Monday, May 26, 2008

Banana Man

He works in produce under a cloud of vegetable matter, avoiding shopping carts filled with all the things you can get at Super Wal-Mart. He is an island unto himself, never making eye contact with shoppers, never speaking to co-workers except through the subtle arch of an eyebrow or the barely perceptible lift of one shoulder. Screaming children do not faze him. Obese women on cabbage diets do not deter him from his goal…restocking the bananas.

Wheeled carts stacked to the toppling point with boxes bearing the DOLE BANANAS logo make their way from the back room, propelled past the nuts, garlic, potatoes, and onion bins to the enormous banana island that holds the place of honor in the center of the produce section.

One can feel the envy of the other produce workers as Banana Man maneuvers his load through throngs of customers ready to start their Memorial Day drinking early…tapping their toes as they await the latest shipment of non-organic bananas from Cuba…or somewhere. “If only I could be Banana Man for a day,” the other workers, shelving pre-packaged spinach and field greens say to themselves.

But Banana Man doesn’t hear this. He pushes back the top of the first box, his eyes focused on a point on the horizon somewhere over behind the seafood counter, and pulls bunches, two at a time, from the box. He moves quickly, nothing but a torso and legs in his dark blue shirt and khaki trousers…his hands are nothing but a blur. He turns on his heel and is gone, already on his way to fetch the next cart as the banana crowd sighs, “Oh my. Look at this, thirty-three cents a pound.”

I didn’t realize I noticed him or the ritual “unpacking of the bananas” until he was gone. And I didn’t realize I missed him until I saw him last week, back in produce, handling a tomato. “What,” I wondered, “debauchery is this? Where has he been and what is he doing with a tomato?”

I don’t know what he was doing handling that tomato. Chances are I’ll never know. But he is a character I’ve come to rely on here in the great state of Virginia. He helps to define my new home and he gives me something to wonder about. I’ve made up his whole story… where he came from and what he does after he goes home, where he was raised and why he likes produce so much.

Banana Man, what I know of him in the real world, appears to be anti-social. He does not smile. I’ve smiled at him a few times, desiring to know more about this bearer of produce. But he shuns me as he shuns all other shoppers, preferring instead to do his work…and only his work.

So why am I telling you about Banana Man? Because he is fascinating…like so many other people who carry out their jobs day after day…unnoticed and underappreciated. And because he inspires me. He reminds me to look to my environment for inspiration. Amazing people are everywhere…and it is imperative that a writer remember that.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Turning Left

Apollo likes to walk. We take him out with Rocky while Adrian stays at home. (Yes, our dogs are named for the Rocky movies.) Being a Doberman, with a splash of Black Lab thrown in just to keep us on our toes, Apollo isn’t satisfied with just “walking.” He thrusts his nose deep into the ground, snorting up anything that will fit into his blow-hole sized nostrils. And he’s not satisfied to walk leisurely. He wants to trot or run or anything really besides walk. There is always something more interesting just beyond the end of the leash.

How does he compensate for this restriction in mobility? He turns circles. He trots for five feet, sniffing and snorting, then turns a circle. To the right. Always to the right. Apollo can’t turn left…except for this one time, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Rocky is an Akita with a splash of German Shepherd Dog thrown in for more dignity and a greater ability for condescension. He holds his head up regally, toenails elegantly clicking on the pavement in a perfect cadence, while his tedious companion slobbers and runs in circles, bounding from one dandelion patch to another…circling to the right, pacing, circling to the right, pacing…on and on and on.

But there was a day. One walk out of thousands, when my middle child and I were out walking the dogs…and I saw an Eastern Bluebird. Being from Nebraska, I don’t have much experience with the beautiful birds that flutter around our neighborhood here in Virginia…all different colors and songs….I’m not used to it. “Son, did you see that?” I asked, pointing. My son stood beside me, laughing. When he stopped, a grin plastered to his face, he said, “I know, Apollo just turned left.” Zoolander, eat your heart out!!

My dog turned left…and I missed it. I’ve watched diligently on every walk since then, waiting for him to repeat the act. But Apollo seems more comfortable turning right. It’s unnatural for him to do anything else.

So I find myself once again taking a lesson from this monster of a canine. Do I want to be the sort of writer that “can’t turn left?” Or do I want to do more? Be more? I’m in the second book of my Detective Baker series…and I’m happy with the way things are shaping up. But other stories…set in other times in other places…are tickling the back of my mind. And I find myself wanting to test the mysterious waters where these other ideas swim. I nursed the characters for The Deputy’s Widow for years, coddling them to maturity and, eventually, publication. Suddenly, that obsession isn’t there because I accomplished my goal. I’m published. And I’ll be published again with the sequel, provided my editor likes it. Trying something new doesn’t feel comfortable just yet. But, unlike my dog, I have higher brain function (sometimes) and I think I might give “turning left” a try. So I’ll keep watching Apollo, hoping he’ll overcome his multi-directional challengedness…and I’ll consider shooting off in a new direction myself on occasion.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tater Mitts

Tater Mitts.

Insomnia is a fickle thing. At times I’ll go for months unmolested by thoughts refusing to stay below the surface as I sleep. At other times, the beast rears its ugly head and I spend the night awake, tossing and turning and worrying about things over which I have no control. As I age, alongside my husband of 16 years, I can’t help but notice he’s afflicted with this condition on occasion as well. And even more interesting than this, is the fact that, once in awhile, we are afflicted at the same time.

I’m not sure which is worse…lying awake in the middle of the night as the clocks tick in an endless cadence, marking time that passes too slowly…or awakening an hour or two before dawn, wondering if going back to sleep is even worth the trouble.

Gone are the days when four in the morning felt like the middle of the night. Now I think about walking the dog or writing a chapter or blogging or answering e-mail. I think of all the productive things I could be doing with my time besides sleeping.

Last week, as my husband and I suffered a case of co-dependent early morning insomnia, we stumbled downstairs and cranked up the satellite as the coffee pot percolated and the dogs found comfy places on the sofa—clearly, insomnia is never a problem for a dog—to go back to sleep.

Infomercials dominate the airwaves before dawn, taking advantage of bleary-eyed insomniacs with promises that “This product will make your life easier…or your money back.”

Well, I love my Swiffer, but I can’t exactly say its made my life easier.

But that was before I heard about Tater Mitts. Have you heard of the Tater Mitts? Have you reserved your pair yet? Tater Mitts are a handy pair of gloves with steel wool on the outside. Just put on the gloves, pick up a potato, squish it around in your hands and…PRESTO!! The potato is free of that filthy peel.

I’m so stupid. All these years I’ve been using a potato peeler which could have flown out of my hands at any given moment and lodged in my neighbor’s eye. It’s true. I’ve been endangering the whole world with my reckless method of peeling potatoes.

Wouldn’t it be nice for writers if the reading public was as gullible as the infomercial quacks believe the entire world to be? I could say “Read my book-it will change your life.” Or I could pay people to say “You won’t believe the amazing things this book can do for you.” Or how about, “I never knew my life was so empty until I read “The Deputy’s Widow””

Nah, come to think of it, I wouldn’t respect an ignorant reading audience. I prefer readers who say, “I would have done this differently.” Or “This part was good, but try this.”

Writers live in a world where their product has to stand alone. The purpose of fiction can be one of two things: to prove a point, or to entertain. I prefer to read fiction for entertainment and I try to write fiction that accomplishes the same. I can’t promise a reader a good book and then not deliver. Why? Because readers are smart. And they read to be entertained. And they write reviews.

The morning of the Tater Mitts infomercial was rare. Normally, I pick up a book when I can’t sleep. I pick up a book and let myself sink into its world…because a writer is someone who delivers. There are no money-back guarantees. There are no paid celebrities with overly tight faces telling me this book will change my life. There’s just a writer’s work…and I know a little something about that…the sweat, the agony, the pressure.

You can keep your Tater Mitts. I’ll use a potato peeler and read a good book, thank you very much.