Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dude, where's my car?

I am going to blame it on the heat, a busier than usual weekend, house guests? But Saturday, I lost my car and get this...

I didn't know I'd lost it until Monday.

Hear me out. So, Saturday I drove to work at the bookstore. I don't usually work on Saturdays but a friend of mine,  Dr. Kevin Cordi -- writer, professional story-teller, OSU professor--was leading story-time and I didn't want to miss it. (Side note: he was amazing) and then some other author friends, Kristina McBride, Mindee Arnett, Lorie Langdon, and Natalie D. Richards showed up for their YA panel and book signing,

but first we all trooped next door for lunch, chatted about books and writing projects and the dark hole that is the publishing industry and foods we are allergic to and Natalie's daughter who might or might not be winning a ribbon at the Ohio State Fair because it seemed like she'd gotten a cruddy impatient judge, but Natalie wouldn't know for sure until later in the afternoon...

and back to the bookstore where the group did their panel and book signing and then it was only Natalie in the store, and she was heading directly to the state fair and could I please please please come with her, and of course I wanted to support her daughter and see her possibly win a ribbon and I had never been to the state fair

so off we went, in Natalie's car, to the fair where her daughter DID win a ribbon and then a quick swing through the crowded fairgrounds, sweating it out in the heat, past booths selling every-kind-of-fried food and barns filled with farm animals and quilts, and one exhibit depicting the movie A Christmas Story sculpted in butter

and then to my house for dinner

and the next day, which was busier than the one before because my daughter's boyfriend was in town for a visit and for some reason we'd all gotten it into our heads to drive up to Mansfield to tour the The Ohio State Reformatory (a former state prison and the site of the Shawshank Redemption movie and now supposedly haunted)

which we did (in my daughter's car) and I must say, the place was creepy, but not haunted as far as I could tell and I know haunted places,

then a drive back home, a quick dinner, and out, again, this time to see the latest Mission Impossible movie, which was only meh, although the meh-ish-ness of the movie may have been exacerbated by the fact that the air conditioning in the theater had broken down and we were all dying sitting there in pools of our own sweat.

Home late

and the next morning seeing off my daughter's boyfriend and then getting ready for work when I went into the garage to find my car missing,

and for a full three minutes, I literally had no idea why it wasn't there or where it could be until my daughter played the Where Did You Last See It game and I remembered.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How to Write a Chapter in Six Weeks OR what to do after you get a seven-page editorial letter

1. Fiddle with the original first chapter for a while, holding on tight, allowing only for a shift of a sentence or two, a shuffling up of a paragraph,

because you spent so much time working and reworking those scenes and if you let them go, then what? A whole new chapter from scratch? no. way.

Set a goal to revise the chapter in a week.

(Maybe you can't do this anymore. Maybe the book's no good at the core. Maybe you should write a different book and forget this one.)

2. Realize you've got to let go of the first chapter. The first three chapters, I mean,

because when you set all of that up, you were writing a different book from the one this story has morphed into. Also, since we're being honest here, most of it is backstory anyway, stuff you had to figure out about your character, the things that made her who she is, never mind all of the other characters, the place, the voice.

Set a goal to write a new chapter in a week.

(Maybe you can't write this book. Maybe you don't want to write this book. Maybe books are pointless in this world.)

3. Complain to your critique partner, to your writing group, to David Levithan at a publishing dinner party. Nod along as they all basically tell you the same thing. Stop overthinking it. Just write. Play around for a while. Trust the process. (Although David Levithan admits that he has never received a seven-page editorial letter.

Thanks, David Levithan)

Set a goal to play around with the first chapter for a week.

4. Imagine an alternate reality for yourself where you quit writing. It involves selling other people's books and walking the dog three times a day and marching against injustice.

5. Imagine the reality where you keep writing this book because that is what you do who are we kidding here

6. Set a goal to write one terrible paragraph. In pencil. In ten minutes.

7. Write another paragraph

and another
and another
and another
and another
and another

until you finish Chapter One.

8. Take a breath. Time to begin Chapter Two.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

News Detoxing

I've always been a news junkie. Even as a kid I pored over the local paper-- the comics, Dear Abby, the editorials. As a teen, I wrote letters to the editor, once getting into a dueling editorial argument with my history teacher over the Equal Rights Amendment.

(I said we should pass the ERA because women should be treated equally under the law. She said that the ERA would lead to unisex bathrooms, murdered babies, and female firefighters who wouldn't be strong enough to lift her out of a burning building.)

In college I quit reading the newspaper. No time, I guess. And the paper in the commons room was usually missing. Anyway, what was going on outside in the world seemed removed from what was happening in my little campus bubble. But after I graduated, I was back to paying attention. By then 24-hour news and CNN had become a thing. I was glued to the TV during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the OJ Simpson-white-bronco-driving-down-the-freeway show and the subsequent trial.

That craziness burned me out for a while, although I still read the newspapers. But I was yanked back into TV news on 9/11.

A friend called to tell me what was happening and I watched the Twin Towers fall in real time, fully aware and sickened by the realization that I had just witnessed the deaths of thousands of people. In the months that followed I was addicted to the TV. Hearing the survivors' stories. Watching the firefighters digging through what they called The Pile. Freaking out over the anthrax attacks.

Until two things happened that woke me up.

One, my three-year-old child and I were outside playing in the front yard and a plane flew overhead and she asked me if it was going to fly into our house.

Two, I watched an interview on CNN where a reporter interviewed a dream interpreter about Bin Laden. I have no idea why a dream interpreter would be seriously interviewed on TV and I think even the reporter had that realization because she actually started laughing.

And that was when I knew that I had crossed some kind of line with the News and it was no longer about receiving information that might be helpful to me as a citizen,

it was now something absurd, something tragic and sad, a source of anxiety and hopelessness, nevermind, a huge time suck, and by watching, I was participating, the equivalent of every moment slowing down to rubberneck at a car in flames on the side of the road.

So I quit watching and I never went back.

But it's hit me again, recently, that I have reached the same point, but now, in a different form. Social media. Online articles. Screaming matches in the comments. Political memes. Whatever. Some days I feel like I am watching the Twin Towers falling over and over again.

But worse, because I am losing my capacity to feel shock, horror, empathy, and grief at the sight.

Children taken from their parents at the border. The president paying off porn stars (that's stars. With an S) Americans seriously arguing that it's okay for police to shoot someone because the person didn't obey orders quickly enough. A foreign country attacking our election. And it's only Wednesday.

Of course I do want to know what is going on in the world so I can be an informed citizen. I belong to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and Mothers Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and those organizations send periodic emails about upcoming legislation and action that I, personally, can take.

Such as calling my representatives. Protesting. Voting.

But for my own sanity, I think it's time to pull my head inside the car as I drive down the highway strewn with burning cars-- (by turning off news notifications. Blocking political sites from my laptop. Removing myself from Twitter... ) and pay attention to the road.

I suspect it's going to be a long, bumpy ride.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why I'll Probabably Never Join a Cult

because I'm skeptical about pretty much everything.

The other day, for example, I got an email with my name and an old password in the subject line (which, okay, did freak me out momentarily) and then I read the email that basically said that I'd been doing something embarrassing online and they'd caught me on my computer camera and if I didn't give them three thousand dollars, they'd show all of my contacts, and don't go to the police and hurry up send the money now, the clock is ticking--

and I thought, Wait, 

what embarrassing thing was I doing? Did walking around in my office in my underwear count? To make a long story short, I forwarded the email to my tech savvy son who told me it's a new phishing scam going around, probably using hacked passwords from a data breach (thank you, yahoo mail),

so no worries, but maybe use this opportunity to change passwords on all of my accounts. Also, it wouldn't hurt to cover up my laptop camera. 

So, I did that, thinking about the people who might be right now freaking out for real and sending money to this joker, which got me thinking how I have never been one of those people.

Even when I was a kid I was skeptical,

like the time I received a handwritten chain letter in the mail from a friend instructing me to write out ten letters exactly like that one and send them to ten other friends, or the chain, which had been circling around the world for twenty-five years, would be broken and bad things would happen to all of us,

and halfway through writing out the first letter, I wondered if I really wanted to curse ten more people with such an inane task. And surely I couldn't be the first person to break this dumb chain in twenty-five years.

Around the same time I read a story about the Jonestown Massacre in a magazine and I couldn't stop looking at the picture on the cover, all of the dead bodies laid out in rows in the jungle, all of those people who'd followed a cult leader down to South America and then, all of them-- over 900-- willingly drank the poisoned kool aid when he told them to. 

Which stuck with me over the years because I couldn't get over it. What would make a person suspend all critical thinking and nod along as some mad man ranted and told you to kill yourself? 

Even as I kid I couldn't fathom being so gullible. 

Maybe because I was living in a house where bad things were going down and we all had to act like those things weren't happening, but I kept thinking, wait, no. This IS happening, and I told a bunch of people (who didn't do anything about it) but whatever, I knew what reality was, and no way was I going to act like I didn't. 

That kind of thing tends to stick with you too.

Something interesting I learned recently about the Jonestown Massacre is that all 900+ people did not willingly drink the poison.

Three hundred or so of that group were children and were given the drinks by trusted adults. Another 300 were elderly people, sick people, people who tried to resist but were made to drink at gunpoint by soldiers at the camp. 

Meaning that when people talk about crazy cults and use Jonestown as an example, it's important to note that only one third of the people followed the madman until the end. 

Still horrifying and impossible to understand, but better than imagining the entire group shuffling up together with their cups. And making me feel somewhat more hopeful about the state of the world this morning.

I guess what I'm saying is that if some present-day madman does end up shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, in all probability two thirds of his followers might toss away their kool aid cups.

If you want to know more about what happened at Jonestown, this book is illuminating:


Monday, July 9, 2018

I didn't notice her foot was raised

The one time I visited the statue was on an eighth grade class field trip. We took a choppy boat ride to the island and climbed the windy stairs inside. I wasn't thinking about the statue, the history, the symbols, or give me your tired and poor, I was thinking of my own feet on the stairs because those stairs were scary, steep.

Each step, a grate you could see through with no back to it, so it felt like your foot could slide out the other side. Only room for one person, climbing single file, and once you were on your way up, there was no turning back.

I gripped the railing, kept my eyes on the person in front of me, tried not to look down, but every so often caught a dizzying glimpse of the space around me, the contours of the statue's body, the dress.

I just wanted to make it to the top. I was imagining the spacious crown, the view of the city (my first time visiting New York even though my hometown was less than a two-hour drive away) but when I finally made it, it turned out the space up there was cramped too, the windows in the crown too small to see much of anything. As we filed past, I peeked out, caught a flash of a green arm, the one holding the torch, the rivets holding it together,

and then we were filing our way down, this time scarier than going up because the person behind me kept knocking his knees into my back, threatening to tip me over the rail.

We saw other things on that trip. The stock exchange. The UN building. A stroll around the roof of one of the Twin Towers. I think you could see the Statue of Liberty from up there. But still, I never noticed the raised foot. There's a new book about it, a kids' book that we've been featuring at the bookstore where I work, but one I hadn't picked up until the other day.

A fun story about the statue and who came up with the idea and how it was built, some facts I knew, and some I didn't, like, for example, that for the first thirty years, the statue was brown (it's made of copper and it took that long to oxidize); that the statue was assembled in Paris and stood there for a year before it was taken apart and reassembled in America. 

So, the statue is, in a sense, an immigrant, someone in motion, if you remember her raised right foot. The author of the book makes us think about why that might be so.  

If you stop by the bookstore, I will push the book into your hands. I will also hand you a tissue.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

I don't remember how many people were protesting

ten? Twelve? The group was in the center of campus and I was walking past on the way to dinner. They carried signs and shouted but I didn't stop to hear what they were saying or do more than glance at the signs. Something about Apartheid, which I knew was a Thing in South Africa.

Something bad. But I knew this on an intellectual level only. I want to tell you I felt something more than mild curiosity, something more than Meh Whatever, as I continued walking by. But I can't remember feeling anything. The truth is I didn't care. I was going to say it was because I was twenty,

but the protesters were the same age, so that can't be the reason. Maybe it's because I was a mess, too wrapped up in my own problems to imagine other people's pain. Not a good excuse, but it's all I have.

I don't know when that changed. After having my children? After years of teaching hundreds of kids? Reading books? Studying history? Writing stories and living inside made-up people's heads?

growing up?

Who knows. But back then, there was probably nothing anyone could say to make me veer off the sidewalk and join the group who cared about the suffering of other people.

So I am not going to try to explain to you why you should, except here's a story:

one day, I was picking up my four-year-old son from his darling little church preschool, a place he went to play two afternoons a week.The classrooms opened into a large hall and after the kids raced out, waving their still paint-drippy art projects, the moms would often linger,

chatting, holding our napping younger children, while the four-year-olds darted around our legs. Oh my God I loved those brief conversations with the moms, a moment of adult conversation after hours of incessant high voices, the whining the wailing the crying, the endless making and cleaning up of meals, the never-ending scooping up of strewn toys,

but for those precious few minutes after school, a connection, and this one day, a few of us got to talking, absorbed in who knows what topic, slowly walking along the whole time toward the door and out the door,

onto the edge of the parking lot, our kids still scampering around us, except at some point, I realized that my son wasn't there. (This is not a story of kidnapping or gruesome injuries requiring stitches, okay? So don't worry.) All that happened was

I stopped my conversation and walked back inside the building where I saw my son and he saw me at the same moment, and he ran toward me, hysterical, and I stooped down to hug him and he flailed in my arms and hit me,

which would have been embarrassing for the other mothers to see, except I didn't care

what they thought. All I could think about was what I'd just seen on my kid's face. One moment, terror. Then a moment of pure relief. And then a whoosh of rage, at me, for allowing us to become separated. It couldn't have been more then two or three minutes that we'd even been apart from each other

but my little boy cried all the way home.

Now, twenty years later, I can still hear him crying, still see his terrified face, and I don't know why. I don't. I don't. But here it is, that face and somehow it's imprinted on other faces, 2342 faces and counting,

the children taken from their parents at the border, but those kids have not been reunited (yet?) with their parents, and if, when, they are, their suffering will not be over.

I am not so naive to think that holding a sign will make a difference, but I sure as hell know that walking by without a glance is no longer an option. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Four bookstores in four hours in New Orleans

The one where Mardi Gras beads dangle from the tree branches outside and across the street's a cemetery with white and gray tombs, which you'll wander between in a moment, 
but first you thumb through the vampire books you were obsessed with in college. 

(Why are the books stacked like this? Who knows?) 

The one where all the books are French children's books. (Fun fact: there are several French immersion schools in this city.) 

A porch swing inside. A loft. Small tables, each one set with paper and markers and while your friend buys a Harry Potter book in French, you sit doodling in every color. 

The one that used to be a boarding house where Faulkner lived for eight months and wrote his first novel. This store is small but the books reach up to the ceiling. The only clerk tells you stories about New Orleans in the 1920's, which somehow leads to a political discussion because isn't everything a political discussion these days.

The one where the books are stacked in teetery tottery piles and you can only wind between them single file, afraid a quick turn could lead to a domino-toppling disaster. But the guy working here, buried behind books, somehow knows where everything is.

Outside, a band playing in the courtyard. You wade with your bag of books through crowded humid streets, already planning your escape.