This one's interactive to the MAX!

On Saturday morning I checked out a Tai Chi class in the YMCA, which was... not as calorie-burning as I might have hoped. Turns out I probably should have read something about Tai Chi before I went. But what the hell, another experience, right?

Anyhoo, when I got home from the gym I decided to hang out with Oscar for a bit. And by that, I mean that I tried to capture his SWEET jumping actions on camera. He was not exactly participating in the way I wanted him to when suddenly the phone rang. Too bad I don't coincidentally have a video of that... OH WAIT.

Oscar jumping from Jen Epting on Vimeo.

The doorman tells me that I have a delivery and my first reaction was "Huh. Must be the wrong apartment." No, he assures me, the name is Jen Epting. I offered to go downstairs to get it and he said no, no, the delivery man would deliver it. To ME. At which point I felt a little like a hillbilly, and so then I jumped around the kitchen for a few minutes while the delivery man took the elevator up to our floor.

And look at what I got! It's from that damn sweet boyfriend of mine, a whole bouquet of fruit for a healthy start to the week!

Totally made my weekend.

Since this post already has one cat video involved, here's one more for good measure. Oscar enjoys our deck almost more than we do. If one of us makes a move towards the deck door, he's immediately underfoot, meowing. And once he gets out there, he spends a lot of time pondering life.

When it's time to go inside, Oscar acts a little like a toddler. He flops down onto his belly and refuses to move, whining the whole way. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a tantrum (complete with French threats... )

Oscar whines about coming inside from Jen Epting on Vimeo.


Knowing what you want.

I haven't seen Eat Pray Love yet and I've been reluctant to. It was such an important book for me (one that I continue to come back to every so often) and though I have nothing against Julia Roberts, I'm skeptical of any film adaptation. This morning I read the review of this film in this week's New Yorker and one particular section hit me like a ton of bricks.

The reviewer, Richard Brody, is describing Billy Crudup and James Franco's performances, as Liz's husband and the man she leaves him for. Brody suggests that these two actors aren't given anything to play. They are to play vague, attractive men (in all senses of the word)… men who are to be left by a woman. 

"When Liz walks out on him, she becomes depressed and guilty, but we can't imagine what she has lost by leaving either of these two men."

Here's the funny thing. One of the things I'm struggling with the most right now is writing the character of the man who is left behind. Who is he? What type of man is left? I've been positive that, as soon as I can figure that out, I can write a compelling Jeff. But after reading this review, I think I know what my problem has been.

Any man can be left. There's no template, though we want it to be so. We want to say "see him? He got left. Don't be like that." or any other number of templates we look at in our lives. "See her? She got fired. Don't be like that." etc, ad nauseum.

The truth is that the male character is background noise in these instances. All they need to be is believable as men. The "left" adjective is only relevant because of the female character -- and SHE'S the one you have to watch out for. SHE'S the one who has a template.

Liz Gilbert in EPL and Margaret in my story (and innumerable other women I know and have known who have suddenly decided to up and leave their lives) have one thing in common: they don't know what they want. It's not a critique, but it's the truth. I myself was in this position four years ago when I struggled through a really difficult break-up. France or US? Teaching or not? Brie or cheddar? I didn't know what I wanted, and the person who was joined to me at the time suffered for it.

So how can we avoid that happening? How do we avoid some portion of mid-life crises, people who rushed into marriage and kids and who now wake up 20 years in, realizing there was so much to explore before they settled down? I think you have to make the hard decisions, prepare yourself to know what you want. And if you don't know, then no one else is going to figure it out for you.

The worst people to date are the aimless, because sooner or later they're going to wander away. Liz Gilbert was a great example of that... and she wandered until she stopped. And then she had it figured out.

I wandered for a while, a long time, before I figured out what I want. And now I have it. That's not to say that I have the most perfect life ever (because I don't), but there is a really deep sense of peace that I feel in my current relationship that I haven't felt in others. Is part of that because Chris is who he is? Absolutely. But is another (big) part of that because I got myself in a good place first?

You betcha.


The one in which organization fights fat... and wins!

Chris left on Tuesday to go camping and canoeing in Wisconsin with his buddies and Oscar and I have been holding down the roost. Is that even the expression? Holding down the rooster? The roof? Ah well, all roosters and roofs accounted for over here, thankyouverymuch.

The first thing I did after Chris left (literally...) was to walk over to the grocery store near work and buy some spinach. You know me- getting CRA-ZY when the man goes out of town! You know what I was making? A spinach smoothie the next morning for breakfast, which I may have referenced on this blog before. It got wild up in this piece, let me tell you. I drank a whole glass of what looked like algae sewage and tasted like peanut butter and banana. If there was ever a don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover moment of my life, it was my first sip of that green smoothie. Luckily I survived and it was pretty delicious. I may even make it again, maybe even when Chris is back in town, despite my fear of waking him when I use the blender at the crack of dawn.

The smoothie is part of a larger plan. Evelyn emailed me the other day to tell me about her honeymoon. "I ate dessert every day!" she said, and I realized that I eat like I'm on my honeymoon all the time. I don't know why, but I like the sweet stuff. Her comment, combined with my recent realization that I do not feel too healthy, has inspired a more organized week of eating well. Hence the algae smoothie.

It's boring to be the person who watches what they eat, but it's even more boring to be the person who keeps running into the same wall, year after year. I'll be 30 in January. It feels time not to tweak, but to change.

So here's what I did. On Monday, I listed out meals for the entire week. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were planned and I used that plan to help me figure out what to buy at the grocery store. I also wrote out what social stuff I had (dinner, coffees, birthday parties). And finally, I added in a column called "Exercise" and I filled in a class that I was interested in attending at the gym every other day. My week was planned out and here are some things I've learned so far:

1. It is much, much easier to make a healthy decision about what to eat when it's planned ahead of time.
2. It's much, much easier to make it to the gym when it's on your schedule.
3. It's still possible to be spontaneous when your schedule is as planned as the Dugger's. Why just last night I watched a movie and took a bath, both of which were impulse activities.

My job has become a little more complicated of late; I'm managing a new client and having some cool opportunities to grow. New responsibility is great, except that it comes with a heavy burden of decision-making. It was nice this week not to have to waste my brain space on stupid decisions, like what to make for dinner, but to have that already worked out ahead of time.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Pilates class to get ready for and a chicken spinach dish to prepare. CAUSE IT'S ON THE PLAN.


Les livres de 2010, round 7

Here we go, folks. Jumping right in:

23. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Alright. It is seriously time to lay the smack-down on the marketing team behind this book. Here is the teaser text that appeared on the inside-front-cover:

We don't want to tell you WHAT HAPPENS in this book.
It is a truly SPECIAL STORY and we don't want to spoil it.
NEVERTHELESS, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again- the story starts there…
Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

Doesn't that sound like a great mystery? Something kind of Harry Potter mixed with The Time Traveler's Wife? Magical and sweet and something you're going to giggle at when you're huddled happily on your couch eating grapes? There's a silhouette of a girl on the cover with a script font, for crying out loud!

How about immigration problems in England? How about African violence, vicious murders and a sad, sad, sad story? Didn't expect that, did ya?

It's not a bad story, but it's not the story they marketed and that pisses me off so much that I can't even recommend it. Maybe only if you tear off the cover and read from pages 1 to the end. Only then.

24. Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
One recent Sunday I found myself writing at McNally Jackson in Soho. For a break, I wandered the shelves and found this book propped up as a recommendation. "Every author I have ever gifted this to has always written me to thank me for this totally accurate book… EVERY ONE!" the note card said.

Well. That's a pretty good endorsement.

This book is such a fantastic study of the publishing industry. I found myself nodding constantly as Lerner described the fragility of a writer's project and the necessity of an editor's job. I was so upset to find out it was published 10 years ago; I fear that the industry has gone through a war since then, but as she points out, people will always want to connect with a text, no matter what device it's displayed on. Here are some of my favorite parts (oh, there were so many!):

The reader doesn't care what you went through to produce your work. he only cares if the piece succeeds, if it looks as if it arrived whole. If you aim to succeed with a book that's destined to last, one thing is certain: your work must bear your own stamp. You must be willing to hone your sentences until they are yours alone. You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. In other words, you must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal. (30)

Questions of how to handle the passage of time are easier to cope with once a structure has been decided on. Like the foundation of a house, a book's parameters, once set, dictate only so many ways to build. Usually within the first two or three chapters, all the major decisions of any consequence have been made, whether or not the writer is aware of his choices. Matters of tone, tense, point of view, time frame, syntax, style, and narration are like the pipes and electrical lines: you may not see them buried beneath floorboards and behind Sheetrock, but you can depend on them to bring you light and water. Books tend to be constructed either chronologically or thematically, with many variations on the theme. But even if you don't have a narrative per se, your book needs to find its inner logic so that the reader does not feel she is entering a hall of mirrors. Beginnings, middles, and ends, no matter how they are shuffled, are the ways in which we organize our lives. (222)

I'm going to do a separate post with her other insights because they ring so true to me. Also, I'll mention that this is definitely a book that I want to own at some point - it's not enough to have it from the library.

25. Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor
One day I was having trouble with the music of my prose and I thought "hey, why don't I read some William Trevor, the most adorable old man and most gifted writer I have ever encountered on the page?" His novella did not disappoint. It's the quiet story of an Irish boy growing up during the war and some immigrant neighbors that are very kind to him. It's also a story about KILLER sentences:

The bumblebee was still in the room, darting between the two brass lamps that hung from the ceiling, settling on one glass globe and then the other, before again becoming restless. (26)

What! "Two brass lamps" followed a few words later with "One glass globe"! I love the way brass and glass rhyme, the alliteration of glass globe, and the the way the commas move you from object to object like the bumblebee's flight. Genius!

Also, in case you were wondering, here's the most succinct way to write about someone who habitually said the same thing every year:

"Forty-one years I've been at it," my father used to say, appropriately altering the reference as another year passed. (35)

That tight language is enviable. I read Trevor in hopes that an ounce of his talent will rub off on a humble American girl.

26. The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
I read McCracken's memoir earlier this year and was eager to try her fiction. Part of my interest in her work comes from the fact that I read somewhere that she is the only person Ann Patchett shares her work with before it's published. Holy lucky, right?

According to wikipedia, this is her first novel and I'll say that there's something about reading an author's first novel: it is… not always great. The story is about a 13 year-old boy who is actually a giant. He just keeps growing and growing, which is not a terrible story. Kind of interesting, actually. But then the town library who is 10 years his senior falls in love with him. And things get kind of awkward.

Here's what I remember most vividly from the plot: the librarian walked back and forth from the library from the giant's cottage. There was a wedding scene and someone important dies and there's a terribly random sex scene thrown in about 6 pages from the end. As you might imagine, the sex causes some huge life repercussions, all of which need to be wrapped up in about 20 paragraphs. Yikes.

But here's the thing- it's GOOD for me to read first books. It is so instructional and I feel such sympathy for the writer, encouraging her to pick up the pace or stop telling me about a boring character. I can only really recommend this one to writers who are interested in doing the same, but I got something out of it.

27. Away by Amy Bloom
Oh wait, was I just talking about a book that didn't impress me but taught me something? Deja vu.

One night as I was getting ready for bed, I put 4 books out on the bed and said to Chris "ok, I have to pick a new book to read. Let's see what our options are."

I read the inside front flaps to him and when I got to this book, I said "blah blah, Yiddish woman in the 1920s, America, slums."

"Uggg," he said.

He would never join my book club.

I didn't love Away as I was reading it. I found some characters and passages totally ridiculous, but there was something intriguing about Lilian, the main character that we follow. What surprised me was how much I've thought about this book since I finished it last week.

I also had an "ah ha!" moment while reading this passage:

With her satchel, her pins, and her new gold watch, on the Alaska Steamship Company's worst steamship, Lillian has fallen among Christians. The captain meant to do her a good turn and put her in with the only other women, and now she's lying in one of three rope hammocks in a small room that stinks of fish, listening to Mary and Martha Hornsmith pray. (141)

As you can see, that's pretty far into the book. Suddenly I thought to myself "WHOAH. She's using present tense!" I hadn't noticed, but then I thought about that choice and realized that keeping us in current time with Lilian makes us feel like we're on the adventure with her. "Smart," I thought. "I should do that with Margaret."

(Pro tip: Margaret is the main character of my novel, based on this short story)

I went home and flipped through an old printed copy of my story and almost fell over dead. I WROTE IN PRESENT TENSE. If you had asked me what tense my book was in, I sure as hell would not have said present. Isn't that crazy?

Goes to show that much of a book is composed of constructed, conscious decisions the writer makes to get the timing right or the character believable or the words poetic. But there is something magical that happens beneath it all, something that writers aren't even aware of. I'm in awe of that, I really am… and I love that reading other people's books are informing me about my own.


Fighting the grumples.

Sometimes I get bent out of shape and then for the next few days, it's like I have an irritated crick in my neck. I call it being grumpy. But what I really mean is flabbergasted, appalled, offended, angry, bitter or plain old disappointed. It doesn't happen too often, but every once in a while I encounter a rude comment made among friends, a frustrated work email that I check too early in the morning, an idiot in a subway car. And then I spend the next week working on zingers in my head.

Here is what happens if I don't keep these things in check:
1. My miserable mood spreads to everything I'm doing (including writing emails, cooking, cleaning Oscar's litterbox, taking the elevator, etc).
2. Everything seems difficult and frustrating.
3. I think that life and the world is difficult and frustrating.
4. I "realize" that I have a deep hatred of: America, New York City, our generation, people who grew up in XYZ, Starbucks, etc.
5. I feel my routine limiting my life. I start wishing I was not going to work, not taking the 4/5 train, not eating cold cereal. (Seriously, had a mini-nervous breakdown about cold cereal this morning. WHAT'S WITH ALL THE COLD CEREAL IN MY LIFE!?).

At some point I remember that what I need to do is change things. I have learned this lesson before. I need to take a different train or take a vacation or visit a different social circle. It's almost always that simple.

This morning I did not want to write in the library like I normally do. I decided to go to Starbucks, but even that felt too familiar (I spend Friday mornings before work doing this very thing). So I found a Starbucks in a hotel lobby in midtown and now I've spent over an hour working on a different writing project and listening to Italian tourists chat about the day's activities. I love this about living where I live. Change - astonishingly deep change - is possible every morning.

P.S. Yoga also works.


... after midnight, searchin' for you...

This weekend we attended our first gay wedding.

"It'll be weird when our kids say 'I can't believe gay marriage wasn't legal when you guys were younger!" said Chris.

Yep. Yep, it will.

And here's the funny thing. The ceremony we witnessed? Normal wedding. The party we celebrated afterwards? Totally awesome coming-together of two families. Gay wedding? How about plain old AWESOME WEDDING!

During our drive back the next day, Chris and I couldn't stop talking about how freaking WHOLESOME the party was. We square danced, for crying out loud! And we met Aunt Annie and a nice lady named Alice and her husband Jim. Oh, and the cousins! And the backyard, where Evelyn married Dani next to a garden full of tomatoes and squash plants. It was kind of like the 1950s.

When the sun went down and the little twinkling lights went on inside the tent, we walked into the backyard to look at the stars. We don't get to see stars in Brooklyn; the streetlamps are too bright. But up there, in one of the oldest parts of our country, the sky was clear and the stars were out. I felt like a mixture of Abigail Adams and Betty Draper and myself. Then we went back under the tent and danced to some Patsy Cline... and I haven't been able to get that song out of my head since.

Congratulations, Evelyn and Dani. We had THE BEST time. And we're glad you were our first.


The fun part.

This morning, because the New York Public Library near work doesn't open til 11am on Fridays, I'm working in Starbucks. This morning, because I have spent the past week revising a printed copy of the first six chapters of my novel, my work is almost mindless, adding and deleting words to a pre-existing document. This part of the process is different than the rest of it.

First is the brute force, chopping away at a plot, figuring out what actually happens. I can only do this for so many pages, can only advance so far, before I need to revise. This brute language hurts my eyes (and my confidence); often, I wonder if I've lost the gift of listening for the right words while I'm at this stage. I think that I will never write a beautiful sentence again. I imagine pages and pages of terribly-constructed paragraphs, barely English, hacked and boring. These are hard moments.

Then, when I've thrashed through the happening, I print it out. I read slowly, I scrawl new paragraphs, I strike out words, entire sentences, paragraphs. I see where I've been repetitive, I see where things don't match up. Didn't I already write about her freckles? What is this, an ode to freckles? I chop the excess freckle sections.

This second stage is fun in a way; using pen always feels like you're getting somewhere. "Look!" you want to show the guy at the next table, "I'm working! Here is my proof." But then I realize that this working is like a more refined version of the first step. I am still constructing plot. I am still figuring out what happened. When should the reader get that flashback? One chapter ends on Saturday night but the next starts on Saturday morning. Shit. These are hard moments too.

And then. Then comes the polish, the spit-shine, the stage in which I start to think "maybe I should print a copy of this and give it to X to read..." It's the only part of the process that gives me tiny pulses of confidence, electric sparks of smartly turned-phrases. Three words that I use to describe someone's hair that will stick with me for the next few days of subway rides and quiet moments while I eat my lunch in a park.

This morning I moved from phase 2 to phase 3. I typed up the hand-written changes from the page and started to play with the words. It's probably the only reason I can write this blog post right now... writing was fun again this morning and it made me feel good.

Even if the other parts aren't fun, I find myself wanting to write more than I ever have in my life. When the alarm goes off and I'm exhausted, the decision to stay in bed or not is never based on whether I want to write. I always want to write. It's usually based on how late I think I will need to stay up later that day or if I have packed my bag and lunch or if my work clothes are already in the bathroom so I won't have to wake Chris.

I'm working against a September 15 deadline to submit pages for entry into an advanced fiction class in New York. I also owe my Iowa writing teacher a short story for September 1. Then there's the Paris fiction contest that Edith sent to me the other day. And then November 1 for submission to a collection of Iowa-inspired stuff for the 2010 summer anthology.

Where did these dates come from? Where did these pages come from? Why have I never been able to write like this before? You can drive yourself crazy pondering the timing of it all. But like a quiet bird, I'm trying to ignore the fact that it's happening, hoping that the inspiration and the drive will stay a while if I pretend I don't see it. Shhh.


He turns 26!

Today is Mr. Christopher's birthday. Last night he bugged me one too many times and I let him open the present from my parents. This morning he got a Fed-ex package full of bacon and smoked meats from his Dad and Beth. He is one happy guy.

My gift has not yet been revealed, but I can assure you that it was less complicated to orchestrate than last year's fun.