All posts by GailAnsel

About GailAnsel

Writer-Cliff Jumper

Setbacks and surgery…

New Year’s Eve, let’s try venturing out, sure! In the spirit of cliff diving and taking chances, and sometimes you soar and sometimes you crash land, the test of my resilience arrived via a proverbial slap upside the head, out of nowhere.  We’re at a Santa Barbara resort party, chatting up a table of friendly Northern Cal folks, on a break from the 4 months of construction dust at home. I’m wearing those shiny black ‘f*ck me’ stilettos from a decade ago. The warning sign was there:  on the way into the party I hang heavy off David’s arm, those suckers were slippery.  No amount of scuffing those bottoms on the sidewalk makes them any stickier.

In the lifetime before this one, Dave and I took Latin dance classes.  We were so dedicated we sought out a weekly venue to practice our moves.  (And let the negotiations begin! Why, I ask, does the man always lead?! I’m uneasy with capitulation.) I have a selection of “sticky” bottomed shoes at our Florida place that still haven’t made their way to CA. 

You know where this is going, right?

Ah, yes.  Combine our rusty middle-aged minds and muscles with an overflow crowd and a DJ that adds a ‘salsa’ beat to every single song and the resurrected ‘who’s the leader here’ minor league arm wrestle and suddenly I’m spinning from an insistent turn of his arm but so is he, in the opposite direction.  

When I reach for him, whoops, he’s gone.

Suddenly, I am splayed on the dance floor. Shoulder in excrutiating pain. No recollection of the journey  from upright. Those goddam shoes! 

Doctors and MRI and Xray and finally, 3 weeks ago, I end up with surgical repair of the torn tendons, no choice in the matter.  Recovery, however, is my payback, my slap upside the head, my wake up. 6 weeks immobilized, 3 months of PT, 6-12 months to recover range of motion and be pain free.  No, I’m not frigging kidding. (And yes, you hear that right, house under construction for another 6 months, no kitchen, 600 sq ft of living space…)

There will be setbacks on every road, uh, huh.

Most disappointing, I’ve had to postpone an 8-week novel workshop with Joshua Mohr.  (Yes, my Stanford mentor and 1st novel editor, but also all-around-macho guy who advised my Stanford thesis, like, I don’t know, weeks after his stroke and heart surgery. Google Josh Mohr, read his memoir Sirens. Explain a few little tendon tears to guy like that?!) 

I was once macho! 2006 I had my cancerous left kidney and adrenal gland removed less than a month after my total right hip replacement! Sure, a few extra liters of blood required, but I paid our biweekly company payroll on time. In 2014, when I was hospitalized with a mysterious infectious disease and dangerous blood levels, I did payroll from my hospital bed via my cellphone hotspot. (It was anaplasma, a tic-borne illness. Antibiotics to the rescue.)

Anyone who’s had this damned shoulder thing will tell you the post-surg is worse than the injury. My sister urges me to give myself a break. The night-time “discomfort” brings me to tears of frustration. I refuse oxy, it just ain’t worth it.  And each bleary-eyed exhausting day seems to crawl further from full recovery.  I hate, hate lack of productivity.

This is my test.  

I have had the illusion of satisfaction, jobs well done, perfection (nearly) reached, and then…exchanged my life, world, home and vocation for another 3,000 miles and eons away.  Keep moving, keep striving, reaching for the brass. No, nope.  Stop.

It was different somehow, when my work was for others; that 25 years was an uber personal obligation but I wasn’t on my own. Now, the everyday is a fight for the motivation, an exhortation to myself and to no one else, to summon it, summon up the courage and the inspiration and the words, form the sentences and the thoughts and build a world on the page. No one waits for it.  Except me.  

To fight past all of that and THEN have to grit my teeth and stretch my arm and tethered tendons and pop another 800 of Advil and 1000 of Tylenol and wonder if the hurting is the good kind or the bad, doing too much kind, and the niggling “what are you doing? Who says you can write” mice start peeping.  

If I give myself a break, will I ever go back?

And after quitting my job, uprooting my life, and at last, at last finding the thing I love-and-was-always-meant-to-do, my heart breaks and I cannot bear the thought.  I don’t have any choice.

So I get up off the dance floor, paste a smile on my humiliated face, yank my hemline south, and utter no regrets.  Those shiny black “f*ck me” shoes?  F*ck them.

  

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Get ready, set…Fail!

I love me some comfort: the sensibility of routine, my favorite worn-in sheets, the predictability of the sunset and the tides outside my window.  And especially now, the particular feel of the keyboard, the sticky space bar and silent clicks; the opening up of the document and return to my characters; the way my uber chair feels like coming home every morning (yeah, totally worth every single dime:  after three years, no sags or creaks or scary tilts.)

Seven weeks in the new seaside house.  Comfort level soaring.  I still can’t find the damned box of light bulbs, and the first floor-needing-the-renovation smells funny, and right above my writing desk there’s this scratch-scratch-scratch mid-morning, but most everything is in it’s place, and man, oh man that view, holy cow.

We did it.  We sold, moved, sorted, stored, bought, moved again, settled.

In the most terrifying moments (so far), when I’ve squeezed my eyes shut and prepared to let out a scream, I grab onto David’s hand.  One could argue that he has the most to lose, right?  He’s given up a sure thing.  So, how come he’s the calm one?

I, on the other hand, have arguably finally found my mojo, my path to artistic fulfillment. I’ve finished with the responsibility of bringing to fruition Dave’s great vision, justifiably proud of an organization I built and ran for 25 years.  I’ve done it: screwed up the courage to study my craft, finished a novel, and most significantly, call myself a writer.  What have I got to lose?

Next stop, Commerce.

For three years I’ve told myself that what really mattered were the words, the story, the very real pleasure of working it all out on the page.  Now that I’ve done my first collaboration with a developmental editor, someone to intimately share the intricate puzzle of the novel with, I’ve discovered the particular joys of revision—of unearthing the words, and style and ABC of Jenn and Polly and the story arc.  Jazzed just to type those words.  Amazing.

For three years I’ve told myself that if I could start and then run David’s (highly) successful business based on his vision, then surely I could do the same for myself.  Right?!  The book just needs to be ready.

Well, sure.  Except for the No’s! of Book Commerce.  Getting published is a one-in-a-million shot.  As in, 999,999 No’s and one Yes.  That means hundreds of No’s (and maybe one yes) from literary agents, bunches of No’s from acquiring editors (and maybe a yes or two), only to write and revise Novel #2 and/or Novel #3 and start all over again, and if somewhere in all of that, one of the books comes to the light, you sell a few hundred, maybe a thousand copies (because a lot of readers say No!)

Sound like a set-up to Fail? Yep!

This is wise David’s philosophy:  Give yourself permission to fail.

I’m invested.  I want to start this new business of Gail’s book-commerce and run it successfully.  It’s comfortable, succeeding.  I know that feeling:  working really, really hard and being good at something and being rewarded for my savvy, my talent, my brains. Odds are not good for the new business.  It’s bound to fail, maybe not ultimately, but in the interim.

In this business, if I don’t get a No, then I’ll never get a Yes.

The story may never pass the vetting of the professionals—and I need that to screw up the courage to let the book out. It may never see the light, may never have the transformation seen through your eyes, or his eyes, may never be discussed in a book group or be dissected by a reviewer.  It could fail.

But, wait!  I have the most incredible fall-back plan.  The writing!

Intensity. Immersion. Whoa.

 

Ever wake up and wonder how you got yourself into this situation?! You know you brought it on yourself, you chose deliberately, your instinct led and you followed, and yet here you are, overwhelmed and blown away and crazed.

10 days to go on the novel edit. 40? 50? pages more. 3 weeks in the new house. 20+ boxes still unpacked. Zero contractors booked for the reno.

There’s part of me that LOVES the hormone rush of too much: too many piled-up deadlines, too many amazing choices, too much to do. But, then there’s the moment of breath, the little break, and I remember the loveliness of just contemplating. Allowing a little space.

How awesome is it that I can have both?!

I’m in the final push of an 8 week editing stint with the incisive and brilliant Joshua Mohr. Since January 4th, I’ve revised 150+ pages of the nascent novel about two sisters. The last section begins today. This is my few hour break.

Revising a novel is like directing your huge, extended family of cats—squiggling, hungry, demanding, petulant, joyful. The calico just turned up his nose at the canned food, the kittens are tearing up your favorite down comforter, the mangy one won’t stop his damned yowling (hisss, stop!) the siamese winks in silent judge-y condemnation.

Live, sleep, eat, breathe, dream Jenn and Polly. (Well, not much sleep, actually.) And then, every now and again, the cats all lift up their faces, the sun shines, and the chorus sings. The story hums. The words coalesce.

And then there’s the move. Smack dab in the middle of what requires intense concentration, 24/7 focus, we close on a complicated escrow, extract ourselves from faculty housing, retrieve belongings packed in May from storage (oh, that’s why one should copiously label the boxes…) and then proceed directly, don’t pass Go, to the Move From Hell. “It’s a 45 minute drive from Palo Alto to Moss Beach. It’s been 3 hours. Where the f*%K are YOU?!” “No, man, the beach is west. west. Not east.” “It’s been 4 hours. What the hell are you doing in Richmond?!”

David thinks they’re selling our belongings out of the back of the truck. I’m noodling on how I’m gonna get Jenn and Polly to do what I want. Trying to get David to stay calm.

Five and half hours later, as the movers arrived with our stuff in the pitch dark, the power went out.

Oh, did I mention the 45 mile an hour wind gusts?

When the lights flickered back on soon after, the entire neighborhood’s bundle of communication cables lies over our driveway and across the moving truck. The already tearful driver completely freaks out. Jenn and Polly gotta wait. PG&E is “aware of the problem.”

So, it’s the end because it all works out. The GPS-inept driver doesn’t get a tip, but he gets a hug, our stuff is safe and sound, and I live in the most amazing place in the entire Bay area. We’ve bonded with the neighbors over the Comcast cable re-wiring week long debacle. David loves having a commute again, and the drive “over the hill” to Palo Alto is one of the most beautiful on this earth. The weather ranges from sunny to foggy to rainy to windy and back again. The ocean and El Nino produced “big waves” and Mavericks surfing dudes converged about a mile from us.

Every day here has the potential for intensity. Eyes wide open.

So, I have both: an intense emotional and intellectual immersion in writing a novel, and a physical and spiritual intensity in my real world.  Yep, I choose this!

Waiting Mode

You know that feeling when you’re waiting for it to begin? Waiting for the holiday, or waiting for an arrival (or departure) or a new start or a new adventure?  Kind of a shivery excited, maybe no small amount of obsessing—imagining and scripting the scenarios or the place—a little nervous even if you’ve done it before?

We’re in Waiting.  We wait to close escrow on a permanent house in Moss Beach, we wait for flooring and painting estimates to set a move-out-move-in date, we even wait to leave FL to return to Sabbatical Housing in Palo Alto to start packing and planning (always, planning.)

And, I wait for significant feedback on the current Novel Draft from my Stanford mentor, Joshua Mohr; I wait to begin perhaps the final 2-month

 revision on the major artistic work of my last two and a half years.  (That, in particular is a great big wait—filled with trepidations even though we’ve done this before.  But, that’s just normal writerly angst.)Yet, here I am.  Two more days, three more nights in sunny 80’s, ocean and sand.  A few more days with my daughter before we’re separated by a continent again.  Less than 72 hours before David and I go our separate work-day ways. A book to finish reading, another to start (and finish) before next week.

As much as I exhort myself to enjoy the journey, be in the moment (you know), and am certain worrying doesn’t help (um, yeah, “Bridge of Spies” good movie!) there’s always the next, and the next and the next.  Being in perpetual motion, mid-Cliff Dive, uncertain climate ahead, can be a tough place to reside.  Exciting though it may be.  

What always helps, though, is having glimpses into your motion machines, the moments you (yes, you!) make still for examination.  And so.  I’ve joined the (dreaded) Facebook! And, already, I’m rewarded:  today was Chel’s mac and cheese (and really, the new countertop upon which the mac resides…a tantalizing glimpse, will she post more of the move and the place and the man?!) 

Though it’s not conscious (I wouldn’t think, anway…) those particular posts:  the cat (hatlike on her head), the delirious high school friend with her diamond Christmas, the baby face close-ups (whoa, really, really close), but especially the Dad lost, and the Mom lost in 2015 —felt all the more strongly for their absence, their ethereal online presence—these all reflect the heart of your life.  Would I say the cat or the mac or the ocean is the definition of my (or your) self? Nah.  But, the details, and the stories behind each of those moments, rich with memories and associations, are the palpable now.

So, thanks, everyone! Thanks for sharing your moments, I am richer (and quieter) for them.

xxxooo

gail

   
   

Gratitude and the Holidays-bah!humbug! be gone…

Christmas! The “holidays!” New (and better!) Year! 

There’s a forced cheeriness about this time of year that has always inspired the opposite for me…my writer angsty side sees dead forest trees shedding needles in protest of being propped in water in living rooms with crap unearthed from the attic boxes winded onto it’s weary arms…yeah, bah, humbug, right?

I trace it to a particular 12-year old Christmas, 1970.  The fifth Collins kid, Kenny, would have been a toddler, Janet still a believer, but the three older kids, we were of an age when we bolted out of early morning beds to discover what our parents had bought for us, hoping and hoping those weeks of dreaming fulfilled, please, oh, please?  Twelve, the cusp year—I was skinny and in awe of girls-who-liked-boys, seeing my messy family anew, hopelessly adrift most days.  My present pile was noticeably smaller than my siblings:  socks, underwear, that fake book that was really rolls of lifesavers.  I felt my mother’s scrutiny and pasted a smile, forced a “thank you!” while my brothers and sisters squealed (for real) over gadgets and toys.  My chest hurt, a physical disappointment, I opened a butter rum roll with precision to avoid looking up. Socks and underwear piled on my lap on the couch.

My mother was flumoxxed, “get up, get up!” she said to me, bed-head hair flattened on one side, wearing her new homemade green velour bathrobe with fake white fur.  Another exhortation to quit being so selfish, right? She dug her hands into the couch cushions where I’d sat and pulled out an envelope.  I looked at her, mouth full of butter rum, Carol, Bobby, Janet, Kenny gathered.  “Open it,” she said.

Inside, five tickets to the Ice Capades at the Boston Garden, a family outing for a family that had never, not once, set foot inside the Garden, the Science Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Franklin Zoo, Barnum and Bailey’s, the Symphony nor the Ballet, not even the Showcase Cinemas (nor apple picking or hay rides or the  Chinese restaurant or Friendly’s); a family with a backyard pool and a hundred neighborhood kids for one-on-one basketball or roller skating or riding bikes.

The outing itself was magical, coming home with Carol, Bobby and me squeezed into the backseat of the Valiant, my mom and Dad pointing out an obscure Uncle’s neighborhood wiped out by the building of Rt. 93 in Somerville, looking into the passing livingrooms of the city dwellers from the elevated highway, imagining their lives and loves.  Life expanded beyond my suburban neighborhood.

No family Christmas ever lived up to that one.  I grew surly in adolescence, our parents divorced, one by one we moved away, the family reconfigured with boyfriends and girlfriends, little brothers became adults.  

The period of making Christmases and holidays for our kids with an extraordinarly generous husband capable of finding meaning in the “pile,” the bigger the better, squashed the dread of disappointment, but when even they, in young adulthood said “enough,” the niggling returned, full-blown.  What does it mean, this year-end?  Especially this year, the year in which I’ve left all of the family, friend and office traditions—the CMO yankee swap and Christmas book group lunch, the Collins Xmas Eve dinner and Pauline Xmas morning breakfast gift opening?

I have no firm answers (sorry…)  I’m searching, still.  What I can say is this:  everywhere I look these days, I see opportunity.  In Palo Alto, Stanford’s traditions include a sing-along Messiah in the gorgeous and astonishing Memorial Church, so yes, absolutely, we went…no, my Collins out-of-tune voice silent, but my heart soared with that sound.  The two week University shutdown means we can be back in our Florida home and the sun (El Nino has hit the west coast), grateful beyond belief. Dad and Carol will drive down from NC to meetup with us and our kids, the first time we’ve been together for Christmas since they sold that suburban home years, maybe decades ago.

That old Bandera Drive house where my mother unearthed the best Chrismas present I ever got:  the gift of a widening world.

Thanks, Mom.
   
   
 

 
That old Bandera Drive house where my mother unearthed the best Christmas present I ever got:  the gift of a widening world.
Thanks, Mom.

California Writing…Surfing to Nirvana, Baby!

It’s official, my car is a Californian!  Am I?

I haven’t wanted to jinx it by actually putting it out into the ether, but another ticked box this week on the road to buying that house near the seals in Moss Beach, wahoo!  We’re scheduled (crossed fingers) to close escrow at the end of January, with a move-in date a few weeks later.  The location—ocean waves, eclectic neighborhood, great walking and near enough to civilization but far enough from distraction—is amazing.  The house’ll need some updating. 

Yup, another renovation for Gail and David!  So, last weekend we toured kitchen and bath showrooms and that old excitement lit me up…just 18 months after we finished the Boca condo reno, here we are facing another.  That one went so unbelievably smoothly I know I’m fooling myself (aren’t I?  This is California coast, they do regulations really, really thoroughly here.  Really, really.)

So, to some extent I’m floating a foot above the earth, waiting it out in the “sabbatical” apartment (so-called to elevate the experience), waiting to put both feet on terra firma.  The cliff dive ain’t over yet.

The real cliff dive—the “I’m a writer” transformation—well, yes, that’s a soul-clenching, joy filled ride that is my tether, my life-line, my wholly certain, shout-it-to-the winds (no jinxing) Hallelujah! 

xxxooo

Gail 

  

  

Seals! Let’s live here!

One of the best things about having company is the joy of showing off this place, of reliving the experience of the new.  Elise, as everyone knows, has an entirely unique take, passionate and aware in ways I’ll never be.  She loves this earth as much as anyone I’ll ever meet.  What a gift.  I’m sad without her, the trip too short, but now I’m reveling in the physicalness of Northern CA, most particularly the amazing smell of this place—Eucalyptus and forest, the sea salt air.

She came along on a house tour (because, you know, life marches along!) and explored a neighborhood with us and now I’m in love with that place. The housing market in this area is what it is—I’m hopeful (as in, becalm my pounding heart) but realistic about extreme long shots, bidding wars, everything going for over asking.  Cross your fingers for us!  Most of all, we must be patient.  

Just a few minutes walk from the house, though, putting aside all anxieties of CA housing, we came upon the Seals.  Sharon and Michael, David and Amy, remember this? When we first arrived in CA it was one of the first amazing little finds, this marine sanctuary hidden along the coast. And, then to top it off, an astonishing forested walk high above along the bluffs.  Wow.

In between the house hunting roller coaster ride, David and I (as we will) are intensely focused on our work—I’m obsessing over final draft of a short story and have returned to the novel-Sisters saga of Jenn and Polly, and he started another clinic schedule in Capitola, gave a Grand Rounds talk at a nearby hospital and met with his truly gifted mentor a bunch.  Elise’s visit reminded us both to stop for a moment, breathe, take it in, and always always be grateful.