Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I'm Just Saying

"I'm just saying..."  It's like the universal get-out-of-jail-free card.  Clip it onto the end of an insult, rude comment, or mean-spirited observation and you have relinquished all responsibility for what just came out of your mouth.

That color you're wearing really washes you out--I'm just saying...
Your son has never amounted to anything in all of his thirty years--I'm just saying...

A certain person from my way-distant past (okay, it's my ex-husband's mother) wins the prize for best usage.  She sprinkled it liberally throughout her conversations.  Your butt sure does look wide in that outfit--I'm just saying...  You're going to cook a Thanksgiving turkey??  You??--I'm just saying...

It can also be tacked on to a nice little bit of gossip.  But that only works if:
1)  the gossip might not be true, but it's too good not to share.
2) the gossip is about someone in your circle of friends/acquaintances.

That way the conversation becomes so much more interesting.  She looks like the type that would cheat on her husband then becomes I think she cheats on her husband--I'm just saying...
Or (another nice possibility):  She looks like she could have had some plastic surgery can then become she probably had a (insert type of plastic surgery here) job--I'm just saying...

My husband pointed out to me that in the Navy, there was a handy little phrase often used.  If you prefaced an insult with with all due respect, you were allowed to say pretty much anything.

Armed with those two all-purpose phrases, everyone can respectfully skate into the new year guilt-free...I'm just saying...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Grown-up Geeks

My friend, Margaret, and I are nerds--dorks, if you may.  We always have been. We grew up three thousand miles away from each other, on opposite coasts, but we didn't need to go to junior high school together, to know what each other's childhoods were like.  I was never a popular kid.  I got to be a cheerleader for a few months, because they made a special rule that year that you couldn't try out if you played any sports.  So they were basically left with me--along with a few others.  But then the other cheerleaders, who were much better versed in popular-mean-girlism, were horrible to me, and I could never crack their secret code, so I quit.  I did get to be the Christmas dance queen, because my calculus class (the only 13 kids of my high school that still took advanced level math) nominated me.

So back to Margaret and me.  What do adult geeks do?  Do they still enjoy solving math problems? (okay, yes...)  Adult nerds still want to be daring.  They still crave that devil-may-care attitude of the popular kid.  Margaret and I would never actually do anything daring, because we might get in trouble.  There's that extra-strong, automatic damper we put on ourselves.  We can't help it.  It's built in.  

But then there's this scary thing that happens when two adult geeks become friends.  They dare each other to do risky things.  Margaret and I like to explore old houses.  I can't tell you where, of course.  Because we could get in trouble.....Margaret and I both love anything old or used--abandoned things have so much character.  She's got a really good eye, too.  She's the one that discovered that the basement door hatch for the abandoned house (slated for demolition) was unlocked.  I'd like to tell you that she went down the stairs first--but I can't--because we might get in trouble.

At the top is a picture of the cup that Margaret found.  She took it home and boiled the decades of dirt and grime off of it, and then she gave it to me.  It's your muse, she said.  That's how the real daring part gets to come out.  Margaret is a writer, too.  We get to make things up.  That's how we are allowed reprieve from our geekdom.  Who doesn't love some good fiction? 

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I'll Be Home For Christmas

We just hoped he'd be home for Christmas.  There were never any guarantees with the Navy.  There was always that chance... 

We had hoped for a card or a letter of reassurance, but 13 years ago, the only communication we were likely to have was one-way; roughly a dozen "Family Grams" of 40 words or less, spread out over a 3-6 month deployment.  My husband wouldn't get to respond to these messages that were sent along radio waves.  And if the submarine didn't surface in time to capture our messages, they would disappear into thin air--literally.  

But that was the way it was.   It was never easy, but we accepted it.  This very meager amount of communication was often difficult for a civilian friend or relative to comprehend.  "What do you mean you don't know where he is or when he's coming home?!"  And my husband's favorite:  "Can't you call him?"  His response was always, "Yes, of course.  On the underwater phone."

So we finally got the word.  We got down to the pier early to send Santa up the river on the tugboat to meet the crew of USS San Juan, with a giant lei to adorn the sail.  We hardly felt the December Connecticut cold.  

Our oldest daughter, Jessica, was ten, our youngest, Holly, was not yet a year.  A band was playing and the excitement in the air was palpable.  We watched for a submarine sighting with our dear friends, Meghan and Lee-Hannah, no one admitting their biggest worry.  It could be postponed, somehow.  

Finally, it was spotted by the lighthouse, entering the river from the ocean.  Then there it was, with Santa riding at the very top in the sail, the crew standing at attention along the topside.

Then came the real waiting.  It's no easy feat to dock a fast-attack submarine.  We had to wait for what seemed like forever, hoping for a glimpse of a familiar face out of the identical outfits.

Then there he was coming toward us.  I'm not sure who he hugged first, because Holly was crying her heart out.  

She didn't know who he was.  Her father was a complete stranger to her.  She wouldn't stop crying and wouldn't let him hold her.  A local news crew thought that would be a great story.  (I have boycotted that particular station, ever since!)

Finally, it was Santa, himself, who came to the rescue.  Santa with a candy cane.  It was the only thing that would stop the tears.

It was a while before we all got used to each other again.  But we will always remember that as the year Santa brought Andy home for Christmas.  

Andy's safe at home this holiday season, in a civilian job, having retired after a 20 year career.  Here's to those that are away from their families this year.  Stay safe and know you are appreciated.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hoot for Hunger

Last Saturday marked the Hoot for Hunger at the Bean and Leaf  coffee house in New London, Connecticut.  Local musicians banded together (okay, bad pun) to raise money for the Homeless Breakfast program and for the Community Meal Center (the soup kitchen).  

That is Sherry Stidfole (former Connecticut Music Teacher of the Year) and "The Crew" performing in the finale.  $720.00 was raised, thanks to the performers and to the generous proprietor and the patrons of Bean and Leaf.  (That's me, seated, trying to blend into the background.)  I can be coerced into such things, if it's for a good cause, but I rely heavily on the people in the crew, most of them members of the Shoreline Acoustic Music Society.

Some sad news...Albert Borris, fellow author (CRASH INTO ME) and 2k9er, is seriously ill and suffered a stroke this week.  Albert doubles as a high school counselor, dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, in New Jersey.  He has an amazing heart and, as they say in New England, a wicked sense of humor.  Albert can tell a great story--a recent favorite of mine was when he was mistaken for John McCain when he was volunteering at an Obama rally!  (For those of you who don't know Albert, he doesn't have a lot of hair...)  I know Albert and his family would appreciated your prayers and positive thoughts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elaborate Elaboration

It's in my head, and I know what I mean, so why do I need to elaborate?  I have a love/hate relationship with revising.  I need to, once again, follow the example of my first grade writer friends and do some elaborate elaboration.  

We were reading a book that had a boy in a wheelchair on the front cover.  "Why do you think that boy is sitting in a wheelchair?" I asked.

An adult would probably have responded, "I don't know"....or..."maybe he was born that way?" 

 But I asked my favorite first grade writer friend.  (You may remember her from a previous blog--she was the one who wrote about her sister who was 50, but she got tired of her and killed her off a couple of days later.)  She responded, "Maybe he's in the wheelchair because he broke his toe and he had to get it cut off and now he has to wear special shoes." 

 Wow.  Did we really need to even open the book after her explanation?  

Elaborate elaboration.  I'm going to try it tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Catholic Hanukkah in the First Grade

"So who celebrates Hanukkah?"  I was getting out all of my holiday decorations and the kids were positively bouncing out of their seats.  The handful who couldn't sit still if their lives depended on it were now just a colorful blur in front of me.  

A girl waved her hand in the air.  "I do!  I celebrate Hanukkah!"  

"Are you Jewish?"  I got all excited for a minute.  I was hoping for a parent to come in and help read the sides of the dreidel for the dreidel game.

The girl nodded her head up and down, still waving her hand in the air.

Then I remembered.  "Don't you go to CCD (religious ed. for Catholics)?"  

"Uh-huh!"  She smiled.

Then my face fell.  I'd have to convince my friend, Tracy to come in and help with holiday centers again.  It would involve bribery, since it would mean her rushing over to teach more kids after she'd just taught Hebrew all morning to first and second graders.

It would be worth it in the end.  My first graders learn and participate with enthusiasm that rivals no one else.

I wish we could be more like first graders, enjoying and appreciating each others beliefs and traditions, rather than spending so much time and energy dividing ourselves...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Auntie Lila

Thanksgiving never seems quite like Thanksgiving without Auntie Lila.  Our entire extended family went to her house every year.  The standard players didn't vary a whole lot, but there were always a few extras.  A stray friend from your college dorm, a new boyfriend, a relative from the other side of the family.  You didn't even have to ask.  She'd just set up another kids' table. 

Auntie Lila had open heart surgery and she wasn't doing so well.    I knew I needed to ask her to tell me her favorite stories--my favorite stories, actually.  I am so happy that I took the time to write them down.  A few years ago, not long before she died, I sat with her, with my computer on my lap, and took down her words.  

We had a lot in common.  One thing was a love of jazz.  And Nat King Cole.  She shared with me her favorite Nat King Cole memory:

It was 1953.  Lute and I had been married for ten years and we'd never had a vacation.  I saved and saved that year.  I made candy and I went door-to-door peddling wrapping paper and cards and my candy.  Finally, I'd saved two hundred dollars.  Thora and Gene watched the kids.  All we had was the old red pick-up and we had seven days driving time to get down and back from San Francisco.

I wrote to the Chamber of Commerce and we found a hotel where we could park and walk around town. I called the Fairmont and we got tickets to the Nat King Cole show.  He was with his trio then.  I was so excited.  It was a very posh place.  The had place cards on the tables that said "Nat King Cole Trio" on them.  But our table didn't have one, so I got one of the busboys to get me one and I put it right in my purse.

The band played for a while and it was just wonderful.  I remember he sang "Straighten Up and Fly Right", of course, because he wrote that one, and he also sang that cute song about a Calypso Girl.  I had the album with that song on it.  I still have it.  Anyway, the band took a break about halfway through and I went to visit the powder room.  

Well, I went into the most posh bathroom I'd ever seen and I found out it was a pay toilet.  I had no money for a pay toilet!  So I just primped and fluffed my hair a bit and left.

When I got back out into the main hallway, there he was with his trio, walking right toward me!  I pulled out my little place card and said, "Mr. Cole, do you think I could have your autograph?"

He was so nice.  He said, "Sure."  And he signed my place card!  I was so excited!

Happy Thanksgiving, Auntie Lila.  I have no doubt that Nat King Cole is seated at your Thanksgiving table.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gangland Warfare

There was a definite hierarchy in the neighborhood.  Not in the true gang sense, of course.   We weren't Compton, for goodness sakes.  We were a middle-class Seattle suburb in the seventies.  And age didn't dictate this hierarchy, as you might have thought.  In our neighborhood it was creativity and planning ability.  

My best friend, Leslie, and her brother, Jeff, were masters at planning creative strategy, therefore they both held top-ranking neighborhood positions.  We were determined to get back at someone.  A neighborhood bully sounds almost cliche...unless it's an adult.  
What made it worse was she was someone's mother.  We were only in elementary school and this horrible woman would insult our new school shoes, our parents, and our houses.  Anyone or anything was fair game for this woman.  But again, it was the seventies and she was an adult.   You couldn't talk back to an adult.  It just wasn't done.  

Jeff's strategies included more along the lines of dog poop and aerobic activity (a.k.a. ringing the doorbell and running--or, as my daughter, Holly calls it, "ding-dong ditch").  I think that might have been the beginning of my being a real writer, because Leslie and I formed our own spin-off group.  We fought back in print.  We sat up in Leslie's treehouse and wrote stories.  We illustrated them in the form of paper dolls.  We even had key pieces of furniture from this woman's house.  I can still remember the songs we made up to go along with our paper doll stories.  Never has there been a worse villain in literature, than the one we created using this horrible neighbor as our muse.  I believe I still draw on my experiences and run-ins with this woman in my writing today.  

There's a wonderful saying that I have seen on bumper stickers and t-shirts:  "Be careful or you'll end up in my novel."  

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lying and Cheating

Lying and cheating.  It's all one big foggy grey area when you are in the first grade.  There doesn't seem to be any shame or dishonor involved, either.  I have seen some of my students shift all the way into their next-door-neighbor's desk space to see what they have on their paper.  

The lying is the best, though.  A girl in my class wrote  in her journal that her sister was fifty.  "Don't you mean fifteen?" I asked her.  She shook her head like I was nuts and said very clearly, "No.  Fifty."  It was best just to move on.  But I couldn't resist.  She had done what every good writer does.  I had to go back for more.  This time she had added her sister's name.   Hannah Montana.  Okay, a little too over the top.  I have to watch that sometimes with my own writing.  Newbery medalist, Patricia Reilly Giff says, "Could it really happen?  Or do you believe it could happen?"
As I'm going around the room a couple of days later, the same girl starts telling me another story about her "sister".  But this time her sister is nineteen.  (Apparently she needed a good copyeditor, because she had temporarily forgotten what she had written a few pages earlier.)  All of a sudden the haze cleared and she got a panicky look around the eyes.  "Oh...,"she said.  "My other sister?  She's dead.  Yep.  She died."
Was that what William Faulkner meant when he said, "Kill your darlings"?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Call

Rejection and Revision are two words that cannot be avoided when you are a writer.  By last year, I had developed a pretty thick skin with my writing and had gotten relatively comfortable with rejection.  (By comfortable, I mean, the mail carrier could stop wearing full body armor when delivering the mail to my house.)  I tried to tell myself everyday,  These are manuscripts.  They are words you have written.  They are not your children that you are trying to sell.  If one person doesn't like it, you move on.  (Wayyyy easier said than done, by the way.)
So after reading an impressive agent interview in a market newsletter, I decided to send my middle-grade manuscript to the amazing wonder-agent, Daniel Lazar, at Writers House.  I braced myself for the standard thanks-but-no-thanks-not-right-for-us response.  So when he showed interest, I had to shift gears.  We had some e-mail correspondence and I did some revising for him.  I probably should have been prepared for his call, but you'd really have to know my close friends and family.
My brother, Tim, can do dead-on-Saturday-Night-Live-quality impressions.  And it wouldn't have been beneath him to call me, posing as an agent/editor/media mogul offering me a multi-book contract.  My friends, Margaret and Eileen, have also been known to play a very convincing phone joke.  If any of those people called me asking if my refrigerator was running, I'd probably go look.
I didn't even have the opportunity to check the caller ID when the call actually came, because my youngest daughter answered the phone.  When I asked her who it was, she said (impatiently, of course, because she was watching some Disney Channel episode for the millionth time), "I don't know.  It's some guy.  Dan something, from Writers House?"  
Okay, here's where I confess to Dan.  I was playing cool, but I was really hyperventilating.  Could he actually hear me jumping up and down?  
So...I guess the moral of my story is...relax, revise, and don't ever give up.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Also Known as Harper...the Backstory

Welcome to The Backstory where I'll be blogging about beginnings, middles, and the details that fuel our stories.  
Backstory is pretty much hindsight without the 20/20 vision.  I think, breathe and live backstory when I'm revising and building the lives of my fictitious characters.  I am constantly thinking about what drives and motivates them. 
When I create my characters, there is usually something real that makes them come into being.  A situation, a place, an actual person.  It was a feeling I got from a person that made the characters take shape when I began writing ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER.   I had been volunteering at my local soup kitchen. I was standing behind the serving counter and I couldn't stop wondering about the backstories of the people making their way into the line.  Did they have a home or a job?  Was the dinner we were serving their first meal of the day, or of the weekend, possibly?  And then came the children.  I wanted to follow them home with a bag of groceries and make sure they had a clean, warm place to sleep.  I didn't see the defeat in their eyes that I saw with some of the adults.  The hopefulness hadn't yet disappeared.  There was shyness, but there was also a streak of strength and stoicism that seemed to be carrying them through their day.  That crept into my mind and took hold of me until Harper's story began.
So...what is your backstory?

Next special request:  The Call