Monday, December 19, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

My side of the family gathered this weekend for our annual Christmas dinner and gift exchange.  Great food, much laughter, children once small filling much more space around us.  Maybe partly because of this, maybe partly because of the impending holidays, I've been thinking about the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne all day.  I've discovered that the words to the poem are most frequently credited to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who claimed he "took it down from an old man."  The title translates to something like long long ago, days gone by or old times.  Many versions exist, but I found two I liked best.  The first:

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.
CHORUS:
On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
on Old long syne.
My Heart is ravisht with delight,
when thee I think upon;
All Grief and Sorrow takes the flight,
and speedily is gone;
The bright resemblance of thy Face,
so fills this, Heart of mine;
That Force nor Fate can me displease,
for Old long syne.

CHORUS
Since thoughts of thee doth banish grief,
when from thee I am gone;
will not thy presence yield relief,
to this sad Heart of mine:
Why doth thy presence me defeat,
with excellence divine?
Especially when I reflect
on Old long syne.

Sort of a wistful lament, with extinguished flames and Grief and Sorrow capitalized.  Another version is more upbeat, more what you have in mind when you think of New Year's, with liquor and hopes brimming.  Sure, some of the pint cups have only kindness, but maybe it's a metaphor:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
CHORUS:  For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
CHORUS
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.
CHORUS
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.
CHORUS
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

The song will mean a little more to me this year and the world felt like a small place indeed when I found in my research that an exhibit has just opened at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, entitled "Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne."  Click here to read all about it.

In either version, the words honor love, happy memories and sharing the present.  Wishing a blessed and peaceful holiday to all and a hope-filled 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Best of 2011


The year is coming to a close and lists abound.  Best of 2011, in every conceivable category.  Hands down, the best experience I had all year from any artistic offering… Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

I watched the first two-thirds of this movie, literally, on the edge of my seat.  It pulled me in and took me to places I can’t even begin to explain.  It contains one of the most poignant characterizations of fatherhood I’ve ever seen; it somehow covers the entire history of life but still captures what it means to be uniquely human.

If you have ever

-          wondered about birth
-          thought about death
-          contemplated the universe
-          remembered childhood
-          missed your parents
-          been afraid
-          received love
-          marveled at nature
-          felt alive

this movie will make you feel something.

And if it returns to your local theater for Oscar build-up, I urge you to see it.  It’s an experience you won’t soon forget, unlike any film I’ve ever seen. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Words, words, words

Yesterday I asked a friend to verify a translation for me.  Two words, English to Hebrew.  She speaks and writes Hebrew, her first language.  What I had found, when I plugged the words into an online translator, was there would be four symbols, two per word. The issue, I thought, was that sometimes the symbols were shown in one order, other times in another.  So, it’s either this:

מר לב
Or this:
לב מר

The words are “bitter heart,” from a Stephen Crane poem that’s always meant a lot to me, a big inspiration for the novel I just finished.

My friend asked me what I meant by bitter heart, because this is not something they would say.  I told her it was bitter in the sense of harboring resentments, heart as in the way someone feels.  She said you could put the two words together but there was probably a better way to say it.  For instance, they have a word for a person who is unhappy, holds grudges, for a long time.  I said that it was interesting, because in the context of the poem, Crane is actually saying that the heart tastes bitter.  She said you mean, like sour?  I said yes, but I didn’t think that’s what the poem was about at all.  Actually, I told her, I’ve always felt the poem was about the creative process and the delving inside oneself, a painful but rewarding and totally necessary process.  She stared, blankly.  I said, what if we just did the two words—which order would it be?

It’s a miracle, really, that we’re able to communicate at all.  With the variety of dialects and experiences, the wide void between each person’s heart and another’s.  Heart in the feeling sense.  And maybe I don’t know what the Crane poem is about, but only what it meant to me.  So when the words are inked on my skin, in or out of order, no one else will understand anyway, not really.  It’s probably untranslatable.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”


Monday, November 28, 2011

Youth, Anticipating


Last week, I finished the first draft of a novel I’ve been writing, off and on (more off than on, obviously) for over ten years.  I started compiling notes, ideas for characters, little snippets of quotes or scenes, then I went to work on an outline (which changed quite a bit over time).  Last year during Nanowrimo, I wrote the first half of the book; this year during the same challenge, I finished the second.  It is an immense relief and a sense of emptiness all at once. 

Yesterday I took the kids to Mass, the first Sunday of Advent apparently, something I would have known if we attended more regularly.  The sermon was about this season of anticipation and how we should appreciate it, rather than hoping to rush straight to Christmas itself.  The priest compared it to a student waiting to go home for a holiday or a pregnant mother expecting her child.  In the current world, he said, we have lost this appreciation for things in their due course.

The novel I just finished is set in 1999.  Everyone talking about Y2K, cell phones just beginning to become widespread, emails not a substitute, yet, for written correspondence.  And now that I’ve finished the first draft and don’t imagine returning to that time period in my writing, I will have to face the ways technology has changed everything—particularly, the use of certain devices in fiction writing.  Hunting for a pay phone, waiting for a letter, searching for something at the library, being unable to reach someone because their answering machine keeps picking up—will our children understand any of these things?  There was something delicious about the waiting (okay, maybe not the hunting for a pay phone bit); these instances of delayed gratification intensified the eventual contact, the eventual result.

So maybe what I will miss the most is the anticipation of finishing this book, the long period of time where life and other projects got in the way and I wasn’t able to return to it as much as I would have liked, but the thought of it was a constant companion.  Of course, there will be tons of editing so there’s always that conciliation.  But I do wonder…in this immediate world, where news/facts/information are, quite literally, right at our fingertips, and communication has so many forms it’s almost impossible to think of an isolated life…for our kids, for young people, what do they anticipate?  Maybe it’s just what it’s always been—growing up.  The outside world may intrude into their current lives more than it did for our generation, but they still lack the power and freedom to grab it.  And yes, this all relates to my ideas for the next novel...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lovin' Humanity


“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.”  -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

It occurs to me, Mr. Dostoyevsky sir, that maybe this is the reason writers lock themselves away, creating for endless hours a world of their own making, turning imagined universals into expressions of singularity by the creation of characters and specific events, through which readers, in their individuality, will recognize some of these features and thereby, tap into their own pretensions of universality and singing brotherhood.  And everyone can feel uniquely, wonderfully solitary and comfortingly connected to some grand scheme of human purpose and insight, all at the same time.  Something like that.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Daisychains of Silence by Catherine MacLeod

Daisychains of Silence

I've finished a very special book this week, by one of the loveliest people I've met on this writer's journey.  I'm including my brief review below, which can't begin to describe her beautiful writing, and a link to Amazon, where you can purchase the electronic version for the meager amount of 99 cents.  It will be the best dollar you've spent in some time, I can assure you.

In Daisychains of Silence, Catherine MacLeod has sewn together a rich tapestry of images, emotions, memories—all the scraps that comprise a life.  In this case, the life is Daisy’s and we follow her from neglected childhood, to boarding school and adventurous youth, and to middle age, when a reunion with her mother forces her to reassess all that’s come before.  The relationship between Daisy and her mother is especially poignant, especially fraught with long-simmering betrayals and disappointments.  MacLeod has the eye of a photographer, a painter, an ability to draw our attention to details that matter:  a crocheted curtain, filthy from neglect, a beloved hand-made doll, cords of colored thread glistening on a well-used table, scars that form a smile.  The writing itself is evocative and poetic, at times absolutely mesmerizing as Daisy’s world is described.  Forced into an early self-reliance, Daisy learns to keep most things within and we follow her attempts to strike out and discover who she is and what she should do with herself.  But it’s a love story too, a believable love story accented with stops and starts, with mistakes made and loyalties reclaimed.  MacLeod’s characters will stay with you long after you’ve finished this lovely book, and you’ll find yourself rooting for them, each and every one, despite their flaws or maybe because of them.

Buy the book here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Adoption and "Real" Families


I was adopted as an infant, brought home when I was nine weeks old on a day full of vivid images—my mom’s nervousness, the drive down to Los Angeles, their first impressions of me—not my own memories, of course, but the story as it was told to me many times.  As a child, I thought the adoption agency was like a big grocery store, where my parents walked down the aisles, looking for just the right baby.  It never made me feel anything but special and this is entirely to their credit. 

November, aside from being National Novel Writing Month (go fellow nanowrimos! and yes, I’ve got my word count done for the day), is also National Adoption Month.  Here’s the official proclamation from the president.  I think it’s beautifully stated.

It’s an issue near and dear to my heart, and I thought I’d give some helpful advice as you navigate through the month. 

First, although it is indeed a special process, children procured through adoption aren’t, eventually, any different from any others.  They don’t have to be referred to at parties as “the Smith’s adopted daughter.”  If the Smiths have shown up with a previously unknown twelve-year-old, maybe some introductions are in order but really, otherwise it doesn’t matter.  And this applies, I would think, especially to cases where the child in question is obviously not a dropping from the family apple tree, genetically speaking.  If you are genuinely curious about the adoption, by all means—ask.  But after some time, not as an introduction. 

Another item:  someone’s “real” mother is the one who provided the clothing and food, the hugs and encouragement, the punishment and direction.  You know, the one who loves you no matter what an ass you can be at times.  If you have a relationship with your other mom, the one who was brave enough to offer you a better life than what she could offer at the time…well, that person is the “biological” mother.

These are just my opinions.  After all, it’s my blog.  Adoption has been an important aspect of my life.  I wrote my first novel based on my experiences of finding my biological family, and being chosen in this special way has given me an appreciation for all real families, built however people choose to build them.  If you’re an adoptee and curious, you can start here, as I did.  But there are countless online resources available now.  On the political side, you can learn about the efforts to unseal adoption records in California here

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Immortality



"A book is the only immortality." --Rufus Choate

"I don't believe in personal immortality; the only way I expect to have some version of such a thing is through my books." --Isaac Asimov

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." --Woody Allen 

It occurs to me that somewhere, far away perhaps, a thought flutters through a mind, one scrap of paper in a confetti-like shower, a memory, a vision of me, something I did, the way I looked one time.  Across the world, another singular downpour, like a handful of rice, one grain the combination of words from a book that once struck a raw and tender chord.  Down the street, during a heated conversation in a warm house, a hand raises in the exact manner of a lost great-grandfather.  On another continent, in a café, in a church, on the crowded sidewalk where people jostle, elbow to elbow, musical notes rain over one head, an adagio that always makes the load lighter.  These scraps, rising and falling in random minds at random times, in random places:  immortality.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Precocious Kids


I’m currently reading and enjoying immensely The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.  The book is written from several viewpoints, all connected in some way to a fictional out-of-print book called, well, The History of Love.  As the mystery behind the book’s history unravels, so do the stories of the narrators.  One of the voices in the book is that of a 14 or 15-year-old girl, Alma Singer, and she is what I’d call a PRECOCIOUS KID.  You know the ones in books…kids with adult-like stores of patience, a breadth of understanding, a biting sense of humor, interest in sundry and complex topics.  In other words, unlike any kids you’ve ever met.  Don’t get me wrong—my children are brilliant.  Any one who knows them knows that, right?  At times, they become interested in topics and want to expand their learning and understanding and yes, they can store certain facts.  The sheer number of EPL and MLB players and stats within recall of my three boys is amazing.  Getting them to remember to wash their hair in the shower, another matter entirely.

So as much as I like this book, at times I am slightly annoyed with Alma and her clichéd existence.  In a short reading session the other day, Alma waxed on about Jewish history, the method of determining which plants are edible in the wild and the exploratory mission wherein the ecosystem at the bottom of the ocean was discovered.  It was a Saturday, so we were rushing from one soccer game to the next and between, picking up my daughter at her Musical Theater class, where she’d be singing "9 to 5" for the hundredth time (isn’t there a more modern number they can try, I thought—but that’s another topic for another post, older people revering culture from their own era).  My two nine-year-old boys (pictured above) were in the backseat.  I was contemplating Alma and her considerable knowledge and decided to observe my own geniuses.  They were just finishing up a session of silly talk, where they pretend to be one stuffed animal or another, and I tuned in just in time to hear a thoughtful discussion about how it feels when you bite your tongue (stings for ten minutes, like a bee sting, then burns).  Once in the dance studio, they spent ten minutes punching holes in a bulletin board,


or one punched holes while the other punched the first in the arm, all the while making unintelligible noises.  I wondered where we had gone wrong, why they weren’t talking about tectonic plates under the ocean, the Warsaw ghetto or hydrogen sulfide.  Unable to resolve the matter with so much going on (and apparently, my own limited brain), I thought it best to return to my reading.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book News: Big Announcement

I'm very excited to announce that my novel, The Qualities of Wood, will be published in 2012 by HarperCollins!  I posted the book on HC's website for writers, authonomy.com, and earlier this year, the book was awarded a review.  The rest is a blur but somehow has led to this point.  Thanks to the community there, all the fabulous writers and readers, and to HC for taking a shot with me.  If you'd like to see the announcement in its entirety, click here.

But first...WAIT!  This is just the beginning.  To stay updated with all the latest news on the book's publication, visit my website at maryvenselwhite.com and sign up on the Contact page for email updates.  You can read an excerpt of the book on the site and see what others have had to say so far.  And/or, visit me on Facebook and "Like" my author page!

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hitchhiking, Part 2


Strangely enough, after writing the post about the absence of hitchhiking from our current literal and figurative landscape… three of my kids and I were driving to the baseball game of the fourth on Sunday when we passed—you guessed it—a hitchhiker.  A middle-aged woman with longish gray hair, dressed simply in shorts and a blue tank top, standing by a bus stop, perhaps hoping for a quicker way.

Me:  “There’s a hitchhiker!”
Kid (I’ll denote the combined comments of all three as "kid"):  “A what?”
Me:  “A hitchhiker.  Do you know what that is?”
Kid:  “No.”
Me:  “When you want to get a ride somewhere, you stand at the side of the road, put your thumb up like this, and hope someone will pick you up.”
Blank Stares
Me:  “Not that you’re allowed to do that.”
Kid:  “Why doesn’t she just drive?”
Me:  “Maybe she doesn’t have a car.”
Kid:  “But she was so fat.”
Me:  “What does that have to do with it?”
Kid:  “Because she’s not poor.”  (Apparently, his reference being literary:  rotund kings in fairy tales; thin, shivering, poor townsfolk dressed in rags.  Sidenote:  this is the same kid who uses the word “hobo” to refer to modern homeless.)
Me:  “Who said you have to be poor to hitchhike?  Maybe her car broke down.”
Kid:  “She should get it fixed.”
Me:  “Maybe she doesn’t have the money, or can’t get to the shop until Monday.”
Pause, little brows furrowed
Kid:  “Where does she need to go?”
Me:  “I don’t know. The grocery store?  The library?”  (Here, I admit, adding the last thing to improve their impression of her.)
Kid:  “That’s not safe.”
Me:  “Maybe not.”
Kid:  “Why doesn’t she just walk?”
Me:  “Maybe it’s far.”
Etc., etc.

I should add that all of the “Kid” portions were spoken with what I can only call a general tone of intolerance, even mild irritation.  It made me feel guilty for the sheltered life we’re obviously offering them.  Later, however, their judgmental tone softened a bit and became more curious. 

Kid:  “How often did you see hitchhikers when you were a kid?”
Me:  “I don’t know, pretty often I guess.”
Kid:  “Every day?”
Me:  “No, maybe once a week.” (Knowing I will be forced to quantify eventually.)
Kid:  “I’m going to tell all of my friends I saw a hitchhiker!” (Almost like seeing a dinosaur, or some other ancient thing from when I was young.)

In conclusion, I can only reiterate what I said before:  hitchhiking is gone, and all the romantic notions one might want to attach to it.  The kids couldn't get their minds around the fact that someone might not be able to get wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Are they spoiled or practical?  I'm not sure...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Words for Autumn


Here in California, we had a wonderful rainy day yesterday.  Wonderful, because it's the time of year where some are anxious for Autumn.  If you live someplace cold, compare this feeling to how you feel in the April or May, when it's still cold but you're told it's Spring.  So I bundled up this week and worked on my new novel.  Soup for lunch, slippers on until I had to fetch the kids.  Autumn. 

This morning, I wanted to write something about the season, so I went looking for words of inspiration and well... I've found that everything about Autumn, and October, has already been said in a thousand lovely ways.  So I'll keep imagining the glorious leaf colors (because we'll have to wait a good while longer for any of that), and I'll save my words for the novel, and share these with you.

"All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken."         - Thomas Wolfe

 
"The sweet calm sunshine of October, now
    Warms the low spot; upon its grassy mold
The purple oak-leaf falls; the birchen bough
    drops its bright spoil like arrow-heads of gold."
     -   William Cullen Bryant


"October is nature's funeral month.  Nature glories in death more than in life.  The month of departure is more beautiful than the month of coming - October than May.  Every green thing loves to die in bright colors."     -   Henry Ward Beecher  

"O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away."
-   Robert Frost, October


Like someone who opens a door of glass
or sees his own reflection in it
when he returns from the woods
the light falls so variously here at the end of October
that nothing is whole or can be made into a whole
because the cracks are too uncertain and constantly moving.

Then you experience the miracle
of entering into yourself like a diamond
in glass, enjoying its own fragility
when the storm carries everything else away
including the memory of a freckled girlfriend
out over the bluing lake hidden behind the bare hills."
-   Henrik Nordbrandt,  The Glass Door
    Translated by Thomas Satterlee 


"Bittersweet October.  The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause
between the opposing miseries of summer and winter." 
-   Carol Bishop Hipps

 


Friday, September 30, 2011

Free Associations: Hitchhiking


When I was growing up, quite often you’d see a person at the side of the road, thumbing for a ride.  Lancaster is a city in the high desert of California but when I was young, it was still a town, with long stretches of undeveloped land, miles of sagebrush, sand and Joshua trees.  In the summer, the temperature is often 100 degrees or more, so that alleviating a walker from the distances and heat seemed like a very practical thing to do.  Not that we ever picked anybody up.  Hitchhiking was something that hippies did, or kids who were headed, metaphorically, in the wrong direction.  And later, taking a ride from a stranger would come to be considered a truly dangerous thing.  It used to seem, though, like a key to expanding freedoms, a possibility of adventure.  Like so many other remembrances from childhood, this too would lose its magical connotations, its romanticism, its associations free from adult concerns.

Hitchhiking is still legal in the US, although you have to be sure to stand off the roadway.  There’s a website with the aim of “starting a new hitchhiking craze:” digitich.com.  They have a lofty view of the practice, and define it as a cultural experience, with two or more people meeting to exchange ideas, stories and beliefs.  They do caution, however, that not every ride results in deep conversation.  Oh, and you can “like” hitchhiking here.

I’m not recommending it.  I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that really, it doesn’t typically end well.  I’m just saying that I wish I could look at hitchhiking like I looked at almost everything as a child:  a possibility, an open road.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pas De Deux


Is there any phrase more beautiful on the page, more symmetrical and decisive in its sound, more woven with universal meaning and evocative of the human condition--our intrinsic hopes, dreams and needs--than pas de deux?

Pas de deux

Noun, plural:  pas de deux.  Ballet
  1. a dance by two persons.
  2. (in classical ballet) a set dance for a ballerina and a danseur noble, consisting typically of an entrée, an adagio, a variation for each dancer, and a coda.
One of my favorites.  The best bit comes at 3:15, but the black dress forms that precede it are incredible.  Actually, the whole video is worth the immersion.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Natural Wonders and Wasting Time


I admit it:  sometimes I get side-tracked on YouTube.  I went on this morning to find some footage of turtles because I'm writing a short story that features one.  (On the edge of your seats to read that one, aren't you?)  So after watching several clips of King of Queens (couldn't find the one where Kevin James reads a bit of Jane Eyre--SO funny), I got back to business and found this video.  And watched it again.  And watched it again.  One thing I always wonder when I'm on YouTube is...who made and posted this video, and why?  I suppose there's some inference to pollution on this one but no real point is ever made and besides, the upbeat music and stunning scenery make you want to go to Cuba anyway.

ADVICE:  unless you have time to also view the recommended videos of Siamese crocodiles, a duck with four legs and cats adopting a rabbit (very cute)...do not follow to YouTube.  Just enjoy the short video of this turtle, as I did, six times.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Witches and Magic, oh my!


I'm working on some content for my website (watch this space for exciting news along those lines)...and I've been contemplating early influences--you know, the signposts on my road to becoming a writer, and I've been thinking about my favorite childhood author, Ruth Chew.  I remember going to the library and poring over the shelves, looking for her books.  They were always checked out, so to happen upon one I hadn't already read was a true treat.  All of her books had some type of magic involved and cutting my teeth on these early "novels" opened my mind to the fact that stories really could do and include anything you wanted them to.

I found out some interesting facts about Ruth Chew.  She was born in Minneapolis but grew up in Washington D.C.  Her father was Canadian, ousted for his pacifist views during World War I.  (Were there pacifists during WWI?--must read further).  Her mother grew up in Burma.  Ruth went to a design school and worked in fashion before beginning a writing career.  Like me, she had several children in a short time.  (And found time to write?  Go, Ruth!)  She penned over thirty books, most of them juvenile fantasy.

And she was quite lovely.  Ruth Chew died in May of 2010 at the age of 90.

I've decided to start collecting some of her books before they're impossible to find.  Thank you, Ruth, for the inspiration on so many levels.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Broken Things


I broke a wine glass today while emptying the dishwasher.  It landed first on the tile counter, then bounced onto the open dishwasher door, then onto the floor.  The sound echoed almost musically in the kitchen, really a fabulous audio result for one glass.

A child appeared almost immediately in the doorway.  "You broke something?" he asked.  Hopefulness and excitement brimming in his voice.  He crouched down to see the remains, fairly contained in the small space where they fell between machine and cabinet door.  "Wow," he said.

I was amused by his reaction and quickly dismissed it as something peculiar to children, this vivid interest in new things, unusual things, and let's face it (with boys especially), with destruction.  But then I realized that I would have done the same thing if it had been me in the other room, him someplace with something broken.  I would have checked him first, but I would have wanted to see the destroyed object.  What is it in our human natures that draws us to calamity, to broken things?  Is this why the best characters in fiction are flawed?  Would we rather watch them destruct or rebuild?

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Woman's Day



Last week, I received a copy of Woman's Day in the mail.  The subscription appears to be in my name.  I'm not sure how or why I got the magazine--I didn't sign up for it--but I figured as long as I don't get a bill, no harm done.  It's not the type of magazine I buy, although I have been known to pick up an In Style or Us Magazine, purely frivolous reading, if I'm headed for vacation.  Which I was this week, so I put it in the "to read" pile.

Finally flipped through it today.  You know, I had no false expectations.  I know that it's a flipper type of magazine, with light articles about makeup, relationships, housekeeping, stuff like that.  This one promised advice on "Quick No-Cook Meals" and "Summer Beauty Fixes" (both I could desperately use, by the way)...so, I was ready for non-serious reading.  But as I flipped through, I became more and more distracted by the massive amount of advertising.  It's as though the "articles" (using the term loosely) were a distraction from the ads, most of which were full page or even two full pages or three, and seemed to be forming some narrative of their own.  So distracted that when I finished the magazine (took about 10 minutes), I went back to count. 

The ads seemed to fall into a few broad categories, which I would call "Beauty," "Health," "Household," or "Other."  Here's a list of the full page or two or three page advertisements in the August issue (excluding the quarter-page ads, the "articles" that really were ads, even the half page ads), in the order that they appear.  (Prescriptions drugs denoted with (RX)):

Silpada jewelry
I Love Lucy DVD set
Chase credit card (apparently to get you ready to buy the stuff that follows)
Maybelline Makeup
MegaRed supplement (to avoid heart disease)
Vanity Fair napkins (for entertaining)
Curel lotion
Dentastix bones for dogs
Frontline flea collar
Children's Allegra (medicine for allergies) - Used to be (RX), now OTC
Nutella (which contains nuts, a big child allergy issue.  Weird.)
Dove chocolates
Symbicort (RX) for COPD (I had to look up COPD--it's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
Bremenn cream for age spots
Clorox
Clorox wipes
Fresh Step cat litter
No Gray hair color
Spiriva (RX) handihaler (an inhaler for COPD)
Omega Smart fish oils supplement
Maybelline
Edy's ice cream
CDC ad about vaccines
Gain detergent
Pfizer ad (RX) about options for overactive bladders
Vimovo (RX) arthritis medicine
Oreck vacuum
Arm & Hammer spin toothbrush
Dixie paper plates (more entertaining, cheap-style)
Moen faucets (random, perhaps accidentally advertised here)
United Healthcare
Senokot (RX) for constipation
Cymbalta (RX) for osteoarthritis pain
Skinny Cow ice cream
Lanacane anti-chafing gel (for fat people whose limbs rub together)
Zyvestra (RX) for vertigo (it's a cream!)
Bradford Exchange (religious jewelry)
California almonds
Crest toothpaste
One A Day vitamins
Celluscience pill for cellulite
Miralax (for constipation)
Jenny Craig diet plan
Capri Sun juice drink
Aricept (RX) for Alzheimer's
Hormel lunch meat
Hydroxycut for weight loss
Premarin (cream for female lubrication)
Sauza tequila
Nestle dark chocolate
Thundershirt (a shirt to alleviate anxiety in DOGS)
Big fish computer games
AARP auto insurance
Medifast diet plan
Heinz 57
McDonalds (specifically, their Asian salad which I can attest is in fact yummy)

I count 56 ads and let me repeat...these are FULL PAGE, TWO or THREE PAGE ads, in a magazine that is 150 pages long.  So probably at least 50% advertisements (or more), when you factor in all the advertising I did not include.  And the topics covered here...well, you can read the list and pretty much come to the conclusions I did.  Basically, I was extremely depressed after flipping through this "light" reading.  I felt overweight, hungry, bloated, under-medicated, dry, afraid, out of breath, disfigured, old, achy, ill, and did I mention hungry?  The entire back portion of the magazine is where they put page after page of full-color food photos.  I was in a crazed hunger state after the glistening photos of shrimp salad and glazed chicken, interspersed with ads for dark chocolate.  Really, the only item that held any promise of good, guilt-free feeling was the tequila, which I promptly sought out.  After which, I needed the Crest, the over-active bladder stuff and the ice cream.  Or the chocolate.  Either one.  But I felt good.

I think I'll cancel my subscription to Woman's Day...even if I'm not paying for it.  Too much stress.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You Say Zebra, I Say Jackal


Here is an exercise.  Answer the first two questions out loud, then say the first thing that comes to mind in response to the third.

1.  What is the largest continent?
2.  What are the opposing colors in chess?
3.  Name any animal.

Approximately twenty percent of people will say "zebra" in this context; fifty percent will name some African animal.  Without the first two questions asked first, less than one percent will answer "zebra."  In other words, the brain is wired in such a way that it can be directed and diverted to draw upon certain associations.  In this way, answers can be manipulated.

I heard about this concept in reference to a book called Brain Bugs:  How the Brain's Flaws Shape our Lives by Dean Buonomano, which explores many other interesting topics regarding the brain and its ability or failure to evolve in certain ways over time.

But what stuck with me was the first concept, this associative nature of the brain, and how maybe as a writer, I feel that it's my job to place the signposts that will lead to certain associations.  That is not to say I expect to direct the reader's exact course (because another fifty percent came up with something other than zebra) but perhaps only to construct a general playing field.  Discussing books and studying books, then, is really the process of comparing which direction the associations have led us.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Airport Drama


From the LA Times this morning:

“British novelist Tony Parsons is gearing up to tell tales from the terminal, as he assumes the role of writer-in-residence at London’s Heathrow Airport.  (He) will spend a week roaming the terminals in search of inspiration for his first collection of short stories… (and) hopes “Departures:  Seven Stories From Heathrow” will revive the airport fiction genre.”

I guess my life has taken a turn for the pedestrian in recent years, because when I think of airports, the following comes to mind:  stale air, indigestion, cranky children, shoulder pain from heavy bags, too much air conditioning, jarring noise, etc., etc.  Certainly not things anybody would want to read about.

I wasn’t aware that there was a genre for airport fiction, although I can think of some recent attempts to explore the theme.  In the 2009 movie Up in the Air George Clooney used airports and travel to escape forging any type of real life.  Jonathan Miles’s wildly inventive novel Dear American Airlines was written in the form of a letter from a traveler who’s been stranded, yes, in an airport.  Of course, many movies have pivotal airport scenes.  My personal favorite is from Moonstruck:  “I put a curse on that plane!”  Check out “The 25 Most Awesome Airport Scenes in Film” here.

Airports can, in fact, spur creativity.  Here’s a video made earlier this summer by two guys stuck at DFW.


But back to writing about airports.  I suppose my own short story collection would look something like this:

  1. Woman is unable to get toddler to eat bagged snack prior to boarding.  Toddler then throws hysterical, hunger-induced fit once plane begins ascent.
  2. Woman misjudges boarding time and cannot get a Chai Tea Latte.  Full of spite and regret, she can hardly swallow the Earl Gray the flight attendant has provided.
  3. Bag tips over in bathroom stall, requiring woman to kneel and reach into adjacent stall for stray lipstick, hairbrush.  She wonders about the choices she’s made in her life.
  4. Computer decides to conduct 57 updates when woman really only wanted to quickly check email before her flight.  She has also forgotten her stack of magazines.  Why can’t things ever go right for her?
You get the picture.  Parsons described airports as “places of extreme emotion,” and in my younger years, I suppose I had some of those moments.  I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with.  Nothing, however, will ever trump this moment.  I challenge him to try.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hotel Thoughts

I am standing at the window and the glass is very heavy, cold on my forehead with a hint of moisture, a suggestion of the atmosphere, the rain-flecked wind, the salty sea.  Imagining other lives in other rooms, the quiet desperation or the buoyant completeness.  Wondering about the completeness, if it exists, and whether it shouldn't be called delusion.  In the endless equation of space, there are finite possibilities.  So that these thoughts, so unique to me (this life)—the smell of wet grass, summer sun on brown shoulders, the starchy dress with sleeves too tight and belt too high, dusty green tennis balls like buried treasure after a climb to the roof, flowers in a closed room, crystalline nights of promise and smoke, the spikes of betrayal, ornate brick buildings brimming with ideas, the gray, gray city with its flashes of light, musical bodies floating and dipping like birds, the soft down of tiny heads, the quick breaths and sweaty faces, the tangled vine, brambles and light, strain and might, leading to a world of make-believe, the rush of endorphins, the illusion of acceptance, flashes of nectar joy, the crush of this life-long burden—all of it duplicated at some point in the endless space.  All of it not-so-unique.  Which brings me back to this window, this room, and all of its comforts.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Crisis Resolution


I went looking this week for the “traditional structure” of a novel, having been told at one point that mine didn’t have it.  I found a nifty graph and spent some time looking at it.  The effect?  Mostly a general buzzing, an expanse of emptiness in my brain.  I don't get it.  Do the crises get resolved as you go along, then?  Who brought math into it, with the X and the Y?  Can we really measure time?
Of course I know about the three act structure of a play; certainly I remember the terms crisis, denouement and resolution.  As well as I remember obtuse triangles, genetic probability and lots of other things that didn’t follow me far past high school.  When I finally got to college, I studied literature.  Lots of it.  At two schools, through two degrees.  That is not to brag, only to explain that I studied many, many, many books.  And I don’t recall ever dissecting any writing in terms of its adherence to a traditional structure.  Instead, we talked about themes and historical context, style and character.  The beauty of the language, the clarity of inspiration.  For me, novels have always been about people and ideas and I actually like when these things remain somewhat unresolved as people and ideas often are. 
It’s hard for me to write with structure in mind when I don’t read that way.
I think about a few of my favorite books, and I can’t seem to fit them into this graph, no matter how hard I try.  In fact, it makes my brain hurt.  Maybe I should have learned a bit more about triangles; maybe I shouldn’t have dropped that Statistics class after the first week.  Science was just never my thing. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sparkles


Woke this morning to a sparkly kitchen.  Our mischievous puppies, shown above laughing at me, had jumped onto the table during the night and chewed open a small plastic container of silver glitter.  Bright sparkles were on the table and floor, on their black snouts.  Soon and despite my early efforts at containment, human and canine feet carried the glitter into other rooms.  Within an hour, I found a glimmering piece on a couch, several pieces in my hair and a trail of silver on the porch outside.  Two hours later, the glitter has made it upstairs in random, taunting sparks.

As I cleaned in my pre-tea haze, I found myself thinking all types of deep thoughts, about human migration across the continents, about the spread of viruses, about the vitality of an original thought and how it spreads and sometimes, dilutes.  Husband entered the kitchen and noticed the remaining flashes on the tile, mostly in the lines of grout.  “That looks cool,” he said.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Aesthetic Arthritis

 From The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

"When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition.  Every true work of art—and thus every attempt at art--must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws.  If it has no laws, or if its laws are incoherent, it fails—usually—on that basis."


And this paragraph encapsulates, I think, the dilemma that keeps many writers, especially writers who are trying to get their work read or published, tossing and turning at night.  In our most fabulous imagining, someone will take our novel at face value.  They’ll understand all the thematic elements, love the pace, totally “get” everything we were trying to do.  It’s like the perfect relationship:  they’ll love everything about it, unconditionally, and they won’t try to change it.

I like thinking about that other type of writer, the one who is merely a product of writing courses, a pious student of things that “must always be done.”  It’s fun to think of him wasting away with the disease of “pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition.”  But then again, he’s probably cashing his checks, too, because he has stayed true to his brand, has given his faithful readers a recognizable plot and familiar characters in each best-selling book.

It is a fine and valiant thing to have a vision for your writing and to remain faithful.  But if you’d like your book to be read (and most of us do), then the difficulty lies in finding a middle road.  Acknowledging an audience and their expectations (even those driven by ideas of what "must always be done") while remembering the cues, the ideas, the inspiration that began the project.  Staying true to your own laws but making them livable for others.  A book is like a party guest.  Make it too aloof, too unlikeable, too tedious, too conceited, etc., etc…and everyone will leave the room.  Of course, a party is a subjective thing.  Some people don't like them at all. 
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka