battles it out in crappy situations and doesn't publicly lose her cool. I am proud of her because she is such a warrior. And I really can't wait until she doesn't have any more first-days of school. I think she can't wait either.
Two more years, Em. Unless you go to graduate school. Maybe take a gap year, okay?
Why Revising a Novel is Like A Firefighter Carwash
No. Really it is.
So, usually when I start revising a book, I feel like this:
This is the person organizing the fundraiser, which was a bunch of firefighters washing cars to raise money for Dana Farber's efforts to eradicate cancer. Notice how she has money in her hand? That's sort of like an author after the publisher buys her book and gives her an advance. Also, notice how she is hunkering down with her hands raised? This is because she is totally overwhelmed because she now has to REVISE her book.
Okay... Which brings us to this stage... See this guy? He has started actually revising or as I like to call it SUDSING UP THE SUV.
He's working hard. He's lightly touching the handle of the door for balance or in case he needs to escape all the suds... Because, seriously? LOOK AT ALL THE SUDS! These are all the corrections and insertions that need to be done, all the track changes. It is the cleaning up of the dirt, eradicating the mistakes...
How the heck is he ever going to manage this?
No. Seriously. HOW?
Because it isn't just about the suds it is about GETTING RID OF ALL THE SUDS, which I call the HOSING OFF! This is where the author is like, "Holy cannoli, I used the word, LOOK, 847 times in an 87,000 word manuscript. Whimper.
But the HOSING OFF stage is okay. I promise, because it makes us better writers with better vocabularies. It makes us rethink the moments where we use weak words, our go-to words, and we hose them the heck out of there to make a cleaner, stronger SUV... I mean book.
Plus, it defines our forearms as evidenced by the above firefighter. Managing a hose (or a vocabulary) is hard work. It builds up muscle.
And it's also about the next stage, REFINING, paying attention to detail or as I like to call it CLEANING THE RIMS OF YOUR TIRE THINGIES... Hubcaps? Those are hubcaps, right? Obviously, my vocabulary skills still need some work.
This stage of revising is that part where you go through the manuscript all over again and again, look for plot holes, repetition, emotional depth, inconsistencies in logic, all that arch stuff (internal, physical, emotional), and more. This is the nitty-gritty part. It requires bending and a soft, bright blue cloth.
And it seems overwhelming, right? It seems almost impossible? But it's not. And do you know why it's not? Because you are not alone.
Just like these firefighters working on a policeman's car, washing it clean, aren't alone, YOU the writer aren't alone either. There is an editor, a copy editor, sometimes beta readers, sometimes teachers, sometimes agents, readers, your check-out clerk at the grocery store, publicists, marketing people, random friends with ideas, women at bars, random blogs with suggestions, all sorts of people out there at the computer with you, helping your brain to gather all the things you have ever learned to make the right choices, the strongest choices to get the cleanest car story that you can have.
That's so cool, isn't it?
So, often writers go into revision feeling like we are all alone. But we never are. There is a community of people present, and learning past, that is right there with us, hosing off, detailing, worrying, and cleaning. At least that's what I tell myself when I start to feel lonely and worry and get scared.
I get scared all the time. That's okay. We all do.
*These pictures are all from the Bar Harbor (Maine) Fire Department's Car Wash this Spring where firefighters cleaned cars to raise money to support Dana-Farber's efforts to eradicate cancer. Our past fire chief, David Rand, died of cancer yesterday. He was a great loss, a hero, a man who served. The entire community will miss him. My deepest sympathy goes out to his family and friends.
- Mon, 19:26: Looking back toward Sand Beach. Tourists everywhere. Many have interesting smells . http://t.co/AFidnUK603
- Tue, 01:35: Best overheard quote of the day: With the amount of spandex and leather I own, I am shocked, just shocked, I am not a superhero.
- Thu, 02:25: RT @josswhedon: I watched a bunch of women get sliced up in video games and now I'm watching it on my twitter feed. @femfreq is just truth…
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- Fri, 13:31: I currently can't tell if the kids playing down the street are having an amazing time or reenacting DELIVER US FROM EVIL.