Thursday, December 18, 2008


I just watched this documentary this morning. I was so inspired by it in part because of what we're doing with the Memoir Project. Old is the new black, apparently, and that's great. And yet the Memoir Project asks seniors who live in Boston neighborhoods to tell their life stories, which is a more traditional activity for elders. This is celebrating something different. These folks are singing songs written by angry young men, some of them highly privileged, as part of a rather whiny ongoing counterculture. And here are these oldsters singing these songs with real feeling and giving the lyrics all kinds of sly new meanings. They make the Ramones seem insightful, for goodness sake, and they rescue a Coldplay song from its tin-eared emotional entropy and turn it into something poignant. There should be a special grammy for that. 

The other thing I like about this film is that it doesn't get so wrapped up in the cutie pie feeling about old people still being active, and let's cheer for them just for that reason. It does show them struggling to remember lyrics and struggling to get around and fighting the illnesses that are going to kill them. It also touches on the real despair the singers face when they can't participate in the group anymore because their health won't allow it. Many times older people are given activities to occupy them, when in fact they need activities that challenge them. That need doesn't diminish in old age or even with grave illness.  If you give people a community and a goal, their lives improve. We've seen that in the Memoir Project and I think that comes through more than you'd expect in this film.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gifts, X-mas and Otherwise

I spent yesterday looking for one of these for you-know-who for Christmas. It's time. She hasn't asked for one, probably because she doesn't spend any time in any toy stores (thank heavens) and therefore doesn't know that you can buy these. In her mind, they exist only at school. I think she's going to love it and for the first time in a long time, I'm excited about the holiday.

We're at that stage for the holidays where the kids have actual wants. They want things. Before, any toy would do, really. As long as you had to rip paper off of it beforehand, as long as it had been sitting under the tree taunting them with mystery, as long as it was a toy, they loved it. Now...

Now we're in a new world. Garret wants a certain electronic chip to go into the video game he got for his birthday. And guess what? They're sold out. And by they, I mean everybody. You ask for some specific DS game and the clerks at Best Buy and Toys 'R Us and Target just smirk at you. And I'm thinking: Yeah, I know. It's Christmas and I'm a middle aged lady who just crawled out from under a rock. Must there be disdain? Can't there be a shred of sympathy?

I don't quite know what I'm going to do.

I wasn't alone. Many, many women like me, and some older, were on cell phones shouting at some other party on the other end, shouting out game titles and waiting hopefully for some sort of affirmation that this would be okay. I have no idea who might have been on the other end of these calls. People my age and older were running up and down the aisles in the middle of a work day, grabbing up every Wii game imaginable, and it's possible that some of these purchases weren't strictly for the kids. People seem to be holing up for the winter and the long economic winter ahead. Stay at home, they must be thinking, play video games. What else is there to do? The line at Best Buy was at least 40 people long. It's possible that Wii sales are what's propping up the economy right now.

I took enormous, if short-lived, satisfaction in walking empty-handed past that long line and out into the bracing December weather. I went home, wondering what to do about this gift thing, and found what at the front door? A different sort of gift. It was an overnight package tucked into the screen door. And yet it was a little miracle all its own. The editor had returned our manuscript with her edits and instructions to resubmit the edited manuscript as soon as possible, by mid-January. I had never printed out the pages before, so this was my first chance to look at it as a whole piece of writing. It came with the customary letter, saying that we done good, and then listing in bullet form the changes she's requesting. The copy edits so far are light, and the requested changes pretty doable. No major shuffling. We need to turn it around in a month, at which point most of the work on this will be done, at least from my standpoint. 

A year ago at this time, we didn't even have a book proposal. Now we have a book.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Literal (Not Literary) Nit Picking

I got the dreaded head lice call the other day. "We think your child has head lice. Come to the school right now." Ug.

I've heard from other moms that this is just about the worst day of your life. They really say this. They talk about the endless loads of laundry, about the combing the special shampoo, all that. And there's real panic behind it, and a bit of shame, really. And the schools have no sense of humor about this. They are adamant: you need a special comb; you need a specialist; you need to wash every fiber in your house in hot water and dry it thoroughly in the dryer and bag everything you can't wash for two weeks. You need to go over every hair on your child's head to remove every single egg. And then you need to repeat this every day for three weeks. Or else it will never go away. 

Strong stuff, huh? Welcome to suburbia, where the manicured lawns and granite countertops are thin armor against the fear that something bad might happen to you. I was given the news about my daughter along with a thick packet of information about lice and the phone number of a professional nit picker and strict instructions to call her immediately to buy a special comb. Right away. Right now. Today. Buy this comb. I'm not making this up.

Okay, so I told myself that I was not going to panic, but of course I did. Who wouldn't under those circumstances? My daughter's preschool teacher said that she would not be allowed back on the premises until every single egg (called a nit) was removed from her head. I wanted to say, "Are you kidding me? Where do you think she got it? While bathing lepers in Calcutta over the weekend? She got it here."

I called the nitpicker who recited a lengthy piece of nitpicking doggerel constructed of just really painful rhymes. (if you have lice, you won't think that's very nice) This was her answering machine message. She called back about four hours later and told me that I really should buy a comb for every person in the family because we probably all had the lice. Only $15 a pop. Okay, what am I going to say? No? I'm not going to buy the one true comb that will remove the infestation from my child? I was given instructions to her house where she would leave the combs in a bag in her mailbox. I would exchange the combs for cash. Like a drug drop. 

I asked what it would cost to have her go through our hair to remove the nits. She sounded almost bored when she said that it would take two to three hours per person at $100 an hour. Wait. There are four people in our family. I wanted to say to her, "Honey, that's almost $1000 per family. That's not a treatment; that's a ransom." Instead I asked after her availability. She said she could come over in a few days, but not right away, see, because, "I want to get some shopping done." Now, you have to understand that about 15 kids have been sent home from this one preschool with head lice. They tell you point blank that your child can't come back until the skull is clean. The only phone number they give you is the woman I had on the phone squeezing me in around her shopping schedule. I imagine she did have some ready cash to spend. Talk about a recession-proof industry. 

We said no thanks to that. But she was right about one thing: three of us had it. I found that out when I took one of the combs and ran it through my son's hair. We found a couple of the grown up bugs on him, and he started to cry. "I don't want to have head lice," he said. I agreed with him; I didn't want him to have it, either.  

We've done the shampoo; we've done the Cetaphil. We've done a prudent course of laundry. Nothing crazy. We're combing, combing. And the kids are good about it. They don't seem to mind. I think we're ahead of this thing. After all: they're just bugs. You can kill bugs. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Cloudy with a Chance of...

We've had a bit of a good news/bad news vibe going on here. It is the end of the year, a time when people who hustle for work have to think about what income they might have, if any, in the following year. This is the first year that both of us have been doing the same thing, and it's a bit frightening. 

The good news is that the boy book is a go. The editor sent a nice little note late last week and said that she was accepting the manuscript. Hooray! Of course there will still be edits and adjustments, but still. Hooray!  I believe that about 7. 3 seconds elapsed before our agent sent a note back asking for the next check. I love having an agent. And that's why.

On the bad news side, well, there's plenty to go around. It's in all the headlines all around us. One of the companies that Larry works for now on contract basis just fired five people on Friday. (Oh, excuse me. They enacted a dramatic corporate restructuring that eliminated five positions.) How do we know this? Well, Larry was talking to one of these folks on the phone about a story and the guy said, "Oh, wait. Can I call you back? My boss is on the other line." He never called back. His computer was turned off and he was escorted from the building, we found out later.  

Another place Larry works for depends on the automotive industry for funding. Enough said there. It's scary.

Talk to editors and agents now and they describe the book market as either skittish or lethal. That's not good news for anyone who wants to start a book project, as I do. 

Still, irrational hope abounds. 

Larry walked into the bedroom today holding the above title: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Cute book. The kids like it. But Larry's looking indignant. He points to the book. 

Larry: Know what this sold? (dramatic pause) A million copies.

Me: So I should be writing those?

Larry points at me and gives me his famous smirk. 

Larry: Cloudy with a Chance of....Poopies.

I start doing the lip chewing thing. It's meant as a deterrent. It never works.

Larry: Everybody Poops? Big hit. How about: Everybody Pees.

Me: That's almost funny.

Larry: We could do a whole line of books about bodily functions. One could be called: Do Boogers Taste Good? called: Daddy, Why Do Farts Smell?

Me: So this is a memoir?

Larry walks out of the room, gets halfway down the hall and yells back. 

Larry: It was written by a husband and wife team.

Me: Great. 

Larry: One wrote it, and one drew the pictures.

Me: So you'll be drawing the pictures?

Larry: Me? You can draw a turd, can't you?

I think that pretty much sums up our collective career prospects.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Seamus the Kissing Bandit

Yesterday, while I was putting pony tails in S's hair, she came out with this pronouncement: 

"Seamus tried to kiss me yesterday." 

I ignored the ping of alarm in my belly and continued combing. I said, Hmmm. Or somescuh. S continued.

"Seamus is in love with Kerry Fitzpatrick."

"Then why is he kissing you," I asked with a little more force than intended. "Why can't this be Kerry Fitzpatrick's problem?" This was a mistake. It's always a mistake to ask these questions. Any questions. There are no rational answers. S is four years old. I want to call the school, but this would make me one of those crazy mommies. It would, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it? 

"Well, he is in love with me, too," said S, with her palms up.  Right. Of course. Who wouldn't be?

Did you tell the teacher, honey?

"I told him that there's no kissing in school." Good for you, sweetie. That's the spirit. 

Can you tell the teacher next time, honey?

"Well, I telled Mrs. Baer, and she telled me to tell him that there's no kissing in school."

Well, okay. You did the right thing.

"But he didn't listen." 

Oh, honey. They never do. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fiction Thingy and Gratitude

So, a couple of days before Thanksgiving the phone rang. Caller ID said: Purdue University and I thought, "I don't know anyone at Purdue University." And then I answered it anyway, even though these things are usually someone in a recorded voice announcing that my car's warrantee really, really is going to expire and that this is absolutely the last time that this recorded voice will be contacting me to remedy the situation (yeah, if only).

But it was a real person, whose name I didn't listen to saying that he'd like to accept a short story I sent over there. You know, an actual fiction thing that's made up and all. He stunned me into silence, the kind of silence in which you scroll through a list of names of people who might think that a prank phone call is a fun way to spend an afternoon. I think the guy on the end of the phone might have said, "Hello?" into the silence, before I roused myself and said, "Yeah, okay." We shared several more seconds of silence before he said, "Um, do you have any questions for me." I had none. I had no thoughts whatsoever. 

I wandered downstairs where I found Larry hanging window treatments. He nests when he gets anxious and so in the light of the advancing holiday season and the end of year scramble for new work, he's spent the last few days trolling the aisles at the soon-to-be-expired Linens N Things. I don't get in his way during these little excursions because nesting is the least self-destructive activity a person can engage in while anxious, and because his taste is better than mine. Here again I married up. (I also caught him watching West Side Story the other day. He seemed to know all the songs, too. Perhaps that's a story for another time.)

"Someone take your story?" he asked and then he got down off the ladder and gave me a kiss. He asked the name of the magazine and I had to admit that I didn't know. I didn't ask.
On the very next day, I got another note from a different literary magazine wanting the same story. I didn't open it because I wasn't home. Larry opened it, and he got in the car with both kids in tow and came to the coffee shop where I was meeting with my co-author. Larry knocked on the window and came in to make the announcement. He was genuinely excited and proud.

The look on his face: This is what I'm thankful for.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Benign Criticism

This fall, I have been both a student and a teacher. I've been teaching the usual 6-weeks, 6-essays class for Grub Street, and I've been teaching a memoir class to senior citizens in Mission Hill, also for Grub.

In addition, I have been taking a fiction class, in part to see what I can do in that form (so far, not much luck). Also, I've been hoping to hone my narrative skills and this seems like the appropriate way in which to take some aggressive risks. I'm hoping, too, that being a student will make me a better teacher. And it does, in that I give much more direct criticism to students in my classes now that I've been a student. I've realized that students who really want to improve want honesty. But it has to be smart honesty, the kind that makes them want to try again because they feel someone understood what they were up to (even if it went splat). 

I used to be too timid about this. When I started teaching I was writing primarily for magazine editors and let me just say that for the most part, they have no manners at all.  Editors have written THIS IS STUPID in all caps, in red ink, on paragraphs that I've written. Or they write YOU'RE PUTTING ME TO SLEEP HERE. Or PUH-LEEZE.  (Okay, I get it. Rewrite. I can rewrite.) Magazine writing is a factory of sorts. The editors package the text, copy edit it, put a title on it and send it off. They don't spend a lot of time prettying up your feelings.

In my memoir and essay classes, we tend to be much gentler. Not to say that we don't offer comments that might seem bizarre to the uninitiated. In a recent class I remember saying to someone about her essay, "Wow, my favorite thing here is that, you know, while we obviously know your husband is dying, we don't actually know that he's dead until that last line when you walk up to his body. That's amazing." And to everyone in the class (I hope) that seemed like an appropriate way to comment on the story, and on the storytelling at work, which was remarkable.  The woman who wrote the story didn't need therapy from our workshop; she needed real advice about--and appreciation for--the savvy way she had constructed her piece.

In a fiction class, the critiques tend to be all over the place. Unlike memoir, the facts of the story are up for grabs. So people might comment on how a character should behave differently or say different things or be a different gender in order to make a bigger splash in the story. It's scary. I'm struggling with this, too. For the first time, I look at someone's story and have no idea what to say, no idea at all what they're trying to do. On top of that, some of us are getting little lectures about how our stories aren't big enough, important enough, how they don't represent an aggressive artistic stance, an attitude about the world. (Yowza! Where can I get one of those?) Anyway, I've gone from confident writer and workshop participant to nervous neurotic in seven short weeks.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Dead Cat Play

Near the end of this play, which Larry and I saw on Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old girl in a short haircut and an even shorter dress, raises two guns to shoot her boyfriend in the back at point blank range while he cradles his own headless dead cat. You'd have to see the play to understand. Or perhaps you wouldn't understand even if you did see it. I can assure you that this is one of the least shocking moments the play has to offer. By the time Mairead gives Padraic both barrels, we've already seen people being tortured, having their eyes shot out, and getting gunned down on stage. We've even seen two characters have a chat while they dismember two dead bodies. Padraic's imminent death is just another plot point clicking into place.

What's shocking is the stage blood packets that explode in that scene with such force that they send spatters up through the first six rows of the theater. As we were sitting in the front row, Larry and I got our share. He turned to me after the play, pulling his shirt out in front of him. "This will come out, right?" It was a new shirt. I shrugged. Hard to say. Sometimes blood is made from chocolate syrup and that stuff never comes out. We should have been suspicious of being one of the only people sitting up front. Live and learn.

It's a tough play to sit through, funny as it is, and this might be the wrong moment for American audiences to have a laugh about the absurdity of torture. At one point, Padraic is standing next to a man he has suspended by his feet and is lecturing him about the fact that he refuses to choose which nipple Padraic will cut off. He's standing there, holding a pair of pliers in one hand and a razor in the other and saying something on the order of: If you don't choose, I'll take them both and probably feed them to you. So you might as well choose. To do anything else is madness. (The speech itself is much more clever, but I don't have it in front of me.) And then the phone rings and Padraic answers it, and learns that his pet cat is sick (or poorly). And he dissolves emotionally. And the man hanging next to him has to comfort him, by telling him that the cat probably has ringworm and if he'll just run round to the chemists for some pills, the cat will be all right in a couple of days. The whole exchange is funny in the most shamefully uncomfortable way. Fortunately, the actors were wonderful. I particularly liked Colin Hamell as Padraic and Lynn Guerra as Mairead, two grown ups playing emotionally stunted children who have been hardened to violence but who remain naive about everything else. 

I enjoyed the performance, but I was glad for the end and I wouldn't want to have to see it again. And I don't even need a program; I have my bloodstained clothing to remember it by.

Boy Book Update

We turned it in today. 

Oh, my.

It came in at a little under 92,000 words, written starting March 30 or around there. I hope the editor likes it. We all do. But there's almost no time to consider that possibility or its alternatives. Already we're to submit a list of possible titles for the marketing department to chew on. We have a huge author survey to fill out. We have to send them photos of ourselves in a certain trim size. Black and white only, please. Hi-res only please. But a variety of poses in a natural setting. 

I said to my co-author: Natural settings? What the hell does that mean? No nudity, right? I'm a nice girl.

The author questionnaire must be a dozen pages long and quizzes us on everything: where we come from, what cities we've lived in, what media contacts we have, if any. On and on. And it asks for a detailed description of where the book idea came from. It's not a problem answering these questions, it just seems to be happening so fast. We turned in the book, and the editor was thrilled. Then she said, well we're working on the book jacket now. I want to tug her sleeve and say, "Psst. What if you don't like what we wrote?" But of course that's not done. 

We just give the information they want and feel gratitude. 

And we fall down. I sent off title options today and then got up from the computer, crossed the room and started down the stairs to check on S, who was busy making a paper bra for the dog. Pink paper. Don't ask. It was to go along with the paper mermaid tail she'd taped to the dog's midsection. I took one or two steps down the stairs and then my feet went out from under me and I skidded the rest of the way on my back and elbows, one foot twisted sharply under me. The lightheadedness of relief had made me clumsy. I sat on the bottom step saying, oh, oh and watching the red blotches appearing on my skin. S was up in my face in a flash, saying, "You have to hang on to the railing. Otherwise you slip." It was a very stern warning. Then she was waving one of her socks in my face. They're all over the house because she uses them to make mermaid tails for her stuffed doggies. "You slipped on this," she said and shook her head like a disappointed mommy. Then she marched up the stairs to put it in her drawer. When she returned she crawled onto my lap wanting hugs. I was still on the bottom step because I couldn't quite get up. That's when Larry appeared, asking what's going on. 
"I fell down the stairs."
"Yeah," he said. "I heard."
So much for the romance of success. I sat with an ice pack on my bruised foot for a while and then took S off to her swimming lesson. It's time to get back to work. The editor's verdict on our book is coming. We just don't know when. 

Friday, November 7, 2008

Taste of Grub

Tonight is Grub Street's annual fundraiser, called the Taste of Grub. It's a swanky party at which some famous and near-famous writers read their work and Grubbies and Friends of Grub all stand around chatting and eating. It's one of those events at which I tend to meet people I've read and admired from afar and then have one of those moments where I try to say something witty and intelligent and just fail utterly. So there's that to look forward to.

We don't always go because nights out come along rather rarely for us, but Larry and I bought tickets this year. It's a good way to celebrate the (near) end of the boy book project. We're at 93,000 words. And the deadline is Monday.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Jack's Hierarchy of Vocational Aspiration

I was going through some of Jack's old emails, and came across this piece of advice. He used to give this as part of his lectures to undergraduates. He sent it out to one of our mutual friends as part of a rant as to why writers are chronic malcontents. I should post the entire email (it's that entertaining) but it's pretty long.

Anyway, when kids complain that they have to start at the bottom, he says this:

Somewhere at the Herald, a guy is taking classified ads over the phone and thinking, Christ, I could do obits or wedding announcements if they'd give me a shot. Meanwhile, the guy writing obits and announcements is thinking he could be a reporter, the reporter is thinking he could write features, the feature writer wants to be a columnist, the columnist wants to be a novelist, the novelist wants to be a playwright, the playwright a poet, the poet an angel, and the angel wants to be God. For the rest of the story, see J. Milton's "Paradise Lost."

I love that bit. And it's true, no matter where you are in the hierarchy, you're always pining for that next rung. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Political Humor

I had no intention of writing about the election, because I'm over it already. I don't know a single person who isn't. And yet...

A couple of days ago I was driving the kids home from something, maybe the G man's karate class. The two of them were in the back seat, arguing about who touched who's face (an old chestnut around here). 

Of a sudden, the G man says, "Hey, mommy. I wanna play war." To which I said, no, honey. I'm driving.

"Come on, mommy. Please? Let's have a war."

Okay, honey, how do you play that?

"Well, I'll be John McKennedy. And you be. And you be. And you, um. Hey, mommy, what's the brown guy's name?"

That's a six-year-old's perspective of things. The election is a war between McWhatsit and the brown guy. It would be funnier if not for the fact that this is exactly how the election has been presented to us on so many fronts.

When I offered up his name to G, I said it carefully so he would remember. And S, who is four, said it right back to me, just as carefully and said, "That's who I'm cheering for, mommy." Of course you are, sweetheart. He's very popular with the ladies.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Draft One is Done

The first draft of the boy book is done. It came in at 82,000 words, most of those were written in the past seven months. Hard to believe. Tony is looking at the first draft of the final chapter today and we'll likely edit over the weekend. Then we'll print out the whole thing and edit it together in a series of cookie-fueled meetings.

All the worry about whether we would finish or not has evaporated. Now I worry about looking at those old chapters we wrote back in the spring. Those chapters have been gathering dust for 5 or 6 months. Early drafts rarely age well. And I anticipate terror-filled dreams in which the editor hates it, really hates it, dreams in which the manuscript gets lost somehow and we have to rewrite the whole thing in a single day. Stuff like that. 

Writers are nuts. Just nuts. But for this moment, I'm happy. We will finish this thing and turn it in on time. Whatever changes the editor wants, we'll make them. No problem.

Also, a finished draft means time to start thinking: What next?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Feeling the Pinch

The new issue of the Pinch is out, and my essay "How to Work a Locker Room" is in it. The sample copies came in the mail a couple of days ago.

The best part was reading the other essays and stories in the magazine, all of which are wonderful. I was especially excited to read "Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote" by Brian Kiteley. In it, he used parts of Plath's published diaries as a jumping off point for an imagined encounter between Plath and Capote. The narrative captures her voice well in that it is equal parts beautiful and disturbing.

But I was first excited to see his name in the magazine because I love his book The 3a.m. Epiphany. It is the best writing book I've ever encountered. Instead of posing exercises that purport to teach a specific skill (describe a rock in order to practice description), he uses highly specific prompts that get you out of the normal rut. I don't leave home without this book.

One of my favorite exercises is #61, Character Building. In it, you write a story in which two people create a fictional character over the course of several conversations. It's a chance to use the urge to gossip in an artistic way. I love it and have used it several times. The whole book is like that. There is a story under every draft, every attempt to create. It's an antidote to this notion that every story is a failure and that the job of a writer is to fail better next time. When I use this book, I have the opposite feeling. I feel that every draft is a partial success, that it is at the very least a fun and exciting way to spend some time.

Anyway, he and I are in the same magazine. I feel elevated and important today.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Stranger on a Train

Larry and I went to New York a couple of weeks ago to see two plays. We did this for the very first time last winter, going all that way to see the Seafarer, and it was worth it. We went back in the spring to see Port Authority, and that too was worth the expense and the time away from work and home. We aren't rich. No writers are, but going off to see people performing at the top of their profession in drama feels less like an extravagance and more like a pilgrimage. 

In this past trip, we didn't have quite as much luck. Not true. The pilgrimage was different and enlightening in a new way. First, we found magic. Standing on the platform in Boston, waiting for the Accela, I noticed Larry looking grim. He's always worried about getting a seat. I don't know why he worries about this, but he does. I patted his belly and his cheek. I smirked at him and then kissed him, hoping to chide him a bit and to comfort him. I don't know why but men prefer to be teased a bit while they take comfort. Perhaps they don't like to feel coddled. 

Anyway, there was an older man standing next to us on the platform and he exclaimed to his wife, "Look. That woman patted her husband in broad daylight." He was leaning on a cane and wearing a Red Sox hat, but the letters looked to be in Hebrew. He went on and on about belly patting and how much men need that. I couldn't quite figure out how to take him, and this fuss. But the train came. As it turned out, we couldn't find a seat. And wandered to the front of the car, and found ourselves sitting across from each other and across the aisle from this man and his wife. He recognized us. Said to his wife, "Look who that is, the lady who pats her husband." Or some such. 

I took out my notebook and began to write. The best part of the trip is the train ride and having all those hours in which to write undisturbed. I saw the man take out what looked like a small plastic kit of some sort. He unfolded it and it had compartments and inside that a little tiny flask of water. I went back to my writing. Turns out that he was unfolding a small watercolor palette. Two hours later he handed me the above picture, one he painted on the train while we rode. He does this all the time. He carries this little painting kit and these 5 by 8 cards and he paints people he sees every day. He paints them at Fenway Park and on the Common. "Usually, they don't even know they're being painted." 

On the back of the picture he wrote in pencil, "Jane Austen finishes chapter 19 on the train to NYC." Afterward he asked if I was writing a book. I said yes. "I knew it," he said. He seemed happy to have guessed it. We were on the train just a few days after attending my friend Jack's funeral, and I was still selfishly very sad about my own loss. To me, the picture felt like a blessing for the trip. I couldn't get over it, and I couldn't quit looking at it.

The plays themselves were somewhat less exciting, although I shouldn't complain. We saw this as a matinee. And that's really the only time you should go to one of the big blockbuster-type comedies. If you're not surrounded by 70-year-old Rotary Club members from Madison Wisconsin who are laughing so hard at the par boiled laugh lines that their contact lenses are popping right out of their eyes, well, you're cheating yourself. Truly. 

We walked out afterward and Larry said, "What did you think?" I said, "I miss the Carol Burnett show." No snark intended. It's like a really long, but pretty good skit of the old Carol Burnett show. Not till we got home did I look it up to find that it's the most exported play of the French theater. Ever. 

That night we saw Three Changes. The acting was good and there were several astonishing emotional moments, but I didn't quite understand what was going on or why. I'm going to come right out and admit this. It's very disappointing to be facing a long train ride home in which to ponder one's own inadequacy as a viewer or appreciator of drama. Fortunately, there was a klatch of ancient ladies behind us in their sensible sweaters and chunky jewelry who were just as confused as I was. It was somewhat cheering to overhear them parsing out the plot after while waiting to file out of the theater. (So the gay boyfriend became the man's son? Yes. But he wasn't the son before, right? I don't think so. And the brother became the husband? Right. How did he do that? I don't know. Who was that girl talking in the corner? That was the girlfriend. No. Really?Whose girlfriend?)

Better to console ourselves with Carol Burnett-style comedy.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ransom Note

Around here, we sometimes have trouble getting the kids to go to sleep. They share a room and like to spend at least a half hour, sometimes an hour, enacting dramas in the eerie glow of the Spongebob night light. I hear giggling in there even now. It's good that they get along well, but not so good that they keep each other up so late. And sometimes they fight. Still, a few weeks ago, we told them that we were thinking of renovating the house, adding a bedroom. "You can have your own rooms," we said brightly. They looked at us with horror. "No!"

One night recently, the two of them were jumping off their beds, clutching pillows to their bellies to cushion the fall. We heard thumps and giggles, and then a scream when one of them landed on a toy. We told them to knock it off, but it continued. When Larry had had enough, he marched up the stairs. He threw the door open, and in his best Darth Vadar voice, said, "That's it. No more toys." And he scooped up all their stuffed animals--all of them, including the prized ones from infancy that have had half their fur rubbed off, including the little red dog that G calls "Cakes." Larry scooped them up and marched out with them. The kids cried; they wailed, but Daddy's heart is like ice when he's been pushed too far. Finally, they piped down. 

Silence for a few minutes. Then the door opened and the G-man threw a paper airplane down the stairs and into the living room where we were sitting. Larry got up, unfolded it and found a carefully written note. 

It said: 

"Daddy. I do not like you. But if you give me my Cakes dog back, I will like you. And I will give you money. Love, G."

Apparently, he'd found a piece of paper and a pencil in his room and he had written the note while hunched next to the night light.

Larry had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. He said, "I have to reward this initiative." He took the Cakes dog back up the stairs and emerged a minute later with G's other prized possession, an oversized fake $20 bill. "He gave me the twenty," Larry said with pride. Seems like a fair trade.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Losing a Friend

My good friend Jack died the weekend before last. The news came as a complete shock. He died in his sleep, quietly. I knew him for 19 years. We met when I was a graduate student. In those years, he taught me how to be a writer, how to work as a freelancer, how to deal with editors, how to keep going when things go wrong. He introduced me to my husband, and attended our wedding. He asked about Larry every time that I saw him. He worried about Larry, but then he worried about almost everyone. I found out recently that he liked to brag a bit to his other friends about having introduced us. He was right to do so. 

Jack was a sportswriter for years and he described the world almost entirely in sports metaphors, so that an altercation with an editor became, "I stood him up at the blue line," or "I backed him up to his own goal." Once, he met one of my relatives, one who was nervously backing up to the door while she talked and said later, "She takes quite a lead off first base." After he turned 50, he began to refer to himself as "being on the back nine" of life. He sometimes referred to himself as the Wiley Veteran when dealing with students who tried to whine their way out of a deadline. And yet he had very few altercations with editors and very few run-ins with students. That's because he was always thinking and planning. I got many emails from him detailing his plan B in case an editor was going to turn down a manuscript or if a student was going to make another lame excuse about missing class and the deadline. His ability to anticipate the worst and plan for it (while obsessing over it) was legendary among his friends.

He used many of those same sports metaphors in his classes. He believed in the lessons of the sports world as guides to behavior off the field. He liked to say that playing sports doesn't build character, it reveals character. You don't get to make excuses or ask for rules changes on the field because you stayed up late or forgot to practice, or are having a bad day. Players learn to deal with bad luck, bad bounces, and their own failings. He told students that showing up every day, on time, matters. Making a deadline matters. Following directions matters. He docked them, docked their grades if they violated these rules, and they loved him. For undergraduates in their first or second class in writing, lessons that teach character are crucial, at least as important as learning how to avoid the dangling modifier. In fact, these lessons might me more important because no one else is teaching how to think, how to plan, how to show up every day with a good attitude, how to deal with bad luck and keep going. Few professors have the energy to reward those things. Those students who had the character or developed character along with their ability to write, those students he helped. He opened his rolodex to them and found them great jobs and great opportunities. And he invited them to be his friends. He had friends of every age, and that is an incredible fact on its own.

I didn't just learn how to write from Jack. He gave me lots of advice about life. I watched how he behaved in his marriage in order to learn how to be happily married. Many times he wrote to me about how he planned to spend a day. Jack was always up early, sometimes at 4 a.m. and he would go in to work by 6, and be home by noon. He always taught in the mornings so that he would have the afternoon off. He would make a huge ritual about shopping for groceries for dinner. He loved to cook and he loved to have the right music playing while he cooked. He would detail for me the things he bought, or was planning to buy and the rotation of music that he would play while making dinner. His dinners with his wife, Barbara, had that sense of ceremony. He was very French, in this way. (He would say French Canadian, but that's another story). But I saw from him that time spent cooking and listening to music, or doing anything that gives you joy, is not wasted time. These pleasures are important.

He also wrote every day. He would frequently send emails, the subject line of which contained the word count of whatever book he was working on. (Of course there was that one season in which every email contained his ranking in Fantasy Hockey.) I got lots of emails that detailed his struggles to write a novel at the age of 62. Had he ever written a piece of fiction before? Nope. But his solution was to sit down and write a story at 500 words a day until it was done. It was done in 6 months. Six months later he had an agent, and a few months after that he had a book deal. Hey, not everybody does it that way, but it can be done that way.

After that he talked about writing a screenplay. "I read a couple of them. It doesn't look too hard," he wrote to me one day. And then he noodled around on another novel. I admire that. I want to do that myself. Always thinking, planning, showing up early every day with a good attitude, and dealing with whatever bounces you get, good and bad. And finding a little rest and time for a pleasurable hobby in the afternoon.

There are worse philosophies to use as a guide in the writing life. I miss Jack. I'll probably miss him every day from now on.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Stage Fright

The boy book manuscript is at 66,000 words. In a little less than two months, we quaking co-authors must turn in a manuscript that is at least 75,000 words long. Back at the end of March, when we were on the phone, in conference call, with the editor and she announced to us the short deadline and the massive word count, it was all I could do to take a big breath and say, "No problem." 

No problem. After we hung up, the phone rang again and it was the agent, saying, "You were so cool about that." She seemed impressed. 

No problem. Calmly promising the impossible is an essential skill for a writer. And it has been no problem, so far. We have about 3 more chapters to go, and we keep scratching away at the sections we have yet to write. And yet, instead of speeding up, I've felt as though we've slowed down. It took five weeks to eek out the last finished chapter--instead of 10 days. At this rate, we won't finish in time. Sure, most of that included August and dueling vacation schedules and the yawning gap between summer camp and the first day of school. And the chapters we're working on now are about how much trouble boys can get into at school, how they can misfire in a classroom and how they can be herded into special ed by mistake. These are delicate issues. We want it to be right. 

Those are all good reasons why the writing is so slow, but they don't cover the real reason. The real reason is stage fright. It's the literary version of it, anyway. 

I remember years ago listening to a novelist (whose day job was editing nonfiction books) talk about this very thing. He said he always hit the wall at about 150 pages into the first draft of any novel. At about that point, he would stop writing and have to sit on the urge to throw the whole thing into a landfill somewhere and forget about it. There's a point, he said, at which the whole project stops being a lark that you can joke about (even to yourself) and starts to become something serious, something you can be judged on. And the fear that comes with that shift is almost overwhelming. 

We're nearing that point, although it's much later in the process. We can't stop now, and we can't sit around hoping that we're just going to find the inspiration to finish on time. Tony and I jokingly say to each other, "I wonder what she's going to think about this?" And then we sit in silence for a minute. Truth is, we don't know. The editor won't have seen a word of it since the day she bought into the project back in March. It seems inconceivable that this is how it's done, but this is how it's done. An editor doesn't want to see a book piecemeal. She wants the whole thing to look at all at once. 

And so we need to rev up. Keep going. Ten thousand more words to go.

No problem.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's Snot Remorse

I opened up the G-man's backpack yesterday and among his drawings of giant insects engaged in battle with hapless planets was a note from a fellow classmate:

Dear G.

Sorry about the booger.


So, I showed the note to G. "What's this about?" I asked. G squinted at the note and went back to his Legoes, because he can't be bothered with the details of things in the past. He's a now-centric sort of kid. If it happened three hours ago, It might as well have happened in a previous life.

I pressed. "What does this say?" 

He sighed, and said, "Sorry about the booger." Like I can't read. 

"Yeah," I said. "What's it about?"

G sighed heavily again. Like I'm stupid. 

"He just put a booger on me. That's all." 

Right. Okay. I think I could infer that much. But the point here is that I don't think I've ever received a note of apology from a man before. Not ever. And not to make this about me, but geez. Do first graders routinely write notes of remorse? First grade boys?

"So, the teacher made him do this? Did she catch him?" 

G smoothed out his little pile of Lego pieces. The one he wanted wasn't readily at hand. He has this way of combing through them with his fingertips. Spreading them out, lightly grazing the tops of the pieces as though the one he wants will feel different.

"No," he said. 


"No! He just wrote a note, okay?"

Okay. Kids these days. What are you going to do?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Copley on Revere

Reading a book set in the 1790s makes me think of this painting that sits in the MFA. Copley was known (I think) for attempting to capture some of the character and personality of his subjects. Some of the people depicted in his works seem unusually sad or haughty. At any rate, he knew the people he painted. At the very least, he knew what was said about them.

And I ask you: Does this seem to be a nice guy?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Whiskey Rebels I

I always giggle a bit when I see a book described as a "historical thriller." I love history, but I don't think of it as thrilling. I think the word thriller should be reserved for books that involve stolen diskettes, secret formulas, international conspiracies engineered by evil spies and viruses run amok. I recently tried to read one of those true thrillers, and couldn't get past the first page, which was a wildly flowery description of a butterfly fluttering at high altitude near a super-secret government research building in the mountains. And then the little butterfly crashes and is revealed to be a super-spy flying thingy. Government-employed brainiacs shriek their panic. Oh, wait. I did get past the first page. On the second page, a ruggedly handsome man climbs in the Alps with his wife. Tragedy ensues. I gleaned from the back cover blurb that she'd been unfaithful to him, so we readers are to be horrified but not overly sad when she plunges to a splattery death. I closed the book at that point. (Will it surprise anyone to learn that this same book is a major best-seller?)

Anyway, by robotic insect standards, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is no thriller, although it's plenty exciting. It's set in Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania in the 1780s and 90s, a period of history not visited often by novelists. Even romance novelists seem to shun this era. Historians these days love to write about the founding fathers, but they tend to cast the great men in bronze. How dull is that? I worked at Yankee magazine many years ago as an editor, and history, specifically Colonial-era history, was something the other editors knew quite a bit about. More than once I sat in a meeting and heard a fellow editor refer to John Hancock as a moneyed boob inexplicably blessed with a beautiful and shrewd wife, to John Adams as a moody and pompous ass, to George Washington as a bit of a heartthrob (his presidency and advancing middle age notwithstanding) because he was one of the best dancers in the country. I once heard an editor go on at length about how Paul Revere was really a psychotic lapdog invited to the revolution not because he was assumed to be the equal of the blue bloods around him (he was not) but because he had what the rich boys didn't. He had connections to the sort of people who could be counted on to harass, torture or kill troublesome royalists when the occasion arose. 

Now, that's history. I've never looked at that Copley painting of Revere in the same way since then. 

Fortunately for me, this book contains the grittier brand of post-colonial history, the one I prefer. The story does involve financial conspiracy. (And here's  my one complaint about that: I don't get it. I'm only about 200 pages into this book and I'm hoping my brain can sort it all out, the conspiracy part, and how financial ruin is imminent for the country. But so far, no go. I'm sure it's me.)

Never mind that, though. The story is told with two narrators. The first is a Ethan Saunders, a former soldier and spy for Washington, who was accused of treason in the waning days of the war and drummed out of the service, and who is drunk for much of the first few chapters. We meet him stealing a watch and contemplating his own imminent death at the hands of a man he has cuckolded. When this man confronts Saunders, beats him badly, and stands ready to kill him, Saunders does and says this:

I cleared my throat. "Dorland, I am sadly disappointed with the man I hve become. I am drunk not only at this moment but perpetually. I have had no steady source of income in half a decade, and I am incorrigibly addicted to gaming, so that the money I steal or borrow or, on those rare occasions, earn, is gone as soon as it is in my hands. My clothes are old and tattered and frequently pungent to the nose, and above all of that, I believe that during your attack I lost control of my bladder and pissed upon my person."

"You think this should make me spare you?" Dorland asked. "Do you think your pathetic condition will stay my hand?"

"No, I only wished to make note of the sort of man your wife admitted into her bed."

Okay, so likable, daring loser on the one hand who is rescued and sent off in search of a missing person. And on the other is Joan Maycott, the book's second narrator, a woman who is young when we meet her first. (Here, the book goes back in time, and many readers will miss this jump and misunderstand what's going on because of it.) Maycott is forceful and smart and knows what she wants. What she wants most is to be a writer, to write a uniquely American novel. This is a major narrative risk, and it's almost a red herring, but that it gives this woman reason to study all the things she's going to need to know to take part in this national banking crisis later on, many years and chapters later as she either aids or hinders Saunders when they finally meet. Of course, that's not for many, many chapters. In the meantime, we follow Maycott and her husband from New York City out to the hinterlands of western Pennsylvania, where they hope to do some farming. They are cheated and find themselves as near slave-labor on an unworkable plot of land. There are several chapters in which their lives are threatened again and again, not just by the elements but by the corrupt men who run their settlement. In this lawless settlement, certain men think nothing of raping a woman in her own home as a way of intimidating her husband. Joan Maycott is a wonderful character and readers have to stand by and watch her driven half mad by all she endures in these few years in this settlement. To avoid starvation, the Maycotts turn to making whiskey, like so many of their neighbors.

This part of the story is the most interesting, for my part, as it shows how people could be so cheated by the system, under what circumstances this territory was cleared for farmland, where that labor came from, and also why people made whiskey in the first place. Why would farmers turn grain into whiskey? Primarily because crops could not easily be transported to cities and sold, but booze could find a ready market anywhere. The better the booze, the higher the price.  When the volume and the price are high enough, a tax will follow. All of this is at the heart of the plot.

Above all this information hovers another set of ideas about how a revolution cannot create a country. In the wake of the war, crucial decisions had to be made to create and maintain an economy, a banking and monetary system. The story (so far) also highlights the bitter feud between Hamilton and Jefferson over federal versus state rights, and what a federal government has the right to do, and which friends of the important decision-makers will be allowed to line their own pockets.  You can draw a straight line from that feud to the Civil War and to presidential politics today.

Somewhat less interesting for me is Saunders' story (again, so far), although he continues to be witty and swaggering and troubled and drunk, and he meets with Hamilton, runs into Adams, and faces his own set of dangers and heartbreak, too. He is an easy companion to lead a reader through the part of the story that takes place near this new federal government. What I always want in an anti-hero is for him to have a chance at love and redemption. (I'm a sap, so sue me.) I have hope for him on the redemption front. Love? I'm not so sure. 

More on this when I've finished the book. Meantime, I like it a lot. It's smart and scary and entertaining almost all the time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mad About Money

There was a little email thread that shot through the Grubbie community a few weeks (or was it months?) ago. In it, one writer tore off on a riff about how he didn't quite understand this business of writing for literary journals that don't pay. He confessed, or perhaps boasted, that he had never published any piece of writing without getting paid for it, and that he considered those who did such a thing were giving their talents away, and encouraging the entire publishing world to devalue writers. He went on and on about it, and I may be exaggerating his arguments in my memory. 

Someone wrote back to say, "Hey, you're channeling my mother." And we all had a laugh (I hope) and went back to our desks and our private neuroses. 

I remember feeling annoyed and implicated in this, and on both sides. I do write for money. I have written for glossy magazines for $1 a word and $1.25 a word, and for $1.50 a word. No more than that. (And I spent years and years writing for much less.) And yet I've never felt honored by the publishing world, or even noticed. In fact, I've felt held back because I don't like and can't quite get the hang of the hustling part of magazine writing. I'm not very good at coming up with ideas for stories or pitching them. I may have already taken advantage of all the lucky bounces I'm going to get in the magazine world, and that doesn't disappoint me. 

On the other hand, I took a couple of writing classes last year to do some experimenting on my own. In one of them, I wrote an essay about one incident in my time as a sportswriter. I sent it out to lots of little literary magazines, none of whom pay writers, and one of them took it. It should be out this fall. So on that side, I've given away, if that's the phrase, one of my best and most personal stories. So, I was a little annoyed by the notion that this might make me a loser of some sort.

Why is money the thing that most validates work?

This would be a silly question except that my son spent the better part of yesterday taping coins to a piece of paper. Some other kid at school had given him a dollar. No matter how many times I asked, he wouldn't give me the full story on why this other kid had given him a dollar. But he put the dollar in the center of the page and taped it down. Then he taped down a bunch of other coins he'd found or been given. He made a huge piece of art about money and he wanted to keep it with him all the time. We went to grandma's house for dinner last night and the G-man brought his artwork. He showed it to grandma and she fussed over it, telling him it was beautiful. He said to her, "It's for you." And we all sat up in alarm.

Grandma said, "No, honey. I can't keep this. It's your money."

But it wasn't money to him. The coins and paper were just that. They were cool, decorative objects to tape to a piece of paper. Grandma offered to count it for him. She counted the coins and said, "You've got seven dollars here." 

Larry and I looked over and said in unison, "What?" 

"Seven dollars," she said. "That's right." At this point G was insisting that grandma keep the moneyed paper and she was thanking him and hugging him and telling him what a good boy he is, and at the same time, saying, "You keep it."

And then I realized that G was measuring our reactions. He was taking it all in, noticing our shock and alarm over $7 in change. He was storing up all this information about how coins make people feel. 

We didn't leave that piece of paper at grandma's house. G brought it home with him. I suspect it means something different to him today than it did yesterday. It does to me, too.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The King of Kong

Last night I watched this documentary, and it is hilarious and also a bit sad. It's about the rivalry between the two best Donkey Kong players. As a sportswriter, I find it even more funny because the guys in this film, all of whom peaked emotionally 25 years ago, often speak of themselves in the third person, as big sports celebrities do. One of them has a sort of entourage of folks who like to refer to him as a big deal, as a Jedi knight for example, and all sorts of other nonsense. And they defer to him as though he is some kind of celebrity, as though someone outside this tiny group has ever heard of him. 

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Killer in the Garden

Killer Kowalski Dies at 81

Yesterday I heard about the death of this young man, and it made me sad. I'm no wrestling fan, but I did have the chance to do one wrestling story for OAG about ten years ago and Killer Kowalski was at the center of it. I'd heard from my husband (who grew up watching wrestling) that Kowalski ran a pro wrestling school in Malden and I thought that would make a great radio story. It did. 

The main reason why it did was Kowalski himself, who was in his early 70s at the time, still towering at 6 foot 6, and not quite ready to admit that he was getting old. It's hard to imagine how famous he actually was in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, how he and the other wrestlers traveled all around the country to play to packed venues, and then to different television stations around the country to wrestle in tiny studios under hot lights. 

Back then, wrestling was just as much a spectacle as it is now, and yet it was forbidden to admit that they rigged the outcomes or choreographed the fights. The wrestlers had their own jargon. A good guy who was expected by the crowd to win every match was called a baby face. The bad guy who was expected to lose was said to be "on the job." If a manager told a wrestler that he was on the job for the upcoming match, he knew that he had to lose. Kowalski in his 70s never admitted to any of this to me. I think he still considered it bad form to talk about the theatrics of the matches. He considered himself to be an actor, and that this was his life's role. He was the Killer, all his life. And he could recount moves from three decade old matches from memory. He could tell a great story, and put on the mean face as though it were still happening.

Not that he wasn't polite. He may have been a great villain in decades past, but he was unfailingly sweet and courteous. He spoke of his lifelong vegetarianism, how he felt that all people were essentially good, that we should treat others with love and more importantly think of them with love, even those we dislike. We should tell people that we love them all the time, he said. He was vehement on this last point and discussed it until my tape ran out and after. At the time, he believed in the power of vitamins and supplements and took dozens of them every day. He showed them to me. He also acted as a kind of guru to his students. He gave them advice about how to get along with co-workers and friends. He advised them on their diets, how to deal with injuries and medical conditions. He insisted on polite and professional behavior, on courtesy, in his gym. 

And he coached his students on their acting, on choreographing the sound effects of matches. He had specific techniques for stomping while pretending to punch someone so that there was a real sound to go with the fake punch. This is harder to coordinate than you might think. He showed them how to double over after a punch, how to grimace in agony while your opponent twists your arm behind your back. And when they didn't get it right, he'd climb into the ring,and do it himself with his wide, but now skinny shoulders and his haggard, hawk-nosed face, and he was the best one among them. He was still a star.

There are many reasons why I remember doing that story so well. One of them is that I went to a pro wrestling match and saw some of the newly aging stars of the, uh, sport. King Kong Bundy picked me up and shook me during our interview. And Greg "The Hammer" Valentine was really funny during our interview. Here is this guy, all pumped up, shaved chest, wearing a fake tan, reeking of Ben Gay. When I asked him if he was looking forward to the match, I expected Killer Kowalski's professionalism. I expected a man to give me a little of the tough guy villain talk. Instead, he hugged himself and said, "Not really. It's cold in here."

Also, Killer Kowalski kissed me during our interview. I'll never forget it. I was letting him lead the discussion, as I always do. He was charming and entertaining. He told me that on his 13th birthday, he announced to his mother that he would not eat any more meat. That was the day he became a vegetarian. October 13, 1939. I said, "October 13? That's my birthday, too." The expression fell off his face. And he suddenly looked mean. Or mad, or something. I thought he was upset because I'd interrupted him. He leaned forward, never breaking eye contact, took my face in both hands and kissed me lightly on the mouth. He was very serious about the whole thing. He called it a spiritual connection because we were born on the same day. Then he went back to talking about vegetarianism, and I did what any midwestern girl would do. I pretended it hadn't happened.

The day after the interview, Kowalski called me at home. It was fairly early on a Saturday morning. He told me that he regretted one or two of the things that he said that he felt might be considered critical of the WWF management. He asked me not to use them and I agreed. "Thank you," he said. And then he said, "I love you." 

I knew what he meant.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Love Sick

I just finished this book. I don't tend to read this type of memoir that has at its core childhood sexual abuse, for a bunch of reasons. The fact that I started and finished this one in less than 24 hours must say something about the writing or the subject, though. I'm not sure what. I think the book does a good job of skirting the prurience that you might expect from this subject. While it is the story of a woman who goes into treatment for what she calls sex addiction, the story is always about the emotional struggle, it is always about her need for sexual attention from men, rather than the encounters themselves. In fact, the strongest scenes are the ones where the narrator puts us in the room with her marriage. The scenes between the secretive wife and the husband who has no clue about the affairs and yet is filled with anger and disappointment about their marriage are wrenching. 

There is also a long section of the book in which the narrator details her involvement as a teenager with a much older married man and how she tries to become part of his family, or to think of herself as such, after his wife invites her to stay for dinner. She writes, "I imagine they will urge me to move out of my dorm. They will ask me to live here. I can type Forrest's correspondence. I can place my necklaces in the Chinese jewelry box. I can help Shirley cook dinner. I can be Scottie's sister. I can be Forrest's..." Of course all of this loops back to her own father who molested her. Yet, the scene continues through dinner with Forrest's wife and son. It really shows the dynamic she's struggling with and how it is replicated in so many families, not just the ones with abused daughters.

I have more trouble with some of the recovery speak in the book, which is a necessity, I suppose. Or the remembered details of emotional transformation. She writes in a later chapter, "Why does this territory labeled "body," this geography of skin, cause such distraction and destruction? How can this same body now live in a hospital while it attempts to become a different body, learn different routines and movements?" This type of therapy speak, when it popped up, left me flat, as though the real audience of the book is people who are also in recovery for this addiction, and not general readers.

The author, Sue William Silverman, also teaches writing, and I found her theories about memoir to be fascinating, in that they reveal how to tell ultra personal stories like this one. Basically, she feels that there are two voices at work in this type of memoir. One is the voice of innocence, the voice that relates the "what" of what happened. The details emerge in cinematic form. The other voice is the voice of experience, that voice that looks back on the experience to say what it really meant. She has five stages of this that move from pure description to the emotional experience of what happened to the fully developed, reflective narrator of experience. Not every story hits every one of these five notes, but it's a really interesting theory of how to effectively layer pure experience alongside reflection.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Three Changes

We're thinking of going to see Julie's friend, Maura, in this play. We first heard about it from Julie when she was in town a few months ago, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The playwright is great, the director is Wilson Milam, the guy who helmed the Lieutenant of Inishmore from London to Broadway (yikes! genius alert!) 

Funny thing is that about a month after we heard about it, the producers (or whoever) announced the cast's players to be named later. About a thousand press releases appeared online to announce that this guy would also be in the play, and he was described exclusively as a "TV heartthrob." No seriously, it appears before his name as some sort of title. I don't suppose you have lots of time to appear on stage if you're job is TV heartthrob. I realized that I would pay cash plus a pint of my own blood to have been in the room for the first rehearsal in which the aforementioned long-haired genius director guy meets the TV thespian to test drive the script. Add one neurotic playwright. Sprinkle in a few stage-savvy actors who round out the cast. Ah, yes. That one scene suggests a whole play.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Free Books!

Came home from vacation bearing garbage bags of laundry to face a week's worth of bills, newspapers on the stoop, and that musty, un-lived-in smell the house takes on when we're away. It took the kids about 45 minutes to take every last toy out of their playroom and distribute them throughout every other room of the house. Toys are like old friends, I guess. As Larry and I were sorting and washing and folding and unpacking, the kids were gleefully making a mess in every corner of the house.

Fortunately for me, the post-vacation blahs have been offset by two packages from publishers. I signed up to be an early reviewer at Library Thing, and it worked. One is by John Banville, who writes sometimes as Benjamin Black. I loved his first foray into genre writing, Christine Falls. Well, I loved almost all of it. His account of Dublin in the 1950s is wonderful; he describes a wildly tangled family mess, and a mystery of missing babies and old grudges, all fascinating.
He has one character in there, aptly named Mal, and there is one scene between the main character, named Quirke and Mal in a bar and I have the urge to memorize it because it manages to be funny and sad and suspenseful all at once. And there's another scene between Quirke and and Irish poet, also in a bar in which they are both drunk, and it has this wonderful quality of being a friendly conversation that is at all times about to erupt into a brawl. The thing I didn't entirely love, apart from the abrupt way in which some of the loose ends found themselves tied up, was the way in which he characterized the non Irish people of Boston in the 1950s. Granted, I didn't live here in the 50s. Or anywhere else for that matter. But these people have the feel of Texans rather than Bostonians. One of them is even nicknamed Tex. That just doesn't feel right, does it?

Anyway, the new one is called the Lemur, and so far it's pretty good. More cynical still, in subject matter, but still the evil father figure who dominates his family, still the confusion of an Irishman in the US who has lost himself somehow. And the prose features the same witty insights delivered by a third person narrator. I don't much like the characters, but they are interesting enough to follow around for the 120 pages of the novel. It's a skinny little book that doesn't take too long to read. I fear that it lacks subplots, and other points of interest. Final verdict to come.

The second one is called The Whiskey Rebels and it's about Colonial-era whiskey runners. I think. More soon. It's by David Liss, who wrote A Conspiracy of Paper and I loved that. Loved it.

I love books. 

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Twilight Encounter

Sitting at the pool at our last summer vacation experience with this book next to my chair. The kids were happily playing in the pool with Larry. I was making notes in a notebook, listening to the kids splashing around and playing "toilet" with Larry. Don't ask. 

Then this guy walked by. Seemed like a nice guy. He looked down at the book. Looked up at me. Got excited. "How do you like that?" he asked. He was really happy. I said, "dunno." I was just a few pages into it. Having trouble getting traction, actually. The subject is intriguing, but the style is...well...less so. But it's summer and I have it on good authority that there's something here. So...

So the guy starts gushing. "It's so great. Really. Give it a chance. My niece gave it to me. I've read three of them since last week." 

Holy moly. In a week? Three of them? Uh. This is a story about a teenage girl who has a crush on a vampire, right? One of these is about 500 pages. You read three? I couldn't help myself. I said, "Wow. I've never heard a man say that." The woman who was with him, who might have been his wife, actually turned and snickered. She might have been his sister, though. He's a round-faced, ruddy guy in his early 30s. Quick to smile, soft around the middle. He never blushed but he did look bashful when he admitted going to the author book signing for the latest one of these a few days ago. "Ninety percent women there," he said. Um, yeah. How many of them were older than fifteen?

He gushed more and urged me to keep going with it. "It's a great story. You won't be able to put it down." Uh-huh.

Larry heaved himself out of the pool, dripping heavily. He reached for a towel. "Nice job calling him a fag," said Larry. 

I was incredulous. "I never said that." 

"You might as well have."

"Not true." I was truly astonished. That's all. 

And I've run into this guy twice since then. We go to the little pool here a lot. He taps on the chain link fence around the pool as he's walking by to get my verdict. In fairness to him, I have had the book with me each time. "It's good, right?" he says through the fence. Yep. You betcha. Best blood sucking girlie crush book in I don't know how long. It is, too.

Monday, August 11, 2008

No Country for Old Readers

The usual vacation reading binge has brought me, finally to this book. Can't say as I understand it. The first 30 pages just scared the bejesus out of me. 'Cause it was pretty clever and all about the antelope hunter becoming the hunted. You know, clever. And then after that, I was struggling to figure out what the point was.

I asked Larry about it every fifty pages or so. I'd say, "What the hell is this thing, anyway?"

And he'd say: You think you know what's going to happen, but you don't.

And to that I'd say: Sure I do. Some other poor sods are going to get their faces shot off.  And this gentle reader will be hanging out over the body against her will, while the narrator preens over the blood gurgling out of the throat or the hand that's been half shot away and this narrator will even wax what you might call rhapsodic about the life draining out of the person and the light going out of their eyes and all. And then we'll walk along with the killer while he drinks orange juice and sits for a long time thinking and going through the phone bills of the deceased.

People do things for a long time in this story. That's the PN's favorite phrase. They sit for a long time. They sit bent over their wounds for a long time. Oh, excuse me. They don't sit. They set. They just set there. Or rather they don't just set there. They get up and shoot each other. A lot. They don't do things. They fix to do things, or they are fixing to do things. And they use words like kindly. That's how we know them to be plain good folks mixed up in evil doings. 

If I sound annoyed, well...

I think your best bet for finding this a masterpiece is to be about sixteen and a boy and drunk on a certain type of B movie. 

Finally, Larry said that when he read it he had the thought that it was some kind of practical joke played by the author on the publishing business. (But in Texas, they'd call it the publishing bidness.) Given that one of the back cover blurbs refers to the writer in question as "our greatest living writer," I'd have to concur. I finished it an hour ago and I've already forgotten most of it.

Still, it would be fun to copy the style. Just to test drive it. Not all is lost.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Baklava? Not quite.

Two thirds of the way through this book, I stumbled across the word "balaclava" and had no idea what that was. 

The scene features a bad guy breaking into a house. He's planning to kill someone. (Yeah, it's not high art. Workaday potboiler set in Glasgow.) The paragraph reads: "He spat silently onto his fingertips and rubbed the exposed hinges on the gate, trying it tentatively at first until he was sure it made nothing louder than a mild creak. Pausing only to pull his balaclava on, he adjusted the eye holes and slid through the gate into the garden. "

Okay. Must be, a ski mask, but what's the reference?

It's a close-fitting garment that covers the head and face, but with eye holes. Usually made of wool. Was used in the Crimean war. Named for the city of Balaclava (above). Apparently troops stationed there in the 19th century needed face masks to protect them from the winter cold, and English wool did the trick. Still used by skiers. It's especially popular for outdoorsy types with asthma, because it traps exhaled moisture where it can be recirculated into the lungs. Its like having a private humidifier in the bitter cold. At least Wikipedia tells me so. Wonder if any of it is true.

Learned something new today. Proper vocabulary for the attire of criminals and terrorists and outdoor enthusiasts everywhere. Running to the dictionary is one of the great pleasures of reading. Especially this book in which young men are "yobs," people are described as "prole" or "proddy," (generally the f-bomb is dropped first) the police are "polis." I have keep my desktop dictionary widget handy at all times.

Monday, August 4, 2008


While visiting the Cape in June, I saw this book by Henning Mankell. I read several of his Kurt Wallander mysteries last year and liked them. The author has a very spare style, at least in translation. His inspector Wallander is taciturn and yet prone to angry outbursts. He is matter-of-fact about everything, every detail of every crime, every mistake he makes in his personal life.  I love the silences in the scenes and the way the social culture between the characters is laid out. It's set in Sweden, and I sense nuances of that culture as described by Mankell that seem midwestern, that is, oddly familiar. 

Depths is set in 1914, and its main character is a man who is taking depths readings of the sounds around Sweden as the country contemplates taking a side in World War I. This is not a nice man, this character. He is a stranger to his wife, to the officers serving with him, and even to himself. In the course of his work, he lands on a small island that should be uninhabited and he meets a young widow living there alone. He develops an obsession with her and plots to return to the island to be with her, and yet he wants to maintain control of his wife as well. 

The chapters are short, one or two pages each, and these short bursts of story make the characters and the action seem more disjointed, even fractured, like the main character's personality. 

The book begins, oddly enough, in the wife's point of view, where we learn that she has been living in an asylum for many years, quite insane, and uncommunicative and that when she can clear her head she remembers her husband. The rest of the story is from his perspective. The narrator maintains this spooky attention to detail and these rhetorical questions about the main character's inability to understand himself or his own motives.

This is from Chapter 3

The gangplank swayed under his feet. He could just make out the water between the quay and the hull of the ship, dark, distant. 

He thought about what his wife had said when they said goodbye in their flat in Wallingatan.

"Now you're embarking on something you've been aching to do for so long."

They were standing in their dimly lit hall. She had intended to accompany him to his ship before saying goodbye, but as she started to put on her gloves she hesitated, just as he had done at the foot of the gangplank.

She did not explain why the leave-taking had suddenly become too much for her. That was not necessary. She did not want to start crying. After nine years of marriage he knew it was harder for her to let him see her crying than to be naked before him.

They said goodbye hurriedly. he tried to reassure her that he was not disappointed. 

In fact, he felt relieved. 

He paused halfway along hte gangplank, savouring the almost imperceptible motion of the ship. She was right. He had been longing to get away. But he was not at all sure what he was longing for.

Was there a secret inside him of which he was not aware?

He was very much in love with his wife. Every time he had to leave for a tour of duty and said goodbye to her, he unobtrusively breathed in the scent of her skin, kissing her hastily. It was as if he were laying down that perfume, as you do a fine wine, or perhaps and opiate, to take out whenever he felt so forlorn that he risked losing his self-possession.

His wife still used her maiden name. He had no idea why, and did not want to ask.

A tug boomed from the direction of Kastelholmen. A seagull hovered in the updraught over the ship. 

He was a solitary man. His solitary nature was like an abyss that he was afraid he might one day fall into. He had worked out that the abyss must be at least forty metres deep, and that he would leap into it head first, so as to be certain of dying.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dog?

We're doing a lot of spelling around here. S has decided that she's a writer. Naturally. The other day she came home from a birthday party with a goodie bag that contained enough candy to keep her awake until she's 7, as well as a small notebook and a pencil. She spent the better part of an hour scribbling doodles in the pages. "Mommie, I'm writing," she said to me and I felt a swell of pride. Of course, that was deflated as soon as she turned to her doggies and said, "I can't play with you right now. I'm writing."
Is that a pang of guilt or am I having a heart attack?

She asks endlessly how to spell things. How do you spell boots, and carrots and cat. Then she asked how to spell dog. I was transported back to my own childhood. My parents worked and my little brother went to daycare at this little trailer park, where a woman lived with her four kids. I'm not sure how many she took care of. I think my mother paid her $30 or $35 a month to keep my brother during the day. I went over there, too, in the summers. I remember that she had a husband but he was a truck driver and therefore never around. When he was around, he was moody and withdrawn and slept a lot.  The kids were two boys and two girls, all about my age. And there were several kids she cared for. Now when I think of it I don't know how she did it. The trailer was a tiny thing, two bedrooms with little more than a galley kitchen and a small front room. The kids' bedroom had two sets of bunk beds in it. I remember this woman joking with her friend one day on the phone. She had a big blonde beehive of teased hair. She was not a big woman but she was thick-waisted, and wore tight, tight clothes and heavy make up, and smoked, but everyone did back then. I think her name was Karen and she was telling her friend that her daughter was writing a birthday card to her father. The girl was asking how to spell everything.  When she asked how to spell Dad, Karen had told her, "D-O-G." 

So, here's Karen on the phone with her friend saying, "You wouldn't believe his face when he opened up the card and it said 'Happy Birthday Dog'." 

Somehow that story is even funnier now.