Monday, June 30, 2008

Sarcasm of Destiny II

I'm having trouble getting a handle on this book. So far, the first page is missing. Any introductory paragraphs that might hint at the structure of the novel are unavailable. After that we get an introduction to the Nina of the title, or rather her father who is a wealthy Irishman, a man who was early widowed and married again but made a poor second choice. "There are some men who have but to open their mouths and the golden plum drops in. Mr. Fitzgerald was one of these: He was gay, witty, could make a beautiful speech about nothing, which is the rarest of talents, he wrote pretty verses, was an excellent musician and the dear delight of Urania parties, drew tastefully, spoke French without an accent--or, rather with that Irish roll to the r which is better than the original--all as if by nature."

The narrator of the book seems to be an old(ish) maid named Miss Brown, a snoopy sort from the neighborhood who is in everybody's business and full of entertaining opinions. Nice choice. We learn that Nina loves to care for sick orphans, and that she has caught a fever from this, all in one sentence. The narrator comes to visit the bed-ridden Nina who has hired herself a handsome young unorthodox doctor. Hmmm. Our narrator, Miss Brown, gives him to us in romance novel detail. "There he stood, six feet in his stockings, more in his boots, a considerable and rather handsome tenant at will of certain very threadbare and not elegant garments, with the dust and disarray of a country doctor about him. His face, I was reluctantly compelled to admit, was very good; firm brow, large brown eyes, good chin, a masculine, well-curved profile.

But before we get the sense that the doctor and Nina are destined for each other, we see a scene in which they treat each other with indifference. He's rather rude to Nina, peeling up one of her eyelids to look under it and then accusing her of taking too long to recover. This offends the narrator greatly. "What a brute! Here I had come to find an adventurer making love to my Nina, and I found a mere medical machine looking at her as a case, handling her beautiful eye as if it were that of a dead dog..."

Than the doctor offers Miss Brown a ride home, and during this ride he treats her to his views on women. His complaint about Nina is that she, "has too much brain. It is a great misfortune for a beautiful woman to have a brain; it will impair her beauty, and shorten her life; and then she has a conscience, totally unnecessary adjunct--that is to say, she has too much of it." Then the doctor nods at a woman on the street and says of her, "There goes the sweetest woman I know; plain, rather stupid, but comfortable; very sure to make a good wife." The doc compares women to cart horses, thorough-bred racers suffer because they must pull a cart uphill their whole lives. When he sees a plain, dumb, uninteresting woman, says the doc, he thinks to himself, "There is an animal fitted to its work." 

And this was written by a woman. This conversation is interrupted when they are both hit by a runaway wagon, and while the doc is unhurt, Miss Brown suffers a broken arm and bruised face. I have no idea where this is headed, and I'm a little frightened by it. People were afraid of the author, Mary Sherwood, when they had to deal with her in person. She would say anything to anyone and could provoke anyone at any time. I'm beginning to see why.

Friday, June 27, 2008

My Latest Assignment II

I'm going to asthma camp. There are several summer camps around the country that provide a sleep-over camp experience to kids with moderate to severe asthma. The kids swim and kayak and do crafts and the like, all supervised by a team of volunteer docs and nurses who dispense meds and keep their lungs working. It sounds cool. The story should air in mid-July. I'm already reading up on asthma meds, and the studies about the efficacy of such camps, and the issues faced by kids and parents dealing with the illness and formulating questions. And getting nervous. The usual.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sarcasm of Destiny

While going through some old files on my computer, I found the PDF for this book. With the subtitle "Nina's Experience," it looks like it might prove to be Victorian-era porn, with the Nina in question being that genteel ingenue just arrived at boarding school where she learns to conjugate more than her Latin verbs. If only. 

It's actually a novel written by Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, who was a best-selling American author (they would have said author-ess, I'm sure) of her day, and her day was the 1880s and 90s. Post-Austen, post-Edgeworth (remember her?), post-Brontes, post-Eliot, but pre-Woolf, pre-Chopin. Okay. So, this is 19th century chick-lit. And it's not very good, but for a few glimmers. Still, I'm newly interested in this first person persona business and so I'm looking at it again. Also, this author was the pre-eminent authority on manners at the time. She'd written several books on the subject and she was also a celebrity in her own right and a world-class social climber. She was from New Hampshire and married into one of the most prominent New York families and basically drained them of all their money. And boasted of being a personal friend to Queen Victoria. Her vast ego was matched only by her intelligence, and she was considered formidable in her quick wit. She micromanaged the lives of her sons and grandsons, told them what to do, where to live and whom to marry. She fascinates me and so I read her work. I have one of her books on manners and her autobiography, which is hilarious in what she leaves out as much as what she puts in. More on this later. Next post, I'll quote from Sarcasm, because in it she paints a picture of Irish gentry in America. Very unusual. And her descriptions of men and women? Priceless. She's trying to be Austen or Edgeworth, and not quite making it. But she is doing something interesting.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Persona Angst

I've been taking a writing class, something that's good for clearing the cobwebs. I've learned in the past couple of years that I'm no good as a teacher unless I can remember what it's like to be a student.

In this class, we students have to take on wildly different voices. The philosophy of the course is that the instructor presents writing samples from published stories (and poems) and we students copy the style. We use our own stories and ideas, but we have to take on the style, or persona, of the writer. That means everything from point of view to sentence style to mood. I've wanted to take this class for more than ten years, even though it's taught in another part of the country. Now they offer it online. It's described as a kind of high caliber boot camp for stretching your range. When I signed up, I thought it was going to be campy and fun, and instead I'm awake nights parsing out the style of this poet and that novelist to reconstruct it. Write a story in first person as a narrator of whole scenes. Write a story in first person as though writing a letter to someone, and use scenes. Write a story in first person but make another character the focus of the story, so it's really third person yet the narrator still (always) has to have a distinctive personality. Write in first person describing the actions of someone else in minute by minute detail but as imagined by the first person after having been described to him or her in the past by the other character. Okay, so the scene is present tense yet it happened in the past? My brain hurts, and it's only week four. I was awake last night from 2:00 to 5:00 working sentences over and over, and sort of crying off and on, not unhappily, just trying to grasp at something that was continuing to slip away, so I could finish the assignment today and post it. And after all that effort and spent emotion, gentle reader, I can now confess that the story I wrote wasn't very good. 
Time to go back and read some more Conor McPherson plays. That first person persona thing is a skill he has down pat, ghosts and devils aside.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Vacationland II

Even when you're on vacation, the world goes on. I've learned that my favorite actor (Jim Norton) won a Tony Award last Sunday as best featured actor in a play--for the Seafarer. Here he is looking handsome and dedicating his award to his cast-mates. Very classy.

Also, there was something about a basketball championship. I'm fuzzy on the details, though. In the wake of this event, if that's what we're calling it, there were 22 arrests in Boston for excessive public partying (also known as vandalism) and general mayhem. Glad we're here instead.

The G-man lost a tooth on Tuesday, which is the real headline by my lights. It has been loose for a while, and then he just reached in there and yanked the sucker out. That's my boy. First question, while the blood was still wet on his lip was this: Is the tooth fairy real or fake? Okay, now this is moxy. I wanted to say to him: buddy, I'm with you. It's a total fabrication, but please, let the adults have our fun. Also, he was hoarding the damn tooth, putting it back in his mouth and yanking it out again. Acting it out in the mirror. He was seriously going to choke on it or swallow it. By the end of the day, I was willing to tell any number of lies to get the thing out of his hand. Yes, my friend, the tooth fairy is so freaking real. Please, you gotta believe me. And his response was this: Is it a girl? And she goes under my pillow? Why would anyone do that? Won't she wake me up? I'm thinking: kid, your IQ is a burden to us all.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


We arrived at "vacation" yesterday, which is what the kids call any time away from home. The term denotes any place in which we stay, any hotel, any inn, and any beach we visit. We got to Cape Cod, or The Cape of Cod, as the kids call it, mid-afternoon and soaked up the last few hours of sunshine. Today, alas, has been rainy and quite cold. Sammie and G got a swim in late yesterday afternoon, despite the fact that the mommie person forgot to pack the kids' swimsuits.

We are sequestered here tonight, far away from television, meaning no Celtics game and no Tony awards. How will we survive. We'll hope for a win for the Seafarer, playwright and one of two cast members, and we'll root for the big green. Larry is trying to figure out how to get streaming video of the game, and he thinks there's some way to find a pirated broadcast. It will probably be in Hindi or Portuguese, but he won't care. I'm not as resourceful about the Tony Awards.

I think it's a function of the modern world that we're staying in a cabin with no TV, no phone,no heat, no working toilet or shower to speak of...and yet it has wifi.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Like Clooney, But Taller

Larry's in the Herald today. Nice photo. Handsome guy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Larry now refers to my co-author as "your other husband." 

He has a point. 

Most people write by themselves, alone in a room. The upside is that you're alone, and for those of us who enjoy our own company, being alone in a room works out great. No one interrupts to ask about the latest episode of a TV show you've never watched. No one borrows paper clips. No one goes on and on about a never-ending breakup or  a mother-in-law who doesn't get it. One of the things that shocked me when I took the G-man to his first playgroup was the stunning amount of small talk I was expected to generate for two straight hours. I was not equal to the task. We mommies gathered in the basement of a church with tons of toys and stood around talking. Women went into great detail about what their kids would and wouldn't eat, about real estate values, about finding a good contractor, about where they'd bought their shoes. They complained about their husbands. One woman talked endlessly and with great intensity about these people in a contest. She discussed their likes and dislikes and the feuds between the judges to a small clique of people who seemed very interested in the saga. I couldn't keep it all straight, mostly because I wasn't very interested. It was three months before I realized she was talking about the TV show "American Idol" and that Reuben and Clay were not people she actually knew.

My first few attempts to work with a co-author were similarly odd, and oddly suited to my communication style. The great thing about working with doctors is that, aside from the urge to heal, they very often don't like people very much. They don't chat. The first doctor I worked with would email me references of studies about statins or ACE inhibitors. Off I went to the library to look them up, read them, and fashion them into a chapter. After I had a handful of chapters, he would read them for me and make his comments via email. I spoke to him twice over the entire course of the project. The second doctor I worked with just dictated stuff to me over the phone. I would get these staccato bursts of information about sports injuries. Once, he did this while out to lunch with his family. That's right. I listened to the treatment for a dislocated shoulder and in the middle, he excused himself to order a tuna melt on wheat and to tell his daughter to sit up straight. The third doctor I worked with wanted to schedule regular phone calls late at night. I fought to stay awake and to listen to his heavily accented English while he went on and on about receptors inside of fat cells. Finally, I put the kibosh on these and just sent him chapter drafts to comment on. To my mind, these were successful working arrangements.

Now, I'm doing a different book, and the doctor I'm working with wants to be the co-author for real. So we have face-to-face meetings once a week, soon to be twice a week. We discuss every paragraph, and brainstorm paragraph ideas. During our meeting on Tuesday, we got stuck on one subhead and the information to follow it.  I started writing, and read aloud to him while I wrote. He picked up the thread and kept talking and I typed while he talked. Then he looked at a different part of the chapter while I cleaned it up and then read it to him. And it worked, and I marvel that it works, every time.

When we worked on the proposal together this past winter, he would call the house multiple times per week. Larry would hand me the phone and I'd rush off with my laptop behind a closed door to work on the chapter summaries or the overview or whatever. Also, we chat and laugh a lot. The other day I told him about my second cousin's little boy, who wore the same cheerleading outfit for four months straight. And about this pornographic mommie's blog I ran across last month. We were howling over that one. I know about his car troubles, his sister's baby, his vacation plans. This is some of what I've missed all these years by not working in an office.

Larry doesn't mind all this, and he's a bigger person than I am. When his co-workers call the house, I have often bristled. I feel invaded when they call, and a bit jealous when I hear him talking on the phone and sharing inside jokes with people I hardly know. I hope that will change now that I have my own working relationship. Okay, it's only one person, but it's a start.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gymnasts Present!

Never mind the blistering heat, yesterday's big news was the gymnastics show (and they do call it a show) at the little place where both kids take gymnastics class. For this show, the parents, and in some cases grandparents, sit in folded chairs along one wall of the gym. The kids line up outside the gym and walk in a sort of procession. The kids divide up in to "squads" and march off to Olympic music to do their various routines on the different equipment.  Excuse me, apparatus. Normally, parents are sequestered in the upstairs room and given strict instructions not to greet the children or wave to them during class, but today we were invited to follow them around the room and take pictures or video.
I tried to make a movie of Sammie's trampoline portion because it was so funny. The teacher basically had to act it out for her. So you see her jumping while looking nervously next to her waiting to be shown what to do. I think it's jarring for kids who've basically looked on this as playtime to have to perform for their parents. Of course, that's part of the marketing thing here. They do a recital like this one, and then you sign up for more lessons. Only we didn't do that.  They made a huge big deal about handing out medals to each kid. Announcing the names and having them throw their arms up in the air on this signal: Gymnast's present! When asked afterward if she'd had a good time, Sammie said, "Look at my balloon." Enough said on the kid's perspective. 

Funniest part was when we left and Larry said, "I was interested to see the pairings there." I'm thinking: What the heck is he talking about? I forget that Larry has been taking the kids to gymnastics these past six Mondays so I can get work done. So at this show, all the mothers were greeting him, talking to him, women who didn't say boo to me for eight months. Now I'm realizing, it's rooster in the henhouse syndrome. And Larry's got the nerve to comment afterward on the husbands. 

Friday, June 6, 2008

Poems and Distractions

On Saturday, Larry and I were driving home from his mother's house. We had the kids in the back seat and they were generating the usual wall of sound. Sammie sang "It's a Small World After All" on continuous loop and the G-man was asking endless questions. He wanted to know if Popeye and Olive Oil were married. Larry said, "I don't think so." So, the G-man said, "Well, why did they grow a baby together?"

Oh, yeah, Sweet Pea. Good question, and one for which I have no answer. Luckily, he moved on, wanting to know who eats what. What do birds eat? What eats birds? Well, what eats cats? And so on. And on.

We drove by a church. Some churches have signs out front on which they display verses from scripture, but this one showed the first line and title of one of my favorite poems: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed. That's all it said. I had a sudden memory of that poem and spent the rest of the drive remembering lines from it.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,
And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night,
I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever returning spring,
Ever returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
When G was young, and Sammie was a baby, we spent lots of time at the playground. I used to think of playground time as dead time. The first few times you clap when your son comes down the slide are fun. The fifty or sixty repetitions after that? Less fun. The G-man loved the swings and could sit in a swing for nearly an hour at a time, and for that he needed to be pushed.

An hour is a long time to push a swing.

I learned to bring distractions with me. I had no iPod then, so I would write down poems or at least stanzas of poems on index cards, fold the cards and put them in my pocket. At the playground, while holding Sammie and pushing G endlessly on the swing, I would memorize a few lines and say them back to myself. I found it comforting to say these beautiful and sad lines aloud. Not just Whitman, either. I liked the romantic poets. You gotta love iambic verse. It's like having a metronome in your head. Very soothing.

Out here in the suburbs, I used a rotation of playgrounds, the one with the green slides, the one with the rainbow slides, the wooden one. The one under the trees was frequented by nannies usually, and by mothers who drove luxury SUVs. The nannies spoke Russian and Portuguese into their cellphones. The mothers wore designer track suits with sketchers died to match, and make up no less, and talked endlessly about strategies for becoming room mother--whatever that is, and about private school teachers who just didn't get it.

And there I'd be in my ratty coat and yoga pants and scuffed shoes with my hair in a ponytail, pushing the G-man along in the swing and studying my little piece of paper and talking out loud to myself.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night--O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappeared--O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless--O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
I'm pretty sure I know why no one talked to me at the playground.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Ronstadt

My friend Jack had a birthday last month (and anniversary, same day) and I bought him The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt as a gift. It's such a good album that I bought one for myself, too. Welcome back to the 70s, huh?

Next day, he wrote me a note saying, "You may not know this seeing as how you were being musically waterboarded by John Denver in the 70s, but every song on the album you gave me was a mega hit."

He then went on to describe how Linda Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou" was the only song to become a hockey joke. I'll let him tell it: 

"At a Bruins practice, 3rd liner Andy Brickley beat Hall of Fame defensman Ray Bourque with some sort of pond hockey move. Brick turns to Bourque and says: Got you with my Linda Ronstadt. Blew by you."
Yes, Jack has a story about everything. And his hockey novel, Saved, is full of funny stories and one liners like this. Perfect beach read. I highly recommend it.

And...and...although he will kill me for doing this, you can watch a video of him at a Barnes & Noble reading by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sammie Directs a Play

Sammie is a big fan of Ariel. That's what she calls the movie, and she's right to do so. Those other characters, including the love interest, are just window dressing. We already have a divide in this house about movies. When Sammie gets to choose what to watch, the G-man has a fit. "That's a girl movie," he says, with extra emphasis on the girl part. We really must drink in his disdain at this point.

Because she doesn't get to watch the movie all that much, we have to play Ariel. For this, she must put on her mermaid costume (a hand-me-down from her cousin Devin). She then directs me in how to act out the movie for her. Yes, for her. I play prince Eric. The first time we did this, I asked what I thought was a fair question. "What do they do?" She looked at me like I was too stupid to live and said, "They marry." I then floated what I thought was another fair question. "How do they do that?" She sighed at me. I was kneeling on the floor next to her for this conversation. She looped her arms loosely around my neck, turned her face toward an invisible camera and smiled serenely into the distance.

That's getting married? Okay, fair enough. Plenty of time later to layer in the complexities of that situation.

Okay that was phase one. Getting married as Ariel. Now in phase two, we have to act out actual scenes from the movie. And Sammie-the-bamster has her daddy's 20 carat brain. There's no telling how many songs, movie scenes and kid books she has floating around in there word-for-word. Her favorite scene is the fight scene toward the end in which Prince Eric and King Trident fight Ursula the Evil Witch. I was shocked to learn that I had to play all three of these characters. 

"Well, who are you?" I asked. Foolishly, I thought we could share the burden here. 
"I'm Ariel," she said. And truly, she was the only one of us wearing a mermaid dress. So, there I was, standing in the living room, fighting myself and myself to the death, while my four-year-old daughter lolled on the couch and made archly critical comments about my performance.

"Not like that!" she shouted. "Don't say it like that. You're not doing it right." I am going to go ahead and admit here that my evil laugh lacked verve, and that my Prince Eric fight moves were somewhat limp and half-hearted. But finally, I'd had enough of the peanut gallery and I turned to her and said, "Well, am I at least hitting my marks?" I thought this comment to be pretty clever and dry.

The thing I discovered is that when Sammie knows she's being mocked but doesn't quite know what's going on, she does this: She flips her hair with one hand and says, "Whatever, blah, blah, blah."

And so she trumped me yet again.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Happy Anniversary

Larry and I woke up this morning, as usual. He went to the gym and came home. I got the kids breakfast. I went to the gym. He got the kids off to school. At some point during my run, I wondered about the date. What is the date. What day in June is this? June...June...3. What day is that?


I came home in a flurry and as soon as I saw Larry, I said, "Happy Anniversary!" He got that same, "Oh, sh*t" look on his face. "I'm sorry," he said, and he really meant it. But we both forgot. 

Eight years ago, we stood under this mounted buffalo head in Spearfish, South Dakota, and got married. We smoked cigars late that night, and the next day we went hiking. 

That was one mortgage and two kids ago.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Port Authority II

On Friday morning, Larry and I went out to breakfast before getting back on the train to come home. At the end of the meal the waiter came over to pour us a last cup of coffee and he decided to get chatty just then. He asked us where we were from and what we were doing in the city. We told him we'd come to see a play and he smiled at that.
"Good for you," he said, fiddling with the lid of the pot. "What'd you see?" We told him Port Authority and he looked up sharply. He looked each of us in the face for the first time. We were in a little place near Times Square, after all, and he probably expected us to say Lion King or Legally Blonde or somesuch. 
"How was it," he asked. His tone had changed utterly. This was no longer chatter. How to respond?
Do we admit to a stranger holding a pot of coffee that we're spending 20 hours and the equivalent of a mortgage payment in New York City in order to go to a tiny theater in Chelsea and watch a 90 minute play? We do not. Do we nuance the whole experience for him, detailing our favorite parts, which for Larry was most of Brian d'Arcy James' speeches, especially the ones about being locked in the bathroom or talking about stinking out the bathroom (what is it about boys and bathroom humor?), and which for me was the Jim Norton's monologue that started with him giving advice. He says that when you dream about love you should forget the dream and then of course he talks about how he failed to take his own advice. It's beautifully structured in terms of writing. The advice, followed by a confession of his own dream, followed by scenes between the speaker and his neighbor's wife that without that set-up would be ordinary. The writer has taught us what to expect and then we continue to expect it, and when it doesn't come we fill in for ourselves the longing, and then it comes full-on a final mini-scene in which the speaker tries to steal a photograph of this woman and gets caught. And then we discover what she feels. It's wonderful. But I didn't say any of that in the restaurant.
Do we talk about the woman in the fifth row who coughed for twenty minutes straight before excusing herself from the theater? 
Do we talk about how Jim Norton said the final lines of the play, sat down on the bench and then we all held our breath for a minute, hoping it was not over yet. Do we say that when the actors jumped out of their seats to jog offstage before the curtain calls, Norton seemed to drop 20 years off his age, how he trotted off like a man just settling into his early 50s? No, we don't say any of these things, because the coffee is growing cold and someone else in the restaurant might want some. So, we say, "Great. It was great." 
The waiter shook his head and as if reading our minds said, "Jim Norton. Amazing." It was then my turn to be surprised, to look this guy in the face for the first time. Then he went on to talk about seeing the Seafarer and all the touches in that performance. We agreed. He talked about all that Norton does with his voice and his body. We agreed some more, and I found myself sitting up and leaning in to hear it. He admitted that he's an actor, which we'd guessed at that point. And he went on to ask about other plays we'd been to. He admonished us to see certain plays, and told us what to pay attention to, should we come back and I thought: this is what I need. I need an actor with good taste to tell me what to see next.