Friday, February 29, 2008

Somerst Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence

(This, sadly, was my last book for the Outmoded Authors challenge. Happily, though, there is going to be a second challenge coming later this year. I've so enjoyed this one, I can hardly wait to embark on that one.)

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Modern Library, 1919.

I love books written the way this one was, the kind of book that fools you into thinking you’ve picked up a somewhat gentle little thing that’s matter-of-factly presenting you with this quaint little story. Then, before you know it, it’s become much more than that, a book that portends wretchedness while throwing about some philosophical challenges. Suddenly, the bad thing you just knew was going to happen happens, and you still find yourself thinking, “Ohmigod, I can’t believe that just happened!” as you flip wildly through the pages of what has practically turned into a thriller, so eager are you to find out what’s going to happen next.

I found it nearly impossible to read this book without making comparisons to another book I love Budd Schulberg’s (he’s a somewhat outmoded author these days, isn’t it? Maybe he needs to be included in the next round of this challenge) What Makes Sammy Run? Both books display despicable characters, characters willing to step all over everyone in their lives in order to fulfill their selfish goals, through the eyes of narrators who find themselves drawn to them, not quite unwillingly. These narrators are, by turns, galled, unbelieving, and, at times, admiring. And they are fascinated, nay, obsessed, with their subjects, despite, on some level, wishing they weren’t.

I like to come to most of the novels I read a little bit blind, trying not to know too much about them (which isn’t always easy, especially given my obsession with reading dust jacket copy), and to be given my sight slowly as I make my way through the pages, until I get to the end, capable of fully seeing. Then, if the subject matter has piqued my curiosity enough, I might go see what I can find to read about it (or read the Introduction, something I never actually read before I read a novel). Thus, I avoided looking up anything about this book before I read it, and happily, my copy has long since lost its dust jacket, so I was completely blind when I turned to the first page. However, about a third of the way through it, I found myself just dying to know who Charles Strickland (the book’s despicable character) really was. Knowing that Maugham included Thomas Hardy, as well as himself, in Cakes and Ale, I was pretty sure he wasn’t just making up some artist off the top of his head. A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Strickland was based on Gaugin.

Gaugin may have been a genius, but if he was anything like this Charles Strickland, he certainly isn’t the sort of genius I’d want to know. That seems to be Maugham’s point, though, that most who could wear the label “genius” probably are pretty despicable. Given the little I know about Maugham (who was apparently a huge commercial success but never much of a critical one), I would guess that he was, on some levels, comforting himself. One can imagine his thoughts, “Well, maybe I’m not acclaimed the way William Faulkner is, but maybe I have more character than he does, than any of these so-called geniuses all the critics seem to adore.” A theme that runs throughout this book is: what does it mean to have character?

Personally, I find it hard to believe Maugham wasn’t critically acclaimed, and I have a feeling that it must have more to do with the literary fashions of the time than whether or not he deserved it. He wasn’t experimenting; he wasn’t jumping on the post-modernism bandwagon. He was merely telling a good story in a rather old-fashioned way: narrator as character in the book observes someone else and paints a portrait of that person through his eyes (and what more perfect way to tell a story about a painter?). I’ve always enjoyed this sort of use of the first-person in which it’s all about “him” or “her” as “I” see it, rather than the more standard (today, at least) all about “me.” However, we do get some wonderful glimpses of the narrator (whom I’d name, but I can’t recall anywhere in the book that his name is actually revealed. If anyone has read it and knows, please feel free to chime in). This comment of his is so endearing and tells us so much about him:

I forget who it was that recommended men, for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. (p. 13)

You really catch Maugham’s subtle sense of humor there, don’t you? He also has some great and beautiful moments of insight, such as here:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side-by-side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house. (p. 235)

Don’t you just fall on your knees in admiration for someone with such writing talent? I do. And then while I’m down there, I bang my forehead on the floor over and over, bemoaning the fact that I will never, no matter how much I practice my craft, be able to compose such passages myself. After a few minutes, though, I stop banging my head, because I discover I’m hopeful. Hopeful since I’ve realized that Maugham is a good example of one of those popular, commercially-successful authors who indicates to me that maybe I shouldn’t despair over the masses, that maybe the masses aren’t really so bad (well, at least the masses of nearly 100 years ago) if they can appreciate someone who writes like that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I can find that copy of Cakes and Ale I know I’ve got somewhere. Oh yes, and I need a good biography of Gaugin. Anyone know of such a thing?

Cross posted here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Just a Little Writing Assignment

All right, so I love to write. Stick me in a room with a (preferably obscenely expensive fountain) pen and a (preferably obscenely expensive leather-bound) notebook, leave me alone for days, and I’ll be perfectly content. You don’t know how thrilled I am that email (yea! Let me write that answer for you) has become the communication device of choice over the telephone (egad! You expect me to articulate a reasonable answer to that question via my vocal cords?). Some of us, I guess, are born with pencils in our hands. Writing has always come easily to me, much more easily than speaking. That doesn’t mean I think I’m much good at it, but when you love something, you don’t really worry about whether or not you’re good at it. I love chocolate. Do I have to be any good at eating it in order to do so? (Judging by how many articles of clothing have been ruined by chocolate stains, I’d say "no.")

However, send me an email that says, “We need the math catalog letter by Feb. 26th,” and I am thrown into an utter state of panic. This message means I’m responsible for writing a half-page letter that will serve as an introduction to my company’s math catalog. I sit and stare at this email for a moment, writer’s block setting in as I try to compose a response to it. Soon, I'm deeply immersed in the five stages of grief:

1. Denial or disbelief
“What? A catalog letter? You expect me to write another one of those? Didn’t we just do that? You mean catalogs come out more often than once every ten years? I never said I could write marketing pieces, you know. I could swear someone told me we weren’t doing a math catalog anymore. In fact, I could swear we never have done a math catalog. Are you sure such a thing exists?”

2. Anger
“Why the hell do I have to write this stuff? Don’t we have a marketing department? Catalogs are a marketing function not an editorial one. You mean I have to write one of these EVERY SINGLE YEAR?! What the fuck? Whatever possessed me to take this job? Whatever possessed me to go into publishing? I was going to be an accountant, dammit! Accountants don’t have to waste their time writing catalog letters."

3. Bargaining
“Okay, if I don’t have to write this thing, I promise I will never, ever crack any editorial v. marketing jokes again. If someone else will write this piece for me, I promise that person can have my first-born son. All right, you’re right, I know, I’m never going to have a first-born son. How about a dozen fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies instead?”

4. Depression
“ What makes you think I can write this? No one’s gonna like it. No one’s gonna read it. No one’s gonna read our books. As a matter of fact, I can tell nobody likes me. All the other catalog letters are ten times better than mine. What good am I? I can’t do this. Is this all life is: being assigned tasks we can’t possibly complete? It’s all so pointless, isn’t it? I don’t blame all those people who kill themselves."

5. Acceptance and Hope (Finally!)
“Well, I might as well get to work on this thing…hey, this isn’t really so bad. What if I go with this theme this year? That just might work. We’re publishing awesome books here. A good catalog letter will be like a beacon, people drawn to it, drawn to our awesome books. Everyone’s gonna be reading our books.”

This is not to say that the piece I write isn’t vetted through a husband, my friend The Platonic Editor, and everyone in my department before I submit it. And this is not to say that I stop thinking, “What the hell? Why can I write a blog post such as this one in no time flat, with nary a worry in the world (despite the fact it’s available for the whole world to read), but I have to spend at least two days worrying about this assignment before I can even compose the first sentence?” However, it is to say, “It’s done, and I’m pretty happy with it now.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Praise of Emily Dickinson

(Before I get going, here, I have to point out my brother's latest post, which is just flat out genius -- of course, he's related to me-of-the-145-IQ. Go read it. I wish I'd had a copy when I was taking English lit.)

Back when I was in high school, and just about the only poetry I didn’t proclaim to be boring and unintelligible was the angst-ridden drivel written and shared by my classmates and me (God bless high school English and creative writing teachers. What they have to endure!), I was introduced to Emily Dickinson. In fairness, I also loved Haiku and limericks, when we studied them, but Emily Dickinson was the only “boring old poet” to whom I was actually drawn. Her nature poems, at that time, seemed really to ring a bell with me. I paid attention in class when we read her poems and even tried to emulate her with a silly poem I composed called “The Butterfly.”

I had dinner with Dorr and Hobs just before I moved down here to Pennsylvania, and they were talking about teaching Emily Dickinson, which made me realize not only that I was jealous of their students, but also that I hadn’t picked her up and read her in years, probably not since the year Bob and I were married and moved in together. Oddly, a couple of weeks ago, Bob pulled down one of her collections from our shelves and was rhapsodizing about how brilliant she was, as he began reading some of his favorite poems to me. I’ve been meaning to read more poetry collections this year, so decided to put Poems by Emily Dickinson: First and Second Series on my list of books to read for February.

In doing so, I’ve been rhapsodizing over her even more with Bob. He and I have decided she is truly one of the best poets ever to have written (yes, ever. I know there are those who will argue with me, so please, feel free). We, seriously, both swoon over this one, with which, I am sure, you are all familiar, but I will put it down anyway, just for the excuse to experience typing it (and so to envy the brilliance of the woman who was able to compose it):

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
‘T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, -- you’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

(Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson., eds., Emily Dickinson Poems: First and Second Series, New York: The World Publishing Co., 1948, p. 40.)

Please tell me of any more perfect poem written in the English language, especially for women writing during the era in which she was writing, because I want to read it. I just don’t think it’s possible to be more perfect than that, but Dickinson seems to have been capable of repeating perfection. Just when you’re sighing, thinking you couldn’t possibly read any other poem worth reading more than this one, she gives you another that leaves you breathless.

I remember when I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury being most blown away by his utter genius in being able to transform MacBeth’s soliloquy into a brilliant Southern gothic novel. I’ll never forget reading the soliloquy over about five times after finishing the book and just marveling at each line as it was applied to the novel. (Yes, I am weirdly obsessive that way.) I never thought of the possibility of doing that with other works of literature, but as I reread Emily Dickinson this go-around, I found myself thinking how ripe so many of her poems are for fictional translations, especially her love poems. Try this one:

In Vain

I cannot live with you,
It would be life,
And life is over there
Behind the shelf

The sexton keeps the key to,
Putting up
Our life, his porcelain,
Like a cup

Discarded of the housewife,
Quaint or broken;
A newer Sevres pleases,
Old ones crack.

I could not die with you,
For one must wait
To shut the other’s gaze down, --
You could not.

And I, could I stand by
And see you freeze,
Without my right of frost,
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise with you,
Because your face
Would put out Jesus’,
That new grace

Glow plain and foreign
On my homesick eye,
Except that you, than he
Shone closer by.

They’d judge us—how?
For you served Heaven, you know,
Or sought to;
I could not,

Because you saturated sight,
And I had no more eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise.

And were you lost, I would be,
Though my name
Rang loudest
On the heavenly fame.

And were you saved,
And I condemned to be
Where you were not,
That self were hell to me.

So we must keep apart,
You there, I here,
With just the door ajar
That oceans are,
And prayer,
And that pale sustenance,

(pp. 60-61)

Let’s just forget all the sigh-worthy lines in that poem for the moment. Can’t you so envision the novels that could come from that? Woman in love with a priest (or man in love with a nun)? Gay man in love with a man who turns away to become a minister, or who is suddenly “born again?” Young atheist in love with a seminary student? The possibilities are endless…

Then, there’s this one:

The Wife

She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.

If aught she missed in her new day
Of amplitude, or awe,
Or first prospective, or the gold
In using wore away,

It lay unmentioned, as the sea
Develops pearl and weed,
But only to himself is known
The fathoms they abide.

(p. 66)

More endless possibilities, no? I’ve recently learned that the sort of fiction I’m describing, I think, is called “fan fiction.” Any of you fabulous, imaginative writers I know out there fans of Emily Dickinson who would care to write it for me? I’d love to read it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The IQ Bowl

A few weeks ago, I wasted a hell of a lot of time conducted what just might be a ground-breaking experiment by taking three different online IQ tests. Here’s what I discovered: my IQ is either 127, 138, or 145. Hmm, that’s a bit of a variance, wouldn’t you say? What to do with these numbers? That’s the question. I could just take the average (and by that, the possible 145-IQ-me wants to make sure you realize I’m referring to the mean), which would put my IQ at approximately 136.666… (oooh, “in case of Rapture, my vehicle most definitely won’t be unmanned,” not with an IQ like that. Has anyone seen the bumper sticker that says this?). I could just get rid of the highest and the lowest scores and go with 138. Then again, I could just take the tactic of your average kindergartner and announce that my IQ is 145, having no problems, when asked, about saying, “because that’s what I want it to be.”

On the other hand, maybe the best tactic for figuring out what my IQ is might just be to take the numbers, throw them in a bowl with a whole bunch of other numbers, and pick one. Maybe I should even throw 60 in there, which is what Froshty had me convinced my IQ was, circa age 10. On many levels, my IQ should be 60.

When I considered many of the questions on these tests (all three tests are similar and all overlap), I couldn’t help my tendencies to skewer them. My natural question for what seemed like over half of them was, “Yes, but what if…?” For instance, quite a lot of them required the test-taker to have some familiarity with geography, which leads someone like me to think, “What if you attended school in The United States post-1960 when geography was all but eliminated from the curriculum?” You probably spent many years filling in blank maps of The United States, and that was the extent of your education in geography. If you don’t happen to be one of those kids who enjoyed reading encyclopedias and atlases for fun, or a crossword puzzle fiend, you very well might have no clue how to answer:

The Thames is to England as the _____________ is to Russia.

Chances are, you’re not going to be the least bit familiar with Russian rivers. You may not even know that the Thames is a river. Now, it’s a multiple-choice question, so you can choose the most Russian-sounding answer and increase your chances of getting it right. But what if it’s a trick question? What if it’s the most Mexican-sounding name, despite being in Russia? I just can’t help thinking that knowing the names of rivers in different countries can’t possibly be any indication of IQ. Wouldn’t a better question be: how can I find out the names of rivers in Russia if I don’t know what they are?

Here’s another one that requires knowledge that I wouldn’t exactly consider innate:

If you unscramble these letters YKTOO, you get the name of a:

a. planet

b. city

c. animal

d. all of the above

Does anyone else out there panic that oh yes, some new planet was recently discovered? What was it called? It wasn’t Kotyo, was it? What if there’s some endangered animal species in Antarctica called the Kotoy?

Then there’s this question (which I actually copied and pasted, because I’m so annoyed with it):

John received $0.76 in change from a purchase in a drugstore. If he received 8 coins, and five of the coins were the same denomination, how many quarters did he receive?

I look at a question like this one and automatically think, “ah, trick question.” This means I will spend at least twenty minutes on it (thus guaranteeing, if time is a factor in taking this test, which it was when I had to take such things as the S.A.T.s) that I will be at a disadvantage. My thoughts go something like this, “The question says five, but I bet that’s the trick. They want you to mess around with five coins of the same denomination, working with five and five only, but it might be six coins of that denomination, which would mean at least five, because the question doesn't say 'exactly five.' It could be seven or eight. Maybe all eight coins are the same denomination, and John didn’t get any quarters. They always want to trip you up by making you forget that zero could be the answer.” It’s actually a pretty straightforward question, but someone who doesn’t trust that can waste quite a lot of time with such a question. And let’s not even think about the fact that you have to be familiar with the American money system and its denominations to get this one correct.

Now, here’s what I’m thinking. I may get the river in Russia by the luck of the draw, but suppose you were giving this test to a Masai warrior, one of those cool Masai warriors who’s been hired to lead tourists back to their tents at night in Kenya, because he knows how to avoid wild beasts to keep from being attacked, and the tourists don’t. So, that Masai warrior may have no clue that YKTOO is a city called TOKYO. Maybe YKTOO is something completely different in his language. However, at that moment, whose IQ do you want: the Masai warrior’s or my 127-138-145-or-whatever IQ? I’ll go with Mr. Masai warrior and get him to keep my arm from being some lion’s midnight snack, because when it comes to this question:

To avoid a ravenous lion, one must ________

my IQ hovers somewhere around 15.

I guess that means my groundbreaking experiment yielded no significant results. I’m choosing to stick with the kindergartner’s response and will tell everyone my IQ is 145, because that’s what I want it to be. I’m a genius. Just don’t ask me to protect you from lions.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

G.K. Chesterton and Martin Gardner's (ed.) The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown

Chesterton, G.K., Gardner, Martin, ed. The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

(The original book was published in 1911.)

Warning: if you’re going to read Father Brown, please suspend all disbelief. Then, fasten your seatbelt, hang on, and enjoy the ride. A friend of mine described the Father Brown stories to me as “fun.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, although after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, I was beginning to have a bit of a clue. Note, though, I said, “beginning to.” I had absolutely no idea just how much fun this book was going to be.

If you’re someone who loves classic cartoons, you might be able to understand what I mean when I say reading these stories is like watching a series of classic cartoons. You know how so much of what happens in a really good and clever cartoon is completely implausible and yet it tickles your imagination in such a way that you enjoy it immensely while marveling at the genius of its creator? Well, that’s Father Brown for you.

Imagine John Dixon Carr’s Gideon Fell plopped down in a fantasy world that’s as dark as the one in Pan’s Labyrinth but that portrays itself for all intents and purposes as the England or France or Scotland you know and recognize. I sat down with this book believing I was reading a collection of straightforward detective stories. I closed it wondering what genre this was: mystery? Fantasy? Horror?

So much like a cartoon was the book for me that I find it impossible to picture Father Brown as anything other than a cartoon caricature of a wise and portly monk. Chesterton didn’t provide us with much detailed description concerning Father Brown’s appearance, but we do know he had light brown hair, wore glasses, was not very tall, and dressed in the standard black of priests. However, I’ve got him in my brain as though he were a character in The Name of the Rose or something, un-bespectacled, and mostly bald. He wanders onto the scene, the voice of reason and sanity (except when he, as he often does, hypothesizes supernatural causes before discovering the real answer to the mystery) in this mad, mad world he inhabits. In this world, freshly severed heads are stolen from guillotine baskets to lead detectives astray, and small hammers are dropped from great heights in order to kill others. His solutions always sound perfectly sane and reasonable in such a world.

What made these stories even more fun was reading this annotated version. I had originally planned to read The Father Brown Omnibus, but when I went to check it out of the library, I discovered it was missing. I decided this one might be more interesting, and I’m sure I was right. The details and anecdotes Gardner provides in this edition certainly add to the enjoyment of reading it (although I will beg to differ with his statement that “the littlest priest is by all odds the second most famous mystery-solver [next to Sherlock Holmes, of course] in English literature.” I'm sure we can all come up with others who are more familiar at this point). His notes certainly helped illuminate parts of the text that would have been lost on me without them. The most delightful note he provides, though, is his explanation of who Waldo and Mildred D’Avigdor of Chesterton’s dedication are (long-time friends). Gardner includes the letter Chesterton wrote to Mildred announcing his engagement to Frances, his wife. This letter can’t help but endear any but the most stone-hearted reader to the writer (we all know that I of the marshmallow heart was completely touched). It’s too long to quote here, but I promise you it’s well worth your finding a copy of this book to read.

Those of you with less of an interest in religion than I have might find Father Brown a bit annoying at times (but you’re forewarned, at least. After all, he is a priest. I much prefer fictional priests who spout off religious dogma over fictional characters I don’t expect to do so). He definitely needs to be put in his historical place and time. The anti-Semitism bothered me the most, as it does with everything I read that was written in the early part of the twentieth century, knowing as I do what was on the horizon. However, I find his Catholic anti-Calvinism merely amusing. And you just know the atheists and cultists can’t be up to any good, right? (I will spare you my thoughts on bigoted “Christians” here.) He’s also unapologetically racist, but that, too, is nothing new for books written in this era.

My vote is that Chesterton be removed from “outmoded author” status. Let’s start a neo-Chesterton movement. I’m now ready to move on to some of the books in this edition’s bibliography, and I’m sure I’m going to start forcing him on friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in bookstores, because, well, you know, I’m a tiny bit passionate when it comes to books and authors I love.

Cross-posted here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ghostly Encounters

By now it’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis that I’ve been obsessed with ghosts and ghost stories all my life. I hated Shakespeare as a kid except the parts with ghosts. Slumber parties for me were always anticipated with the hopes that someone would be there who had a really good ghost story I’d not yet heard. Lend me books of ghost stories, and you’ve got a friend for life. And a few years ago, inspired I think by some of the fantastic architecture and ghostly passages at Bob’s seminary (the best of which were stolen when Columbia began renting space from the seminary, and we were no longer allowed access to the basement of our dorm building), I began writing my own.

Maybe I’m just projecting, but over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people are obsessed with the supernatural, with the mysteries in this world that we can’t easily explain. Take a look at all the shows on television that address the supernatural. Take a look at bestseller lists. Religion is all about the supernatural and the unexplained and making ourselves comfortable with it. Even ultra-orthodox rationalists are obsessed with the supernatural, spending countless amounts of time and energy trying to convert others to their belief that there is a natural, scientific explanation for every single mystery in this world, and all we have to do is study it and find it. My favorite of these are relatively recent studies in which experimenters stimulate specific areas of subjects’ brains, and subjects then report seeing ghosts. Yes, this very well could mean that when certain areas of the brain are stimulated, or tapped into for whatever reason, the brain conjures up apparitions that aren’t there. But there’s another possibility. Maybe those apparitions really are there, and we just can’t see them under normal circumstances. Think of it this way, would anyone ever say, “Well, those skin cells don’t really exist. You need a microscope to see them.” Maybe the ghosts exist, but we need brain stimulation in order to be able to see them. I’m not saying I necessarily believe this. I’m far too much of a natural rationalist (dammit) not to be drawn almost automatically to the first explanation, and I don’t even want to consider what it would possibly mean for the whole concept of “hallucination,” but I am asking: couldn’t the second explanation also be a possibility?

But now we get to my problem: I’m too much of a rationalist. I write ghost stories, yet I’ve never seen a ghost. I’ve never heard a ghost. I’m extremely skeptical as to whether or not they really exist, and am far more drawn to a Henry-Jamesian-type belief that they are all in the head, than I am to an M.R.-Jamesian belief that they are walking about all over the place. I’m like an ancient scribe writing a book of the Bible describing all that God is doing without actually believing God exists. I want to believe, but I can’t, and I long for proof.

Then again, do I really? That’s the problem with ghosts. I long for proof, but not if it means some evil apparition is going to make an appearance and scare the daylights (or nightlights, as the case may be) out of me. I walk around in the cemetery out back in the early evenings, half hoping I’ll see something, and half hoping I won’t (of course, I recently came to the realization that if ghosts return to places of trauma, which is supposedly what they do, they aren’t likely to be hanging out in the cemetery that’s been part of their deaths but certainly wasn’t part of their lives. And then I had a friend who so helpfully said to me recently, “If they do exist, I’m sure they’re not going to show themselves to someone who’s eagerly out looking for them").

After the one two-inch snowstorm we had this winter, I found some extremely interesting tracks in the melting snow in the cemetery. They crossed the path and then, literally, disappeared. Even accounting for the melting, I’m pretty sure they were too big to be a bird’s tracks, unless eagles are hanging out in the cemetery, but I’ve already convinced myself that they must have been a rabbit’s tracks (because I see rabbits hopping around out there all the time), and he must have hopped out of the cemetery (a rabbit with wings, because his hop into the trees beyond the cemetery would have had to be about 25 yards long), but I just can’t believe there isn’t some sort of natural explanation. However, it’s fodder for a great ghost story, isn’t it? And that’s how my thoughts work these days: everything seems to be fodder for a great ghost story. I find myself constantly asking friends, “Do you mind if I use that in a ghost story?”

Well, Friday night, I didn’t ask permission. I just sat around and observed and now have so many ideas for stories, I’d better just quit my job and start writing full time. This was the night Bob took me to the Wine, Dine, and Séance night at the mansion at a local winery as a Valentine’s Day gift. When he presented me with this gift, about which I had no clue, as he’d discovered it on his own, my first thought was, “You don’t get anything much more perfect than this.” I love fine dinners. I love theater. I love ghosts. Dinner theater with a play about ghosts? That’s my idea of heaven. And it lived up to my expectations, with the exception of the wine (Pennsylvania wine will not be rivaling Napa and Sonoma anytime soon).

In fact, it more than lived up to my expectations, because besides getting to watch a fun performance, we also got to interact with the actors who were obviously having a ball, and two unexpected but very interesting things happened. First, we were encouraged by the actors, in order to get in the “spirit” of it all to sit around the dinner table with the other “guests” and basically tell ghost stories, relating our own incidences of encounters with the supernatural. Well, there I was, the ghost story writer, being one of only two out of the group sitting at my table who couldn’t recall any encounters with the supernatural. However, I heard some great stories from others (including Bob’s, which I never tire of hearing. He’s got a terrific story from his days as a boarding school teacher). Where do I start? I have yet, believe it or not, to incorporate Bob’s ghostly encounter into any of my stories. Is it time I did? Or do I include the story from the woman who saw the ghost of a child at the Jersey shore? How about the woman who had the dream about her neighbor’s heart attack and death exactly as it happened about two weeks before it actually did? Or the man whose dog got upset over “someone” sitting in his favorite chair?

Secondly, an unexpected fringe benefit of the evening was a palmist who wandered around to the tables at dinner time. The first thing he said to me when he looked at my palm was “See all these random lines here? (I didn’t, as it was pretty dark, and I know absolutely nothing about which lines are important and which ones aren’t when it comes to reading palms, but that didn’t keep me from just sort of giving a noncommittal nod, as if I could see and understand.) Those represent your past lives.” (And you all think I’m joking when I say, “I must have been such and such in a past life.”) Once again, I’m obviously completely out of tune with the supernatural, as he told me that sometimes when he tells people this, their immediate response is, “Oh yes, I was in Paris during the French Revolution.” Then, he told me for most people it’s much vaguer than that, like feelings of déjà vu on a street you’re walking for what you thought was the first time (nope. Sorry. But even those sorts of feelings have eluded me all my life. If I’ve never been on a street, I’ve never been on a street. Maybe my past lives all suffer from amnesia or something).

Having my palm read, I’ve discovered, is maybe not such a good idea. He told me that I will have two major relationships in my life, not necessarily marriage, but important relationships. “Well, now that’s nice and vague, isn’t it?” Emily-the-Rationalist thinks. “Does my on-again-off-again-boyfriend-of-five-years-before-I-met-Bob count as the first, or is something terrible going to happen to Bob?” wonders Prone-to-Suggestion-Emily. He tells me I’m promised three children in my life, not necessarily my own, but three important children, like nieces and nephews. “Well, he certainly got that wrong. I only have two nieces, and if you count other important children in my life, it’s many, many more than three,” Emily-the-Rationalist thinks. “Ohmigod,” thinks Prone-to-Suggestion-Emily, “better be ultra careful with the birth control. I certainly hope this doesn’t mean headlines of ’First 45-Year-Old Lancaster County Resident Ever to Give Birth to Triplets,’ or something on the horizon.” Oh yes, and my life line has a big intersection in it, which supposedly represents trauma of some sort, like a major illness or a car accident, but trauma that I’ll survive, “Well, doesn’t everyone have trauma of some sort in his or her life?” E-t-R questions. P-t-S-E hopes such things as an ovarian cyst at age 18 and that car accident back in 2000 count and that it isn’t some future trauma right around the bend. I’m wondering which lines represent the multiple personalities. Oh, look at that Emily-the-Writer personality line that seems to indicate a story about a palmist with past lives and a ghost materializing at some point.

It all leads back to stories, doesn’t it? I guess if I can’t have a supernatural encounter of my own, then I might as well make some up. On Saturday, some friends of mine and I (after I’d described Friday night to them) decided that some day soon, we’ll take a ghost-hunting trip to Gettysburg. That battlefield is supposedly one of the most haunted places in America. Do you suppose if I ever actually encounter a ghost my need to write the stories will walk through the walls of my brain and disappear forever? I like to think not. I like to think the need will settle down on a spot that stimulates my brain, so that I discover even more ghosts hiding out all over the place where I never knew they were.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Two Memes for the Price of One

I was recently tagged for two memes. The first came from Litlove, which she devised with her (not surprisingly) smart and sensitive son. The second came from Dorr. I thought the first one was going to be really difficult but turned out to be quite easy once I got going. I thought the second one was going to be very easy but turned out to be quite difficult. Just goes to show I shouldn't think, huh? Anyway, here you go:


What do I fear about a serious energy crisis?

More violence and more war, which seem always to be the means to which humans resort when we have shortages of creature comforts. I also fear that I will be completely hopeless and helpless at living without all the things to which I am accustomed to having. I’m not good in cold weather without heat, for instance. I’m not particularly fond of the raw foods movement. I’ve been listening to Robinson Crusoe lately and realizing I just plain would not survive in his situation.

What would I miss most in a world with rationed energy supplies? Not being able to get together with friends and family members who don’t live anywhere near me, which is what’s most important to me in life. Not being able to take showers when I want or to drink all the water and tea I drink all day. I’m also pretty sure I wouldn’t be too happy if I were stuck eating the same food all the time, and if we had scheduled blackouts, say, I don’t know what I’d do if I were suffering from insomnia and couldn’t turn on a light to read. Maybe I’d get used to reading by candle light, but I find that very difficult to do right now. And then there are just all the little conveniences, aren’t there? Suppose I were told I could only drive my car on Mondays and Fridays or some such thing. I am sure I’d suddenly become desperate (despite being someone who seems to be perfectly content to spend multiple days in a row never leaving the house to do anything other than take a walk) to drive somewhere on Tuesday.

What can I do to help? In writing this, I just came up with an idea: get myself used to the idea of rationing. For instance, pick a day of the week that is going to be off limits for driving (which I realize wouldn’t be an option for many but is certainly one for me). Schedule my own “blackouts” a couple of nights a month or something. I also think a lot about the fact that I ought to start an organization that lobbies for major corporations to make employees who don’t absolutely have to be on site telecommute. Think how many cars that would take off the roads every morning and evening. Think how office space needs would shrink, and thus, how we’d be able to use all that land for other things (like community parks and gardens). Think what it would do for families who would have more time to spend with each other. But that’s a major undertaking, so here’s something a little easier that I’ve also been thinking about doing for sometime: creating a non-book-reading blog challenge in which, at the beginning of each month, I provide bloggers with a list of things from which they can choose that would help the eco-justice cause, letting them choose one, trying it just for that month, and then blogging about that experience. Anyone think that might be a good idea?

Tagging: Ian, Becky, Zoe’s Mom, The Havens, and Cam


  1. There’s so much parenthetical material, you’re afraid you’re going to lose track of what’s really happening.
  2. You’re laughing (at least you’re supposed to be).
  3. The era details are completely accurate. If the book is set in 1982, you’d better believe no one’s going to be listening to CDs (unless she happens to be part of a team inventing CD players. I guess it’s the editor in me, but I lost all respect for Donna Tartt’s A Secret History when she had characters listening to CDs during the same era I was in college. I promise you; very few students had CD players during that time, even very wealthy students at wealthy liberal arts colleges. That’s not poetic license; it’s just laziness on the part of the author and the editor).
  4. You are absolutely certain you know how this books is going to end, but you don’t.
  5. There are ghosts of some sort, even if they are merely making a token appearance, because every book ought to have ghosts of some sort.
  6. The writing is not sparse. In fact, you’re thinking, “She needs a good editor.”
  7. It’s not a mystery, because I could never, ever write one of those, needing to do too much research about police procedure, law, etc.
  8. It’s not a romance, either, really.
  9. You don’t know what it is.
  10. It’s unfinished.
Tagging: Anyone who has yet to do this one.

And now, lucky me, I'm off to get ready for this, which has got to be the best gift any Valentine has ever given me. Am I not the luckiest girl in the world to have such a sweet Valentine?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"What Was I Thinking?" She Asks for the One Billionth Time

So, I’m learning to knit. If you’d like, you can re-read that sentence as, “So, I’m turning into a butterfly and fluttering down to South America,” because it makes just about as much sense and is just about as believable. I, the one who has the kind of patience displayed by your average six-year-old on Christmas Eve, the one who never would have passed home economics in junior high without the help of a friend who sewed up her walrus pillow (that cute little “sewing project” that counted for about half the grade) for her, the one who thinks, “hand-made” merely means, "really-beautiful-and-four-times-as-expensive-and-bought-in-
some-quaint-little-shop-somewhere," am learning to knit.

This is what happens when you move to Pennsylvania. Actually, it’s called peer pressure, and it hasn’t changed one bit since you were fourteen-years-old. You know perfectly well you should say “no,” that this is not something you want to do (like exploring those attic rooms in the school when you’re supposed to be in the cafeteria eating lunch like everyone else), but when your friend says “let’s do it,” you think for a brief moment it might actually be fun, might actually be something worth doing.

Your plans were to find a writing group or to explore some math classes at the local college or maybe to take horseback riding lessons. You were not planning on joining a knitting circle; the thought never even crossed your mind. You know you tried to knit years ago with the help of a very patient and loving friend and that it went nowhere, that Bob still teases you about those knitting needles and that yarn he got you for your birthday that seem to have disappeared so mysteriously. However, your friend promises she has no idea how to knit either, that she’s sure she’ll be as bad at it as you are (just like your fourteen-year-old friend promised you she knew the secret way out of the school attic). Other friends who know how to knit and crochet are encouraging you, telling you they can help, that they want to teach you how. Then you arrive for your first evening at the knitting circle. By the end of it, your friend’s practically got a whole shawl knit, and you’ve done your very first row (just like your friend who raced out of the secret exit from the attic, leaving you stuck to get caught by those fast-approaching, obviously adult, footsteps). You should have known. Why on earth would you believe a woman who has the skills to do her own beautiful woodcarvings wouldn’t have the skills to take up knitting just like that? She’s now saying, “You know you REALLY don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to.” Oh, and, “Friends don’t let friends knit, you know.”

It’s more than mere peer pressure, though. It’s also called “Emily’s runaway imagination at work again.” Have you ever gone to a craft shop and looked at all that beautiful yarn in all those beautiful colors? Have you ever seen the pictures of cool sweaters and shawls and hats on the paper that wraps the yarn, enticing you to buy it with promises of patterns on the inside that will enable you to create your own versions of these articles of clothing? I know I can’t yet tell the difference between knitting and purling. I know I can’t figure out how to hold the damn knitting needles without looking like an American tourist holding chopsticks for the first time. I know my stitches are about as even as Godzilla’s teeth. Realistically, there’s no way in hell I’m ever going to be able to do anything more than cast on (in other words, create that first row of stitches). Even so, I’m envisioning myself knitting sweaters, hats, and socks for all my friends, made, of course, with all that lovely yarn in all those lovely colors. Did you know you can even buy organic yarn? I will finally have something to do with my hands, which have needed something to do since I gave up smoking fourteen years ago. I’ll be one of those women who has a big knitting bag that goes everywhere with her, and people will oooh and ahhh over my unique handiwork. People will come to the knitting circle and ask for my expert advice, and I will patiently explain it all to them, remembering a time when I was a mere beginner. It’s all going to be so much fun.

Oh, quick, go turn on your TV. See that beautiful and graceful little butterfly on the nature channel? She’s the one wearing that multicolored, beautifully-knitted beret, and she’s just crossed over the border into Venezuela with no need of a passport. That would be me.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Writing Meme

I first saw this one over at Charlotte's.

What’s the last thing you wrote?

(I'm assuming besides this blog post.) I revised the prologue and wrote the first few pages of a new novel.

Was it any good?

I’m very happy with the prologue, but I can see I’m going to have to work very hard on the rest.

What’s the first thing you wrote that you still have?

A little illustrated book called A Bear Called Teddy written on a beach vacation when I was seven years old.

Write poetry?

When I was in high school and college, and occasionally I’d “re-write” famous poems or limericks as notes to other colleagues who did the same at my former company. (I wrote a particularly good one once based on William Carlos Williams about eating a friend’s crackers when I got hungry, and he was out of the office). Does that count?

Angsty poetry?

Is there anything else that high school and college kids write?

Favourite genre of writing?

I like to write ghost stories and humorous stories, as well as blog posts.

Most fun character you’ve ever created?

I was writing a novel a few years back in which the main protagonist had a gay friend, and I think I adored him. He was just so human and was probably my alter-ego.

Most annoying character you’ve ever created?

The guy who dumped the woman in that aforementioned novel. I think I put every single ex-boyfriend I’d ever had into that one character, which wasn’t pretty.

Best plot you’ve ever created?

Am I the only one who always thinks that the one that’s in my head and driving me crazy right now has got to be the best? It’s the aforementioned novel, which I hadn’t planned on writing, but which seems to be insisting on my doing so. I’m not going to reveal the plot right now, but when it’s done, anyone who would like may read it. Mind you, it might take me ten years or so at the rate I’m going.

Coolest plot twist you’ve ever created?

I think all my ghost story plot twists are really cool. It’s hard to choose just one.

How often do you get writer’s block?

I don’t. I have to write in order to stay sane. I do, however, get writer’s block with certain pieces, but I just go on to writing something else (usually blog posts these days), and then I can come back without much difficulty.

Write fan fiction?

Now that I know what that is, yes. As a matter of fact, I seem always to have ideas for fan fiction. Like: wouldn’t it be cool to read about Scarlett O’Hara’s great-great-great-great-great (or however many greats is would be) granddaughter?

Do you type or write by hand?

Both. I like to get first drafts down by hand, but I’ve been known to start with the computer on some things. Writing by hand is so much more portable and convenient, though.

Do you save everything you write?

Unfortunately, no. Sometimes I wish I had, but when I really hate things, I tend to get rid of them (which I seem to have done a lot when I was in my teens).

Do you ever go back to an idea after you’ve abandoned it?

Sometimes, but not very often. Usually if I’ve abandoned something, it’s because I’ve gotten bored with it and can’t find a way to re-excite myself.

What’s your favourite thing you’ve written?

That changes constantly. However, I think right now it's that blog post I wrote in which I went down my blog roll and noted why each blog makes my day. It wasn't brilliant writing, but it was a wonderful writing exercise, so much fun and it made me think about what makes stuff worth reading, which can only help my writing.

What’s everyone else’s favourite story that you’ve written?

One I wrote about a haunted crossword puzzle.

Do you ever show people your work?

Yep. All of my blog posts are out here for the whole world to read. I even started posting some of my ghost stories the past couple of years. And select friends get to read and edit other stuff I write.

Did you ever write a novel?

I’ve started them plenty of times, but the only one I ever actually completed was written when I was twelve years old, and (dammit!) has managed to disappear. I know I didn’t throw it out, but it just got lost somewhere over the years. It was a hugely-plagiarized-from-Elizabeth-Enright-and-E.-Nesbit story about a family of four kids and their adventures. (Talk about fan fiction! But that’s the way children should begin, I think.)

Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?


What’s your favourite setting for your characters?

Places I know: North Carolina, Virginia, England, Connecticut, New York. I’m sure Pennsylvania will soon begin to filter in.

How many writing projects are you working on right now?

Is the blog a writing project? If not, two: ghost stories and this new novel. I’ve got a children’s book idea floating around, too, but it’s going to take a lot of work.

Do you want to write for a living?

I sort of do, if you consider re-writing manuscripts and basically writing emails all day to be writing. However, if the question really means publishing my original material for a living, then nope. That’s way too much pressure. I just write, as I say, because I seem to have a need to do so. Now, if someone were suddenly to come along and say, “I’ll pay you your current salary every year to keep your blog going,” that might be a different story.

Have you ever won an award for your writing?

Does the fourth-place prize in a high school creative writing contest count?

Ever written anything in script or play format?

For a creative writing class, but not by choice.

What are your five favourite words?

Acclimate, fabulous, wicked, surreal, and chocolate (does that one really count? I mean, I can’t write it and stay focused on the word)

Do you ever write based on yourself?

All the time. I don’t know how else I could write, because I’ve only ever experienced the world through myself and my reactions to it.

What character have you created that is most like yourself?

Any character who is scared to death in haunted settings.

Where do you get ideas for your characters?

Reading and observing those around me.

Do you ever write based on your dreams?

Yes, I seem to derive many of my ghost stories from dreams, indirectly, of course.

Do you favour happy endings, sad endings or cliff-hangers?

I favor surprise endings.

Have you ever written based on an artwork you’ve seen?


Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?

Yes, especially since I’m not a very good speller. However, I am more and more aware of the fact that when I’m a writer, I’m a writer, and those things are up to a good editor, which is why, if I were ever to have anything published, I’d run it by some of my excellent editor friends before submitting it (even knowing the publisher would have an editor. I wouldn’t trust that editor as much as I trust the ones I know).

Ever write anything in chatspeak (how r u?)

No. I hate that.

Entirely in L337?

Don’t know what that is.

Was that question appalling and unwriterly?

Only in as much as I find it appalling that someone would include a question about something that obviously isn’t in the common vernacular.

Does music help you write?

Absolutely. I love to have music playing when I write.

Quote something you’ve written. Whatever pops into your head.

“I don’t believe anything I read except fiction.” I write (and say) that all the time.

I'm tagging any writer out there who wants to take a whirl at this one (if you have a blog, you're a writer, you know). It's fun.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations

Bowen, Elizabeth. Friends and Relations. New York: Avon, 1980.

(The original copyright is 1931.)

Huh? Really. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. The whole time I was reading it I felt the way I used to feel as a child sitting amongst the grownups on my parents’ front porch after dinner parties, listening to them talk. I’d have moments of understanding, pieces of conversation I could actually follow. Then the conversation would leap off the path into the thicket, and I’d disappear into my own little dream world until I caught a glimpse of it coming back into view again, just up ahead, and I’d run to catch up with it.

I’m not opposed to sparse writing, you know. I’m in love with Alan Garner, and not too long ago, I was raving about Joan Didion. However, when I start feeling that the writing is so sparse, surely words meant to be there have somehow faded off the page, that reading this book is like trying to talk to someone on a cell phone with bad reception, well, then, I’m not quite so keen on “sparse.” Likewise, enigmatic. I’m as game for a good enigma as anyone, always ready to exercise my problem-solving skills, such as they are, hoping I can surprise others by coming up with the answer. However, the fun of a good riddle is knowing that the answer is right there in front of you, hidden amongst the clues. A really good puzzle might distract the problem solver with irrelevant information, but it doesn’t present a wolf, a sheep, and a chicken only to tell you that the answer is a crocodile. Then again, maybe the problem is that I’m just too stupid to have seen that crocodile so obviously hovering right above everyone.

The back cover copy on the book notes that “the story reveals, by the most delicate means, the secret loves of Janet and Edward.” Okay, so I knew what was going to happen, didn’t I? I was aware and watching it from the get-go. Now, I know I tend to be about as delicate as a hippopotamus most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cat who can walk along a shelf of priceless crystal and leap off it with nary a sound of tinkling glass. I couldn’t find the cat here, though. He must have been black. It must have been midnight. Then suddenly, the hippopotamus rose up onto the shelf, the sound of shattering glass ringing in my ear. For a brief moment, I understood.

Janet was in London. Edward was missing. But then, huh? What the hell happened?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t exactly hate the book. I just didn’t understand it. All the characters seemed as though they’d be extraordinarily interesting if only I knew more about them. Bowen, described (again, in the back cover copy. I wish I had this copywriter to put a spin on my blog) as a “novelist acutely aware of every nuance of feeling,” must have shown off this awareness in other books, because I didn’t notice any passages (maybe they were just so delicate they expired when I breathed on the pages of the book?) that allowed me to get much past the faces and into the heads of the characters.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I’ve been presented with a roomful of fascinating people, but I’m not allowed to talk to them, to ask them questions, to get to know them in any real way. When they leave the room, someone will say to me, “Hope you enjoyed meeting them, because they’re all off to Alaska now and won’t be coming back.”

Perhaps the problem is that while reading this book I also happened to be reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that is lush with descriptions of characters’ feelings, a book that’s so much heart it beats in your hands as you turn the pages. Perhaps I’m more in the mood for that sort of book now. Maybe I’ll be better off with Bowen during the heat of the summer when I’m in need of stripping off layers of description and needless words, getting down to bare skin while sipping cold lemonade instead of hot lemon ginger tea. After all, I recently vowed to give every author I choose to read at least two chances before deciding I don’t like him or her. If someone would like to recommend a Bowen novel (Litlove, I think you might be able to do so?) suitable for this July, I will give her one more try before throwing in the towel.

Cross-posted at Outmoded Authors .

(And now I'm off for a few days on business and visiting the folks. Will be back here next week. To keep you intrigued while I'm away, you can expect posts on the following when I return: the writing meme, G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown, and What's My IQ? Meanwhile, go visit all those lovely people I recently told you about on my blog roll.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Happy Fasnacht Tuesday!

“What?” I hear you ask, which is exactly what Bob asked when he was leaving the office one day last week, and his secretary asked him, “Are we going to get fasnachts for Fasnacht Tuesday?” Or, I think, maybe he said, “What’s that?” After she laughed, and said, “I had a feeling you wouldn’t know,” she went on to explain that in preparation for Lent, we had to eat up all our fat, so everyone makes fasnachts. The church usually provides fasnachts and coffee from 7:00 – 11:00 a.m. for anyone from the congregation who wants to stop by.

Wait a minute. Isn’t that called “Fat Tuesday?” Or “Mardi Gras?” Or maybe even “Pancake Tuesday?” Well, no. Welcome to Pennsylvania Dutch Territory where you might as well be living in a foreign country as far as being the least bit familiar with customs is concerned. A fasnacht (for those of you who don’t live here or in Germany or Switzerland, from whence they, quite obviously come. With a name like that, I’m sure you weren’t guessing “Italian custom”) is a special kind of potato dough used to make doughnuts. Apparently, they’re really supposed to be baked plain, but I guess a lot of people found that boring, so now you can get plain ones, but you can also get them glazed or coated with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar.

Now this is interesting. I grew up with the English tradition of making pancakes to eat up all the fat on Shrove Tuesday. I absolutely loved this special occasion when we got to eat pancakes for dinner (that is, when my mother remembered, which wasn’t always easy living, as we were, surrounded by some-very-scary little Independent Southern Baptist congregations, whom I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to discover declare Lent to be a pagan season. We remembered when I was in high school, though, because my Catholic high school always held a fund-raising pancake dinner.) Now I’m living in a place in which doughnuts are the required food of the day.

Don’t you just love our very clever ancestors who devised all these customs? Let’s see, we’re about to go into a season of fasting, so let’s have this fantastic day in which it’s absolutely okay to gorge yourself on fat till your little heart’s content, and nobody will look at you askance (although, for some of us, that might mean our little heart stops beating before Lent has run its course). Well, who am I to argue with tradition? After all, I’ve got all that English blood racing through my veins, but I’ve also got some German blood trying to stake out its claim in those tiny little tubes. Doughnuts for breakfast and pancakes for dinner? How can the day HELP but be anything other than happy? I’ll let you know when I lose the ten pounds I surely must have gained today.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Today's Options

Last Thursday, my IBS was acting up in a way it rarely does. This means I spent most of the night, awake and aware and suffering. Thus, when I got up and sat down at my computer around 7:00 Friday morning to email my colleagues and tell them I was taking a sick day (oh, excuse me, according to our new parent company, it’s an “optional day.” Don’t you just love that? As if we could wake up in the morning and say, “No, I’d rather not have today. Keep it around, though, as I might change my mind and want it some other time”), I was thinking that spending the rest of (what I hoped would be a very short) life in bed would be an excellent idea. As a matter of fact, I was even wondering why Death didn't just open that damned door instead of keeping me standing there staring right at it. By 10:00 a.m., however, I was regretting having had any such thoughts and hoping that Death had been way too busy to be listening to Little Old Me. By that hour, I was contemplating the odd concept of what it means to take a sick day when one telecommutes. I mean, I didn’t exactly feel like doing anything too taxing, but I could certainly get up and check my email at that point.

In the old days, back before I could afford to own a laptop, and telecommuting was a pipe dream, when I had physically to be in the office in order to do any work, I loved days like this when I’d be feeling better before noon and had a good excuse just to lie in bed all day with a stack of books by my side. These days, though, I feel “obligated” to take advantage of the fact I’m no longer sick. Why? After all, it isn’t as though I’m going to get that “optional day” back now that I’ve claimed it.

So what do I do? First of all, I think, “No, your body was obviously telling you that you need to rest. Take it easy. Don’t check your email.” I choose a pile of books to bring to bed with me. I get back in bed and decide I’ll just bring the laptop to bed with me, so I can catch up on everyone else’s blogs. That’s a bad idea. It’s like saying “yes” to that former GQ model you met at your friend’s party when he asks if he can give you a ride home, and then thinking you really shouldn’t have invited him in, because you know absolutely nothing about him, but then, how often do you have a former GQ model drive you home from a party? You might as well take advantage of the fact he’s here.

Yes, after catching up on all my favorite blogs, I did check my email, and then, that’s a stupid thing to do, isn’t it? I mean, if I answer any of my colleagues’ emails to me, they’re going to wonder why I’m doing so when I’m supposed to be sick. How many people do you know who call in sick and then show up at work a couple of hours later, seemingly fine? If I did happen to know anyone who did that, my first thought would be, “Does she have a drinking/drug problem or something?” So, I’ve got emails from colleagues that my fingers are itching to answer, but I’d better not, if I don’t want well-meaning people recommending rehab or something. I stick to answering author emails; they don’t know I’m sick. But I don’t have too many of those today. Oh well, I can easily lie in bed and finish editing that manuscript.

You see, and by the time 2:00 p.m . rolls around, I’ve wasted a perfectly good sick day, because I've been working most of the day. Our number of "optional days" isn't optional. They eventually disappear if one takes too many of them. What if I get the Black Plague in a few months and really need it? I really should have just slept in a little longer this morning and waited to see how I felt before so hastily emailing all my colleagues (I’ve quite obviously forgotten that I’d been knocking on Death’s door long before I sat down to send off that email).

I haven’t had a cold yet this year, but colds can also be problematic when one is a telecommuter. It used to be that I knew when to take a sick day with a cold, because I’d wake up in the morning, and my body would say, “Stay home in fleece sweats all day. Don’t go out.” That was my body’s way of saying, “Call in sick.” Well, now, that sort of a demand from my body pretty much describes how I spend many of my working days: at home in fleece sweats, not leaving the house. When I'm feeling a little down and out and sniffly these days, no matter how hard I listen for its (obviously high-pitched like a dog whistle’s) call to “stay off-line,” I don’t seem to be able to hear it. More often than not, it seems to be saying, “Email won’t hurt. You can bring the laptop to bed with you.”

Barring migraines (when my body then booms in a very loud voice to “Stay in bed in a completely dark room with a cold cloth on your head OR ELSE," something that's never "optional," no matter what the parent company thinks), which I still get on a fairly regular basis, despite everyone telling me they’d lessen as I age, and trips to the doctor and the dentist, I don’t tend to call in sick. I’m not sure, though, that this is the best approach for speeding recovery from whatever ails me. I’m guessing those of you who know much more about the mind-body connection than I would say “no, it isn’t.” However, I look at it this way: so many women I know who are my age are mothers who don’t get to take “sick days” from motherhood, no matter how sick they get. Surely that’s far more-demanding than lying in bed checking emails.

Now, I've changed my mind. I want my optional day back after all. It's still right there where we left it, isn't it? I can just go grab it, right?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

You Make My Day Meme

I was very honored to be given the You Make My Day Award by ZoësMom. This means I’m supposed to tag something like five or ten others, which I sat down to do but just couldn’t. You see, as I went through my blog roll, I began to realize I just didn’t want to leave out anyone. All of you make my day and have become very important parts of my everyday life. It’s like trying to choose one favorite book. How does one do it? Thus, I decided instead, just to go down my entire blog roll, which I recently cleaned up and added to, and let everyone know why these bloggers make my day. I’m not going to bother to put actual links in here, as you can just click on their links to the right, and I’m too worried that I will mistype someone’s URL (Spell Check won’t help me catch a mistyped URL) and lead you off into Never Never Land.

Here we go, in alphabetical order:

Absidea: well, that’s just Mandarine in disguise. See: Mandarine.

Best New Writing on the Web: fabulous new site founded by Litlove. See: Tales from the Reading Room, and read this blog. I’m sure my blog roll is eventually going to grow due to this site.

Biblio Addict: I only recently “met” Biblio Addict, but I knew we would be instant friends. First of all, she, like I, reads a million books at any given time. Secondly, when I was introduced to her, she was busy posting on such things as books about zombies and a collection of horror stories by John Connolly (I didn’t even know he wrote anything other than thrillers until I read her post). Well, you know horror and me…it was a match made in heaven.

Bloglily: oh, what would life be without dear Bloglily? She’s so, so good at making me realize what’s truly important about this fragile life of ours. Oh, and she impresses me to no end, because she manages to be a lawyer, write novels, and take care of a husband and three boys. I can’t imagine! But she has the sort of drive and sense of humor (and view of life, of course!) that make one capable of such things.

Book World: hers was the first book blog I ever read, introduced to me by Becky of Musings from the Sofa (thank you, Becky!). I never knew such blogs existed, but I was completely hooked by her passionate descriptions of what she was reading (whether she loved or hated it) and her wonderful sense of humor. Through her, I soon discovered many other book bloggers out there (way too many, I’m afraid, for me to keep up with on a regular basis, as much as I might like to spend my whole life doing nothing but reading about books).

Cam’s Commentary: you know how you have some friends who seem to have been put in this world to make you feel great about yourself? That would be Cam. She has never failed in comments on my blog or in responses to my comments on hers to make me feel great about myself. Along with this wonderful quality to support others, she is an extremely beautiful and thoughtful writer – very poetic. Oh yes, and she loves the Hudson River and the Upper West Side of Manhattan as much as I do. Need I say more?

Chain-Reading: first of all, isn’t that a GREAT name for a blog? Ms. Chain-Reader is another one I’ve only just discovered. Why did I decide I loved her before I’d even found out she was more obsessed with books than I am? Well, she loves I Capture the Castle. I never met anyone who loved that book who wasn’t well worth knowing. Then I found out she wishes she were a librarian. She’s another one, like Stefanie (see: So Many Books), that the library world needs.

Charlotte’s Web: Isn’t it terrible how you often can’t remember how you first met a blogging buddy? I don’t know how I found my way to Charlotte, but I was instantly intrigued by a South African living in Germany and her take on it all. I very soon discovered she’s a brilliant writer, fabulous “foodie” (I’m sure you don’t consider yourself such, Charlotte, but you are in my book), and an absolutely superb mother, one of those people I so admire, because she was so obviously meant to be a mother and has all the right instincts (which just elude someone like me). Oh yes, and did I mention she likes books, and she has a wicked sense of humor (always good traits)?

Everything Inbetween (who is really “The Public, The Private, and Everything Inbetween): I was SO happy when I found Courtney! She’s my long-lost little sister, you see. (I always wanted a little sister.) I’m pretty sure that if someone took a picture of my brain and hers, they would be completely identical, we think so much alike. I discovered her not too long after I’d read Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, and my first thoughts (I’m not kidding, Court) were, “This woman could have done that better.” (Of course, I’ve just proven that we’re not really sisters, because Courtney has the will and determination to do something like cook her way through Julia Child. I don’t, but I’d love to watch her and reap the benefits of learning from her and tasting what she makes!)

Feminine Feminist: Oh, if only she still lived right upstairs! Oh, if only she at least lived in NYC instead of all the way over in Ireland. If you read her blog (she doesn’t post enough, as far as I’m concerned), you will only touch the surface of understanding what sort of person she is: so much depth, so much warmth, so much wisdom, so much intellect, so much good humor, so much overall beauty. That’s FemFem…she’s one of those people Bob and I feel so blessed to be able to call “friend.” Go visit her. You’ll see!

Froshty Mugs: she really is my sister. Can anyone tell? She’s the one from whom I learned to write and who helped shape my sense of humor. She’s still much funnier than I am. She’s had a very rough year, and it’s hard to keep up a blog through all that, but I have faith she will pick it up again soon, and she'll be making my day again when she does. I love her for her fierce loyalty and for having been one of my first “book advisors.” She still knows how to recommend the best chick lit, and she advises me on which contemporary authors I need to avoid.

GirlDrive: this one is brand new. I just discovered it through Charlotte when she posted on What We Said. It’s a fascinating look at women and feminism across the country.

Graphic Novel Challenge: one of my challenges. This one has made my day, because I’ve discovered a whole new genre that I’m enjoying.

Hobgoblin of Little Minds: Oh, the Hobgoblin! Whose day doesn't he make? He was the second book blogger I discovered, but I soon discovered he posted on more than just books. Then I discovered I could relate to so much of what he had to say. Then I discovered his wife at Of Books and Bikes. Then I discovered they lived practically next door to me. Then we met. I adore them both. What more can I say? (Oh, except that I also adore their very friendly and sweet dog Muttboy.)

Ian and Emily: This one made my day back in the day when we kept it up, because it was interesting to share something like this with my brother. Alas, it’s somewhat defunct, although we may pick it up again and even try a podcast next time we’re together.

Ian’s Blog: Ian was the first person I ever knew who had a blog. I was so impressed that my brother was obviously light years away from me when it came to technological knowledge, posting pictures, papers, etc. I don’t suppose it’s really necessary to tell you why I love Ian nor why I read his blog. I do think it’s necessary, though, to say that I hope I make everyone else jealous with the fact that I get to have such a cool, funny, and talented brother.

Jew Eat Yet: I first met Danny at an editorial meeting when I was new to my company and feeling very inadequate and way out of my league among all my brilliant, warm, and funny colleagues. Danny sat at my dinner table, and he immediately made me feel that maybe I was talented enough to fit in after all. His blog has been a great way to keep up with him since he left the company. But it’s also just a flat-out terrific read. He’s funny; he’s honest; he’s sensitive and sensible; and that warmth I felt from the beginning is so evident in all his thoughtful posts. Oh, and if any of you want to thank someone for the fact I started a blog, go over and thank Danny. He was one of the very first to encourage me to do so (it took me a while to bite, though. I had plenty of excuses).

Loose Baggy Monster: She reads and reads and then reads some more. But what’s most impressive about her is that she unapologetically embraces and acknowledges her desire to be a perpetual student. I admire her guts. I wish I had them. But since I don’t, I can happily live vicariously through her (often sighing, “Thank God I don’t have all that work to do!”). Oh, and unlike me, even in the midst of all that work, she manages to read for pleasure. The only book I ever read for pleasure during a semester at school was The Lords of Discipline, and I’m almost positive it was to blame for the “C” I received in statistics that semester (I mean, who wouldn’t rather read that book than do her statistics?). After that, I learned not to read for pleasure except during summer and Christmas breaks and became an English minor, so I could still read fiction every semester.

Make Tea Not War: I love Ms. Make Tea. How can I NOT love someone with "tea" in her name? I love her daughter DOTH as well (she who has been known to be a frog and who is obsessed with chocolate cookbooks). I wouldn’t love the daughter if the mother didn’t so obviously do so as well. Ms. Make Tea is so far beyond me in technological skills, it’s scary, but she still accepts me into her little world. I love her for her passion, for speaking her mind and for having such a great big heart. I wish she didn’t live halfway around the world from me (then again, good excuse to visit halfway around the world, isn’t it?).

Mandarine: ahh, my dear, sweet Mandarine! (Did I ever tell you that oranges are my favorite fruit?) He’s about twenty times smarter than I am, but he makes me feel brilliant and interesting anyway. One of these days, I’m hoping Bob and I will spend an afternoon sitting in his garden (oh, and let’s hope the hedgehogs are out and about!) eating cheese, drinking wine, and having a wonderful discussion with him and his lovely little family. And then I hope he’ll cook dinner (it must include brussels sprouts, which he’s taught me are not so bad after all).

Marissa’s Blog: Marissa is the only colleague I have who has shared her blog with me. She, like many others, doesn’t post enough (I guess she has a life), and she’s another technology whiz who puts me to shame. Her blog has been a great way for me to get to know her and what a cool person she is. After all, I can’t exactly stand around the water cooler and chat with her.

Musings from the Sofa: Becky is one of those wonderful friends you meet for lunch, both carrying books to lend and return. I so miss working with her and meeting her for lunch (and drinks and dinner and daytrips in NYC). Now I get to stay with her when I go to Connecticut, though (yea!). She didn’t want to start a blog, but aren’t you all so glad she did? I credit myself, because I kept pushing her (I’m sure others pushed her, too, but you know me: I’ll take all the credit anyway). She doesn’t think she can write, but she’s a brilliant writer and another one who is very funny (even funnier in real life) and who so refreshingly speaks her mind.

My Favorite Artist: this isn’t a blog, but Lindsay is my other sister whom, naturally, I also love. Don’t you think she should blog, too? I guess she’s just too busy painting, though. (Alas, a skill I don’t possess, despite trying to copy her all throughout our childhoods). Take a look at her web site. She’s awesome, isn’t she? She makes my day whenever she comments on my blog, and when we get together (which happens far too infrequently) to laugh hysterically over just about everything imaginable.

Noble Savage: an ex pat living in London? Do I wish I were her? Absolutely! Do I wish I could write about it with half the talent and wit she does? Absolutely! And how can I possibly not love someone who has an “I Bitch, Therefore I Am” category for her blog posts? Go read her. You’ll laugh your head off, and then you’ll discover that while you were laughing, you were also extremely touched by her.

Of Books and Bicycles: I wish all of you could meet Dorr. “Endearing” is the first word that comes to mind when I think of her. You just can't help but be drawn to her. Then “so, so intelligent,” comes to mind, quickly followed by “witty,” and “caring.” Dorr writes so beautifully and meticulously about two of her passions: books and bicycling. I wish I had her attention to detail. Oh and some other pluses about her: she hates shopping and housekeeping as much as I do! See also: Hobgoblin of Little Minds.

Outmoded Authors Challenge: the other challenge to which I am currently committed and which has made my day by introducing me to the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Sir Walter Scott.

QC Report: over the year and a half that I’ve been blogging, some of you have commented a number of times on the fact that you find me funny. I promise you, I am the Idiot compared to QC’s Einstein when it comes to comedic genius. If you’re not reading her, and you’re reading me, because you think I’m funny, she’s really the place you want to be. I have, literally, fallen out of my chair laughing so hard at one of her posts (the one about the lunch out with friends in the horribly painful shoes). One of these days, we will all be fortunate enough to be able to read the book she’s writing.

So Many Books: I am SO glad that Stefanie is in library school. Libraries definitely need the likes of her – someone who has the magical ability to convince people to read a book they might otherwise have looked at and thought, “Bleh. Not my type of thing at all,” as well as being technologically savvy, and used to holding the hands of Luddites. Her passion and wit have challenged me in so many ways, and, oh my, does she read a lot for someone who manages to post on everything she reads.

Striped Armchair: she’s a nanny to a toddler and STILL manages to read so much? I am in complete and utter awe (notice: awe may be a huge factor when it comes to making my day online). Not only does she read them, but she posts on all of them, and she’s just so ingenuous, it’s difficult not to want to be with her. She’s another one who has a real talent for making we want to pick up books I probably never would have thought of reading without her.

Tales from the Reading Room: Litlove is another soul sister. She somehow managed to find me during the first week I started blogging, I think, and she’s been a reliable friend ever since. I’d be at a huge loss and would cry buckets for days were Litlove ever to leave the blogosphere. However, she seems to be leading a Blog Revolution (creating Best New Writing on the Web and publishing a book of her favorite blog posts), so (PHEW!) I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The Alternate Side Parking Reader: I’m sure those who’ve never lived in NYC and had to deal with alternate side of the street parking can still probably appreciate this site. However, those of us who have, not only appreciate it, but love it and so admire someone who has managed to deal with it for so long and still keep a sense of humor. Most of us, instead of keeping a blog, would have sold our cars and sworn off them by now.

The Havens: I don’t know why, as I’ve never met Ms. Havens, but Bob and I have a friend who lives in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and I am sure she and Ms. Havens were separated at birth. I know if I ever arrived at the House of Havens, I’d be greeted with a warm hug, an overstuffed chair, and something delicious to eat. I’d then be encouraged to relax, to take long walks and enjoy the outdoors, and to read and rest to my heart’s content. I might even be inspired to do a little gardening. Oh yes, and, as I recently discovered, I'd be served wine from a bottle with a beautiful label.

The Library Ladder: life was horrible during Heather’s long, long absence. Then she came back, not as often, but still: she’s back. I love her take on books. I love her comments on my blog. I love the fact she tries to gather together blog meet ups in Toronto. I love the fact she uses library ladder rungs to rank books – so clever. I just plain love her. Enough said!

Things that Go Bump in the Night: this is where I occasionally post ghost stories, the writing of which often makes my day.

Two-Legged Animal: what happened to her? I miss her! I keep her on my blog roll, hoping that one day she’ll return.

What We Said: created by Bloglily. This is where none of us posts enough, but I’m going to try to do so more this year (yeah, yeah, I know. I said that last year). It truly makes my day when others do, as it’s such a great forum for many different voices to express their thoughts on feminism.

ZoësMom: so I started with ZM, and I end with her. I met ZM, who works at my former company, through Becky. I haven’t met Zoë, but take a look at her picture. Isn’t she adorable? ZM’s another book lover with a wicked sense of humor (gee, anyone see a theme here?). Of course, I also love her, because the title of her blog doesn’t really reflect many of her posts (know anyone else like that?). But really, the best thing about her is that she always seems game for such things as lunch, afternoon tea, and laughing about the weird things husbands do. I can even forgive Becky and her for their love of shopping.

All right, please note: my blog roll is overwhelmingly populated by females (which is funny, because in real life, I’ve almost always tended to have more male than female friends). I am not sexist. If you happen to be a male obsessive reader with a wicked sense of humor of whom I can be in awe, please make yourself known. What can it hurt? I am sure to do nothing but praise you to the hilt (oh yes, and add you to my blog roll, so I can keep up with you).