Monday, March 30, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

I have cleverly avoided Talking Heads/David Byrne ever since I began to devote Mondays to posting my favorite song lyrics. How could I possibly choose a favorite song from this band/singer who were so central to my life in my teens and twenties? However, having just spent some time over the weekend listening to David Byrne, I have decided to brave it.

My sister and her friends introduced me to Talking Heads when I visited her for a weekend when she was a sophomore in college, and I was a very wide-eyed and innocent fifteen-year-old. I suppose they could have been playing anything, and I would have been "hooked," so exciting was it to be hanging out with all these "college kids." But I am so glad it was Talking Heads, and not, say, The Carpenters, who became the back-drop to being sneaked into bars by my sister and cute boys (I'm sure there were cute girls, too, but I only remember the boys) who didn't bat an eye when I ordered my Coke, but who offered me sips of their beer (in those days, in NC, 18-year-olds could drink), and seeing Dr. Strangelove for the first time.

I have many favorite Talking Heads and David Byrne songs and many memories that involve their music and lots and lots of friends and family members associated with those memories. However, one memory sticks out in particular. It's of the first time I heard a song from the last Talking Heads album before they broke up. I had recently moved to Connecticut from North Carolina, was loving my new life, and, although I had been a bit homesick during the first month or so, those feelings had long since left me, as I settled into a job I loved, made new friends, and fell in love with a new guy (that ended disastrously, but at this point, it was new and not the least bit disastrous).

I was driving home from work one day when this song came on the radio, the new release from the new album "Naked," which I had not yet heard. I guess, for some reason, I had not been playing my Talking Heads albums too much since moving to Connecticut. Suddenly, hearing David Byrne's distinctive voice made me homesick in a way I thought I never would be. The funny thing was that it made me homesick for a time and place that would never be again, which was the summer of 1985, a summer my friends and I referred to as "the best summer ever." That was the summer before my last year in college, the summer before my parents moved out of the house I'd lived in all my life (with the exception of brief stints in England), the summer most of my friends from Winston-Salem and my newlywed sister and her husband were still all living in town. The summer my brother and other sister had not yet moved to South Africa. Within one short year, those friends would be scattered all over the country. My siblings would be scattered all over the world. My parents would be living in Eastern North Carolina, where I knew no one.

The song is about a post-apocalyptic world in which most of modern technology is gone. It spoke to me on many different levels. The narrator is missing that world and his technology, but I heard it as an ironic take on how we've grown so accustomed to things like parking lots that we resent it when flowers take their place. Most of it, to me, was a cry for environmentalism. However, one line was something else entirely. That line, "And as things fell apart/Nobody paid much attention," was about the end of The Best Summer Ever, when a group of good friends spent as much time with each other as they could, listening to bands like Talking Heads, and paying no attention to the fact that things were about to fall apart. And, yes, I missed my own "Honky tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens." Needless to say, I immediately went out and bought the album.

Nothing (But) Flowers
by Talking Heads

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
you've got it, you've got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you've got it, you've got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bob and Emily Talk III

Emily (having finished devouring Nick Hornby): I think I need something else really funny to read. But I don't want just any old thing. I want something I know will make me laugh. Hard. A There's Something About Mary sort of laugh (a movie that had her on the floor between the seats doubled over in pain she was laughing so hard).

Bob: Yes, you do. No more The Faerie Queene right now.

Emily: There's Three Men in a Boat, but I always read that when I want something to make me laugh.

Bob: Maybe you should read Emma.

Emily doesn't know what to say. She thought he was listening until now, but he couldn't possibly have been. Yes, she knows he has seen her, many a time, reading/listening to Jane Austen. She has been known to let the occasional giggle escape while doing so, and Emma does happen to be her favorite. But really. If we're talking about tears-streaming-down-the-cheeks, fall-out-of-the-chair laughing, what he's seen her do while reading the likes of David Rakoff, Mary Roach, Sarah Vowell, and the aforementioned Jerome K. Jerome, she can't imagine how Jane Austen has sprung to his mind. (Note how David Sedaris is intentionally missing. You are surely all sick of references to him in this blog, but he is King of Consistently Getting Emily to Laugh Like That, so he really belongs in that list, too.)

Bob (noticing that Emily must be giving him a very strange look): least for that one scene.

And suddenly, it dawns on Emily. He's not referring to Austen's Emma. He is referring to Wilton Barnhardt's Emma, as in Emma Who Saved My Life. "The scene" is the scene that had them both in stitches when they read the book, the "Truckload of Dreams" scene. It's when Gil finally gets a job in the theater (what he has come, as a young dreamer, to NYC to do), a theater he describes as "barely the theater," a place where one "winds up in a bunny suit" (if memory serves well), and we are treated to a history of that theater, most memorably a description of the theater's attempt to do "Black Theater," popularized in the 1970s by such hits as "The Wiz."

Emily: Ohhhh, you don't mean Austen! You mean Emma! What was the play again? "Truckload Full of Dreams," right?

Bob: I don't know, but whatever it was, it was one of the funniest things I've ever read in a novel. (He starts to laugh. Soon, they are both laughing uncontrollably, despite the fact neither one of them remembers the details of the scene, or maybe even the title of the play, all that well.)

Bob (once they've pulled themselves together): But just read that one scene. It's not really a funny book.

Emily: I know. We read that before we even had the apartment in NY, didn't we?

Bob: Did we? Didn't we decide to ride all the subways in NY because of that book? We never did.

Emily (wistfully): I know. (She decides to leave Emma on the shelf for now.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Dog Ate It

Why I have not read and am not posting on Chester Himes's Real Cool Killers for the CT mystery book club tonight:

1. The day I got the email that this was the book we'd be reading, I looked it up to discover it was a relatively short book. Something that even I, who reads at a glacial pace, could maybe read in about five hours, so I thought I had plenty of time to secure a copy.

2. I put in an ILL request at our local library. I did that when the Musings were visiting us, exactly one month ago today. You can't accuse me of not having done my research, though. I looked it up on Worldcat first. The book is available in multiple libraries all within an hour's drive of here. However, it must be traveling by Sloth Express. Maybe by Christmas the poor sloth will have arrived at the library with the book in its pack.

3. My alternate plan for securing a copy, once I realized the book wasn't coming, was to go to CT this week, borrow it off one of the other members of the club, read it today, and attend the discussion in person, something I've never done. But then Bob got sick.

4. Not to worry. On Thursday, Dalia (one of the other members of the group) informed me that the book is in a Library of America collection called Crime Novels (reason #2,697,001 to love Library of America). The downtown Lancaster library had a copy of this collection. There was still hope that I might be able to read and write about it before this evening.

5. Nick Hornby. He is probably going to get his own post here soon, but today, he just gets a brief mention. Some of my former colleagues sent me a little book stack earlier this week as a token of their appreciation for the work I'd done. In that stack was Hornby's Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a book I've been wanting to read ever since someone mentioned it in a comment on my blog a couple of years ago. It's like reading Slightly Foxed (only better, because you know that every piece is going to be laugh-out-loud funny if you happen to appreciate Hornby's brand of humor, which I do). You may think that you can just sit down and read one or two of the essays and then put it down, but you can't. No. You can't do anything at all until you have read the entire thing in one sitting. Then, if you are me, while you're at the library picking up Crime Novels, you have to seek out The Polysyllabic Spree as well, because, you know, one night of that wasn't enough. (It's a good thing Hornby doesn't have a twelve-volume encyclopedic set of essays on the books he's bought and read each month. I'm afraid it really would kill me, as I probably wouldn't bother even to eat or drink while plowing my way through it).

6. John Updike. I've become interested in John Updike lately, due to my friend Bob's love of him, as well as Hobs and Litlove. Bob recently posted one of Updike's poems on his blog, which I thought was terrific, and then Courtney mentioned his poetry in the latest issue of The New Yorker, so while at the library, I also picked up his poetry collection Americana: And Other Poems. I thought I'd just read one or two poems to see what I thought and then get down to the business of reading Real Cool Killers. (See Hornby above.) So, there went Thursday evening and night, spent with Updike and Hornby. No time for Himes.

7. Getting an oil change in the car. This should take about an hour, no? Sitting in the waiting room should be a great time to get through a good chunk of Real Cool Killers, right? Even if Tyra Banks is blaring from the television screen in the waiting room, going on about turning ordinary Josephinas into glam models. That, I could ignore. However, I could not ignore the fact that I am a magnet for sweet elderly people who want to tell me their life stories. Did I tell you that the garage's owner has a 90-year-old father who comes to work with him on Wednesdays and Fridays? It was Friday. Anything you'd like to know about that 90-year-old man, I'm sure I could tell you. However, I can't tell you too much about Real Cool Killers.

8. Once back from the oil change, a good chunk of yesterday just had to be spent writing that piece that purged my system. It doesn't normally take me very long to write a blog post, but that one did and was draining.

9. Bob woke up and wanted to play The Farming Game, which is this incredibly cool board game he got me for my birthday. I am not one to turn down someone who wants to play any board game with me, but especially this one. And I certainly was not going to turn Bob down when last week at this time I never would have believed he'd be up for sitting up for a few hours and concentrating on farming strategies.

10. The kitchen. Bob is also feeling well enough to eat now, which means I have someone who enjoys my cooking to cook for again. Thus, I can go back to doing things like making scrumptious garlicky pasta with capers and artichoke hearts. I can experiment with vegan pancake recipes (you know, in case of the highly unlikely event that I ever become a vegan) and see what happens if I turn them into banana chocolate almond vegan pancakes (what happens is that you decide you could eat these every. single. day. But you'd better not. In fact, you'd better stop doing things like eating cake for breakfast, too, as summer/bathing suit season is right around the corner).

Good enough excuses? I think so. Meanwhile, I will read the book and post on it, just not by this evening. I have started it. One thing I can tell you is: comfort reading it ain't. Not when within the first few pages you have a man's arm that has just been cut off with an ax go flying across a Harlem joint. Despite that, though, I can already tell I'm going to get into this gritty, edgy book, and I'm sure it will make for an interesting discussion, especially when it comes to comparing/contrasting it to others we've read for the club.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Long Story Full of Resentment

(Sorry. I think I needed to purge myself of the whole experience. I will not be the least bit offended if you lose patience and only make it about halfway through this long -- even more narcissistic than usual -- post.)

It all started with a cold the week before my position at my former company was eliminated. I am afraid I was not the loving, attentive wife I like to pretend I am. When Bob gets sick, my thoughts usually run along these lines, "Oh great. He's sick. And he'll refuse to take care of himself, which means either he won't get well, and I'll be kept awake by his sniffling and coughing for the next two months, or he'll come down with pneumonia, and I'm going to have to take care of everything around here by myself, including him." I also happen to know that when he does find himself bedridden, he is extremely vocal about how horrible it is to be so, and he's very grumpy. In other words, he would never win any awards for "Patient of the Year."

I was right. He didn't take care of himself. He not only had his normal "minister-ly" duties to conduct, but on March 14th, he had to officiate a funeral. All funerals are sad, but this one was particularly so: a 32-year-old young man, diagnosed two years ago with colon cancer, who left behind his young widow and seven-year-old son. One can understand that a minister would want to be there for this family and that he did not want to scrimp on the service, most particularly the eulogy.

Bob's reasons for ignoring illness are always understandable. I didn't know him when he was a teacher, but I'm sure in those days, it was, "I can't take care of myself. I have to grade these papers." (Because, you know, you read in the news all the time about those kids who go on shooting sprees in schools because teachers have taken too long to grade papers.) When we worked together in publishing, it was, "I know I'm coughing up blood, but I have to fly to Buffalo in this blizzard to make this sale; it might not happen otherwise." (Because, quite obviously, the company was going to collapse if that one sale didn't happen.) When he was in school, it was, "I have to write this paper. It's due in two days." (Because seminary professors would far rather see a student drop dead typing out the last sentence of that paper than allow an extra week to write it.) Resentment (whom you need to hold completely responsible for all those parenthetical remarks I didn't just write), however, is not much into understanding.

All this is to say that when I received just about the worst news someone can receive career-wise, Bob was "here for me," but he really wasn't. How could he be when he was off with a grieving family, writing two sermons for two different services, and either sneezing his brains out or blowing his nose every five minutes? He did the best he could, was completely understanding every time I burst into tears of frustration/rage/hurt/worry, but really, I was pretty much on my own. My cell phone rang. Resentment suggested I needed a little company. Well, and you know me: I still haven't learned how to say "no."

I put everything on hold and waited "just to get through Bob's rough weekend," while I entertained resentment. Once the weekend was past, I was sure I'd get to be the center of attention. We'd work through all my emotions, and then, together, we'd set about mapping out a plan for my future. Well, it never happened.

We got to Monday (Bob's "day off"), and instead of my long-awaited, "all-about-me" day, I found myself with a husband who wanted to do nothing but nap. He kept saying, "I don't know why I'm so tired." Resentment calmly patted me on the arm, assuring me I need not respond (especially if I were going to respond in some concerned-wifely way) and sarcastically replied for me, "Gee, I can't imagine. You've got a cold. You've been caring for a grieving family. You spent the whole weekend officiating church services. Oh, and your wife just lost her job. There must be something really wrong with you."

Tuesday morning, he went off to church as usual, but when he came home for lunch, he told me he really wasn't feeling well. He was achy and chilled. He was going to go lie down for a little while. Three hours later, he was still lying down. I convinced him to take his temperature, and, as suspected, it was hovering somewhere just above 100. He started taking aspirin and insisted on beginning the process of doing research for his sermon. Stupidly, I let him. Luckily, I was not so stupid as to agree that he could go for a run when he tried to pull the old, "It's not in my chest. As long as it's not in my chest, it's okay to exercise" routine (I would like to shoot whoever came up with that little rule about exercise). Because my husband's Ten Commandments of Exercising seem to be missing "Thou shalt not exercise with a fever," I had to point out to him that a broken leg isn't in the chest, but that if someone wants a broken leg to heal, running on it is not the answer.

At this point, you can probably tell that no one could have compared me to Florence Nightingale. I was getting pretty annoyed, because his symptoms seemed to be screaming "flu." He'd had a flu shot last fall. My guess is that it isn't exactly easy to get the flu when you've had the shot. Someone has to work pretty damn hard to pick up those one or two odd strands of the virus that are resistant to the vaccine. Part of his job, naturally, involves frequent visits to hospitals and nursing homes. Some might be tempted to compare me to Lady Macbeth the minute I walk through the doors of a hospital, and I may be a bit obsessive, yes, but I am quite sure Bob visits all the time with nary a thought to washing his hands.

By Wednesday night, however, my annoyance was waning. I've known Bob for fifteen years, and I've never seen him so sick. He couldn't keep down any food, and he was in absolute agony. He kept complaining that not only did he feel like someone was squeezing his abdomen and holding it in a vice-like grip but that he also felt like he was being stabbed in the back with a knitting needle. I immediately suspected a kidney stone (my college roommate suffered from occasional kidney stones, and I knew the symptoms). He didn't tell me this at the time, but he was convinced it was colon cancer (some of his symptoms, which are too gross to relate, were eerily similar to those suffered by the poor young man whose funeral Bob had just officiated). He refused to go to the emergency room, however, so we waited until Thursday afternoon when he could get an appointment with our doctor.

Our doctor was somewhat mystified. He said it sounded like Bob had been hit by about three different things. He had blood drawn to be tested and did a quick urine analysis to discover a bladder infection ("How'd you manage that?" he asked, as bladder infections are so uncommon in men). He assured Bob that he did not have colon cancer, while noting he might have a kidney stone or a kidney infection (I was busy patting myself on the back for my brilliant skills at bedside diagnosis while being amused that Bob had jumped to the cancer conclusion). Bob got a prescription for an antibiotic, and we were told the blood test results would most likely be back the next day.

Well, the blood test results weren't. Meanwhile, Bob didn't seem to be getting much better. The pain was gone (again, not to go into the gross details, but we're pretty sure he passed a kidney stone), but he still had no appetite. Despite being on the antibiotic for two days, on Saturday night, his temperature went back up to 102.5. (He conveniently didn't tell me this until it was back down to a respectable 101.4 the next day, so opposed is he to going to the ER. I don't know what I'm going to do if he ever, say, chops off his finger while splitting wood.)

On Monday, resentment packed bags and left town, because I was being a terrible, inattentive host and had made the mistake of inviting worry, care, and concern to pull out sofa beds and unpack sleeping bags. The doctor called to tell us he'd gotten the blood test results and wanted to draw more blood to re-test it, because Bob's white blood cell counts were triple what they should be. When we saw him, he seemed mystified, because he'd expected with a white blood cell count that high, Bob certainly must have a kidney infection. However, the urine analysis showed no signs of that.

Well, anyone who has even had a passing acquaintance with hypochondria knows that elevated white blood cell count = leukemia (despite the fact that this is what the body naturally does when it's fighting off infection). Give a hypochondriac the Internet, and she will take it a little further, coming up with the following equation: elevated white blood cell count + fever that doesn't respond to antibiotic + abdominal pain + loss of appetite = husband dead from leukemia within months and despondent widow driven by her grief to the loony bin (oh, and she will completely forget the fact that just a few days ago, she thought her husband was silly to be worrying about cancer).

Luckily, by Tuesday morning, we had the new blood test results. His white blood cell count was back to normal, so the antibiotics were working, and I could banish all thoughts of leukemia. He had a staph infection. The problem is, we're still not sure why. It could be from a kidney stone, or it could be a heart valve infection. None of this is as serious as leukemia, but it's still serious stuff and needs to be monitored carefully. He had a CT scan on Wednesday, and next Tuesday (once the antibiotics have run their course), he goes to have his heart checked.

Meanwhile, he's beginning to feel much better. He doesn't understand why nobody wants him to preach on Sunday. He's complaining about lying around in bed all day. He's suggesting that, if not a run, he at least might like to go for a walk. He won't listen to me when I tell him he still isn't well, that we still don't know exactly what's wrong with him, that he still needs to take care of himself. Why won't he listen to me after all the care I've been giving him?

Oh, would you look at that? Leukemia walks out the door, and here comes resentment, back for what looks like (judging from the trunks) a rather lengthy stay...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Comfort Reads

(For those of you still wondering, one of my comfort reads authors is E. Nesbit, who is the answer to my What Woman Author Am I? post.)

Litlove wrote a post on comfort reads a few years back, and when I read it, I knew exactly what she meant by a "comfort read." It's a book (or author) you turn to, like macaroni and cheese, or mashed potatoes (especially if you're Pete, who recently wrote his own post about comfort reading), or a grilled cheese sandwich, when you wish you were four years old again, could sit in some loving person's lap, and be rocked to sleep. Some of the books Litlove chose were ones I immediately recognized as my own comfort reads, and ever since, I've been thinking about which books would be on such a list of mine.

I never got around to making that list, though, until now. Early last week, I said to Bob, "I think I'm going to go around the house and make myself a pile of comfort reads. I'm probably going to need them for a while." Well, come to find out, our house is full of comfort reads. I could have made piles of 100s of books. I decided I was only going to choose ten, though, which means I needed to do something to help me narrow my selections. Finally I decided, maybe I ought to choose ten that I haven't read in at least ten years. So, out went Three Men in a Boat (a book I turn to in almost every crisis), as did all of David Sedaris and I Capture the Castle. Also, I'm afraid to say, all of Jane Austen and Dracula (yes, that is a comfort read for me).

Speaking of Dracula, I realized while doing this little exercise, that I was choosing some rather odd books. My stack didn't look at all like I thought it would. Where was Louisa May Alcott? Where was Daddy Long Legs? Where were Lee Smith and Kaye Gibbons? And what about Janet Evanovich? That was when I realized that sometimes comfort reading isn't always about the book itself. Sometimes it's about the when, why, and how you read it the first time. Sometimes, it was the book that you remember got you through a horrible breakup (several Tom Sharpe novels), or it was the book you were reading when you were accepted into the college of your choice (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), or maybe the person who became your best friend at the place where you had your first real job gave it to you for Christmas, and you read it on the airplane flying from Connecticut "home" to North Carolina (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler). For some reason, I tend to associate vivid memories with many of the books I read, so that, for instance, I can say, "Oh yeah, I was reading that when we were on that ship coming back from the Bahamas, and one of our fellow passengers said, 'Wait till you get to the ending. The way it ends is just great. They changed it in the movie, which was lame.'" (The book was Stephen King's Firestarter, and my fellow passenger was right.)

So, here are the ten books I chose. I think what I might do is read one a month for the next ten months (of course, the minute I announce a plan like that, it goes asunder, so maybe I won't).

Aesop's Fables
Oh, did I love Aesop when I was a child! I guess it was the animals in the tales, who were so much more believable, somehow, than a lot of animals portrayed in popular children's books when I was young. I also think, though, that I've always been drawn to allegory and things of a proverbial nature. I haven't read Aesop since I was a child. I imagine these days, I will find lots of people I know in the tales.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
I was reading this on that 1996 trip to Bonaire (see The Enchanted Castle below). Our friend mentioned below had also read this one and loved it. She told me to read King's A Grave Talent, which she said was also very good, but I never have. I was more drawn to this particular series. What could be more comforting than an aging Sherlock Holmes acting as apprentice to a young girl who has wits to match his own?

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
Here's the incredibly sweet story about this one: in 1996, Bob and I celebrated our one-year anniversary (September 23) early by taking a trip to Bonaire to scuba dive during the Labor Day week. We met a wonderful elderly couple who'd been diving there for years. She was a children's book collector. We talked about E. Nesbit, and she told us that William Morrow was reprinting Nesbit in these fabulous new editions. I told her my favorite E. Nesbit as a child had been The Enchanted Castle. On September 23, back home from our trip, we received a package from her. It was the new edition of The Enchanted Castle. I re-read it when it arrived, but I haven't read it since.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri
I haven't read this one since I was a child, but it always brought me great comfort. I might find it to be too treacly at this point in my life, but then I will just focus on the goats (I seem to remember that goats played a major role in the book. However, I know from past experience that events/characters I thought played major roles in books as a child often turn out to have barely a mention in the book when I re-read it as an adult. Let's hope the goats play a major, non-treacly role if I plan to focus on them).

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
First of all, this book was introduced to me by a guy on whom I had a massive crush for years, but I didn't read it. Then, at another point in my life, another guy on whom I had a crush recommended it. Remembering those silly young crushes are comforting enough in and of themselves, but there's also nothing more comforting to me than laughing at the absurd. Oh, and mice and dolphins who are smarter than humans? That's my kind of world interpretation.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
This one really doesn't need any explanation, does it?

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
I read this the first year after college. That was a relatively difficult year for me, as I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, was working in a very emotionally draining position with dyslexic children, and I was living in a house full of boys. I often retreated to my room, locked the door, and read (in fact, two other "comfort reads" came out of that year, Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides and John Irving's The Cider House Rules). I read this book, called a friend of mine, and said, "Let's go to Thomas Wolfe's house." We did. I hope I love the book as much this time around (I've been told it isn't as good if you read it past a certain age. We'll see).

N or M by Agatha Christie
This was the first Agatha Christie I ever read at age 12 (my first foray into "grownup" books). I then went on to read everything in our house and everything our public library had to offer that we didn't have in our house. What's more comforting than Agatha Christie? Tommy and Tuppence are still my favorite Christie characters, and I've always wished there'd been more books that featured them.

by Gary Paulsen
Who would have thought that a book about the Iditarod could have someone laughing until the tears streamed down her cheeks? Especially a book by Paulsen, who is better known for writing rather grim, realistic YA novels? Certainly not I, when I read an interesting review of this one while working at the library and decided to put a reserve on the just-ordered book. I finished it and immediately began forcing it on everyone I knew. It's more than hilarious. It's also very wise. When I married Bob, I bought him a copy. Everyone should read it. Really. (A few years ago it was made into what looked like a very inferior movie, but never having seen it, I really shouldn't judge.)

The World According to Garp by John Irving
See? This is probably the one that is my oddest choice for "comfort," but somehow, I find Irving to be very comforting. I know he loves Dickens, and for me, he is a 20th/21st-century Dickens -- not always easy to read, but his heart is in the right place, and he's a master at characterization. I love characterization. Also, this is one of those books that once got me through a very rough period in my life.

Now, I've got to figure out which one to read first. Any suggestions?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

Last week, a friend of mine who isn't even old enough to be my father (technically speaking, yes, but not for most in 1964, when he was barely in high school), but who often acts as if I'm young enough to be his granddaughter (not that I'm really complaining about anyone who acts as though I'm young at my age) made a reference to the Vietnam War in an email to me. He noted in parentheses that I'm too young to remember Vietnam. I emailed back that I most certainly remember that war.

I do. I remember the terrible footage on TV every night that sometimes gave me nightmares (visions of dismembered limbs tend to do that to young children). I remember family friends with teenage sons trying not to discuss concerns "in front of the children." I remember my fourth grade teacher telling us how lucky he'd been with his lottery number, a concept I didn't understand. What I did understand was that he seemed to get a little choked up when he told us that some of his friends hadn't been quite as lucky.

But that's not what my email back to my friend said. My email back to him told him that I did remember the war, that in 1969, my family was on a flight to London, and we wandered around the plane, as children will do (especially in those days, when children had much more freedom). Sitting in the back of the plane (in the smoking section, of course), we found a group of hippies. My oldest sister Forsyth, who was my walking encyclopedia in those days (thanks to her, I barely had to look anything up until she went away to college when I was fourteen), informed me that they were Vietnam War protesters. I had absolutely no idea what that meant (I'm not completely convinced she did, either), but I knew I thought these long-haired guys with their guitars and green backpacks were really cool.

They were hippies. We were children. They, of course, embraced us in our simple innocence (probably to the relief of our parents, who far from being afraid of such influences on their progeny, were happy to have others who seemed to want to keep four children, all under the age of ten, entertained before "bedtime" on that long flight). Those "Vietnam War protesters" taught me how to draw a peace sign. They sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" and drew magnificent pictures of dragons for us (I wish we'd saved those).

I'm not sure if that was my introduction to "Puff" or not (probably not), but I know that was when it became one of my favorite songs. I fell in love with the song; I fell in love with dragons (see? That's where it all started); and I fell in love (in that magical, once-upon-a-time way that only a five-year-old who's never had her romantic heart broken can) with a couple of long-haired hippies.

This is my first real memory of "Puff the Magic Dragon," but I have many other memories of it, associated with many different stages of my life. Not the least of these was when Bob and I were on our honeymoon and saw the land formations in Hanalai that, allegedly, depict Puff and were the inspiration for the song (yes, they do look like a dragon, but I've never found anything that backs up our tour guide's claim to this origin of the song). My first memory, however, is still my favorite.

Catch me at the right time (or, maybe it's the right time of the month), and this song can still bring a tear to my eye. It's all about growing up and the loss of innocence, so how appropriate that my first real memory of it is of a time when I, in all my innocence, knew exactly what it was about. It was about a wonderful, friendly dragon (were there any other sorts?) and a friend who (oh, so unfairly) left him. How could Jackie Paper, after all the wonderful adventures they'd shared, do that to his trusted pal Puff? (Yes, how could he?)

Puff the Magic Dragon
by Peter, Paul, and Mary

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee,
Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff,
and brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff. Oh

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee,
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail
Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff's gigantic tail,
Noble kings and princes would bow whene'er they came,
Pirate ships would lower their flag when Puff roared out his name. Oh!

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee,
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave. Oh!

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee,
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Your Blog is Fabulous

I'm still blushing over the fact that Charlotte, who most definitely was far more deserving of this award than I, selected me for the "Your Blog is Fabulous" award. Of course, she also commented that, despite all my protests to the contrary, I really am a book blogger, which I am beginning to acknowledge. I mean, maybe I don't review every book I read, but every other post, it seems, is about books, isn't it?

Anyway, before I get to those I am giving the award, I am going to follow in Charlotte's footsteps and note five fabulous addictions of mine. Here they are:

1. Blogs. I don't know what I ever did before I had all my favorite blogs to read, as well as a place where I could bare my soul and find others who agree with me. I'm addicted to blogging myself; I'm addicted to constantly checking to see if others have posted something new on their blogs; and I'm addicted to commenting, checking comments, hoping others will comment, etc., etc. Long live the blogosphere! (We will ignore that nasty little other addiction Facebook, which is the inferior crack cocaine quickly smoked for an immediate high in some run-down old house, to the fabulous $150 bottle of champagne enjoyed on the private terrace of a luxurious mountain-view bed and breakfast in the Napa Valley while watching the sunset with the love of your life that provides a slow and lasting sort of high.)

2. Pen pals. I love you. I love your letters. I love anticipating your letters. I love having a reason to buy stationery. I love how much we are sharing with each other. Really. I can't say enough about how much I am enjoying this new addiction in my life.

3. Spring in Lancaster County. I am addicted to it, in a way I was never addicted to spring anywhere else. I'm watching the fields for signs of vegetation. I can't wait for the asparagus. I'm eager to see what the farm stands have to offer. I'm loving right now when I can see the buds and am anticipating what I know is coming.

4. Libraries. Well, you know, you house another one of my all-time favorite addiction: books. And you're a great place to escape. But you're also just so cutting edge. I love the way you embrace technology. I also love your principle, which is to provide all information to everyone, no matter what. If only everyone had that sort of attitude.

5. Cheese. Glorious cheese. What would life be without cheese? Oh, and I am living in a great place for cheese addicts -- fresh off the farm, even raw if you prefer. Hmmm. I think I need to go cut myself a slice. I'll be back in a minute...

Well, that slice of cheese turned into two cheese toasties (on Amish bread, another addiction). Anyway, now that I am fully sated (man may not be able to live on bread alone, but he most certainly may live on bread and cheese alone), I feel a need to explain that it is very, very difficult for me to choose those for whom I am going to bestow this award. I read so many fabulous blogs. Thus, like Charlotte, I have decided to create a category. I am presenting you with blogs of those I know in real life, whom I did not meet via the blogosphere. So now, without further ado, I bring you my awardees:

1. Danny of Jew Eat Yet: I know. I know. I sound like a broken record. I am always recommending Danny's blog for everything, but really, truly, his is the blog that I first started reading consistently, and although I was intimidated by the thought of starting my own blog when I knew those like he existed out there, he still encouraged me. He's a brilliant writer; he's funny; he's honest; he's incredibly smart and knowledgeable; oh, and for you Wilco fans out there, he's Jeff Tweedy's brother-in-law (start reading him, and you can claim two degrees of separation.)

2. Ian. For those of you who don't know, he's my brother. He had a blog, and then he had another blog, and now he never blogs. We forgive him, because he is in grad school and barely has time to give us status reports on Facebook. However, his blog posts almost give you a glimpse of how extraordinarily funny and fabulous he is in real life (and I'm not just saying that because I'm his sister. You can ask not only his other two sisters, but any number of people who will assure you of his fabulousness). I promise you, if you're having a dinner party, you want him on your guest list (not only to help cook the meal but to keep everyone roaring with laughter and then to play a little after dinner music on his guitar).

3. Bob of Lacunae Musing. I knew he was brilliant. I knew he was observant. I knew he was a visionary. However, I didn't know he was such a heartfelt and inspiring writer until I started reading his blog. He's also a magnificent photographer (which I didn't know he inherited from his father until I started reading his blog). He writes about everything, and if you read his blog, you will be challenged (oh yeah, I also knew that he loves to challenge people), and you will learn, so I suggest you read it.

4. Feminine Feminist. She doesn't post nearly enough. She's got that typical female syndrome of being way too modest when it comes to her talents, and she will tell you that her writing is no good. But read her. She is absolutely wrong about that. Her keen eye for life's absurdities is apparent on her blog, as is her huge heart (one of the biggest I've ever known), and her wicked sense of humor.

5. Zoe's Mom. Few people in the world make me think, "Well, maybe having a child isn't such a bad thing after all." (Of course, if I could guarantee having a child like Zoe...) I'm pretty sure it's because she is so incredibly honest about the whole "motherhood experience." Oh, and despite what you might think, she isn't all about Zoe. She gives you plenty of other hilarious (and sometimes poignant) observations about this thing we call life.

So there you have it. Those of you I've awarded may pass the award on to others if you so choose.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No More Doubt (Or "Ms.-I-Know-Better-Than-They" Speaks)

So, I suppose, as is very normal when one is laid off from her job, I'd begun to doubt myself. I'd begun to think maybe I was wrong all along about the writing I thought I could so clearly see all over the walls outside our company. Maybe that wasn't the true writing on the wall. Maybe it was just some math geek who'd gotten hold of a can of spray paint and in some odd moment of rebellion, a moment of anger, when he was tired of always playing second fiddle, had riddled the walls with equations that hid all the written words underneath.

I'd visited all kinds of schools, from those who knew our company well to those who'd never heard of our company. I'd sat in on meetings of The National Math Panel that were open to the public. I'd talked to teachers at conferences. What I thought I'd been hearing was a push for math in every type of school in the country, that literacy coaches were being let go in order to make room for more math coaches. I thought I'd heard that in some schools, the time periods being allotted to language arts were being cut in order to make more time for math. I thought I'd heard that the federal government now understood the need for more research money for math, because when members of the National Math Panel tried to turn to research to find answers to their questions (for instance, what sorts of effects does calculator use in the elementary grades have), they found very little current research to do so. I thought that in all the presidential and vice-presidential debates I watched last fall, I heard a focus on math and science when questions about education arose. I thought I'd heard, over and over again, when listening to those who discussed how our students hold up to those in the rest of the world, people bemoaning our kids' lack of mathematical skills.

I thought I'd heard Thomas Friedman a few years ago stand up in front of an auditorium full of math educators and tell us that the best jobs in the future were going to be for those with strong mathematical and problem-solving skills. He told us that our country was not going to remain as powerful as it is if we kept up our practice of hiring those from overseas for so many of our jobs that required scientific and mathematical knowledge. He encouraged those with young children to get them interested in science now, before it was too late. And I thought I'd begun to hear that, after years of ignoring it, science is beginning to garner attention again in the world of education.

Last week, I decided I must have been suffering from a hearing disorder. Maybe I needed to have my ears cleaned. My colleagues were probably right to ignore me when I blathered on about math and science. I, alone, may not have known exactly what tools are needed by educators right now in the areas of math and science, but what I thought I understood was that they do need something. They certainly don't have what they need right now, which is why our students continue to do so poorly in math and science. I was convinced that if I had some help, that if we could put together all the bright heads at our company to start coming up with new ideas, that if a company existed that truly focused on trying to solve this problem, on trying to give teachers what they really need in math and science, that the company would be extremely successful. Perhaps my convictions were wrong. After all, many of my colleagues have been in the business much longer than I have; many of them have actually been classroom teachers. Maybe they had a far better handle on what was happening than I had.

But then I read an article in our local paper that Barak Obama himself says that when it comes to reforming NCLB, a focus on problem solving is at the top of his list. That, my friends, is math. Then I read that Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, in addressing attendees at the National Science Teachers Association meeting, says we are entering a "new era" in science teaching. Duncan also cited a $5-billion dollar "race to the top" fund that will reward states that are already embracing innovation and taking "reform-minded" approaches. So, this is where the money will be.

Ahh, that writing on the wall is real. Those equations are there. Teachers who are skilled at problem solving and who are approaching math and science in an innovative fashion are going to be the ones who succeed and who give our students what they most need, so that they, in turn, can become successful. Teachers are going to need resources to help them develop those skills, because they don't know where to begin, especially since most of them are products of school systems that have not been teaching math and science in this fashion. The companies that have been reading this writing on the wall for the past five years are about to reap the benefits.

Thus, I will go on record saying I wasn't wrong. I may have been trying to force a square peg into a round hole, but I wasn't wrong. I will even be so bold as to say that companies that decide to focus on selling goods and services into schools to help their teachers reform the way they teach math and science will be ones that, in the next ten years or so, are not only going to survive but are going to thrive. I can't wait to see it happen, because I, for one, am tired of living in an innumerate society.

Educate our kids to understand (really understand, not just spit back rote procedures) numbers, and they won't be so easily fooled by Wall Street moguls eager to line their own pockets while driving average workers into deeper and deeper debt. They'll understand how much they're really paying for that new computer if they charge it to a credit card with an 18% interest rate and only make minimum payments every month. Maybe they'll learn to save up for such major purchases. Maybe they'll be skeptical when told they get a "free" cell phone with their 2-year-service contract that can't be broken without paying an outrageous fee. And maybe, just maybe, when they begin running companies themselves, they will understand the importance of talented employees and will make sure they have the money to pay them instead of wasting money on private jets, off-site meetings in luxurious vacationland spots, and company cars for all the managers.

Meanwhile, when I'm in one of my more positive moods, I'm kind of glad that I'm no longer stuck trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It's nothing but frustrating for all parties involved. Right now, I'm taking a little time off, but when I start looking for a job again, I'm going to be seeking out companies with square holes. And if I can't find them? Well, I just might have to start one of my own.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Woman Author Am I?

I loved this little exercise in honor of Women's History Month, which I found at Eva's who got it here. However, I've decided I want to do a slightly different version of it. Mine is, instead, a one-woman "Who Am I?" See if you can guess who I am from the ten clues I've provided. If you get to the tenth clue, still have no idea, and don't just want to make a wild guess, you are allowed to cheat and see if you can get the answer via Google or Wikipedia (but I'd love it if you were honest and let me know whether or not you had to "cheat." I was absolutely astonished when I found out all these interesting details about this author a few years back). Oh yes, and, for those of you who read my post on Shakespeare and Sartre, it's neither Dorothy Parker nor Louise Dickinson Rich (that would be just a little too easy), which is obvious, given the first clue.

1. I am a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century writer (surprise, surprise).

2. I was born in England, but as a child, I lived in England, France, Germany, and Spain.

3. Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (1995) claims I "led an ordinary country life in Kent," which is laughable.

4. Unless you consider being in an open marriage in that day and age "ordinary."

5. Or you consider, in that day and age, waiting until you're seven months pregnant before getting married to be "ordinary."

6. Or maybe what was "ordinary" was that I raised two of my husband's children by another lover as if they were my own.

7. Oh, wait a minute, I know what might have been "ordinary." When we were first married, my husband chose, rather than to live with me, to continue living with his mother.

8. I published over 60 books, both on my own and in conjunction with others.

9. I was among the founders of a society that was a precursor to the Labor Party (making me a very appropriate subject for a quiz that celebrates Women's History Month, no?). The society was named after my son, who died when he was a teenager.

10. I died of lung cancer, most likely caused by the fact that I was a heavy smoker, at age 65.

Leave your answers in the comments, and if anyone else wants to make up a quiz, I'd love to see your version and play the guessing game myself (I'm hopeless at these sorts of things, so you're guaranteed to stump at least one person. It's worth it to me to be stumped, though, to get to find out interesting tidbits about authors). I will post the answer, if it isn't obvious from the comments, next week.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

England, Sartre, and Shakespeare (Huh?)

Last night, being in a wasting time frame of mind, I decided to take a bunch of stupid online quizzes (courtesy of Facebook this time). Here's what I find out about myself:

Where I should live: England.

Which Philosopher I am: Jean-Paul Sartre

Which writer I am: Shakespeare

Which Shakespeare quote I am: "The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."

Just like reading a horoscope that captures some part of my life well, with each one, I found myself thinking, "cool," until I started thinking about each one a little more. Let's expound on these probably completely randomly generated answers that most likely have no bearing on who or what I am at all.

All right, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare to live best in England, but a French philosopher? I think not. Those practical Brits would tire of someone who sat around philosophizing too long and hard when he could be, you know, making tea or planting a garden, making himself useful in some way. Although they do tend to have a sort of existential under layer, their attitudes toward the French would probably make me too uncomfortable. I found it hard enough to be an American living amongst certain sorts of Englishmen (funny, but they really were all men. My female English friends and acquaintances have always been wonderful, and have never trashed America in front of me. As a matter of fact, I had one school friend who used to stick up for me when our biology teacher -- male, of course -- would go on one of his rampages against America) where, as my sister has always pointed out, "They've only been hating us for a little over 200 years. Think how long they've been hating the French." Then there's that whole problem of Sartre's atheism. I've been through my period of atheism and can't see myself going back to that.

I'd better shed the Sartre cloak then and put on Shakespeare if I'm going to live in England. But let's take a look at my writing style. It's not exactly what anyone would describe as "poetic." I couldn't write a sonnet if my life depended on it. I do like to think that maybe I could match wits with old Will, but if I'm Shakespeare, Harold Bloom would probably come knocking at my door at some point, and I just don't think I could possibly suffer the man. At least when I'm reading him, I can throw him across the room if I want.

As a matter of fact, I'd really rather not live in England. I absolutely love the country, but there isn't enough snow there for my tastes (although there probably was in Shakespeare's day). Of course, if I'm going to live in a snowless place, I'd definitely choose England over just about anywhere else I've been or lived. But you know, if I could live in Manhattan or Maine, where I'd still get the snow, and visit England for a month or so every year, that's what I'd really choose to do.

The quote seems to be the quiz result that makes the most sense, especially since it's taken from All's Well that Ends Well. I would have been really worried if the quote had come from King Lear. It certainly seems very fitting for this particular period in my life. I've got this piece of black yarn right now taking center stage, but it will probably knit with some beautiful greens and blues in the not-too-distant future. The whole piece will be pleasing, and all will end well.

So, let's keep the quote, but could I be Sarah Orne Jewett or Dorothy Parker or Louise Dickinson Rich, in my Manhattan apartment or house in the Maine woods, instead of Shakespeare and Sartre?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

Suzanne Vega is one of those performers with whom Bob courted me when we were dating. Sure, I knew who she was, liked "Luca," but didn't know much beyond that one album. When he discovered I wasn't all that familiar with her, Bob showed up one night at my apartment with all her CDs (gotta love an "all-or-nothing" sort of guy, no?). He was extremely passionate about her (I know, those of you who know Bob will find that very hard to believe), and it wasn't long before his passion rubbed off on me. I had a hard time giving those CDs back to him when I finally decided I'd "borrowed" them long enough. Good thing I didn't go out and buy any of them, since they eventually became mine as well as his when we got married (we had enough overlap when we merged our collections as it was). And we've bought the CDs she's produced since we got married.

Just before Bob's birthday, in 2007, about a month after we'd moved to Pennsylvania, I discovered that Vega was playing in a theater venue in Sellersville, not too far from where we live. Bob had seen her years ago, but I'd never seen her, and I thought this would be a perfect birthday present. Turns out I was right. He was thrilled when I presented him with the tickets.

By the time we got to the theater, however, he wasn't quite so thrilled. This was in the days when we foolishly thought we could get around PA without a GPS, and we were dependent on maps and the directions provided by the theater's web site, which clearly said not to follow the Mapquest directions. We would have been better off following Mapquest, I'm sure, as, after hitting horrible rush-hour traffic, which put us behind, we then proceeded to get hopelessly lost. The trouble began when the directions told us to turn left on a road where we could only turn right, and that took us onto one of those major highways straight out of some horror movie that never ends and never lets you exit. Somehow, we eventually made it off the highway, and by some miracle, after driving all over back country roads (despite the South's reputation, Pennsylvania definitely has the South I know beat when it comes to unlit back country roads), managed to find the theater, which I was beginning to think didn't really exist.

The theater has a nice restaurant attached to it, and our plans had been to have a leisurely, romantic dinner before the show. Needless to say, Cupid's arrow takes a severe nose dive when two frazzled, angry, rushed people sit down to eat. I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure I had decided I wasn't going to speak to Bob throughout dinner, after one of those typical "I can't believe I listened to you. I knew it couldn't possibly be this way," sorts of discussions couples have when they're both lost, and although it's really nobody's fault, per se, each is absolutely convinced the other is at fault. Each is also absolutely convinced that it's the other's fault that they didn't leave earlier, giving them time in case they got hopelessly lost. (That really is Bob's fault. He believes Mapquest's estimated time is overestimated. I always assume at least fifteen minutes ought to be added onto it.)

A glass of wine later, though, and we remembered why we were here. Cupid began peeking around the corner, and pretty soon, we were discussing which songs we hoped she'd play. On my list was "New York is a Woman." By the time she played it, Cupid had hit his target.

Here you go (yet another favorite song that's about New York). But how can you possibly not love it? The lyrics are just so perfect and so true. Everyone who's ever been to NYC for the first time should completely understand the feeling.

New York is a Woman
Suzanne Vega

New York City spread herself before you
With her bangles and her spangles and her stars
You were impressed with the city so undressed
You had to go out cruising all the bars

Your business trip extended through the weekend
Suburban boy here for your first time
From the 27th floor above the midtown roar
You were dazzled by her beauty and her crime

And she's every girl you've seen in every movie
Every dame you've ever known on late night TV
In her steam and steel is the passion you feel
New York is a woman she'll make you cry
And to her you're just another guy

Look down and see her ruined places
Smoke and ash still rising to the sky
She's happy that you're here but when you disappear
She won't know that you're gone to say goodbye

And she's every girl you've seen in every movie
Every dame you've ever known on late night tv
In her steam and steel is the passion you feel
New York is a woman she'll make you cry
And to her you're just another guy

Friday, March 13, 2009

25 Most Influential Authors

I see the book blogosphere has taken an idea from Facebook and turned it into yet another worthy meme (or maybe this version is floating around out on FB, too, but I'm choosing to believe that isn't the case, that we are doing far better memes here in blogland). Not long ago, Zoe's Mom was tagged for a note on FB (by the way, why does Facebook insist on saying you were "mentioned in a note" instead of "tagged?") of her 25 most influential albums. I was tempted to pick it up but then realized she'd uncannily mentioned so many of the same albums I would put on my list, there was no point, and I didn't particularly feel like going into the details of why certain albums had influenced me. The meme didn't require that, but I always feel what's the point in doing these things if you're going to leave your readers thinking, "I wonder how that piece of crap could possibly have been so influential in her life."

Then today, I wander over to Dorr's place to discover the meme has been turned into authors. Well, even though Dorr and I have a few in common, who can possibly resist talking about authors? And I have absolutely no problem explaining why authors influence me. I love this one so much, I'm even (obnoxiously) going to tag 25 of you to do it, instead of doing the polite thing, as Dorr has done and just asking if anyone's interested. (Of course, I hope you realize that as soon as I post this, I will find myself thinking, "Damn! I forgot to include ______." Thus, this is really the list of most influential authors I can think of off the top of my head at this moment.)

Here are the instructions:

"Name 25 writers who have influenced you. These are not necessarily your favorite writers or those you most admire, but writers who have influenced you. [Silly bolded disclaimer. I can't possibly admire an author without being influenced, at least in some way, by him/her, and very few -- although I have to admit, some do spring to mind, like Thomas Pynchon -- authors I admire are missing from the pages of The Big Book of Emily's Favorites.] Then you tag 25 people.”

Authors for "Children"

(I could probably fill this whole list with nothing but children's authors. I won't. Suffice it to say that many children's authors are missing in order to make room for other influential authors.)

1. Louisa May Alcott -- both my mother and father read to me long past the age at which I "needed" it. It was a great way for them to share favorite books with me and a nice way to get time alone with them (something for which children with three siblings long). I most remember my father reading me The Wind in the Willows and his favorite stories by Rudyard Kipling (who probably ought to be on this list) . My favorite read with my mother was Little Women. We read through that together and Little Men, and then I went on to read and re-read everything else by Alcott on which I could lay my hands. Interestingly enough, she didn't influence my own writing much, I think because I considered her to be too "old-fashioned."

2. Beverly Cleary -- the first "chapter book" I ever read was Ramona the Pest, which my aunt gave me as a Christmas present when I was in first grade. The first go-around, my mother actually read it to me, but I went on to read it countless numbers of times throughout my childhood (and once as an adult), as well as everything else Cleary had written when I was between the ages of 7 and 13. When I began to write my own "chapter books," they were heavily influenced by Cleary, as well as Enright, Nesbit, and Eager (see below).

3. Edward Eager -- He did what I wanted to do: brought E. Nesbit into the modern day (well, what was "modern day" when I was reading him). His characters even read her books. And I couldn't believe it, but he was actually funnier than Nesbit. I could have been sued for plagiarism when I wrote my first "magic book."

4. Elizabeth Enright -- we had this fabulous family friend named Rosalie when I was growing up, who lived in Chapel Hill, NC and who had a house full of books. We'd visit her every so often, and we kids would each vie to be the one who got to sit on her lap while she read to us (I particularly remember being read Johnny Crow's Garden). When we were a little older, she'd let us choose books from her shelves to keep. I'd been sick one day, and my mother had brought home from the library The Saturdays, a book with which I immediately fell in love. Shortly after that, we went to visit Rosalie, and she had a great big 3-book-in-one edition of The Melendy Family that she let me have. I treasured that book until it fell apart and wish I could get another copy.

5. Norton Juster -- if you put a gun to my head and said, you must name your favorite book from childhood, I would say The Phantom Tollbooth. It took me forever to get around to reading it, because as a child, I was not impressed by Jules Feiffer's illustrations (don't worry, I got over that mysterious plague), and illustrations were very important to me. I couldn't get past the cover. But my sisters loved the book, so I eventually read it, and when I did, I decided it was the best book I'd ever read. I've read it twice as an adult and marvel at what great taste I had as a child (at least for the written word, if not for illustrations).

6. E. Nesbit -- I feel very sorry for those children who have had to grow up with the very inferior J.K. Rowling, when I was fortunate enough to have had E. Nesbit. She was brilliant: knew children, knew her mythology/magic/folktales, had a great sense of humor, and created the best children's literature character ever in The Phoenix. I played "Magic Carpet" and "Enchanted Castle" for hours on end when I was a child (when I wasn't busy reading and re-reading the books).

7. Laura Ingalls Wilder -- I started with Little House in the Big Woods, of course, read my way through the whole series, and was surprised that none of my school friends seemed to know about the books until the TV show (which I watched eagerly, but was bitterly disappointed by, because so much of it was "wrong," not the least of which was "Pa's" missing beard) was made. My classmates and I actually played "Little House" at recess (for some inexplicable reason, I was always made to be Baby Carrie, which for some other inexplicable reason, I didn't resent at the time). Almost all of my "life in the wild west" schema is derived from what I read in these books (well, that and "Bonanza").

Authors for "Adults"

(Sad to say, it's heavily male.)

8. Algernon Blackwood -- for someone who loves ghost stories as much as I do, I discovered old Algernon relatively late in life (then again, I've discovered quite a lot of "classic" ghost-story-writers rather late in life, mainly because I never thought to branch out from the big ghost-story collections I had to see what other works many of the authors had written). His "The Wendigo" still influences me every time I find myself alone in the woods right around dusk.

9. Russell Banks -- I was blown away by Continental Drift, which was one of the first dead-on commentaries on the ridiculous notion of "The American Dream" I'd been able to read (I couldn't get through Dreiser when I tried him, although I've always wanted to try again) and enjoy, if "enjoy" is the right word. Then, I read The Sweet Hereafter. Tight writing just does not get any better than that. Banks became my hero (although the only other book I've read by him is Rule of the Bone, which I also loved). Oh, and then I discovered Wallace Stegner (see below), who wrote the next dead-on commentary on same that I read.

10. Miguel De Cervantes -- Of course, if nothing else, he had a huge influence on my Spanish-language education, since he came up in almost every Spanish class I took from 8th grade through college (you'd think there'd been no other Spanish literature written). However, when I finally got around to reading Don Quixote (in translation. Spanish never "stuck"), I began to figure out why he's such a central figure in the canon. It really is about time I re-read Don Quixote. Cervantes was such a brilliant writer, I'm sure I missed so much the first go-around that it would almost be like reading it for the first time (which is why it keeps showing up as my desert island book).

11. Pat Conroy -- I'm not kidding when I say I nearly flunked statistics in college, because I was too busy reading The Lords of Discipline and couldn't get around to doing my homework (warning: do not skip a week's worth of homework in statistics. You will never catch up). Sometimes I agree with the critics who say Conroy needs an editor, but then, he's a storyteller, one of the best, and I tend to disagree when it comes to storytellers needing editors to do much more than re-word and correct grammatical errors. His books may be lengthy, but they never, ever lose my interest, and images from them haunt me long after I've finished them. Oh, and is he EVER going to write another novel??

12. Agatha Christie -- I never would have made it through my teenage years without all her books for escape. It's a good thing she was so prolific. I also remember reading a huge biography about her when we were traveling around Scotland the summer I was fifteen, which got me through a very difficult period when I thought my parents were going to get divorced.

13. Fyodor Dostoevsky -- I have to be in the mood for him, but when I'm in the mood for him, I despair over the fact that he's dead and gone and will never write anything else again. (Not that, rarely being in the mood for him, I've come anywhere near reading everything he ever wrote, but it's the principle I'm talking about here.) I will be forever in debt to Bob who kept urging me to read Crime and Punishment, which is the book that really helped me come truly to appreciate Dostoevsky.

14. Gerald Durrell -- the year we lived in England, I discovered My Family and Other Animals. I immediately set about writing a novel in a similar vein. I also immediately went about collecting his other books about non-family animals to read while mapping out my life as a zoologist (something I still wonder why I abandoned. Oh yeah, those tedious and time-consuming science labs). Oh, and if I hadn't "met" Gerald, I never would have gone on to read his brother Lawrence, whom I also loved when I was a (slightly older) teenager.

15. William Faulkner -- I realized I loved him when I had to read Absalom! Absalom! for two different courses in school and found myself mesmerized as much the second-time-around as the first. Then I read "The Bear" and "A Rose for Emily." Then, many years later, I read the book that completely blew me away, The Sound and the Fury. The man was a flat-out genius. No wonder he drank himself into an early grave. I would, too, if I had that kind of mind and had to live amongst all these inferior human beings.

16. John Irving -- some of you have heard me say before that The World According to Garp was the book that, at age fifteen, opened up the whole wide world of contemporary adult literature to me. Up until then, I 'd been despairing over having to leave my childhood favorites for what seemed to be very few "adult books" that I liked. I don't know what it is about Irving, but despite all the "weirdness" he insists on including in all his books that I often wish he didn't, nobody grabs me and creates more memorable characters the way he does. I am always, always sad when I reach the end of one of his books, left with nothing but a feeling of being deserted by friends.

17. M. R. James -- oh, if only my Fairy Godmother would show up and give me the ability to write ghost stories like James. How did someone manage to come up with so many imaginative situations over and over again and write about them so very well with such a sense of humour? It just isn't fair that some are blessed with such talent (then again, what would I read if they weren't?).

18. Stephen King -- how could a teenager who loved horror and ghost stories not be influenced by Stephen King? I haven't read it since I was sixteen, and maybe it would disappoint me if I were to return to it, but I still think The Shining is one of the scariest books I've ever read. He's a little over-the-top with all his violence, and I sometimes just want to shake him and say, "Stephen, you really didn't need to put all that in there," but when he wants to set a really creepy stage, he knows exactly what he's doing.

19. Ross Macdonald -- whenever anyone tries to tell me that the mystery genre shouldn't be taken seriously, I hand them Ross Macdonald. I've been heavily influenced by other mystery writers as well (see Agatha Christie), but Macdonald's sheer brilliance as a writer and observer of human nature stun me every time I return to him.

20. David Sedaris -- you know, the man who's had such an influence on me, I'm willing to chase him all over an island?

21. Wallace Stegner -- I read him during a brief period when I was reading a lot of nineteenth-century literature and was wondering if anyone in the twentieth-century really held up. He restored my faith (as others could have, but he happened to be the one who did). He's a brilliant story-teller and writer, creating characters who live with you forever. He's been way too neglected, but I'm hoping he's someone who will stand the test of time, especially given his ahead-of-his-time environmental interests.

22. Leo Tolstoy -- he created my all-time favorite couple in Kitty and Levin. Oh, and of course, there's that old story about how Tolstoy brought Bob and me together. I don't imagine an author can ever have much more of an influence on someone than that.

23. Mark Twain -- another prolific author, and I can't claim even to have put a dent in his works, but I haven't read a single thing he's written that I didn't love. He was comic genius, and you have to admire a man who was loved by the masses as well as by the critics. Someone who manages to write on all those levels is very rare.

24. Edith Wharton -- I thought I loved her novels. Then I read a collection of her ghost stories. Again, she's another one who makes me ask, "Why do some people get all the talent?" I like her better than Henry James, with whom she is always lumped (and she doesn't have that insufferable, pompous brother Henry had).

25. Virginia Woolf -- all right. Here's a confession (all you professors out there, close your eyes). I so loved To the Lighthouse (which I read for two courses in college) that the year after I'd graduated, when I was dirt poor and needed extra cash, I let a friend of a friend pay me $200 to read it and write a paper for him (those parents, quite obviously, were giving their child too good an "allowance"). What can I say? I was young and stupid. Anyway, about Woolf, that's not the only book by her I love. Every time I decide to return to her, I marvel at her talent.

Tagging (but you do not need to go into lengthy explanations for each one, as I have. I realize most of you do not happen to be unemployed), and keep in mind that you are under no obligation to post (although, you may not want to bring on the "Queen's" wrath): Bloglily, Cam, Courtney, Charlotte, Danny, Eloise, Eva, Feminine Feminist, Heather, Ian, Mr. Lacunae Musing, Litlove, Mandarine (perhaps you can "revive" your blog, yet again, for this one post? I'd love to see a French list), Ms. Musing, Ms. Make Tea, Nigel, Nobel Savage, Ms. Knits, Ms. Our Feet, Pete, Sara, Stefanie, Susan, Two-Legged Animal, and Zoe's Mom. I'd tag you, Hobgoblin, but I see you already did it.

(Phew! Next time, I am not going to link to all 25 of you. And apologies in advance if I screwed up on some of the links, as I'm not going back to check.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Mind(s) of the Recently Unemployed

"So, what goes through someone's mind when she's laid off from what she so long described as 'the perfect job at the perfect company?'"

Funny you should ask. I just might have a little insight into the answer. One of the first thoughts might be something along the lines of, "Why did I start with the novel about the pastor in the satirical 'small town' series instead of the one about the publishing company?" She might spend the whole afternoon of the day she's told her position is being "eliminated" at the library, sketching out a version of this second novel in the series (all being a "complete work of the author's imagination," none of the characters being "based on any real people"), fantasizing about its being serialized in some online magazine, the way Armistead Maupin's books began as serials. In this fantasy, some good publisher she loves picks it up, and it becomes a bestseller. She captures headlines by turning down Oprah, a la Jonathan Franzen. Meanwhile "the perfect company" collapses.

Then, she'll feel horrible for having such a fantasy. She loves that company, believes in it, has friends there she hopes will not only survive but thrive. She knows it has published some trend-setting, fantastic works. Still, oh man, could some of her experiences make for some fantastic satire. But no, that just wouldn't be a nice thing to do. That would be biting the hand that's fed you. Then again, who ever said not to bite the hand that's quit feeding you?

You get the picture. Want to spot "Person-Laid-Off-From-Perfect-Job-At-Perfect-Company?" Look for the woman with multiple personalities. Depending on what second of what minute of what hour of what day it is, she can be any of the following:

Ms. I'm-No-Good: characteristic thoughts = "I never was any good at that job. I never knew what I was doing. I have rotten, horrible instincts. No wonder they don't want me."

Ms. Who-Do-They-Think-They-Are?: characteristic thoughts = "Don't they know extraordinary talent when they've got it? Who are they to do this to me? They never made good use of me. They completely wasted me."

Ms. I-Know-Better-Than-They: characteristic thoughts = "They're making a huge mistake. I bet they're getting rid of me to hire someone just to keep right on doing what they've always done. Companies that just keep on doing what they've always done in this climate are going to die. They're going to die, and they can't see it. I can see it, and I know what they need to do, but they can't."

Ms. They-Always-Hated-Me: characteristic thoughts = "I never fit in. They hated me from the moment I started. They always acted as though I'd suddenly sprung a second head every time I opened my mouth to say something."

Ms. Extrapolate-to-Entire-Life: characteristic thoughts = "Life sucks. It always has. It's all so useless. Why do we even bother?"

Ms. Oh-Thank-God!: characteristic thoughts = "You mean I'll never have to deal with that manuscript/co-worker/damn inefficient computer system again? Hallelujah!"

There are probably some other personalities waiting to make an appearance, but right now, they're in hiding. They'll likely surface as days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months. Then again, maybe by then Ms. This-Is-The-Time-To-Do-What-You've-Always-Wanted-To-Do will have become the dominant personality, and all the others will have vanished, realizing they've been completely conquered.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Proof that I suck at Wii (take a look at Bob’s expression as well as the very, very concerned faces of the kids who are watching). Also proof that Bob and I should not adorn ourselves with glowing necklaces.

Proof that even after thirteen years of marriage, a husband might have a few secrets from his wife. He looks fetching in that hat, doesn’t he?

Proof that I am, indeed, married to a minister. Also proof that he looks awfully good in that robe and stole, doesn’t he? Probably better than in the hat.

Proof that Francis is an absolutely adorable cat. Also proof that we live in a house with gorgeous floors and banisters that need dusting.

Proof that Maine is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Also proof that all I need do is look at pictures, and I long to be there.