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.

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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.

Sincerely,

Shelley