Sunday, April 24, 2011

Laid Off Part II

This time I...

...will finish the second draft of my novel.

...will write some more ghost stories.

...will submit stuff for publication over and over and over again, knowing full well it will probably all be rejected but knowing I'll never know unless I try.

...will not take the first job that comes along (especially when those who know both me and the company warn me that I won't be happy).

...will not let the pull of a steady second income be more important than a rewarding life.

...will do more volunteer work in new, unexplored areas that might lead to a more rewarding life.

...will write more letters (hope all my sadly forgotten pen pals are reading this).

...will try to come to grips with the fact that the good old days of publishing, when brilliant people who were readers and writers themselves actually ran the companies, are gone.

...will admit that the likes of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Wallace Stegner would probably never be published in today's world, and I will think hard about how to start a revolution to turn that around, because I would hate it if 100 years from now, the only books left to represent the early 21st-century are by Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark, and Danielle Steel.

...will do all the things I'm always saying I will do and never have time, like exploring hiking trails in Pennsylvania, visiting museums in Philadelphia, going to Pittsburgh, etc.

...will read more books (of course!).

...will watch more movies.

...will cook and bake more.

Sounds like it's going to be a pretty good life, huh? Please keep reminding me of that for the days when it's not Easter, I'm not surrounded by loving friends and family members, the sun isn't shining, and the flowers aren't blossoming.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Book One

Shulman, Polly. The Grimm Legacy. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 2010.

(This entry is cross-posted and adapted at Pequea Valley Reader's Blog.)

It's tempting to complain about this book, because it's not terribly well written. I decided that for me to do so, though, might be a bit unfair, because a: I don't read tons that's written for today's young adult audience (and maybe this is very well-written compared to most of what's out there) and b. I am very picky about fantasy, don't read much of it, and when I do, it tends to be things like Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. To compare any writer (y.a. or not, but especially y.a.) to that poetic genius and truly gifted storyteller would be unfair. Still, even if short, "sound-bite-ish" writing is all the rage for 21st-century y.a. literature; and even if this book had been a real-life take on suburban teen living, fantasy and Lord Dunsany the last things on my mind while reading it, I probably would have wished I'd had the manuscript to edit before it was published and could (kindly) have suggested that Shulman work on the areas that seemed a bit choppy to me and to rewrite some of the dialogue to make it a little less stilted.

But forget the, at times, choppy writing and stilted dialogue. It's easy to do once you get lost in the pages of this book, because it's so wonderfully imaginative (thus, despite temptation, my inability to do anything but say I truly liked it). Elizabeth Rew, our heroine, is someone to whom it's easy to relate (and probably doubly so for the intended teen audience): an awkward teenager attending a new school and still missing her dead mother. School isn't much fun. She's had to abandon the dance classes she enjoys, because her father has a new, larger family to support, and she's feeling the need to earn a little money of her own, especially after she finds herself giving away her sneakers to a homeless woman. When her favorite teacher suggests she apply for a job at a special library, she agrees to do so, having no idea what to expect.

Soon, enough, she discovers exactly how special this library is. It lends out objects, not books -- all kinds of objects. As if that isn't cool enough, the library is also home to a very special collection: magic objects from Grimm's fairy tales. I liked the fact that these objects were stored in an area known as "the cage," because once upon a time, I worked in a large public library that had a "cage" of its own, basically an area down in the basement that was locked off by a "cage" of chain-link doors and that wasn't open to the public for browsing (nothing magical in that one, though, unless you consider archival material magical). Imagine a place that houses such artifacts as the mirror from Snow White, flying carpets, and the twelve dancing princess's slippers. As you might have guessed, this special collection leads to a big, magical adventure (and, like many a good fairy tale, a little romance).

One of the things I loved about this book were all the little nods to classic fairy tales. Elizabeth has two, older, annoying, stepsisters. Her stepmother isn't wicked, but she's not exactly nice to Elizabeth (and does seem to think of her as a built-in maid). Characters in the novel eat gingerbread. Some of them are princes and princesses. It also takes its cue from some of the scarier tales from the brothers Grimm, adding a nice touch of light, spine-tingling, suspense. How do I know it's taking a cue from the Grimm's brothers? The book made me pull our copy of The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales from our shelves (a book, I discovered, that has gathered quite a bit of dust -- unfortunately, not of the fairy sort). I bet it makes everyone who reads it want to refer to that, and what's more magical than a book that leads the reader to other great books? Unless it's a book that not only leads readers to other great books, but that also happens to end on this side of "happily ever after," and is maybe all the more gratifying for doing so.

Give it to your 12-14-year-old daughter/niece/granddaughter/friend. She'll love it.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Chasing David Sedaris II

This time, unlike last time, I actually had a ticket for April 3 at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA that said "David Sedaris" on it. I'd had it, in fact, since Christmas, thanks to the Best Husband Ever, who had somehow managed to pick up on my extraordinarily subtle hints that a date with him to see David Sedaris rivals diamonds when it comes to this girl's best friends. To those who aren't married to ministers, it might seem highly unlikely that possessing such a ticket would keep me from seeing my idol in the flesh, but I was worried nonetheless that the ticket was no guarantee. You have to understand that one of the Pillars of the Church could have died on April 3. Or a child in our congregation could have decided to run out in front of a horse and buggy and be in the hospital in a coma. Barring those sorts of catastrophes, something more mundane (say a car catching on fire due to an overheated clutch, like mine recently did on the New Jersey Turnpike) could have kept us from getting to Glenside, an hour's drive from our home.

Happily, I was able to check off the "none of the above" box and found myself sitting in a seat, staring at a stage, where I was going to have a great view of Sedaris when he walked onto it. I'd meant to bring along my copy of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk for Sedaris to sign, but in my excitement, I'd forgotten it. Not to worry. The Best Husband, after we'd taken our seats, turned to me and asked, "Which of his books do you want me to buy for him to sign? Which don't you have?" Like the star-struck idiot I am, I answered, "I've got all of them. But you could get a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, because that's the first one I ever read."

He went off to buy it, and I sat in my seat thinking, "What's the matter with me?" Once the glory of staring at the stage and the podium and seat where He would soon be sitting had worn off, I realized -- uh-duh! -- that, although I've read them all, I don't happen to have all of Sedaris's books. My collection lacked both Barrel Fever and Naked. I contemplated racing out and intercepting Bob to tell him to get me Naked instead. I love that one for, among other things, the vivid picture it gives us of Sedaris's mother. While I sat undecided about what to do, Bob returned with a hard cover (which I didn't have) of Me Talk Pretty One Day. I was glad some part of me had leaped to suggest he buy it, since it now seemed appropriate that I have a signed hard cover copy of the first book of his I ever read.

Shortly thereafter, Sedaris took the stage. He read two original pieces, which I assume will one day wind up somewhere in print. One was about a recent trip to China and eating while there. The other was about being on the swim team as a kid (but was really about his father and his relationship). Then he read a bunch of entries from his diary (the writer in me despairs when she hears/reads entries from Sedaris's diary. All diaries and journals I've ever kept would seem like nothing but scruffy, worn-out, ready-for-the-Goodwill articles next to Sedaris's polished pieces) and followed that by highly recommending a book, Tobias Wolff's The Barracks Thief, which I haven't read (judging from Wolff's Old School, however, I'm inclined to agree with Sedaris that Wolff is a Great American Writer, and that we're lucky to be living while he is alive and writing. I'm not sure I would agree, though -- will have to read it -- that Wolff's book is far better than anything Sedaris has written). He described himself as a "scary fan" of Wolff's, and all I could think was that I'm a "scary fan" of Sedaris's. Finally, he opened up the floor to questions.

What I liked most about seeing Sedaris live was finding out how much he laughs. Not so much while he was reading the two pieces on China and the swim team that he's probably reworked and read to the point of being sick of them, but rather when he was reading jokes others had told him or reading about bizarre events/articles he'd recorded in his diary, and he laughed a lot while answering the questions people asked him. In other words, he wasn't really laughing at his own hilarious genius, but rather, he was proving to us that he focuses on what's funny in life. By the time I left the theater, he'd verified for me that he just plain chooses to find life, no matter how painful it might really be, funny.

He'd also verified something else: he's extremely kind. I think I'd always suspected he might be. He's brave enough to write all those often unkind thoughts we all have, but his writing reflects the sort of sensitivity underneath it all that causes people to feel pulled in two directions, "God, I hate people," and "God, I'm so horrible to hate people." He compensates for the latter by being extremely kind and generous to his idolizing fans like me.

How do I know that? Well, first of all, his schedule for this tour (33 venues in 34 days) is pure hell. It's the sort of tour one only does if desperate for money (which we all know he's not. He informed us that he and Hugh have just bought another home, this time in Sussex) or very appreciative of his fans and wants to accommodate them (visit his Facebook page. His fans are constantly begging him to come to their hometowns). I also know because he signs books for his fans, and he takes the time to chat with each and every one of them. Believe me, I've been to plenty of author signings in which the author barely acknowledges the person in front of him or her and whose goal seems to be just to get through the line of people. Sedaris arranges it so that each person (or couple, as the case may be) goes up to his table alone, and gets one-on-one time with him. This is why he can be done with his reading at 8:30 and still be signing books past midnight.

But the most convincing evidence of his kindness of all? Just as Bob and I were approaching the table to have him sign both Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked (which we'd also bought while waiting in line), he asked the person in charge of monitoring the line to go see if anyone was waiting in line with children. It was getting close to 10:00 by then, and he was worried about kids who had to be up for school the next day. Granted, I doubt that many parents with elementary-aged children take them to see David Sedaris, but for those with older kids, that was very generous of him to be concerned.

We waited in line for over an hour. The whole time, I was observing how others interacted with him. They bantered with him. They laughed. He laughed. All I could think was, "Why do I have to be this extremely shy, pathetic person who could never manage to banter with the likes of him?" I so longed to be someone who had impressive, stand up comedian genes in her body, instead of throw up on your idol when you finally come face to face with him genes. Do any of you recall the feelings you had as a kid when the brand new, scariest ride opened at the amusement park, and you were waiting in line? I was always torn between, "I can't wait to get there" and "I hope this line never ends." That's how I felt.

Bob and I quietly rehearsed what we'd say and do when our time came. He never wants to look like the domineering male who doesn't let his wife talk. That's sort of hard to do when his wife wants him to do all the talking. We decided that Bob would explain that I was the huge fan but that I was too shy to talk (hoping he'd understand). Then, we basically agreed on three things. Bob wanted to know if he finds it hard to write about his family. He also wanted to tell him about some of the more amusing names of the towns in Lancaster County. Finally, I wanted to tell him to keep in a joke that had fallen somewhat flat when he read his China piece. The brilliance of David Sedaris is that you have to reread him. The first time, you're laughing yourself silly at the obvious humor. The second and third time, you pick up on the more subtle, and often even funnier, parts. I hadn't caught his joke myself, at first, but I know I would have on the second go-round and I wanted him to know that. We focused on what we wanted to say and didn't really discuss what we didn't want to say, except that the one thing I didn't want to do was tell him I'd grown up in North Carolina, like he had. I don't know why, but to me, that just sounds so sycophantic (and, you know, I was so un-sycophantic otherwise).

Eventually, the line did end with us, and we were standing before Sedaris, and he was busy signing our books (he drew a bird in Naked, and wrote, "I'm so happy you can walk" in Me Talk Pretty One Day), and Bob was asking if it was hard to write about his family. Sedaris didn't really answer the question (he assured us his father really is a mean man, while also seeming to be surprised that he comes off as such. I think he honestly makes an effort to be fair to his family members and may not always be aware at how often he calls a spade a spade), but it was obvious that the answer was "yes." He seemed genuinely appreciative to be told about such Pennsylvania towns as Intercourse, Blue Ball, and Paradise. What probably confused him was Bob telling him I was shy.

You see, I proved not to be the least bit shy. I told him I was a "scary fan," and when he chatted with me about that, I opened up more and, much to my disgust, found myself telling him I'd grown up in North Carolina, asking him, "Could you not wait to get out of North Carolina?" to which he replied, "No, I couldn't wait to get out of North Carolina," and then, laughing, added "but it took me 27 years." Then we chatted a minute about how people will visit and say, "It's so beautiful," and there I was, exchanging that knowing look with him, I've exchanged with many a former or current resident, while saying, "But they haven't lived there." Bob piped up that I do like places like Asheville and Boone, and I had to agree I do, which led to Sedaris making a comparison between North Carolina and Oregon (not politically, he made it clear) and my making my comparison between Maine and Oregon.

Finally, acting as though we were the oldest of friends, I advised him to keep that joke in the China piece. But then, the star-struck, babbling idiot of a crazy fan resurfaced, and went on about the beauty of his writing and how it needs to be reread. Somehow, though, being the genius that he is, he was able to wade through all the babble and focus on the nugget within,

"You really think I should keep it? No one got it. I had to explain it."

"Definitely." I said.

Believe me, I'll be checking to see if he took my advice when the piece makes it into print. If he does, don't be surprised if you one day hear me say, "I helped David Sedaris edit that piece, you know."

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

21st-Century Things That Really Annoy Me

1. Boxes of crackers in which only about half the crackers are whole. What is it with cracker companies in the 21st century? It used to be you bought a box of crackers, and maybe one or two were broken. Now, it seems, you're lucky if you don't find the majority of them to be mere pieces of crackers, barely big enough to hold a quarter olive let alone a nice hunk of cheese. I'm not fooled, are you? I don't think shippers have suddenly decided to start using boxes of crackers as punching bags en route to delivery. No, I think someone, somewhere, back in the 20th century, was hired to figure out how to get people to buy more crackers. His brilliant idea? "Let's break half the crackers before we package them. Nobody likes broken crackers. They'll eat the whole ones, throw the rest away, and buy more crackers." Someone even smarter than that guy ought to start a new company whose motto would be, "Unbroken, or your money back." I'd be willing to pay more for that box of crackers.

2. Sinks whose garbage disposal area is barely big enough for a glass. What are the people who design sinks and garbage disposals thinking? Most of the food that I need to dump down the disposal is stuck on big pots or on large round plates or in plastic storage containers that have been sitting in the back of the fridge way too long. I need the space where the garbage disposal is to be able to hold a frying pan or a 2-quart Tupperware container, so I can wash and scrub stuff without clogging up the sink. It defeats the whole purpose of the thing for the main part of the sink to have an old-fashioned drain, ready to snatch up any food debris that might clog it forever, and to have the garbage disposal off to the side, in it's own precious little compartment, something that seems to be saying, "Pay no attention to me. I really don't want to get all dirty with those nasty food bits you've got there, thus, I'm going to make it as inconvenient as possible for you to do so." It seems to me that when I was a kid and visited people who had garbage disposals (because my family would never have such a thing), it just sat right there in their sink in place of an ordinary drain.

3. Electronic devices (you know, like DVD players) that don't work (suddenly decide that, no matter what, they are not going to open and close when the appropriate button is pushed so that DVDs can be loaded and unloaded) or appliances (toaster ovens, say) that do the same (beep uncontrollably when left plugged in and flash an "error" message that won't go away). Nothing lasts anymore. Okay, granted, the DVD player is something like eight years old, but it's not as though it was used every day (or even once a week) for the past eight years. The toaster oven is only two -- yes two -- years old. My guess is that it would be more expensive to fix than to replace. Whatever happened to the days when your parents owned a black and white TV, and they promised you that when they finally needed to replace it, they'd get a color one, and you had to wait eighteen years before it broke, and they got that color TV?

4. Things that aren't the same. You know what I mean. You find a fabulous pair of yoga pants. They're just the right kind of soft. They're snug but not so tight they show every mole on your legs and every dimple in your butt. You love them. You could live in them. Unfortunately, after wearing them into the ground for two years, they develop a small hole. You go online and order "yoga pants" from the exact same company (all right, admittedly, you are dumb enough to think that just because it's the same company, and they sport the same name, they will be the same thing). They arrive, and you discover that what used to be something like 90% cotton and 10% spandex is now 95% spandex and 5% cotton. They're awful. They'll never be as soft as your old ones, no matter how often you wash them, and forget about what people can see when you wear them. You might as well walk around nude. Remember when you could buy a pair of jeans in 1974 from a particular company and buy another pair in 1976, and, if it was called the same thing (Levi's 501, for instance), it would be exactly the same?

5. "Conveniences" that aren't or that are forced on you. No, I don't really find it more convenient to do absolutely everything online. I want to make that decision myself. For instance, yes, I find it more convenient to pay my bills online. No, I don't find it more convenient to go online when my phone service is out, especially when my phone company may be my Internet provider (it isn't right now, but it could be), but I have been told by my phone company, when calling to report trouble, that I can avoid a wait by visiting its web site and reporting my problem online. Also, seeing as I hate to go shopping, if I happen to be in a store shopping for something, it's likely that I want that something now. I don't want to "check online" to see if they happen to have any available in their online store. Please, take me back to those old late-twentieth-century inconveniences, like employees at phone companies who answered the phone and knew that, yes, all the phones in your neighborhood happened to be out right now, because someone had hit a telephone pole, or when stores couldn't rely on the Internet and kept up their stock (remember the days when if you couldn't find it on the rack or the shelf, the nice sales clerk would just go to the back and get it for you?).

We really do turn into our parents, don't we? I sound like them more and more everyday.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Alphabet Meme: C is for Charlottesville, VA

My father was born and raised in Charlottesville, VA. When I wrote my post about my mother, I mentioned that she was living there when she started dating him. Although I grew up in North Carolina, we had no family in Winston-Salem. When my mother's father died (shortly before I was born), my mother's mother ended up moving to Charlottesville (to that very same apartment where my mother had lived when she and my father got engaged). My father's mother (long a widow by the time I came along) lived in Charlottesville, as did his sister (my aunt), her husband, and her daughter. My mother's brother and his first wife moved there, too, and so my cousins on that side of the family (a boy and two girls) also all lived there.

Since basically our whole family lived in Charlottesville, you can see why we visited often when I was a child. It seems to me that we made that long 4-hour drive about every six weeks or so, especially once my mother's mother moved into assisted living, then fell and broke her hip, and began to suffer from dementia. Typically, we went up for a weekend, but there were blocks of time in the summer when we'd go stay for a week or two. I think there was one summer when we actually went up for a whole month.

It was worth the interminable drive. I loved Charlottesville and visiting with my grandmothers and cousins. It was a far more exciting place than Winston-Salem. Everything was better there: swimming pools; overgrown box bushes at my aunt's house that made great "houses" to hide and play in; books to read that we didn't have at home; horses to ride and barns to explore at the farm where my cousins lived; my grandmother Michie's (Grandmic, we all called her) cool "modern" house (built in 1969. My parents live there now) nestled in the woods, with the Blue Ridge and Ragged Mountains as beautiful backdrops; even chocolate pudding that tasted far better than anything we could get at home. Also, it always seemed to be snowing in Charlottesville when it was raining in Winston-Salem, and, well, you all know how I love snow.

When we were really lucky, we got to go to my great uncle's house, which had a pond where we could swim and a row boat when we got tired of swimming (my father swam in that pond when he was a boy, too, and my guess is the often-leaky-and-frequently-patched row boat had been around just about as long). This old family estate was where my grandmother had been raised and was supposedly home to a ghost (a beautiful bride dating from the Civil War era. If I recall correctly, she and her husband had hidden in the attic, so he wouldn't have to leave her to go off and fight in the war -- or maybe that's just the romantic tale I made of it. Does it really matter? -- where she'd died). My grandmother had woken up one night to see that ghost brushing her long hair in the window and had mistaken it for one of her sisters, until she turned to realize her sister was in bed beside her. I haven't changed. I heard that story many times as a child, and every time we visited "Spring Hill," as it's still called, I both hoped I would and hoped I wouldn't see that ghost, just like I do when I enter the church here at night, all alone, and both hope I will and hope I won't happen to see a ghost from the nineteenth century sitting in a pew.

Is it any wonder that when it came time for me to go to college, I chose Charlottesville? My teenage years are full of memories of being taken to things like football games and homecoming parties by my father, who pretended he wasn't thrilled when I began to show a decided interest in attending his alma mater. I was convinced I'd never get in (mainly because my lousy guidance counselor had been terribly discouraging), and no one was more surprised than I when that acceptance package arrived in the mail (ironically, during a weekend when I was visiting my sister in Chapel Hill, NC, where she was in school, and where I had already resigned myself that I'd be going. My parents called to ask if I wanted them to open it. My father had a bottle of champagne waiting when I returned home).

Charlottesville was a whole new place for me during my college years, a place where I met dear friends who are still dear friends today. When you go to college in such a beautiful setting, it really is hard to be depressed too long, even when you think you've just failed an econ test (which I hadn't. I just thought I had), you walk out of the classroom building, sit on one of the walls that surrounds it, look up at Thomas Jefferson's magnificent Rotunda, the sky as "sky blue" as it can possibly be, the St.- Patrick's-Green lawn stretched out below you, and think, "I am so damn lucky to get to be in such a place." My days were spent studying all kinds of fascinating subjects, and my nights and weekends were spent doing things like going to parties; going to see classic movies, both at school and at the marvelous Vinegar Hill Theater (the only time I've ever really made an attempt to do something about my movie ignorance. There was just so much to see, and it was all relatively cheap); going to concerts (standouts were Talking Heads, UB40, and B.B. King, all of whom came to play at the school) , watching my team play football, and basketball, and soccer, and lacrosse -- and actually playing football and soccer myself, when I got roped into being on an intramural team (that was disastrous for our team, I promise you, but no one made fun of me the way they had during recess when I was a kid).

Once I graduated, Charlottesville was a place I went back to visit relatives (who'd been severely neglected while I was in school -- even the cousin who'd attended the university the same time I did. She and I "ran with different crowds") and friends who were either still in school or who'd never left town. Often, I was bringing other friends along with me, which gave me the chance to revisit places like Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's fascinating home (pictured above. So much of the Charlottesville architecture looks like that), and The Michie Tavern, a historic tavern that is distantly related to my family but is no direct connection. Unfortunately, by then, favorite spots from my childhood that had better food than the tavern, like The University Cafeteria, which closed after my first year in college, were long gone. They live on in my memory, though. I can still taste their fried chicken (the best!), mashed potatoes, and green beans, heavily salted and cooked in fatback (the way green beans should be served. Heart attack be damned).

Over ten years ago now (and I cannot believe it's been that long), my parents moved back to Charlottesville, so now it's the place I go to visit them. I still bring friends along when I can, which still gives me the opportunity to visit my old haunting grounds. Every one of them has a ghost of Emily at a different age -- 6, 12, 18, 25. She's smiling and skipping, stopping to admire the flowering dogwoods in the spring or to pick up a perfect, dark red leaf in the fall, or to make a snow angel in the snow. It's one of the few places on this planet where I feel at home, and if something horrible were to happen to Bob, you'd probably find me moving back there.

That's why C is for Charlottesville.