Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Riding in Cars for Coffee: (A pathetic comedy in four parts)

Part One

I am visiting my brother for the week,

and this morning as my niece and nephew head off to school and my brother heads off to work, I prepare to make coffee in his lovely newly renovated kitchen... and find, to my horror, that while my brother owns many small appliances, including a Crème brûlée maker and not one, but two juicers, he does not own a coffee maker.

On the plus side, there are approximately 543 Dunkin' Donuts in the area, and before my brother leaves for work, he throws me a set of car keys.

These do not look like any car keys I have ever seen. As in, they do not include keys.

Part Two

I go out into his massive three car garage and sit inside a massive red car with the keys on my lap,  knowing that I am supposed to push a button?

I push many buttons. Nothing happens. I consider going back into the house. But, no. I need coffee. I can figure this out!

I push more buttons. I wave the key-less key around. Nothing.

I call my husband. I send him multiple pictures of the steering wheel and dashboard. He offers advice. None of which works. But, one clue. I thought you said the car is a Range Rover, my husband texts me.

Yeah, so?

Well, the picture you sent me shows Ford Explorer written on the steering wheel. 

Part Three

My brother has two red cars!! The other red car is a Range Rover or Land Rover or some kind of Rover? It is tucked behind a wall on the other side of the garage!

I sit inside it. I push buttons. Nothing happens. I text my husband. I send him more pictures of the steering wheel and the dashboard. He offers helpful advice. None of which works. I text Natalie, my critique partner, mostly to joke to her that I am an idiot sitting inside a car with no idea how to start it. Also, I NEED MY COFFEE!!

Part Four

Natalie sends me a youtube video entitled "How to Use the Land Rover Ranger Rover Keyless Engine Start."

I watch the video three times.

And wah lah! The car starts!

Now, all I have to do is figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers.

The End.

(*note how many doofballs had to watch this video.)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The World's Gone Mad but--

I am not thinking about it. Instead, I spend my days chatting with my critique partner about the notes she's given me on my manuscript --the muddied up character arc and the inevitable info-dump in the first few chapters,-- and working in the bookstore -- the story-times with toddlers, the unpacking of boxes of new book--

my mind mulling over pressing issues, like, what if I can't figure out this revision, and how do I keep my dog from letting herself outside and getting stuck in the muddy backyard while I'm at work, and what should I make for dinner tonight?

Meanwhile, there was a nerve gas attack in Syria and entire families died in a stairwell, men and women clinging to their babies, their eyes glazed over, their ashen faces, and how terrified it must've been for them in those final moments.

I can't make sense of it.

Last year I read the book A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, because I am fascinated by how people grapple with the world during dark times. Lindgren, who wrote the Pippi Longstocking books, kept a diary detailing her experiences living in Sweden during World War II.

Most of the diary is day to day stuff like what she's making for dinner.

Which surprised me because when I think about people living back then, I imagine the war as being more present and all-encompassing.

Okay, Astrid Lindgren was lucky --and she knew it-- living in Sweden, a neutral country during the war, and therefore, mostly unscathed by the events. Sure, she read the newspapers and listened to the radio and was appalled, of course, by the atrocities, but for the most part, she was writing her Pippi Longstocking story and taking care of her kids and mulling over the food selection at the market, which wasn't bad, considering. She had a hard time making sense of it.

Yesterday I unpacked a box at the bookstore, a stack of new books, Indestructibles, they call them. A new invention to me. Books that your baby can crumple and chew. They're non-toxic! You can throw them in the dishwasher!

I marvel at these features, remembering my own babies chewing the corners of their books and there I was, clueless, allowing it, not worrying that the paper they were ingesting might be poisonous. Who knew this was even a pressing issue.

I wish I could ask Astrid Lindgren.

How is it that we live in a world that for some people ends with them clinging to their gasping terrified children in a stairwell, and for other people, the largest worry is the drooly bitten corners of a book?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

This week is the week I'm supposed to plant my garden

but I haven't even thought about it until today.

Other years, by this time, I would've been deep in my planning. Poring over garden design books, drawing grids on graph paper. Where to put the rows. How to arrange the pots and planters.

Not this year.

This year I haven't even been outside to pick up the broken branches or rake the blown leaves. The yard is a minefield of monkey balls and dog poop, mucky puddles and Dr. Seuss-looking weeds. It's the weird winter weather we've had. That creepy week back in February when the temperature hit the high 70's. Then the plunge back into the 20's. The mornings I woke up to snow I hadn't known was in the forecast. Watching flowers that shouldn't have bloomed, crushed.

Also, I've been busy. Working at the bookstore, my first job outside the home in ten years. And writing another book. It's done. Sort of. The draft in the hands of my critique partner.

Maybe it's the depletion that comes from finishing up a book, and balancing that with working, but lately, I'm not feeling very hopeful about my garden.

The reality is it doesn't get enough sun. Every year the trees in our yard stretch out farther, letting less light through. My husband says we should cut a few down, or at least trim them, but I have a thing about cutting down trees. The thing is called I Don't Want to Cut Down Trees.

Even if it means I can't grow as many tomato plants. Or any.

Today I went to a story-time at the bookstore. The author/illustrator Aiko Ikegami read from her new book Seed Man. The story is about a man who comes to town and plants a magical tree. Gifts grow on the tree instead of fruit. Books and toys and pets. There's a moment of potentially heartbreaking drama where one of the characters rejects the gift he's been given. But then he realizes his mistake and everything works out.

The story-time was very interactive. Aiko Ikegami played the cello while her friend played the violin. She brought a basket of seed packets to hand out as gifts.

I sat on the floor, cross-legged with the kids who came to listen. I got teary-eyed waiting for the story to turn hopeful. I'm not usually one to get teary-eyed. It might be a side-effect of "finishing" a book, a book that in all likelihood will go the way of the last four books I've written.

By which I mean, Nowhere.

After the story-time, I snagged a seed packet. I was as delighted as the kids to find that the packet contained smaller packets, each carefully labeled.

Seeds to plant if wanted to.

I know I know. I don't have to plant a garden. I don't have to write another book.

But on this rare sunny day, I know that I will.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Eight books I love this week

(In no particular order)

1. This Book Just Ate My Dog! by Richard Byrne

Bella takes her dog for a walk and it disappears into the crease of the book. On each page, more characters disappear as they search for the missing dog, culminating in a literal shaking of the book to release them.

(I have tested this one out on kids who have visited the bookstore, and they like shaking the book almost as much as I like shaking the book.)

2. Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence,‎ illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic

Eight-year-old Jasmine is tired of her older sister Sophie doing everything first. When it’s time to celebrate the New Year by rolling mochi balls, a tradition in their Japanese American family, Jasmine has the perfect plan to help—and to do something even Sophie has never been allowed to do.

(I love little Jasmine's voice. Kind of a cross between Ramona and Junie B. Jones. Plus, there's a recipe for Mochi included at the back of the book, which I appreciate.)

3. El Deafo by CeCe Bell

CeCe is starting a new school, trying to make new friends (and avoid a couple of not-so-good friends) and at the same time, she's learning how to be a deaf girl in a mostly hearing world. This is a graphic novel with a perfect melding of text and pictures (the book was a runner up for the Newbery Medal).

(It's geared toward 8-12, but it can be read as an adult memoir-- the author based the story on her own experiences. Also, I got a kick out of all of the 80's pop culture references--  Partridge Family, The Waltons, The Beatles.)

4. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Will’s older brother was shot and now Will has stepped into an elevator in his building, prepared to shoot the boy he assumes is the shooter. Over the next 60 seconds as Will wrestles with his trauma, grief and need for revenge, the elevator stops, floor by floor, letting on the ghosts of Will’s community, others who have been destroyed by gun violence.

When the elevator doors open at the end of the book, readers are left to come to their own conclusion about what happens next. A gut-punch of a read.

(I read this in 45 minutes-- it's told in verse, so it's "easy" to read-- but oh my God, here I am three weeks later still stressing about this kid.)

5. Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins

Bruce is a crotchety bear who just wants to be left alone to make his gourmet egg recipes, when one day, the free-range, organic goose eggs he's purchased (the pics show him shopping with a shopping cart in the forest) hatch. Fun fact about goslings? They imprint on the face they see first.

And that, unfortunately, for Bruce,

is Bruce.

(This is a picture book that adults may enjoy more than kids, although the pictures of the baby geese are darling.)

6. Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers

I love this picture book so much I want to give it to every newly expecting parent I know. Jeffers wrote the book for his own two month old baby, as basically a Welcome to the World introductory love letter.

Gorgeous pictures of space and earth and water, people and animals, accompanied by a loving and humorous voice explaining everything you need to know as a new inhabitant of our planet.

(This first time I read this book to a child, he was mesmerized and I burst into tears.)

7. The Princess and the Packet of Frozen Peas by Tony Wilson, illustrated by Sue deGennaro

An update on an old classic. Our prince is skeptical that having a prospective marriage partner sleep on a bed of twelve mattresses with a pea hidden underneath is the best way to choose a mate. In fact, it's how his brother chose his bride and that princess is just a little too finicky.

Maybe the answer is one mattress and a bag of frozen peas?

(Laughed out loud reading this one. And glad to see that it broke gender stereotypes. Spoiler alert: the princess had a rough day playing hockey and appreciated the bag of frozen peas.)

8. This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki, Illustrated by Mariko Tamaki

Story of two girls who've been friends at the same lake every summer, but now one is growing up a little faster than the other and struggling with some family dysfunction. I picked this one up on the advice of an editor and guessed (wrongly) by the picture on the cover and by flipping through it (it's a graphic novel, so it has a comic-book look to it) that it's a book for younger kids.

It is not. It's a complicated, moving, heartbreaking story about girl friendship, puberty, the growing awareness of how girls are perceived by men and how they often internalize that.. and hurt each other.

This one blew me away. A winner of the Printz Honor for the writing and a Caldecott for the illustrations. Give it to your older than 14 year old daughter. But first, read it yourself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

There is nothing funny about a car show and yet

I can't stop laughing.

Maybe it's because I didn't really want to go to this car show, but now that I am here, I am enjoying myself, inspecting every car, outside and in, the tires, the backs of mirrors, the dashboards, the leather seats, and the parts of cars I don't know the names of

the grill? the rim?

Whatever. I am not really interested in parts of cars. Or, to be honest, in cars. I am here, at this car show, with my husband, a man who is interested in cars.

He may be annoyed with me for telling you this, but for the past several years, he has been making plans to buy his dream car (as soon as we pay the last of our daughter's college tuition). When I say making plans, I mean he has created an excel spreadsheet, a detailed analysis of potential dream cars with their various attributes -- something something about the power of the engine? and...

I can't remember the other attributes,

although I should, because he's shown the excel spreadsheet to me. Multiple times. Last I've heard, he's narrowed it down to one dream car. I'm embarrassed to admit that I do not know what this car is. I am not a person who likes cars.

I am not a person who sees cars.

Okay, I see cars. If they are big or small and what color they are, if they have heated seats (I like those) and if they are reliable. But that's the extent of it.

Side note: when I was in college, a boy I didn't know well (and who obviously did not know me well) borrowed a Porsche to take me out on a date.

The gesture, needless to say, did not impress me, but I tried to act impressed, which was difficult because I didn't know what a Porsche was or why it should impress me. Also, I felt bad for the boy because he was clearly anxious driving this borrowed car, and the date went from bad to worse, when the boy got us lost on the way to the restaurant where he had made dinner reservations, and he was freaking out about losing our table, and I suggested he turn into a gas station and ask for directions, and he did, and then when he was pulling out of the gas station, he hit another car, and the back end of the Porsche fell off.

My husband, thank God, is not buying a Porsche.

We do, however, look at Porsches (Porsch-i?) at this car show. The outsides. The insides. The tires. The backs of the mirrors.

Did I mention that we are doing a scavenger hunt? When we walked into the enormous exhibit hall where they are holding this car show, the ticket takers gave us a sheet with items to find and if you find them all, you can be entered into a raffle where you might win a car!!

(I'm lying. You might win a large screen TV.)

I don't really care about winning a large screen TV, and I didn't think I would care about this silly scavenger hunt, but two minutes into this snooze-inducing car show, I discover a whatchamacallit on a random car that matches an item on the scavenger hunt sheet, and suddenly, I am obsessed with finding every single item.

I am so obsessed that at one point I wander away from my husband and get lost without even knowing I am lost. Until my husband calls me on my cell phone. And something about him calling me on my cell phone and asking where I am, and me, realizing I have no idea because all of these cars, truthfully, look the same, strikes me as hysterical,

and I can't stop laughing, even as my husband is telling me to stay where I am, and even as I don't stay where I am, because I want to check out the back of one more mirror and scour the rims? of one more tire.

We have to go! because the damn car show is closing! And I am still short two items on my scavenger sheet! But I spy a little boy scribbling on his own sheet and it turns out we are missing different items and the two of us agree to trade information, which leaves me with one item left.

The ticket takers will only take a totally completed sheet for the raffle to win the TV. So that's a big giant bummer.

Don't worry. I tell my husband. We are coming back here next year.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Someone pulled the fire alarm every day

when I was teaching in a high school, and everyone would groan because we knew it was a false alarm,

except for that one time when it wasn't, (a chemistry experiment gone wrong) and we all had to stand outside in the cold rain. And that other time, when there was a tornado drill, only weeks after a tornado blew the roof off the high school two miles away, and even the cool kids were freaked out, the alarm blaring,

they crouched, shivering, against the interior wall, their arms over the heads, one of the football players shouting at me, Ms Casella, why are you standing there? Get down!

I could handle the tornado drills and the fire drills, but my old childhood terror of fire, long buried, resurfaced when we had to practice the Lockdown Drills, because they were more likely to happen than a fire or tornado.

We all knew that any whack job with a gun could come strolling into the school. The administrators told the teachers lock your doors, huddle the kids into a corner. And in the unfortunate situation of a Lockdown happening during a class change -- grab whatever kids you could, pull them into a room, lock the door.

Whoever was left outside with the gunman would have to fend for themselves.

I could imagine terrified kids scurrying in the halls, searching for hiding places, and oh my God, what if it was your little boy or your little girl caught outside the locked door? Think of the nightmares you could have practicing that, the trauma of a drill, never mind the trauma of the real thing.

So, I've been going to Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America meetings, even though my kids are long grown and I am no longer teaching. I'm like a lot of people, apparently, past the point of being horrified by gun violence and looking for a way to make it stop.

Things I didn't know: the group was started by a mother of five, Shannon Watts, after a 20 year old man shot 20 first graders and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and has grown to four million members. Things I wish I didn't know: there have been 1607 mass shootings in America since Sandy Hook-- 239 school shootings .

The only goal of Moms Demand Action is to end gun violence in America.

The group works to reach that goal by advocating for universal background checks and by opposing any legislation that puts Americans at greater risk of gun violence. They support the Second Amendment and actively recruit responsible gun owners into the group. They are not affiliated with a political party.

You don't have to be a mom to join.

Also, you don't really have to do anything to join, except show up. And speak out against gun violence in America.

For example, writing this blog post might make you remember the terror you felt when you were six years old, the first time you watched a fire safety film in school,

how scary it was to see the students in the film running instead of walking, the ones falling and being trampled, the ones trapped inside in the blazing building, and every time the fire drill rang, you were freaked out and you confessed your fears to the adults in your life, adults who weren't always so With It when it came to listening, but in this case, they did listen.

In this case they said, don't be afraid. We're taking care of this problem for you. You don't have to worry about dying inside your school.

Moms Demand Action can't say this yet to our scared children.

The kids who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have taken it upon themselves. On March 24 in 659 places worldwide, they will march to raise their voices against gun violence in schools.

The Moms will be there too. It is the very least we can do.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Nearing the end of a book

makes you believe in magic

how everything falls into place, all of those seemingly unrelated plot strands that meandered off in different directions, now twisting together, tightening, building toward the climax

somehow making sense.

The months of writing-- day after day after day--  the slow starts and gray mornings, the blank computer screen, the blinking cursor, the pathetic daily word counts, the sentences written and the sentences deleted,

now everything gathering speed, words spilling out almost faster than you can catch them, flashes of dialogue in the shower, an answer to a plot hole as you round the corner on a walk with the dog, and how perfectly serendipitous it is when you remember

that time when you were twelve, and you and your best friend made up a silly song and it had multiple verses and a chorus and hand motions and an accompanying dance, and you haven't thought of that song or that friend in years, but it turns out that how you felt that day when you sang it with her

is exactly the feeling you are trying to capture in the scene you are writing now.

And how weirdly serendipitous it is, when you switch on the radio and there's an old interview with Mr. Rogers playing (yes, Mr. Rogers of all people, who isn't even alive anymore) but here he is talking about childhood worries, and something he says makes you say Aha!

because basically it sums up your entire book, and now you remember why you wanted to write the book in the first place, something you forgot over the last six months when you were deep in the weeds of the thing and didn't know if you'd ever find your way out,

but you should've known you would, because you always do, when you're nearing the end of a book, wherever the book may go later, sold or unsold, read or unread,

you always do,

and that is why nearing the end of a book is magic.