Unexpected encounter, part IV

Many, many thanks to my friend Chayil for encouraging me to write this week in the middle of summer insanity.  I’m not sure how everyone else manages family, home, kids, church, AND work, but Stu and I don’t do a very good job.  While we’re working, school is all-consuming.  As a result, other things don’t get done.  I’m currently buried by endless laundry in a house that I would be embarrassed to host visitors in… even a month after school got out for the summer.  I could use work as an excuse, but the fact is that when we come home, we want to do just about ANYTHING but clean our house.  So we put it off and put it off until summer comes and we can’t stand being at home.  Plus we’ve been traveling for work (me to Jacksonville for an AP Summer Institute and Stu to Sarasota for yearbook camp) and doing other projects… so that’s summer insanity.  I could have been doing a million other things… writing curriculum, scouring websites for AP resources, sorting laundry, folding socks, or sleeping (it is 1 am after all), but I’m writing.  And I’m thrilled about it.

So here’s a continuation of Zara’s story.  Catch up on it here, here, and here.  And thanks for visiting!

Once everyone had plates piled with pasta, salad, and bread, the three dinner companions fell silent to enjoy the meal.  For Zara, she took the few moments of quiet to think about her realization about Jack.  What did it mean that he was jealous of Steve?  This wasn’t her first date; in college she had dated regularly, but not for any extended period of time.  Only after college had she dated seriously; she had been with Matt for three years before a transfer took him to San Francisco and ended their relationship.  Jack had been a good friend to Matt and they often spent evenings together.  Occasionally Matt and Zara would serve as dating buffers for him; Jack would prearrange to bring his newest lady friend along with him to dinner with Matt and Zara, and they would help Jack make decisions about whether or not he should see them again.  In fact, Jack had initiated a relationship with Mary, the girl Zara was sure he would marry, at a meal with Matt and Zara.  Mary was beautiful, successful, and so calm in dealing with Jack.  Zara’s only complaint was that Mary never seemed eager to form a relationship with her; in the years that Jack and Mary dated, Zara was only, at best, an acquaintance to her.  But that relationship had ended almost a year ago, without drama or any swell of emotion from Jack as far as Zara could tell, and Jack had picked up where he left off, dating women, introducing them to Zara for her approval, but never taking anyone very seriously.

“So, Steve, how was your day?” Zara asked, suddenly aware of the direction of her thoughts.  She would not allow Jack to dominate this meal, whether he meant to or not.

Steve beamed at this opening.  “Well, I spent most of the morning managing a large claim from an important client.  Evidently, a fire caused significant damage to one of this company’s major manufacturing operations.  But I was able to provide significant comfort in a difficult time.  Normally, I don’t work with clients,” Steve smiled to himself a little, but Zara could tell he was holding back.  “But I’ve had some encouragement from the department manager to get my feet wet in customer relations.”

Steve fixed a bright, expectant look at Zara then.  “Oh, that’s really great, Steve,” Zara smiled, but wasn’t quite sure what this meant.

“I think what Steve is trying to tell you is that a manager is looking to diversify his role within the company, perhaps move him to account management, which would require significant customer contact,” Jack interjected.  Zara frowned.  “Is that about right, Steve?”

“Oh yes,” Steve responded, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead.  “I didn’t realize there was confusion.”

“It’s just that I didn’t know you were interested in working more closely with customers.  You told me you were proudly just a numbers man,” Zara persisted.  For some reason, this news rankled her.

“Well, I am,” Steve frowned more deeply now, “but as I work with customers, my own standing with the company will improve.  This really is good news, Zara,” Steve smiled at her then looked to Jack, as if asking for his help.

“Of course.  If you’re happy, I’m happy for you.  But I don’t know how you could fit more into your already very busy work schedule.”  Zara smiled as she uttered the last, but was really concerned.  Steve was already consumed by work; she could guess what this development would mean.  Jack seemed to sense her frustration.

“Steve, does your work give you much time for relaxation?  For leisure?” Jack asked, jumping at the opening.  “You must work 80 hours a week as it is!”  Steve beamed at the compliment.

“Well, no actually.  I’m very lucky that the office provides a gym space for employees or I fear I wouldn’t get any exercise.  And if I continue to eat like this,” he smiled at Zara, “I would weigh 500 pounds!”

Zara’s nostrils suddenly flared as the cause of her discontent dawned on her: this man, who Zara had invested three weeks of her time, was casually congratulating himself on a work development that would make it nearly impossible to foster a relationship with her.

“I guess I’m lucky that you could spare time tonight,” Zara smiled, a saccharin smile that Steve didn’t recognize as such.

“A man’s got to eat,” Steve grinned, leaning toward Jack with an uncharacteristic eyebrow wiggle.  “But I’ve got a few hours of processing to be done tonight after dinner.”  Jack just smiled; Zara fumed.

“What about you, Jack? How did the law treat you today?” Steve couldn’t keep the goofy giddiness from his voice.

“I’m sure Zara has told you, but I work at a firm that specializes in business law.  However, I’m lucky enough that my practice encourages associates to participate in community service.  So I spent my day today offering pro bono legal advice through a program sponsored by my firm,” Jack never took his eyes off Steve.  “That’s why my day ran so late.  I never like to leave before everyone has been helped.  It makes for quite an interesting day, I’ll tell you.”

Zara knew how Jack spent his day.  He participated monthly, and more often when he was able.  He was always exhausted after these days, but to a certain extent, more joyful and full of life.  But for the second time tonight, she was forced to see Steve in light of Jack, and she wasn’t happy with what she saw.


Unexpected encounter, part III

Here for the first time?  Read part I and part II before getting started here… and thanks for reading!

Steve was still rattling off statistics about Yale and its merits as Zara’s world shifted on its axis.  Jack?  She was suddenly intensely aware: of his presence, of the subtly angry cast of his face as he gathered a bottle of wine from her tiny collection on the counter, of the faint smell of his cologne, the same cologne he had been wearing since he graduated from high school.  It was a gift from her.

Oh dear, she thought to herself.  Jack wasn’t attending this little meal as a casual friend, a pest intent on disrupting her evening for fun.  He was jealous, and she was suddenly incensed.

For the first three years of their acquaintance, Jack had been a spectacularly platonic friend to Zara: they spent hours sitting on the concrete steps to her front door, perfecting the basketball spin between games of HORSE, they hiked through the woods behind their neighborhood, talking for hours and picking through muddy ditches.  But Jack spent the summer before his senior year lifeguarding at the beach near his grandmother’s house, and Zara took a job at the local Twistee Treat.  She was surrounded by gossiping girls, who quickly discovered that Zara’s best friend was the very tall, very handsome Jack Cooper, and Zara was suddenly forced to reckon with the fact that her best friend Jack was more than the goof ball who stole more than his share of popcorn at the movies or exploited his height advantage in basketball.  It made her nervous, unnervingly so, to even speak to him on the phone.  She steadily built a crush on Jack while he was 100 miles from home, convincing herself that he would come home in August and fall desperately in love with her.  Unfortunately, the reality was less pleasant; in the small town where he spent the summer, Jack became a hot commodity, and he came home with a serious tan, muscles honed from the outdoor work, and a girlfriend named Amelia.

Their reunion was one of Zara’s most uncomfortable memories.  He called to tell her he was back in town and asked if he could come by Twistee Treat that evening for an ice cream.  Zara, who didn’t know anything of Amelia, complied instantly with his plan, and spent the two hours before her shift primping in front of the mirror, blowing her hair until it fell smooth into soft waves down her back, applying unfamiliar black eye liner and mascara, and obsessing about what to say to her best friend.  She even rehearsed a few flirtatious lines she heard her coworkers use on the hopeless boys who made the shop their summer hangout.  Zara even practiced laughing demurely at the mirror.  The rest of this story is pretty obvious: Zara worked nervously until nine when she caught a glimpse of Jack through the tiny glass window, her smile huge until she followed his hand, which was pulling Amelia behind him.  The only consolation to her heartbreak was that Zara never revealed her crush on Jack to any of the gossiping girls at the Twistee Treat.

“Hey Z,” he had said when he sidled up to the window, “Since when do you wear eye liner?”

And in that moment, Zara schooled her expression as he introduced Amelia, a tall, very buxom blonde with a beautiful tan.  They had met lifeguarding.

From that summer night, Zara decided that it would be best for her if she protected her heart from Jack.  So his sudden and inconvenient jealousy was wholly unfair to her and Steve and whatever they had started at the coffee shop three weeks before.

Zara stiffened and bristled as Jack moved away from her, snatching potholders carelessly to drain the pasta, and burning her finger in the process.  When she snatched her hands away from the offending implement, Jack relieved her of her potholders and carefully took over the task.

“I’m sure Steve doesn’t want to waste this evening at the emergency room, Z.  Be more careful,” Jack said, smiling at Steve where he still stood at the edge of the counter.

“Uh, yes.  Zara, please be more careful.  Kitchen incidents are responsible for a significant number of insurance claims, after all,” Steve said solemnly.  Zara couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

Finally, dinner was ready.  Zara poured the drained pasta into a massive serving bowl, and then poured her famous sauce over the whole, arranging meatballs artfully on top.  Jack arranged Zara’s garlic bread into a basket.  Steve, who finally seemed spurred to action by both Zara and Jack finding their way to Zara’s living room laden with some dinner necessity, found Zara’s impressive cheese grinder and followed.  Zara placed the massive bowl of pasta into the center of her square coffee table with a flourish, sat cross-legged on the floor across from the couch, and made quick work of serving herself some spaghetti.  Jack toed off his loafers and slid to the floor as well, loosening his tie before serving himself some salad.  Neither paid Steve any attention as he seemed to battle internally with proper etiquette for the situation: both his host and her other guest had made themselves comfortable on the floor, but that was not where he would be most comfortable.  Ultimately, he decided to follow Jack’s lead, and after removing his shoes, he sat on the floor beside Zara.

“Can I serve you some spaghetti, Steve?” Zara asked amiably, suddenly certain that the only course to take was to ignore Jack and his jealously as much as possible.

“Please,” answered Steve, who still seemed quite unsure of how to handle this strange meal.

Thinking about inspiration

Last night I stayed up until 4 AM to finish a book I started at bedtime.  I should know myself better than to start a book at bedtime; I lack to self-control to put a book down just because I have to get up in 8, 6, 4 hours, or in the case of last night, 2 hours.  Those late hours were reminiscent of late nights reading under the covers with a flashlight, but now, instead of a flashlight, I can read without disturbing my husband <much> with the low glow from the iPad.  Oh, and I don’t have to worry about getting caught by a mad Dad.

I didn’t have high expectations of the book, it was a $0.99 find that popped up on my Facebook feed called Definitely, Maybe In Love by Ophelia London, but upon reading her dedication–“To Jane Austen: Without you paving the way, this chick writer would not be here–something warmed in me and I was a little more eager to read.  I am in love with Jane Austen.  I read Pride and Prejudice once a year or so just for fun.  She is on my list of historical figures I would invite to dinner.  But London’s love of my dear friend Jane wasn’t isolated to her dedication: I wasn’t 30 pages into the book before I realized that London was retelling my treasured Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it.  I actually laughed aloud at the realization, startling my sleeping husband a bit.  To recognize such a well-loved story in a contemporary novel, well, it can be alarming.  Writers have butchered this story, and I am a pretty harsh critic, impatient with those that are poorly done.

I should confess here that my novel is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, too, and I’m not separate enough to tell you if my retelling is particularly well done.  But this retelling was fun, loyal to Austen’s intentions, and romantic enough to have me swooning for the male lead.

It’s funny to me how serendipitous life is if I’m paying attention.  I’ve been thinking about this lovely little novel all day (well, that and taking a nap) and how satisfying a retelling can be.  I’m not at all tired of the story of Pride and Prejudice, clearly, as I reread the text once a year, have watched every adaptation on film, have read half a dozen books that attempt to do the same thing.  Then I logged in to YouTube for the Vlogbrothers, and saw this:

If you’re not familiar, this is John Green, the intellectual badass and author of the very original and lovely The Fault in Our Stars.  He suggests that despite the notion that creative endeavor is solitary, lonely, and independent, those who create are  influenced, inspired, even ignited by a “network of influences so vast it stretches back further than human memory,” even without knowing it, and that “individuals don’t really create stuff so much as they process their influences and try to build upon them in the hopes that they can make stuff that will be helpful to others.”

This is a lovely notion to me, that there is space in this world for my contribution, even though it is so heavily influenced by much of what I’ve read and studied in 30 years of consumption.  There is a terrific book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor that AP English teachers love to teach to show students that, however much they want to believe that the blue curtains are JUST BLUE, authors draw on and manipulate the reader’s network of influences for their own purposes.

What happens if the writer is good is usually not that the work seems derivative or trivial but just the opposite: the work actually acquires depth and resonance from the echoes and chimes it sets up with prior texts, weight from the accumulated use of certain basic patterns and tendencies. Moreover, works are actually more comforting because we can recognize elements of them from our prior reading. I suspect that a wholly original work, one that owed nothing to previous writing, would so lack familiarity as to be quite unnerving to readers.

–Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines

So Ophelia London used Pride and Prejudice to create a new story that resonated as familiar and fun, romantic and perennial, and I never complained about a lack of creativity on her part.  Instead, her creative endeavor made it impossible for me to shut off my brain before I had read every word, and regret when it was over.

When was the last time you stayed up all night to read a book?  What was the last book you couldn’t put down?  Can you bear to reread books that are especially poignant, funny, or romantic?

Compulsive creativity

Creativity takes courage.

–Henri Matisse

When I was in elementary school, I wrote a very long short story called “Tina Tuna.” My parents will tell you about this story with pride.  They will tell you how witty and imaginative I was, even in fourth grade.  My most distinct memories of “Tina Tuna”… I remember the fun I had building my story, the pride of knowing, without a doubt, that I had created something good, and most prominently, the pressure of a deadline.  From that moment, I’ve been seeking to create.  I’m not saying that I’ve done any remarkable work.  My creativity isn’t consistent… I’ve crafted for my classroom, I’ve sang with a chorus and with a worship team, I’ve written a book, I’ve taken photography and pottery classes.  The products of my creativity hang on the walls of my parents’ home and sit on bookshelves.  The drawing of my name, a bold ALLISON in block lettering featuring a “S” that I fashioned into a slide, has been hanging for so long the construction paper backing is faded almost unrecognizably from navy to gray.  My proud (and tiny) attempt at the pottery wheel currently holds change dumped from my husband’s pockets.  No one is trying to pay me for my work.  But even though I’m not particularly remarkable in my creativity, it is remarkable perhaps that I am creative at all.

What does it mean to create?  It means producing something.  Somehow, even following a recipe from Pinterest isn’t necessarily as creative as imitative.  But sometimes imitation leads one to create.  I felt that way when I wrote a book for NaNoWriMo.  I had an idea for a romance novel rattling around in my head for a few months, after feeling disappointed in many of the fluffy romances I had been reading.  So I started building a character I would love to see in print, started imagining a situation to place her in, started envisioning scenarios and plot points.  But imagining, while important, isn’t creating.  Creating is the hard, dirty, sometimes (literally and figuratively) painful work of putting imagination into production.  I wish creating was easier, or it wouldn’t have taken me so long to write a book.  Creating means staying up nights because you can’t sleep until a thought is perfectly articulated on paper; it means walking around with a claw hand from the typing-induced wrist cramps.  It means crushing disappointment when you realize that while you LOVE your work, others might not feel the same way.

To create is an important counterpoint to consumption.  I certainly excel at consumption: my current entertainment obsession?  Watching YouTube videos from people, real people, who love make up or organization or being snarky and are compelled to create content about stuff that they love.  It would be so tempting to simply consume.  Easier certainly.  But I see the effects of consumption in my classroom: my students are so accustomed to consumption that they HATE to produce with any kind of creativity.  They would much rather watch Vines and scroll an Instagram feed than create something MORE.  I get it.  It is humbling to put more than 10 seconds worth of effort into something to then allow other to judge and critique.  But when we only consume, we fail to be everything that we can be.  We miss opportunities to figure ourselves out.  Or to realize that it isn’t possible to figure ourselves out after all.

So even though I’m not a Pinterest-worthy crafter or best selling author, I’m going to create anyway.  Right now, my outlet is this blog.  In July (or November), I hope it will be another novel.  I’ve even thought about glass blowing.

How are you creating this week?  This month?  Are you consistently creative?