October 27, 2015 § 1 Comment
This is a zig-zaggy story about things I’m going to want to keep in mind come January, when I’m sitting under a blanket on the sofa, wearing the same sweatshirt for the third day in a row, sniffing old candy canes because I read somewhere that peppermint is a stimulant. Stay with me here:
Back in the summer, when the first leg of the little Penguins with People Problems book tour wrapped up in Asheville (shout out to the indie bookstore: Hey, Malaprop’s!), I was feeling rather treat yo’self. So I decided to celebrate with a fancy facial before driving back to Tennessee. Now, I know damned well that my sensitive skin has never been able to handle exotic emollients, so I’m not sure what made me think I could subject myself to an hour of greased face-massage with no consequences, but there you have it. Predictably, my momentary lapse of self-awareness caused me to break out the next day in a flesh-eating rash. My eyelids crusted over; my chin got all spotty; my cheeks turned red and angry. I looked like a very ladylike zombie.
Can you guess the first thing I was scheduled to do upon arriving home with leprosy-face? If you guessed a screen test for a TV show, you are tragicomically correct. (But not a zombie show, although it would have been a perfect day for that.)
Here in Nashville, our public television station recently decided to reboot a popular interview show called A WORD ON WORDS. For 42 years, it was hosted by the late John Seigenthaler, who in addition to being a trailblazing journalist, political figure, and public servant was a voracious reader who loved chatting about books with guest authors. The folks at NPT had asked early in the summer if I’d be interested in hosting the new show. “Sure,” I’d said. “But you should probably know I have absolutely no camera experience whatsoever.” Thus, the screen test.
And that’s how I came to be sitting under lights, with rashy face and no makeup, squinting into the space in front of me, going, “Look where? Am I allowed to move my hands? Can you hear me? WHAT ABOUT NOW?”
Believe it or not, NPT decided to hire me. The great news is that my skin was mostly healed by the time we started filming (although you can tell in my first episode that I was still kind of puffy from the steroids). The even greater news is that I’m not going it alone. My co-host is none other than the beautiful and talented JT Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of thrillers such as What Lies Behind and the forthcoming No One Knows. She also rocks a pair of smart-girl glasses like nobody’s business. See:
Episodes of A WORD ON WORDS will air on Nashville’s public TV station (just like Downton Abbey, pretty much) as well as on the website, starting this Thursday, 10/29 and continuing throughout the year.
Speaking of work and unlikely events… This month was insane. All of the following happened in the first half of October: I had a blast speaking at the Southern Festival of Books and the Texas Book Festival; I kept running into Margaret Atwood everywhere I went; and I successfully wielded a handheld microphone on multiple occasions without accidentally throwing it across the room. Then I got to enjoy a signing at another great indie bookstore (hey, BookPeople!); a lovely dinner party in honor of Ruth Reichl, where I brought a fruit salad no one ate; and a very jolly encounter with Elizabeth Gilbert. (Speaking of which, I interviewed Liz for my day job — my other day job, not the TV one — and she said some smart things you might enjoy reading.)
Three months from now, when I’m feeling that hopeless midwinter drag because it’s getting dark at 3 p.m. every day, the voice of past-me will say, “Hey, remember that time when it was October and you got to see all your writer friends and Liz Gilbert called you ‘brilliant’ and you told Margaret Atwood you loved her hair and your TV show was announced and you made that fruit salad?” and January-me will be like, “No, that was never real. The sun is gone. I’m a dirty old sock, and I’m never getting out of bed.” And then past-me will go, “Yes, it was real, you dummy. Look — here’s proof.” Then I’ll remember that winter is temporary and everything is cyclical, I’ll have some coffee and wash my hair, and I’ll snap out of it. And that, my friends, is how time-traveling self-preservation works.
Anyway, if you’ve learned anything at all from this, let it be not to get a facial before anything important. Meanwhile, I’ll probably be back to talking about fashion ads and whatnot before long, so stay tuned. And keep reading.
September 21, 2015 § 8 Comments
Every now and then, people message me on Twitter or Facebook and ask for advice, which strikes me as hilarious, because even though I’m a full-grown adult, I have no more answers to the mysteries of life now than I did when I was fresh out of school, wearing maroon lipstick with my Rachel haircut. But hey, if you’re gonna ask, I’ll make up some answers.
Anyway — I received a really nice note last week asking about how to go about starting up a blog, etc. Here it is:
My name is S—-, and I think you are awesome. I’ve followed you on social media ever since a mutual friend “introduced” me to you, which has been maybe 5 or 6 years now. Almost every post of yours makes me laugh and/or ponder, and I just LOVE seeing you pop up in my feed. [<– Ed. note: Obviously, this person has fabulous taste.]
I’m writing to ask for a few words of wisdom. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I think I’m pretty damn funny. Both of my children are in school now, and I’d like to start writing more and finding out who else is awesome (i.e. gets me) in my social media world and maybe beyond.
I guess my question to you is, if you had to go back to the start of when you were trying to be YOU, is there anything you would do differently? How do I tie the social platforms all together and keep my personal stuff separate and have some followers who are not just trying to sell skincare or essential oils? I’ve got a “handle” I can use, and I’ve set up a blog on WordPress with that name, and I also have an Instagram (if I can just remember the password to get back into it).
I know you are a super busy person and I really appreciate you taking the time to read this message. Thanks for reading my message and for any pearls of wisdom you may pass along. Keep doing what you’re doing because you’re funny and insightful as hell, and your light reaches a lot of places!
* * *
OK, that’s just about the nicest letter I’ve ever received from a person I’ve never met. So I wrote back:
Hey, S! First off: THANK YOU for saying hi! I’m SO HAPPY for you! [fist pump] I am always glad when I hear someone has decided to start writing — whether you’re doing it publicly where people can see it or just for yourself in a secret notebook you keep under the seat of your car and pretend is a mileage log.
Well, I don’t know if I’d call it an “answer,” because I don’t know that I actually have the answers, but here is the best rule I can give you:
I *almost* replied with just that, but your letter was so nice, and I feel like I should try to come up with more. So, here are some opinions, based on experience.
1. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — and forget about building a following. (At least for now.) It’s kind of fun to begin with hardly any readers, because there’s no pressure. Whee! So start small. Tap-tap-tap on the microphone and do a soundcheck. And just think about one thing: A story you want to tell or a point you’d like to make or an idea you want to share or a joke or some pictures or a song or whatever. Write a post about that one thing.
2. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — even when it comes to social media. It sounds like you’re all set up to do some sharing on a few platforms; so when you’re ready, go for it. (Oh, you mentioned “keeping personal stuff separate.” If you want to keep your private accounts private, just set up separate pages/accounts for sharing your writing. Easy.) You also might consider reading and commenting on what other people post. Think about writing online like being a part of a big conversation. Just like in a real-live conversation, you might ask about or comment on things other people say that you find interesting. Engaging as a reader as well as a writer is one way to “meet” other people who are part of that big conversation and who might also want to read what you have to say. But you don’t have to. Really. If you’re more comfortable sharing posts just with your own friends and holding off on tweeting and such for now, rock on.
(From experience: If you do decide to use social media to share your posts, make your handles match across platforms. Like, if you’re “@catsdigmuffins” on Twitter, be “@catsdigmuffins” on everything else, too. I totally screwed that up. I mean, it doesn’t really matter… it’s just easier for keep track of if they’re not all different like mine are — @MaryLauraPhilpottAuthor / @wheniblink / @therandompenguins)
3. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — and consider aiming for quality over quantity. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that you should post as often as possible — daily, even, or at least weekly — if you want to build a good following. Someone must have some math to back that up if people keep saying it, and I guess if building a following is the goal, then go for it maybe. But again: you don’t have to. (I don’t.) Why not post when you really have something to say or share, with whatever frequency that is, instead of just for the sake of posting something? I say, if everyone’s telling you that you HAVE TO post all the time because IT’S THE RULE, but you don’t feel like it, then FUCK THE RULES. (And if everyone else you ask says this is terrible advice, feel free to throw me under the bus and say you knew I was full of shit all along.)
4. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — with whatever level of creative discipline your brain enjoys. Are you more of a blurter? Or a thinker? Do you like to edit your words carefully before you share or just toss ’em up there and see what happens? It’s your blog, so do what makes you happy. Me, I’m an editor by nature (not to mention by profession). I’m not saying I don’t post something unless it’s perfect; I just mean that instead of sitting down and drafting something and hitting “publish” right away, I let it marinate a bit. Your style can still be loose and candid, even if your approach isn’t slapdash. As a reader, I appreciate it when a writer takes the time put some care into whatever I’m taking the time to read, you know?
5. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — and be true to your own voice. You nailed it when you said, “I’d like to start writing more and finding out who else is awesome (i.e. gets me) in my social media world and maybe beyond.” It’s great to write just for yourself, but you’re right — there are good reasons to write things for others, too. We want to find our people. We want to be heard and understood by someone who says, “Me, too,” or “Oh, really?” or even, “That’s insane, but tell me more.” We want to be witnessed. (I still love how Ted Hughes described that.) So don’t fret about being “as [clever / eloquent / crazy / whatever] as [whoever else].” If you do what YOU want to do with your words, the people who dig it will hang around and you’ll have more fun.
It’s your site. It’s your brand-new can of Play-Doh, and you can make it into a blue giraffe with six legs if you want, and NO ONE CAN STOP YOU. It doesn’t have to be like anything else. Give it a theme or let it wander all over the place. It’s yours. Just start.
Anyway — thanks again for reaching out, and I hope you have a great time.
* * *
So, that was that. Another piece of advice I give a lot is: Always wear gloves when handling habanero peppers, or when you accidentally scratch an itch on your eye you’ll get a terrible rash on your eyelid. Don’t ask how I know.
(PS: If anyone else has advice for S, feel free to chime in. I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.)
August 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
It is absolutely, 100%, seriously-for-real still summer. It’s August, for damn sake. Yet the other day I noticed a little flock of leaves blowing across my windshield. And tonight, the temps where I live will drop into the 50s. Cool your jets, fall. Stop breathing down my neck.
My spirits always take a little dip when summer ends, probably because deep inside I’m 11 and still think of it as “back to school” — but also because there’s less sunlight when fall comes. Brain science. Luckily, this time I’m prepared. Like a squirrel stockpiling acorns for winter, I’m storing up funny things. Here’s a starter pile, in case you need some, too:
1. Every time he yells, “Sonofabitch!” I laugh.
2. I also laugh every time I hear the line, “You pretend every slot machine is a robot amputee waving hello.” Picture that for a second. That is EXACTLY what slot machines are.
(Actually, that first song is about alcoholism and the second is about . . . Las Vegas and/or emptiness? But still. They make me laugh.)
3. My friend Sissy sent me this the other day. Either I never watched this when it came out OR I watched it and totally forgot it (the latter of which is just as possible as the former). Watch it while you’re stuck in a waiting room or something. Tig Notaro is what would happen if Louis CK and David Sedaris magically had a baby. Fabulous storytelling:
4. Oh, and here’s a floating owl.
August 17, 2015 § 4 Comments
I was just huffing and puffing my way around the bend in the hiking trail — the one where you really have to pay attention, because there are wild turkeys living in the woods here, and if you’re not careful, you’ll make the turn and come face to face with a mama turkey and her baby turkey, and even though they’re just standing there doing nothing bothersome, you’ll involuntarily startle and yell TURKEYS! and then feel terrible for introducing a tacky human scream into this peaceful mother and child silence, as if they didn’t already know they were TURKEYS.
And that’s when I saw the strangest thing.
Flattened on the path in front of me was a creature unlike any I’ve seen before. It had green scales and brown fur. Little paws and a slinky reptilian head. A fluffy patch of white, striated with silver, like a . . . what? What the hell kind of creature lay before me? Was it Tennessee’s version of the Loch Ness Monster, but freakier and indigenous to wooded mountain trails? I wish I’d had my phone with me so I could have snapped a photo. This is my best (by which I mean “worst”) artistic interpretation of the thing:
Upon further study, I realized that this was not some mythical fur-dragon, but two perfectly common animals, all mashed up together, dead. Somehow, a squirrel and a snake — I don’t know what kind, but definitely the snake kind — had become entangled and then gotten squashed as a whole.
Do snakes and squirrels often hang out so close to each other as to get smushed by the same bike tire and/or falling log and/or very large man’s shoe? Or did some sort of Shakespearean-style tragedy go down, like their young star-crossed love ended in a miscommunicated suicide pact — or perhaps a case of mistaken identity caused one to kill the other and the other to strike back before they realized in their final dying moments that they were actually friends and O, YE FATES! then they bled out? Or maybe this was some kind of kinky psycho-social power experiment gone wrong, à la Les Liaisons Dangereuses?
There was definitely something going on between these two. Murderous or amorous — OR BOTH? — the embrace was total: limbs around snake around tail around head around hair around skin, all entwined then flattened. I just wished I knew what the story was. Because you know there was a story there.
Literature is everywhere.
August 11, 2015 § 14 Comments
Last week, I had the opportunity to play some golf. Well, not so much play golf — I’ve never played golf in my life — but I got to play caddy.
My spouse invited me to come along in his cart on a pretty day, and I decided, hey, why not? I like nature and making ball jokes, so OK. After a quick flurry of wardrobe consultations (“Is this outfit good for sportsing?” Dress, no. Shorts, yes.) and a liberal application of sunblock, I was ready to go. If you ever find yourself in this situation, here are some tips I can offer you from my first caddying experience.
* * *
1. Practice patience.
The original idea was that I’d drive the cart all day. But yikes — the slopes were steep, and sometimes we had to drive practically sideways. Although I didn’t see any flipped carts, I become convinced that I’d crash because SOMEONE has to be the exception (and because I’m so hardcore at caddying). I gave up on zooming around and drove verrrrrrry carefully. So carefully, in fact, that after hole 4, I was relieved of my driving duties and moved to the passenger seat.
There was more stopping than I had anticipated as well. I didn’t realize how often I’d be called upon to make a visual note of where the ball landed. “Are you watching?” the golfer would call. (I’m calling him “the golfer” here to keep things professional.) To which I’d answer, in this voice:
* * *
2. Bring a book or perhaps a craft.
Luckily, I was prepared for some waiting, because hooooo, is there a lot of sitting-and-waiting in the caddying biz. This didn’t bum me out, though. On the contrary, I was psyched, because I’m always behind on my reading and it just so happens that I drag a little bookbag around with me everywhere I go. (I actually like waiting rooms and reception areas for this same reason.) So I pulled out my bookbag and made some pretty decent progress. If you have an activity you like to do and which is small and portable, I highly recommend bringing it along. Knitting. Origami. Sock puppets. Maybe not whittling, because that makes a mess.
* * *
3. Take advantage of every breeze.
One thing that really surprised me was the presence of these enormous airplane-engine size fans on a few holes. Whether you’re the golfer or the caddy, the right thing to do is to pause your game to cool off for a bit. I’m proud that I introduced my golfer to the Beyoncé wind machine pose, and I hope my demonstrations proved useful to others.
* * *
4. Respect the course.
My favorite responsibility of the day was filling the divots. Every now and then, when my golfer whacked a big chunk of earth out of the course, I got to hop out and fix it. To fill the holes in, I just poured sand from a little tube that came with our cart. I have a strong internal need for order and tidiness, so it was deeply satisfying for me to smooth the ground over until it looked perfect again. This is a great fun. Even a child could do it.
* * *
5. Take your job seriously.
When instructed to get out a particular club — the sand wedge, say — I enjoyed pretending to be a scrub nurse handing it over to a surgeon while saying grimly, “SCALPEL” or “PLIERS.” I only got to do this twice, though, because then the golfer just started picking out his own clubs. So I guess my advice here is that if you’re going to make a joke about what you’re doing, make sure it’s a joke that your golfer finds funny. My golfer doesn’t watch many medical dramas, so that was my mistake.
* * *
6. Pack a small cooler.
Here’s what you do: Load a little cooler with ice, then pour in a few cups of water to create an icy slush. Toss a few hand towels in there. When you get so hot you think you’re going to die (or the golfer might), just pull out the icy cold towels, wring out the water, and ice yourself down. You can also put a few Diet Cokes and beers and frozen Twix bars in there, whatever suits your fancy.
* * *
I hope these suggestions will save your ass whenever you’re called up for last-minute caddy duty. When I do it again — and I feel sure I’ll be invited to do this again very soon — I’ll take note of anything else I learn. In the meantime, happy golfing!
August 5, 2015 § 3 Comments
What could a wimpy little scrap like you or me learn from UFC champion Ronda Rousey? Plenty.
First of all, after seeing “UFC” all over the headlines, I’ve finally figured out it doesn’t stand for Ultrafast Fieldmouse Carriage or Unscented Fruit Candles. It’s a sport called Ultimate Fighting Championship. (That’s the thing Monica’s boyfriend did on Friends. Remember, when Pete was like, “I’ve conquered the business world. I’ve conquered the intellectual world. Now I must conquer… the physical world,” and then he got the bejeezus beaten out of him?) Rousey’s in the news right now because she keeps knocking people out so fast that her fights are over before even they even start. Shazam.
Personally, I’m not really interested in getting clobbered on the regular. I think the worst fight I could muster would be a purse fight. It’s like a cage fight except you just slap your handbags at each other until one person’s bag spills all over the floor and then you kick their lip gloss across the floor and you win. Then you get a giant fancy belt.
I do, however, think I could learn something from the way Rousey sets goals. She said this to a reporter last week:
“Here’s pretty much the plan: I’m going to beat up [my opponent] Bethe. Then I’m going to take a couple of weeks to rest. And then I’m going to go beat up Miesha. And then I’m going to go to Thailand, or wherever we decide to film [a movie with Mark Wahlberg]. I’m going to prep for a month and start filming for 8-10 weeks, and then go beat up the next chick. That’s pretty much my plan.”
Damn, that’s resolve. She doesn’t envision herself stepping into the cage and then wondering if she’s made a huge mistake and then tapping on the cage door until someone lets her out (which is what I would envision in that scenario, because I don’t really like touching strangers and I’m very afraid of hitting). She pictures herself doing exactly what she set out to do, and then she DOES IT. She even accounts for rest! Genius! Now, I’m not into beating people up, but I do have some stuff I need to get done — so here, let me try:
“Pretty much the plan is: I’m going to start making coffee at home instead of ordering it from that dumbass who yells WHAT? every time I say my name. And then I’m going to sit somewhere — not sure where? maybe somewhere tropical with Matt Damon? probably just my office by myself? — and work on some rhymes and shit. And then I’m gonna sort this stack of mail like a boss. And definitely go to bed by 11. So yeah. That’s the plan.”
Bam! I’ll channel my inner super-fighter, do some intentional thinking, and kick some (metaphorical) ass. What’s YOUR plan? World domination? Whatever the case, let’s all get big fancy belts that say “CHAMPION GOAL-SETTING MOFO.”
* * *
PS: If your plan is to coast through the end of summer without having to make any decisions, you might consider obtaining a whole stack of Penguins with People Problems. This little book comes recommended by sources such as The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Travel + Leisure, BookPage, and Glommable, which called it, “so adorable and true that you just want to share it with everyone you’ve ever met in your life.” Then you can use it for everything:
- Perfectly rectangular gift for easy wrapping
- Thoughtful pick-me-up (as long as the recipient has a sense of humor and is not a child)
- Surprisingly productive book club choice — after all, who *doesn’t* have people problems?