Monthly Archives: July 2013

All he knows

During a recent family visit, I volunteered to take charge of six kids, ages 5 to 16. How could I pass this up? It was the perfect kid-lit writer’s research project and a chance to see what it’s like to be a mother of six children. (It is exhausting.)

I took pictures and notes, especially the chatter of the 5-year-old boy. He’s Hollywood cute and creative, too. His charm takes over a room. And his lips never quit moving.

This boy spouts random observations, sometimes expressed in a conversation but usually just tossed into the mix with no context at all.

These are my favorite quotes. (Maybe they’ll turn up in a future novel.) No need to wonder about context because often there wasn’t any.

He's a comedian AND a golfer. A two-for-one cutie.

He’s a comedian AND a golfer. A two-for-one cutie.

That dog was so freaky it made my eyes throw up.

(About his cold.) Everyone’s always telling me, “help, help, help” with our chickens. That’s how I got the sinuses.

On TV I heard if you eat glue you get laser eyes and turn into a monster.

(About those monsters.) Superheroes are not real, but monsters are.

Bigfoot only eats s’mores. (Looks around at amused adults.) What? A s’more is a sandwich!

(At Dairy Queen.) If you mix strawberry ice cream with vanilla, it gives you the color chocolate.

Your chest doesn’t have a brain. That’s it. That’s all I know.


The banks of dumb creek, Part Two

The teachers would agree.

The teachers would agree.

I read a list of “Rules for Teachers” at the Laura Ingalls Center in Walnut Grove. Laura was a teacher during this period. She managed to keep her job due to good whittling, reading her Bible, and never, ever forgetting the scuttle of coal.

The list — and my comments:

  1. Teachers will fill lamps and clean the chimneys each day.
  2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session. The bucket of water contained one scooper for drinking, ensuring whooping cough and other diseases knocked on every door in the township.
  3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual tastes of pupils. I like my pens very nibby.
  4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two nights if they go to church regularly. Be sure to carry your Bible when you go a-courtin’.
  5. After ten hours in school, teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or good books. I’d recommend reading How to Form a Union in Country Schools.
  6. Women teacher (sic) who marry or engage in improper conduct will be dismissed. When women teachers marry, all their knowledge is replaced by dreams of sock darning and  salt pork.
  7. Every teacher should lay aside from each day’s pay a goodly sum. He should use his savings in his retirement years so that he will not become a burden on society. See my note in #5.
  8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, visits the pool halls or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop, will give good reasons for people to suspect his worth, his intentions and his honesty. Those barber shops! Mainstays of pomade abuse and devil-may-care crew cuts.
  9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents per week in his pay. This generosity is null and void if men teachers go a-courtin’ three days a week. Furthermore, a pay cut is warranted for clean shaves.

See why teachers unionized?

The banks of dumb creek

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence

What? An hour wait in the parking lot?

What? An hour wait in the parking lot?

It’s not that we wanted to get away from the amusement. It’s that we wanted to get away from the crowds getting away from the amusement.

My friend Angie and I took our girls to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove. After touring a wonderful museum center, we drove into the country and parked in a grassy field with hundreds of other cars. This was the site of an outdoor play about Laura’s life and Walnut Grove’s roots.

The play ran from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., and after that, we had a two-hour drive. Angie said, the last time I was here, it took one hour just to get out of the parking lot.

Sure, we’d paid for the tickets. And we faced a long drive with tired kids regardless, so what’s another hour?

Sixty minutes to be exact — an hour of honking horns as drivers rush the exit. It’d be 20-year-old trucks and minivans against my cute new car, only 7,000 miles old.

Maybe we should leave early, I said. It’s not like we don’t know the story’s ending.

Right, she said.

Trapped in Walnut Grove, the place we'd been so eager to see.

Trapped in Walnut Grove, the place we’d been so eager to see.

I vacillated. It was our day for Laura Ingalls, my daughter’s first beloved heroine. Mine, too. It’s Laura from the Banks of Plum Creek, not Laura of Silver Lake or Laura of those Happy Golden Years. Plum Creek Laura is our favorite, a book with an action-filled plot and fun cast. The bratty Nellie Oleson, the dugout, Johnny Johnson, the country party vs. the city party.

Also, Angie and I are writers. Exploring Laura’s town was our study in setting and character.

I shivered and said, it’s really cold for July. Maybe we should leave early because of the parking lot and all.

So Angie and I calculated reasons:

  1. It was cold, but not cold enough to kill pesky mosquitos.
  2. The seats were uncomfortable.
  3. The drive would be late, dark and long.
  4. The bathrooms were gross.
  5. The kids were tired.

Bingo! The kids. That settled it. We’d leave early. Our poor kids!

After intermission, during scene seven, we gathered our stuff, slipped between the seats, and dashed for the car. We were out of the field and on the road before the applause.

The girls settled in with their electronic gadgets. Angie and I chatted. We chatted about the Ingalls family, about Angie’s new novel, about my new novel, about OHMYGOD DEER IN THE ROAD.

Four screams, a thunk, a deer rolling over the windshield, rolling over the hood of the car, and disappearing in the ditch.

All passengers were fine. The car’s front was mutilated and the top smeared with blood and (sorry) deer poop. We eventually made it to Angie’s house and collapsed into nervous slumber.

So, Edith Wharton, you made a poignant reflection about our culture when you wrote Americans are more eager to leave their amusement than they are to get to it.

But why?

Is it really about cold seats and mosquitos?

Is it because we feel guilty? Because people suffer around the world while Americans enjoy demolition derbies; pizza buffets; carnival games with junk prizes, like those big purple teddy bears; and TV shows about swearing, smutty housewives?

Because our country is such a vat of amusement, we’ve developed the attention span of a gnat?

Because we’re so arrogant that each and every one of us believe we deserve the first shot out of the parking lot? Our lives are so important we couldn’t possibly wait one hour?

I’m not drawing a lame karmic connection between a deer crash and being a jerk, although the deer probably thinks I should.

I simply want to understand why Angie and I decided to flee an event we’d been planning for months. We’ve both survived uncomfortable chairs and mosquitos and disgusting bathrooms – often in our own homes.

So I leave the laptop today with a nod to pageant patrons who enjoyed the show’s final two scenes and withstood the parking chaos. Kudos to them for living the moment while they were in the moment.

Maybe I’ll try that next time. For Edith and for Laura.

For Edith, for Laura, for the deer.

For Edith, for Laura, for the deer.

Hershel gets a clue

I’ve been on a time out of sorts – a combination of a vacation/hosting relatives.

During this time, I finished season two of “Walking Dead.”

Favorite moment: Hershel, having finally grasped reality, looks around the abandoned highway and says, “Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”

Amen, brother Hershel.

An earnest conversation

Another Hemingway mug for another Hemingway post.

Another Hemingway mug for another Hemingway post.

My friend Mary read my recent Hemingway post and insisted suggested I pick a different bio to read. She said, everyone knows Hemingway’s an asshole! Then she said something about his undue influence. (That’s why I’m not using her last name. I’m afraid the literati might throw books at her.)

Before our conversation, I’d been reading about Hemingway’s lost manuscripts and was feeling kind of sorry for the guy. (If you don’t know the legend, Hemingway’s wife took his early manuscripts – the only copies – with her on a train. She was meeting him somewhere in Europe, and by the time the train arrived, her bags, and his work, had been stolen.)

I don’t think this story would have moved Mary.

We ordered dinner, and then Mary rattled off a quick list of great memoirs. Patti Smith. Neil Young. Bob Dylan. Hillary Clinton.

I wondered what was most important for me as a writer. Studying how an acclaimed writer evolved during his life? Learning how a woman crashed through the glass ceiling in politics? Analyzing how artists moved our culture with their music, lyrics, politics, and challenges to the status quo?

If I could only read one of those books, it would be Patti Smith, and not just because she once worked at a bookstore. She was a game-changer. I’d argue Hemingway was a game-changer, too, but eventually somebody would have popularized simple language/sentences. Right?

You could write books about Patti’s influence (and people have).  I don’t mean to minimize her career, but I do have a novel to finish. So here’s my bottom line: Patti Smith had genuine defiance. She defied record companies, politicians, censors, and more. But for me, her most significant defiance was the way she extended her middle finger at music industry execs, who continue to support the standard that “rocker chicks” should be babes. The “babes” can become icons, but the path to icon status surely involves long curly tresses, red lipstick, and plunging necklines ready to rip and expose surgically enhanced double Ds.

For most performers, defiance is simply part of the marketing plan. I don’t think Patti ever had a marketing plan, and if a PR company wrote one for her, she probably ripped it up and extended her middle finger.

Here’s something Patti Smith told New York Magazine:

When I started performing a lot with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl, we had goals: to infuse new life into performing poetry—merging poetry with electric guitar, three chords—and to reembrace rock and roll. It drew us together and kept us informed, whether through Bob Dylan or Neil Young or the Who. In the early seventies, rock and roll was monopolized by record companies, marketing strategies, stadium rock. Tom Verlaine and Television were for me the most inspiring: They were not glamorous, they were human.

I don’t think it’s possible to be the “Patti Smith of kid-lit.” But I wouldn’t mind a little more Patti in my DNA.

So there you have it, Mary. More Patti, less Ernest.

The looooooooong story of Hemingway

I’m reading a biography of Hemingway because he was in that exotic “club” of American artists living in France post WWI. I’ve always wanted to time travel and join that club. Together we’d smoke, drink and talk big at Parisian cafes. We’d be witty and cool, and we’d make James Joyce the butt of our jokes.

Which brings me to why I generally dislike biographies.

Must be a biography.

Must be a biography.

They’re long. Bio writers, even those with modern tales, tend to start in the year 1678, because after describing the lives of all the subject’s ancestors, we are sure to better understand the subject. That context is the difference between a Good Book Award and a Really, Really Good Book Award.

Your hero is no hero. Typically creative geniuses are rather unpleasant on a personal level. No shock there. But Hemingway? That guy was a complete ass. Insecure, bombastic, lying, manipulative, macho. He would’ve have ruined my cool little French writing club.

The poor mothers. Character flaws are blamed on Mommy Dearest. In Hemingway’s case, family and friends freely shared stories about Hemingway’s hatred. Grace Hemingway was pretentious and domineering. She tried to make young Ernest a girl, letting his hair grow and keeping him in his sister’s clothes. She belittled and berated her husband. She had an affair with a servant girl. She built her own lake home, separate from the family’s lake home, to get away from the chaos of having a family.

On behalf of mothers everywhere, I say to the author, if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all and go to your room!

Too many characters. Certainly we meet a lot of people during a lifetime, and that’s when bio writers should use a filter. Otherwise, readers need a chart to keep track. Good luck enjoying this entirely invented passage, … Hemingway wrote to Phillip Hanstigya and recollected times with their friends Collin “Moose” Frundefrin and Robert “Nippy” Jonwhiler. This letter is significant because it alludes to Frundefrin’s attraction to Jonwhiler’s sister, Nellie Jonwhiler Hiersomby, who as you’ll recall, praised Sunny’s writing over Ernest’s. The letter ended up in the hands of Percy Inclandoesme. Percy refused to forgive Allen Barfecut. Hemingway laughed. That Allen was quite a jokester. Even Ralph Treshinweig agreed.

Still, Hemingway really did say this:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Whenever I read that quote, I return to admiration.

I’m only half way through Hemingway’s biography. Let’s hope great quotes outweigh misdeeds.

A letter I’m sending tomorrow

Procrastination Devil, twin of Deadline Devil.

Procrastination Devil, twin of Deadline Devil.

Dear Procrastination,

We’ve been through so much together – breaking up with boyfriends, tests, research papers, diets, job duties. Your loyalty is endearing. When my world falls apart, when I feel friends have abandoned me, you hold me close and say, “You’ll always have me. Don’t worry about it now. We’ll fix it tomorrow.”

You helped make me the professional I am today. I know my supervisors would thank you, but they’re still looking for the projects I promised to finish before my last day.

You also shaped me on a personal level. Together, we launched the belated birthday card industry and its subsidiaries: belated Mother’s Day cards, belated Easter cards, belated-but-tasteful sympathy cards, and the “I heard you were seriously ill last year. I’m happy you’re still with us!” card.

Remember when we were forced to buy a graduation card written in Spanish for the neighbor kid? Because we bought the card at a gas station on the way to the party, and it was the only card left? Oh, the laughs we’ve shared.

I haven’t forgotten our best idea ever: the 15-gallon gas tank that secretly holds 16 gallons. I meant to apply for the patent after Christmas, but then we moved into the new house and there was unpacking galore and new sheets to buy and I couldn’t find the egg-white separator, and who could possibly think about patents when a critical kitchen tool is lost? After I found the separator, I had this urge to sketch monkeys. Then I painted my nails and tossed out all my socks that didn’t have matches, which is as cleansing as detox without the spinach juice. What was I writing about anyway? Oh, the patent.

Actually, I’m not writing about the patent at all. I’m writing to inform you that our relationship must evolve to a point of changing so it becomes something else and when I say “something else” I guess I mean over. Yes, over is what I mean. I’m breaking up with you, as soon as you agree so it’s mutual and therefore less painful for me.

This is a long time coming, my dear friend. I’ve been thinking our break up since high school. Remember when we stayed up all night reading The Scarlet Letter because there was a test the next day? It was hard reading a complicated book in one night. Jeez, I thought the scarlet letter A stood for “apple,” and that’s no way to impress the teacher in an honors class. So I meant to tell you after school but I was tired, and my mom had just asked whether I’d finished the scrapbook for my grandparents’ anniversary party. I said, “I’ll finish it tomorrow.” And she said, “Tomorrow’s the party. Did you remember tomorrow’s the party?” And I said, “Of course I remembered. But Mom, wouldn’t a poster board be just as nice as a big scrapbook? Even better, actually?”

I shouldn’t have led you on for so long, dear friend. But life is already easier without you. Notice I’m actually writing this letter today – and finishing it. Not just finishing it, but quickly finishing, because we’ve got friends coming for dinner tonight and I’ve been planning an Italian-themed meal with decorations and this great wine I read about in Napa Valley‘s Rare Finds and some Italian music, too, which I’ll have to search for and then download.

I’ve also been meaning to organize my car’s glove compartment and trunk. (See how much I can accomplish on my own?) I looked out the window this morning and noticed my neighbor is having a garage sale, so I’ll pop over there and see if she’s selling any Italian-looking decorations, plus I need to return the book I borrowed last year. I think I saw it in the box with the egg separator.

See, dear friend, I’m not going to let you make me late, although you’ve almost succeeded. I figured you’d try the old games. Just so you know, I have a white zinfandel from Christmas I can serve tonight if needed. (See my new planning skills?) I’m also checking into pizza delivery options.

Goodbye, Procrastination. I know it’s hard for you. I promise to check in occasionally to see how you’re doing.



The Life of Zi, aka the zombie flick

Turns out, a zombie apocalypse might be the only way to end the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s one lesson learned from Brad Pitt’s fantastic World War Z. But can Pitt save the zombie genre from audience fatigue? I doubt it — not while he’s saving the world and raising all those kids. So the job falls to me. Today’s blog: Shelley’s zombie movies. (No WWZ spoilers.)

This weekend brought a movie duo: World War Z and The Life of Pi. Seeing both in a 48-hour period is a bit like eating a hotdog basted in curry. There’s something odd about the combination, and it sparked a long, confusing, and circular conversation. (The more my stomach thinks about curried hotdogs, the more I think about planning a dinner party. Yum.)

So I wanted to write about The Life of Pi. Remember, English majors, Pi is the famous math number that never ends. Pi is the protagonist’s nickname.

My deep thoughts … (long breath) … The use of the name Pi reflects the story’s religious thread in which God and the universe, like Pi, the number, not the person, are never ending; and the story illustrates Pi’s question about why God would dump into His own son into a life with miracles but also tremendous suffering, and somehow the answer is related to suffering bringing beauty and peace; and then there’s the modern day Noah’s Ark; and choosing faith without proof; and the link between man and beast; and subtext about the Garden of Eden; all told within the framework of magical realism and–

Then my head exploded.

Instead, I chose Brad Pitt’s World War Z for today’s blog. No spoilers. If you can’t trust a childrens book writer, who can you trust?

Here’s why WWZ is a great film. There’s more movie, less zombie. You’ll still get your fix of flesh-eating terror. But WWZ is the big picture zombie movie. Instead of focusing on a couple of strangers trapped in a mall, fighting the walking dead, WWZ uses wide-angle lenses. How would society fall? How would our institutions respond? How quickly would scientists become top dogs, bumping football players and the Kardashians into a boiling vat of meaninglessness?

(Yes, the Walking Dead has its own big-picture view. Yes, WWZ the movie throws WWZ the book out the window. Just work with me here, ok?)

So then I wondered just how much ghoulish entertainment we can take. Are zombies destined to be the next vampire craze, where the only remaining plot twist involves a handsome family of vegetarian zombies, one of whom falls in love with a frail virgin named … (copyright?) … Nell.

Someone, some noble and brave artist, has to break the zombie rules and reinvent the genre. That someone is probably not me, but let me get the conversation started.

“Shelley’s Zombie Movies”

1. In my zombie movie, the beasts can only be killed if they’re shot in the ring finger on the right hand. (Am I the only fan bored with the blow-to-the-head rule?)

John: Face down the zombie, Roger. Nail him in the ring finger! Right hand! Hurry, Roger, hurry!

Roger: uh … my right or his right?

John: Just do it or you’ll die!

Roger:  uh … see, we’re facing each other so I’m unclear whether you mean I shoot his right hand, which is my left, or shoot his left hand, which is my AAAAAAHHHHHHH. HE GOT ME. DON’T LET ME BECOME ONE OF THEM!!!!

2. In my other zombie movie, zombies can be cured only if they eat the people they love most in the world. When they return to human state and realize they ate loved ones, the former zombies are so heartbroken and flat, they turn into figurative zombies. The movie’s really an exploration of love and relationships, like Beaches or The Bodyguard.

3. In my other zombie movie, a young boy stumbles upon a crazy solution: zombies freeze when they hear the Chicken Dance. The boy spends the whole movie trying to convince Our Nation’s Leaders that his idea works. Then world is free, the boy’s a hero, and  the Chicken Dance becomes our national anthem, an anthem with no words, just arm flapping and clapping. Polka displaces hip hop on Top 40 radio.

4. In my other zombie movie, the infestation is a real-life pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies get government contracts for zombie vaccines and cures. Execs charge a fortune for the drugs. The rich, who own shares and control the market through stock derivatives, are immediately saved, but the poor will die unless they apply for huge bank loans they’ll never be able to pay. Congress launches an investigation into banking and investing practices to appease the public. Then, one-percent of the surviving population will develop Guillain-Barré syndrome from the vaccine, leading to the world’s largest class action lawsuit in which lawyers get 90 percent of the settlement.

Oh, then Michael Moore will make a documentary about the whole mess, Capitalism 911: Bowling for Zombies. Bill O’Reilly will accuse Moore of “hating America.” Life will be normal, at least on FOX TV.

5. My other zombie movie is a sequel comedy. The Center for Disease Control hires Shawn (of Shawn of the Dead) to manage the U.S. zombie outbreak after his success in Great Britain. Trust me, it’s very, very funny and very, very British, because all the moms are called “mums.”

See why Brad Pitt needs me?

And did I mention WWZ’s twist ending is nuclear war with only the zombies surviving? Just kidding, and I’m sorry. It’s tasteless to joke about movie spoilers.

Hemingway’s rules

I’ve tried not to use this blog to bemoan the state of journalism. But as newspapers prepare their own obituaries, I’m overwhelmed with loss. Great, probing journalism still exists, but you’d need to be an investigative reporter to find it.

The industry’s demise is a loss for readers and a blow to democracy. I’m sure many journalists thought about their roles in democracy yesterday, the day we celebrated our country’s independence.

My personal loss is tied to my career as a novelist. The glory days of newspapers provided incredible training grounds for writers. I wouldn’t be writing fiction today without my newspaper experience.

Hemingway: a newspaper man.

Hemingway: a newspaper man.

Here’s what one great fiction writer had to say about lessons he learned in journalism. Ernest Hemingway said the best rules for writing were those he received while working at the Kansas City Star. Those newspaper-inspired rules are as follows:

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

Thank you, editors at the Kansas City Star, for nurturing one of America’s greatest writers.