"So, Mohawks are a thing again?" Two in my class of twenty seems like enough that maybe they are a thing. They were during one of my previous incarnations as a student, way back, in the Time Forgotten, before cell phones and Starbucks and well, the internet. I've been back many times since I was plopped out on the sidewalk with my B.F.A., blinking in the sunshine before wandering back into the nearest registrar's office where things were cool and dim and familiar. They don't tell you that. They don't tell you "You'll be back." But you will. Drawing, writing, art history, that ill-conceived foray into interior design. You'll be back.
I used to be able to blend. Thanks maybe to good genes, but probably mostly an avoidance of grown-up clothes with zippers and linings and darts, I never stood out as one of Them. You remember Them, those students who were always obviously so much older, who had no qualms about asking question after question after question, keeping the rest of the class from an early Friday night beer, who clearly had screwed up so utterly, so completely in their Real Lives. Why else would they voluntarily be back in a classroom with all of our fresh young faces?
It's hard to blend when you have to take off your reading glasses to see the board and put them back on to see your notes, when that glass of wine you had with dinner is making you wish you'd thrown Pepcid into your bag and you find yourself frowning in a most mom-like fashion at the trend of exposed bra-straps (on purpose! Who goes out like that?).
But I'm back, just for fun. School is fun now. There are cell phones and Starbucks and this thing called the internet (there's free wifi in the classroom, just sitting there! We're not supposed to be online, but one teeny tiny peek at Facebook never hurt anyone right?). I look around at all the lovely, fresh young faces, so full of angst and vampire stories and the great unknown, and I think, "yes, as it should be." I am one of Them.
One of the traditional holiday decor items of my childhood was a plastic candelabra with orange bulbs. Each window of our house got one and it was my sister 's and my job to run around turning them on at dusk and then off before bed. Every Christmas Eve, we were allowed to leave our candelabra on during the night. As a neurotic child prone to insomnia, I loved this. The warm orange glow in my room was the bonfire that kept back the scary creatures of the night that were for sure lurking just beyond its light, ready to spring. I'm a neurotic adult now, prone to insomnia, and have to keep my bedroom pitch black or sleep eludes me. But tonight, this winter solstice night, I will keep the tree lights burning, my own ancient bonfire holding back the darkness.
I have a secret. It is not one I share often, especially with young impressionable minds. Mine is a secret so shameful I can hardly speak the words, but I feel I must share it now, so that all that comes after will seem wondrous. As a young child, I was a...a... a QUITTER.
There. I've said it. Whew. That's right, I was a quitter. It started innocently enough. The year was 1976, and my elementary school was in a fervor of patriotic extra-curricular activities. I somehow found myself elected to the Bicentennial Club, an organization much like Student Council, but devoted to the reporting of aforementioned patriotic activities. I think I attended two, maybe three meetings. Even the requisite small notepad with spiral bound top, something that said, "I have important things to say, so sit down and shut up," could not hold my interest. My blowing off of that post was clearly forgotten a couple of years later when I was elected to the real Student Council. One meeting, tops. Church choir, quit. Clarinet, quit. Piano, well, I WANTED to quit, but by that point my parents were pretty sure they were raising a future deadbeat and so I was force-marched to lessons.
I blame the fact that every group, every organized activity interfered with recess. And if there was one favorite time of day for me, it was recess. I had no interest in athletic activities (had I ever actually begun such a thing I can assure you it would have ended with a major quit). Four square and dodge ball were the banes of my existence, but my friends and I whiled away hours and hours with on-going action-adventure sagas. With a nod to the Little House on the Prairie style of dramatic storytelling, it was one continuous blizzard/scarlet fever outbreak, blizzard/starvation or blizzard/mountain rescue for the better part of first through fourth grade. I had no time for plodding meetings. Besides, if one was late arriving at the recess rendezvous point, one got stuck in the role of the dog.
As a recent grown-up, I can no longer avoid group activities, but still find myself glancing at the clock as my rear-end goes numb and trying to remember why exactly I signed up for eight hundred million hours in a metal folding chair. I am still not a joiner, so it was with no small measure of trepidation that I committed myself to National Picture Book Writers Week or NaPiBoWriWee, begun three years ago by author Paula Yoo (www.paulayoo.com) as a way to help children's book writers of all levels achieve that most difficult of tasks: beginning. Participants are asked to write seven picture book manuscripts in seven days, and no, it is not that easy to write picture books. These are meant to be horrible, awful, embarrassingly crappy first drafts, not suitable for public consumption, but again, a beginning, words on a blank page, something to build on for the rest of the year. Like so many of my illustrator counterparts, I have many nebulous story ideas rolling around in my brain, several Word folders with quirky titles, a list of concepts for "someday." Could I actually keep my butt in a chair long enough to turn seven of them into stories or would I revert to my organized activity defense mechanism and quit?
Thanks to daily blog pep talks from Paula, and daily interviews with authors and illustrators and of course the lure of prizes at the end (names drawn from a hat, no actually reading of crappy drafts involved), I did it, and yes, I feel a real sense of accomplishment. I realized that even banging something out in the last hour or two of the day can count, can be something workable. Do I have seven stories with potential? No. Do I have two or three? Yes, absolutely. Am I wishing that I had stuck out Bicentennial Club? Nah.
It is the kind of coffee shop you would expect to find in Portland or Seattle. An old maintenance garage, adorned with mid-century modern fixtures and poured concrete floors, what urban hipsters everywhere imagine heaven's waiting room looks like, complete with heavily tattooed angels bearing espresso and vegan muffins. My friend and I meet here occasionally, mainly because if we squint and talk loud, we can blur out the crush of harried moms and screaming toddlers and pretend we're breathing the rarefied culture-filled air of one of the aforementioned cities, instead of sipping lattes in semi-rural desert suburbia with plans to stop and check the Old Navy clearance rack on the way home. On this day, it was particularly busy. Maybe it was a school holiday. The place was packed and the line long. With plenty of time to choose a caffeine delivery method, we turned to the Plexiglas case of baked goods. The artfully arranged piles of treats looked ready for their Martha Stewart Living cover debut, but one stack of butter/sugar/flour outshone them all. Cupcakes, with thick swirls of pink frosting and a sparkling crust of coarse sugar glinted in the early morning sunshine. Oh, we wanted one, yes indeed, maybe two, maybe two and one for later. Next up to order, poised to plunk down whatever amount they were asking per cupcake, I froze mid-sentence as movement caught my eye. There, in the case, taking a leisurely stroll across one of the pink confections was the biggest house fly I had ever seen. Whether you are averse to the saliva a fly coughs up whenever it finds a food source, or just the fact that they land on everything--manure, road kill, public restroom toilet seats--most folks prefer to just say no to fly-pawed food. We were no exception. Closer inspection revealed that the case had no back, just a sneeze guard, and the restrooms were, in fact, right around the corner. The solemn vow was made right there on the spot to never eat anything from that case, EVER.
A few moments later, while we sat idly sipping our beverages in the Phoenix sunshine, we saw a young lady with a skip in her step and a pink cupcake shining in its plastic blister box. After a brief debate over the merits of telling her that the black specks were maybe not errant pepper, we decided ignorance was bliss and watched as she broke open her prize, crammed half in her mouth and drove away. We looked at each other, amused and slightly nauseated, and decided that somewhere in there was a truth, a life lesson if you will, only we couldn't settle on which. Sometimes life is a pink cupcake and sometimes it's fly poop? When life gives you a pink cupcake ask where it came from before biting? We never did agree on what to embroider on the pillow, but personally, I think it is always wise, when handed a giant sparkling over-the-top, pink cupcake, to have a good friend who will remind you to scrape the icing off. You still end up with cake.