No, no, no, this can't be happening.
No, no, no, no, nooooooooo it can't be, no...not...not...
THE MIDDLE SEAT!
I can't believe this. I know I double, no, TRIPLE checked. I always, always get a window, always. I would never, ever choose the MIDDLE! Wait, let's look again...28E. E. Row 28 D, E...F.
Kill me now.
You'd better believe I'm pulling that arm rest down mister, and it's MINE, you got the window, you lean on it. What? Why is she talking to me? Do I look like a chatterer? I'm in the middle seat lady, what do you think? Talk to that guy across the aisle, and keep that vermin-ridden blanket off my leg. I should have taken an extra Dramamine, and maybe a Benedryl. I am not going to be sufficiently comatose to survive four hours in the MIDDLE SEAT. Oh my God, what is that smell? Is someone, no really, he can't be, he IS. Who changes a baby diaper in an airplane seat? Am I the only one who SMELLS THAT? I...I must be, she is seriously unwrapping a sandwich. Is she, oh no, ugh, is she going to EAT while he does that?
I'm not trying to sleep to loudly for you, am I dude? How about you turn that Shuffle up one more notch, your ears aren't bleeding yet.
O.K. it must be almost over, right? Is that still the same movie? Oh no , it is. Aaaagggghhhh it's only been ten minutes. That's it, I have died and gone to MIDDLE SEAT purgatory. I'm pretty sure my foot has swollen to three times it's normal size and I think my spine is telescoping. My neck pillow is overstuffed. It's perfect to lean against the window with, but I feel like I'm at the dentist in the MIDDLE SEAT.
No, no that was great, hey you tried to cover that sneeze. The fact that it came shooting out the sides of your cupped hand and hit my cheek is really not your fault. Just a few peanut crumbs, no biggie. Please, please, please put your shoes back on.
Is it over? Oh yes, solid ground. We're here. Just a few more minutes. O.K. then... alright...O.K...PARK THE FREAKIN' PLANE ALREADY!
Anytime you want to start moving lady. You've got, you know, all that stuff, your giant purse, that pink Harley Davidson suitcase, that half eaten sandwich... I mean, it would help me out if you could get going. I did keep my mouth shut when you kept talking on your cell phone after the flight attendant had said it should be turned off and stowed, soooo...
Sorry, didn't mean to smack you in the face with my bag, and almost knock you unconscious as I charged up the aisle, but I've been in the MIDDLE SEAT for four hours. You understand.
Forgive me readers, it has been two months since my last post. My work load has picked up considerably, and by considerably I mean I finally have some after the economic meltdown of last year that left most of us scrounging in the couch cushions for grocery money, if one was lucky to still have a couch and hadn"t traded it for toilet paper or a shot at being first in line for the grocery bagging job.
In between juggling assignments, updating my Facebook status and expressing my deep disgust, both verbally and through the written word, of the final Lost episode, time has flown by.
This is typical for life here in the trenches. Projects never come nicely spaced, and if they do the space is soon eliminated by some crisis of biblical magnitude, anything from an editor going on vacation and "forgetting" to send you the revisions, to the washing machine deciding that draining the dirty water is too much trouble and it will wait for you to do it with a length of tubing and some lung power.
No matter how carefully one plans and schemes and pores over the calendar, it will never be a leisurely pace to the finish. Never. No, no, trust me, NE-VER. Remember those frantic college all-nighters? That is your life on freelancing, and unless you consider that grocery bagging job fun (it"s not) you will be thankful for it. Your social life will consist solely of the aforementioned Facebook updates, which is good considering personal hygiene also takes a back seat when deadlines loom. I like to alternate between Facebook and checking my website stats. For us regular Janes, even those of us who rocketed well past the planet of the horribly jaded in middle school, there is always the faintest glimmer of hope--maybe I"m about to be discovered (by whom and for what remains a bit nebulous). Maybe that hit from Moosebutt, Alaska is an editor on vacation. Perhaps right now, he is being wowed by the depth and skill of my work. Maybe he is picking up the phone RIGHT NOW. Maybe...huh? What? Oh right, right...where was I? You know on some level that it"s more likely your mom"s hairdresser"s cousin who just happens to be writing a children"s book and will soon be contacting you about some pro bono work, but still...checking one more time can"t hurt, can it?
The thing about stats that is the most fun for me is seeing all the different hits from countries other than the U.S. I usually get a nice handful each week from all over the globe, but recently noticed a deluge of hits from China, dozens! A little worried that I was suddenly on a watch list somewhere, I clicked on the referring link and found myself on a Chinese website, which roughly translated by Google (and I mean VERY roughly, as in surely there"s a verb in this sentence) turned out to be a site where people in China post illustration websites they"ve found and like. How cool is that! Me! Big in China! O.K. fine, maybe "big" is overstating it, but it gives me a little thrill anyway. We illustrators tend to lead a very isolated existence, shuffling to the mailbox in our slippers at four in the afternoon pretty much sums up most days" outings, and to think that somewhere, on the other side of the world, another human being and I crossed paths in a way that could never, ever have happened before, well, that"s pretty darn cool. I spend a few minutes wondering about those folks, the ones who liked my website. What did they have for dinner? Where do they like to go for fun? What does their house look like? Where did they get that rug on the floor? And for a minute I feel a little more connected to my fellow human beings on this incredibly small planet.
Then it"s back to work.
SARS, then bird flu, and now the first global pandemic in decades, H1N1. Finally, FINALLY, the germa-phobes of the world are cool. No longer do we need hide behind the turtlenecks we’ve pulled up over our noses, trying our best not to breathe in that giant mucous droplet-filled sneeze you just unleashed. When we glare in disgust at your uncovered, tubercular hack while waiting in line at the airport ticket counter, fervently praying to the gods that you will not be our seatmate for the next five hours, and that you will, in fact, be barred from boarding altogether and possibly walled into your own house, we are not alone. Everyday folks, people who will voluntarily eat from those unattended sample trays at the grocery store, heedless of the two snotty kids who just pawed through them, even they join us in our censorship now. Those of us too long relegated to the “weirdo” category simply because we can SEE the thick, writhing layer of viruses and bacteria that coat each and every object and person we come in contact with during the course of a day, can now squirt our Purell proudly. As a kid I had several bouts with strep throat, all before entering the third grade. The pediatrician, who would prescribe the orange flavored antibiotic liquid for the whole family as a preventative, and thus took his place among the fathers of drug resistant flesh eating bacteria, told my mother that I probably had picked it up from the drinking fountains at school. As a result, I successfully navigated my entire school career, and yes that includes college, without ever ONCE touching a drinking fountain. I consider it quite the accomplishment. Like most of the health conscious (we prefer this term to germ-phobic or nutter) I have several at-home, College of Google, degrees: medicine, biology, and of course epidemiology. That scratchy throat and runny nose you had three weeks ago? Your co-worker used your telephone, blatantly disregarding the tub of Clorox wipes prominently displayed on your desk. That intestinal distress you experienced two months ago? The barista at Starbucks pressed the lid on your triple chai soy latte with her fresh from the lavatory, yet unwashed fingers right over the mouth hole. The flu you were down for the count with for two whole weeks last winter? The unvaccinated waiter sneezed on the entire bin of mini-muffins before stocking your salad bar at T.G.I.McCrappy’s.
Finally, the word is out: disease is not due to going out in the cold without a hat, those mean thoughts you had about your grandmother or a misalignment of your chakras—it is germs, people. GERMS. Wash those hands, cover those coughs and don’t touch any of my stuff. We germaphobes are standing proud, not holding hands or anything because who knows where theirs have been, but standing together, as one.
I broke down and took a Benadryl last night, after a brief back and forth with hubby about whether two nights in a row made me an addict. I felt better after he pointed out that I was taking the age twelve and under recommended dosage. Lying awake long after every other creature is snoring annoyingly is nothing new; neither is waking at three a.m. to jab a sharp stick into the overgrown shrubbery of my psyche until the sun rises. I have been a master worrier since grade school, and bedtime has always been when I really hone my craft. My mom, in an attempt to reassure her bafflingly neurotic kid, would try to offer words of comfort. "Ninety-nine percent of the things we worry about never happen." Aaaaaaaaggggghhhh!" I was no fool! That left a full ONE PERCENT of horrible, awful things that could and in all likelihood WOULD befall me at any moment. This was the early seventies, before anyone knew what anxiety disorders and serotonin re-uptake inhibitors were. All you could do was go to the pediatrician and look on helplessly as he wrote "hypochondriac" in your kid's file and eyed you and your parenting skills suspiciously. At some point I glommed onto the idea that not sleeping put me at risk for untold horrors, no doubt disfiguring and probably deadly. I am sure it was an innocuous statement along the lines of, "go to bed, you need your rest," but it was enough to send me into a panic if I was not in dreamland within .5 seconds of my head touching the pillow. Apparently unable to grasp the concept that staying in bed might be helpful, I would creep from room to room, trying not to look at the glowing digital clock on my dad's desk and confirm the fact that yes, I WAS NOT SLEEPING. I knew how to avoid every creaky floorboard and probably succeeded in giving both of my parents a royal case of the heebies each time I would materialize in the hallway next to the t.v. room during the Rockford Files. "Laura...go back to bed," my dad would order without even looking, alerted to my spectral presence by the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. Fortunately, not every sleepless night led to haunting the prime time line-up. I have many memories of reading books by the nightlight in the hall. During the summer, I could sometimes be found, had anyone actually been AWAKE besides me, kneeling in front of a window, forehead pressed against the screen watching fireflies in the lawn below, the humid breeze cooling my face. While I will be the first in line to smack the smug off of the person who coined the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" platitude, I don't think I would trade any of those nights for the sweet coma of NyQuil on an empty stomach. I wish I could say that I eventually outgrew that nightly routine, that the guided relaxation exercises, the ocean's relaxing surf tapes, the medicine cabinet of sleep aids finally quieted the clamor of past mistakes made and future disasters awaiting. Hubby wishes I could say it too, instead of sighing loudly and fluffing my pillow furiously and often, disturbing his irritatingly deep and restful sleep. Three a.m. still comes for me, like it does for pretty much everyone I know at this point in life, and while I am much more likely to plot entire novels, and promptly forget them come morning, or plan my weekly schedule down to what I will have for a snack on Wednesday, I still occasionally get up and wander into the backyard, stretch out on a lounge chair under the full moon and try very hard to appreciate being awake.
I live in semi-rural suburbia, and as a member of the Artsy-Fartsy tribe, I am something of an anomaly because I love the 'burbs. Occasionally, I pine for an art store that sells something other than scrapbooking kits, but that's why they invented the Internet and overnight shipping. I'll take the deep quiet of a dark night and easy access to Super Target and all things caffeinated.
The monsoon is back in Arizona.
While it typically means a nasty rise in humidity, which coupled with a hundred degrees plus will cause even the most prudish resident to consider the nudist lifestyle, it is still my favorite time of year. The desert is a harsh environment; something easy to forget for those of us fortunate to have comforts like air conditioning and ice cream sandwiches, but the monsoon makes us sit up and pay attention--immense clouds, thousands of lightning strikes and sudden flooding rains. Plus, every year, despite numerous public service announcements warning against it, some nitwit tries to cross a flooded wash and ends up being rescued off the roof of a car he apparently confused with a pontoon boat. The hours of local news coverage and smug snickering by reporters and viewers alike ensures the guilty party will be forced to relocate under an assumed name.
You can’t buy entertainment like that.
I have been working on writing some children’s book manuscripts, including one about the monsoon here in AZ. Like most illustrators, I have a drawer full of half-baked ideas in various stages of development. I’ve gotten some positive feedback over the years, but was always busy with illustration work. So the stories were put on the back burner, along with the print making, mosaic making, quilting, oil painting, batiking, gourmet cooking, a degree in neuroscience, and losing five pounds. Enter economic downturn, and I find myself with time to revisit and perhaps fully cook to golden crispy perfection some of these ideas. So, when I’m not out snapping photos of the monsoon, I will be writing, and pointing and laughing at the latest doofus to be rescued off his car.
I’ve been out of the loop for a bit, suffering the medieval horror of slow Internet service. Not completely lacking it, but realizing that I do have a price and it is a high speed cable modem. I took a little trip to Colorado, which was beautiful and inspiring and relaxing, all of which was wiped away courtesy of United Airlines Express, a broken plane, a hail storm and eight hours in the Aspen airport. Aspen may be the playground of the rich and famous, but they don’t stop at the airport. Their private jets glide right on by us regular folk, who wait in vain for the one turbo prop plane that still has all its parts, without even a stick of gum to amuse us-that’s right, small, barely pressurized airplanes and the Aspen airport is GUM-FREE.
I took a lot of pictures on my trip. Breathtaking scenery, quirky small-town details, the occasional slumming celebrity “keeping it real” in the ex-mining towns where I was staying, and I have to say, upon reviewing them, I am an AWFUL photographer. You would think an illustrator would be able to take a reasonably well-composed photo, that light and shadow would be dynamic, that the focal point would be clear. Sadly, for me it is not the case, even with the “couldn't be more simple” point and shoot digital camera I was using. Perhaps it was growing up in the age of the Kodak 110, maybe it was all those years I used a Polaroid to shoot reference photos of hubby posing as whichever character I was illustrating (elderly Asian woman, eight year old child, middle-aged man with rake), not really caring how the photo turned out since I would be changing all but the basic pose in my art. Maybe it is never actually reading the instruction manual that came with the camera. In any case, I have vowed to do better. I will pay more attention and take better photos both for pleasure and for reference. I will put costumes on my models and light them from a single source. I will not just point and shoot without so much as a glance at the viewfinder. And finally, let me just say, thank the gods for Photoshop.
I just received an e-mail from my publisher. It was from the reviews department. They send the authors and illustrators copies of all reviews published about their books. This is something of a double edged sword. One knows that opening such e-mails will result in either warm feelings of appreciation or kicked in the stomach nausea and prompt construction of a reviewer voodoo doll, complete with teeny, tiny laxative pills. One must always brace oneself before clicking "open".
I’m trying to learn Painter. I love my traditional media, watercolor and pastels, but some disturbing “side effects” have become bothersome, mainly the scratchy throat and rainbow snot, or “Muppet Lung” that days of inhaling the dust produce. I’ve tried masks, but they always go the way of turtlenecks and my nighttime mouth guard (“I’m choking! I’m gagging! Aaccckkk!”), and the offending article hits the wall on the other side of the room. So here I sit in front of the computer.
To understand the enormity of this undertaking, you have to realize that I haven’t yet mastered printing an envelope from Word. I have a love/hate relationship with my computer. E-mail? Complete adoration. Google? Deep, deep affection. Mayo Clinic symptom checker, how did I survive to adulthood without you? Large program requiring, at the very least, a reading of an Oxford English Dictionary-sized manual, and multiple online tutorials, which start to feel uncomfortably like school, and not fun art class school, but “Laura needs to pay attention and stop chatting in the coat racks” school, and well, whoa, this is going a little fast. Let’s just be friends. Lucky for me, I have a live-in IT guy who I rely on to troubleshoot, tutor and frankly, do my homework for me. A typical session usually goes as follows:
Interior: Laura sits in front of her computer, staring blankly at the screen. She moves the mouse, clicks tentatively, clicks again, and clicks again furiously.
“No, no, no! Wait, AAAGGGHHHH, wait! Why are you doing that? AAGGGHHHH!! Crrrrraaaiiiigggg!”
Beleaguered husband enters, stands behind chair.
“What are you doing? Wait, why are you clicking that? Stop clicking. No. STOP CLICKING! O.K. move.” Hubby sits down to untangle mess that is Word envelope tool. Laura exits stage left for another cup of coffee.
Unfortunately, hubby has gotten wise to me, and the day I pulled my new Wacom from the box, made it clear I was on my own. He refuses to become familiar with Painter much in the same way I refuse to learn how to light the grill—do it once and suddenly you’re cooking every night. So here I sit. I know how I want it to look. I am just going to have to work hard (sigh) and practice (groan). I think I need another cup of coffee.
“Craig have you seen the manual?”
No one will ever confuse me with Martha Stewart. I don’t understand people who make their own soap when there are Targets, and organizing my closet means shutting the door. I have two dogs whose missions in life are to shed as much hair as possible and slobber on anything not covered by an old bath towel. If the house doesn’t smell like a disreputable pet store, I’m happy. Unfortunately, this attitude can clash with a favorite social activity, the dinner party. Given my blasé approach to housecleaning, such occasions require several days of intensive preparation. I’m O.K. with hubby lint rolling dog hair tumbleweeds off his clothes after five minutes on the couch, but I prefer maintaining the House Beautiful illusion for guests. This is especially important if the guests aren’t the typical assortment of artistic neurotics usually found drinking my Three Buck Chuck, but are guests I want to impress, guests more along the lines of Ted and Betsy Lewin, Caldecott award winners.
Mary Wong, a librarian and children’s art collector, asked if I’d escort the Lewins to one of their school visits and have them over for dinner while they were in town. Mary knows everyone in the biz and frequently throws dinner parties involving multiple courses for visiting authors and illustrators at her dog-free, and thus immaculate, house. Mary sets the bar high, and Thursday, my day with the Lewins, was fast approaching.
Tuesday evening, I surveyed the scene. I needed to run the vacuum, but decided to wait so that the dogs would have the minimum amount of time to strew hair and assorted vegetation from the yard all over the house. The floor resembled a stuffed toy killing field, with the recently purchased three pack of migratory birds plucked and disemboweled across the living room. I had begun setting the table, spending a long time first locating the cloth napkins that only saw the light of day on major holidays, and then deciding whether the odd marks on them were stains or part of the pattern.
I had worked out that afternoon, and figured that was more than enough license to make the chocolate hazelnut brownies I was planning for desert on Thursday, and employ my tried and true baking technique of two thirds batter in the pan, one third in me. I debated over tackling the three week pile of ironing over the back of the dining room chair, or giving my full attention to Wheel of Fortune. The ironing had just won out when the door bell rang.
“Six-thirty on a Tuesday, who the…aarrgghh, I bet its Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are always bugging us, ringing the doorbell…” I usually try to be polite to the peddlers of salvation that show up on my front porch, I mean it can’t hurt, covering one’s proverbial butt, but tonight I was sweaty, covered in dog hair and most likely sporting a chocolate mustache, the elastic in my workout duds was threatening to give way at any moment, and I still had fifteen Post- It notes worth of preparations to do. I was in NO MOOD to smile and pretend I could ever conceivably join a religion that didn’t celebrate birthdays.
“Could you answer that?” I asked hubby, who was wrestling the little dog, shearing off the three months worth of coat that had turned an English Cocker into something resembling a dust mop with eyes. Hubby looked at me and then down at the giant clumps of hair that covered him from crotch to neck like a Sasquatch with mange, and that pretty much gave me my answer.
I stalked off, scraping my stringy hair back with a headband that doubled as a dog chew and flung the front door open, ready to send some unsuspecting Witnesses scurrying back down my driveway.
Except it wasn’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It wasn’t the Mormons. It wasn’t even some kid selling magazine subscriptions in a valiant effort to keep himself off drugs. No, it was Mary Wong. And the Lewins.
For a split second I thought maybe it was Thursday. Oh my god it’s Thursday. I forgot. I forgot to take them to their school visit! They’re here to yell at me, tell me what a bad, bad person I am, how I ruined their trip…no, no wait, it’s not Thursday. It’s Tuesday. It’s Tuesday.
“It’s Tuesday,” I proclaimed to Mary. “Tuesday!”
“Yes,” she said, “dinner was Tuesday.”
“Thursday,” I sputtered, “dinner, Thursday,” my growing embarrassment rendering me incapable of complete sentences.
“No, dinner was on Tuesday, the school visit is Thursday,” Mary said again, no doubt wondering how she had managed to miss my obvious below average intelligence up until this point.
For another brief moment I contemplated faking it. Oh, of course it’s today, hahaha, got ya! But considering I was not wearing a bra and had my thick black glasses on, which when I’m dressed up look chic, but paired with a sweat-stained tank top and saggy shorts make me look like a Florida retiree circa 1957, I decided to just surrender and admit I had flaked.
I broke the land speed record for changing into something more presentable while hubby whisked the ironing and dog clippings into dark corners and managed to go from Phoenix Suns gorilla lookalike to mild-mannered English professor faster than the Sauvignon Blanc could be uncorked. I threw together a pasta puttanesca, some garlic bread and salad and was grateful for the chocolate monkey on my back that had prodded me to bake the brownies. The Lewins and Mary graciously overlooked the dog hair tumbleweeds, the drool stains on the old blanket that covers the “good”, equally stained couch, and laughed and ate and drank and told stories on the patio under the star-filled Arizona sky. It was a perfect evening.
Working home alone every day breeds a special kind of crazy. Getting dressed quickly becomes optional; "extras" like socks and shoes disappear entirely, and whole mornings can be lost pondering the minutia of personal grooming: the symmetry of eyebrows, the odd mole on my forearm, bangs brushed to the left or right. Pass my open window on any given day, and you will hear me discussing current events or the aforementioned odd mole with Hopper and Lucy. Hopper and Lucy are my dogs. It is a fast, slippery slope down into the category of "oddball." Even so, I consider myself to still be clinging to a few basic social skills. I can chat with the cashier. I hold up my end of the conversation at the local urgent care when getting that mole checked. I can tell jokes that don't involve the word "poop." In fact, I find myself hilarious. I crack myself up for hours adding my own little subversions to my illustrations. When I was working on Animal Mischief, a book of silly poems by Rob Jackson, I spent a great deal of time giggling and snorting at my own cleverness. My favorite poem, entitled "What's In a Name," called into question the naming of various types of penguins. They were all "male": Emperor Penguins, King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins. Oh the fun I had sketching out a bunch of penguin school girls being handed their king costumes by the large-fannied headmistress. I laughed and laughed. I was prepared to share the hilarity when my art director called with the comments on my sketches.
No one could possibly want to go to Tucson. This is what the AZ Department of Transportation apparently thought when they made the decision to close all of the exits from I-10 save the first one. Miss it and you'll be having lunch in Nogales. By some stroke of unusual good fortune, I did not miss it, having spent the last hour of a two hour drive from Phoenix hunched over the wheel squinting intently at each and every sign on the highway, from "Slow Workers Ahead" to the long abandoned Nickerson Farms turnoff (Nickerson Farms being the west of the Mississippi version of Stuckey's, nut logs included.) I arrived at the University of Arizona's 17th Annual Conference on Literature and Literacy for Children and Adolescents, dusty and nearly blind, but ready for my presentation. The theme of this year's conference was Bridging Cultures-Crossing Borders and the featured guests were Pam Munoz Ryan and Rafael Lopez, both of whom have their own blogs I'm sure. MY breakout session topic was Drawing a Bridge: The Challenges and Rewards of Illustrating Another Culture, and I talked primarily about illustrating the books The Best Eid Ever and A Party in Ramadan for Boyds Mills Press. What began as a typical Power Point show became a lively discussion about differences and similarities between cultures, religions, even age groups (kids today with their hair and their music...). One of my goals in illustrating these two particular books was to make the story accessible to all kids, to show the similarities that bind us all together: love of family, sharing with others and attempting new and difficult challenges. The group consensus seemed to be that the book was successful in this respect, as well as being a much needed addition to libraries that are sadly lacking in books for kids who practice the Muslim faith. The day ended with a signing out in the Arizona sunshine complete with a Mariachi group from Davis Bilingual Magnet School. Normally, one might cringe when an eight year old steps up to the mike with a trumpet, but these kids were magnificent, talented and really, really cute, as the twenty photos I snapped can attest to.
I don't go downtown often. If someone says they live in downtown Phoenix, the first response is usually "why?" There's light rail now, and impressive sports arenas, but try and find a sandwich after five o'clock. Then IRA came to town and I had books to sign and swag to amass. I set my GPS, which is the gift from the gods my directionally challenged soul has been asking for its entire, turned around life, giving me a freedom not known since I decided to wear shorts under my skirt to play on the monkey bars, and headed for the convention center. The economic day of reckoning being upon us, attendance was underwhelming, but for this illustrator, meeting folks and signing books is always a thrill. Brittany from Boyds Mills Press was the ultimate booth manager: calm, friendly and unflappable, something I envy as I tend to start flapping at the slightest provocation. We got a lot of books out there, and I went home with a nifty tote bag.