A Place for Piles

We tidied up our house yesterday. It was in desperate need. I used to have a friend who cleaned for me, but the house is so exhausting that she had to break the job into two separate days. It’s not that it’s a huge house or anything. It’s just that, in 1908, people liked each room to have about 12 corners, and each window has 8 separate surfaces to clean, and they had to have two staircases instead of just one. And then modern Roberts came along and filled said house with creatures that drop hair in a daily mammalian monsoon and added two kids with more toys than anyone needs. It’s a bit much for one person, and that’s why I’m now without a cleaning person. Plus, I decided that money would serve me better in a jar for Ben’s future legal fees.

During yesterday’s miserable exercise–one replete with whining and bickering and arguments about who was absolutely not going to pick up that shoe or hang up that coat–I noticed something.

We’re pilers. We pile things.

Now, maybe this is human nature. I haven’t been in many of your homes, but I can’t be alone in this. Isn’t it natural to seek out a flat space and cover it with your crap? As I write this, my butt is on the couch and my feet are on the coffee table. Also on the coffee table are two notebooks, a day planner, two bills, three remotes, a phone, a glass of water, a dog collar, a pen, a hair clip, another dog collar, a candle, and two lacrosse balls (which I use to work on the knots in my shoulders, and yes, it hurts like a mofo). And this is after we cleaned it all up. This is what’s left.

For me, for us, that’s not bad at all. I could walk around the house and photograph myriad flat surfaces that have far more stuff on them than this coffee table.  The problem with having a flat surface in your house is that a flat surface was made for exactly one purpose: putting stuff on it. That’s it. That’s why we have furniture with flat tops. The table is for dishes and food. Counter tops are for appliances and cat feet at 2AM. The desk–always the worst of the offenders–is like a wide valley where creatures such as first drafts, water bills, paper clips, photographs, and lip balm come to graze and play and roam about on the expansive, composite-wood savannah. The desk is a place for piles if ever there were one. And when the desk’s real estate is maxed out, I move on to the top of the printer, and the top of the filing cabinet, and the top of the fireplace (which is always a fantastic place to put paper products).

These flat surfaces enslave us. At the end of my bed, I have a lovely wicker trunk that was a wedding gift. In it, I store out of season blankets and other sets of sheets. (As I write this I find myself asking why I really need more than one extra set of sheets. After all, I’ve got one set on the bed and a second set for when a kid comes in at 3am and barfs all over everything. Two should be enough. But, no, I’ve got to overdo it. I’ve got my flannel sheets with the doggy paw prints and my flannel sheets that are white so I can bleach them, and I’ve got my two sets of t-shirt sheets and my three sets of cotton sheets–one is pilly but I’m not ready to give up on it–and I’ve got my microfiber sheets that I always think I’m going to love until I put them on the bed and realize the fitted sheet has too much material, and it bunches up under my back and butt at night and reminds me of sleeping on the beach, which is truly a terrible place to sleep, if you’ve ever tried it, and there are sand fleas, too. But this isn’t a post about excess or sand fleas; it’s a post about flat surfaces. )

Shame

The wicker trunk has a magnetic hold on me. It’s one of my favorite pieces of furniture. It’s well-crafted, it’s summery, it smells nice on the inside, and it’s useful. And it’s so bad for me. If 365 days make up a year, only on 10 of those days does the top of that trunk see the daylight. Sometimes it’s laundry baskets, but mostly it’s just clean clothing I haven’t put away yet, random socks, and, if the picture to the left is any indication, a copy of The Catcher In the Rye.* When I clear it off, I’m always so certain that I’ll change my ways and keep it clear and zen. I’m suddenly quite sure that the bedroom should be a peaceful place, a feng shui masterpiece, if possible, and I vow to keep it thusly. And then, the next day, the wicker surface is lost again under a fresh load of Scooby Doo underwear and a turquoise pair of deer leggings.

There it was back on May 13, 2017.

You know what’s worse than flat surfaces? Catch-all pieces of furniture. Usually, these are chairs. I’ve observed that there is a certain radius around an entryway and if a piece of furniture is placed within that radius, it will become a catch-all. Now, my radius may be wider or more narrow than yours, but there is still a radius, and if there’s a chair within that area, we’re screwed. There’s a recliner about ten feet from our lower back door. You’d think that would be far enough away, but nope. The Roberts radius clearly exceeds ten feet because we hadn’t seen the cushion of that chair for three months. When we finally decided to deal with the evil pit, we found two seasons of coats in there, a pile of Ben’s homework, my belt, a dog leash, a set of sheets, and my long-lost bathmats. (In this case, the recliner is also within the radius of the laundry machines, but that’s a problem I’m not ready to admit I have, yet.) By the time I found the bottom of the recliner, I knew that it had to go. Anywhere. Upstairs to the living room, perhaps, beyond the radius of either the front or the upper back door. Because that’s the danger zone. And the front door already has its own chair, currently piled with the contents of a future attic run: a decorative ghost, a grinning, styrofoam pumpkin head, and a gardening trowel. Well, that last one goes to the tool shed when I decide to take out the deflated inner tubes.

You know what’s worse than a chair? A papisan chair. They are the devil incarnate. Whoever invented the papisan chair should be gibbeted. It’s literally a giant bowl that sits in your house like a Venus Fly Trap and waits for a flannel shirt or a hand towel to buzz into its gaping maw. The papisan chair doesn’t care what it eats; it will consume literally anything. It’s a black hole, a tiger shark. Pick your metaphor. Headphones, backpacks, drowsy felines…it doesn’t give a crap. It just wants your stuff. It’s the Pied Piper of Papisan. It plays a mystical flute that we can’t hear, but the stuff can hear it, and the stuff comes right out of the closets and dances merrily into the gullet of that tipsy rattan demon. That’s how the stuff gets there.

Fewer than 10 items is a good day for the demon papisan chair.

Plus, it’s bewitched us: we throw something in it every time we walk by. An offering on the Altar of the Unkempt. Thank god we’re finally waking up and realizing we’re cult members in this Papisan Slob Society. The chair must go to the attic. Formerly, it was a demon foyer-bowl. Before that, it was a demon basement-bowl. Now it’s a demon living room-bowl, and I have to exorcise it, no matter how much pea soup it spews on my shirt. I’m going to need an old priest and a young priest.

I’m not an organized person. Moreover, there are a million better things to do in this world than sort socks and papers and the works of reclusive American novelists. That’s the thing, here. I’m not writing myself into some great revelation about newfound tidiness. I know I won’t change, ever. We all have to sort socks, sometimes, but I’ll trade that in a heartbeat for 20 minutes of sunshine, or fresh air, or even a productive writing hour. Take a solid nap. Sing to the dog. To put it in the simplest, most adolescent terms, I just don’t want to sort my damn socks. So the piles accrue around me.

I know you tidy people are out there. You’re probably reading this on your wide open desk, next to your bare end table, shaking your head because you just can’t understand what’s so hard about taking 10 seconds to hang up your Gap jeans rather than tossing them on the ficus tree, and how can there be one ankle boot in the second-floor bathroom and one in the basement boot box because who does that? All I can say is that you must be a powerful Jedi to resist the siren song of the stuff-pile. I’d ask you to teach me your ways, but I’m pretty sure the Dark Side claimed me long ago.

 

*That’s the thing about trunks. They’re goddamn useful. Old Ben likes to use it as a diving board for the bed. Boy, I sure do need to work on my cleaning habits. I really do.

 

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Halloween 2017

We went trick-or-treating yesterday. As usual, it was freezing, even colder than usual. My kids didn’t give a hoot about the temperature. They’re extra bitchy about coats; Andy is a human furnace and Ben refuses to have his costume marred by the likes of anything out of character.  He went as Freddy Faz Bear from Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is a horrible little video game that forces the player to creep around a Chuck E. Cheese kind of pizza place and make sure the animatronics don’t come to homicidal life. Of course, the animatronics do come to life and creep closer and closer in the dark. You either stop them with your flashlight and defeat them, or they reach you and jump-scare the shit out of you.

Jump scares are a big thing in my family. It’s become part of the Roberts culture. It started a few years ago with a kid lurking behind a door, giggling loudly as he waited for Shawn to come up the stairs and pretend to be scared. Then, it got a little more sophisticated. They learned to turn off the lights. Ben learned to bide his time and remain in his hiding place without giggling. Once, he waited outside the bathroom door for a full twenty minutes as I showered and applied hair goo and face goo and brushed my teeth. When I emerged, quite naked and relaxed, he came flying out of the shadows and shouted, “Aaaa!!!!!” He earned that scream. And I hated it.

Shawn actually started this jump-scare tradition.  He began torturing the boys when they were too little, in my opinion, to endure such fright. He’s very good at what he does. He’s hidden under Andy’s bed and reached out to grab Andy’s ankles. He’s lurked in a dark room and made creaking noises; the boys know he’s in there waiting to scare them and push each other towards the doorway. When he finally does jump out, it’s loud, pants-shitting terror. Each morning when he comes up the stairs to greet the three of us at the breakfast table, he does it with a jump-scare. Usually, he targets the boys, but if I have my back to him while I make my smoothie, he’ll do it to me.

“What the f— is wrong with you!?” I always scream at him. And he laughs hysterically. Recently, he jumped out at Ben with such vigor that Ben burst into tears. It was simply too much for his little nervous system to handle.  He should have felt guilty, but I think his primary emotion might have been more accurately described as “pride.”

I hate jump-scares. But I’m in the minority, here. At the Spirit Halloween pop-up stores, they sell jump-scare decorations. You step on a pad and a hairy spider lunges at you or an arm comes flying from behind a gravestone to grab your leg. Ben and Andy run through the store to find each and every display before they can focus on buying a costume. Personally, I’d be content to never be startled again as long as I live. I feel no desire to step on that pad and have a 2-foot arachnid lurch in my direction.

This is a golden time for Shawn. His boys are old enough to participate in his beloved tradition and young enough to think it’s hilarious and cool. Halloween is his favorite holiday. He hangs tacky lights all over the mantles and woodwork in the house. He keeps scary masks in his desk–not just for Halloween use but for general jump-scare merriment. Last evening, he decided he was going to dress up for trick-or-treat, too. But instead of wearing something ghoulish, he found Andy’s old lady mask from last year, an expensive piece of latex that transforms the wearer into a crone. That would have been disturbing enough, but then he decided to pair it with my unicorn onesie. And my hiking stick.

 I’m not sure what the theme was, other than “disturbing.” He said the onesie kept him warm in the 30-something degree temperatures. And he remained in character for an hour, cackling at little children and repeatedly poking me in the ass with his cane. I cringed when we came upon houses with elderly residents handing out candy. Then again, Andy wore the mask last year on a parade through Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital, so I suppose the tradition of walking the line between humor and offense continues.

On a related note, this was the first year I brought hooch in my coat.

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Chasing Erma

As a female humor writer, there’s really no greater role model than Erma Bombeck. She set the bar impossibly high, which is a good thing. Something about knowing I’ll never quite reach her level keeps me on my toes. I keep trying. And sometimes it pays off, like when the Erma Bombeck humor site publishes one of my pieces on their blog. It’s a pretty big deal.

 

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Valley Views & Varmints: Tiny Lights

Please visit Weelunk to read my latest in the Valley Views & Varmints series.

This week: Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, they need a little help to flourish. Please give it a read to find out what you can do for them.

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Vandaleer

I’ve got a piece up on Vandaleer about the recent West Virginia Writers’ Conference.

Writing about writers, knowing writers will be reading what I writered about them – geez. No pressure, man.

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Big News

I endured a rough patch in April and May. As the weather refused to warm, I engaged in regular self-abuse and derision at my perceived lack of success. I received many a rejection letter for my book. Autoimmune brain fog hampered every effort to write something new (as evidenced by the silence on this site). Spring was a real shit show in writer-land. I was ready to give up and go to law school.

But with the West Virginia Writers’ Conference and the boost of self-confidence I gained in winning that competition, I feel now that I’m still on the right path, and that forward momentum is key to staying out of that mental pit.

Weelunk, Wheeling’s alternative news and blogging platform, has given me a golden opportunity. Every alum of Chatham University’s nature writing program dreams of an opportunity to reach out with their words, to affect positive ecological change. I’ve been given this chance.

My regular Weelunk column, Valley Views & Varmints, will soon be debuting on Weelunk and appearing with regularity!

Yesterday, a picture of me looking sweaty and bedraggled appeared in an introductory post.

Thanks, summer, for your bounty.

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West Virginia Writers’ Conference 2017

I’m pleased to write about another fantastic trip down to Ripley where I and two of my fellow Ohio Valley Writers attended the 40th West Virginia Writers’ Conference at Cedar Lakes. I won three awards: honorable mention and first place for two essays in the non-fiction category, in which I competed against 56 other brilliant writers, and second place in the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change category.

What makes the West Virginia Writers’ Conference special, I think, is West Virginia itself. I’ve been to other writing conferences. I went to AWP in Washington, D.C. in February, and it was very businesslike, very efficient. AWP is a monster machine, with hundreds of panels, hundreds of publishers, and thousands of people. I learned a lot at AWP. I also wore myself out to the point of exhaustion. And while I did do some networking, the crowds made it difficult to really forge any new connections from scratch. It’s hard to remember faces in such a literary cacophony, and the faces who did invite me to submit my manuscript said no thank-you several months later. In a perfectly nice way, mind you.

John & Alice joined me at this year’s conference.

West Virginia Writers is like camp. We’re a small state and a ferociously proud one. And while the news will never tell you that we’re full of word artists, they come out of the hollers for this event, and they’re a most enjoyable crowd. They’re friendlier than church-folk, even. West Virginia writers are like puppies: they wag their tails when you show up and welcome you with excitement.

Moonshine under moonshine.

Plus, there’s moonshine. Apple pie flavored. Meta bonus points because I was drinking moonshine while bathing in the Strawberry Moon’s shine.

I learned things, but more importantly, I connected with the other writers in a way I did not do at AWP or any other conference I’ve attended. These are folks with whom you can sit down at any meal in the dining hall – quite literally just plop yourself down with strangers – and become friendly and feel supported. There are no jerks. There are no douchebags. We are bonded by our West Virginian-ness.

The bucolic spirit of Cedar Lakes, Ripley, WV.

And in our state, that’s not a bond to underestimate. Our love of our home, despite all of the negativity it endures from both the inside and the outside, emerges in conversation. It spills out in workshop when the leader asks who returned to West Virginia after living elsewhere and twenty hands shoot up. We are not only proud to be from West Virginia; we are all in love with West Virginia. And no matter how many times we land in the 49th spot on an unenviable list, we resist that label. We’re more than an opioid addiction. We’re more than an incest joke or a color on a political map. This place is our home, our bloodline. And that blood runs through the veins of this conference, too. Our state is our spectacular main character; it creates our narrative tension and our blessed resolution.

Ohio Valley Writers took home 5 awards.

Does this kinship flow at other conferences? I cannot fathom a Manhattan writers’ convention. I can’t imagine passing a group of New York writers sitting beside a bonfire and being invited to join them. In what other world can I approach an esteemed author and come away with a hug or an invitation to call them up for a chat? Who else might toss me a cold beer and exchange a few bad-cat stories or an hour of bluegrass music?

At every writers’ conference, I come away with something of value: a new technique, a business card, a signed book. When I leave Cedar Lakes, I’m also coming home with a renewed sense of community, of deep and enduring pride to be a West Virginian. From the hollers and panhandles of our state the writers come forth for this annual pilgrimage, and though it’s writing that brings us together, it’s our love of our land that we truly share.

This year we took an oath. We swore to support one another in literature and friendship, to remember the great authors who wrote before us:

West Virginia Writers Pledge

And we remain a pack, as the pledge suggests. For forty years the West Virginia Writers have kept the torch burning in support of one another, of the story tradition. It’s one I’m so proud to be a part of.

 

 

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I SUP

There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.

I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.

Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.

Ah, the glorious silence of nature.

In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.

It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.

Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.

I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.

 

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