Friday, December 3, 2010


I love being a writer. But the stress of wondering when, how, or if I will get paid for various jobs this year, certainly caused me to doubt my life choices.  Containing my fear became no longer possible on one spectacularly crappy day last Spring. The strong language in the following piece has not been softened in the interest of truth.
Career Day
The crumpled flier that sticks out of Murphy’s folder is yellow and I pull it out, prepared to toss it as I do most of his neon epistles from kindergarten. They invariably ask for money or time. I don’t have much of either.  Pat and I are declaring bankruptcy and work has been scarce to nonexistent.  From day to day, I enjoy my family and friends – but whenever I look at the big picture, I feel powerless, terrified, and regretful. Why did I choose to be a writer?  Why didn’t I choose a career in some essential field like childcare, waste management, or cosmetic surgery?
            The banner of Murphy’s flier catches my eye, “Career Day Volunteers Needed.”  My first reaction is that this is a cosmic joke aimed directly at me.  Knee-jerk cynicism has been getting me through our financial crisis.  I don’t like myself like this, but beating the universe to the punch feels – at the very least – proactive.  This time however, when my lip curls in wry response to the yellow flyer, I cannot muster the rest. This time, I reconsider.  Maybe this isn’t a joke at all.  Maybe it’s an opportunity for me to reconnect to what I love about writing. Maybe what’s been missing, besides actual money, is my passion and commitment.  I’m tired of being afraid.  Tired of cynicism.  Tired of saying no to neon fliers. Tired of feeling like all my life choices belong the “don’t” column of every situational analysis.
            Sensing a metaphoric breeze of change, I boldly check, “Yes.  I will volunteer”. It’s thrilling checking “yes” instead of “no”. I know that this shift in attitude is coming from me.  I don’t expect the world to respond – oceans to divide – but the awakening flutter of inspiration in my chest, carries with it the faint whiff of hope.
            By the time a coordinating parent calls me a week later, the flutter has taken root, sprouted, and flowered. I tell volunteer mom that “Career Day” is a personal calling for me. If she gives me the job, I will make it my mission to light these small minds on fire.  I feel that it’s vital, in this economic environment, to let children know that a career in the arts is still viable. Artists can make a modest living.  But more importantly, artists are essential to a thriving community.  We are the nation’s dreamers. We are the makers of things. Art is what links the corporeal to the spiritual. It is what saves us from leading lives of quiet desperation.   
            “You realize you’ll be talking to Kindergarteners,” she says.
            “Of course,” I say.  “I’ll dumb it down a bit. Take out the part about quiet desperation.”
            I hear her shuffling some papers, “I could pair you up with a psychologist.”
            “Things aren’t that bad,” I joke.
            She doesn’t react.  Apparently, she’s all business.  I adjust and say enthusiastically, “A psychologist would be great.  We could do a brief lecture on the origin of man’s need to tell stories about the nature of his own existence.”
            She pauses.  “Maybe we’ll put you with the court stenographer.”
            Finally, she decides to leave the pairing till later when she has more takers.  But one thing is clear.  I’ve landed the job. 
I tell Murphy that I’m going to talk to his class about being a writer. He is thrilled and does a celebratory dance, which includes a leap off of the couch and a robot move that has significance only to him. Murphy is an ebullient kid who declares his passion for almost everything with the zeal of a true believer.  It is common for him to announce at breakfast, for example, “I love French toast more than anything.  I could have French toast every day for the rest of my life.”  Or, “Rubber bands are the best thing invented because they can do hundreds of jobs and be used over and over again.”  Like all zealots, however, he is only a breath away from total despondency.  One can run out of syrup.  Rubber bands can break.  In these moments, when life lets him down -- when his faith is tested -- his despair is oceanic.  He collapses into heaving sobs, balls his fists, doubles over, and keens, “Why, why, why?” 
            “On career day, I can bring one of my articles that shows pictures of you,” I tell Murphy.  A few of my parenting articles have featured pictures of my family.
            “This is going to be great,” he crows. “It’s going to be the best day ever.”
            The week leading up to Career day is frenetic. I flag magazine articles I’ve written.  I unearth a newspaper Op Ed about Halloween.  I outline a brief introduction of what I consider to be strong writing elements – steer clear of adverbs, make sure the conflict is clear, be able to state your theme even if you don’t write it – that kind of thing.
            “Remember to keep it simple,” my husband warns as I work on a poster-sized graph of a story arc. “They’re six.”
            “That’s why I’m doing this graph. It’s visual, see?”
            I gaze at the poster and think, I am going to blow that court stenographer off the stage.
            “I need the perfect closer,” I say to Pat. “I could hand each one of them a tiny book that they could write their own stories in.  What would I need?  Construction paper?  A stapler?”
            “How many little books are we talking about?”
            “It’s all the kindergartens combined. So roughly sixty.”
            “Brett, you don’t need to hand out little books.”
            “I want Murphy to be proud of me.”
            Pat sighs, “He’s already proud of you.  As soon as you walk in the room, he’ll be proud of you.”
            “I was envisioning a stage,”
             “Whatever,” he says.  “You don’t have to try that hard.”
            But what Pat doesn’t understand is that I’m done with underperforming.  On the morning of the big day, I ask Murphy if he would like me to dress like “casual mommy” or “beautiful mommy”.  He chooses beautiful.  After sending him and his older brother off on the bus, I return home to apply make-up and perfume.  I pull the look together with sparkly earrings, spike heels, and a flowing silk sweater. 
            Pat takes in my outfit, “Accepting an award?”
            “Murphy wanted ‘beautiful’ mommy,” I say.
            “And this means cocktail attire?”
            The night before, Pat staged a one-man intervention, threatening not to drive me to the school if stayed up all night making sixty mini-books.  Since I don’t drive, this could have seriously derailed the venture. By the light of day, I realize that the mini-books would have been cumbersome to tote anyway, since I would also have to carry a story arc board and my stack of magazines. As we’re leaving, I remember that I once wrote some Internet content for the ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ movie.  I dash over to the printer and quickly print it out. 
            In the car, I visualize walking onto the stage and seeing the upturned faces of Murphy’s classmates.  I look down at the stack of the magazines on my lap and make sure that the post-it notes are still visible.  Pat talks to me about something he heard on the news. Normally, I would be interested.  But I need to focus. If I get involved in conversation, I could be thrown off my game.
            I am unaware of the turn we’ve made into a gas station, until Pat comes to a complete stop.
            “Something’s smoking,” he says.
            I look out the windshield and see that steam is indeed, emanating from the hood of our dusty old beater of a car.  Pat jumps out, pops open the hood, and a plume of steam escapes. I take a slow breath and am surprised to find myself fairly calm.  I’m not anticipating the worst, not imagining the best.  I simply breathe and wait as Pat swats the fumes until he can get a closer look.  Look at me, I think, I’m a calm woman, dressed for her son’s Career Day, sitting in a smoking clunker, while her sweaty husband looks under the hood.  I am remarkably calm.
            The driver door opens and Pat flops in the seat.  “I don’t think I can get her to go,” he says.
            “She’s not going to go?” I repeat, insensibly.
            “Don’t think so.”
            “OK,” I say.  “Then that’s it. No career day.”
            I open my door, teetering slightly on my heels.  When I get my balance, I walk over to a chain link fence, squat down, and let out a howl.  “Nooooooooooo,” I moan.  “Nooooo,” I repeat over and over again.  My gut clenches.  Tears surface and stream down my cheeks.  I place my palms on the gravel and lower myself to my knees.  “Noooooo,” I scream in a higher pitch. On all fours now.
             “Why? Why? Why? I can’t take it anymore,” I yell to the ground.  “All I wanted was Career Day.  One day. One fucking day when everything would be perfect. That’s all I want! “
            I turn to Pat who sits stiffly in the driver seat.
            “Is it too much to ask? To have one day go perfectly?  To look good to my son?  To make a difference to eager minds?  To have just one day go right when every other fucking thing in my whole fucking life is a fucking fuck fest of failure?” 
            Pat looks at me and says softly, “No.  It’s not too much, baby.”
            “Damn right,” I scream, scrambling to my feet. 
            Pat gets out of the driver’s seat and checks under the hood again.
            I grab onto the fence and start kicking it with the pointy toes of my shoes. My toe gets caught and I have to wrest it from the wire mesh.  “I can’t even kick a fucking fence,” I yell. 
            “I know,” Pat says from under the hood.
            “What is it Pat?  Do I expect too much? Am I terrible person?  Why does everything go wrong?”
            “You got a script deal this year.”
            “A teeny, teeny, tiny one.”
            “I wouldn’t say that.”
            “I would,” I yell.  The fight is almost out of me. But I’ve started to enjoy this.  What abandon. I totally see why Murphy let’s loose like this.  I never scream and it feels good.  Really good.  I feel Italian. The problem is that I can’t think of anything more to say.  I stomp a little more.  But it hurts in my narrow shoes.   I sniffle and wipe my cheeks. 
            Pat emerges from under the hood, “OK. I have a plan.”
            “A taxi?”
            “Are you kidding?  It’ll cost fifty bucks.  But hear me out. I think it’s a leak in the water pump. I could be wrong.  But I can fill it up with water and it leaks slow enough, we might get there.  If we break down, we call AAA and have them tow us to the school.  We get three tows a year.  We’ve only used one.  We could even get them to tow us back home after you’ve finished career day.”
            I can’t decide whether showing up for Career Day in a tow truck is humiliating or heroic.  But the thought of experiencing the depth of Murphy’s disappointment is now my primary motivating force.  I can fail myself – I do it all the time. But I cannot fail him. I jump into the car and it sputters its way toward the school. 
            Parents with nametags mill in the auditorium when I arrive.  I haven’t had time to check a mirror.   Am I tearstained?  Blotchy?  Has my hair separated into matted clumps?  The mirror in the car is foggy and I can’t depend on Pat to give an accurate assessment.  The fact that he always thinks I look good is both delightful and maddening.  In the past, he’s failed to inform me about exposed bra straps, criminal panty lines, and a patch of gray hair on the back of my head that I didn’t manage to reach with Clairol number 6N.  He smiles approvingly at me as I leave him at the door, but it’s entirely possible that I look like Mickey Rourke. 
            I wobble forward on my heels and no one looks startled. Either I look fine or the bar is very low.  I look around and determine the bar to be somewhere in the middle.  Clutching my story arc chart, I find my nametag, and sit on an unforgiving metal foldout chair.
            “Welcome. Welcome,” says the principal, a woman of indeterminate age and gender identification.  Parents take their seats as she talks them through their room assignments and pairings.  As Pat predicted, we are presenting in rooms and not on a stage.  I mentally swat aside my disappointment. I argue to myself, that I’ll make more of an impact in an intimate venue.
“We were disappointed to lose our dental hygienist, but we picked up a mail carrier,” the principal says.  “It always works out somehow.”
            Apparently, my court stenographer is also in abstentia.  I am given my room assignment, but as yet, no partner.  No worries, I think, all the more time with the kids to go over plot structure. 
            I am the first to arrive at my assigned classroom.  I place my magazines on a table, prop up my story arc chart, and run my fingers through my hair.  I look at the rows of desks and chairs and imagine myself lighting youthful imaginations on fire. 
            The door opens and a man pokes his head in.  He has a shaved head and a tattoo covering half of his face.  “Is this kindergarten, room 5?”  he asks.           
“Yes,” I say.
            He nods, pulls open the door, and steps in the classroom.  He’s wearing a complete martial arts costume – the white outfit, with a black belt.  He’s carrying a samurai sword. 
            “Are you the writer?” he asks.
            I nod and don’t ask if he’s a court stenographer.  Holy Fuck.  Are you shitting me?  This is my partner?  What little kid is going to want to sit through my lecture on story arcs after listening to a real live ninja dude with a facial tattoo and a fucking ninja sword? 
            He holds up the ninja sword, “It’s not real.  Don’t worry.”
            “I’m cool,” I say.  So I guess there isn’t a chance he’d accidentally stab himself with the sword before the kids arrive.
            “Name’s Hector,” he says.
            “I’m Brett.  Whose father are you?” I ask.
            “No one’s,” he says. “I teach some of the kids, so one of their dads asked me.”
            “So you’re not even a parent,” I ask, catching my judgmental tone and tempering it with a smile.  But, come on, isn’t that against career day rules or something?
            “Hey,” he says, companionably, “you want to go first or should I?”
             “Oh, I’ll go first.  No problem,” I quickly offer.  At least I won’t have to follow the coolest ninja dude on the entire fucking planet. 
            The door opens and Murphy appears, a crush of children behind him. “Hi, Mom,” he beams. 
            “Hello my love,” I say.
            He strides in with the throng tumbling in after him.  The kids stare at Hector and the sword as they move toward the desks. But Murphy only sees me.  He takes a seat in the back row and pats the chair next to him so his best friend can join him.  Their heads bow together and then Murphy points to me.  “That’s my mom,” he says to the entire classroom.  Several eager faces look toward me, then return to Hector and his sword.  But Murphy stays focused on me.
            The teacher settles the kids and introduces me as Murphy’s mom and a writer.  The kids wiggle around and Murphy shushes them.  I look at my story arc chart and the stack of magazines.  I look back at Murphy.  I mentally review the bullet points of my opening speech.  Murphy’s smile is eager.
            Then everything slows down.  Something in me falls away. I can barely retrieve the image of myself that I conjured seconds earlier.  I can’t remember what I wanted.  What I expected. I can only see and feel Murphy. I reach into my backpack and pull out the matted pages I’d yanked from the home printer, little over an hour ago. 
            “I’d like to share the interview I did with ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’,” I say.
            A hand shoots up in the first row, “You know Alvin?”
            “Not exactly,” I say.  “I am Alvin.”
            The class murmurs approval and interest.  Murphy flashes an even wider grin. I know that everyone else in the room will quickly forget my presentation when Hector wields his mighty ninja sword.  But Murphy will remember.  I will remember.  And, at the moment, I feel all of my losses and failures dissolve with the benediction of his smile.
Murphy beams at me from the back row of his classmates on Career Day


  1. I love this story!!! Thank you for putting a smile on my face every morning!

  2. This is 'fucking' great! While I read and you described Murphy, I said to myself "He's the epitome of his Mother!" Glad to see you knew...and his smile~~~beaming speaks volumes! Cool Mommy points for life, or until the next time you say no, at aleast!

  3. Loved it. I had the same experience at my youngest son's class - but I had to compete with the reptile lady from the LA Zoo. Needless to say, I got killed.