Self-Perception that Mind-Changing Beast

 

To show one’s face is part of having the courage to show who one is. And coming to terms with your own face takes a lifetime. Just think how, when you were twelve or sixteen, you wished you looked different.  And that’s true for everyone; even the most perfect, beautiful boy or girl is dissatisfied. So why is that? It can’t just be that you don’t look like the model on the magazine cover.  It’s something else. You haven’t yet accepted your fate, who you are. As you get older that relationship between your face and who you are matures. They blend together. Your true self shows more.

–          James Hillman

 

Last night the oppressive heat and I had an arm wrestle. It won. My two fans were a weak show to the 102 degree heat. I sat down to write my blog and I struggled to write the first hundred words about the bird eggs that hatched outside my kitchen window. I could hardly get words onto the page. My brick bungalow heated up like a toaster oven, that small but powerful kiln that I cooked my favorite Stouffer’s pepperoni pizza in when I was a kid.  The same pizza that I sometimes forgot about when I watched TV, only to open the rectangular door 45 minutes later and discover a good inch of charred edges. That’s how I felt last night, a brainless piece of petrified bread, the kind that you can hit against the counter with a satisfying knock. Useless.

The approximate temperature of my house on Saturday.

 

I gave up trying to write. Even my laptop was a step away from lighting on fire. I assumed the starfish position under the ceiling fan and contemplated sleeping on the front lawn in my underwear but thought better of it; The grass is more sand pit these days than a plush pile rug. I roasted slowly in my sleep.

It’s a good thing my writing was halted last night, because I read this Hillman quote in an interview while I had my tea on my front porch this morning and changed my subject matter. I’ve wanted to write about self-perception, that strange and mind-changing beast for a while. Up until now, I had no clear ideas or format. Just random thoughts, like the floaties you can sometimes see in your eyes. There and then gone.  But this quote glued something together for me.

 

Let’s start with a photo from my teenage years.

 

What I hoped my haircut would make me look like:

 

 

What I actually looked like:

 

It appears my  hairdresser misunderstood me and I got more Shawn Cassidy than Farrah Fawcett at Supercuts. I want my 10 bucks back.

One thing I’ve noticed looking back at photos is that I’m often surprised by my perception of how I looked/felt about myself and the reality of what a photo revealed to me years later. Thinking I looked cool but didn’t or that I actually looked great (photo not pictured) even though at the time I remembered thinking less of myself because I wanted to look better somehow- better body, better hair, taller, thinner, less freckles, tanner or whatever characteristic was most wanted at the time. Held against whatever invisible measuring stick we all hold ourselves to. I often say to myself, geez, what was I complaining about? I should have been more than happy to look that way. This photo doesn’t represent that sentiment exactly because I don’t ever want the Daivd Cassidy look again. But its unconsciousness reminds me of what’s real and that self-consciousness is something to let go of.

If only I could always carry such wisdom every day and not forget I am one in the same person, all through the years.  Sure we grow and change…but it’s not like the geeky self was someone who hijacked my body and then was never heard from again. All the thousands of verisons of me up until now:  Still me.

As I get older, I’ve learned that there is room to love the glamour self, the geek, the skinny, the average or overweight, the fashion confused or the fashion forward self because all of those identities move with me. We ought to be a little kinder to ourselves along the way.  I’m talking about the silent and seemingly innocuous but negative things we say to ourselves. That little voice that wishes our image could look a little better. The same voice that got me to take my Visa photos for South East Asia a few times so that I could live with a photo that would stick in my passport for a very long time.

I think that’s why I love this Polaroid picture. Life and self is represented here as it was. An un-airbrushed slice.

To the left is one of three rotary phones we owned. To the right, my questionable choice of white sports socks with my ensemble. Above, a pastel portrait of me done in Cape Cod at age nine.

There could be no truer image of that very moment. I love that my deep sullen thoughts were caught unawares on film.  I am positive I yelled at my brother for snapping this photo. I had no time to pose, think of the look I wanted to portray, or hide my socks (would I think to?), or chose a place other than my dark-paneled living room with 1960s lamp still in plastic to showcase myself. It’s hideous and wonderful. Hideous only because I’m comparing it to contemporary fashions and wonderful because I recognize myself.

Maybe this is what’s really behind a good hearty chuckle when we see photos of ourselves from different eras and say Oh my God! That’s hysterical! Maybe it’s so hysterical because we can see some true part of ourselves which is to say we see our vulnerability.  So we laugh because what is there to do with something so unbearably sweet and hopeful. What else is there to do but know you’re the same person with different clothes and a new haircut.

 

 

 

 

Dad, You are Neither Barbeque Sauce Grill King nor the Plumber’s Crack..

 

Every Father’s Day I try to find my Dad a good card but sometimes my choices are limiting. I cannot match him to the Golf or Tennis cards. He plays neither. Nor is he the schlub with a beer gut exerting dominance over the remote control, nor the fly fisherman, deaf old man or puppet of mom.

He is neither the Barbeque Sauce Grill King nor the Plumber’s crack. He also doesn’t look or act like an ape, although I know those Orangutan cards do make him laugh.

I chose this card. 1) because Dad laughs at Orangutans and 2) I love the way he pronounces ‘Losers’ in his Polish accent.

Why is it that the card companies portray fathers more like Homer Simpson than say the ancient Greek, Homer? My Dad has lived through some hellish times and his life is an epic poem filled with battles seen and unseen. Seems like I ought not to mix up my Homers. Plus I know he prefers the chocolate éclair over the donut.

Homer the Schlub

Homer the Poet

Shouldn’t I be commemorating this special day with what it has really been like for him to be a father with a major illness? And find a way to tell him that he’s my inspiration and not my sarcasm.

Or remember that fathers are not thanked nearly enough for the things we take for granted, like Chris Rock said in his comedy show, “Dad, thanks for knockin’ out this rent.”

Snoopy cards worked for a while, but I’m not 13 anymore. Garfield hardly creates shoulder-moving laughter. I don’t even take those off the shelf.

The musical cards are good, but it doesn’t seem right to send him The Beverly Hillbillies theme song more than once in his life no matter how much he loves Granny and Jethro.

I like the serious cards too, but I have to be careful of the dripping saccharine and femmy script. So usually I buy a blank one or make one at home. Those are the best anyway. My own words.  I sometimes sign it, “From your favorite pest.” I thought this year, I’d buy a card and make a blog post for him. Perhaps more public than he’d like but I wonder how other people feel in front of the card rack.

I know he liked to be out on our row boat back in the day, but I can hardly bring myself to buy him the card with a schooner. Maritime theme might be a little much. The baseball cards are also a mismatch as I’m sure I’ve never seen him watch a sports game unlike Mom and Ciocia who are taken with football as much as they are Tom Brady’s good looks. (Note to self: Make mom an NFL card for Mother’s Day.) The trophy cards remind me of dust collectors and middle school. So those don’t work.

Why can’t Hallmark make a PBS card? Say, David Attenborough observing a bird through binoculars with some clever British-ism written underneath. Or a picture of Mr. Humphries dancing in his Greek Costume in Are you Being Served? Or the Lady Dowager Grantham saying something whip smart about fatherhood. I know he’d get a kick out of that.

In the card aisle of Walgreens, the woman next to me said to no one in particular:
“There are too many. I just want the one for me.”

I wanted to reply, ‘Oh my god. I know what you mean.’

Instead I stepped away from the layers of cards and took out the little notebook I carry in my purse. I wrote down what she said as if I had just remembered something else for my grocery list.

I wondered what the security cameras were capturing: Me lingering among the cards for too long dressed like I just cleaned a garage, snapping photos and scribbling in my notebook. I don’t know what the radio code word is for crazy but I pictured the security guard saying, “We’ve got a 594. Let’s keep a watch on the nut job in aisle 3.”

As I made my choice, another couple came to hover. They were with a young boy in a wheelchair. He was severely disabled. They were helping him pick out a card. As the woman chose a card, the man said, “He said he wanted serious.”

“Really? Serious? Okay.”

And then a few quiet minutes later she said,
“…not all of them are appropriate, but there are a couple of good ones to choose from.”

Sympatico.

I was about to tell them…hey I have this blog post idea that’s running through my head about how Father’s Day cards don’t resemble my father or probably anyone’s father for that matter. These are just poor caricatures or cheezy sentiments. Most of these cards don’t capture his personality or the kind of relationship we have or the fact that my Dad’s paralyzed and none of these cards even make sense with that perspective and some seem down-right offensive. We buy the cards anyway, because it’s the thought that counts.  I would just like to make my Dad laugh and tell him how awesome and brave he is and that he is my rock and my beacon. I was going to say it in all one big breath.

But I held that all back.

I had the realization that all of us standing there were trying to honor our fathers in the best way we knew how. Each of us with complex feelings just under the surface, as we silently pulled cards out and stuffed them back into the rack, looking for just the right one.

Happy Father’s Day Dad!

The Workings of an Over-Soaked Brain

I kept thinking of this video today as I was drool-napping on my couch.

Today my brain is at maximum saturation, like the sponge in my sink that needs to be squeezed out before it can soak up anything else. What a week: Busy season at work, read during Lit Fest and took my Memoir Boot Camp Intensive.) I’d like to put my figurative self through an old fashioned dryer roller but since I can’t really do that, I’ll just keep napping on and off and hope some brain cells spring back anew.

(Several naps were taken in preparing this first paragraph, for example.)

Today was the last day of my fantastic Memoir Intensive where we critiqued the first few pages of our opening chapter and created a draft of our book jacket blurbs. I have reworked this opening chapter 9 official times over the last two years, not to mention the crumpled pages that led up to the draft being official. And still, work to do.

Hear the sound of my head thud like the over-soaked sponge in my sink.

It feels so rich and nuggety when I get to work with a new craft element (theme, structure, Horizontal Plots, Vertical Plots.) Things excitedly take shape until I hit my first wall. The information gets tangly! Story lines get too dense in one place, too sparse in another. What do I keep in? What do I take out? Sometimes my brain gets soggy from all the information I’m processing.  More decisions. More work. More shaping.

Not in a blind perfectionist kind of way, but in a let me deliver this better.

So much rides on the first chapter, the first page. Clarity is needed but under the softness of subtlety and intrigue. You can’t front load too much or the whole piece flips with it.

On break, I said to a fellow classmate: It’s like the ice skaters! They make it look so easy and when they turn they are using every exercised muscle in their body. You watch them and you think, I can do that until you try to balance your body weight on a blade without your ankles shaking.

What I forget is that the skaters spend hours a day practicing and not just for a couple of weeks, more like a lifetime. We might see a rare face plant on TV but mostly it looks effortless. Why? Because they practiced the face plant so much that they’ve learned how to master an artful execution. And so back to the draft until I’m ready for the final surrender.

I’ve loved to write since I was a kid, and have only in the last few years taken it up in a serious way. I have had my share of face plants. I have also avoided total wipe out on the page by the lucky bend of the knee. Words fall together in such a way that the idea survives even if on precarious legs. Inside I clasp my hands in joy when a fellow writer sees what I’m trying to get across. Success. And yet, the revision always seems to loom.

Do you hear my sigh and dragging knuckles?

I’m just a little tired. But no steps are wasted when you’re moving forward.

 

P.S. Thanks for all the well wishes from so many of you regarding my Lit Fest Participant reading on Friday. It was heart pounding awesome! It was only 5 minutes, but it was a special goal for me to reach.  I think it was podcast. So I’ll share the link when it goes up. Awesome writers. Inspiring stories. Supportive audience. Cupcakes and wine. Pinch me.

Blueprint: a short musing

Who am I?

This is easy to answer on the surface. I’m a woman. I’m a first generation Polish American. I was raised Catholic. I have liberal points of view. I’m a romantic dreamer with a contradictory streak for being practical. At your baby shower, while others bought you the cute tiny pair of shoes that will be worn for one week, I probably gave you a basket of onesies in different sizes and a handful of books. For your wedding, I probably gave you kitchenware. I save the precious gifts for birthdays, for all other occasions something useful but thought out carefully- most of the time anyway. I’m sure I get that from my mother, a subconscious blueprint that got traced onto me.

We all could, on the quick, rattle off some defining things about ourselves but if we dig deeper we see from where or from whom these things were transferred. The older I get the more conscious I am of how I have been shaped. Growing up bi-cultural and bilingual surely fueled my desire to travel abroad. And probably had something to do with feeling at home and unafraid when I left for Eritrea, Africa at age 22. We either absorb our influences or repel against them. I enjoy leisure time more than my mom because I grew up seeing her work too hard – an observation that also creates an imprint, just in reverse.

I’m currently taking a Memoir Intensive workshop and am deep in thought with this question as I work on the structure of my book. Hence the short post this week- so much work to do, not enough time!

As a writer, whether I like it or not, I have to create myself as a character so that I can accurately answer- Who am I? Perhaps this is the shortest question with the longest answer in the world. For everyone.

Every character is dynamic- there are no absolute villains, no total angels, even God is complex. To write about yourself means to not only show your best side, but the shadowy dark self too. It also means you have to ask yourself…who was I before and who have I become? To know that, you’ve got to look at your blueprint, the big ole map of your life. Some of it’s written in invisible ink.

I’m looking at my floor plan and I keep pulling up planks.
I’m finding the most interesting things.