Saturday, December 6, 2008
Unfortunately, the lottery machine was down.
That afternoon, we visited Jon's fourth grade class for an Authors Celebration. The kids had written books about endangered animals. The parents got to read each book and write comments on their sheets.
I wrote: "Congratulations on your book. Now you can say you were published before your Mom."
When I arrived home, I was chatting online with a fellow writer with whom I am collaborating on my third novel when the following email arrived from an editor who was reviewing the manuscript for my second novel:
Finally! I've received permission from the powers that be to offer a contract for your novel. I enjoyed the story and the changes you've made. One thing though, in order to publish this novel, it'll need a new title. We already have one with that name. If this is okay with you, let me know and I'll prepare the contract packet.
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Needless to say, there was much screaming, yelling, and jumping. My husband had just picked up Jon from school and they were the first to hear the news. I told Jon he had brought me good luck.
My mom cried, my sister was overjoyed, my brother got really quiet with a bit of awe in his voice, my dad brought me a beautiful plant, one of my friends who reads my early drafts did a jig. It was amazing.
To top it off, I had plans to go to a book signing for Mary and Carol Higgins Clark with a friend. The Higgins Clark ladies were quite entertaining and I was just glowing listening to them with my news dancing in my head. When they were signing the book, I told them my news and they went crazy. It was so exciting to have these two famous authors reading the email I had printed out and offering me advice and congrats.
Mary signed a copy of her book and then my email. She wrote: Think Royalty Checks! Her daughter wrote: Way to go Margaret. Can't wait to see your book in print!
Does a day get more magical than this?
After the signing, my friend and I were sitting in the Borders Café. I happened to glance at the blurb on the Higgins Clark book and saw it was about a group of people who win a large lottery.
Hmmmm. If that lottery machine had been working, do you think I would have won the lottery that day? I do.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
First meetings are typically formal affairs with two parties feeling each other out, erring on the side of caution until there is a bit more understanding between them. Other times, you meet someone and there is an immediate camaraderie. You have things in common. Maybe you grew up in the same neighborhood or with the same ethnic influences, or perhaps you find the same things funny. In any case, there is an instant ease, but the feeling ends there and, after wiping the pizza grease from your kid's face, you move on with the thought that you've shared a brief, delightful encounter.
Then there is the twilight zone moment--the one when you meet someone and a jolt passes through you, and you're sure you already know them. You have no memory of your past with them because your past with them never happened during your lifetime. And it's not the easy feeling of camaraderie described above. To the contrary, it is like finding a beloved who has been lost to you for a very long time. This sensation, or recognition, can occur before you've even spoken. Perhaps it takes place on an energy level of which we are not fully conscious. You get to talking and find you know how they will respond to questions about their life, their beliefs, their dreams. It's like you've already had the discussion a long, long time ago and it comes back to you in bits and pieces. You frequently say the exact thing at the same moment.
Is it that we have known the person before in some previous life? Is it just that they are so similar to us that it's like knowing ourselves? Whatever the case, these are magical encounters that happen rarely. There's no walking away from moments like these. There's a sense that you must follow them to wherever they lead because surely the universe or God or an angel, or whatever you choose to call it, is sending you a rare gift, an opportunity for enlightenment, something great that will change your life and the world around you. You don't know what that something is, but you trust that it exists.
You're stepping into the twilight zone, destination unknown. How many of us have the courage to embark on that journey?
Friday, September 26, 2008
Nan babysat for us every, and I mean every, Saturday night. She claimed it was to give my parents some quality time together, but my siblings and I knew better. There was nothing she loved more in life than spending time with her grandchildren. And the feeling was mutual.
Saturday nights started off with Mom getting us fed. Then, we'd go sit on the front stoop and wait for Nan to round the corner. She loved to take buses and walk and would often refuse my mom's offer of a ride. As soon as we saw her walking down the block, we would start screaming and jumping up and down.
My childhood was lived in a modest home where everything had its place. One toy was played with and put away before another one was taken out. Cushions remained on the couch and there was NO jumping on furniture. You ate three square meals before you got dessert. You didn't disturb the neighbors with excessive noise. You went to bed early. Hell, in the winter darkness, my mom would have us in bed by 6:30 PM. You get the picture.
When Nan showed up and Mom and Dad had pulled away in the car, ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. First, there was a visit to the candy store--actually, a numbers running joint fronting as a candy store, as I now understand it--where we could buy whatever our little hearts desired. When the ice cream man made his rounds later, we'd get that too. And maybe a knish or hot pretzel to go with it. Strung out on lots of sugar and Nan's enthusiasm, the cushions on the 1970's, crushed-velvet, orange sofa would be ripped off and thrown around on the floor, and we would pretend we were floating on rafts in the middle of the sea. Beds were jumped on with great exhilaration, pigtails flying in the air.
The Saturday night line up on TV back then was All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and, our favorite, Carol Burnett. But TV viewing required more snacks. So, the Jiffy Pop popcorn came out and we'd shake it over the stove top and watch that silver foil turban grow and shoot out wisps of steam. Along with the salty, we needed a little sweet. Out came the marshmallows and a long fork. They got toasted over the flame on the stove and many of them caught fire and melted all over the metal grates. Any idea how hard it is to get melted marshmallow off of those? I'm actually surprised that Nan wasn't banned from babysitting after a few such adventures.
To get us up to our beds, she'd form a conga line with us and we'd one-two-three-kick up the stairs. Then we'd beg for a story. She rarely read to us from a book; she made up her own stories and told them in installments week after week. They were mystery stories about pickpockets, smugglers, and kidnappers down at the South Street Seaport. I can imagine how she'd gaze out her work window and dream up tales for our Saturdays together. We would whine and beg when she'd leave us with a cliff-hanger.
She was a lover of new experiences, exotic foods, world travel, and foreign accents. Guess I got that gene too. ;-)
After the jumping and snacking and TV viewing, we'd settle down in bed. By now, Nan was snoring away, but I was always still awake. At that time of night, Chiller Theater would come on, and that horrible hand with the six fingers would rise out of the ground, and that voice would say "Chiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeerrrrrr." Eeek. It used to freak the hell out of me, and I'd put my hands over my eyes and watch through my fingers.
At some point, the sound of a car door would slam, and Nan would jump up and run downstairs. Cushions would be tossed back on the couch, dishes gathered and placed in the sink. My mom always had a kitchen to tidy up after a date with dad. Meanwhile, I'd pretend to be asleep when my parents came up to my room so Nan wouldn't get in trouble. But when Nan sneaked up to say goodnight, I'd open one eye and she'd wink at me.
People often debate whether certain traits are the result of nature or nurture. I’m not sure which transmission method is responsible for my sense of awe and wonder, but I do know that in some major way, my grandmother was responsible.
Children have no problem appreciating the miraculous, but as we mature, we begin to take life for granted—the sunset goes unnoticed or is cursed as we’re heading west in rush-hour traffic. The chirping of the birds is a nuisance to our Saturday morning sleep. A drenching spring rain makes us feel gloomy rather than foreshadowing new life.
Nan had as strong a sense of awe as any child I know. To see her out in nature was to see a 75-year-old child—eyes bright, wide smile, face turned up to the sun, and occasionally a foot missing the curb as a result.
She taught me to listen for the sea in a seashell, to jump waves, to crush herbs between my fingers and inhale their sweet and spicy scent, to identify birds, and appreciate flowers and trees. I watched ants for hours at a time when I was a child, amazed at the cooperation of insects--something so often absent in our own species. I remember pulling kitchen chairs in front of the back door to watch a summer thunder shower and then watching the sunlight return in a reddish-orange wash across the late afternoon sky. Rain was never to be dreaded; you could always walk between the rain drops or just have faith that you’d dry soon enough. And in late summer, I loved sniffing the cool, night air to catch a scent of the ripe grapes from the arbor next door.
All of these things are a part of me, handed down from a woman who had no equal. What a blessing to have been mentored in the art of living life with abandon. And when I do my final one two three kick out of this world, I hope my love of life will remain with those I leave behind. I love you, Nan.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
When you spend a few hours in someone's company, you tend to hear some of their life. He was looking forward to his son's wedding in July and laughing over the fact that when you're the parents of the groom, you just nod and smile and do whatever the bride's family says. One of his co-workers later told me that he had been through some health problems, including a kidney transplant.
In the end, I got the price I wanted and we shook hands. I walked away feeling that I had met a man who was one of the decent ones in the sometimes sleazy car-selling industry. I had intended to send him a card in July to congratulate him on his son's wedding. But, as often happens, the whirlwind of life swept me up and my good intentions blew away.
So now I sit and think about how total strangers can touch you deeply. I think about how short life is and how death is often a surprise. I wonder, in this world of online friendships, if people will just disappear one day and never be heard from again. Most of all, I am reminded of how important it is to do what makes you happy, follow your passions, and tell people how much you care for them. All we have is this moment.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
I'll admit there are a few letters I wish I'd never sent and a few emails I wish I could recall. That's for reason of content. But in written correspondence there's also the problem of absence of intonation, inflection, facial expression (especially the very useful wink), that can make something you intended as a joke seem like a serious insult.
And God forbid we forget to put that crucial piece of modern punctuation at the end of the sentence--that clarifying smiley face--then there's no hope of averting disaster. I can imagine the friendships that have been ruined with that one omission, and I pray that major discussions between world leaders do not take place over email. Consider the difference between:
We're launching our missiles at 3 PM sharp.
We're launching our missiles at 3 PM sharp :-)
(For added security, I might even add an LOL to that second one.)
On the other hand, as readers of written correspondence, perhaps we should take some extra time to analyze what someone might mean before jumping to conclusions. After all, why would someone who just wrote 14 lovely lines of correspondence want to stab you through the heart on line 15? It's just not done. With the truly evil ones you usually find yourself impaled by line 2.
Then there's the whole blogging thing, which basically has the same risks as other forms of written communication. Except you get to unintentionally insult many people at once. Quite efficient, actually.
I wonder if other writers are as paranoid as I am or if that childhood message just did a number on my brain. (Note to self: Send email to mom complaining about childhood issues. Be sure to end with a smiley face.)
Monday, September 1, 2008
I wasn't having too much luck at first, but then I remembered I hadn't changed the batteries in about 15 years. Went in search of a Phillips-head screwdriver and managed to undo the very tight screws. Guess what? Not the battery compartment. Now I'm frickinfrackin under my breath. I screw those babies back in and the last one won't go all the way. Of course you realize I'm not using a good Phillips-head screwdriver. I'm using this teeny tiny one that came in the handle of a pink floral hammer--because some marketer thinks that when a woman needs to screw, her tool doesn't need to be as large as a man's. No pun intended, I swear.
Finally, I find the battery compartment on the end. Pop four new ones in there. Wow, it's like a lumberjack's saw. Totally buzzing. I'm tempted to go put on a red-plaid, flannel shirt, but it's about 80 degrees out. I put the first pencil in and stare at my computer screen. I have to keep taking it out to check my progress. By about pencil 16, I realize there is a slight give when the pencil is finished being sharpened--no checking required. I guess I was numb. Probably shouldn't be operating heavy machinery. Does a battery-operated pencil sharpener count as heavy machinery?
All done with the sharpening. What's that fine print at the bottom of the supply list? All supplies must be labeled with child's name. Great. Do they mean the box of 24 pencils or each pencil? Better play it safe. Thank God I named my kid Jon--no "h."
24 pencils, 24 crayons, 2 highlighters, 5 large glue sticks, 4 packs of Post-it notes, 12 washable markers, 26 colored pencils, 4 Sharpie markers, 5 marble notebooks, 3 folders, 2 erasers, 1 pair of scissors, 4 rolls of Scotch tape, 1 container of wipes, 1 box of baggies, a freakin' partridge in a pear tree and one grown woman's index finger (what can I say, I was on a roll).
More fine print: Please bring these items in for the first day of school. Additional items might be requested by individual teachers at a later date.
What more could he possibly need? We have at least one of everything in the Staples catalog.
I'm finally finished and start loading up his backpack. I'm still seeing "Jon Jon Jon" flash across my eyes--kind of like when you play too much Tetris and you see colored pieces falling even after the game is over. Frightening, but it will pass.
I sit back and take a deep breath and my eyes glance one more time at my now checked-off supply list. There's a box at the bottom of the page with some more fine print:
. . . and finally, children learn BEST when parents and teachers work closely together. Make the next school year "the" year that you maintain frequent contact with your child's teacher.
It's official. The summer is over.
Friday, August 29, 2008
The artist (not what I call him), Andres Serrano, who brought us Piss Christ, a crucifix thrown into a backlit jar of the artist's urine, is back with a new exhibit.
This time it's "Shit: An Investigation." Yes, you heard that right. And if you instantly got an idea of what it might include and then dismissed it as some crazy mental leap, then you'd be wrong. Sixty-six portraits of feces, each priced between $30,000 and $40,000 dollars (for those who don't know what to do with their excess cash) will be on display. Most are animal samples. Ah, but there are three human samples, as the New York Post reports: Freudian Shit (from his therapist), Holy Shit (from an unnamed priest), and Self-Portrait (guess who?).
He says, "The smell is the worst part. I would just, you know, take it--either with a glove, or someone would put it on the table for me--and then I'd turn it around and look for something. You want to wear a mask."
He was delighted when he found a face in one of the samples. Just like cloud gazing, huh?
It was at about this point in the reading, as I was eating my lunch, that I noticed the four, full-color photographs in the upper-right corner of the page. I jumped back in my chair and threw my sandwich down on the plate, but then I found myself leaning in again . . .
Great Scott, if that jaguar sample didn't look like a turtle with a little beady eye.
Serrano thinks he is making a statement against pretension in art. "This show, it's like the circus coming to town. It's, like, the emperor has no clothes."
I wonder how many art snobs will miss the message and take the serious essay in the show catalog at face value and then pay face value for a framed piece of shit.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Yikes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The angels of mercy must have been in full force because not a question was asked about what that meant.
We proceeded to Philly for lunch and a duck tour. Lunch was a wiz wit handicap, of course. Translation: a Philly cheese steak with Cheese Wiz (wiz), onions (wit), sliced in half (handicap). For those who have never been, the duck tour starts off as a bus tour and then the "bus" drives into the Delaware river and becomes a boat. The vehicle is based on the WWII DUKW.
The next morning, we set out for our real destination, Cape Henlopen, where we camped under pine trees at the very peaceful state campground. Upon arrival, my mother unpacked a bag of insect bite products. Apparently, she went crazy at Target and $87 later she had balms to ward off the bite, balms for after the bite. Hell, I think she even had one in there for balm before the bug decides to bite. I'm not into the lavish spreading of chemicals on my skin, so I watched as they all balmed up and proceeded to get bitten as I sat there unbalmed and unscathed. I guess I'm not sweet enough. :-)
Some people go through life with a black cloud over their heads. I go through life with a man with a cigar just upwind, blowing white clouds down at me. It never fails. If there is a man with a cigar, he will find me. The latest one found me on the beach, where we spent three otherwise glorious days. The weather was sunny but not too hot. The water was cold but refreshing. No waves, so I was happy. Best part was the dozens of dolphins (porpoises?) that passed by every afternoon. Some came within 20 feet. Really amazing. I had a feeling we would see them since we weren't too far from Wildwood where they always make an appearance. We spent 2 hours building a massive sand castle. Actually, it was more of a community with upper-class condos on one end and affordable housing down the river. A giant hot tub sat out front. Things were going great until a 21-month-old boy decided to play Godzilla. His mother grabbed him just before the condos were wiped out.
The beach is a funny place to me. You lie around mostly naked with total strangers within what would normally be your too-close-for-comfort zone if you were wearing clothes. Words carry over the breeze and people never factor that in as they engage in all kinds of conversation. It's a writer's dream. My favorite line this trip was from the husband who, as he huffed and puffed through the sand, loaded up like a pack mule, with his wife flip-flopping in front him, screamed out "Where ya goin' hun? The beach is the beach."
Riding back from the beach two afternoons, we saw three deer hanging out together in a meadow with people very close by playing ball. I guess they're used to seeing wildlife because they didn't seem particularly impressed. Me, I've gotta save up those wildlife moments and hold them close to my heart for when the only wildlife around are the winged rats (pigeons to you non-NYers) diving down for Burger King leavings.
This morning, as we packed up to come home, a turtle walked across our campsite. My niece fed him some of her breakfast cereal. I had just asked her what kind it was when the turtle jumped up on his hind legs and broke out into a jig. With a damn good brogue, he exclaimed, "Pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, and green clovers. They're Lucky Charms and they're magically delicious." My sister admitted they probably weren't a very healthy food for a turtle. I told her they probably weren't really healthy for a human either.
My favorite silent laugh moment came as I was brushing my teeth in the campground bathroom this morning. I glanced to the right and the girl next to me was curling her eyelashes. Now I've seen a lot of primping go on in campground bathrooms over the years and it always make me laugh, but an eyelash curler was a first. I glanced into my mirror--my hair featured that insert-finger-in-socket look that I tend to sport in the summertime when you can't pay me enough to use a blow dryer. The only make-up I brought was a tube of Chapstick. My skin was pink from the sun. I glanced over at her mirror--her hair was perfectly straight, not a frizz to be found. Her skin tone was a perfect beige--I must have missed the concealer and foundation application. Her eyelashes looked like she had just taken off teeny hot rollers. I spit and rinsed, and my straight eyelashes and I made our way back to camp to take down the tent.
Home, sweet, home. I'm unpacked, the laundry is going, the mail has been opened, the junk emails deleted. It's time for Inked-In.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I had given a great deal of thought to how I wanted to structure my scrapbook. Maybe a bit too much thought. I created my first page, then a second. I was pleased with the results. The next day, I was at it again. Soon I had a dozen or so pages completed. And then I got stuck. Some of the perfect little categories I had thought up for the scrapbook suddenly didn't mesh with the photos I had. Worse, one of my categories required a two-page spread, leaving a blank page before it. I couldn't bring myself to fill that page with photos that would now be out of chronological order. Heavens to murgatroid. I left the mess on the table for months without touching it. Finally, I packed it all away, along with the photos I had never placed in the scrapbook. I didn't even bother to put them into regular photo albums.
Fast forward 8 years. I've spent my summer working on my third novel and the momentum has got my creative circuits sparking. I sit outside and write in my notebook as I watch my almost 9-year-old son ride his bicycle up and down the block. I realize he hasn't really ever seen his baby pictures. How sad. When I'm ready for a break from the writing, I go inside and pull out the box of photos. I find the photo albums I bought months ago and never used. I sit down and start making piles of my favorite photos. Before long, I have filled an album with 200 photos from the first six months of his life.
While I take a quick break to stretch and get some water, I decide to take a look at the abandoned scrapbook project. I open it to the first page and my breath catches. It is beautiful. So is the second and third. So is the two-page spread that I was never sure I liked way back when. What changed? Why do I suddenly love my scrapbook? Why is it so easy today to put those photos into albums?
Time has given me a fresh perspective and the objectivity I need to identify the good photos and pack away the rest. Back when I was a new, very hormonal mother, every photo might as well have been the baby himself. I couldn't choose one over another. A bit of distance has helped. There's no need to document every waking moment. Yawn. The days I do document mean all the more.
By the time I finish the second album, I realize I have eliminated one third of the photos. No nervous ticks. No feelings of guilt for not including them. My son runs into the room to ask me a question and sees the albums. When I show them to him, he breaks out into a smile and laughs at how cute he was as a baby. It's been a good day. I've managed to locate and extract a festering perfectionism lesion. I'm feeling courageous. I think I have some good scrapbook pages left in me. My son will come to believe he didn't just appear on earth at the age of six.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
But then on the ride home, the name Steven popped into her head and she asked my sister if there was a rock musician named Steven Van Zandt. My sister told her that Van Zandt was indeed a musician but that my mother probably knew him from the Sopranos. Then, she suggested the surname Tyler and went on-line to show mom a photo of Steven Tyler.
Poor Steven. I thought the Botox was working out so well for him. I guess not up close.
This reminds me of another sad story. In the late 80's, maybe early 90's, my parents were in a bar when a Stevie Nicks song started playing. The young girl standing next to my dad asked "Do you like Stevie Nicks?" My dad replied, "Who's he?"
Ugh. Gotta get these two to some remedial courses. They're only 63 for pete's sake.
I know I am not a poet. However, I recently discovered I didn't always know that. I was looking through some old files and found a few poems from 1993 that were written by someone who thought she was a real poet (ahem).
In a spirit of fun and self-mockery, I hereby present to you a truly sorry attempt at poetry. I look forward to your evil comments :-) (And let me say how much I admire those of you who can write a real poem.)
to catch the uptown train
as token slides
in turnstile slot
sounds Doppler's sad refrain
but for a man
bending o'er black case
stuffing change in
wool hat pulled low on face
a few bars more
may bring a bonus
yet he stares at me
guitar in hand
i'm not enough
he doesn't play for free
triads deep, while
fingers pluck notes high
a melted chocolate melody
soft thanks his
the metallic clink
of dinner resounds
within his felt-lined case
soup du jour
prime rib au jus
on a table cloth of lace
approaching rumble then
still he sings in key
a few more coins
buy pastry and some tea
yet back i glance
on half a song we're weaned
the gravy train
brings dreams of supper
then carts away his means
Friday, August 1, 2008
Somewhere over the last decade my mind has been taken over by a demon of sorts. To be politically correct, he's a large, hirsute man. But since I break out in hives after long periods of political correctness, let's just call him Big Fat Hairy Man.
Disclaimer: There's nothing wrong with being a big, fat, hairy man. I've loved many over the years. So, embrace your big, fat, hairy man-ness. Oh, and no Big Fat Hairy Men were killed in the creation of his post.
Big Fat Hairy Man shows up in all kinds of places, but I see him most often when I have to stay at a hotel. Even good hotels. I walk into the pristine bathroom with its beauty pageant sash draped over the toilet bowl and I feel his presence. Those perfectly aligned wash cloths get my attention and I imagine Big Fat Hairy Man using them in a vigorous act of dingleberry disengagement. Sure they've been put through an industrial wash cycle, but that visual is a residue clinging to their bleached, white fibers.
I've seen too many police shows to doubt what a black light would reveal on the lush comforter. This doesn't stop my husband though. He kicks back and plops himself down right on top of the paisley plushness to click through some channels in search of the latest Islanders score.
My husband isn't the only one who threatens my sanity. There was the family member who let her toddler crawl on the Bates-like motel rug in Wildwood. (Okay, there was a sheet beneath her, but still.) When our toilet bowl backed up the next night and seeped out onto the rug, the instantaneous connection in my mind set my body aquiver for at least twenty minutes. That same vacation I watched one of our group make a sandwich on the dresser. No plate. Just dresser top (where Big Fat Hairy Man's naked ass could have sat while pulling on tube socks), Wonder Bread, 3 slices of bologna, two of Swiss cheese, a dab of mayo, Wonder Bread topper and voilà--lunch.
Alas, spiritual solace is not possible--even the Gideons bible is off limits. God knows there could have been a power outage during Big Fat Hairy Man's stay that precluded his watching the porn channel. Isn't it possible he turned to the Song of Songs while the cable company was managing the repairs. (Please, no letters. I'm aware that Song of Songs is not pornography, but Big Fat Hairy Man is a figment of my imagination and my mind says he isn't aware of the distinction and wouldn't know allegory if it grabbed a hold of his matted chest hairs and yanked.)
Every year we take several camping trips and they are the joy of my summer. When people wrinkle their noses and say "Ewww, the bugs, the dirt, yuk, how do you do it?" I reply "Hotels. Ewwww, the bed bugs, the shower fungus, the God-knows-what on the comforter, yuk, how do you do it?" At least with camping, it's me and my own DNA evidence in the sleeping bag.
Whew. I've gotta go. This topic's made me want to take a shower . . . right after I antibacterial-wipe my mouse.
Funny part was, I have never followed a recipe to make dinner; I just enjoy reading cookbooks. I'm more of a spontaneous, intuitive cook. The exception would be baking, which I've always heard is an exact science. But I'm beginning to doubt that. My grandmother's handful surely couldn't be the same amount as your grandmother's handful, right?
In a crazed technical writer's attempt to capture the recipes of my elders, I once suggested transferring those handfuls into measuring cups so I could write up an accurate recipe. The withering glance I received taught me it's not about the amounts of ingredients, it's about "feeling it." And to feel it, you've got to get your hands in the mix.
What is it about cookbooks that make them as addictive as novels to me? Appetizer as Prologue? Butternut Squash Soup leading up to Plot Point One? Braised Short Ribs to get you over the hump in Act Two? A dessert of Casquitos de Guayaba con Queso Blanco as Climax? After-dinner drink as Epilogue?
I used to sit around reading writing books all day, too. By 6 PM, I'd realize that not only was dinner not ready, but I hadn't put a word to paper.
I quickly learned I had to ban the purchase of writing books until I started putting some of their advice into practice. (My husband quickly learned that if he wanted to eat, he'd have to learn how to cook.)
Recently, I've been better about writing regularly, so I treated myself to a new one: Write Away by Elizabeth George. I'm enjoying it and I've already used a few tips.
Here are some of my other faves:
- The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray (an oldie but a goodie - make sure it's the original version)
- How to Write a Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey
- The First Five Page by Noah Lukeman (he's a literary agent in NYC who tells you why you get rejected within the first 5 pages)
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
- Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
- Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction
- Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block
- Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
- How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Imagine this. You're sitting in a living room in a quaint cottage on a winding country road in Wales. A crocheted blanket is draped over your lap and a steaming cup of Earl Grey sits on a lace doily on an antique table. You are reading a novel--perhaps a cozy mystery or a Regency romance. Suddenly, you feel a rumbling and you notice that your tea has broken out into little ripples. A low sound in the distance is growing louder by the second. Two bright lights shine through the windows and illuminate your Thomas Kinkade painting, which hangs above the crackling fire in the hearth. Just as you turn your head to see where they are coming from, a truck crashes into your house. Wow. Freaky, right?
Now imagine that this has happened to you 16 times.
As they say, life is stranger than fiction. This story, minus the cottage decorations, appeared in the Weird But True section of today's New York Post.
Apparently, a satellite navigation system is "telling drivers the extremely narrow street is a shortcut."
The woman who lives in the house says it has been stressful and traumatic and that her insurance premiums have gone sky high.
Hmmm. Is the practice of law legal in Wales? The first time this happened to me, I'd be on the phone with a lawyer trying to determine if it was the fault of the GPS manufacturer, the company who creates the software for the device, the trucking company, or the moron who was driving the truck who trusted a machine more than his eyes telling him there was a house blocking his path. Instead, this woman is paying a premium to live in a death trap, albeit a lovely death trap if only in my imagination.
After the second time it happens, perhaps a global recall is in order. Maybe even a giant billboard like in the cartoons: Turn Back Now!!! But sixteen times?! I can't imagine it. Perhaps my assumption that this woman hasn't taken any action has made an ass out of u and me. But even if she has, after 16 times, doesn't her stubborn insistence on staying put point to a possible death wish? Someone call the twinkie van, and have the men in white coats take her to a nice, relaxing place. She deserves it. Then put that baby on the market. Uh, ixnay on the Open House--maybe a direct sale to the Department of Highways would be safer.
The scary part is that this is not an isolated incident (I'm taking the 16 incidents as a whole here). I've heard other stories of people who have driven into swamps, bodies of water, ditches that obviously were not a road all because their GPS device told them to. The voice of a certain parent comes to mind: If the GPS device told you to jump off a bridge . . . . Apparently, we need a new driving designation. How about DWC--Driving While Comatose?
It's kind of like a sci-fi story: GPS device (played by HAL) subliminally brainwashes people into handing over all common sense and blindly following directions. Long haul trucker (played by William Shatner) boldly goes where no man has gone (more than 16 times) before.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have enough pet peeves to open a pet shop. Among them:
- Tissues that have tiny dust particles in them that make you sneeze. Why can't they make them out of the same stuff they use for toilet paper? (I once worked with a woman who swore this was a conspiracy to get people sneezing and buying more tissues.)
- Deli workers who put on gloves to make my sandwich, then leave them on to hand me my change with bits of lettuce and dressing clinging to my quarters, then make the next guy's sandwich with the same gloves that just handled money.
- The cashier at the cafeteria who responded to my comment that there wasn't any coffee left by saying she doesn't make coffee at 10 AM because most people are like her and have one cup early in the morning. To which I could only reply "Really?" as I struggled to unfold the fingers in my clenched fist and took a DEEEEEEEP breath.
Heading back to the office sans coffee is already one step in the wrong direction. So, it's no surprise that small things can set me off--never mind the whoppers.
Imagine my delight when I received an email from a colleague with no writing or instructional design experience who decided he should take courseware created by three professional technical writers and make some changes to it to make it more fun for the audience. I opened the first file--a PowerPoint presentation meant to provide an overview of the process in a training session.
The hyperventilating started immediately.
There were nine different fonts on the first slide in six different colors. The next slide had an animated fireworks display to start the session off with a bang. Having heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, he included a few graphics--cartoon characters, some smoke stacks in the background, a shopping cart filled with computer equipment that looked like it had been salvaged from the local dump, and a cornucopia filled with autumn's bounty. Too bad he never heard the part about the graphics needing to have something to do with the subject matter being presented.
No joke, this presentation was like a 1980's laser rock show at the Hayden planetarium. Oh and he even had a soundtrack to go along with it. Just click that little speaker icon in the corner of the PowerPoint slide. He assured me it was supposed to be Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 "Choral": IV (because all training presentations are an ode to joy, right?). Unfortunately, Sympathy for the Devil must have been the file just above it in his music library. (Mick Jagger would be my only solace for the day.)
Is it me or is this just crazy? What if I ran into an operating room during an appendectomy and told the surgeon "Wait, give me that scalpel. I think we should make the incision on the left side. It will be much more entertaining that way for the other doctors and nurses assisting at the surgery."
I guarantee you'd be visiting me on the psych floor.
Apparently, there are no special skills required to do technical writing. Anyone can do it.
As I was reviewing the final "improvements" to my courseware, a co-worker stopped by to peer over my shoulder. "Huh, maybe I'll convince my wife to get a job as a tech writer. God knows we could use a second income." Innocent me, I asked "oh is she a writer?" "No, but how hard could it be."
I broke out in a fit of sputum-flying coughing and reached for a dusty tissue. Good thing there was no coffee left at the cafeteria.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
It started in the typical way. Mom heard me plucking out tunes by ear on a toy piano when I was three and thought I was the next Beethoven, but with three kids and a cop's salary there was no way they could afford lessons, let alone a piano. Then, my dad was walking the beat one day in Canarsie and some women asked him if he knew anyone who wanted a piano. It was free if someone would just come and move it out of their home. (Don't try to tell me there are no angels walking the earth.) When my dad got off his shift, he went back with a truck and brought home an upright piano painted . . . brick red that fit perfectly into an alcove in our kitchen that was painted . . . avocado green. Are you getting the visual on this? Has the avocado green given away my age?
At six years old, I started classical lessons and took them until I was 13 or 14. My dad has a great photo of me lying on my back on the piano bench, with one arm and legs dangling to the floor and one finger raised to tap a key. This was my rebellious idea of practicing, I guess, after I had been told a half dozen times.
Needless to say, I was a big hit in my family, as all kids are. I had to play for whoever walked in the door and was asked to play by relatives whenever we visited. People oohed and aahed and, if I'm being fair to myself, I was pretty good for an average (read non-prodigy) kid.
But then something happened, or rather didn't happen. I didn't progress in my abilities. I got to a certain point and just started to feel stagnant. One of the problems was I didn't know how to improvise. So, I was locked into playing the classical songs I knew and whenever I tried anything pop or rock it came off sounding stilted.
In my teens and twenties, I started writing lyrics, which came naturally, and putting them to tunes, which didn't come so naturally. I wanted to copyright them and try to sell them, but once again my lack of improvisation skills made me self-conscious about sending them out. (I did, however, send lyrics out to a Nashville contest and ended up placing in the top 10, which was fun.)
Sometime around twenty years old I decided I wasn't a real musician and from that time on would never again play for a living soul. If it was summertime and I had the urge to play, I'd close my windows so no one would hear. My family told me I was nuts, that I was good. I told them they only thought I was good because they knew nothing about music. Then my son was born and I just stopped playing. I don't think I've played an entire song in the last eight years.
So my phone rang and, as you've guessed by now, I was asked to tape myself playing the piano for the song that would be sung at the audition. I suggested iTunes. They said no good because it had lead vocals on it. I suggested iTunes karaoke version. They said no good because it wasn't just a piano. I grabbed a paper towel and mopped the sweat from my brow. Okay, I squeaked and then spent the rest of the afternoon practicing the hell out of the piece.
The sheet music was easy enough to read. The problem was I suspected a real piano player would never play a sheet-music melody line as accompaniment. I felt I needed to provide another version and that would require . . . cue horror music here . . . improvisation.
Four hours later (and with the windows still open), I taped both versions. They are not perfect. They are not even very good. But they'll be better than nothing at all . . . I hope.
For those of you who read my post A Spanish Major???, you know that it's been a week of challenging requests for me, so I think today I'll unplug the phones and bury my prominent proboscis in a good book. And if any of you musicians out there have suggestions for improving my improvisation skills, send them my way.
Friday, July 25, 2008
I let out a yeeeeeoooooooowwww. My left hand instinctively reached out to cover adorable, innocent 8-year-old baby blues as my right hand frantically tried to close the window, which of course was frozen. I needed my left hand to accomplish an "end task" and told him to look away. Meanwhile, he's responding to my yeeeeeeowwwwww with an aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh. I finally managed to "end task" and we sat there laughing. I asked him what he saw and he said a lady wearing a black shirt with a baby. Okaaaay. Sounds good to me.
After things had calmed down, I sat thinking about my first internet experience gone wrong with my son. I realized that my reaction--that initial yeeeoooooow that I let out--wasn't on behalf of my son. It was my own reaction to seeing strange genitalia eight inches from my face on a bright, sunny afternoon. Definitely too much information. One person had this tiny mole right on . . . um, never mind.
They say that men and women have different reactions to things, especially sexual matters. I'm not much interested in generalizing. All I know is that, for me, sexy is a function of attitude, personality, sense of humor, creativity, intelligence, and a tuned-in vibe that puts two people on the same wavelength. Physical beauty plays an extremely small part and without the rest is meaningless to me. Maybe that's why you'll never find me in a crowd of screaming women, trying to put a dollar bill down some anonymous buff guy's g-string. And there's no stranger out there in cyberspace that has such breathtaking physical beauty that I could ever be moved by a full-monitor-sized naked image of him on a bright, sunny afternoon.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I had always loved studying languages but, after three years in a High School Pre-Medical Program and another two years in college, this declaration came as a bit of a shock to some. A Spanish major??? What are you gonna do with that? Are you going to be a teacher? Will you work for the United Nations? (I was also taking Italian and Russian at the time.)
Truth was, I didn't know what I was going to do with a Spanish major, and I didn't much care. I was just enjoying my liberal arts education (okay, and the frat parties, too).
Graduation came and so did a job, with the Division of Special Education at the Board of Ed, as an interpreter for suspension hearings. In other words, a kid brings a machete to school, gets in trouble, heads down to the suspension hearings office with his parents (who don't speak English), and there in that room with a sometimes still violent child, a lawyer, and a tape recorder, I would translate the legal proceedings for the parents.
Take a guess--how many of those hearings do you think I interpreted? One, five, twenty? [Sound game show buzzer here.] Try zero.
I bet you think it was the thought of that machete that scared me, right? Wrong again. It was the tape recorder. Some of the parents were not educated people and their Spanish in no way resembled the language I had learned in school. Some of them spoke at lightning speed and chopped off the ends of their words. (I imagine Midwesterners have the same complaint when they speak to me, a New Yorker.) Let me just say there were many repeats on the nightmare channel that season and they all involved a village idiot resembling moi not being able to communicate with parents as the tape rolled in the background.
A short time later I got the job that would eventually lead to my current career as a technical writer, and the Spanish major was no longer an issue. However, I often take the opportunity to point out to my parents just how valuable my knowledge of the Spanish language has been. Like, for example, when my husband needs to know whether the arroz con pollo is on the bone or not. "Your tuition dollars at work," I tell my parents. (I am the cause of a lot of eye rolling in my family.)
Despite the suspension hearings thing, I truly do love learning languages and I enjoy speaking with people whenever I get the chance to practice. I once got to say "In nazdik-tarin raheh" to a cab driver in New York (translation: "This is the shortest way," in Farsi), which was a lot more rewarding than just randomly blurting out "I want to buy apples and cheese." Of course, once I pointed in the direction I wanted to go, the conversation was mostly over.
Then, there was the time I was traveling in Italy with my cousin on a day when there was the rumor of a train strike. My cousin went to the ticket window to inquire about the strike. When I saw the expression on the ticket agent's face, I stepped in a bit closer and heard my cousin ask in Italian if there was going to be a "syrup" today. The difference between sciopero and sciroppo. College Italian saved the day.
While these moments were fun, I have to admit I sometimes yearned for a greater use of my college major. That moment finally came last night when my brother, a real estate agent in Manhattan, needed a translator to assist him with a potential client calling from Argentina. With an hour to spare, I looked up any words I didn't know in the listing and converted square footage to the metric system. When the call came, we managed to communicate.
Tuition dollars at work. ;-)
My friend's cousin met a guy on vacation and the relationship continued when they returned home. She asked him if he had a friend for her cousin. He did. Soon after, my friend received a call. All was going well on the phone--for the first few minutes anyway--when he suddenly asked "What size shoe do you wear?"
Having heard this question only as it related to men (and usually there was some rib-jabbing and winking as accompaniment), I was intrigued to hear where this was going.
My friend was speechless for a moment and then asked why her shoe size mattered? The answer . . .
He's not attracted to women with big feet.
Say what? How many big-footed women has this guy encountered that this has become his lead-off question? Has someone gotten the word out to Manolo?
Hmmm, wasn't there a Jerry Springer show a few years back . . . GUYS WHO DON'T REALIZE THEIR QUEENS ARE OF THE DRAG VARIETY?
Maybe there were some childhood issues . . . that day back in 1978 when he left the marbles from his Hungry Hippo Game strewn all over the floor and his large-footed mother took out her rage with the help of her Tecnica Moon Boots.
Whatever the reason for his question, I was left wondering if big feet were the only deal breaker for this guy. My evil twin would have played a bit--talked up my tiny, dainty feet. Then, just before our first date, I would have stopped at Ruby's Costume Store to pick up a few blacked-out teeth, the beginnings of a goatee, and ears that should have been pinned back in childhood.
With my luck, it would have been love at first sight.
And that's why I'm glad I'm no longer eligible to compete in the love games.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Hmmm. I didn't start my book with a dream. I started it with a Prologue--a crime in the past--upon which the entire book is based. In Chapter One, I do have a reference to my protagonist awakening from an old nightmare, and you could say the prologue is her old nightmare, but that doesn't mean the prologue is only a nightmare.
What to do, what to do. For those of you who don't know me, I am an assertive, mostly self-confident person. However, I've got to say that all the books on publishing I've read make me feel a bit like the Cowardly Lion on his approach to the Almighty Wizard of Oz. Up till that moment, I had minded all my P's and Q's, not to mention 1" margins, Courier 12 pt. font, double spacing, proper placement of personal information, good quality paper, no staples, paper clips, ribbons, bows. For Pete's sake, after printing my manuscript, I'd hold it up and cover one eye and make sure everything lined up, like some print surveyor. Should I email the agent and request clarification? Would that be annoying? Would I forever be cast out into the zone of WWDICWAAWNSITDS (WRITERS WHO DARED INITIATE COMMUNICATION WITH AN AGENT WHEN NOT SPECIFICALLY INVITED TO DO SO). Hell, I thought, I'm going to need intensive therapy soon. Dr. Tony, are you ready for me?
I sent an email requesting clarification and she told me to redo it. Alas, on July 11th, the dreaded prayer card arrived. Just to clarify, the prayer card was dreaded because it signaled rejection. This particular agent has a listing that indicates she is "a spiritual person and often attempts to soften a rejection with a prayer card; if this would bother you, you may not want to query her." I need all the prayers I can get, so it didn't bother me any.
On the enclosed letter, she wrote "Good storytelling but the college setting didn't appeal. Will pass with my best wishes."
My initial thought was I wish she had mentioned the college setting along with the dream--I could have changed that too. Then I realized that there are some key events in those first few scenes before I jump forward to present time. But it gets me wondering--have I started my story too early. Is there a way to rewrite it so that those events in the past are just mentioned in the present, thereby catapulting the reader into the middle of the present-day action. I'll have to think about this.
In the meantime, I still have some queries out there. So, we'll wait and see. For now, I'll just be happy that an agent wrote "Good storytelling" about something I submitted. We take our crumbs where we get 'em, no?
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
There is nothing more inspiring to me than being in nature, and today was certainly the day. Even the tree cutters and landscapers couldn't get me down. I was in my own little world, doing my thing, typing away out front on the driveway. My neighbors still look at me strangely when I do this. I'm originally from Ozone Park, New York where everyone sat out on their front stoops. On Long Island, people don't do that. (In fact, you rarely see your neighbors except when you ring their doorbell to politely ask them to refrain from feeding the half dozen feral cats that have decided your front yard should be their litter box. Geometric progression nightmares keep me awake at night, but I digress) I figure when I get published, the neighbors will no longer look at me strangely, but will nod knowingly, aware that they had been witnesses to a minor miracle in progress.
Needless to say, I got tons done in my novel. And the creative energy generated by just taking the time inspired me to complete the tasks I left behind in order to write. Writing must always be the priority. I'll never create anything good if I first sit down to write after a day of mind-numbing chores.
So, more on the Neo. But first let me say that many years ago I invested in a popular laptop, one of the first models that had a full-size screen. The thing weighed a gazillion pounds and put off heat like a sauna. I thought I would cozy up with my laptop and write the great American novel in my bed at night. How many times do you think I attempted that? How about not once. The thing was just too clunky. So, I continued with my notebooks and pens. I am a sucker for supplies. My husband tells me I get an eerie gleam in my eye whenever we drive by a Staples store. I buy college-ruled spiral notebooks with colored covers and perforated pages. In the past, I used to write with a fountain pen, but lately I'm into those blue and white barreled Bics with the four colors of ink. I use the blue and black ink for writing my drafts and the red and green ink for editing my drafts.
I always feel much more creative when I am writing longhand than when I am typing. Typing is too mechanical and detracts from my creative flow. I have written entire novels longhand with no problem. My issue is when it's time to type them into my computer. I HATE that part. It is the most tedious thing I have ever done. And I can't pay someone to do it because they wouldn't be able to read my handwriting. I tried bypassing the longhand stage and just typing into my desktop computer, but the distractions were a hindrance: email, stock quotes, Webkinz, Amazon, you name it. And then, I found something called a Neo by Alphasmart. I don't quite know how I stumbled upon it. Probably in a frenzy of web surfing to avoid typing my manuscript. But there it was, a tiny little device, smaller than a laptop and under 2 pounds that offers a full-size keyboard and a screen that displays three to six lines of text at a time (I prefer four). That's it. No email, no games, no Amazon, no stock quotes, no instant messaging, no distractions. It's so small I can sit anywhere and type away and when I'm done I plug it into my computer and all my info gets put into a Word file. What more could I ask for? And with only four lines of text displayed at a time, I'm not tempted to constantly edit my work as I am writing (the worst form of writer's constipation). With three batteries, I get something like 700 hours of juice. It automatically saves my words and shuts down when inactive. When I press the on button again it takes me right back to where I left off. There is room for 8 different files. Some of the techies out there will complain that it isn't enough. But that's the point, it's simple. All you do on it is type your words.
Oh, and it offers a typing tutorial for those who are still using hunt and peck. In fact, at $200, I bought one for my eight-year-old son who is a budding writer and he has been learning how to type with the proper fingers. He also uses it to record the play-by-play of the Islanders games. It comes in a lightweight carrying case, with the cord to connect to your PC when you're ready to upload, and a user manual that is very clear. Originally it was marketed to schools for students. But I have to say, it is one of the best gadgets I have ever seen for writers who want to get back to the basics and just write. In closing, let me say that I was not paid any money to say any of the above. I really do love it. In fact, I am writing this first entry on my Neo.
It's got to be after 7 PM and I'm still sitting outside, although I'm wearing a sweatshirt now because the wind has whipped up a bit. It's time to go in. But the creative energy is still high. I'm zapping some to all of you writers out there who are looking for a bit of inspiration. Just get outside or wherever you're most creative and start writing whatever pops into your head. Before too long, the juices will be flowing. If anybody out there has any good tips on getting down to the task of writing, I'd love to hear them.