Monday, December 26, 2011
Family can be a word to extricate you. I have to get home to my family. Conversely it can also be a word to imply a knot to bind you. I am in the family way. I have a family obligation.
When I married Jim I gained five brothers-in-law and five sisters-in-law. (In-law is an awkward term. My brother-in-law Gus and I call our selves the outlaws because the word outlaws sounds way more badass.)
My husband’s brother Dan was the first to be married. I can't hear the song Born to Run without thinking of Dan and Lisa's wedding in 1987. They stood on a table and gave high fives as everybody ran down the dance floor. My husband was not yet my husband. We were teenagers sitting at the corner table waiting for our chance to sneak off and make out. Dan and Lisa had everything figured out. I looked up to them. They were cool and fun and above all, kind.
My wedding was five years later. Looking back I can recall my husband’s family’s kindnesses like knots on a nineteen-year long string. They are too many to name but for a sampling:
They arranged with our hotel to pay for dinner every night of our honeymoon. When Jim had just started grad school, they pre paid our motel room so we could afford to go along on the annual tree trip.
Jim's sister Anne looked after my youngest daughter when she was a baby and I had to go back to work. Anne was one of my baby's first words. Just last month Anne took my oldest on a road trip to explore college campuses.
My daughter’s aunts and uncles and cousins take them to the city, to the park, to restaurants, to ice-skating, to the beach. The cousins tell inside jokes together and appear in family photos together and share a history that began with their first memories and will stretch out into their old ages. My girls were born into an enormous web of support and love. Our family has been their greatest birthright.
After Thanksgiving this past year, Greg and Elaine gave us their gently used oven for free instead of selling it on Craigslist. It works like new. Our old stove had one working burner. Every time I make dinner now I want to weep in gratitude.
Ed and Kristine have the loveliest children you've ever met. Ed and Kristine were brave enough to have six and they are gentle and beautiful and intelligent and so kind to each other that you just want to watch them be together because it makes you feel better about the world.
Any time I've needed advice Tom has made time to talk with me despite his busy schedule. Tom and Kirsten hosted Christmas Eve and ordered cracked crab for everybody and compiled a photo slideshow of twenty years of tree trips and summer vacations and times together. Kirsten is so good at taking pictures.
Last night Dan and Lisa hosted Christmas dinner. They are still cool and fun and kind. They still love Bruce Springsteen and have a signed Born to Run poster hanging up in their TV room.
At dinner Anne’s husband Gus sat next to me and said he knows that I will make it as a writer. He said it is just a matter of time. I felt like weeping in gratitude.
We snapped Christmas poppers and donned paper crowns. We wedged in at long tables, some of our children older than I was at Dan and Lisa’s wedding. They are strapping, self-confident, good people with the integrity and self-sufficiency of their fathers and mothers. We said our Grace together before eating and I said my own private prayer too.
Because lately I have been feeling at loose ends in my life. Because last night I was reminded that when I married the best person I’ve ever met the day after Christmas nineteen years ago, I also tethered myself to the good and loving people he came from.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Some things about Christmas time I like:
Live Aid Singing Feed The World
Every one is so hopeful and beautiful and pleased with themselves. I was fourteen when that song came out and it made my heart as big as a cathedral. Who is that beautiful Marilyn guy with the pissed off girl way of walking and the long coat? I love that guy. You see and hear how earnest and nervous Bono is? That's how I feel ninety percent of the time. It's not an easy way to go through life. At least he found a way to make money off it. I could listen to this song nine million times in a row and not get tired of it.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby Singing Little Drummer Boy
David Bowie freaks me out. I dream about him now and then and we are always old friends. He's always glad to see me. Bing Crosby seems like an evil person what with beating the crap out of his sons and all. But even Bing turns good for the length of a song in the presence of magic David Bowie. This video is maybe the weirdest two and half minutes in the history of videos. This video makes me want to bite somebody.
Jacob Marley forces Scrooge to look out the window at all the ghosts in chains floating around the poor lady sitting in the snow. That is my favorite scene in the whole movie. Scares me so. Ghosts are awesome. Christmas is so haunted and I knew it all along. Charles Dickens knew it and this film footage proves it.
Going on the Tree Trip Every year the Wankets descend on Mt. Shasta like a giant 40 person J. Crew catalog gang come to life only way smarter and even better looking. God forbid a Wanket get a tree the simple way in the Save Mart parking lot. Nay, a Wanket gets a permit and drives three hundred miles from home to a remote mountain road only then to park and then walk a mile or more to find the perfect tree and then cut it down with a hacksaw.
Jim does all the driving and all the work and I eat snacks and sit around the fire in the middle of the woods and talk with my sisters and brothers-in-law and my nieces and nephews. We laugh like crazy and tell jokes so inappropriate that we had to go out into the middle of the woods to say them out loud. I laugh so hard that it feels like I did sit ups after. Then we go back to the hotel and soak in the hot tub and swim. Then we cram ourselves into one suite and eat potluck chili dinners and ask one another questions from Trivial Pursuit cards while the kids play hide and seek.
The Tree Trip is awesome. The Tree Trip is the meaning of life.
Chewy Brach's Peppermint Candies With The Christmas Tree In The Middle
Those are awesome and also the meaning of life.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
I had a bit of a rough day at work. High school teaching is no joke. Well it's kind of a joke, but not a funny one when you are the brunt of it.
But then I came home and made dinner and watched my shows and now my troubles melt like lemon drops. Because as hard as it is at Christmas time to impart the urgency of learning how to read and write properly to teenagers, at least I don't. . . . .
. . .have the CIA, a major drug cartel and two Oakland gangs after me. Neither is the love of my life an arms dealer. The love of my life drove our second grader and two of her friends to Bouncetown this afternoon with the Girl Scout troop. He's pretty much the best dad ever. In other words, my life in no way resembles a Shakespearean tragedy. I like that about my life. Also, my parents weren't criminal gangsters. Have I thanked them for that recently?
. . .need to watch out for undead cannibals. On foggy days as I stand at my classroom door, I see my students coming towards me out of the mist. The worst they ever act is grumpy. They may drag their feet some, especially in the morning, but they never eat my dog or gut my horse or chew on my arm. And God bless them for it.
. . .work in a basement. When I asked politely for a room with windows, my administration arranged for me to have it. Overhead lighting causes me to have soul shattering headaches. I don't get those often anymore now that I am in a room with windows. If I had to work one more year in a room with no windows, I would wish for someone to chew on my arm and just put me out of my misery already. Boy am I glad I can see the sky whenever I want to.
I forgot to feel grateful for the absence of murder, mayhem and florescent lighting today. Almost forgot, that is. Thanks, television. I feel better already.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Here's a post about television. I love television. I have always loved television. For about five years I never watched television but that was in the late eighties, early nineties era. I missed out on Beverly Hills 90210 and Twin Peaks. Who cares.
Here are my shows right now. They are the best shows ever:
Friday Night Lights: This show is SO TRUE about working in a high school. I love Coach Taylor. He reminds me of my husband and the other few grown men I admire. I am reasonably sure that 94% of the reason I teach at my job at a sporty high school is because of this show.
Sons of Anarchy: Remember how I just said that Friday Night Lights is why I chose my current job? I'm feeling similarly influenced right now to get an enormous back tattoo because of Sons of Anarchy. I'm talking a tattoo so big it would kill me if you tried to remove it with a blowtorch. If you watch this awesome show, then you understand what I mean.
Big Love: Fundamental LDS are my favorites. I just can't get over that whole concept. Sister wives are awesome. Every time I try to wrap my brain around it, the concept of sharing one husband amongst three women (or more!) just gets bigger and more impossible like a wet marshmallow. Great show.
Enlightened: This is the only comedy on the list. Most of the time when I watch it I'm not really laughing because the main lady is too much like me and it makes me nervous. I start to laugh when she starts trying to fix things on other people who just want to be left alone then I go wait a minute, that's not funny. I just did that very thing today.
Maybe somebody is following me around and making a show of stuff I do. Didn't you think that was a possibility when you were a kid? You did if you were obsessed with television.
Walking Dead: Maybe it is because daily life has grown so difficult for me that I actually would not mind a zombie apocalypse. A zombie apocalypse would at least be honest. Sometimes I think I would prefer it to the slow torture of the current apocalypse of closing my school, then the neighborhood pool, then the library, then the community center. The characters in The Walking Dead have to deal with all hell breaking loose at once. All the cards are on the table right off the bat. I mean how refreshing.
I have friends who are way better hippies than me who never watch television except maybe NOVA once in a while. That's cool. But the great thing about being 41 is that I am through trying to change myself for the better. I'm right back to being five years old and begging my mom to let me watch Underdog. I love television and I don't care.
Football-playing, reformed stress case sister wives in a motorcycle club on the run from zombies would be awesome. I would totally watch that, just in case anybody who writes for television reads this.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
White shirts: T-shirts, button downs, eyelet. I like white shirts. Ironed crisp with starch and steam.
Black pen ink on white paper.
Sharp pencils, apple cider, old-fashioned chalk and chalkboards, fountain pens, Djembe drums, old-fashioned suitcases with straps, records on record players, a tattoo of the name of someone you love.
Silver over gold, cash over credit, truth over lies.
Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker, Dove bar soap, Cocoa Butter lotion, Booth's bath oil.
Eggs from my own chickens, fruit off my own trees and veggies out of my own garden.
Paying bills on time, going without instead of paying on credit, composting instead of landfilling, making instead of shopping, listening instead of talking.
High heels, pencil skirts, the smell of books, the word "homework", the word "loyal", the word "friendship".
People who still send handwritten letters, people who laugh at the same things at the same time with me, people who like to learn things.
Going to bed by 9:30 on a school night.
Getting up before dawn to work out.
Meeting the day with courage. And if not courage then with anger enough to stand in for it. And enough to go around for my students as well.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
I was banking on being more successful socially in college than I was in high school. Nobody got me in high school. I was goofy and weird and had too much energy for the wrong things. I had no taste for alcohol and no money or desire for drugs. Surely college would be better, I thought. Surely in college I would be able to find people to be my friends.
Yeah, not so much. Maybe it was because I was a full year younger than everybody else. Maybe it was because I had missed orientation. Maybe it was because I had no taste for the alcohol, no money or desire for the drugs, and no self-loathing required for the sexual musical chairs that almost everyone else was playing.
Maybe it was because I'd already met my true love at fifteen and he lived three hundred miles away and I was perpetually low grade sad.
Maybe it was because I was goofy and weird with my penchant for Kate Bush and drawing doodley pictures of faeries. I could never get past the irony police. They were everywhere in the late eighties.
I was lonely most of the time. I was not usually tempted to do the things that would make me not lonely, at least temporarily. Yet I did have the hollow and scary feeling that I would be lonely forever. That loneliness would be my lot.
I had two friends in college who didn't mind living with me. They even liked me. They were Laura and Evan, a beautiful couple in love since the first day of orientation. They were generous and brilliant and stylish. I loved them and we lived together for two years before they fled to Leeds to finish college. I was lonely when they left but they wrote letters and postcards and sent me black and white photographs of candles they lit in cathedrals just for me.
Laura and Evan are two of my most important friends still. They graduated, got married, built lives based on family and art and music and love. I graduated college, earned a teaching credential, married that true love soulmate. I made many more beautiful, sparkling and inspiring friends and I've also built a life on love. As for everyone else I knew in college, we're not even facebook friends. It doesn't feel like any kind of loss.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my seventeen-year-old self that I wouldn't be lonely forever. In fact, someday I would be so surrounded by love that sometimes I'd wish for solitude. Just a little bit of it.
But I can't do that so instead I say to my former students who are struggling to make their way as authentic and sparkling individuals in the gooey morass that is the social scene in most college dorms: It's better to be lonely than surrounded by jerks. My dad told me this when I was young and it was helpful. It released me from the responsibility of trying to make friends with people who were always drunk or high or who just wanted to have sex with me.
It really was better to be lonely. Because lonely doesn't last forever. Loneliness is in fact a good thing because it creates a great sucking vacuum which will (if it hasn't already) absolutely attract friends like Laura and Evan who will buoy you and inspire you and bring out your best self. Hold out for those friends.
They might be closer than you think.
Friday, November 25, 2011
I wrote 6 thousand words of my novel today. I also rewrote the outline, and I wrote a journal entry and now I'm writing this.
I spent today doing what I am supposed to be doing. I mean Supposed to be doing. It is an odd conundrum that my life usually conspires totally against its purpose. I know this is my fault but I don't know how to untie the knots.
Maybe if I just keep writing. Maybe that will be enough to loosen the little devils.
Maybe when I sell something for enough to unite Life and Purpose, I will remember this as the time I crawled through the desert without water and made it through anyway.
What resilience I had, I will say of myself. What persistence. Persistence is key to writing, I will say by way of advice to other up and comers. Persistence is key.
Deep down I'll know that persistence is key is a stupid thing to say. Deep down I'll know that some days I wrote a thousand words. Some days I wrote six thousand. Some days I made a living for my family instead and my stories languished along with my thirsty, crawling soul.
Persistence? What else am I Supposed to do if not write? What else but dry up and become sand? I'm not just persisting. I'm insisting on my own survival.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
In teaching you are only really new for the first five minutes. There are so many problems to solve in every moment in a classroom that by the first day you've learned enough to make the next better.
By the first eight weeks you are already experienced, if you are paying attention. If you are working hard. If you are open-hearted, generous, humble and smart.
And you are.
The first year is difficult. You'll never work harder in your life. You already know this. But please remember that the first year is also sacred. You'll never forget it. You'll reference it five years from now, ten years from now. Twenty.
In my first year of teaching I taught fourth grade. I spent my weekends prepping elaborate science experiments. I commented on every page of their journals. I wore high heel pumps on my first day.
High heels pumps were a silly choice. My feet were killing me by nine o'clock in the morning. But I looked sharp and my students noticed. A few of them drew pictures of my various outfits in their journals. I was so young, only twenty-two. I had to dress to impress.
You dress to impress and you might not know it but the students notice. They notice the high regard you have for them. You express your respect for them in your professionalism, your enthusiasm for your subject, your showing up day after day. You hold them accountable for their work and their actions, and you hold yourself accountable too. You are impressing them and impressing your colleagues with how hard you are working, your willingness to make mistakes and to learn.
I hope you are impressing yourself.
These are bad years to be a teacher. No one wants to pay us properly. People who couldn't last for those first five minutes in our place in front of the classroom want to blame us for everything wrong in education.
Bring it on, I say. They can't do what we can do. It takes a certain kind of courage to stand witness to our kids.
Kids are coming to us not just unprepared for our curriculum. They are coming to us gunshot, traumatized, angry and hurt.
But not hopeless. Our students are never hopeless.
You take their hope and give the flame a little air. You do the same for your colleagues. I'm old but not too old to learn, after all.
You are naive and you teach me to take kids at their face value. You are trusting and you teach me to think the best of my own students. You build new curriculum out of thin air and you teach me to innovate. You come to work on Saturdays and you teach me to prepare for my classes as best as I can.
You care too much and you teach me to care enough.
And it's working. Our students read and write better than they did before they started our classes. They are closer to their dreams of college. They'll make it, too. We'll make sure they do.
Our students will change the world, thank God. They will combine their innovation and good hearts with the communication skills they learned from us. I can't worry too much about the future when I know this generation of students coming up. They are capable of so much good.
I can't worry about the future of education when I know this generation of teacher. You are already doing so much good.
Monday, September 19, 2011
I don't like zoos. I'm claustrophobic and it is impossible for me to be around that much lock and key without getting the anxiety.
But then my seven-year-old had the day off from school and we needed to do something. The pools are closed and the library wants my head for a desperately overdue book. The zoo it had to be.
The first clue that the zoo was going to be existential trouble for me happened in the reptile house. There was a terrarium of bullfrogs that looked just like the frogs you see in fairy stories. They were huge. I couldn't stop staring at them. Then I started staring at just this one. I swear to God he started staring back. His little arms looked like person arms.
I tried to read the expression in the bullfrog's eyes. Maybe he needed help. Maybe he was really a trapped person and if I kissed him a spell would be broken and he could be free. Is that what he wanted me to do? It would be unpleasant, but I like helping people.
"Mommy," my little girl said. "Time to move on."
We headed out of the Reptile House and to the Australian Outback. The Himalayan Forest. The Serengeti Plain. The animals looked okay. Happy enough. Sleepy. The habitats were clean.
But when I'm at a zoo, I can't stop thinking that maybe I should do something about all of that captivity. Don't they want to get away?
There was an exhibit of Burrowing Owls. There was no need to have an exhibit of Burrowing Owls. Burrowing Owls are indigent to the Central Valley. I see them all the time while I'm driving through the delta.
The tiny owl fellows bobbed and winked. "Hey lady," one of them said. "Can you spring a brother out?"
"I think the owls are telling me that they want to be free," I said.
"Owls don't talk, Mom."
We moved on to the Big Cats. Everything was fine until I got trapped into a staring contest with a jaguar. Did you know those things have yellow snakey pupils? I think he wanted to murder me. At least I lost the itch to let everyone loose.
There was a horrible roar from another exhibit. In a moment of complete and total anti-instinctual thrill-seeking, my daughter and I ran towards the roar. We checked in first with the lions. They were fast asleep. Then we hopped continents to the tiger den next door.
The Sumatran tiger paced the area. Gave us the stink eye. My daughter and I were joined by this time by several other mothers with toddlers and babies in strollers. All of the racket had attracted a crowd.
The tiger opened his enormous mouth and roared again. The two-year-old in the stroller next to me dropped his sippy cup in astonishment. Babies are closer to their normal human instincts than the rest of us. This kid pursed his lips and gave me a look that said, "Hey, shouldn't we be getting out of here? Aren't we, like, this guy's food?"
It was high time for a peaceful giraffe encounter. The exhibit is actually called Giraffe Encounter. We went there and I watched a giraffe eat leaves. Well, he was chewing something. I'm assuming it was leaves. That's what they eat on T.V.
My daughter called me. There were some turtles up to something across the way. I needed to check it out.
I went over to see, annoyed. Giraffes don't look anything like people and because of this I find them very soothing. I never get to stare at giraffes as long as I want to.
I looked to where my little girl pointed. Two big desert tortoises were doing it.
I want to say doggy style, but who says dogs invented it? Weren't reptiles around long before mammals? Maybe the dogs stole the tortoises' moves and then took all the credit.
The tortoises weren't even embarrassed. In fact, they were making quite a lot of noise. Maybe they were hoping to attract the stroller and sippy cup crowd, give the tiger a run for his money.
"That's so gross," my daughter said.
"Yeah well, it's their house," I said, steering her away. "We're the creepers in this scenario."
She thought that was hilarious. Then she forgot about it and ran toward the chimpanzees.
Luckily the chimps weren't up to anything but eating lettuce. Which is the same thing I was doing back at home an hour later, only in the privacy of a home I can enter and exit when I feel like and with nobody staring at me while I am chewing.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
My eldest daughter is fifteen. She is the queen of our family. She makes healthy choices. She gets all A's in all Honors and Advanced Placement classes. She cooks for us, takes care of her little sister. She takes care of everything. She is careful about the things she does and says. She knows how to have fun, but she's definitely an eat-your-broccoli-before-your-ice-cream kind of person. I wish I was more like her.
My youngest is a different kind of girl. She is still smart, studious, polite to strangers, helpful, kind, irreverent and silly, all just like her sister. But not just like her sister.
I call my youngest Witch Baby because she reminds me of Francesca Lia Block's character Witch Baby in the Love is a Dangerous Angel series. Her hair is crazy. She makes it crazy. She slept last night with a tiny wet ponytail in her bangs so she could wake up with a cowlick. It gets so tangled in the back that wild faeries could be living in it and you would never know.
Witch Baby is seven. On a drive today her sister tried to discourage us from going to McDonald's for dinner. Witchy ripped the headrest off the top of her seat.
"You don't deserve a headrest," the Baby said. "You're not the boss."
"Your sister is the queen of the family," I said.
"She is not. Nobody is the queen of the family. Well, maybe Daddy is," the Baby said.
After dropping off her sister, Witch Baby climbed into the front. When Gimme Shelter came on the stereo I explained about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I thought it worth noting that Kieth Richards and I have the same birthday.
"Are you the same age as Keith Richards?" she asked.
"No, he's about twenty five years older than me," I said.
"Woah," the Baby said. "So he's ninety?"
I changed the song. We sang at the top of our lungs all the way home. The Beekeeper. Tiny Dancer. Ring of Fire. Witch Baby knows all the words.
Flo rida's song came on. You know the one. "Oh hot damn / this is my jam."
"Woah," the Baby said. "This song requires lipstick."
She went into my purse and took out a shimmery pink. She applied it in a mirror. Someone swerved in front of us on the freeway.
"Christ," I said.
"Don't use the Lord's name in vain Mommy," the Baby said.
"I can if I want. I'm grown."
"No you can't," the Baby said. "That's like saying a person you really really love's name in a really mad way. It's not nice."
She's right about that of course. I turned up the music so we could sing along. It warms up our voices so that we can sing in church tomorrow.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Steven, one of my former advisory sons, came by my classroom to visit after school today. He graduated high school four months ago.
"I'm thinking of the armed forces," he said.
Steven is an accomplished soccer player and football kicker. He landed some poetic field goals in his football career. I cheered him from the sidelines while he did it.
This is a young man on his own. He has no support besides what he can rustle up for himself.
School was never Steven's thing. He hates the thought of going to college. He graduated on time but sitting in those desks all day was torture. Through high school he displayed a certain physical courage and a lack of fear of pain that freaked me out. He did jumping off of stuff tricks a lot. He hurtled himself through space a lot.
I yelled at Steven a lot.
"Why the armed forces?" I asked.
"Because I don't know else what to do," he said.
My pacifist heart yells at Steven not to go into the service. He might end up in war. He might come back broken into pieces, one way or the other.
My rational heart yells at Steven that the service is a great idea. At least the service will give him some direction, a place to live, regular income, some discipline, some skills, some training, some physical activity to do besides diving head first from one picnic table to another, aiming for the space between the bench and the table. Yes, he did this.
But I hate the thought of Steven or any young person getting skilled in killing, training for war.
"I'm confused," he said.
"Confusion is sacred at this time of your life," I said.
Steven blinked, clearly remembering why we always fought.
"Look," he said. "I can't even find a job right now."
So we made a list of options. He came up with Army and Army Reserves. I suggested National Guard and California Conservation Corps. We looked them up online and found some phone numbers for recruiters.
Meanwhile, a current advisee and the poetry club hung out in my room. My new advisee is a musician and wanted to show me pictures of his guitars on his phone. He loves guitars. He sings like an angel. My poetry club sat in a circle on the other side of the room and shared poems and wrote poems and talked about their next slam when they would perform their poems.
I'm thinking, will I be advising the musician to consider calling a recruiter in two years when he is out of high school? Is there a poet in that poetry circle who won't have a place to stay or a job to work when he graduates?
Steven finished up with the recruiting information on my computer, gave me a hug and left.
I wish for circuses, traveling shows, damn it even The Rockettes as an alternative for Steven. He kicks like an angel. Surely that must be good for something.
Young people who have limited resources have limited options. Maybe the Army isn't the worst thing for Steven. Then I look at the thousands and thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and think maybe it is.
The world outside my classroom is not angels and guitars and poetry and hugs.
I hate that about the world.
Saturday, September 10, 2011
I love this stage of something new. Everything is pure and exciting. The entire world is a full sack of possibility. Every tree, every cloud looks extra sharp and pretty. Everything is possible. Everything is perfect and just how I want it to be.
I have not yet written a word.
I love myself when I am with a new project. As the writer of this book, I am thirty pounds lighter with muscled arms and a flat stomach. I wear black tank tops over loose trousers. My hair is long and perfectly white. I look smart on my book jacket.
My time is my own.
I give witty interviews to Terri Gross on NPR. I rule book signings in my old neighborhoods with a beatific smile. My 25th high school reunion will be the bomb. “I saw you on the Morning Show,” everyone will say, sorry they didn’t invite me to snort cocaine with them in junior year (I would have said no anyway).
The climactic scene in the desert is perfect. The imagery and the metaphor are perfectly interwoven to create a pathos that is not too pathetic, just perfect. When people ask about it I lower my eyes and say it just came out of me that way like an egg just perfect.
Other writers will wish they were me.
I’ll get a letter from an unsuccessful writer: I have written six novels, and no agents want me. I’m overworked in a stressful job that I need to pay my bills. All I want to do is write. All I do in my spare time is write. What can I do?
In my bare feet I will walk across the hardwood floors of the million dollar Berkeley home I just bought with my latest Hollywood movie option dough. I will look out the window at the Bay. I will send a message through the wire.
Keep writing, I will say. As if you could stop.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
So I just this second finished It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. They made a movie out of it, which I haven't seen. My friend Tricia gave it to me to read and it was good.
It's Kind of a Funny Story will help me be a better teacher to my high school students. I teach AP and Honors, and many of those kids are depressed, just like this character. In fact, the author wrote it in the month after he was discharged from a hospital psych ward for suicidal depression. The story puts you right in the character's head. It is full of the best description of depression that I've ever read.
Here's a line I like: "It's when people compliment you that you're in trouble. That means that they expect you to keep it up." So true. Simple, but true. Good thing to remember when you are working with teenagers.
Another thing of merit about Vizzini's novel is that like Melissa Marr, he is honest about human sexuality. He manages to be both respectful of his characters and truthful about how important sex is to them. Not too many authors achieve this balance, especially in Young Adult.
The character's voice was absolutely consistent and developed throughout the story. I always respect that in a writer, the ability to embody a voice.
I've written two books from the POV of teenage boys, and they are the only two that I believe in unequivocally. Whenever I reread a part of one of those books, I always wonder who wrote it. It isn't me at all. It's like I channeled the spirit of a boy. I get along with real teenage boys really well too. Maybe I was a teenage boy in another life. It would explain a lot.
Now back to Anna Karenina.
Monday, July 18, 2011
I just got back from a camping trip with my husband and daughters. We were in the desert so my skin is still so dry and stuck to my head that I look like Skeletor from that show He-Man.
Camping with my family makes me feel guilty. When I was a kid my mom was the camping champion. She made magic at our two-burner Coleman propane stove. She worked so hard. We had full breakfasts of pancakes and scrambled eggs and bacon and my mom's camp dinners were more spectacular than anything I've ever cooked at home with a full kitchen and running water. She made sure we had an army-tidy tent and site too. No clutter allowed. On top of that, she wore fresh outfits and always looked amazing.
Yeah, I don't do any of that.
Another thing my mom used to do while camping (between looking after our complete and total comfort) was read Tolstoy. I couldn't believe a book could be as long as War and Peace. It was impossible to read it. A lot of what my mom did as a matter of routine seemed impossible.
Once when she was reading Anna Karenina I asked why she would read something that impossible. She said that it was a wonderful book and that Tolstoy always had something profound to say about the human condition. I blinked my eyes and then went back to turning the pages of my Seventeen magazine.
While we drove through Nevada's Great Basin on my own family's camping trip, I picked up the Kindle my parents gave me for Christmas, loaded with War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I'd read all my regular books. I'd read the Oprah magazine I'd bought at the gas station. Ten hours of road stretched before us. It could be avoided no longer. I started in on the first chapters of Anna Karenina.
I thought it was okay.
So then I came to this part when Levin returns home:
"He felt himself, and did not want to be any one
else. All he wanted now was to be better than before. In the
first place he resolved that from that day he would give up
hoping for any extraordinary happiness, such as marriage must
have given him, and consequently he would not so disdain what he
And then this:
"The study was slowly lit up as the candle was brought in. The
familiar details came out: the stag's horns, the bookshelves,
the looking-glass, the stove with its ventilator, which had long
wanted mending, his father's sofa, a large table, on the table an
open book, a broken ash tray, a manuscript book with his
handwriting. As he saw all this, there came over him for an
instant a doubt of the possibility of arranging the new life, of
which he had been dreaming on the road. All these traces of his
life seemed to clutch him, and to say to him: "No, you're not
going to get away from us, and you're not going to be different,
but you're going to be the same as you've always been; with
doubts, everlasting dissatisfaction with yourself, vain efforts
to amend, and falls, and everlasting expectation, of a happiness
which you won't get, and which isn't possible for you."
In other words, Tolstoy reached up through the muted screen and twisted my heart in his big hairy fist just as we drove through Fallon, Nevada.
Nobody in my family is getting pancakes or steak in camp. My gnarly hair and dirty pants with pine sap on the butt will continue to render me barely presentable enough for a gas station bathroom.
But I read Tolstoy now.
Friday, July 8, 2011
Nobody asks me why I write because nobody cares. Carolyn See in her book (my personal bible) Making A Literary Life gets it right when she advises aspiring writers to "Keep it to yourself. . . .Because the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer."
So maybe nobody reads this. This 500 word essay will go the route of hundreds of thousands of other words I've written for an imaginary audience. That's cool with me, because I write for:
1. The friendships. Writing is a solitary activity. Nobody who hates being alone writes for fun or a living. Yet if it weren't for writing, I would not have had a chance to meet some thoughtful writers who have become my friends. I've met some superb people through my writing groups and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. My handwritten fan letters to authors whose work I've loved have occasionally developed into longer conversations with some of the coolest people ever.
In my favorite scene in Almost Famous, Penny Lane says: "If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." That's how I feel about bookstores.
2. The diversion. I filled dozens of notebooks with handwritten novels and stories during my junior high and high school years. If I had the misfortune of having more good teachers I would not be the writer I am today because I would not have had the hours and hours of raw practice. Writing gives me something to do during meetings, boring classes and long orthodontist appointments. Writing gives me something to think about during hundred mile drives, walks and angry silences. The recession can kiss my ass. Writing doesn't cost me anything.
3. The sparkle. Sometimes I get published. Sometimes in the middle of a boring day I get an email or a phone call from a glorious, wise and blessed editor who says yes to me. Sometimes nestled in with bills and grocery flyers there is a magazine or anthology with my byline inside, or a payment check for something I've written. Sometimes I Google my name and find out that a school district is using my articles to help them build a better curriculum for their students. I love a bit of sparkle in the midst of an otherwise stupid day.
4. The compulsion. A teacher colleague of mine once said at the lunch table that she was thinking of being a writer but she just didn't have time. She sighed. This friend loved to read novels and thought maybe she should write one but she just didn't know when she would be able to do that. She eyed me with a certain distrust. Me, the writer, with a suspicious amount of extra time on my hands. I eyed her with a certain envy. She wasn't compelled to write. She could think about writing and then pass it over like it was an unappealing dish in a Chinese buffet. I never had that choice.
I teach full time at an urban charter high school. Many of my work days stretch from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. I'm also a wife and mother. I don't have extra time on my hands to write. But I write. I write hundreds of thousands of words a year between my novels, short stories, articles and blogs.
How do I find time to write? I don't know. I find the time to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. I could get too busy to do those things but after a couple of days I would feel less myself. The same goes for the writing. I can go without it but after a while I get nightmares and can't sleep and bump into things and feel like crap.
I write because I am compelled to write. I was a writer before I even had literacy, filling pages with loopy fake handwriting. My stories.
Encouraging people who don't know me very well have said to me, "keep writing." Persistence pays, I'm told. That would be nice. Either way I'm going to keep writing. I can't not.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
A few years ago my writer group friend Vanessa Diffenbaugh submitted the first pages of her new novel for me to critique during our next meeting. Vanessa always wrote with courage. I expected to like the pages.
I didn't expect the pages to yank my heart out of my chest. I didn't expect to meet a main character as compelling and damaged and brave as Victoria. Victoria is a young person whom the foster care system has failed completely. She finds human connection and communication difficult except through the Victorian language of flowers. At 18 she must fend for herself in San Francisco with no support, no money, no friends.
I put the pages down and called my mom. I didn't know what else to do. My friend Vanessa's book was going to change the world. I had to tell somebody right away.
When writing group met I had critiques and suggestions as always. I also had the message that this novel was special and amazing and would sell for tons of money and start Vanessa's career.
Well I was right.
Vanessa and I had been writing buddies for four years when she began The Language of Flowers. We met Tuesday nights at Cafe Bernardo's in midtown Sacramento for salads and wine and talk. We wrote our names on a restaurant napkin as we would like to see them on the covers of our first published books. By the time she was in revisions for Language of Flowers, I was her foster son's teacher and advisor at the urban charter high school where her husband served as principal. Our smaller children played together at the neighborhood pool in the summer. Our lives entwined in a certain kind of rare, effortless friendship that made everything better.
Vanessa made being a writer fun. We had a similar work ethic and we worked hard together. We wrote and read one another's work. We recommended books to each other and then read those books and discussed them. We holed up for entire days in her in-laws' empty apartment in San Francisco, breaking only for dim sum before getting right back to it. Vanessa's discipline and focus inspired me.
Vanessa still inspires me, of course. Her husband's acceptance into a doctorate program at Harvard took the Diffenbaughs away from Sacramento last summer. The past year has seen Language of Flowers released in 31 countries, including the U.S. this August. She has used her new fame to build a non-profit organization called The Camellia Network in order to connect foster youth with the support they need to transition into productive adult lives. In the Victorian language of flowers, a Camellia means "my destiny is in your hands." She has used the success of her novel as a platform to help young people like her character Victoria who have so few adults looking after them.
So while I miss our Tuesday night salads it is amazing to see so many readers embrace and appreciate an author who deserves accolades both as a writer and as a human being. She is living the dream that we shared together. So many children are already benefiting from her hard work and success.
I will review Language of Flowers properly closer to the August 23 release date. As for today, I am sitting down to a long day of writing. I will eat salad for lunch and then go right back to it. Vanessa taught me how powerful writing is. She taught me that it is important.
If Vanessa were writing across from me right now like she was in the old days I would not interrupt her work with talk. I would simply present her with a pink rose. A pink rose for grace.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
In the early nineties my husband and I lived in a converted garage in Arcata. The garage, or “studio" as the landlady called it, had a dirty carpet, an organic garden in the backyard, loud crickets that chirped all night. I used to get out of bed and slip on my husband’s big black motorcycle boots and move the refrigerator so I could stomp on the crickets when they kept me from sleeping. We called it the Spider House for the big fat spiders that wove their webs in front of the doors in the fall. We used to feed them live crickets sometimes. We loved that place.
When we lived in Arcata I taught fourth grade at a Catholic elementary school in Eureka. Jim worked the cashier at the co-op and went to Humboldt State. We didn’t have cable television and nobody had internet access from home in those days. We had no money. We worked a lot and kept different hours. I spent long afternoons in the public library and took home stacks of books to fight back loneliness on the nights Jim worked late.
The first time I read a book of Raymond Carver stories I was stretched out on the nasty carpet of the studio in Arcata. Maybe rain hammered the roof. Maybe the bass from my neighbors' wild party rattled my windows. All I remember was reading a story of a broken down man stumbling home from a bar in Eureka and rolling on to my back and thinking, I am meant to write.
Raymond Carver’s stories are no bullshit. He saw truth where nobody cares about it. He dared to look at need and frustration and banality without flinching. It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid or that he didn’t care. He saw weaknesses in people and noticed them. He didn’t hate his characters for their weaknesses but he didn’t glorify them either. He wasn’t dispassionate but neither was he cold. He noticed his characters in their down moments when they weren’t showing off for anybody, when they didn’t know what they looked like to people. He said the things you weren’t supposed to say.
In his personal life Raymond Carver overcame alcohol addiction. Lung cancer took him in 1988, four years before I even knew about him. You can read about his biography and his relationship with poet Tess Gallagher in interviews and books. I have nothing new to add here.
I never met Raymond Carver. Yet Raymond Carver is my literary godfather. If he didn’t write Nobody Said Anything, I never would have written The Cameraman, or The Saints, or any of the stories I’ve dared to write without any sort of soft-focus lens on my characters. I wasn’t brought up to be truthful. Nobody is. In that studio in Arcata, Raymond Carver reached out through his stories and said to me, tell the truth. It won’t set you free, but anyway tell it.
Tess Gallagher said in an article for The Sun that her husband was very careful about his energy level. A big part of his recovery from alcoholism was that he was careful never to get too tired. He put his own wellness and energy first before other people’s desires for him. He went home early and he didn’t over extend himself with obligations. He knew that if he did overextend himself, then he would get tired and once he got tired he would be vulnerable to the demons that had wrecked his life before he got into recovery. On top of that, if he became too tired he knew he would not be able to write. He protected himself in order to live and write.
Since those early Arcata years in a one-room studio, my life has grown obligations and over extensions like ivy. My house has a great many rooms.
Raymond Carver my literary godfather says to me, protect yourself for writing. Protect your time. It won’t guarantee anything, but protect it. Obligate yourself only to your health and your love and your art.
I wonder if I will listen this time as well.
Friday, July 1, 2011
The word recession would be pretty if I didn't know what it meant. It's whispery like water flowing over stones. Like the words gonorrhea and effluvium, it sounds kind of nice unless you know (or have lived) the meaning. Meaning changes everything.
Here is a list of some American Dream stuff I like in Sacramento that the r-word has not (yet anyway) messed up:
The pool and library at McKinley Park. Budget cuts have made life pretty sucky for people without millions of dollars. The days of going to a free library and an inexpensive community pool are probably numbered. Till then, this place is pretty great.
Our neighborhood pool closed. The turquoise waters glitter in the sun behind chain link fences, empty and wasted. McKinley is one of the few pools I can still take my kids to during the hot Central Valley summer, and it's right there by the library. The pool is overcrowded now. Swimming is difficult but at least it's water.
But what the hell. As long as I can reserve any book I want online and then get a friendly email from the library telling me that my book is waiting for me on my special pick-up shelf, corporate greed can't hurt me. Right?
Deseret Thrift Store on Auburn Blvd. This thrift store is organized, clean, and cheaper than Goodwill. They organize stuff by size so it's easy to shop. Another thing I like about Deseret is that unlike other thrift stores, they don't try to charge more for quality. I once found an Armani skirt with the tags still attached for the same three dollar and fifty cent price tag as every other skirt on the rack. Almost everything I wear comes from there. It's awesome. Mormons seem to be making a move on the Republican party, and I say let them have it. Those LDS know how to thrift.
Costco. Costco says, "You can have what you want as long as you buy a million of it." I like how I can buy a million tortillas for two dollars. My kids are really into bean burritos lately, and Costco lets me tell them, "Yes, you can have it." Costco says yes when everyone else says no. Walmart says "yes" too, but then Satan takes your soul and grinds it into a spicy powder that he uses to flavor his burgers. Costco has highly ethical business practices. Costco would never take your soul unless you tried to get out the door without paying for it. As long as it's on your receipt, it's yours.
The Farmers Market of the Apocalypse. On Sunday mornings sometimes we go to the Farmers Market under the freeway. It's not really called the Farmers Market of the Apocalypse. I only call it that because the vendors and farmers huddle under the roaring traffic like refugees at the end of the world. You can buy a whole live octopus there, as well as little sachets of fresh lavender and bags of oranges. It's nice to know that if the recession goes any farther and civilization collapses in on itself there will still be a place to go for those things.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Lately my daughters and I have been watching Angel on Netflix Watch Instantly. We watch it in the late afternoons after writing, reading, library, pool, herding chickens, taking naps, visiting friends, practicing driving. . . all of the activities that shape our summer. In the afternoons we are tired and relaxed and we watch a few episodes of cartoony violence. Angel fights evil. The show is fun and funny.
Also, if there is a handsomer fellow than David Boreanaz as Angel in all of Christendom, then I don't know him. I mean, my God.
I used to have to wait for reruns on television to see reruns. Now I get to see a bunch of reruns whenever I want to and it's awesome. The trick is not watching so much that I forget to write. That would be evil, and beside the point of Angel.
Let me tell you something else about watching Angel on Netflix. I can learn something about plotting from episodic shows. It's hard not to click on "next episode" when the show leaves you hanging and wanting more. If I can do that with every chapter, every page, every sentence of my novel, I'll be happy. The essence of storytelling is suspense, no matter the kind of story. Interest in what happens next is the essence of life, if you want to get deep about it. We're all fighting demons inside and outside of us. Addictions, pay cuts, mildew. Demons, all. Good suspense leaves you caring about what is at stake. As a writer, I'm always asking myself as I revise: What is at stake? Life? Limb? A really handsome fella?
If only we all had an Angel.
My friend Lora is getting married this weekend to an amazing man. A wedding is one of the few important rituals we have in our culture. We make a big deal about weddings and we should. Marriage is important and sacred, but weddings celebrate more than marriage. Weddings mark transitions of identity. In a big fancy wedding as well as a quiet legal thing in a courthouse there are rituals and special words that say: You are changed now. Before you were this. Now you are that.
It's a big deal.
I wonder if there should have been rituals and special words on the day I met Lora. Before Lora, I was one person. After our friendship, I've been another.
The day I met Lora I was hugely pregnant. Her special words when I welcomed her to our department: "Wow. You're huge."
I was shocked at first but I really was huge. Her saying so cleared the air. It was helpful to have it said. I got even huger, by the way. Lora thought it was awesome.
Lora tells the truth. Before Lora, I could tolerate non-truth from people. After Lora, truth is like fresh air and water that I have to have or I can’t be friends.
Lora listens. Before Lora, I was odd and boring. After Lora, I have wisdom that people sometimes ask to hear.
Lora laughs. Lora remembers. Lora likes the gifts I give and I love shopping for her more than anybody else. Lora believes in spirit and magic and knows all of the good information. She is generous and funny and fun to eat with. She is so beautiful that when we go places, people on the sidewalk freak out a little bit and I always think it's so funny.
Lora stands up for herself. Lora is strong.
Her sweetheart is a lucky man and she is lucky in his love too. They are great together and they are going to be graceful parents. At their wedding, she has asked me to say some words to affirm that the wedding will be a sacred space. I'm honored to do it.
But for me, the sacred space was called the day I met her. Before I was this. Now I am that. Lora changed me. She has spoiled me for any lesser friendship than being loved exactly as I am.
Now Lora goes into her new life and she will be married and his and still her own. She goes and I won’t see her much anymore but she will still love me, and all of her friends.
But she won’t be the same. She will be a married lady. She will live in another state far away. She will make a sacred home and spoil her family for anything less than the truest love and the lovingest truth. She will meet new friends and new young people who need her, and for them everything will be different after Lora.
She will change everything. I should know.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
There is a mall in my town called Arden Fair Mall where the boundary between worlds is very thin. This is why I call it Arden Faerie Mall.
If you don't believe me, I dare you to go there today and just sit down for two minutes and look around. Most of the people there are not people at all. They are faerie tale creatures (or FTCs as I call them), and once you know what to look for, you'll see them too. They're not even hiding.
Just don't let them know you see them. Faeries are crazy. You never know what they'll do.
Which brings me to today's Literary Tuesday selection. The author Melissa Marr has written a series of five paranormal Young Adult novels, beginning with Wicked Lovely. The main characters of the first book are Aislinn, Keenan and Seth and they live in a world where the boundaries between faerie and human realms are very thin indeed. Aislinn has always seen faeries, and she has always managed to avoid their notice. Now that she has attracted the attention of Keenan the Summer King, Aislinn faces dangers and desires that threaten to destroy her.
I loved this book for its language, imagery and intelligent use of folklore to tell truths about the human experience. I admire Marr's ability to develop fully dimensional characters from multiple points of view. Another thing Marr does that I haven't noticed many reviewers mention is that she writes with exceptional integrity about teen sexuality. Melissa Marr does not cop out (i.e. a vampire that won't even make out with you until you're married), yet neither does she invade her characters' privacy. The result is a fantastical tale that rings surprisingly true in its exploration of growing up, self-empowerment and love.
Melissa Marr has a new novel out called Graveminder. It's a horror novel for adults about a woman whose family line has had a secret but very important job to do in a small town where the borders between the dead and the living can be more permeable than is healthy for the living residents. It looks awesome and I'm going out to Arden Faerie Mall to buy it today.
If I ever meet Melissa Marr I'm going to tell her about Arden Faerie Mall. I have a feeling she would understand.
Monday, June 20, 2011
For a model of a good man, read Emma by Jane Austen. Yes, read the book don't just see the movie. The movie is pretty good too, but the book is awesome. George Knightley is secretly in love with Emma the whole time (Spoiler alert. Damn. Too late.) but he doesn't reveal himself until the exact right moment. That is because he is patient and wise.
Seriously, if you have lately found yourself frauding investors, telling lies, or taking advantage of old people, sit down and read Emma. Go ahead it won't kill you. Part of your problem is probably that you never spent enough time reading anyway. It will be good for you and you just might learn something.
Here is a partial of the good man resume of my Mr. Knightley:
1. Has integrity.
2. Works hard.
3. Looks after older people.
4. Takes care of his friends.
5. Owns such a finely tuned bullshitometer that he can smell Frank Churchill from a mile away.
6. Leaves his pants up.
I married a fella like this. My husband never read any Jane Austen but he doesn't have to. He already does all these things and more. In fact my husband is better than Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley didn't feed his own chickens, I'll tell you that right now. He also couldn't fix a car.
However for the men who fall (ahem) short, Mr. Knightley could be their guru of gallant. If it were up to me, any fella caught with his pants down at the wrong time would immediately get the book thrown at him. Emma. Which he would then be forced to read.
Jane Austen was ahead of her time. Maybe she could see the future. Perhaps she wrote Mr. George Knightley so that we would have this gentlemanly paragon as our beacon of truth during a modernity that needs him so desperately.
Mr. Knightley's clarion call to all who would behave selfishly when given the opportunity to serve others:
"There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty..."
Oh. Mr. Knightley.
Friday, June 17, 2011
There is a lady who made a lot of money selling a book called 14,000 Things To Be Happy About. In college she started keeping a notebook of random things that made her smile and it grew into fourteen thousand things so she made it into a book. It sounds like something that would make me mad because it's so obvious, but I actually like the book. Every other item in the list is some form of pancake. The lady really likes pancakes.
I have way more than fourteen thousand things. I have five hundred thousand million things to be happy about. I wish I thought of the idea first because my book would be the size of a set of encyclopedias. Starting with:
1. The back of my daughter's neck. Look at that photo and tell me that isn't a pretty neck.
2. Dragon Football. I might have become a public high school teacher solely because of the show Friday Night Lights. I say might.
3. Summer mornings. There's a bunch of beautiful old people walking around at 6 in the morning in the summers.
4. Old houses. Pointy roofed ones with a burgundy Prius parked in the front are the best. It's like hipster Snow White lives there.
5. Magazine subscriptions and Netflix. Anytime you get something good in the mail it cheers you up.
6. A long, free morning and a lofty writing goal. A perfect summer day.
What makes you happy?
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Nobody makes one of my favorite things anymore. In a mid nineties corporate takeover that rocked the foundation of my world, Bic swallowed up Sheaffer and decided to stop production of their inexpensive and glorious fountain pens.
All through college and my early twenties I could walk into any drugstore and purchase a jewel toned plastic Sheaffer fountain pen, along with my choice of ink color. I wrote in black. The pens leaked all over my fingers and my classmates thought I was a car mechanic. But I wasn't a car mechanic I was a writer. I was a writer for twenty-one years before I had a word processor and fountain pens let me write as fast as I thought.
No other pens are as good. Ball point pens are a tragedy for a left handed person anyway because the side of my hand smears the words across the page right after I write them. Besides that ball point pens are the equivalent of slow walkers that are in your way on the sidewalk or in the mall when you are trying to go someplace. They gum up the works.
Gel pens are okay but they lack the gravitas of the fountain pen. They aren't heavy enough in the hand. Also sometimes the ink gets stuck and they start skipping like a cell phone with a bad connection.
Nobody suggest to me that I just go out and buy a different kind of fountain pen because I tried that. Other fountain pens are expensive and they break after a day. My Sheaffers lasted months. They let me write without getting tired. They let me write without ceasing.
I went on Ebay last night and found a selection of four brand new ones, bidding starting at $22.99. They used to be a dollar fifty apiece and you could just buy them when you felt like it.
Sometimes modern times make me mad. I love my Mac and my ipod and no shoulder pads in my clothes, but can't I have my Sheaffer fountain pens too? They were awesome.
I have one Sheaffer fountain pen left. I keep buying the ink for it, praying that it will last. This pen and I are lone companions in an apocalypse of slow and stupid writing instruments, one another's last hope for redemption.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I love the women in Joss Whedon shows. I'm talking River Tam, Buffy, Cordelia, Faith. I'm talking Kaylie the mechanic in Firefly, and her shipmates Zoe and Inara. Name one girl who couldn't kick your butt in any Joss Whedon joint. You can't because there aren't any.
I like it when River says "I can kill you with my brain." I also like it when River kills all the reavers in the Firefly movie. Reavers suck.
We need more of these characters in life. I wish I was a Joss Whedon woman, but I'm not. In my mind I am much braver than I actually am. I hate danger. Danger freaks me out.
I like danger in books though. That's why I'm writing this book The Arrow. My main character Fynn and her sister are bad ass. That's why I like them. Fynn can kill a nasty daemon with one hand and heal a sick baby with the other. She's awesome. She's also in love with two guys--one a sexy narcissistic rock god, the other a reformed daemon who was born to kill her but now just wants to protect her. Both guys are hot, both have issues. They give Fynn somebody to play with when she isn't busy saving the world.
I know why Joss Whedon writes these badass women. It's because it's fun.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
What are you reading?
You can tell a lot about a person by the answer to this question. One summer, I went to two conferences. The first was for Advanced Placement English teachers, the second was Squaw Valley Community of Writers. If I feel like I am in a group with others who share my booklove, I'll ask new friends what they are reading as a way of being totally nosy. If you invite me to your house and give me a tour, I will be fully eyeballing what books you have on your nightstand too. Just so you know.
At the AP conference, no one had an answer to my reading question. Finally one lady looked at me funny and said, "Why would you ask that? I don't have time to read."
Don't have time to read?!
A couple of weeks later I arrived at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference. I knew I was amongst my people right away. I wasn't the only one asking the reading question, first of all. It came up in the get-to-know-you moments right after what is your name. There were teachers at this conference too. Teachers, lawyers, judges, naturalists, artists, scientists. . . all had something they were reading.
The writing conference people were also more interesting than the teacher conference people. I think the correlation between being interesting and being a reader is not a coincidence.
Right now I am reading Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I loved Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and I am looking forward to her new Dreams of Joy. I like going to see Lisa See at author signings. She is nice and always writes a personal note on the postcards she sends to announce that she is coming soon to a bookstore near me.
Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who are Beautiful Girls, or models for advertisements in Shanghai in the thirties. War and their father's bad debts force them to leave their beloved Shanghai and travel to America. I'm in the middle of it right now and it's evocative and engaging. She has a way of writing characters that feel like real people I know personally. She writes about food beautifully too, which is hard to do but important when establishing character and place. I'm trying to slow down a little so that it won't be over so fast, but as with all books I love I'll be done with it by tonight. It's hard not to read compulsively when an author makes you care so much about the people in her novel.
What are you reading?
Monday, June 13, 2011
Two of my novels are about teenaged boys whose parents have failed them completely. The characters are left alone to try to grow into good people in a world filled with violence, greed and mayhem. In other words, stories not unlike the real lives of most of my students.
My former student Orlando could have been a character in one of my books. He was in my English class during his junior year of high school. He was absent a lot because he had to go to court, or meet with the counselors at his brother’s school, or otherwise hustle for his family’s survival. He ended up earning high marks in my class and in all of his classes despite his often empty desk. This is because Orlando is hella smart.
For two years Orlando spent the last day of each term hanging out with me in my classroom while I cleaned and organized after finals. Sometimes his sweetheart Javi would join us. Sometimes we talked about their futures, where they would go to college, what they would study. Sometimes Javi and I worked quietly while Orlando made phone calls to arrange for his siblings’ Christmas presents, shelter for the night, or school placements.
Orlando is the man of the house, even when his family doesn't have one to live in. He’s been so since he was a boy. His sister and brother have depended on him for food, shelter, transportation and guidance. I never asked too many questions about his mother. I mostly listened while this young man vented frustrations and imagined something better.
(I’ve been criticized for being too “harsh” for my lack of sympathy for whiny adults. Maybe if you knew the kind of young people I work with every day at the urban high school where I teach you wouldn’t be able to stand self-pitying grown ups either.)
In his spare time when he wasn’t looking out for his family, Orlando earned good grades, forged professional and supportive relationships with his teachers and participated in environmental clubs. He interned with an environmental sciences agency. He arranged for the rides and the funds and the support he needed to take the SAT and ACT and apply to colleges. He got in to several.
That just left paying for it.
At graduation two weeks ago, a few private donors awarded several scholarships. None of the winners were aware that they were the ones. The biggest was for twenty thousand dollars.
Orlando won it.
"I can't believe it," he said to me after the award and on his way to get his diploma. "I still can't believe it."
Orlando will go on to a California State University. He will graduate and achieve the wonderful dreams he told me all about during those long afternoons at the ends of the terms.
Orlando, if you are reading this, I believe it. Now you are out there hustling for all of us. Saving yourself.
Saving the world.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Not every Friday is a day for frustration, but I have to say what I feel about bestselling books full of obvious advice.
Do you know what I mean by obvious advice? Maybe you are at a party and casually mention that your muscles are sore from a workout. You’re only mentioning this to make conversation or to draw attention to your shapely muscles. Then up pops somebody who suggests that you take Advils and drink water and stretch. It’s the lactic acid build up that's causing the ache. Once you get rid of that lactic acid you’ll be fine.
You already know this. Everybody already knows this. That is because this is obvious advice. The obvious reaction to the obvious advice giver is to nod politely and to walk away.
So someone explain to me why the thing that makes you annoying at parties makes you published in the world of books? For example, the newly released The Art of Roughhousing is full of such important knowledge it took two people with advanced degrees to write it.
I’ll give you the gist: Studies show that playing with your kids is good for your kids.
No duh. My rubric for obvious advice is that if most barnyard animals already know it and practice its wisdom, then it might be obvious.
It seems the road to publishing is paved with obvious advice. Forget my five languishing unpublished novels and two heavily rejected teacher memoir book proposals. I’m going to write a big fat book full of obvious advice and I’ll probably sell a million copies in the first week. The title of my book of obvious advice will be No Duh.
Here are the chapters of No Duh. If you click on them, you will find a link to the actual published bestselling book that I have saved you the time having to read:
1. If You Avoid Junk Food And Exercise More, You Won’t Be So Fat
2. If You Clean Up Your House You Will Have A Clean House
3. If You Let Your Kids Do Whatever They Want, They Are Going To Be Obnoxious
4. Shut Up And Let Someone Else Talk. You’re Not The Only One with Feelings
5. Stop Complaining For Half A Minute And Focus On What You Want Out Of Life. You May Not Get What You Want Out Of Life But You Will Be Happier Than You Were When You Were Whining And A Hell Of A Lot Easier To Live With Besides
Actually, to save time I’m not going to write the chapters at all. The titles are enough on their own. That’s the beauty of my book. The hook, you might say. Readers can take the obvious advice and move on with their lives right away.
While I’m at it, I’ll add more:
6. Being a Bitch To Your Kids Will Make Them Hate You
7. It Takes A Lot of Practice To Get Good At Stuff
Last but not least (although one so important that they had to make a movie out of it with Drew Barrymore):
8. People Who Ignore You Are Not Your Boyfriend
I don’t know what it is about the reading public that makes us want to read obvious advice. Maybe we feel smart when we read studies that have just confirmed something we already know. I mean, I've read all of these books. A few of them I read more than once. That book on cleaning house was awesome.
Maybe the primal caveman inside of us all that likes to hear the same story over and over again around the campfire. It’s the same urge that compels me to watch an hour’s worth of Office reruns on the television every night. In an uncertain world, books of obvious advice don’t have any surprises and can be as comforting as an old story.
That’s cool I guess. I just want a piece of that action. Obviously.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Graph. Size Medium. Hard black cover. Pretty cheap considering the awesomeness. Here's where you can get one: Piccadilly Notebooks
These notebooks are awesome because the paper is just the right thickness so that regular fountain and gel pens do not bleed through. Fine point Sharpies do, but the notebooks are so chock full of paper that it's okay to just write on the fronts sometimes. There's always another page.
Lately I have to have graph paper for my notes and plot outlines. Margins won't do. I have enough margins in my life. I don't need my notebook telling me what to do.
Piccadilly notebooks are the middle class girl's answer to Moleskine. I love Moleskine, but I use so many notebooks that I can't plop down twenty bucks every time I need a new one. Piccadilly stays open on its own better than Moleskine, besides. It lies flat in a very generous way.
I have a fresh Piccadilly medium graph with a black cover wrapped and ready to go on my shelf at all times. It says to me, the next idea is waiting.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Rachel does not look like that purple fairy. She does have blond hair sometimes and she is made of magic, but she is better dressed and not so sleepy-looking. Rachel is a friend of my family. She makes my family happy. She makes us better whenever she walks through the door. Rachel is our Mary Poppins but not just for the kids. For all of us.
Do you have a Rachel? Someone who walks into your life and shares your family with you in such a way that you can't imagine life without her? Someone who helps you be better to your family and yourself, someone who manages to keep you honest while sympathizing with you at the same time?
I have a Rachel. She helps look after my daughters, but she isn't a nanny. She understands the perfect gift to get my husband and she shares his taste in music. Thursday night Bones is a weekly holiday because Rachel comes for dinner and television. She understands my work problems. She plays a mean game of Bananas. She's nice to our dog.
Rachel took me to meet Tori Amos and to more concerts than I can count. She did African dance with me and because she was doing it my daughter joined us too. I'll never forget those nights with the drums. They were awesome. Rachel can dance.
Rachel can write. Rachel is a snappy dresser. Rachel is an amazing teacher.
One night a while ago, Rachel was looking after our daughters while Jim and I went for a rare night out. On the way home a reckless driver totaled our car. We came home shattered and in pain. "Can you stay the night?" I asked her. For no reason really. We didn't need her for anything. Except that she's kind and good and she made us feel better by just being in the house with us. She slept on our lumpy couch. In the morning she played with the girls while Jim and I phoned insurance and stared into space.
In other words, she took care of us. Like she always does.
Rachel has her own family that loves her very much. I love her family too. Her dad was my favorite teacher in high school and her mother was pretty supportive of some awful hairdos I had as a teenager in the eighties. When I first met Rachel she was a day-old infant at my high school graduation party. When I met her again, she was a ninth grader in my English class. I thought how cool it was that I was able to return the favor to her dad by being the best teacher I could to his daughter.
I had no idea that I was meeting a young woman who would one day end up being one of the best friends I've ever had.
Rachel is getting married on Saturday to a nice man who is worthy of her. There is a lot going wrong in the world, but Rachel is in love and getting married this weekend so that means love is winning.