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My Christmas Letter

I don’t get Christmas letters any more, and that’s a good thing. How I loathed them. “We had an amazing year! Look how well we did! Life is great!” I was able to stumble through the year, for better or worse, until my life was held up against someone’s improbable standard.

This won’t be that kind of Christmas card.

2007 started out badly for me, and got worse. I was unhappy, and getting more so. I was mourning my old life, where I had the perfect job, in the perfect place to live, and had ever so perfectly spent my free time happily studying writing. Here, in this new place, I was sad, but so stressed and busy that I did not have time to do any of the things that make me happy (like writing).

I felt I was living in a movie I now call Ugly Tallahassee, a listless place with bad food, a weary downtown, and rundown city neighborhoods with crumbling frat houses. Even the YMCA closest to my house was dolorous — a weary, smelly small building, in contrast to the flossy redwood-and-glass affair two blocks from where we lived in Palo Alto.

Not quite mid-year, I changed what I could about my life. I quit my job, and because I quit my job, I suddenly went from having no free time to buckets of it, and spent a lot of it writing for both money and pleasure. It meant a lot of belt-tightening, but we’re used to that — I’ll address that in a minute — and during that period we were blessed with no emergencies. Appliances kept functioning, cars kept running, body parts worked as advertised. I did a lot of revision and I did a lot of submission, and I did some paid writing gigs as well, as well as a couple of talks. I was patient, and when some job possibilities popped and then fizzled, I kept the faith. And kept writing and submitting.

Then I found a great day job at a terrific organization, founded a writing critique group, and restructured my life to ensure that no matter what went on at home or at work, I had some time every week for things that give me pleasure. (It’s not always writing, either: last Saturday I took myself shopping and then played in the kitchen.)

I also wrote a new movie. It’s called Pretty Tallahassee.

In this movie, I work with nice people in a building that feels new and attractive, and has pleasant creature comforts — one of the few places I’ve worked where the staff lounge was really a lounge, with comfortable, attractive furniture and a large TV. When I drive home, I try to take the pretty entrance into Meyer’s Park, so instead of taking the ugly way in — driving past gun and pawn shops, empty commercial buildings, and the world’s worst Thai restaurant — I’m driving through several visually appealing points of access and winding past the real park itself as I go home, where joggers are huffing down the path and the tennis courts are often full. I make sure to keep our birdfeeders stocked so that when I pull up to our house I am often greeted by birds fluttering and chirping near our front door.

In Pretty Tallahassee, when we choose where we go out to eat, it’s someplace delightful, like the Shell (a sweet little dive of an oyster bar) or a luxe place with great food such as Cypress, Sage, or Urbane, the new kid on the block, and a welcome sign of life in downtown Tallahassee (chorizo and fig on a pizza? Oh, mama mia!).

I find I am also tougher in this movie. When the vindaloo was disappointing at Essence of India — which by local standards is usually better than you’d expect for Indian food — I told them so. If someone orders “hot,” she means “hot,” not flaccid. This restaurant can choose to be part of Ugly Tallahassee or Pretty Tallahassee, and some of that rests on not screwing up my vindaloo.

I also stopped going to the ugly YMCA after visiting the new one in Southwood, which made me feel I was in a different city: large, new, loads of equipment, dramatic windows, clean-smelling. Suddenly I realized that the other Y was contributing to my unhappiness; the message was “this is your weary, cramped, odiferous life.” I also started a walk/run routine where I don the iPod, filled with NPR programs and short stories, and run through the pretty park. I’m really enjoying that; I’m getting to know other runners, as well as some delightful doggy neighbors. Sometimes my church offers evening aerobics classes, and these are really fun; I actually learned a dance called The Electric Slide, and in two or three years I might even get up enough nerve to do it in public. (The ratty old Y is undergoing a renovation, and my assessment of it will determine if we keep or drop our Y membership.)

I am measuring good physical progress by my posterior’s jiggle factor: when I started my walk/run (walk to the courts, run down the path, hit the undo button), I felt my bottom had its own life, bouncing behind me, but now it moves in time with the rest of my body. I don’t know if you could bounce a quarter off it (something Condoleeza Rice is reputedly proud of — for her bottom, not mine), but I’m feeling more in shape than I have in years. I generously donate my higher, firmer tush to Pretty Tallahassee, just as I now exercise in matching outfits, not the old sweatpants with the stains and the sagging seat.

The other woman I workshop with (separate from the critique group) commented that we had passed the one-year point, and those monthly sessions at Panera’s, plus many an afternoon on my own, have also been a big part of Pretty Tallahassee. She’s a great writer and an equally great person, and yes, she knows what creative nonfiction is and even how to critically approach it.

As writing spaces go, I’m rather delighted with Panera’s. It’s clean and light but unlike Starbuck’s, it’s not pushing a prefab “lifestyle” on me. The staff leave me alone — actually, they smile at me as I work (I imagine they are thinking, “there goes that sweet lady with the amazingly round, firm posterior”). I even have what I consider My Table, though I try to be flexible about that and do not stare down people who mistakenly take that spot. Well, I don’t consciously stare them down, but the table often does become available sometime during my writing sieges.

Now that my life is prettier, I remember the problems with my Christmas-letter-perfect former life. California was expensive — nosebleed expensive — and every year was its own financial worry. My job, fun as it was, was also a grant-funding roller-coaster in a state with wildly fluctuating financial fortunes in a very highly politicized funding environment. I interviewed for several permanent jobs that never panned out. After five years, Sandy hadn’t found stable employment, either; she had one year of unemployment, and two interim positions.

In the land of milk and honey, we were also spending $2200 a month to rent a dumpy, tiny, one-bathroom house on a noisy street in Palo Alto, next door to a garage band that played loudly, and badly, every weekend. We owned a small condo (which we rented out while we lived in Palo Alto) that was absolutely adorable but was part of a three-member condo association with owners who were so cheap and short-sighted we couldn’t even convince them to upgrade to locked mailboxes. We didn’t resent the wealth around us — we live below our means, and like it that way — but we once felt very ashamed when a veterinarian recommended a dental procedure for our cats that we declined because it was more money than we could spend on our own (deferred) dental work.

My writing life was perfect, but artificially so, propped up by an environment where I had highly specific deadlines and word counts and an enforced writing community. Had we stayed in PerfectLand, I would still have had to confront the post-MFA “what do I do now” hangover.

Life is not perfect here either. I don’t work for a perfect organization, I don’t have a perfect family life, I’ve never had a perfect meal, my body still has plenty of wrinkles, ripples, and sags, my writing life could be better — I still struggle with “what do I do now” — and I myself am oh so not perfect.

But for 2008 I can roll the film on two movies. I know which one is part of my survival.

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