Portrait of the Artist as a Snow Man

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I played hookie one morning to construct a temporary sculpture in the Boston Public Gardens.

The 2013 AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) brought more than eleven thousand warm bodies to Boston this past weekend, and one cold one.

The conference is a gargantuan affair: three days; over five hundred panels, readings, and soirees; three vast exhibition halls in which a persistent attendee with a long attention span could peruse table upon table which, lined up end-to-end, would stretch approximately a mile–stacked with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, everything at the edges and everything in between.

By Day Three, this is how I looked.

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Completely spaced out, wandering in the snow in search of anything but printed matter. Fortunately, there was a bowl of steaming clam chowder available in the hotel lobby a hundred yards away.

Boston, inspite or because of the two-day blizzard, was wonderful, from the Boston Baroque Ensemble to the mummies at the Museum of Fine Arts (in those few stolen hours between the five hundred panels, readings, and soirees). I met some very fine people. And I actually got a good idea on the plane flight home. Climbing aboard an airplane–alone– never fails to give me perspective that I don’t seem to be able to get anywhere else. Which is a shame, because driving is cheaper, and the neighborhood wine bar has more leg room.

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Robot, Hero, Discovered in Arizona Desert

They're right there, on the Lucky Charms. (www.inhabitots.com)

Although I reminded Husbot twice before I left town and texted him both the night before and the morning of Mbot’s show-and-tell, to remind him about it, I neglected to mention Recycle Robot.

We had discussed him several times before I left. To the every-fourteen-business-days question, “What would you like to bring for show-and-tell?”, last week Mbot replied, “Recycle Robot.” I was surprised he remembered Recycle Robot. Recycle Robot the First had lived an exciting yet abbreviated life in the limelight (see Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus.)

In our discussions, I said things like, “If you want to bring Recycle Robot to show-and-tell, we need to build him. Would you like to build him now?” And something would always happen–drawing a picture or becoming Wonder Girl or becoming Fasci the horse or zooming around the house on his Strider bike–and Recycle Robot would retreat into the hazy future. Show-and-tell wasn’t ’til Thursday. Which, in preschooler years, isn’t ’til December.

I thought Mbot would forget about Recycle Robot. Did I really think this? No. But I fervently hoped it. Surely he would fixate on a flattened penny, or one of Daddy’s maps of the Coconino National Park, or his new fave bedtime friend, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book from the library.

Today, far away in Chicago, I pushed away the niggling fear that Recycle Robot would rise to haunt me, as I went from the Goucher booth at the AWP Book Fair to the panel on the mix of motherhood and writing (the product of which does not combust if combined in just the right manner) to another on running writer’s workshops. Before I headed out to a reading by the poet laureates of both Great Britain and the United States, Husbot called.

“How is everything going?” I asked from my perch overlooking the Chicago skyline.

“Great, just fine,” said Husbot. “Except,”

I froze. I knew that Recycle Robot was coming to haunt me.

“…Except at 10:30 yesterday, Mbot sprung on me that he was going to bring Recycle Robot to show-and-tell.”

I sat rigid on my puffy, immaculate bedspread and did the math. 10:30. That would give Husbot exactly seventy-five minutes to make Recycle Robot. Subtracting time spent coaxing the Bots into the bathroom, convincing them into socks, supervising the application of shoes, acquiring last-minute food and drinks, and loading into the Midget Mobile, I calculated that this left no more than six minutes and thirty-eight seconds for the design and construction of Recycle Robot.

“I tried to talk him into something else,” continued Husbot. “But he was insistent. And he was good about not throwing a sputterfuss.”

“What happened?” I asked. I felt like I was watching a Hitchcock film. Everything was pretty bad, and you waited, and waited, and then things got much worse.

Husbot’s voice was nonchalant. “We made Recycle Robot.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I found a Triscuits box, and we put on a plastic head, and got cardboard tubes for legs….Mbot drew a face on him, and wrote his name on the back…It was great. He was very pleased with it. Everyone really liked it.”

Thoughts whirled in my head: Why couldn’t I pull Recycle Robot out of my ass? It had taken us almost two hours to make Recycle Robot the First. Of course, I had insisted on articulated limbs.Why did Husbot sound so relaxed about it? It’s not like he was the show-and-tell expert. I had needed an extra glass of wine the night that Recycle Robot the First was born. But those thoughts splintered and disintegrated like cheap fireworks and the one that filled the pristine room on South Michigan Avenue was:

It’s things like this that make women fall in love.

Who was your hero today?

Report from Chicago: Robot People, Monsters, and Me

The monsters in Chicago are, for the most part, benign. (www.usersites.horrorfind.com)

I am in Chicago.

I am here for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Book Fair. According to the AWP website, 7,999 others are here for it, too.

The day before I left, I explained to the Bots that I was going to Chicago. They know that I will be gone for one-two-three-four days. Mbot knows that Chicago is not too far away and on the North American continent, and, that, according to a Google Street View, it has robot people walking in front of the big castles, but he does not think they are bad robot people. Gbot knows that he can see Chicago by looking south from the top of the jungle gym.

I know that it is windy and I have been alone but surrounded by people now for twenty-four hours. The conference starts in an hour. Last night I sat at the bar and perused the four hundred on-site events that I could attend if I had Hermione Granger’s time-turner, everything from “Behind the Book: Debut authors reveal the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to “Ear Candy: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetic Meter.”

There are some talks about composing narrative, the value of the traditional form and the possibilities of breaking the mold. I thought of the story Mbot told me a few nights ago as I was putting him to bed. It went like this:

“Mom, do you know what camping is? It’s when you go into a dark forest. With a fork.* And if you find a monster?”

He raised his eyebrows, tipped his head to one side, and raised both hands, palms up, beside his cheeks. “Oh, well! The monster eats ya.”*

So much for the happy ending.

I was surprised by his story because Mbot has a distinct aversion to scary things, particularly in stories. Whenever anything unpleasant happens in a movie we are watching–even if happens to a bad guy–he jumps off the sofa and retreats into the kitchen with Junepbear, who apparently also dislikes onscreen unpleasantness.

But scary is part of every story, part of traditional narrative arcs and nontraditional narratives alike. Our heroes start in a place no more than medium-good, face scary parts, then conquer the badness to arrive at a happier place than they occupied at the beginning.

So now it is 8:27 and time for me to go out and learn. I am excited about that part. It’s the thought of meeting those other 7,999 conference attendees that makes me uneasy, the thought that I perhaps won’t try hard enough to meet others, although I know I will enjoy a good many of them and begin a few friendships. Even now, at forty-four,  a professional and a mother, it’s more comfortable for me to sit and write than to go out and meet people.

But Chicago is full of good robot people, and Gbot is keeping an eye on me from the top of his jungle gym. So it’s time to kick myself out of my capsule of comfort on the nineteenth floor and head out into the wind and the world. And if I’m a little scared? Scary is all part of the story.

Where are you along your narrative arc?

*Mbot is big into the fork as weapon, ever since he saw a picture in one of my books of a sculpture of the Greek sea god Poseidon holding a trident.

**It is still unclear as to whether the monster eats you with your own fork.