Friday, January 18, 2013

Five Kids, Ten Days, Oh Lord, Grant Me the...

The dust has finally settled (literally) and our house is strangely silent once again.

The last of the invaders left on Friday, flying back to the frozen Minnesota tundra. I’m recovering here in Palm Springs, trying to rehash the wonderful, exhilarating yet stressful ten days that marked their total envelopment of our lives for that brief period of time.

It was Christmas at the LaCombs, that holiest of holidays when the parents get to golf, drink fine wine, relax by the pool and enjoy all the benefits of two eager grandparents who relish the opportunity to spoil their grandchildren. 

In one of my first musings, “The Tyranny of Company,” I tried to decipher the almost organic transition of roles and responsibilities during the holidays when grandparents become the lightning rod for games and activities and outdoor adventures. And their parents get to catch a break for a little while.
Aside from the exponential increase in garbage accumulated each day, laundry loads marching out of each bedroom, trips to the grocery store and expanded pool time, it was a normal day back at the ranch…except it wasn’t.

The accoutrements of childhood continue to evolve and change. This time around, we’d graduated from a changing table to a blanket on the bed, from diapers to pull ups, from high chairs to booster chairs and from strollers to scooters. Just to name a few.

The children’s quiet time had been reduced a bit with only four of the children taking naps instead of all five. That left some adult to entertain Maya, the eldest and that responsibility usually ended with Nana. Super Nana, teacher incarnate, with her pen and paper and Ipad to nurture young minds. For me it was a time to recharge and remind me of my mindfulness.

The crying and whining and fussing had subsided substantially from last year but a squabble or two would occasionally arise. Children are still children and with their curiosity (Don’t touch that!) comes a wonderful glimpse into their little world, one that the rest of us have left long ago.

Kids are like little Zen masters. They are all ‘in the moment,’ no pretense, no hyperbole. They reek of honesty, a fragrance often missing with adults when we feel the need to put on airs.

Of course, trying to expand on their ten-minute attention span wasn’t too successful. There were warnings for everyone. Children, don’t touch the cactus needles. Brian, be cautious when driving the I-10 because CHP is a serious lot. Melanie, be careful of coyotes and bobcats on your early morning runs.

Each grandchild had their moment in the sun or family circle as the week progressed.

Among his many death-defying feats of climbing, riding and swimming, Spencer did his best Lloyd Bridges (a past neighbor) imitation by constantly diving into the deepest part of the pool. The man has no fear which is very scary for a three and a half year old.

Over several evenings, the kids went bear (snipe) hunting on the golf course. Samantha found ‘tracks’ and ‘feathers’ from the birds that the bears had eaten and only got scared once when the coyotes started howling. But then her fears quickly dissipated when she recognized ‘Papa’ coyote howling the loudest.

Maya lost the family camera in San Diego bay, wanted to go diving for coins in the Sonny Bono Fountain downtown, sent text messages to Nana who was sitting across the room and got her own web site for Christmas. She wants to blog about her experiences as a six-year-old. Sounds promising to me.

When Brennan purposely took his time enjoying a smoothie before letting Charlotte have her turn at it, she suddenly blurted out: “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, “I turn.” And we didn’t even know she could count? She’s 18 months old. She got her smoothie!

Sharon had an interesting conversation with Brennan one morning. She asked him if he wanted toast or a bagel for breakfast. He answered with: “A Bagel. I want to put the butter on myself.”

“OK, that’s fine.” Sharon  replied.
She toasted the bagel, got out the butter and set it in front of Brennan.
“I want to put the butter on myself,” Brennan repeated.
“Yes, I said you can put the butter on yourself.”
“It’s going to be messy.”
“No, you’ll be fine.”
Then Brennan proceeded to cut a chunk of butter with his knife and laid a swath of it across his arm.
“What are you doing?” Sharon asked.
“You said I could put the butter on myself,” Brennan answered.

In the end, our family gathering wasn’t just about early morning Starbucks with my kids or Christmas gifts around the pool or the grandkids going all Hollister in their new scooters. Instead it was a reaffirmation that my wife and I are blessed with two wonderful children, their delightful spouses and five grandchildren who relish experiencing life every day.

For me, there is always a price to be paid for family gatherings. A lack of sleep, little quiet time in the morning, no room for writing, only cursory glances at e-mail, no gym time and a constant rush of activities to keep five kids busy. And age has its subtle way of reminding one of his limitations when mountain climbing, chasing errant foul balls or trying to keep up with the scooter patrol.

Yet in the end, it’s that collection of memories that make all the difference. For the adults, it’s probably a night out without the kids, wine-tasting in Temecula or quiet discussions and laughter around the fireplace.

For the children, it was playing kid golf on a real golf course, picking oranges in our backyard, decorating Christmas stockings, riding camels, playing dress up, climbing mountains, sporting tattoos, making cookies for Santa, reading stories and looking up Marilyn Monroe’s dress. Whoever she is?

And isn’t that what family vacations are all about?

Undressing My Avatar

One of the biggest challenges and ultimately the greatest satisfaction in writing a story lies in the creation of those characters who inhabit my pages of fiction. It’s the result of trying to grasp those elusive memories of those people, places and events that made a significant impression on me. Encapsulating enough of a memory bubble to help me recreate an avatar or a place in my new fictional setting.

Sometimes the images jump out at me, easily defining themselves as perfect caricatures for the persona I’m trying to create. Other times they’re a combination of several individuals I’ve met or known in my past. It could also be a personality, character or figure from something I read or saw or felt ions ago.

Yet there is always one major obstacle in creating an avatar. The challenge of separating my reality of who I thought they were from the reality of who really were. It’s like playing checkers inside my head, jumping from real to fictional, imagination to reality. The length of years since I’ve seen that person only adds to the challenge of searching through the fog of time to gleam their true identity.

I’m trying to unlock the layers of my memory bank and figure out who they were back then and the role they played in my life. I am trying to undress them, to reveal their soul to my readers.

But since mindset often colors experience, thoughts about that person tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they are reactions or prejudices based on limited knowledge or smeared into distortion by the passage of time and age and past conditioning.

I don’t know how to divorce my past lives, relationships, experiences, prejudices, incidents, failures and successes from my story telling. That certainly is true when it comes to creating female characters.

The female protagonist, with all of their complexities, is always harder to create than her male counterpart. Who am I really thinking of when I create a female character? My avatars aren’t always women I have known. They could be a movie character or stage persona that struck me with her unique characteristics.

Unfortunately, it’s never a straight forward procedure but rather a rather subliminal process each time I want to create a new female character. I wish it were as easy as: “I knew that person…that person would suit my character… I will imagine that avatar in my character’s role.”

At times, it might be a compilation of several people that I’ve known or met in my past even if I can’t identify with whom and or when or what exactly happened back then. But something did happen that scratched a memory scar on my brain that only now, through the creative process, is being uncovered and its multiple layers peeled away.

It could be someone I never really knew that well but left a strong impression on me nevertheless. Like the dark-haired woman sipping her demitasse in Montmartre. She looked right through me with distain and disregard. Snow White, in her tight turtle neck sweater, pondering her new life in Belgium. Maria from Denmark yearning for her homeland or the amorous Danish student who wanted to take me away for a weekend on the coast.

It could be a moment in time that somehow stuck in my brain like that crinoline under the cathedral dome, my mother’s sofa or singing folk songs at the Newman Center.

I’ve met a lot of people through a lot of living and they’ve left multiple impressions on my mind even if they weren’t readily apparent at the time. Yet by wandering those dark dusty passages of my memory alleys and byways, their personality traits/quirks/ flaws or subtle enounces often come to surface once again.

I want to remember what they felt like, smelt like, the vibes they were giving off even though most of us were oblivious to it at the time. I need to explore the essence of who they really were and then use that to recreate that person/s as my character.

If my avatar is someone I used to know, I have to glean from those scattered memories the most memorable incidents that defined that person. Joyce, Sheila, Marti, Susan, Pat, Sharon; the names define a moment, an incident and ultimately a part of me. But that process is never cut and dry. It took me six chapters before I figured out who Katherine really was in “Follow the Cobbler.”  I was a bit shocked at first but then it really made perfect sense, after the fact, that this woman would bubble up to the surface and burst forth on my written pages.

Some avatars are easy finds, others not so much. Yet all are a part of the wonderful discovery and refinement process that takes place when I finally seduce some fine woman into becoming my heroine, protagonist and, hopefully, memorable character in one of my stories.

Writing fiction is more fluid than real life but just as challenging.