Friday, December 29, 2006

Books III (at least I think it's "III")

I made an annotated (God, do I sound like an editor or what? I was just about to delete that word, but decided to comment on it instead) list of my six favorites books of the year about midway through the year, and now it’s time to complete that list with my six favorite from the second half of the year. It’s been a particularly good year book-wise for me, thanks to recommendations from new friends online, new and old colleagues, and the old stand-bys: my husband and family members, as well as the creation of two book discussion groups. I’m expecting 2007 to be even better.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. I’m cheating with this one, because I actually read it during the first half of the year, but had already made the decision, since it was on the cusp, that I’d include it on my list for the second half. Brilliantly executed book. Charlotte’s done a better job than I ever could of doing it justice over here.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Probably the most perfect example of why Pym is such an exemplary writer, and why I’m green with envy over that fact every time I read her.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I’ve discussed this one ad nauseam with anyone who will listen, and have even mentioned it in a couple of posts. Such a fascinating book that opened up a whole new world to me, as well as an understanding of Mao’s China I’d never gotten from sitting in a classroom and reading textbooks. I loved the way history was traced through female voices and wish I could find more like this. Anyone have any suggestions?

Coraline by Neil Gaiman. A near-perfect children’s book: spooky, mysterious, dreamlike, and an independent and resilient child heroine. There are horrible adults and no thinly-disguised moralization in sight. I’ll be reading more Gaiman in the future. Who knows? Maybe even in the form of graphic novels.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff. Funny. Don’t-read-it-in-public-places funny. Don’t-read-it-in-bed-while-spouse-is-trying-to-sleep-funny. Want-to-read-it-out-loud-to-everyone-who-walks-by-funny. Now, if I still haven’t convinced you, go read what I had to say about it here.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Both The NYT and TLS raved about this one, which usually means I’m destined to hate whatever it is. But Bob thought it sounded just like me and got it for me for our anniversary, and surprise, surprise! It's a WONDERFULLY old-fashioned read, one that kept me guessing until the end, which is so unusual, I’m beginning to wonder if I wasn’t sleep-deprived from staying up late reading it and missed some obvious clues and that maybe I ought to re-read it very soon. (Anyone else read it and feel this way?) I haven’t read a book in which the author was having so much fun with what she knows a certain sort of reader is like since the last time I read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. If this isn’t already on your TBR list, put it there. If it is, move it to the top.

I shouldn’t have limited myself to twelve for the whole year, but I did (one per month and none to grow on), so I’m afraid that’s it. But ask me about some other great things I read in 2006, if you want. I’m sure I won’t be at a loss for an answer.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gender Meme

Gender Meme

Mandarine tagged me for the gender meme over here, which I forgot I wanted to do back when I first read it (too distracted by all this holiday stuff). Actually, Mandarine’s been giving me quite a lot of fodder for my blog these days. During what must have been a period of desperate boredom, he went back to the early days of my blog and started commenting on some of the posts I’d practically forgotten I’d written, which has made me want to revisit some of those topics, now that a whole, long seven months has gone by. Those things will have to wait, though. For now, it’s the meme:

Three things you do that women usually do

1. Wear makeup (but only what takes less than five minutes to apply)
2. Shave my legs (an activity that helps keep me from envying those tall women whose shapely legs start right around their eyebrows)
3. Consider chocolate to be one of my dearest friends

Three things you do that men usually do

1. Drive all over creation, hopelessly lost, but refusing to ask for directions, despite the fact that I know damn well I’ve got a terrible sense of direction
2. Hang out with the boys
3. Consider the floor to be a perfectly reasonable place to store clothes until I’m ready to put them away

Three things you do that women usually don’t do

1. Love to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon at the ball park, filling in the score card and eating hotdogs and Cracker Jacks (HUGE disppointment at Camden Yards: no Cracker Jacks. How could such a cool baseball stadium not sell Cracker Jacks?)
2. Avoid talking on the phone as if the latest research has shown it causes severe brain damage (noting from the way people act with their cell phones, I’m pretty sure it does, even without the research to back up my theory)
3. Talk incessantly about math and how cool it is (but I don’t know many men who do this, either. Maybe this should go under a different category “something you do that non-geeks usually don’t do”)

Three things you do that men usually don’t do

1. Obsessively try to make sure Bob and I are eating healthily
2. Drink all those “girlie” cocktails like apple martinis, amaretto sours, and lemon drops. I’m always deeply impressed by men who will drink them with me (like Bob), but they seem to be impressed that I will also kick back a bourbon on the rocks.
3. Get drunk after only two of those aforementioned cocktails, so that any man who might have been impressed that I was kicking back a bourbon on the rocks immediately becomes unimpressed by the fact that I can’t hold my liquor

Three things you don’t do that women usually do

1. Prefer driving an automatic to driving a stick shift
2. Freak out when a spider/insect/lizard, etc. runs across my path
3. Go ga-ga over babies (puppies and kittens, on the other hand…)

Three things you don’t do that men usually do

1. Tell people they’re being irrational just because they don’t agree with me
2. Eat enough food for three people in one sitting
3. Spend so much time talking, reading, and thinking about sports that the important things for which they’re still mainly responsible (like doing something about global warming, putting a stop to war, irradicating AIDS) don’t get done

Three things you don’t do that women usually don’t do

1. Mow the lawn (I don’t think I’ve ever even turned on a lawn mower in my life)
2. Run my own company (although maybe, one day…)
3. Consider every other driver on the road to be my enemy, personally out to get me

Three things you don’t do that men usually don’t do

1. Jump on the newest fad diet craze
2. Spend hours on end shopping at the mall
3. Get manicures

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Marshmallow Christmas Candy Part IV

I was beginning to get frantic and turned on the stereo, ready to pop in one of the CDs I’d brought along for the trip. However, I caught the fact, before the CD slid in, that one of my favorite radio stations was playing glorious choral Christmas music. I decided to keep this on, and Candy immediately climbed back into the backseat, lay down, and went to sleep.

I’d love to be able to turn this story into one my marshmallow would love: a sad, neglected, and abused dog who responded only to Christmas music, a magical Christmas gift for the generous soul who adopted her. She’d become “Christmas Candy.” They’d visit shut-in children during the holidays and the dog, whom everyone noted was certainly an angel, would “sing along” to favorite carols, and the children would miraculously recover from whatever ailed them.

Unfortunately, the thing I finally realized was wrong with Candy when she woke up, began pacing in earnest, and it became clear that she really did need to make a pit stop now, was that she was deaf. It wasn’t just “no” and “Candy” that resulted in no response from her. She didn’t respond to snapping, whistling, or clapping either. Quite obviously, the Christmas music had done nothing to soothe and calm her; she had just been worn out by wrestling with me for the coveted driver’s seat. I saw a sign for a commuter parking lot and decided this would be the ideal place to let her out.

Normally, in this state, commuter lots are located just off highway entrances and exits, and are very easily accessible, the notion being that commuters can meet each other for carpooling without having to use half a tank of gas to do so. Not so, this lot, which had me snaking all over an unfamiliar town, wondering if I’d ever find my way back to the interstate. Meanwhile, Candy was growing ever more anxious in the back seat. Just as I was beginning to believe I was in some episode of The Twilight Zone and some creature bigger than I had plopped down that “commuter lot” sign for his amusement, rearranging streets to keep me from ever finding it, I came upon the huge parking lot.

I let Candy out of the car, and she proceeded, once again, to lug me around as if she were the ox and I the cart. She did her business, though, and didn’t run away with me. She even happily trotted back to the car to get inside, and this time I knew to move the blanket out of the way and to give her hind legs a little boost. Another week or so of this, and maybe we’d finally have a system.

Meanwhile, I was getting phone calls from everybody. Lisa called to let me know she’d be unavailable to receive my “she’s been picked up” call, which she had instructed us all to make, once we’d reached our destinations and handed Candy off to the next driver. The mother-daughter team who were meeting me, called to say they’d had car trouble and had to go back to get the daughter’s car. The woman on the leg after the mother-daughter team called to find out where I was and what my ETA in my drop-off city was, so she could plan accordingly. I had no idea exactly where I was, since I don’t travel this stretch of interstate often. I gave her my best estimate and then pictured myself being dragged all over the parking lot where I was supposed to meet the mother-daughter team, who never showed up, because the daughter’s car turned out to be as unreliable as the mother’s, while this other poor woman waited for hours at her destination, because I’d completely screwed up my time estimate and hadn’t accounted for cars breaking down.

I’ll never know how long that one woman had to wait, but the two meeting me pulled up into the lot only about five minutes after I arrived. They’d brought a stuffed toy for Candy and seemed excited to have her. Was that jealously I felt when Candy eagerly followed them, barely looking back at me as she hopped up into their car, no weak hind legs in evidence whatsoever, and they all went on their merry way, barely listening to my instructions to keep the food bag out of her reach? Could I possibly be regretting the fact that the journey had seemed so short, that Candy had only just begun to nuzzle me and to “kiss” my neck? Was I hoping with all my might that Candy would find a good home with other dogs who would play with her and serve as her ears for her? Was I kicking myself for not having thought of bringing her a stuffed toy? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I told my marshmallow that next time the dog’s name would be Killer, and she wouldn’t be so enamored, but she wasn’t listening. She was too busy fantasizing about buying a huge plot of land – better yet, an island like the one for the misfit toys – so we could provide homes for all the Candys of the world.

(And that's it for the Christmas stories. I will resume with all the other stuff that's been running around in my head this month after the holidays. Those of you celebrating Christmas tomorrow: have a merry one!)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Marshmallow Christmas Candy Part III

I pulled into the Shell station, our designated meeting place, to find Candy had had an exciting ride on the leg before mine. She was happily palling around with the two big dogs of the woman who'd been driving. The three of them were acting as though they'd all grown up together, and I felt a little guilty about taking her away, but she didn't seem too upset.

I took hold of her leash, and she began pulling me along, something for which I wasn't prepared. Candy was small for a Dalmatian and definitely needed to put a little meat on her bones, but she was still much bigger than my Sheltie. When a Sheltie tugs at a leash, it's pretty easy for one to tug back with results. With Candy, I might as well have been tugging at a linebacker. I struggled to get her headed in the direction of my car. Fortunately, once I got the car door open, she readily made the leap up onto the seat. Unfortunately, her hind legs seemed to be a bit weak. She only made it about halfway up, her front paws slipping all over the back seat, as the blanket I'd so carefully laid out slid to the floor, her hind legs, still back on the pavement, sprawled awkwardly.

Worried that the woman with her two dogs and ASPCA baseball cap was watching and concluding I was a hopeless volunteer who had no idea how to care for a dog, I tentatively reached down and helped Candy onto the seat, her front paws sliding out from under her. I expected she might turn around and snap at me, but she didn't. Once she seemed settled, I climbed into the driver's seat, carefully arranging the bag containing dog food and her papers that Ms. ASPCA had handed over to me on the floor of the passenger's side.

As I started the car, Candy seemed very restless. She was pacing around in the back, more like a polar bear in a cage than a Dalmatian on a road trip, and when I actually started moving the car, she was all over the place, slipping and sliding as she tried to get her balance. I'd expected her to immediately lie down and go to sleep, but no, she obviously had multiple personalities and the sweet, docile one had gone into hiding when it met me. The hyper and impatient one had come to join me and was wishing it could say to me, "You know, I'm not used to riding in cars. Why don't you just let me out, and I'll run along beside?"

Not only was she hyper, but she also was ravenously hungry. As I pulled onto the interstate on-ramp, she decided to join me in the front seat where she discovered her goodies on the floor, and there was no stopping her. I uselessly said, "No, no, Candy," as she began purposefully pawing at the plastic. We'd been told not to feed her, and I had one (ineffective) hand reaching out to stop her while the other hand tried to maneuver the on-ramp. Before I'd made it onto the interstate, she'd managed to dig out a baggie containing dog treats.

Knowing there was no good place to stop for the next five miles or so, I made the somewhat unwise decsion to pull over onto the shoulder. Turning on the emergency flashers, I hoped she wouldn't leap out into the cars, all racing by at record speeds, which they tend to do in this state, as I took the bag and biscuits, carrying them around and depositing them in the cargo compartment of the station wagon. Thank goodness our car has a cover that can be pulled over the cargo compartment. Otherwise, she might have crawled back there, gobbled everything down, including her papers, and then spent the rest of the ride puking all over the car's interior.

I was beginning to discover Candy was a pretty amenable dog. I expected her to be upset that I'd taken away her food, to maybe even try to find out where I'd put it, but she wasn't. She just, once again, took up her pacing routine, slipping and sliding off the seat every time I accelerated or hit the brakes. According to what I'd read in the emails, this was her signal that she needed to pee. I couldn't believe she needed to do that only twenty minutes after I'd picked her up, but maybe she had an extremely small bladder or something.

When she got tired of being thrown all over the back seat, she once again decided to come join me in the front. This time, no bags of food to distract her, she shunned the passenger seat, which wasn't good enough. She wanted to be in the driver's seat, on my lap. This was when I, a very slow learner, suddenly realized that bringing along another person might have been a good idea. A one-handed attempt to push a Dalmatian off your lap while steering a car might be a piece of cake for, oh, a Le Cirque performer or a dog whisperer, but not for a Three Stooges contender or a dog screamer, such as I. I was discovering it was even more difficult than a one-handed attempt at keeping a Dalmatian from eating biscuits while steering a car. We'd been told that the safety of the dog should always come first. Well, first I'd risked her escape onto a busy interstate, and now I was risking a jump over the median and into an oncoming tractor trailer. If I'd been given a job evaluation for my performance as a dog driver, I would have been fired on the spot.

Speaking of screaming, Candy had no concept of the word "no." She also had no concept of the words "good dog," or even "Candy." I kept thinking I was just spoiled by my own dog, who seemed to be born knowing the meanings of "no" (well, unless there's another dog anywhere within a 100-yard radius, and then all human commands are to be ignored in an effort to protect that human, who doesn't know what's good for her, from the killer beast disguised as a cute little schnauzer) and "good dog," as well as "Lady." This dog hadn't been socialized, nor had she been trained at all, so I shouldn't expect her to behave the way Lady would. But we all know comparisons are odious. If I hadn't been so busy making them, I might have woken up to the fact sooner that something else was wrong.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Marshmallow Christmas Candy Part II

My marshmallow wasn't exactly overjoyed, but it returned to focusing on the Dalmatian, to whom it was becoming extremely attached. I suspected this attachment might have something to do with the fact the dog's name was Candy. My marshmallow and Candy could drown together in their sweetness. We quit looking at the other websites and focused on the two snapshots we had of Candy from the rescue shelter. She looked into the camera so gently and hopefully.

Unlike my brain, my marshmallow has no concept of the meaning of the word “stress.” It manages to make me completely forget the fact that I become stressed at the slightest provocation. It never once considered the fact that this little trip it had volunteered to take might wake up a few anxious feelings that had been lying around snoozing with one eye open, just waiting for such an opportunity to add a little excitement to their lives. Marshmallow thought we were just going to be peacefully driving along interstates with this docile creature lying quietly and gratefully in the back seat.

My first panic attack set in before I’d even picked up Candy. Lisa, the woman from the shelter in Maine who supervised Candy’s big adventure, kept a wonderful, detailed account via email of who was picking up our precious cargo when and where. I was supposed to drive Candy on Sunday from 2:00 to 3:30. By Thursday, all slots had been filled except two legs: the one immediately preceding mine and the one immediately following it. Suddenly, I had visions of driving across four states, turning my little Sunday afternoon jaunt into an all-day and all-night event.

Then, it turned out Candy didn’t have a collar, and Lisa asked if anyone had a spare collar for her. I prayed someone would, as I envisioned pulling over for a “potty break,” watching helplessly as the dog slipped out of whatever cobbled-together, noosed leash I might make. I'd grab for her slippery rear-end, coming up with nothing but some shedding hair, as she disappeared into the night somewhere along a very dark stretch of highway.

Happily, volunteers were found for the legs surrounding mine, and by Saturday evening and Sunday morning, I was tracking Candy’s progress. She’d made it with no problem to her overnight volunteer’s house. Someone had bought her a brand new red collar as a Christmas present. She was a perfect riding companion, apparently doing nothing other than sleeping in the back seat of the car. When she needed to relieve herself, she’d let the driver know by pacing from window to window in the backseat. She was described as living up to her name, being “very sweet.” I was looking forward to meeting her.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Marshmallow Christmas Candy Part I

I have a huge marshmallow where my heart should be. I've been on the waiting list for years for a stone transplant (even a couple of small rocks would do), but those with stones don't tend to spend much time thinking about donating to those less fortunate than they. Thus, I'm stuck with this marshmallow that's constantly leaping at the chance to do things that those with stones, or even normal hearts, would label "insane." I'm especially vulnerable during the Christmas season, when my marshmallow seems to push the "high" button on its radar detector for something that will make the season memorable and meaningful.

That's why my marshmallow skipped a few beats last December when I read an email sent to me by my boss. An animal shelter based in Maine had chosen to rescue a rejected and heart-worm-infected dalmation who was living in North Carolina. They needed volunteers to drive her different legs of the long journey up the east coast, and no one had volunteered for the slot running through my neck of the woods. After its little imitation of a child on a school playground, my marshmallow then became the secret agent, convincing me we were co-conspirators against my brain, sneaking around it to quickly type a reply that might as well have said, "Oh boy! There's nothing we'd rather do than spend a precious Sunday afternoon driving all over God's creation for such a good cause." Then, my marshmallow spent the next few days as a fleece sweatsuit, making me feel all warm and fuzzy and good about myself for doing something so noble.

Unfortunately, this warm, fuzzy feeling was ruined by a re-visit to that email and a click on one of the links that took me to sites where all kinds of poor dogs needing homes were on display. One little dachsund described "himself" as needing a very special kind of human to care for him, one who would get joy only out of knowing a good home was being provided for him, because he suffered from encephalitis, which meant he couldn't provide the sorts of things most dogs provide for humans: he didn't want to be held or petted; he couldn't see well; and he would be hard to train.

Where the hell was my brain? I needed it to control my marshmallow, who was already looking for a nice nook for this little guy in our house. Forget outrageous vet bills. Forget the fact I travel all the time and couldn't give him the attention he needed. Forget the fact that dogs, unlike humans, are lucky enough that they can actually be "put down" when they're in this sort of condition, and wasn't it inhumane to be keeping the poor thing alive? Quite obviously, he'd been spared for the sole purpose of making me feel guilty for not leaping at the chance to bring him into a safe and loving environment, and I should be quitting my job and devoting my whole life to his care.

Finally, my brain walked in from its Mensa meeting, or something, and grabbed the mouse, shutting off the computer. It told me to stay away from all those dog sites and not even to entertain the notion of showing them to Bob, who has two marshmallows where his heart should be. It reminded me that to adopt any dog, let alone an encephalitic one, would be enough to cause it to have a stroke. Having one dog that was shuttled back and forth between NYC and our house was bad enough (Bob was still in school at the time, and we had a student apartment), let alone two. I didn't argue. I knew encephalitis was probably a sensitive subject.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Page 123 Meme

(Yet another break in my Christmas storytelling to respond to the meme Litlove tagged me to do. I’ve realized that, by some obvious Christmas miracle, the passage is very seasonally appropriate, so if you came here looking for holiday stories, just pretend this one was intended to be included all along).

These were the instructions:
1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open to page 123, scroll down to the 5th sentence
3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on your blog
4. Name of the book and the author
5. Tag 3 People

Stalks of that selfsame wheat from the hallway are being soaked, folded, twisted, braided, and tied into an endless variety of shapes by half a dozen of Martha’s elves. Despite the humility of the materials, there is nothing simple about the ornaments as they are dusted with differing shades of brilliant metallic mica powder, an incredibly toxic substance that has the young man using it -- the only man working here in fact, albeit curiously named Meghan – wearing a double-filtered gas mask. The crafters are all hunched over their small wheaten garlands and wreaths.

David Rakoff, Don’t Get Too Comfortable (New York: Broadway Books, 2005), p. 123.

Thank God for laptops, which allowed me to be sitting in my comfy chair, this book by my side, when I discovered I’d been tagged for this meme. If I’d been tied to a desktop, I’d have been stuck up in the study. I checked, and that would have meant subjecting you to page 123 of The Chicago Manual of Style. This one is much more fun.

Of course, having just read that passage, you may be asking, "Huh? Fun? I can’t figure out what the hell it’s about." Quite obviously, it’s a passage that absolutely does not do the book justice, although if I tell you he’s describing a visit to the crafts department of the magazine Martha Stewart Living, you might begin to see the light, becoming somewhat intrigued. I’ll intrigue those of you who haven’t read it some more: if you’re someone who likes to fall out of your chair laughing, drop what you are doing right now and get over to your nearest bookstore to grab a copy of this. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last time I read a David Sedaris book.

But don’t let what I just said fool you. Comparisons between Sedaris and Rakoff are made all over the place, but the two writers are actually very different. Both wind up on NPR quite a bit, yes. Both are gay, white men, yes. Both have an extraordinarily acerbic wit, yes. But if you asked me which one I’d rather be, it would be Rakoff (even if he didn’t happen to have one of the best jobs in the world, getting paid to do things like pretending to be a cabana boy at a wealthy resort in Florida for a few days and then writing about it), because his writing is more an amused look at our entire society, rather than an amused look at his own bellybutton. Yes, he does navel gaze (all writers navel gaze), but he looks up all the time to see what’s going on around him. Sedaris, although we have to give him credit for possessing one of the funniest navels that spends its time traveling back and forth between America and France, doesn’t look up as often. I want a brain implant that gives me Rakoff's powers of observation.

So, here’s a much better (and longer) passage for you that does do justice to the book. (You may want to imagine discovering such wit when you’ve only reached page 5 of the book. Possibly you're sitting in a very public place, like a Barnes and Noble. You've happened upon the book and have taken it to a chair to have a look at it, trying to decide if you really want it. You know, the sort of place where falling out of chairs laughing is behavior not exactly welcomed. But, this is all hypothetical, of course. I'll let you conjure up your own little scene if you'd rather):

[Rakoff, a Canadian who's been living in New York for over ten years, has finally decided to become a citizen of The United States. He’s describing the application form and is noting his difficulty answering this question: "If the law required it, would you be willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?"]...…I put the application back into the drawer and return to my bed, not picking it up again until seven days later, when I surprise myself by checking "yes."

I figure it’s grass soup. Grass soup is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a recipe for food of last resort that my father apparently squirreled away somewhere. I have never actually seen this recipe, but it was referred to fairly often when I was a child. Should everything else turn to shit, we could always derive sustenance from nutritious grass soup! At heart, it’s an anxious, romantic fantasy that disaster and total financial ruin lurk just around the corner, but when they do come, they will have all the stark beauty and domestic fine feeling of a Dickens novel. Young Tiny Tim’s palsied hand lifting a spoon to his rosebud mouth. "What delicious grass soup. I must be getting better after all," he will say, putting on a good show of it just as he expires, the tin utensil clattering to the rough wood table.

A grass-soup situation is a self-dramatizing one based on such a poorly imagined improbable premise as to rend it beneath consideration. Michael Jackson saying with no apparent irony, for example, that were he to wake up one day to find all the children in the world gone, he would throw himself out the window. Mr. Jackson’s statement doesn’t really take into consideration that a planet devoid of tots would likely be just one link in a chain of geopolitical events so cataclysmic, that to assume the presence of an intact building with an intact window out of which to throw himself is plain idiotic. As for grass soup itself, from what I’ve seen on the news, by the time you’re reduced to using lawn for food, any grass that isn’t already gone – either parched to death or napalmed into oblivion – is probably best eaten on the run.

All by way of saying, that if there ever came a time when the government of my new homeland was actually calling up the forty-something asking-and-telling homosexuals with hypo-active thyroids to take up arms, something very calamitous indeed will have happened. The streets would likely be running with blood, and such moral gray areas as might have existed at other times will seem either so beside the point that I will join the fight, or so terrifying and appallingly beyond the pale that I’d either already be dead or underground. (Rakoff, pp. 5-6).

Damn! I wish I’d written that! And don’t tell me you didn’t even crack a smile while reading it.

I’m breaking the rules and tagging everyone on my blogroll who hasn’t done this yet and feels like doing it. That way, I don’t have to single out anyone, and if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. Maybe that will result in 3 more to keep this meme going?

Monday, December 11, 2006

The New Kids on the Block

(I have to pause before I go onto my next Christmas post to write about my experience meeting Dorr and Hobs this past Saturday.)

Bob was a little concerned when I first started blogging, wondering without face-to-face contact what sorts of people I’d “meet.” I have to admit that with an imagination like mine, it wasn’t hard to conjure up some creep who lives in a basement, surrounded by computers, chowing down on someone’s liver, and egotistically surfing the web, electronically clipping and filing articles with headlines such as “Possible Link between Serial Killings and Blogs.” But that was only one small part of me. What I really envisioned was friends of mine reading my blog and telling me I needed a really good editor.

What I didn’t envision was that very few of my real-life friends would be the least bit interested in my blog. I also didn’t envision that within a very short period of time, I would come to think of people I’d never met, never even spoken to on the phone, as friends, but that’s exactly what has happened. Of course, once that’s happened, if you’re me, you can’t help fantasizing about meeting some of these people IRL (“in real life,” as Hobs has taught me), sitting around, drinking coffee or tea or wine, and discussing books, etc. for hours on end.

I first began to suspect that Hobs and Dorr (as if their blogger identities weren’t enough, I’ve given them further nicknames, but I have a tendency to do that with friends) might live somewhere near me when one of them described taking the interstate that goes right through my town up to a bike race. However, I had them placed well north of me, so I was very surprised to discover they live in the town right next door to mine. Upon discovering this too-good-to-be-true coincidence, fantasy-immediately-turning-to-reality, I invited them to join my book discussion group, because we sometimes meet in a coffee shop in their town.

Hobs gallantly told me he wouldn’t mind being the only male member of the group. The rest of my friends in this group and I view this as our “thing to do without husbands and (for those who have them) children.” I let them know we were reading Barbara Noble’s Doreen (a Persephone reprint, but they managed to find a cool used edition, printed by Doubleday, where Noble was apparently a real bigwig in her day. We publishing geeks notice such things) and when and where we’d be meeting.

All right. That was all fine and dandy and exciting, but then, as with all fantasies, reality set in. I was married before the whole online dating thing really took off, so I don’t know what it’s like to do that, but I can only describe my feelings as Saturday drew near as the way one must feel when finally deciding to meet someone with whom they’ve been carrying on lively email and/or IM-ing conversations.

What if they didn’t like me? What if they thought our book discussion group was silly and pointless (after all, they’re both academics)? What if they were totally shocked to discover my online persona is completely different, and they just couldn’t relate this deadly dull and slightly obnoxious person to the one they thought they knew? I had to keep reminding myself that my brother has commented to me, “Your blog, Emily, is so you,” and that I’ve had other friends comment that my writing sounds just like me, to convince myself that I must not be that different in person from what I am in writing.

I even found myself doing something I never do, which was worrying about what I should wear. I envisioned both of them being exactly what they were, which is the kind of people who are so cool, you don’t even notice what they’re wearing. I promise you: that’s not the kind of person I am. I tend to throw things on and only discover halfway through the day I’ve got a big rip in the side of my shirt or something.

I found them easy to spot the minute I walked into the Borders where we met. They both looked extraordinarily familiar, which is unusual. I’ve, many times, had the experience of meeting authors with whom I’ve worked for months before I meet them in person, and they never look the least bit familiar when I finally do. They both very easily became a natural addition to our little group, and I didn’t get the feeling they’d been immediately turned off by me. In fact, I felt they were enjoying all of our company and were eager to hear what we all had to say.

Then, something new began to happen. I began to feel possessive. I didn’t want to share them. Not yet anyway. That feeling passed, though, because I really love my other friends, too, and love it when friends of mine click with each other, and then I was proud, happy that I’d found these new people who were such an asset to our discussion. The meeting was too short. I had to get back, because Bob and I had plans that evening, and our friend from Northern Ireland was coming to visit us, but as I drove home, I found myself wishing I’d thought to meet them earlier, before the book discussion began. I wanted to discuss all kinds of things with them, and I found myself thinking, “Damn! I didn’t even ask them the most basic questions.”

Not bad for a first blind date, huh? Guess what. They actually want to go out with me again. And that cannibalistic, serial-killing blogger? He must have eaten that small part of me that used to worry about him.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Broken Christmases Part IV

Then there are the Christmases broken by illness. I had so looked forward to Bob's and my first Christmas together in our own home with our own tree the year we got married. Bob loves to buy gifts for me, and for once, I was with a man I knew I could lavish with gifts who wouldn't feel guilty, because all he'd bought me was a CD from the sale rack. So what happened? We both came down with severe chest colds that prevented us from doing much more than dragging ourselves from the bed to the kitchen to make cups of hot tea and back again. Forget Christmas shopping. We had a total of about three presents under the tree that year.

When everyone is the epitome of good health, the weather will do its best to interfere. One Christmas, Bob and I were looking forward to entertaining Forsyth, who had recently divorced, and our two young nieces. Having worried that the weather in our neck of the woods might suddenly dump buckets of ice and snow on us, I hadn't once thought to worry about North Carolina, where ice and snow before January are about as common as tornadoes in the Land of Oz. Blizzards can be raging everywhere else in the country, even in Key West, and the piedmont region of North Carolina will be hit with nothing but a disappointing and bitterly cold drizzly rain.

Not that year, though. While we remained perfectly sunny and precipitation free, Raleigh was hit with a paralyzing ice storm. My sister and nieces never made it.

Broken toys, broken dreams, broken relationships...No wonder Scrooge was so down on Christmas. What I do wonder, though, is why I still fall into the trap of hoping every Christmas that maybe that magic we're promised is there somewhere. As are the idealized parent, the idealized family, the idealized homes and marriages we've all come to want and expect but rarely get, Christmas is one of those myths of western culture. The question shouldn't be: do you believe in Santa Clause? The question should be: do you believe in Christmas?

Sometimes, despite all my dashed hopes, when I manage to wade through all the hideous advertising, all the holiday crowds and can convince myself to ignore all the greed and selfishness so blatantly on display, I'll see a single white candle shining in a window. Or I'll hear a clear, haunting soprano sing "Once in Royal David's City." Or, I'll watch a child joyfully unwrap a present I've carefully chosen, and even I have to answer, "Yes, I do believe in Christmas."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Broken Christmases Part III

Soon, we always had someone missing at Christmas. My oldest sister Forsyth started spending every other Christmas at her in-laws, and eventually my brother went to live in South Africa for a while, and then Lindsay went to South Africa, as well, for a while. One year, I was the only one who came home, but that was long after Christmases had started to break for me in other ways.

The year I went off to college and joined the growing number of family members who "came home" for Christmas, my big gift was a broken heart. I found out my boyfriend had been spending an inordinate amount of time with the young woman I'd thought was his ex-girlfriend. I overheard a conversation he had with his older brother, in which older brother (wonderful fellow that he was) counseled him thus,

"There's nothing wrong with having two girlfriends. You just need to make sure they both know about it."

When I confronted him, he swore to me he really was going to break it off with her, that I was the only one, and he even asked me to marry him. I naively believed him and hung in with him until two Christmases later, when even I, someone who had become the queen of denial, finally had to admit that he'd left off a few words when he'd said I was "the only one." What he'd really meant to say was "you're the only one who's enough of a sucker to believe I'm not bedding down every female I possibly can when you and I aren't together."

I got my revenge on the broken heart with a broken relationship that Christmas. Still, the revenge wasn't sweet. I'd never broken up with a boy until then, especially not a boy whose friends and family members I'd become close to. And the boyfriend who had never been the epitome of devotion, except when some prettier, smarter, and wittier alternative hadn't presented herself, suddenly seemed to want me more than he wanted anything else in his life. Did I mention holding firm to difficult decisions is not one of my strengths? Especially when romance and sex are involved?

Some years later, I had to witness yet another Christmas breakup when Ian's girlfriend at the time decided not even to pretend to be discreet, as my old boyfriend had. None of us had any doubts as to what she'd done (it was actually New Year's, but still the Christmas season) and with someone who couldn't even begin to hold a candle to my brother. Just like his broken Christmas toy, no one was going to fix that relationship. No tidings of great joy were felt while visions of murder danced in this big sister's head.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Broken Christmases Part II

I’m glad children are children, so they’re not typically aware of how extraordinarily disappointing Christmas actually is. Talk about a holiday that is set up to do absolutely nothing but dash one’s hopes. Even the best parents, with the best of intentions, can’t help but disappoint. I saw an ad for The Gap yesterday with a hip hop theme for “Christmas in the 'hood.” Yeah. Right. Like everyone in the ‘hood can afford to waste their money on $30 t-shirts at The Gap. Most parents, in or out of the ‘hood, are barely managing to scrape by and can’t possibly afford to buy all the computer equipment and electronic games their kids tell Santa they want. Tiny Tim may have been able to understand a deeper meaning to Christmas, but he wasn’t living in a day and age in which commercial television-viewing has become a classic study in how to appeal to the human id.

My own parents did a wonderful job of trying to make Christmas as special as possible. The festivities went in stages in our family. First, there were the stockings, explored while sitting on my parents’ bed. At the breakfast table (eaten in the dining room, where we never ate breakfast unless we had guests), we all exchanged the gifts we’d gotten each other. Finally, we’d move to the living room, whose glass door had been covered with a blanket, hiding what awaited inside. Santa didn’t put presents under the tree. We each had our own chair with our own presents, and once we’d “oohed and awed” over those, presents from extended family members and friends waited under the tree. It was a morning-long affair (but morning had started around 5:00 a.m., which was about as late as any of us could manage to wait).

Even with this much care and attention paid to the day, something from my wish list was always missing. I'd figure this out once the excitement had worn off and I’d sat down to think about it. I’m sure I thought of something even the year I sat on Santa’s lap and suddenly announced, much to my mother’s surprise and horror, I’m sure, that I wanted a stuffed puppy for Christmas. I have no idea how she managed to find that stuffed puppy, which had certainly been news to her, because it had even been news to me until I'd sat in his lap at a complete loss as to what I wanted, just two days before Christmas (my mother once very wisely said to me, “Christmas is for children and men, not for mothers”), but he showed up on my chair Christmas morning.

I wonder who came up with the stupid notion that it’s actually a good idea for a child to sit on Santa’s lap, making specific requests face-to-face. How can a child who’s been so close to Santa not feel he’s rejected her when she doesn’t find what she wanted on Christmas morning? It was probably some psychologist hoping to make a fortune by the damage done to both rejected child and wretched parent who feels so because he or she can’t possibly get said child his very own yacht.

I can’t remember how old I was when I began asking for an Easy Bake oven, but it became an obsession, and year after year, Santa neglected to bring me one. My mother would explain to me it was because Santa didn’t think I needed one, since I was always helping her bake in the big oven in my very own little pans, making mini-versions of whatever she was making. It’s true, I loved making those little cakes and breads beside my mother, but being the greedy child I was, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to bake in the big oven with my very own little pans and have my very own little oven.

I was awfully suspicious of a Santa who refused to bring me my heart’s desire. I was also suspicious of a Santa who seemed to bring my brother all the best toys. He got Tonka trucks and Fisher Price castles, things I hadn’t thought to demand, because I didn’t hang out in the “boys’” section of our favorite toy store, and this was still a day-and-age in which most adults didn’t think to give toy trucks and cars to little girls. Even the best stuffed puppy in the world couldn’t hold a candle to a huge Tonka cement mixer with movable parts. Luckily, Ian was younger and could easily be manipulated into “sharing” his toys. My sisters weren’t quite so generous with things like record players and drum sets. Why didn’t Santa just give all these things to me? I may have been greedy, but I was also an extremely fair child. I would have allotted everyone his or her X number of minutes per day to play with each item.

As I grew older, Christmas began to break in other ways. First, my sister Lindsay went off to college in England and didn’t come home the year I was a junior in high school. My oldest sister had already been in college a number of years, but she always came home. This was the first year in which we had a gap at the breakfast table and an empty chair in the living room. When each of them had gone off to college, I think I’d vaguely been aware of the fact I occasionally missed them (or at least missed their clothes, which were no longer available for me to borrow), but I was way too busy with school work, my after-school job, and whomever my latest unrequited love was to pay much attention. Somehow, though, having one of our family absent on Christmas morning was nearly unbearable, especially when I unwrapped her gift to me to discover it was a box full of things like Mars Bars, Smarties, Opal Fruits, and Wine Gums, all our favorite English candy, nearly impossible to get in this country at that time.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Broken Christmases Part I

The year I was in kindergarten, my grandmother, in a rare moment of insanity, because she hated Christmas, actually came down from Virginia to spend Christmas with us in North Carolina. I can remember the excitement of having her there, which just added to my general five-year-old hysteria during the holidays. I was one of those children who felt sick whenever she was overly-excited, which means that pretty much during the whole month of December, my stomach was never very happy. From the second the Christmas specials began to appear on television, and we took out our Advent calendars, till two days after Christmas, when I sat mad at Budweiser, because they were still showing their Clydesdale holiday ads, and everyone knew Christmas was over, I ate like a bird (oh, to be young again and actually to lose weight during the holiday season!).

That Christmas, my grandmother (“Grandmic” we called her, the “Mic” being a shortened version of our sir name) had gotten my brother Ian a helicopter. It was a very, very cool toy, as far as toys went in those days. It had flashing lights and a propeller that spun around with the help of some batteries. I have no memory of the rest of this story I’m about to relate; I don't even have any memory of what Grandmic gave me that year; but I do remember that helicopter. It was definitely the highlight of that Christmas. I wished it had been given to me.

By the time Christmas dinner was over, though, I had lost interest. The helicopter was broken. Because my memory fails me, I don’t know exactly how it broke, but I imagine a Nutcracker-like scene: Ian had three bossy older sisters, all of whom were probably as enthralled by the helicopter as he was, and none of whom was over the age of nine. Most likely, we should all envision a lot of squabbling and pushing and yanking of the poor toy out of little hands. Some little scientific mind probably got it into her or his head to see what would happen if we pushed the propellers backwards. Eventually, it may have been tossed up in the air to see if it would fly. Ian, once it had been decided it wasn’t going to stay aloft, may have been doing his best three-year-old imitation of Clara saving the beloved Nutcracker when it had suffered a similar gravitational fate, to save his precious gift before it came crashing to the ground.

Grandmic used to love to tell me how Ian and I brought it to her, hoping she might be able to fix it. She was at her sympathetic best, seeing how crushed Ian was, when she had to tell him she was sorry but she couldn’t fix it. I, on the other hand, not seeming the least bit upset – after all, it wasn’t my toy that had broken – apparently looked up at her and said,

“That’s okay, Grandmic. Everything always breaks on Christmas afternoon.”

I have to admit that every time my grandmother would relate this story to me, I felt a swelling of pride. I was so young. How had I already figured out that everything breaks at Christmas?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

This Being December and All...

"Wow, two posts in one day," you may very well be thinking (at least, that's what I'd be thinking if I were you), but this isn't really a post. It's a warning. I've decided during the month of December to post two seasonally-appropriate pieces I wrote before I made the magical jump into the blogosphere (editing them as I go). They're both quite long, which means I plan to spend multiple days posting them. So, if you're the "bah, humbug" sort, you may just want to postpone visits with me until January, at which point I will pick up where I've left off (you know, writing lots of interesting things about what it's like to telecommute, as the title of my blog insinuates).

Poetry Meme

As promised...

The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to is…
…maybe "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Edward Lear. I say “maybe,” because I distinctly remember my father reading this one to me from a beautiful, big, illustrated copy we had and loving it, especially the way he read it. However, I also know that my mother and brother and I used to memorize poems as a pre-bedtime activity, and how I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Bed in Summer" (one of the ones I memorized). I’m not sure which came first.

I was forced to memorize long Bible passages in school (I went to a Lutheran elementary school), and…
… I’m sure some of them were very poetic, but I couldn’t begin to tell you which ones they were, and they obviously didn’t stick. I’m not even sure if they were really all that long, but to a fourth-grader, they seemed interminably so. Talk about a useless activity, one I can remember hurrying through, because I so hated it. In high school, we memorized the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and that I loved and can still recite (although I’m sure my pronunciation is all wrong).

I read poetry because…
…I’m always so amazed by how brilliant poets are, able to convey images and stories in so few words. I have to admit, though, that for a very, very long time, I didn’t read poetry. The way it was taught in high school and college completely turned me off, and also, it’s such an extremely personal and emotional form of writing that the reader really, really needs to discover poets on her own. Being forced to read and analyze Ezra Pound when you aren’t feeling any connection to him whatsoever is far worse than reading some novel you find boring.

A poem I am likely to think about when asked for a favorite poem is…
…"The Owl and the Pussycat." I still absolutely love that poem.

I don’t write poetry, but…
...I wish I could. I’m nowhere near brilliant enough to convey images and stories in so few words. When it comes to writing, I lean more in the direction of Tolstoy (who if he were writing today, people would say, as they do about Stephen King and Pat Conroy, “He needs a good editor”).

My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature…
…because I’m much more picky about poetry. When it comes to other types of literature, I’ll read almost any writer and will put in time and effort if I’m not immediately impressed. When it comes to poetry, either the poet grabs me immediately with the first few poems, and I keep reading, or not, in which case I’ll readily abandon it.

I find poetry…
…to be awe-inspiring when I connect with it and tedious when I don’t.

The last time I heard poetry…
…was in the summer of 2005. Our company was having a multiple-day, off-site sales meeting (a curious invention of the publishing industry in which editors pitch their books to those who will be selling them), and one evening we had a dinner activity. I’m not much of a joiner, and when I found out we had invited an author who’d written a book for us on incorporating poetry slams into the high school classroom to lead a poetry slam, I was less than thrilled. Since you now know how I feel about poetry (that it’s very personal and not something I particularly want to share with a large group), I’m sure you can understand why.

For not the first time in my life, I was completely wrong. We had “reciters” and “judges.” I was a judge (imagine having to judge both your boss and the company president, who were reciters). The reciters were given poems to read and the judges had to vote. It turned out to be one of the most hilarious and fun dinners I’ve attended in years, whose highlight was a recitation of a teenager’s poem on pain that was brilliantly performed by another one of our author’s sons (it helped that he’s in the theater).

I think poetry is like…
…beautiful mathematical equations that succinctly bring one to life’s truths through letters rather than through numbers.

I'm tagging Dante for this one.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Second Thursday Thirteen (with a Bit of a Caddie Woodlawn Theme)

I have a lot of great memes to catch up on, most importantly the poetry meme, for which I was tagged by Bikeprof. Not that the others aren’t important, but I’m going to be meeting him (lucky me! This means I’ll also be meeting Dorothy) for the first time next weekend, and well, to be blunt about it, I want him to like me. Ignoring a “tag” doesn’t seem like a very good way to accomplish this goal. However, before he tagged me, I promised a Thursday 13 of children’s classics to read in 2007 to accompany my Thursday 13 of adult classics, and it’s Thursday, and I’m sure everyone’s been waiting around with bated breath for this list, so the poetry meme will have to wait a tad bit longer. Here’s my list:

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
My aunt gave this book to me as a gift, but for some reason, I wasn’t interested in it as a kid. I never got past the first ten pages or so. I thought I’d see if I can at least make it to page 11 at this point in my life. Besides, it sounds like a really good book.

Diddie, Dumps and Tot by Louise Clarke Pyrnelle. A completely un-politically correct book (whose subtitle is Or Plantation Child Life). I remember my sisters enjoying it when we were young, but I don’t recall ever reading it myself. I’m very interested in it now from a historical point of view.

Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers
I read it when I was around the daughter’s age. Time to read it now that I’m around the mother’s age to see how my perspective has changed, don’t you think?

The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame. I’ve never read anything by Grahame other than The Wind in the Willows, and this one has the added bonus of being illustrated by Ernest Shepherd. How can one go wrong? (If you’ve read it, and are so inclined to do so, please don’t disillusion me before I get a chance to read it by telling me how wrong, actually, one can go.)

Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge
I’ve never read this one and don’t really know anything about it except that it involves some silver skates, and I love ice skating.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I’ve been reading Doreen by Barbara Noble which is bringing this one to mind. I want to see if the connection is as strong as I think it is.

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
I adored Estes when I was a kid and probably re-read this one dozens of times. I’m positive I had excellent taste back then (despite my inability to get through Caddie Woodlawn) and will enjoy it just as much this go-round.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien
I’ve never read this. I wasn’t a big fan of Newberry Medal winners (Caddie Woodlawn being a prime example) when I was young. I’m still not sure I am, so this will be a test. Anyone else experience this bias against the award? It always seemed to me the awards were very often given to books that didn’t really seem to understand children, but were, rather, ideas of what adults thought children should like with maybe a little too much moralizing to boot. Even those chosen that were written by my favorite authors tended to be ones by those authors I always considered different and not quite as good (I mean, Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright, who wrote all those far-better Melendy family books? Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw?) I’ve liked some, though (like A Wrinkle in Time, which almost made it onto this list), so we’ll see.

Stuart Little by E.B. White
Believe it or not, I’ve never read this one. When I was young, I couldn’t get through Charlotte’s Web, because my sister gleefully informed me when I was barely into it (still wobbly over the trauma of Wilbur’s near-death for the crime of being the runt of the litter), that Charlotte died, and that was it for me. I finally read it a few years ago, loved it, and now it’s high time for this one.

Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes
My introduction to professional theater was a performance of this in London when I was eight, I think. I've never read the book, though. It'll be a nice excuse for me to go back and re-read some of the Flashman books, which I loved when I read them a while back (and new ones have been published since then, to dismal reviews, of course) when I'm done.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I wept over this while reading it at age 13 (I vividly remember doing so while lying on the living room couch in one of the homes where I frequently babysat. I can't believe I babysat at this age, but I began that "career" at age 12). I'm hoping it will have the same effect at this point in my life at some point when I'm feeling in need of a good cry. Also, I'm often recommending this book to friends of mine when they're looking for gifts for girls who are around age 13. I ought to make sure I still really think it's an appropriate gift.

Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Because I’ve got to have one by her, and this is one I don’t remember reading more than once, even though I loved it.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
I just grabbed all the Oz books, which I clearly remember helping me get through some horrible childhood bout with the flu, off my parents’ shelves when I was at their place for Thanksgiving. Good idea to start with the first one, and I know what I’ll be reading this winter when I get my yearly cold.

Anyone want to join me in reading thirteen children’s classics in 2007? If so, I’d love to hear what you’ll be reading.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Fourth Thing You May Not Know about Me

Bob and I are hopelessly about ten years behind everyone else when it comes to watching movies, so we only just recently saw The Cider House Rules. In fairness, this one took a while, because he read and I re-read it for a book discussion group we were both in circa 1998. Putting a distance of nearly ten years between reading a book and seeing the movie can turn a horrible movie that didn’t come close to doing justice to the book into a terrific movie.

Neither Bob nor I has ever had any strong yearning to be a parent, but this movie reminded me why I’m so glad we don’t live anywhere near a Chinese or Romanian orphanage. I can just picture Bob volunteering to share vegetables from our garden and dragging me along to deliver them. We’d enter as a pair and exit as an instant family of fourteen. The children in the movie so hopefully trying to make themselves as presentable as possible every time a fancy car drives up the drive broke our hearts.

These soft hearts of ours are not limited to unwanted children. Rudolph's (of red-nosed fame) Island of Misfit Toys breaks our hearts, too. We’ve discovered that as children, we were both traumatized by such books as The Yearling. When we finally decided to adopt a dog, we had to turn to the classifieds. A trip to an animal shelter would have required the purchase of a farm.

So, you may very well wonder why we aren’t vegetarians. After all, when we saw Babe, we gave up eating bacon and ham for months. And I can promise you, one movie we won’t be seeing is Fast Food Nation.

Truth be told, we have no, good, rational reason for being omnivores, except that, on occasion, we really like a good hamburger; we’re no good at drawing lines; and we find it too difficult. I know, to some, saying I like a good hamburger is like saying I love a good baby’s foot, but I know myself well enough to admit if I’d been born and raised in a cannibalistic society, I’m sure I’d enjoy a good baby’s foot just as much as the other guy.

I also know saying it’s too difficult to be a vegetarian is a pathetic excuse, especially for someone who loves to experiment in the kitchen, and who’s been known to spend whole days making such things as pesto ravioli. I mean, suppose someone stood up in a courtroom and said, “I’m sorry, Your Honor, but it was just too difficult not to kill my neighbor who liked to get up on Saturday mornings at 6:30 and rake and blow his leaves.”

I wish I could plead ignorance when it comes to the subject of vegetarianism, but I can’t. I edited an entire encyclopedia of animal rights and animal welfare. A different sort of person would have sworn off meat the minute she turned over the last page of the manuscript and laid down her colored pencil. I’ve often been described as being “different.” Must be in one of those callous sort of ways.

One of my lame arguments for eating meat is that animal species of all kinds have to kill in order to survive. And if some have to die in order for others to live, I’m not sure we should only be concerned with dying animals. What about the carrots that get yanked up out of their nice, cozy, dirt homes to be set on dinner plates long before they would have decayed naturally? Why should trees have to suffer the indecency of having apples and pears plucked from their branches? If we think it’s so horrible to raise chickens for the sole purpose of killing and eating them, why don’t we extend that sympathy to potatoes?

I have friends who would say, “Because vegetables can’t feel pain.” These are the same friends who will claim it’s “speciesist” to assume turtles don’t love their children just as much as humans do merely because turtles just lay a bunch of eggs and then desert them to fend for themselves. Well, it seems pretty “speciesist” to me to assume plants don’t feel pain just because they don’t have a nervous system. Tomato plants don’t have mouths for drinking water, but they still need water to live. But, then again, let me remind you that this argument is coming from a woman who was as appalled by the carnage of Christmas trees on a truck she passed headed South over the Thanksgiving holiday as she was by the truck full of baby cows.

Here’s another difficulty with my trying to become a vegetarian: I can’t do anything halfway. Therefore, I’d have to become a vegan. You realize, in this day and age, the only way truly to be a vegan is to move to a hut in the middle of the Amazon somewhere, living solely off the land, hoping you occasionally come across some sort of animal that’s died of natural causes to provide you with some clothing. Being a vegan in America would require massive amounts of research with every purchase, since every single company is quickly being gobbled up by one megalithic corporation that owns everything.

A true vegan can’t just walk into a store (even an independently-owned-and-run store, if she can find such a thing) and buy a pen. Sure, the pen may have been manufactured by the innocent-sounding Wet Ink, Co. However, Wet Ink is owned by Only Publisher Inc., which was just bought by Last Tractors Left Manufacturers, whose parent company is We Torture, Maim, and Kill Cows Brothers.

So, yes I eat meat. And, yes, I’m ashamed of the fact. However, as Bob recently noted, “Look, if we gave up red meat, you and I would be confronted with some new movie called Cluck: The Story of the Sad, Unwanted Chicken. Then we’d give up chicken and along would come Stalk: The Celery that Longed for Friends." Really, the most difficult thing for us is just to survive while feeling sorry for everything we eat. I'm amazed we manage to eat anything at all.

Meanwhile, I will note that we buy organic and humanely, sustainably-raised food. I draw the line at knowingly buying factory-farmed dead animals. Also, I have a burning question for the vegetarians: what about all those poor rabbits, moles, field mice, insects, etc. whose homes are destroyed and who die hideous deaths at the helm of farm equipment, just so humans can plant rows and rows of vegetables whose sole purpose for living is to provide us with food?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Meme

I have a lot I want to write about, and I still need to finish those things you may not know about me, but I'm discovering a few great memes that have been going around, so I've decided to do one of them today. Thank you to the person who created this fun one.

1. How old were you when you learned to read, and who taught you? I was an extremely boring child -- and have been a late bloomer all my life -- who was in first grade when I learned how to read. Thus, my first grade teacher, a man who made Hitler look like a gentle little bunny rabbit, taught me. I figure this is a testament to how eager I was to learn to read, because it’s amazing I managed to learn anything living in terror as I did.
2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what was the first one you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles you borrowed from the library? This is like asking me if I owned any underwear when I was a child. However, there’s one book I checked out of the library over and over again, which, for some odd reason, I never actually owned: Corduroy by Don Freeman.
3. What is the first book you bought with your own money? I don’t know. I do know that the most exciting thing on the planet was waiting for and receiving those brown packages from Scholastic Books, a most-wonderful experience, still probably better even than things like receiving my first kiss or getting my first promotion that’s replicated today by boxes from Amazon and Powells.
4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often? Absolutely. I re-read everything (ahhh, those glorious days when I hadn’t a clue there was so little time to read all the books in the world). I probably read The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright most often.
5. What's the first adult book that captured your interest, and how old were you when you read it? Lots of adult books captured my interest before this, but the one that really truly moved me away from children’s and young adult’s literature and into the world of contemporary adult literature was The World According to Garp by John Irving.
6. Are there children's books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? I can’t think of any. I’ve discovered lots of children’s books I love (like those by Alan Garner) that I didn’t know existed as a child, but I’m pretty sure I would have loved them then as well. As an adult, with the exception of authors who didn’t exist when I was a child like J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, I’ve tended to re-read childhood favorites when I read children’s literature.

Monday, November 20, 2006

How to Survive the Loss of a Loved One

1. Rent the movie My Dog Skip, especially if you’re the sort who never seems to cry when it’s appropriate, and everyone keeps telling you how important it is for you to cry. You’d have to be the most callous person on earth not to cry enough to fill a reservoir while watching this film. Extraordinarily cathartic.

2. Read Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin. This will be the only time you’ll ever be able to make it to the end of this well-conceived, but oh-so-poorly-executed novel. For some unknown reason, you’ll really want to make it to the end. And one of the greatest comforts you’ll experience during this time is the knowledge you could’ve taken the same idea and done it so much better.

3. If you don’t already have it, subscribe to caller i.d. During times like these, you really can’t be held responsible for the sorts of things you might say to someone calling to ask you to do a telephone survey about the hospitals in your area (I’m not kidding. Yes, SNL skits immediately came to mind when I received this call). If it’s an unknown caller, even on your business line (after all, if it’s a business line, you’ve got voice mail) DO NOT answer the phone.

4. Start making friends now with someone who will be willing to cook comfort food for you. If you’re someone who hates to cook, you’ve already done this. If you’re someone who loves to cook, you’ll be surprised how you lose your capacity even to make toast and spread some peanut butter on it.

5. Speaking of food, get yourself some Xanax, or some similar type of drug. You’re going to need it to control your urge to punch out every single person who keeps telling you how important it is to eat, since your appetite will have gone off to some deep, dark crawl space under the house where no one’s ever been and where none of these well-meaning people is ever likely to go to help retrieve him for you.

6. Surround yourself with as many people as possible who are willing to tell funny stories about your loved one. Avoid those who are nothing but doom and gloom. This is the most sane way to survive the whole ordeal.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Prodigal Sense of Humor

She has returned! Actually, she returned the other night, but I wasn’t completely convinced she was really here. I was busy doing dishes, a task I hate, thinking about all the miseries of the past week – dealing with doctors and hospitals, planning a funeral for a man who didn’t want one, dealing with a husband who’s too “strong” for his own good when I know perfectly well what’s going on inside him, trying to lose myself in work – when she crept up behind me.

I wasn’t sure who it was until she got me thinking along some very odd lines. Most of these thoughts centered around how all of this could be turned into some great comedic skits. Not right now. And certainly not representing my own family members. But some day, with characters I’d never met, I could maybe find myself rolling on the floor with laughter over the “too-strong husband and his desperately-wishing-he’d-let-go-and-let-her-be-the-strong-one wife.” Then, yesterday, when I found myself imagining even more comedic scenes and even emailing such thoughts to a friend, I realized she really, truly was back!

I, of course, ran to her and hugged and kissed her. I didn’t know where she’d been, but she just looked so bedraggled and forlorn. It was such a shame to see her looking like death – she’s usually the only one I can count on to always be so full of life.
I ordered the servants to bring her the best clothes, give her a ring for her finger (hell, give her the best diamond and emerald ring we could find).

I almost ordered the servants to produce a fatted calf. Then I remembered I don’t eat baby animals. Instead, I was inspired for the first time in days to turn on the stove where I cooked up her favorite comfort meal, a meal that’s ludicrous in how ridiculous it sounds in its simplicity, but how satisfying it can be at the right time: baked beans with chopped onion topped with fried egg. It was a meal worthy of someone who’d come home after a long and hard journey.

Of course Sense of Dread and Despair, her older sister, had been busy vacuuming and dusting and cleaning out closets. When D and D heard the laughter and smelled the baked beans, she demanded of the servants to know what was happening. When the servants explained her younger sister had come home, D and D threw herself on the bed and refused to come downstairs to join us in our celebration.

I had to go up and coax her to join us. She complained that for years she’d worked for me like a slave, that she’d toiled away at trying to consume my entire mind, that she’d always done everything I’d ever asked of her: helped me imagine worst-case scenarios, encouraged me to argue with others, made me feel worthless when I needed it. She pointed out that Humor has wasted my time on frivolous matters, caused me to take life less seriously, encouraged me to imagine episodes during life’s most tragic moments.

I replied, “Dear daughter, you are always with me, and everything that is mine is yours. But we should be glad and celebrate! Your sister was dead, but she is now alive. She was lost and has now been found.”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Life, Interrupted

Bob's father died somewhat unexpectedly last night of a sudden-onset pneumonia. As I could have predicted, my sense of humor immediately took off on some sort of world tour. Don't worry. She will return; she always does; and when she does, I'll be back in the blogosphere. Temporarily, though, I will be taking a break from posting.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Thursday Thirteen

As usual (I must have had my head buried in a book or something), I wasn’t paying attention in class. As a result, I'm not very clear on the assignment. I've come up with one of my own instead, which I think combines some five different challenges/memes/interesting ideas: a Thursday Thirteen List of Thirteen Classics to Read in 2007.

The first rule I gave myself when composing this list was stolen from one of the winter reading challenges, this rule being that I wasn’t allowed to use this list as an excuse to go on a shopping spree at Amazon. I had to choose books that Bob and I already have in our collection. The second rule I gave myself is one I don’t think anyone is doing yet, but I’m probably wrong. This rule was that the list was to be as representative of as many places around the world as I could make it while sticking to rule number one.

One of my biggest problems was trying to choose between adult classics and children’s classics (many of which I’d like to re-read, as I haven’t read them since I was twelve or so, and many which I’ve never read and would like to). I finally decided I’d have two lists: thirteen adult books and thirteen children’s books (the latter will stick to rule #1, but not rule #2. Our children’s book collection, although large for two adults who don’t have children, can’t compare to our adult book collection and just isn’t all that cosmopolitan). This Thursday I’m giving you the adult list. Next Thursday will be the children’s lists.

So, here’s what I’ve got on the adult list and why:

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, because this book practically meets criteria #2 all on its own: Trinidadian author of Hindu parents writing about an Indian living in a newly-independent African nation.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, because Bob talks about this one so much I really just need finally to read it. Besides, although I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s one of my favorite books (that term is reserved for such comfort reads as I Capture the Castle or those that get me rolling on the floor with laughter like Three Men in a Boat), Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and it took me forever to get around to reading it as well.

Bread and Wine by Ignacio Silano, because it’s extraordinarily pathetic how little I know about Italy and Italian literature. Of course, reading this book is just going to highlight my ignorance even more, but perhaps I’ll learn something along the way.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, because back when Bob was also working in the publishing industry he picked up a beautiful Modern Library edition of this book. His father read it and raved about it. I’ve been wanting to read it ever since, but, somehow can’t quite seem ever to get around to it.

A Dream of Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin, because you could accuse me of shamelessly picking a book by its cover if you could see this 3-volume set decorated with Chinese watercolors that Bob picked up in China years before he met me. However, I also read about this when I was reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans this past summer and decided I really wanted to read it then.

Faust by Johann Wolfgang won Goethe, because not having read this is like not having read The Bible when it comes to reading and trying to discuss so much literature that’s been written since.

The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because I absolutely love One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (one of the few adult books I’ve read more than twice in my life), but I’ve never read anything else by Garcia Marquez.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, because (as I’ve mentioned somewhere before), I’ve been meaning to read Le Miserables forever, but always find it too daunting. Thought I’d start with this shorter work and see if it inspires me further to tackle Le Miserables.

The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, because I started it years ago, and though I really liked it, for some reason, never got through it. I want fnally to get through it.

Lorna Doone by Richard D. Blackmoore, because there’s a funny (which may turn out not to be so funny once I’ve read it) story as to why we have this book, which I’ll write about at some other point.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, because doesn’t everyone read this in high school? I must have been absent that week or something…

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, because, yes, I do read cookbooks cover-to-cover, but this one has always seemed a little scary. I’ve been buoyed, however, by having read Julie and Julia in 2006. After all, she read and cooked her way through it. I’m just going to read it.

Now, if you don’t hear from me for weeks on end, it’s because I’ll be reading. To be a little more precise here, I’ll be reading about 7000 pages, and we haven’t even gotten to the children’s books (not to mention everything else I’ll be reading for my two book discussion groups and from my TBR list, which has grown – and keeps growing – at an exponential rate, thanks to all of you). And, although, at this point, I don’t plan to devote an entire post to each book, I will let you know from time-to-time how it’s going and what I think of my choices.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Third Thing You May Not Know About Me

Well, my past two posts have been on religion and politics. My father, when I was young, told me one should always avoid three topics of conversation when in mixed company: religion, politics, and sex. Then I’d eavesdrop on “grownup” conversations and discover these three topics almost always came up, especially when my father was contributing to the discussion. I thought about posting today on sex, just to complete the set, and I probably could do so, given that the third thing you may not know about me is that I don’t believe blonds have more fun. However, I came to the conclusion, as this post was writing itself in my head over the past two days, that it was really becoming something about sexism (sorry to disappoint all those of you who may have found me with a “blonds and sex” google trap – as The Hobgoblin would call it), but it isn’t even really that. All it really is is a bit of a rant, so excuse me for a moment, while this angelic, sweet, little, golden-haired girl shocks you by being rotten.

I’ve been a natural blond since the age of five or so. Before that, I had copper red hair, as all three of my siblings did when we were that age. Theirs all went darker and/or stayed red. I’m the only one who’s hair turned blond (although when my brother and one of my sisters spent time living in South Africa, they both came home with hair as blond as mine). I promise you, to be a little red-headed pre-schooler is great fun, much more fun than being a blond woman in our society. For some reason, American adults just seem to eat up red-headed babies. In the days before I became a blond, my life was full of people playing with me all the time, cuddling me, feeding me all kinds of good stuff, and giving me lots of attention. Then I turned blond, had to go to school, and it was all downhill from there.

I often wonder, which blonds have more fun? It must be the males, because the blond females I know don’t seem to be having it any more than anyone else. First of all, most natural blonds, except for those extraordinarily lucky dogs whose blond locks happen to be curly (can you tell I’m not one of those?), tend to have hair that never becomes full and lustrous (ever notice how all the models for shampoo meant to bolster “fine, limp” hair are all blond?), but rather, remains as baby fine as mine was when it was red. This means, when worn long, it looks like it consists of about two strands. When cut short, a woman looks like Sinead O’Connor back in the days when she was tearing up pictures of popes, with the exception that she could pull it off (I promise you, my head in a bald state is not a pretty thing).

I also happen to be blessed not only with fine, limp blond hair, but Nicole-Kidman-like skin (you know, the kind that burns if you just look out the window and say, “Oh, it looks like a sunny day today”), which looks really good when paired with red hair a la Kidman, but makes people think of evil albino killers in movies when paired with blond hair. I can promise you it isn’t fun having to spend a fortune on sunscreen (a substance that rivals gold in expense), and constantly having to apply it and reapply it all day long sort of takes some of the fun out of scuba diving vacations in the Caribbean.

And then there’s the whole “dumb blond” thing. Ever notice it’s almost always females who are dumb, ditzy blonds, rarely males? I have many, many “un-fun” moments being a blond female, especially when I do something like go to a car mechanic or ask for help at a hardware store (maybe this is why I’ve never understood the old joke of men never asking for directions. I must be one of the few females in the world who despises asking for directions and who has a husband who has no problem whatsoever doing so. Good thing, or we’d never get anywhere). I have absolutely no idea why the color of one’s hair should have anything to do with intelligence. When you take a look at all those Scandinavian countries from which the blond heads come, I’m quite sure you’d be hard-pressed to find many dumb people.

I have two strikes against me, actually, as far as people assuming I’m dumb. Not only am I blond, but I also happen to be Southern. It’s very interesting to me how Northeasterners will blather on about how extraordinarily prejudiced Southerners are, and yet, they have no problem also talking about how dumb Southerners are. Excuse me, but it seems pretty dumb to call people prejudiced and then to make prejudiced statements about them. You wouldn’t catch this blond doing that.

I can hear you asking, “Well, why don’t you just dye your hair?” Very simple answer: I’m someone who barely has the time and patience to comb my hair, let alone have to worry about touch-ups and hair appointments (talk about not having fun). And God forbid if I were to try doing it myself (which would probably result in some odd purple color that even a teenager wouldn’t be caught dead sporting).

Thus, you have it: somebody out there’s having much more fun than I am, and I resent it, because, even though I’m not supposed to be dumb or ditzy, all that fun is supposed to be mine.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

An Election-Day Interruption

Today, I'm interrupting my expansion on five things you may not know about me to give you a sixth:

6. I believe that if you're an American citizen, and you don't vote, you have absolutely no right to complain about what happens in this country.

Therefore, if you're not out there voting today, for whatever reason, that's fine, no problem. But if I run into you somewhere (on the street, on my blog, on your own blog) complaining in six months, I'm not going to be the least bit sympathetic.

Don't equate protest with apathy. This country wasn't founded by a bunch of people who decided to sit around at home and complain about the tyrannies of dictators. No. They protested. They uprooted themselves for change. They risked life and limb for change. All we ask of people today is to drive over to your nearest voting booth and to cast a few votes. And if, no matter how much you might think this country is going to hell in a handbucket, you don't happen to think you're extraordinarily lucky, then get out and go talk to some recent immigrants from Mexico or Cuba (find out why they're so willing to cross into this country illegally) . Or rent Hotel Rwanda and watch it. Or do a little research and find out about the terrors of the Taliban. Or go visit Ellis Island. It will give you a whole new perspective on our country. And if you're not registered to vote, then get out there and do so now, before the next election.

Meanwhile, I'll see the rest of you at the voting booth.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Second Thing You May Not Know about Me

Although I grew up believing in God (it’s nearly impossible to grow up in the American South and not to be affected by religion, sort of tantamount to growing up in China and never tasting rice), I went through a period in which I truly, truly had doubts about this belief. During that time, if you’d asked me, I probably would have said, “Well, I’m not sure I’m an atheist, but I don’t know. Maybe I’m an agnostic.” Then, sometime in my late twenties and early thirties, I decided there was just way too much in this world that people couldn’t explain, mysteries that filled me with wonder, things that helped me tap back into the joy of being a child and not caring that I didn’t know everything, accepting that not everything had an explanation that I had to know just yet. I’m sorry. Science is amazing, and I love it, but it can’t answer all the questions someone with an imagination like mine poses. I still want explanations to be there somewhere, though, and believing in a God who has them just makes sense to me. Believing in a God who has them, is a loving parental figure, and who will care for this child who needs guidance in a world she loves but can’t understand makes even more sense to me. Here are some other things I do and don’t believe pertaining to this.

I believe in:

1. the Trinity. After all, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have many, many facets to his/her being. Why should God only have one? Although I don’t believe God has a gender, it’s hard for me truly to imagine a genderless being. God, as presented in The Bible, strikes me as more of a father figure than a mother figure. The Holy Spirit strikes me as being feminine, so I call God “he” and the Holy Spirit “she.”

2. trying to live life the way Christ taught us to live it. The first time I read The New Testament all the way through I was blown away by how much of what Jesus taught is what modern-day psychologists tout as the secret to good mental health. Think about it. Talk to a psychologist about the need to forgive in order to feel at peace, the need to simplify one’s life, how unhealthy worry is. If Freud had lived in 30 A.D. and had seen sinners casting stones at another sinner, he would have called it “reaction formation.” It’s the same thing, though.

3. God has a fabulous sense of humor, that he had lots of fun creating the world, and that, like a novelist, he’s constantly amazed by the things his creations choose to do – sometimes they make him laugh and sometimes they make him cry.

4. that if you look long and hard enough, you can find passages in The Bible (especially when taken out of context) to support any argument you want to make. That’s what makes it such a magical, but also extraordinarily dangerous, text.

5. love really does conquer all, which is why it’s at the core of all the major religions to which I’ve been exposed.

I don’t believe:

1. in a literal interpretation of The Bible. Although much of The Bible is historical (and is rich in historical detail), it’s history as told through the eyes of one population of people. As such, it’s flawed. The rest of it is myth and legend (or call it “fiction” if you want). But, then, I believe much more truth is found in fiction than in nonfiction, and how can I not love a God who speaks to us through fiction and metaphor? I will note a couple of the reasons I think The Bible is so very, very cool. If you read the first (for those of you unfamiliar with Genesis, there are actually two) creation story in Genesis close enough, keeping in mind that we have no idea how long a “day” could possibly have been before there were humans defining it, it lays out a very neat argument for the theory of evolution. And Jacob was experimenting with some pretty interesting early biotechnology when he was raising sheep.

2. God sweats the small stuff at all. He’s got way more important things to worry about than whether or not I swear up a storm or drink a glass of wine with dinner or if two women who love each other pledge to take care of each other for the rest of their lives and would like to have the same legal rights as a man and a woman who decide to do the same thing. However, I’m pretty sure he cries buckets over the fact that so many wars have been fought in his name; that we do so much to destroy his creation; that no matter what he does, we don’t seem to be able to live peacefully together; and that so many of us have so much and share it with so few.

3. this life is just a weigh station, a place to prove ourselves worthy or unworthy of some sort of reward in an afterlife. I definitely believe in an afterlife, but I’m not sure exactly what that means. One thing I’m pretty confident about, though, is that if I could learn to live life the way Christ taught us to live it, I’d be “self-actualized” and would find a peaceful heaven right here on earth.

4. Christianity is the one and only way to know God. It’s what works for me, and I’m fully-aware of the fact that 90% of the reason it works for me is probably because it’s the faith in which I was raised. Because I don’t believe it’s the only way, I absolutely, positively believe in the separation of Church and State. This does not mean I believe politics should be left out in the parking lot when one walks through the doors of a church. Jesus was nothing if he wasn’t political. Oh yes, and I’m pretty sure God isn’t too pleased with that little “In God We Trust” you’ll find on American money (money! The love of which is the root of all evil. Has anyone else ever seen the irony in that?).

5. God thinks in black and white. That’s why he sent Jesus to say, “Well, yes, I know I told you not to work on the Sabbath, but use some common sense here. If by not working on the Sabbath, you’re doing harm to others, then, by all means, work on the Sabbath.” (I don’t think he expected these creatures he created to take everything so literally.)

6. The words “progressive” and “Christian” are antithetical. If he wasn’t the most, Jesus was at least one of the most progressive people of his time, encouraging extraordinarily radical change.

I used to be, because I associate with so many intellectuals in my line of work, one of those people who never talked about her Christian beliefs. The word “Christian” has come to have such negative connotations among the intellectuals I seem to know. Then I read the book Stealing Jesus by Bruce Bawer (written by a homosexual Christian. Horrors!), and I found myself thinking “Dammit (God especially doesn’t sweat it when I swear on his behalf), I’m going to stop hiding the fact I attend a wonderful, inspiring church full of terrific people and that I believe in the teachings of Christ. Maybe it will prove to others we’re not all out to condemn anyone and everyone who doesn’t follow some very rigid set of black-and-white rules, people who know we have all the answers, and who completely lack humor and humility."

Then, Bob went to Union Theological Seminary in New York, home to the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Neibuhr, as well as, more recently, James Cone, Ann Ulanov, and Larry Rasmussen. These are all intellectual giants, who leave my tiny little brain spinning. I find myself thinking, “I should be proud to be amongst these sorts of believers.” And I am (although being very aware that “pride goeth before a fall”).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

First Thing You May Not Know About Me

(Just a note before I get started: I’m talking about true spelling errors, here, not typos, which are something completely different.)

Once a year, or so, the editorial department at my educational publishing company gets together for an extended (2-or-3-day) meeting. Most of us are telecommuters, so it’s a chance for us all to see each other and to do some brainstorming together, as well as just to have some fun. I don’t want to turn this into a piece in which I do nothing but rhapsodize about my co-workers (although I easily could), but I do want to point out that these are some of the smartest and most-talented people I’ve met in my life, people who care passionately about what goes on in the classroom and how and what kids are/are not learning, as well as how we can make the classroom a better place for them. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this extraordinary group.

Now, what I want you to take away from that paragraph as you continue reading this post are these key words: "editorial" (we’re all editors, not actuaries or engineers), "educational publishing" (materials for educators, people who teach things like writing and spelling), "smartest" (as in "most-intelligent" not "best-dressed"). I want you to remember these words, because now I’m going to talk about spelling, specifically the fact I purposefully failed a written spelling test in seventh grade, because I didn’t want to participate in the state spelling bee. I will eventually get to talking about spelling and my colleagues, and I want those words fresh in your mind when I do.

Back in those test-failing days of mine, getting up in front of an audience just to take a bow was a fate I wouldn’t have wished on my worst enemy (same year, I also turned down a nomination to run for student government for the same reason: having to give a campaign speech). Getting up and spelling words I couldn’t even pronounce? Well, let’s just say I would rather have spent the night sleeping on Elm Street than do that. I successfully failed that first test and then began to worry I might be singled out again, though, if I weren’t careful. Thus began a campaign to keep this from happening. I spent about a year purposely mispelling "difficult" words, mimicking my classmates and the ways they spelled. I’ve got to hand it to the brain. It’s a very effective learning tool. After a year of this, it had completely learned how to be a bad speller. And then, of course, we went and lived in England for a while, where everything is spelled differently, and, well, let’s just say "hopeless" is another good word to remember when it comes to spelling and me.

The trouble is, no matter how hard I’ve tried to train it back, my brain has never reverted to its previous "good-speller" state. By the time I was in college, I was more horrified by the fact I was such a poor speller compared to my classmates (I went to one of those highly-competitive schools where these sorts of petty things were really important to people) than I ever would have been by the thought of delivering a presentation to an audience, but it was too late. I’d messed around with it enough, and my brain was thinking, "Yeah, right. Turn me into a good speller again, and then in a couple of years, you’ll want me to go back to spelling recommend with two "c’s." Forget it. You had your chance back before the Broca’s Area was fully developed, and you blew it. I’m getting old. I’m too tired for all that work, especially since you’ve been systematically killing off so many of my cells while here."

Then, of course, I began working in publishing. I mean, "bad speller" isn’t exactly what springs to mind when someone thinks "editor." Does an author want an editor who can’t spell? Does an editor really want an author correcting her spelling? And, really, there is absolutely nothing more smug and annoying than a fellow editor (or worse, someone who’s not in the editorial department) editing your emails, which, believe it or not, some take great glee in doing. Thank God for spell check, but we all know (as one of my colleagues can attest, because she was once trying to tell us all there were pastries in the kitchen and to help ourselves, but she made one very unfortunate letter omission in the word "pastries"), it isn’t 100% reliable. Still, it’s helped me tremendously over the past ten years.

Flashback to last week (and pull out those key words now): we’re eating pizza and drinking wine the night before the first day of our meeting, and one of my colleagues announces that the ability to spell is just one of those gifts people are either born with or not, and it has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. After all these years of being made to feel stupid, because I struggle with "i before e, or e before i," here was someone ("most-intelligent" not "best-dressed") announcing that the two had nothing to do with each other. Forward ahead to the next night, sitting around another dinner table with even more of my colleagues gathered, and the conversation turned to what a bad speller everyone is; this group (editors, not actuaries or engineers) all (materials for educators, people who teach things like writing and spelling) agreed that spelling isn’t so important. And you’ve never heard such a roaring endorsement for spell check (although not quite as highly from the colleague who made that unfortunate missing letter mistake).

Can you imagine? I managed to grow so much smarter in just two nights. Is it any wonder I’m so fond of my colleagues?