Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shower with The Allman Brothers

Just a few moments ago– literally, moments– I was in the bathtub, listening to my Pandora Radio "Allman Brothers/Willie Nelson" combo station (if you really let that sink in, I won't have to explain that this is another "Jen gets high" stories") when "Jessica" by The Allman Brothers came on.

If you don't watch Top Gear, I have to tell you right now that this is going to be about %60 percent less funny. But anyway, the theme to Top Gear is "Jessica", or a synthed up version of it, anyway. Sitting in my tub, I started laughing. Then I noticed it was echoey, so I put on my best Jeremy Clarkson voice and said, "Tonight! Richard Hammond sucks his own cock! I get arrested soliciting a prostitute, and James dies in an autoerotic asphyxia accident!"

The fact that I laughed out loud, or "Loled" as they say in the parlance of our time, got me thinking. How often are my characters laughing per book. I know that if you opened Ashes To Ashes and threw a dart in it, you'd hit somebody crying. But I wonder how many times I just lazily throw that verb at the page because I needed to tag some dialogue to keep it from becoming a screenplay.

Moreover, what are other really repetitive things I write? I have writer friends who I can guarantee certain phrases will pop up in everything they write. I've read authors who repeat the exact same descriptions in every single book of their series. Everyone has their own voice, and sometimes that voice echoes itself.

Reader, what are some often repeated phrases of your favorite authors? Is there any particular phrase of mine that you've noticed, or that you wish I would stop using? Is there anything you find repeated over and over in your own writing?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Blast From My Past

So, this afternoon, while I hid upstairs while my husband told the visiting Mormons that no, his wife wasn't at home (I have a weakness for the religious and I usually invite them in, which invites return visits. I've been in the process of becoming a Jehovah's Witness for the past three years and I don't even want to, this is the depths of my inability to say no to religious folk), I decided I would sit on the floor of my bedroom and go through my big ole' trunk of memories from my younger days.

Doesn't everybody have one of those?

I found some amusing pictures of my recently-deceased grandfather, a series of snapshots I took whenever I caught him sleeping on family vacation '97. I vaguely recall that it went from, a "Ha ha, I'm going to take a picture of grandpa sleeping!" joke to a full blown, "If I casually turn on golf and hide behind that chair, I can get him again!" sniper attack.

Also in the rubble of my high school days? A very sweet letter from my first boyfriend in which he apologized for not breaking up with me well, and expressing a hope that we could be friends. I feel real guilt over the fact that I don't think I ever saw him once after my last day of high school. Whoops. Hope he's still alive somewhere. Wonder what he thinks about the recent decline of funny on The Simpsons.

There were programs from shows I saw during high school, and shows I was in during high school. Tickets from Alanis Morrisette, Rusted Root, The Verve Pipe, The Cranberries, REM, Patti Smith, and Radiohead concerts. An 8mm video cassette that I would literally pay a hundred bucks to know what's on it. Horrid poetry about how no one would ever love me.

As I started to look over the dreams I'd had as a teenager, and thought about how different my life has turned out in comparison to what I'd thought I'd be doing now, I got a little sad. Maybe I knew more than I thought I did back then. Maybe my life might have turned out differently, and I could be sitting in an apartment overlooking central park, polishing my Tonys and chatting on the phone to my BFF Kristen Chenoweth.

And then I found two things that pretty much convinced me that, no, I am in the life I was destined to live, for better or worse. One was a folder full of Forever Knight fanfic zines. Another was a journal entry from my senior English class. The teacher used to write quotes on the board and make us journal about them. I found my entries, which, helpfully, don't have the quotes copied on to them.

September 25, 1997
When the aliens finally come and get me, I will be pretty cool about it. I'll let them do their little experiments on me and whatever, and then I would show them around Earth. I think I would take them bowling, cause that would really help them understand our culture, I think. I think I wouldn't let them see Independence Day, though, cause that might peach them off.
I have seen four UFOs in my life, but none of them have stopped to pick me up.
If I were going to have someone play me in a movie, it would be me, cause I act, or Alex Kingston from
Moll Flanders, cause we have the same hair.

I would love to know what she had written on the board that day to encourage such an explosion of verbal diarrhea.

I would be even more interested to find out what she had written on September 29, 1997:

Okay, I think that the quote means that when you are a kid, you look at things a lot differently and you aren't always trying so hard to figure things out. When you're a kid and you are thinking about something, you find one answer that seems logical to you and you stick with it, but adults feel like they have to know everything, so they don't think as much, they try to have it all figured out. I think it all boils down to your imagination, and how much you use it.

Setting aside the fact that I have no idea what I was talking about, I think I was onto something there. When you're a child, a simple answer does satisfy you more than when you're an adult. But it's interesting to look at something like this and think, "What would I think of myself, if seventeen year old Jen could see who she will be at thirty?" I wonder if she had any idea how much she will have to use her imagination as an adult.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day =/= Ireland

Every year at around this time... no, actually, specifically on this very day, I start to get into internet arguments with Irish people, that is, actual Irish people living in Ireland, about St. Patrick's day.

Their argument usually amounts to some variation on being offended that it's celebrated by drinking green beer (which they don't drink in Ireland), eating corned beef brisket (which they don't eat in Ireland), and talk of stereotypical leprechauns, shamrocks, drunks, etc.

To which I say: It's not really about you at all.

I guess to an outside observer, St. Patrick's day in America looks like yet another American tradition cobbled together from ideas stolen from other cultures. And in a way, it is. But if anyone truly thinks that St. Patrick's day in America has anything to do with present day Ireland, they don't know the whole story. In fact, it has very little to do with Ireland at all. American St. Patrick's day is a wholly American celebration.

Some of my ancestors, like the ancestors of many, many people in the United States, came here during the potato famine. Though my name, through marriages and happenstance, is the bastardized German "Armintrout", you'll find Loudens, Cahills, and Smiths in my family tree. In the Louden family, especially, they're proud to be the decendants of Irish immigrants, and most of us describe ourselves as Irish. But we're not so thoroughly American and thick as to assume that we can just stroll on into Ireland and claim we live there, nor do we feel kinship with the Ireland of today. The Ireland we celebrate on St. Patrick's day is an Ireland that no longer exists, that never existed in the first place. An Ireland born in our family histories, out of the stories (read: lies) our parents and grandparents tell us about a magical place where everything was super great and magical and full of wonder and pride, but our ancestors left because they just felt like it, okay? Stop asking so many questions and do not, under any circumstances, read any Frank McCourt books.

It's the same with most decendents of Irish immigrants. Say Sam McIrish immigrates to America in 1875. He marries a Polish girl, but he raises his children telling them constantly that they're Irish. He tells them stories of Ireland and how wonderful it was, but also stories about the terrible hardships he endured. Those children grow up rolling their eyes at the tales of how horrible life was for their father, because they're usually told in conjunction with phrases like, "You kids have it sooooo easy," and "When I was your age." So, when they have children of their own, they leave those bits out. They raise that third generation with tales of how great Ireland was, how proud they should be to be Irish (Okay, yes, and a little Polish or Italian or whatever got mixed in there, but that's not as important as IRISH). Somewhere along the line, it becomes vogue to eat corned beef brisket to celebrate ones' Irishness, though I'm pretty sure corned beef was invented by Jewish people. And out of all of this comes our weird, effed up traditions. The drinking probably arose because, well, let's face it, when you're a poor immigrant, you probably want to get good a tore up any opportunity you can get, just to escape the harsh realities of life.

So, if you're Irish, like, born in Ireland, and St. Patrick's day is super upsetting to you, please know that we don't really think you're all drunken red-headed short people jealously guarding your pots o' gold, saying things like "wee" and "blarney" all the time. Only the severely ignorant think that, and they probably think equally demeaning things about other countries as well. We're just over here, celebrating our ancestors the way we have for generations, regardless of whether or not the tradition makes sense. And it's not like you can get upset at that, Ireland. I mean, come on. Pot, kettle, you know?

And as for the saying, "Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's day," the truth is, nearly everyone in America probably does have some Irish heritage, whether they're aware of it or not. That's because Irish immigrants got over here and got their swerve on, big time. If you're an American with more than four generations in America behind you, chances are you got some Irish in there somewhere.

So, Americans, celebrate your awesome affinity for turning nearly any mundane weekday into an occassion for public intoxication and the wearing of dopey hats. Do it with pride and as much dignity as you can muster while vomiting up green beer and cabbage in the backseat of a cab. Because you're not celebrating Ireland or being Irish. You're celebrating being an Irish-American, because we're pretty much super awesome.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fish Fear Fire

The title of my entry today would make a seriously awesome band name. Just a heads up to whoever fills Phil Collins's spot in the music industry.

I have four fish. Three goldfish and one plecostamus. Every day, I like to spend some quality time with my fish, except the plecostamus because he looks like Cthulu's mom. But I like to spend quality time with my goldfish. A lot of people don't realize that goldfish have distinct personalities. You can even teach them to do tricks. I haven't, because I don't have that kind of time or desire to see a fish do a trick, but I do like to talk to them and basically tell them how awesome they are and sometimes stick my hand in with them so they can attack me.

Last night, I thought, "You know what would really blow a fish's mind? Fire." Think about it. There is no way they've ever seen fire. I thought they would be really impressed.

I grabbed my lighter and walked on my knees to get right up close to the tank without actually having to stand up because things like "standing" and "walking" are my least favorite activities. All three fish were lined up at the glass, their mouths– perpetually downturned and disapppointed-looking– going in such a way that if there had been a way to transmit the sound to me, I'm sure they were saying "Op. Op. Op." Which, as you know, is fish for "Yes! Jen's back! Jen is awesome!"

Then I flicked the lighter.

I think I could have sat down in front of that tank with a plate of fishsticks and a t-shirt that said "I love eating fish" and they would have reacted better. They scattered, looking at me with their wide, horrified eyes. They were afraid of the fire.

After a few minutes of chasing them around with it (which consists of just waving the lighter back and forth in front of the tank), I decided that was animal cruelty and went back to just chilling out and talking to them. But our relationship has changed. Before, they viewed me as a friendly being. Now, they know I command the elements. They're already pretty freaked out by the fact that I can catch them in a net. Fire is somehow a worse betrayal of the bond between us.

I guess I'm going to have to do something nice for my fish, like watch Blue Planet again. They seem to enjoy shows about coral reefs and such.

There was no real point to this post, I just wanted to share. For some reason, creatures who live entirely underwater are afraid of fire.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hi, I'm USA Today Bestselling author Jennifer Armintrout, and I'm on "welfare".

It started this morning with a facebook comment. Not on my own page, but on someone else's. And it was more than one comment. This person's diatribe read as follows:

look at china.... 1 child per family. they should do that same thing here. would help regulate the baby making machines on welfare and food stamps.who abuse the system.[...]that is why the first amendment is so wonderful brittany. People can have opinions that differ from others. I feel that any mother that has to get on WIC, state aided insurance for their children, or receive any help from the federal or sta...te level, cannot afford to take care of the children they already have. Which is where I differ from most peoples opinions. I know what its like to grow up poor, and going to bed hungry at night. i also know what its like to only be able to sit in front of a kerosene heater for heat, and only take cold running watered showers. Too often i see mothers driving better cars than i do, and are able to eat better than i do. The only point i am making is, if a person is adult enough to make such decisions as having children, make sure you can afford to take care of that child, without the aid of these programs. When our parents were our age and having children, they never lived with their parents, nor did they ever ask for help. At least mine never did.

Setting aside the fact that this person advocates population control, i.e., complete control over a woman's fertility whether she likes it or not... no, wait, let's not set that aside. They're talking about how great the first amendment is while arguing for the destruction of personal freedom? How do you even wrap your mind around that kind of logic?

No, wait, original point. I read this person's comments and they really hit home. Because I'm on government assistance.

When I started writing, my husband, son and I were hanging on by our fingernails. Because we couldn't afford daycare but fell above the acceptable assistance level, I stayed home with my infant son while my husband worked fifty hours a week to make ends meet. My first contract, for Blood Ties 1, 2, and 3, was a lot of money at the time. 18k for three books. I was super excited, because now I could afford Netflix. Let that sink in. I could finally afford a nine-dollar-per-month dvd rental service, and it was a big deal in our house. So, we weren't the poorest people in the world, but we definitely weren't middle class or anything. We were barely working class.

When it was time to negotiate the contact for my next book, I was super psyched. I had an agent, so I bet I would get, like, 20k for three books this time! After negotiations, I ended up with a $200,000 advance for four books. We lived of off that for four years. We bought a house. Not a big one, but still, we owned a house. We bought a car. We decided to have another kid. Royalties that came in were high. My husband quit the job he hated and went back to school. Everything was fine.

And then it wasn't. When things took a downward turn, I didn't immediately panic. "We can hold on until Joe finishes school and gets a job. We have savings. This will blow over." I waited for a year for things to just "blow over", and they didn't. Our savings dried up. I got a job at McDonald's. My husband quit college and went back to work at the same job, this time at half the pay. Our resources were tapped out. I had to apply for welfare.

I'm not proud to say that we've been on foodstamps and energy assistance for a year now. I'm not proud to say that because of my pride, I waited until we were destitute to take action and seek the help that my government offers. We lost that house, which was, incidentally, the house I lived in during my teen years and held a lot of memories. I'm not proud about any of this. But pride doesn't feed your kids or keep them warm, so I can't afford pride.

And yet, the attitude persists that people on welfare are there because they're bad people. I don't think it's morally repugnant to do what needs to be done to provide for your children. In fact, I think a bad person is one who will let their children go to bed hungry when other options are available, simply because they value their pride and appearance over the well-being of their kids. That facebook commenter reserves the right to her opinion, and I reserve the right to mine.

I don't think anyone actually sits down and says, "I'm going to have this baby that I can't afford because life is more fun when it's hard." I don't think anyone actually says that they're going to intentionally live off of public assistance, and if they do, it's not much of a life, so don't envy them. In order to recieve cash assistance in the state of Michigan, you have to look for a job for forty hours a week. That's forty hours a week of pounding the pavement, filling out applications. You also have to tell the places that you're applying that you're on cash assitances, so they can sign your form to prove that you've been out looking. That's right, you get to tell a stranger that you're on welfare, and open yourself up to the derision of people like our facebook friend up there. In public. I
n the end, you get something in the area of a hundred bucks a month for a family of four.

There's a story that I hear all the time, from literally everyone. A woman goes to the checkout at the grocery store. Usually, the woman in question is described as "black" in a whispered voice because apparently black people put hidden mics around the houses of white conservatives to catch them being racist or something. I don't know, I don't get the whispered "black" that almost always accompanies this story. But I digress. This woman goes up to the checkout with some kind of luxury item in plain view. Many times, it's a brand name purse or expensive-looking manicure. She heaps piles of exotic groceries onto the belt: t-bone steaks, lobster, organic produce. Somehow, she also gets alcohol and cigarettes in there, and she whips out her assistance card and waltzes out with those groceries, six screaming kids in tow. On rare occassions, she actually is overheard telling the cashier how great it is to keep having babies and getting free stuff, so she's never going to work. Almost always, the person telling the story was standing behind her in line, their meager peasant rations pitfully malingering at the feet of the welfare queen's bounty.

It's all bullshit. For one thing, this story is so widely repeated that it just can't be true. I'm not saying that you didn't see a woman with an expensive purse using a foodstamp card. In fact, I often carry my Coach purse, which I bought five years ago, because it is sturdy and if something happens to it, there's a lifetime guarantee on it. What I'm saying is, I was a cashier. My husband was a cashier for almost seven years. Neither of us has ever seen this woman who gleefully hands over her foodstamps and chats loudly about how great it is to commit welfare fraud.

I'm going to break this down for you. Let's pretend you really, truly did see this woman with her expensive clothes or nails using her foodstamp card. Perhaps she bought those clothes before she became poor. It's possible she has to dress a certain way for her job. And if she is buying steak or lobster, maybe it's her birthday. Or maybe she's cooking for her boss or parents or something and she doesn't want them to know how bad it's been.

No one is omniscient. None of us can know what every single person on welfare is thinking or feeling. But what it is about simply needing help, asking for it, and receiving it that makes so many people assume the worst about a person? Maybe instead of worrying about how many people are abusing the system, we could say, "Thank god that's there to help people in need." Maybe we could say, "Thank god I don't have to ask for that kind of help, only to be looked down upon."

I'm Jennifer Armintrout, USA Today Bestselling Author and public assistance recipient, and I am a good person. And so are a lot of people in the same boat with me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A gross story in which you will learn too many details of my life.

If you follow me on facebook, you’re probably already aware that I love the movie Machete. Until recently, I thought that the worst possible way to ever be woken up was what happens to Jessica Alba near the end of the movie. Machete pushes her off the bed, onto a floor that is immediately covered in broken glass, while gun fire explodes everywhere and the only thing she can find to arm herself against the invading bad guys is a decorative table-top obelisk.

This morning, I would have preferred that.

At 6am, forty-five minutes before the alarm was to go off, I was, as I am every night, locked in the grip of a stress dream in which people are yelling at me and all my teeth are falling out. Then, I smelled something. Let’s concentrate on this point, as it will become important later. In my sleep, while I was dreaming, I encountered a stench so powerful that my sense of smell overrode REM sleep, a state in which non-essential brainwave activity takes a holiday and your genitals get a work out (look it up).

So, while I’m deeply asleep, something stinks so much that it rouses me to wakefulness. In the split second between my brain waking up and my body hopping on board the function train, I thought, “Maybe it’s my breath,” and tried to nudge myself back into unconsciousness.

But it wasn’t my breath, gentle readers. No, sometime in the night, my dog Sampson, who prefers to sleep under my bed, even though he’s the tall kind of beagle and doesn’t fit very well under there, had gotten sick. Not vomit sick. The other kind.

The poop kind.

Now, I don’t often think about dog poop. But when I do, I prefer to avoid words like “spraying” and “slightly-chilled”. “Gelled” is pretty much off the list entirely. And yet, I faced all of these putrid adjectives and more when my husband barked, “Jen. Your dog shit all over. Get up.” Followed by my two-year-old’s cheerful, fully awake voice asking, “Is that poop?”

Yes. Yes it was poop. So much, so disgusting. I’d just woken up. My husband had plastic shopping bags, a roll of paper towels, a bottle of Woolite and a bottle of Febreeze. He dropped all of these things in a panic and left the room like it was on fire.

Since Dear Author already featured a post about how getting to know authors makes them impossible to separate from their works, and this post has already let you glimpse a part of my life that would have been better left buried, I will try to put this as delicately as possible. I sleep, how shall we say, without creating extra laundry. Since I’d sprung from sleep to shit-cleaning mode in a matter of seconds, I hadn’t really bothered to put anything more on. While I scrubbed at the floor, I realized that this particular moment in my life could be a scene in a John Waters movie. A naked fat woman on her hands and knees, scrubbing dog excrement off the rug.

Did I mention that literally every pair of headphones I own was at ground zero of this catastrophe? That all three pair lay, coiled like Medusa’s head, in a pile of brownish-yellow slime? Well, dear reader, they were. I had to carry them to the bathroom and painstakingly clean them all without submerging them. At one point, my husband, who will have nothing to do with feces but will clean up vomit, as per our wedding vows, came to the bathroom door, made a face and said, “Take a shower before you come back to bed.”

When all was clean, but still odorous, I had the magnificent idea to put the Febreeze to good use. I did so, and vigorously. I liberally spritzed about half the bottle, until the horrible stench was good and covered. Finally, I could sleep once more. Okay, for thirty minutes. But I would make the most of that thirty minutes. I climbed into bed, folded the covers into a protective mask over my nose, and settled in for a peaceful cat nap. Unfortunately, no where on the Febreeze bottle does it have some kind of warning or guide to tell you at what point adding more Febreeze to the equation becomes more harmful than the original smell you’re trying to cover up. My eyes burned. My throat closed. I had an asthma attack.

Stumbling downstairs in the dark, I located my inhaler and took mighty puffs. I noticed the pile of blankets at the bottom of the couch, warm, snuggly, clean blankets that had never been in the same room with explosive dog diarrhea. I wrapped myself in one, fell on the couch and closed my eyes.

Only to be prodded awake by my son, who asked for cereal. My husband gently explained that since the kids were up, we, too, were now up, and we might as well get the grocery shopping done.

That’s right. We capped off our banner morning by doing the one household chore I like significantly less than cleaning pet crap out of the carpet. Things just got better and better from there.

As I write this, it is 1:55 pm, and it feels like it should be 8pm (or, for those not in the United States, 20:00). I think my body has actually aged from the stress of this no good, very bad morning. I’m going to take a nap in my hopefully aired out room, but I’m not going to leave you with pointless bitching. I’m going to turn this story into a lesson.

Every time you meet an author, and you think to yourself, “My, what an impressive person. S/he holds entire worlds in her/his head. Through the power of her/his words alone, s/he can transport me to another realm, one which I was glad to escape to. How in awe I am of the human mind at this moment, and her/his mind, in particular,” remember this post. Remember that at sometime in their recent life, they may have awoken to a morning of such horrors. Remember that authors are people, and sometimes, they have to clean up dog shit.