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.