You might have noticed that November — and the NaNoWriMo — came and went without much in the way of updates here from me this year. Back around the end of October, I had really good intentions and a lot of excitement about the project I was planning to work on. But things, sometimes awesome things, got in the way, as things do, and I want to comment on that. I’ve seen several authors online recently discuss how we as an industry don’t talk enough, publicly, about failure. Even the hashtag storms about acknowledging and persevering through failure in the writing industry ultimately turn into humblebrags that make people feel even worse. It can be easy — for me, at least — to get caught up in what I haven’t accomplished, even when I know that’s neither logical nor rational nor helpful. Sometimes I need to recast the way I think about success and failure and the practical realities of them both.
One thing my colleagues and I strive to do, as teachers, is to help our achievement- focused and strategic-learning students appreciate the importance and value of failure as a step in the process to success — but more importantly, also as a step on the path to increased understanding. So many don’t want to pay attention to this. But failure is necessary in order to grow, to learn from mistakes, to winnow away things that don’t work and understand why they don’t, to emerge with a more solid process or product or epiphany, to develop. If we never have to confront the hard stuff, we never really learn how to overcome it.
Okay, so, great. And what does that have to do with my NaNoWriMo this year? Well, I failed at it. I did basically no significant work on my new novel, and part of me feels like an utter failure for that, feels like a complete loser who can’t do anything right or accomplish anything of value.
And as I would tell my students, that’s a completely bonkers response.
A normal one, maybe, because that’s the culture we live in. Because being “busy” has become our toxic but normalized social currency. Because I’m disappointed that I couldn’t carve out half an hour each night to write 350 words and move the story forward. But let’s be honest: November is a terrible time for this project; the only worse month would be December! As a high school teacher and mom, I’m swamped. Routinely on Sunday nights I climb into bed, far too late for how early I have to be up on Monday mornings, and can’t stop myself from mentally ticking off the list of things I wanted to take care of over the weekend but failed to. At some point, I’m sure, I will come to internalize the fact that a Sunday isn’t forty-seven hours long, and then my emotional expectations can catch up to my intellectual understanding of just how much one person can get done in a day.
What all of that calculus fails to appreciate is what I did in fact get done. And therein lies my problem: I’m focused, like some of my students, on the exact wrong thing.
So let’s switch gears away from my failure and talk about where things went well over the last month.
The third edition of Finis. came out, and holy canoli, it’s gorgeous. If you’re looking for a really great holiday gift for the readers on your list or a stocking stuffer for that smart adolescent who likes urban fantasy or animals or both, then you can’t go wrong with this new edition from Odeon Press. The physical book has been redesigned in a lovely way, with a better size and a butter-velvet soft matte cover, and in the back of the book you’ll find a lot of new bonus content, including some nonfiction by me and a preview of the next story in this series set in Elsa’s world.
I finished running my first Kickstarter campaign, and it was a resounding success. (Thank you to everyone who joined the community for the new book!) My project is my new book of poetry, The Sharp Edges of Water. (Click here to view the KS and all of the updates and bonus content posted there.) Some of the backer perks are a little slow rolling out — not behind schedule, but just slower than I was hoping to get them moving — because school has been really busy for me lately. But I’m back to working on those this weekend.
As for The Sharp Edges of Water itself, this week has been all about proofing galleys, making sure everything looks as good as it can, combing through for errors. This book is in production, y’all! And it’s looking wonderful so far. I’m excited to be sharing it with you! The ebook will be available very soon — in time for Christmas — and if there aren’t too many slow-downs in the last stages of production (where we are now), maybe the print version will be as well! I promise to update here when you can start buying it.
So those projects really took up all of my NaNoWriMo time, and I have to give myself permission not to beat myself up over it, even though I didn’t make any progress yet on the new novel. I know I’ll get back to writing the novel as soon as my new book of poems is out. I’ve had to reorganize my priorities and make peace with the harsh time mistress of my teaching job, and that’s okay, too. When it boils down to it, on Sunday nights I have to remind myself to count my blessings. (Because let’s be honest again: that’s the only way I can fall asleep when I’m thinking about that infernal to-do list.)
In the title of this blog post, I promised transitions. Well, let’s talk about that too. The Monday Earworm is going to take a little vacation until the new year, because you know what’s coming up later this week? The triumphant return of 12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck! I know, I know, contain your zeal. I’ve been curating this year’s playlist and have encountered some new music that I hope you will enjoy. And aside from various types of announcements here and there, that’s probably all you can expect from me on this blog until the holidays are over.
And that’s about all I’m going to say about this for today. Have a good one.
I have a love-hate relationship with my new cell phone. On the one hand, it can do more things — lots more things — than my old one, which solves some of the annoyances of the old model, and the browsing on the new phone is light years better. On the other hand, it has a touch screen.
I can’t stand touch screens. They frustrate me to no end, in part because this is where technology is heading, and in part because I can get them to operate properly only about half the time I try. Even this is a dramatic improvement over a year ago. It doesn’t have to do with my fingernails getting in the way. (Everyone always asks about that.) I just can’t reliably get the screen to respond to my touch. For my birthday, my friend Margo gave me several stylus pens to use with the new phone, which has helped tremendously, but it’s still not nearly as fast as that tactile-button Blackberry keyboard my thumbs had come to love.
The upshot of all of this is that my phone is no longer a device of extraordinary convenience. I used to be able to spend half an hour catching up on emails and text messages while waiting somewhere and feel like that time was incredibly productive. Now, such an exercise would make me more stressed and irritated because of the clumsiness of the device-user interaction.
So my emails and text messages continue to pile up at an alarming rate, just like they used to before I had a smart phone. And I have begun to shrink from electronic communication as the go-to method of interaction. As unfortunate as that may sound to many people, I’m not convinced it’s a terrible thing.
While I kind of hate my new phone, I kind of love the fact that I’m not constantly attached to it.
In “The Flight From Conversation,” Sherry Turkle writes, among many other astute observations on the way technology has impacted our lives, that “the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.” She asserts that we as a society have moved from conversation to “connection,” which in this context means not making a real connection with another person on anything like a deeper level, but rather connecting to our devices with the result (or in some cases, the goal) of pushing the actual people in our lives farther away. “[O]ver time we stop caring” about this shift in our interactions with the people in our lives; “we forget that there is a difference.” She likens the way we connect to each other now to taking little “sips” — when really, what we need and have in many cases lost is the gulp of being together.
Hamlet, in a moment of snark with Polonius, told him the matter he was reading was “Words, words, words” (II.ii.191). In looking up the punctuation and citation for that quote, I reached for my Pelican Shakespeare from college on the shelf by my desk rather than open a new browser window and Google it. I’m not convinced the way I did it took any longer than the electronic way, and something about the silky texture of the pages and the visual flash of years of annotations scrawled into the margins as I thumbed through it comforted me. There’s a continuity to the physical book that reminds me its contents are more or less permanent, that I can rely on them to be there when I need them, that the only likely user error I might have when interacting with it is a paper cut, rather than a mockingly blank screen or a spinning color wheel of doom.
I am not a luddite, truly. I use technology on a daily basis, and I’m not half bad at it most of the time. I’m one of the only teachers in my department, though, who doesn’t have a Promethean board yet. I keep wanting to make the leap, but I hear such horror stories of technological problems, breakdowns, glitches and the like, that I’m more inclined to stick with what I know works, even if it makes me look like a dinosaur. At least, I rationalize, I’m a functioning dinosaur who doesn’t waste precious minutes of class time dealing with slow screens and the repetitive process of maximizing and minimizing windows.
But I know it’s a faulty argument. And yes, I know about what eventually happened to the dinosaurs. (I think about it every time I grumble about the touch screen on my cell phone.) Still, something prevents me from spending my summer learning the new device – something beyond the simple fact that I don’t truly have time in my summer for it. Part of me loves the idea of catching up with my colleagues. Part of me feels like the choice isn’t really authentic, and so…well, you know.
I think one of the problems I have with the break-neck pace of technology is its break-neck pace: the inherent lack of opportunity for people to think carefully about what exactly they’re getting into. I can’t even tell you how many times my students (who are in high school) have brought up the pitfalls of their “digital age” in class discussions. They acknowledge that their generation is poised to be more readily adept at social media yet, paradoxically, less equipped to understand its consequences. Remember when sexting first gained notoriety? Aside from the utter lack of forethought about the consequences to one’s reputation such an action implies, there’s that little matter of the law against the distribution of child pornography.
Oops. Now there’s an embarrassing thing to have on one’s record.
But we don’t have to consider frightening near-future scenarios that once would have been considered science fiction to realize that rapid, electronic communication is hurting the way we interact with each other. We can see this stuff any time, any place; sometimes we don’t even register at first what’s happening to us.
I’ve read no fewer than half a dozen articles or posts in the last couple of months which were so negative they actually kind of ruined my day. (I’m not sharing any links to them because I don’t want to spread the ugly.) In each case, the author excused him- or herself from politeness or the consideration of other people’s feelings with the common disclaimer of “I’m just blunt” or “I tell it like it is” or some other similar sentiment. The laconic “Sorry.” which sometimes followed rang with the tinny hollowness of inauthenticity, the electronic addition of insult to injury.
As Turkle asserts, “connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we…can attend to tone and nuance…are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.” Taking the other face out of a face-to-face interaction removes the urgency to do that. Out of sight, out of mind.
I don’t have a problem with frankness. I don’t have a problem with email – other than the sheer volume of it – or with other forms of electronic communication or with social media. Used thoughtfully and responsibly, these things are a joyful wonder and a powerful tool. But the instantaneous nature of such avenues for expression sometimes, I think, makes it too easy for us not to revise, not to think through what we’re saying. It makes us too quick to – publicly – judge.
And yes, we all do it. I’ve done it, but I’m not proud of it. I’ve tried really hard not to, but I’m no more perfect than anyone else, and probably a good sight less. That doesn’t excuse me.
Teaching is a difficult profession in the best of circumstances, but it can also be rewarding – if one doesn’t mind delayed gratification. You know how it goes: the students who apparently hate everything about you when they’re stuck in your class come back after a year or two of college for a visit, and walk into your classroom just to tell you how important your class was, just how much they learned from you, and thank you so much. Those are such good days, if you can just hold on long enough to experience them.
I know a lot of teachers who have a love-hate relationship with their jobs.
There’s a poem I read in the early years of my teaching career that has stuck with me ever since. It was written by a former colleague of mine, Sharon Klander, and I’m reposting it here with her permission.
When they complain about grammar, commas, and colons, want to go straight to the “A” without sweat or rhetorical scope, I tell them
. how easy it is for language to slip the line and spill across the boundaries of another’s feelings, someone you love
. reading the letter twenty times straight, finally convinced it must be over.
. . Or maybe the address book falls to pages each time you look for a number because starting a new one would mean
. leaving out all the names who died and you think maybe the letters themselves make manifest, maybe God really did it all
. with a word. What control we have we find in marks sharp as a look back, going over and over what went wrong, wondering
. how could we ever mean what we say?
The first time I read this poem, I was an adjunct instructor at Houston Community College, teaching three sections of remedial English. Most of my students were older than I, and sometimes some of the gentlemen I taught (and I use the term “gentlemen” loosely) thought it was cute to challenge me in front of the class on the finer points of grammar or punctuation or how to construct a decent compound sentence, since they’d “been writing perfectly good business letters for years” using their rules, and they’d climbed up the corporate ladder very well, thank you. It would have been rude of me to ask them what they were doing in my class were that the case, so I was a good girl and just pressed on with my lessons, perhaps unfortunately reinforcing their ideas that a well-made suit was impressive enough an impression to make.
My students’ abilities ranged from ready-for-freshman-English to genuinely-impaired, and because of the way the standardized testing and scoring worked, these students were sometimes all in the same class. Klander’s poem appeared on the back of the English department newsletter one month, and it helped me stick out that teaching job for four difficult semesters.
In my last term there, a mentally handicapped student whose parents refused to believe he needed help — a student who’d already failed my class twice before — started to become belligerent, threatening. He was physically bigger than I was, and he made this point a couple of times after class when he stayed behind to argue over a D on his paper. He also let it drop that he knew approximately where I lived, because he had an apartment in the same neighborhood. One night after class, he tried to get me to say my address.
Most of my classes were held in the evening; the department office closed up shop before I did. Even in April, it was always dark by the time I left work, the walk to my car in the parking garage filled with echoes. A male colleague happened to be walking by as I was leaving the classroom that night; I engaged him in conversation immediately, and the student left. My colleague walked me to my car, and the next day I explained to my department chair, Alan, that I felt unsafe with this student.
“What are the odds,” I asked, “that when he fails my course again, he’ll end up in my class, again, next semester?”
Alan appeared to be weighing his words. Finally he said, “Pretty good.” Then he added, “He requests you.”
I turned in my notice. Alan appeared disappointed but understanding. He didn’t try to make me change my mind.
Among the things I kept from that job, Klander’s poem, torn from the back of the department newsletter, stayed in my briefcase for a long time, until I taped it up onto the door of the classroom where I finally landed, in the school where I’ve now been teaching thirteen years.
I come back to this poem often, in my mind, when I think about language and teaching and the way we communicate with others. The power of words, the sheer number of words in our language, the multiple ways we have of expressing ourselves and our intelligence to comprehend such a thing — these all demand our responsibility to use words wisely. I think we have a moral obligation to treat each other with intention: we need to pay attention to the words we use with each other, because language is the currency of most relationships.
This means we don’t use text message abbreviations in our academic papers. This means we use active and interesting verbs or specific adjectives to express just what we truly want to say. This means we take a sharp look back at what we’ve dashed off in an email or a Facebook post and reread it, think about it, before we hit send.
It means I have the time, with my super-slow-going new cell phone, to pay attention to what I’m telling someone before I actually do it, and to change what I’ve said to make sure I’m not coming across badly. I don’t want my recipient to wonder how I could ever mean what I say.
Let’s return for a moment to that last semester I taught at the community college. I also had several residencies with Writers in the Schools and taught over a dozen gifted students in Johns Hopkins’ distance ed program. (This was back before those classes were conducted online; we did it all through the mail.)
Everything that spring felt awful. I was grading about three hundred papers a week. All of these jobs were considered part-time — in other words, no benefits — yet all told, I was working well more than one full-time job might have required of me. I had been working so much — teaching all day five days a week, teaching two nights a week, filling in all the rest of the nights and weekends with my distance ed course — that I was exhausted and run-down and really quite sick. I was also trying to move out of my parents’ house for the first time with someone who would be, in hindsight, the wrong roommate, a process that was going badly. And everywhere around me, people were dying.
And I mean actually dying. My friends’ grandparents were dropping at an alarming rate. My own grandmother had been losing her siblings at the pace of one every seven or eight weeks for several months. My mom’s aunt became sick to danger while staying at our house. And my friend Aaron — who would, a couple of years later, become my husband — lost his girlfriend at the time to a brain aneurysm. She was among the first casualties of our social group, the clue that we were actually embarking on adulthood, ready or not.
April that year sucked.
Another good friend, Brian, who lived several states away, sent me an email to cheer me up in the midst of my nervous breakdown. He knew how surreal and desperate everything must be feeling. Text messaging and Facebook did not yet exist. We did not yet own cell phones. Email was an actual convenience.
He had gone to the magnetic poetry kit on his refrigerator — though he didn’t consider himself a poet beyond that novelty — and written me a poem, a virtual hug, which I printed out and carried around in my purse with me for at least ten years in a pouch with my social security card, a picture of the Virgin Mary, and, eventually, my grandmother’s obituary.
hit me with a rusty chain I need to have sordid crushing moments so beat me madly like a delicate red rose in a summer storm and then we will go eat
It wasn’t the fact that he’d sent an email. It wasn’t that he’d made a connection with me in a way I could print out and keep and refer to whenever I needed it. It was that he’d used words, carefully selected and thought-out, to convey something deeper than a platitude of sympathy. “Yes,” he was saying, “sometimes life is just awful all around you, and that must be really hard for an empath. But you’re stronger than you think, and you will endure.” And I wasn’t going to be alone doing it. This helped me more than a simple “get over it sweetie 🙂 u can handle it xo” ever could have had the capacity to do.
Sometimes words fail us all, and sometimes we feel that void keenly. I have a love-hate relationship with words. They are gorgeous in their infinite variety, magnificent to wield. But they also crush, enable, soothe, placate, burn. Sometimes unintentionally. How can we ever mean what we say? It takes thoughtfulness, and that takes time. Technology seeks to eliminate that time.
There’s an old joke about a poet. He sees his friend for lunch, and his friend asks him what he’s worked on all morning. The poet answers, “I edited one of my poems. I put a comma in.” They see each other again that night for dinner, and the friend asks the poet what he’s worked on all afternoon. The poet answers, “I took the comma back out.”
I tell that joke now and only about half the people get it. A student of mine actually said once, in response, “Did he actually spend his whole day thinking about a single comma? Why didn’t he just use grammar check?” The tone of voice implied, “That’s stupid.” Rather than give a lengthy explanation of why grammar check cannot comprehend the intricacies of poetry, I told another joke.
Someone whose name has been lost to me — and Google search fails me now in my efforts to look up who it was — once quipped that he couldn’t get a Ouija board to work for him because of its lack of punctuation and inability to convey irony.
My students just stared at me. Crickets.
I’m starting to feel unfunny.
How many times will I revise this essay before I post it? It’s already taken me a week longer to write than I thought it would. If you’ve gotten to this point, I’m proud of you and utterly grateful, because so few people, I’m told, read anything online this long. I thought about serializing this post, but the fragments don’t work so well on their own. They need each other like most people need each other, more intimately than the conventions and stereotypes of technology allow for.
I remember the very first post I made here, an essay that was longer than the proscribed 2,000 words. I sent the link to all my friends and family to let them know I’d launched Sappho’s Torque, with the hopes that at least a few of them would subscribe. I remember my dad saying a few days later that he’d seen it, but the thing was just too long for him to keep reading it. He was too busy in his job (he’s a financial consultant — a Managing Director, in fact) to sit and do that. In his eyes, this didn’t mean he loved me any less or cared any less about my writing or that he was any less proud of me for whatever it was I was doing. But frankly, I knew, the world is too much with him. I remember when he used to read for pleasure, whole magazines filled with scientific articles and speculations about the universe. Now he reads his email and his reports and laments his lack of time for reading for fun.
Short stories have become popular again among my students. They’re like bite-sized chunks of literary gratification: something they can read in a night and have a discussion about the next day and be done. Check that off the list.
How many books have you read this year? Well, I’ve read about a dozen stories. Oh, that counts for something. Yes, and it didn’t put me out at all.
I’m going to have to split the novel I’ve written into two books because it’s over 200,000 words, and agents keep telling me that my query is excellent and the story sounds awesome, and if I can just cut out about 80,000 words, they’d love to read it, but 200,000 words is just too much of a commitment. (Fortunately, the story can be split in half, and this is what I’m working on now. The bright-side way to look at this is that I’ll have two novels under my belt by the end of the year.) I suppose if I wanted to I could self-publish it as an e-book, and then its length wouldn’t be an impediment to its being read, but that’s not my first choice. I have a love-hate relationship with being in the writing industry.
But what else am I going to do? I’m a writer. My brain hums in the patterns of Story. Apart from recalling memories, more often than not, I think in text rather than images, words forming rapidly across the pale canvas of my mind. My friend Mary tells me I need to be what and who I am. “You’re trying not to be you for all the best reasons,” she says. “But not being who you are is a tragedy.” It reminds me of a line from the movie Dead Again, where Robin Williams’ character tells Kenneth Branagh’s he needs to figure out what he is and be it. Good advice. I’ve tried not being a writer, and that’s not good for anyone — not just for me, but especially for the people who have to live with me.
Before I embraced my fiction-writing self, I tried to be a poet. I wasn’t terrible at it and had a lot of poems published, won a few contests. I still write poetry now and then and love it, enjoy it, love teaching it more than most other things. I wrote this villanelle about eleven years ago, when I was going through a little bit of a crisis with my work.
I hate and love poems As I hate and love myself. Guilt wraps around my bones.
I drain my whole self slowly Into the shaft of a pen, then spill a mess. I hate and love poems.
Ecstasy creeps to bitter in the knowing This luxury cannot support itself, And so guilt wraps around my bones.
I’m ashamed, hesitate to go To that heady cliff of self-expression: I hate and love poems.
My husband wants to know When he can read the next poem, and the next. Empty-papered guilt wraps around my bones.
There is no filling bread in poetry, Only the impoverished nectar of ephemera. I hate and love poems; Guilt wraps around my bones.
But, of course, I didn’t actually stop doing it. And so my love affair with words continues.
The person who writes the “Dear Seema Aunty” column is a friend of mine, and really insightful. I believe the magazine targets young women of any ethnicity, in the way that the Human Condition makes all struggles relatable to all people.
Yeah, I know, you’ve heard about her on my blog before. There are two main reasons I’m passionate about this project: first, I love the music; second, Victoria Love is my sister. 🙂 Love’s Kickstarter page is up and taking pledges; they start at $1, and she’s offering great rewards. She also needs to raise a lot of money in the next few weeks for the project to be funded. Can she do it? Will it happen?? Ooh, it’s a nail-biter! 😉
The tag line says it all: “Life’s dirty. Get Soapier.”
These little cakes of cleanliness are well-made and super fragrant, they lather beautifully and look even better next to your sink, and they make excellent gifts. Plus, they’re less expensive than fancy soaps in a boutique for the exact same product.
The website is not flashy and exciting, but the blog is current, and you can Like them on Facebook.
Some Blogs I’m Following
Here are some interesting and insightful blogs and artists you might enjoy.
I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. We had a good one. It didn’t go exactly as we had originally planned — we had unexpected houseguests at the last minute — but we had a fantastic holiday and really excellent weekend. I especially enjoyed hanging out with old friends who no longer live here but were visiting for a few days. Now it is time to get ready for work and school tomorrow, to put up our Christmas decorations, to get back to normal for a few weeks till the next major Series of Holiday Events. (I genuinely love this time of year.)
In the midst of it all, for those of you in the Houston area this coming weekend, here’s something you might enjoy doing Friday evening. There’s going to be a book launch for the new Mutabilis Press anthology, entitled Improbable Worlds, and one of my poems is going to be in it. (Yay!) The poem is called “Recipe for My Daughter.” I hope you’ll join me at the launch! Here are the details:
Friday, December 2nd; 6:00 – 9:00 p.m.; The Jung Center of Houston; 5200 Montrose
MP’s website also has information for purchasing the anthology, in case you’re interested. (I was also published in their 2005 anthology Timeslice, in case anyone wants a copy of that as well. It had a lot of really fantastic Houston poets in it, and I was thrilled and humbled to be counted among them. Improbable Worlds will be featuring poets of Texas and Louisiana, if I’m not mistaken.)
If the book launch for Timeslice is any indication, I and many of the other poets featured in the book will be signing copies the night of the event. (I’m also happy to sign any copies other than that night, if you’d like.) I hope to see you there!
In light of this being the “last official weekend of summer” — or at least, the last official weekend for summertime traveling — I thought I’d post about an extraordinary vacation Aaron and I took about ten years ago, the summer after we were married. We were going to Bar Harbor, Maine, where he and his family are from, with his parents and his brother Jason’s family (consisting at the time of Jason’s wife, Kim, and their two-year-old daughter Samantha). Aaron was hoping to do some historical investigation into his family’s history on the island, which was extensive and dated back over two hundred years, and so I welcomed the idea of this trip to Maine, even though it meant we would be missing my cousin’s wedding that same week – a family reunion on my side, of sorts, being replaced by a family reunion on his.
Aaron’s parents were making their own travel arrangements and would not be staying with us, but Kim and Jason and Aaron and I thought it would be fun for us to have our vacation entirely together. We were right about that, I think, but I made some serious errors in booking our travel arrangements; I had taken on the task quite willingly because I had the most free time, and because I wanted to impress my new in-laws with my enthusiasm. Famous last intentions.
* * *
Getting to Maine by air is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you have a private plane, you cannot simply fly into Bar Harbor. One cannot apparently fly directly into Maine from anywhere in the country father away than the other side of Maine. Getting there and getting home were exercises in creative frustration. Three weeks after Tropical Storm Allison had dumped thirteen feet of water on Houston in a single night, her remnants were still lashing the northeast, wreaking havoc with our travel plans. We’d started out flying from Houston to Philadelphia, then to Boston, and then to Bangor, where we’d stay one night and visit my mother-in-law’s people the next day before continuing on to the island by car. But the flight to Boston was canceled when the airports there were closed down by the weather; when one major northeastern city’s airports shut down, it wrecks the rest of that region of the country for air travel. After twenty frustrating minutes with some overworked ticket agents, we had to settle for rerouting to Rhode Island. The flight to Providence was several hours delayed and double-booked. From there we rented a car and drove; in the middle of the night, it took us only five hours to get across four states. We made it to our hotel in Bangor a little after three in the morning. Aaron’s parents and Jason’s family were already there, asleep.
No one’s luggage had made it to Bangor yet.
* * *
Aaron and I had stayed at an exquisite B&B in Bar Harbor called The Chiltern Inn for our honeymoon. I had never been to a B&B before that, and I fell in love with it. So even though Kim and Jason were more interested in staying at the oceanfront Holiday Inn (boasting air conditioning and a swimming pool), I persuaded everyone that the charming Windhaven Inn, another B&B I had discovered in my tourism research, would be a lot of fun. It sounded wonderful: “a museum-quality Edwardian inn on the ocean owned and operated by the Spice Lady of Maine, a gourmet chef.” The travel guide promised the place was “famous for its antiques, fireplaces, and big rooms with spruce ceilings.” A gourmet breakfast every morning, afternoon tea in the British tradition on the patio, and the inn’s custom of a glass of port in the evening sounded delightful, and so I gleefully made our reservations.
When we arrived, we discovered the guest rooms were tiny. Each had a full-size bed, two miniature nightstands, and a single straight-backed chair that appeared to have been salvaged from a long-discarded dinette set. Beyond that, there was barely room to walk, especially if you put your suitcases along the wall – which was a necessity, considering the lack of closets. The low ceilings were in fact made of spruce, but the “paddle fans” which worked “in conjunction with the ocean breezes” to keep the rooms “at a pleasant 68 degrees” were really just run-of-the-mill ceiling fans you could find at a Home Depot. They did not cool the rooms at all, perhaps because said ocean breezes were two miles away. Far from being a waterfront inn, the house was located in the middle of three concentric blocks of homes populated apparently by frat boys who liked to host raucous parties day and night.
Cynthia, the owner of the inn and resident “gourmet chef,” informed us when we arrived that breakfast was “at 8:00 a.m. sharp, in your street clothes.” Since we were all sharing one tiny bathroom, we had to start taking our showers at 6:30 in the morning in order to be dressed. If any of us was even a few minutes late, Cynthia would scold us into our chairs around the large circular table in the dining room. While we ate, we were subjected to her emphatic lectures, replete with maps and handouts and props and utterly devoid of any logic or historical accuracy whatsoever, about the history of Mount Desert Island. In between serving our three courses, she perched herself upon a stool on one side of the breakfast table and yammered on and on, preventing us from holding any conversations of our own.
But what she lacked in good sense and fact, Cynthia made up for in the staunch conviction that the idiotic nonsense she was making up as she went along was God’s own truth. For example, she told us that a Celtic coin from 400 B.C. (“the time of the Vikings”) had been found in Blue Hill on the mainland. (She was about 1,400 years too early for that detail to be even remotely plausible.) She also asserted that Maine had been discovered not by Champlain but by Ponce de Leon – which she pronounced as if it were a French name. She also told us her cat, a Maine coon (not actually), had belonged to Ernest Hemingway, and that her own daughter had earned two Master’s degrees, in business administration and in Cantonese, in two years from Yale. The daughter was reported to speak about ten languages fluently. Yale had apparently also sent this prodigy to Beijing to learn Mandarin.
The food was even better than the entertainment. And when I say “better,” I mean it was extraordinary. The Spice Lady’s culinary bravery knew no bounds. Our first morning, she served us a small dense loaf she called pioneer bread, which came with a lecture on its origins that included anecdotes about the Hebrews traveling through the Egyptian desert. The bread was followed by a plate of fruit covered with sticky triple sec and then a blueberry-filled crepe made of barley and covered with powdered sugar.
That evening, Kim and Jason and Aaron and I stood on the narrow landing outside our bedrooms for our glasses of port. There wasn’t enough room for any chairs, and six-foot-two Jason had to lean against the door jamb of the bathroom so as not to step on anyone’s feet. Cynthia brought a crystal decanter half-filled with the garnet-colored liquid on a tray with four crystal cordial glasses and deposited it on the short bookshelf between the two bedroom doors, then went mumbling back downstairs.
I was looking forward to the nightcap. We each took a glass, toasted each other, and then sipped. Jason was the first to speak, after his lips had stopped puckering. He smacked his tongue against his teeth a few times and grimaced.
“Tasty,” he said, putting his port back on the little tray.
I was disappointed by the rancid syrup, too. I like port. None of us liked this stuff.
The next morning, breakfast began again with spongy pioneer bread and moved onto a strawberry shortcake made of a pasty muffin which tasted like a dry scone that had been left in the oven for too long. The entrée was a soupy chive omelet with venison balls on the side. The meatball-like mounds were cooked in meringue and then dusted with powdered sugar. When Cynthia brought it out, she introduced it proudly as “the reason you all came to Maine.” My two-year-old niece, Samantha, who was given the exact same food we were but on smaller plates, looked down at her runny omelet and venison balls and said, “Yuck.”
That morning Cynthia informed us of the two leading theories on how Mount Desert Island had gotten its name. The first was that “a fat-cat, cigar-smoking rich guy” named Desert used to vacation there, but the explanation she preferred was that when Ponce de Leon was looking up at Cadillac Mountain at dawn, as the sun rose behind the mountain, it heated the ocean waters in front of the island, and the subsequent steam rose up and obscured the top of the mountain so that it seemed to de Leon that the mountain was deserting him. (We knew better, though, that the name came from the French word désert, meaning in some connotations “barren” and aptly describing rocky Cadillac Mountain and the surrounding terrain.)
That day, my sister-in-law Kim and I discussed our options during afternoon tea – two sweating glasses of Lipton on a rickety bistro table, on a small wooden deck off the breakfast room. We were shielded from the sun by overgrown morning glories and an anemic wisteria vine. Samantha was with us, leaning against Kim, who was gently sproinging the child’s ringlets to soothe her while we talked.
“Don’t feel bad,” Kim said to me. “There’s no way you could have known this place was run by a lunatic. The description in the brochure sounded good to us, too.”
“I guess,” I said, feeling pretty terrible that I’d persuaded them all to stay here. I looked past Kim through the sliding glass door to make sure Cynthia wasn’t eavesdropping. “But we can’t spend the whole week like this. Not with this awful food.”
“The Spice Lady is scary,” Samantha said carefully. Kim hugged her. “I know, honey. Don’t worry.” Samantha climbed onto her mother’s lap, and their folding chair creaked under the shift in weight.
After our watery tea had lost so much flavor that we couldn’t drink it anymore, we went inside to find Cynthia. We asked her if, since we were the only guests at the inn that week, we might postpone breakfast until 9:00, which wounded her to the core almost as deeply as our conciliatory requests for more simple fare. Not just for Samantha, who wanted Froot Loops, but also for us. I explained, “We aren’t used to such elaborate breakfasts,” and chuckled a little sheepishly that they were “wreaking havoc upon our metabolisms.” Cynthia agreed without even an attempt at graciousness.
The next morning we cheerfully came into the dining room just before 9:00. “Good morning!” we said.
Cynthia snapped, “Well good grief, it’s practically the afternoon!” and grumbled about her entire day’s schedule being thrown off. She informed us we could eat cereal if the Belgian waffles weren’t “simple enough” for us. The cereal was on the table, the bowls were stacked on the sideboard, and neither spoons nor milk was anywhere in sight.
Later that day, Cynthia ostentatiously put the inn up for sale. We even had to vacate our rooms while she marched a real estate agent through. We left for a couple of hours and when we came back, Aaron and I walked into our room to find Cynthia leaning over our bed, the comforter folded back to the foot of the mattress, ironing the sheets.
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So what is your weirdest travel episode? Please comment and share your story.