Sunday, March 16, 2014

On dead pets, romance, and the upside of uncertainty

Saturday afternoon, we said goodbye to our 16-year-old cat, Ivy. She spent her final moments on earth rolling in a big pile of catnip, purring her big, drooly, toothless purr, and thrusting her butt at us for scratches.
Ivy is now raising hell in kitty heaven.

All things considered, that's how I'd like to enjoy my last living moments.

I've gone through the aging process with a lot of pets over the years. More than once, I've had to ask the tough question of whether it's time to say goodbye to a furry companion. More than once, some well-meaning acquaintance has given me a look of intense compassion and declared, "you'll know when it's time."

You know what? I haven't. Not usually, anyway. The last two times I've made the decision to bid farewell to an elderly pet, I questioned my choice up to the last minute. I think this is the kindest most merciful thing right now, but I'm really not sure.

While I've never regretted the decision, it's come with a lot more uncertainty than those friends insisted I'd feel.

There's a quote often attributed to Voltaire that says, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."

It reminds me of my early days when I began writing fiction and rushed into those first books with the zealous certainty of a horny ram let loose in a pasture of ewes in heat. As I made mistakes and learned from them, my pace slowed considerably. Now, with half-a-dozen published books under my belt, I can sometimes find myself paralyzed with uncertainty. What happens next? Does my heroine visit her grandmother or dance naked on the bar at a karaoke club? Or maybe she and grandma both dance naked on the bar?

While I occasionally annoy myself with all that second-guessing, it's empowering to know I've honed my craft enough to grasp the importance of small gestures, characterizations, and decisions. Those little details can be crucial to the big picture of a novel.

As a romance author, I'm a sucker for any book that explores love and marriage. As a slightly jaded divorcee engaged to an amazing man who's also a bit jaded by divorce, I'm a sucker for any book that explores those subjects beyond the level of two people who meet, boink, fall in love, and get married (not necessarily in that order).

On of my favorite books of all times is Elizabeth Gilbert's non-fiction title Committed. Here's the interesting thing about that book: if you search "Elizabeth Gilbert + Committed," you'll discover two versions. One is subtitled "A skeptic makes peace with marriage." The other, simply, "A love story." Same book, different marketing spin.

But in either case, there's a section where Elizabeth Gilbert describes the words spoken between a mother and daughter in the dressing room before the daughter's wedding. Gripped by a case of last minute jitters, the daughter asks her mother if all brides are this terrified before walking down the aisle. "No, dear," the mother replies. "Only the ones who are actually thinking."

Whether we're talking about the demise of my beloved pets, the path of my romantic comedy novels, or the plans for my upcoming nuptials (which, come to think of it, are three odd things to discuss in the same breath) I can say for certain that the only certain thing at all is that I'm quite uncertain most of the time.

But perhaps that's not a bad thing. Age and life experience and a whole lotta mistakes along the way have taught me a few things over the years. I won't always make the right decisions. I won't always know the best path to take. Sometimes I will screw up so abysmally that no amount of unscrewing, rescrewing, unscrewing, rescrewing, more screwing, harder screwing...wait, what was I saying?

Right. I'm going to screw up. That's one of the only things I'm certain of in life. At the risk of sounding like a pessimist, you're going to screw up, too. The upside of recognizing it is that we learn to move a bit more cautiously. We learn to work harder and smarter. We learn the value of balancing our uncertainty with the fervent desire to get it right. Though we know sometimes we won't succeed, we hope like hell we often will.

What areas of your life do you forge ahead with confidence and certainty? Which areas call for a bit less self-assurance? Has it changed as you've gotten older? Please share.

I'll be honoring Ivy's memory by rolling in catnip and waiting for someone to scratch my butt.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Are you where you're supposed to be right now?

The first thing I said when my gentleman friend proposed in September was "yes."

OK, technically it was "hell, yes," followed by a combination of shrieking, sobbing, and laughing that sounded like the bellow of a water buffalo dragged behind a tractor.

In any case, the second thing I said was, "I'm not wearing shoes for this wedding."

Beyond expressing my fondness for naked feet, it was my way of conveying my desire for a simple, no-frills ceremony. Lucky for me, he shared my vision, if not my abhorrence for footwear.

My engagement ring, one of many not-so-traditional
aspects of our upcoming wedding. 
A few weeks later, I made the mistake of venturing into a bridal shop. Despite my explanation that I sought a simple, short, non-froofy, non-traditional dress, the attendant proceeded to thrust a mountain of tulle and lace at me until I fled the shop in terror. "Wait!" she called, clinging to my leg and scrambling to drag me back inside. "At least take this free wedding planning guide so you know how to get ready for your big day."

I brought it home and tossed it on the counter, not giving it much thought until I found my gentleman friend skimming it a few days later.

"Did you see this suggested timeline for wedding tasks?" he asked.

"Not unless it's on a page with pictures of food or naked people."

He grinned. "With only eleven months to go, we should have already booked a caterer, hired a florist, gotten your hair and nails done, and packed for our honeymoon."

He might have been exaggerating, but not by much. Since this will be a tuxedo-free, florist-free, caterer-free affair with attendants who still have a bedtime, we weren't terribly alarmed by the industry-prescribed schedule. As the date of our September nuptials has drawn nearer, we've taken to reminding each other of pressing tasks.

"Nine months to go," I declared in December. "Shouldn't we go pick up my bridal bouquet?"

"Eight months left," he announced in January. "We should probably be on our way to the airport for the honeymoon."

"Seven months left," I said in February. "Where's that top tier of the wedding cake we're supposed to pull from the freezer on our first anniversary?"

While the humor of it amuses me, it also reminds me of a slightly less amusing aspect of the publishing world. In the ten or so years since I first tried my hand at writing fiction, not a month has gone buy that I haven't heard the niggling little voice in the back of my head. The writers among you will know that voice, though yours may be somewhat less prone to dirty talk than mine.

"You've been writing a long time," the voice will his in my ear. "You should have landed a book deal by now." 

"Three months until your novel comes out and you still don't have a marketing plan?"

"You've published half-a-dozen books. Shouldn't you have hit the New York Times bestseller list by now?"

The voice has dogged me for decades, and not just when it comes to my writing career. In nearly every aspect of my life, stress can send me stumbling down the coulda-shoulda-woulda path of self-doubt and unhealthy comparison.

"You should have a much bigger retirement account by now."

"You've been doing yoga six years and still can't do side-crow without toppling onto your neighbor's mat?"

"By this point in your career, shouldn't you have a team of nude cabana boys to refill your wine and massage your feet while you write?"

Fortunately, I've gotten better at locating the source of the voice and giving her a good, solid bitch-slap.

"I'm making my own path," I tell her. "I have my own rules, my own timelines, my own damn route to success and happiness."

It's a reminder I imagine most of us need from time to time when we find ourselves fretting about what should have happened in our lives by now. When the imaginary clock ticks frantically for whatever milestone we believe we've failed to achieve.

It's a constant struggle to silence the voice, whether I'm plotting a book or plotting my life.

Maybe not when planning a wedding, though.

"I'm glad we don't have to wear shoes for the wedding," announced my eight-year-old maid of honor and soon-to-be-step-daughter. "Are we going to wear underwear?"

"That depends," I said. "Are we going to be doing cartwheels?"

"Of course we are," she told me. "It's a wedding. Aren't you supposed to do cartwheels at weddings?"