Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Little Story in the Spirit of the Season

Here's a link to a short story I wrote freaturing the characters from my YA novels.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Whittier, and Why I'm Not

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
--John Greenleaf Whittier

Thus concludes every email sent by one of the university professors for which I work. Today, these poetic words summon memories of witty, incisive commentary I planned to post but have since been lost to the avalanche of research that descended upon me in violent fashion.

Forever lost to literary discourse are several humorous school foibles, a marvellous Thanksgiving Eve piece (half written) concerning some culinary misfortunes involving several lumps of substandard pie crust, and at least one semi-poignant epiphany of the life-appreciation vein.

I had pictures, too--beautiful photos of fall and food, fun and feasting.

But alas, the sad word emitting from my metaphoric pen is simply that there is but an empty void in cyberspace where words should have been.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Life is Good

Grab the forks!” I stage-whispered to my sister as I smuggled the pumpkin cheesecake to the back room yesterday afternoon.

Generally speaking, we’re sharing, generous people. Really. Particularly when it comes to our brood of young. But for us, pumpkin cheesecake comes but once a year, a fall splurge of unadulterated goodness that we savor, bite by delicious bite. The thought of the children descending upon the savory circle of goodness, leaving mere crumbs in their wake, is not one we can entertain. Thus the cloak and dagger routine as we settled into the sunroom for pie and coffee. The sun filtered through the stained glass windows, creating pools of colored light on the tiled floor and a warm glow on my face as I scooped a forkful of cheesecake through a puddle of caramel and onto my tongue. Ginger and cinnamon, cream cheese and pumpkin mixed and mingled in harmony—-perfection by the forkful.

Life is good.

Thanksgiving weekend has traditionally been a high-water mark: encompassing all the best of fall, my birthday, and a heralding-in of Christmastime all in one jam-packed weekend of family, friends, food and fun.

My sister and her family have joined us for a week of high-spirited festivities. Over the next few days, we’ll go through bags of flour, pounds of butter, gallons of coffee and sinkfuls of dishes. We’ll toast glasses of Pinot Grigio from the oversized cobalt blue bottle I’ve been saving since September. We’ll write messages of thankfulness across turkey-feather cut-outs and read them aloud at the table over pie.

Life is good.

After the turkey has settled and the dishes are once again back on the shelves, we’ll commence with our fourth annual pumpkin carving contest.

Right now, applesauce is simmering in the crock pot. My husband’s potato rolls are popping out of the oven with a quality and consistency capable of consigning the Dough Boy into an embarrassing early retirement. Soon we’ll begin baking the pies: two apple, two pumpkin. If tradition is any indication, our crusts will look terrible, but taste delicious.

Life is good.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Don Quixote, RIP

OK, so I finally made it to the end of Don Quixote and--at the risk of spoiling the end for any of my stalwart readers who may have chosen to share in the experience and read along—he dies. I must admit to being inexplicably stymied and even saddened by this turn of events. After all, I have spent nearly three months traversing alongside our well-meaning knight as he battled flocks of sheep, bludgeoned wineskins and pontificated upon the merits of chivalry astride Rocinante, his trusty steed. At several points today, I cancelled mental reminders to check in with Mr. Quixote—Oh, no need, I’d remember, he died yesterday. And then I’d feel oddly bereft for a moment or two.

On top of all this, things aren’t looking very promising for my planned outing to see Man of La Mancha, either. Among other impediments, I discovered that it is, indeed, a musical, and, as I’ve already indicated, I find this problematic. The risk of getting Quixotesque tunes stuck in my head for days on end seems just too great, particularly in light of my ambivalence concerning his recent passing.

It appears that I must now simply get to work tidying up the affairs of his estate, in the form of the 10-page dossier I must prepare. Before I can really move on, it is my duty to ascribe meaning to these long chapters of his life, and, by extension, my own.

The key, of course, is to delve into this scholarly analysis of a character driven to madness through the reading of too many books without succumbing to the same fate. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I once heard it said that people seldom recognize the last time certain things happen in life.

When I was a little girl, for instance, my father used to put me on his back and "hop" me up the stairs to bed each night. I have no idea when the last time was that happened. There was no grand finale, no recognizing that the tradition had run its just somehow faded away. Getting "hopped" to bed simply went the way of watching Sesame Street and reading Nancy Drew, and other things I don't do anymore.

As children, we seldom recognize the significance of this parade of endings, change and growth—for that is the real process these passings represent –but as I get older, my senses have sharpened, and I’m keenly aware of the fragility of the things we cherish in life. This is particularly true as I watch as my own children slowly shed the vestiges of their respective childhoods.

My son has this amazing giggle. When something really cracks him up, he succumbs to peals of high pitched giggles that take the wind right out of him. I had no idea, a week or so ago, that it would be the last time I’d hear him laugh in quite the same way.

For all the friends and relatives who may be reading, let me assure you that the little chap is fine—thoroughly happy and more normal than even I was able to recognize, as the following vignette will illustrate:

“What’s wrong with your voice?” I asked, Monday afternoon when he got into the car after school.

“My voice?” he answered, in strained and fractured tones.

“Yes, your voice. When did you get laryngitis?”

“What’s that?” he squeaked and rumbled.

“It’s when you lose your voice,” I explained, patiently. “Can’t you hear yourself?”

He seemed mystified. I dismissed the incident, chalking his altered tones up to damp conditions on a church campout last weekend.

Later that evening, he greeted the girls who come to our home for a couple hours each week to discuss their concerns about life, study the Bible, and eat brownies….roughly in that order. My son typically emerges when rattling in the kitchen cabinets alerts him that he’d better get his share of chocolate before the girls descend upon the pan.

“Little Brandon’s a man!” they all shrieked, seconds into conversation with him.

“What!?” I screamed, in horror.

The girls first regarded me with the same mystified stance my son had demonstrated earlier, before patiently explaining the facts of life. Evidently, twelve year old boys commonly develop cases of “laryngitis,” persisting for weeks or months, after which their voices adopt the deep inflections of manliness.

My son knew what was happening all along. He just didn’t want to be the one to break the news.

Of course, it shouldn’t have been news. I knew all this, intellectually. I just somehow forgot that my son was so close to losing his little boy giggle, that each time he laughed I needed to pay attention, and listen with the reverence with which one regards the fleeting and temporal.

This was the first October that we didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time constructing elaborate Halloween costumes. Halloween has always involved costumes that invariably required tools, trips to Home Depot, yards of fabric and the occasional altering of laundry baskets or other household wares. The kids would begin planning the next year’s costume around 9 PM October 31st, right after we revived them from their sugar comas. I used to impose an October 15 deadline for reporting final changes in costume choices, to allow time to sew, alter or construct the components necessary to transform them into miniature literary figures, superheros or machinery, such as the year my daughter became a life-sized, candy-dispensing vending machine and was subsequently mugged and toppled by a rabid gang of preschoolers.

Tonight was eerily normal. Not that the children were disinterested in Halloween —we hosted a costume party last Friday, and bought a lot of candy and watched a scary film—-but it was different. Ghosts of Halloween past haunted my thoughts.

Of course, life changes aren’t limited to the growth of children. Embedded in each moment are wonderful, amazing things we all take for granted. I try to recognize them as I go through my day: the smell of wood each morning as I walk into the sunroom my husband built for me, the way the sun intensifies the colors in my stained glass windows at certain times of the day, the sound of my Labradors barking too loudly and frequently in protection of me when I’m home alone.

My son still giggles. It just sounds a little different, and from now on, it always will. Our family still gathered around the TV with a big bowl of candy and watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. These moments, too, are special, and likewise, destined to become spectres of memory, in time joining the ranks of all that used to be and isn't anymore.

Recognize your moments as they parade past. Salute them. Acknowledge their significance, for each one represents a page of a story that with a plot that moves all to quickly…and that story is your own.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Engine is Running, but No One’s at the Wheel

“I don’t have my keys!” I said in alarm to my friend Kathy as we started out of the fabric store last week.I don’t often have my keys, making me the only one that’s ever alarmed by the fact.

I gave my pockets the usual pat down and whirled around in alert surveillance as though the keys might miraculously materialize mid-aisle.

“Did you set them down somewhere?” Kathy asked.

“No, I never had them,” I said, slowly realizing that I must have left them in the car. I was already reaching for my cell phone so I could alert Onstar of our plight. Inherent in this course of action is the assumption that if, indeed, I’d been so remiss to have left my keys in the car then, of course, I’d locked them in.

Instinctively, I reached for the handle, and the door popped open. “Look at this,” I scolded myself, “I left the keys in an unlocked car!”

Kathy jumped in the passenger’s seat while I scoped around for the keys.

“It’s running,” Kathy observed.


“The car is already running.”

I’d like to say that it wasn’t so, that’d she’d merely misinterpreted the situation; but as a journalist, I’m committed to factual representation of events. In the spirit of full disclosure, it is my duty to report that all of the evidence indicates that I simply existed my running car and proceeded to shop for upwards of twenty minutes. I should also probably mention that said events played out in a tired shopping center in the middle of the Homeless District.

There’s really nothing one can say in this type of situation, so I just made a beeline for the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru, which I later discovered was an ideal response. Turns out, all the latest research indicates that coffee in excess of three cups per day wards off dementia. Not having read that report at the time of these events, I can only assume that my most basic biological urges kicked in to compensate for my failing faculties.

Apparently the coffee didn’t have time to kick in before we were finished at the next store. Upon finding the ideal fabric, I had it measured and cut and, feeling done, headed for the exit.

“Aren’t you going to pay for that?” Kathy asked as I started out the door.

Sadly, the afternoon mirrored the rest of my life--a well oiled machine generating due dates, projects, family needs, and social commitments with the precision of a surgeon and the speed of Marion Jones on steroids. Trouble is, in the midst of all this accuracy and regularity, I’m browsing the metaphoric aisles of life, whistling and loitering while the engine of reality hums along with no one at the wheel.

Anyone up for a coffee break?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Sound of Music

I thought I had the upper hand in the ongoing combat in which I’m engaged with my ever present Spanish adversary, Don Quixote.

I was feeling pretty smug, due to a secret weapon I deployed several weeks back that has resulted in my not actually reading any of the text in say, 300 pages, yet still yielding a high rate of return on measures of evaluation.

Now, lest you jump to the conclusion that I’ve stooped to the shallow depths of Cliff’s Notes and their ilk or even some graver slight of hand, let me assure you that I have absorbed the text on a word-for-word basis. Let me further offer that my arsenal bears the stamp of approval of my sister, the essence of purism.

I gained command in the battle over this dry tome when my resourceful husband gave me a 36-CD audio accounting of the exploits of my armored foe. With the power of multi-tasking working for me during otherwise wasted commutes, I quickly overtook the forces—over 900 pages strong—that promised to seize control over my waking hours.

In my initial reveling over the success of my racket, I forgot that battles are costly to both sides. No one really wins.

The toll extracted from my person began in such an innocent, yea even uplifting, manner that I didn’t recognize what was happening. I found it a mere curiosity when in the middle of random Thursdays and Fridays I had the choruses from whatever praise and worship song we sang in church the previous Sunday running a continuous loop through my head.

When one particularly virulent chorus persisted well into its second week, I identified the problem and attributed it to its proper source—the Quixote CDs, which replaced the wide range of music I formerly enjoyed on my daily commutes.

Resilient, I laughed the problem off. I embraced the chorus, singing it aloud to dull the effect of its merciless grip. Not to be beaten, Quixote redoubled his efforts and struck back, this time taking advantage of an otherwise harmless gaming episode with my husband.

Following an evening of virtual boxing combat with our wii, I awoke the following morning to a disturbing loop of the tinny, computer generated notes from the wii background soundtrack. It goes roughly like this: Da da da-da-da…dat,dat. Over and over and over.

And over and over and over.


Bordering on a level of insanity that rivaled that of my knightly nemesis, I chose to rebel today. Tossing aside the disk of droll Quixote verbiage, I listened to music....selections of jazz, nearly forgotten favorites, random clips from the radio.

The fact that I actually wept with joy and relief I find at once embarrassing and necessary to report. The horns! The piano! The percussion!

With The Big Project looming, the war wages on. But I’m already planning to have the last laugh. Turns out, Man of La Mancha is in town, and I think I’ll drag my husband to see it. I figure if I can still celebrate the story, then I will have truly won.

As long as it’s not a musical.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"The Family" Tree

Last week, I received a newspaper assignment that sent me digging into my mafia heritage.

Which wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, but was still pretty interesting nonetheless.

My editor wanted an up-close-and-personal look into the activities of the Genealogical Society Library. This worried my daughter, since I announced that she’d be accompanying me on the investigation, and she didn’t think genealogical research held much in the way of promise either for her morning or my story.

I took this as a good sign, as most of my best stories begin this way. There’s some kind of ironic inverse relationship between the perceived potential of a lead and the story that results. I’ve come to take it as a challenge—the less I have to work with, the better. Often in these situations, the expectations are low, which gives me the freedom to find my own angle and surprise everyone—especially myself—with what my editor calls a “good read.”

I decided that the most interesting way for me to approach the story would be to test the capabilities of the library’s computer data bases by doing a little background check on the Italian side of my family.

Now, I knew there were some, shall we say, associations between my great grandfather and some gentlemen I’d heard referenced as “Italian businessmen.” There was also the specter of “Uncle Icy” that has long loomed in the backdrop of family lore. The stories most commonly connect him with some sort of hijinks involving large amounts of cash stashed behind a loose brick in the fireplace.

But I must say even I must that even I was surprised by the ease at which a clear, crisp portrait of Mafioso developed like an old school Polaroid right before my very eyes.

According to 1930 census records, “The Family” apparently resided in several improbably assessed pieces of real estate in New Jersey, the highest price tag undoubtedly belonging to a property that's always been referenced as “the castle.”

During a time in which the rest of the Patterson county, NJ residents were paying rents of, say, $25 to $35 per month, my clan owned real estate valued well into the 5-digit bracket.

There were the familiar names of my grandfather and his siblings listed on the 1930 report, but beneath their names appeared a mysterious other head-of-household with whom I share a name….not my generically American married name, but my real, thoroughly Italian family name.

By all accounts, the man listed as the head of this other household was my pseudo-apocryphal Uncle Icy. The Genealogical Research staff may or may not have located a photograph of Icy. If the photo was, indeed, Uncle Icy, then it my duty to report that Icy was, well, hot.

All of which I find rather alarming, because the actual identity of Uncle Icy has always been shrouded in an air of mystery, not unlike the fabled “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame,-- although I doubt my peers will recall that historical entity, as the Watergate scandal is just one of the dozens of news stories I was prematurely exposed to in my preschool years.
At this point let me pause to insert a photo of my daughter with a member of the Genealogical Staff:

Note the bored look of disinterest.

“How do you always know I’m going to like your stories?” my daughter lamented in mock chagrin upon leaving the library.

We came home from the visit armed with reams of documents and more stories than we could pack into an entire Genealogical magazine, let only one paltry newspaper article. My husband logged on the home version of the library database we’d used. After a lost night of sleep and a grilled dinner compromised by neglect while he followed a hot lead on a great grandmother, he’s managed to compile an impressive amount of data for our collective family forest.

Meanwhile, with the genelogy feature safely put to bed, I've moved on to a feature story on a 70-year old lady who has been golfing the same course for 55 years. The uneasy panic at the idea of crafting a “good read” based on that scant data really has my juices flowing. I can’t wait to read it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Winter Girl

“What’s with the shrine?” my daughter asked as she came down into our sunroom and observed the gathered assemblage of Yankee paraphernalia one will witness throughout this post’s illustrations.

She awaited a response with the same sort of vague wariness with which I’ve been regarded since what we’ll simply refer to as The Events in the Bronx last evening.

See, my relationship with the New York Yankees goes back to the baseball-card collecting, back-yard-pick-up-game days of my youth. These were the days when the Bronx was Burning and the Son of Sam commanded headlines. I remember it clearly, despite my tender, single-digit years, what with the constant news of murder and mayhem. I recall one afternoon in particular when my father went into the city to catch a game with a group of Sunday School students. I was certain that I wasn’t invited because of the strong likelihood that the party would meet their demise at the hands of the serial killer.

Nevertheless, I do have memories from other trips to Yankee stadium, during safer times, documented in blurry images from my 110 film camera. There’s Bucky Dent running past the dugout, Billy Martin in the middle of one of his famed temper tantrums, and some sort of a post-game scuffle outside the stadium.

According to the team checklist of the back of my 1979 NY Yankee team baseball card, I have—or at one time had—cards of the same year for Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella and the rest of the roster, save five. I’ll have to take a look for those cards.

I also have an entry in an embattled journal for August 2, 1979 which reads, simply, “Thurmon Monson dided today.” I remember that day.

Considering the thematic matter of yesterday’s post, I should point out that it would be a mistake to read too much into the title of today’s missive. My team’s unraveling has not sent me plummeting into a premature “winter.” I have no plans on emulating Hunter S. Thompson, the deeply troubled journalist who offed himself after the 2005 Super Bowl, unable to face the bleak specter of another icy off season.

Today’s title is actually a reference to Fever Pitch, a movie I shouldn’t like, on principal, due to its pro-Red Soxs-theme, but I do, because it’s great baseball. In the movie, Drew Barrymore’s character refers to Jimmy Fallon’s character as alternately “Summer Guy” or “Winter Guy” depending on whether or not it’s baseball season. She fell in love with the versatile and attentive Winter Guy, but was less impressed with the ultra-focused Summer Guy, whose attention was riveted to the historical events that went down during the 2004 post-season. You can hardly blame him—as I mentioned, it was great baseball.

Which brings me to the current state of things in New York, what with manager Joe Torre’s job on the skids for his failure to pilot the team into the second round of the play offs. Sure, it’s a let down—but really, when the options for evaluating the season are pass/fail with the World Series earning a pass and all else is failure, that’s a fail-proof recipe for disappointment. Sure, it’s been six years since a World Series appearance, and seven since a win, but what about the Indians, who haven’t made it since 1948? The sold out crowds, the dramatic come-from behind games, the season’s second half comeback—it was great baseball.

Problem is, I’m a lot more like George Steinbrenner than I’d like to admit. I set my standards so impossibly high, the only direction I can go is down. It doesn’t matter what area—grades, home life, writing—I’ll accept nothing short of superlatives. It’s perfect or it’s failure.

When I was a psychology student, I participated in an in-class exercise involving some type of evaluation of how real life compared to our standards. Mine didn’t. Essentially, I gave myself an “F”. Part of the assignment was figuring out how to fix the gap between where we were and where we wanted to be. I calculated, I mused, I grasped at straws—nothing seemed to fit. Frustrated, I told the professor that the only thing I could do was lower my standards. This was offered as an admission of failure, not as a viable option. The professor wrote in big, red pen, something to the effect that I’d better lower my standards or understand I’d die striving.

For a long, long time I didn’t understand what I heard as a lot of mixed messages. On one hand, we’re supposed to “give our all” on the other hand we’re supposed to know when something is ‘good enough.” How can anything be good enough if you know better is possible?

I’m getting it now, in little bits. You do the best you can with what you have in front of you, and you move on to the next thing. If all you ever do is one thing, ever, I guess you can take the time to make it perfect. But if you want to do many things in life, at some point you have to say, “this is as good as I can do with the time and resources I have now.” And you move on to tackle the next thing.

Of course, my fall break didn’t turn out exactly as I wanted. I had two months worth of activities and projects I wanted to cram into four days. But you know what, I did the important stuff. And now that baseball season is over, Winter Girl is going to have one less thing vying for her attention. School starts back again tomorrow. There are papers to write, and much more Don Quixote to read. Plus, there are all those unfinished projects. Winter Girl is on it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Full Bloom in October

“Don’t forget those drum lessons.”

I said this in parting to the woman sitting next to me at the Wynton Marsalis concert I attended with my son a couple weeks back. I’ve discovered that a college ID is a gateway to free and cut-rate culture, particularly when your university has just erected a multi-zillion dollar arts center striving to put itself on the “national and international arts map.” But I digress. During intermission, I learned that the woman sitting next to me had always wanted to be a drummer—sadly, social conventions of her time were not on her side. Her high school band director turned her away, explaining that “girls can’t be drummers.”

Aghast, I suggested that it wasn’t too late, that it didn’t matter that high school was decades past, that she, in fact, was facing senior citizenship; her dream could—and should—still be realized.

I hope that lady went home and made some calls. I hope she’s poking around an instrument rental shop even as I type these words, selecting the perfect drum kit to sit in the middle of the garage her grand kids cleared out last weekend. I hope it goes down like that, because way too often, it simply doesn’t.

Way too often people hit the brakes on their development as soon as some randomly selected birthday or milestone rolls in and suddenly the shadows seem to lengthen and the crisp snap in the air is mistaken for a deep freeze that ushers in a state of stagnancy marked by could-haves and should-haves and what-ifs.

I know people that don’t like October—the month when our physical world takes on long shadows and a cold snap. These colorblind folks see autumn in shades of grim-reaper-grey, missing the red-hot message embedded in the warm tones of the earth to live with vibrancy and urgency.

My New York Yankees understand the need to live urgently in October, and, facing elimination, they finally woke up and played like it last night. I know baseball is just a game, and it’s just another October, that the Yankee organization, win or lose, will have other chances, other years. But not with these Yankees. Not with this group of players, most of whom are my age, many of whom may not be back for another season. This is the team I’ve cheered, the team whose ups and downs have so eerily mirrored my own over the past few seasons, the team who has so much going for them, but just can’t quite pull it together.

Facing elimination once again tonight, I hope they can pull off a historic October rally—a tale that will live long and large in Yankee lore. I hope these guys, in the Octobers of their own lives, can bask in World Series glory this once before they hand the team over to the younger, leaner boys of summer already nipping at their heels, ready for their own time in the sun.

I love October. I number myself among those who look forward to autumn, who embrace it. When you love autumn, it’s not because you don’t know that winter’s coming—you do. You feel it intensely, but you also recognize that some of the best days of the year are sandwiched between the calendar page with the pumpkins and the one with the crystalline void of the next season. You love it because you understand that a well spent autumn of harvesting and planting can make for a better winter and a better legacy.

The picture at the beginning of this post was taken in my back yard last week. In August, a couple of weeks after returning from the x-country trip, I began to lament that there would be no sunflowers this year. The back of the seed package suggests April planting. I’ve already learned that leads to a late-June bloom. As I’m usually away that week, I typically start my seeds in May or early June and get July or August flowers. So I already knew there was some wiggle room in the suggested planting schedule. I just didn't know how much.

This flower exists simply because I said to myself in mid-August--a full third of a year past the perscribed sowing season--what have I got to lose? and started some seeds. These flowers grew sturdy and strong and beautiful, simply because I gave them a chance. From now on, I plan to stagger my seedlings so I can have sunflowers blooming for several months each year.

So here’s to fall gardens and drum lessons at any season in life.

Here’s to Joe Torre and the boys from the Bronx.

Go Yankees.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Fall Break

Readers, I am basking in the delight of four and a half days with nothing more on my agenda than focusing on all the important things that have fallen through the cracks over six weeks of school. I'm going to shovel out my desk area, finish some art projects, and add some posts to my neglected blog. There's a backlog of topics I'm planning to write about here over the next few days. Expect pictures, pontifications and some thoughts that will hopefully make you smile and think. Although my fall posting schedule has become a shadow of the summer schedule to which you may have become accustomed, don't give up on me. I have no plans to let this forum become part of the flotsam and jetsam of my current post-school existence. We'll talk more soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It Wasn't Just a Dream

“It’s due today.”

Spencer’s normally affable grin was reduced to a grim flatline.

You know that recurrent dream that persists, long after high school or college graduation, the one where you show up for class and everyone’s handing in "the big project," the one you never knew existed?

If so, then you’re familiar with the clammy panic that becomes as much a part of the dream as the images of the concerned faces of classmates and the grey blur of syllabus pages fanning through your fingers as you frantically search for documentation to somehow validate your ineptitude. You know the how-could-I-have-been-so-wrong horror, balanced by the relief upon waking up to discover “it was only a dream.”

Readers, I have been to the other side of that dream, to the dismal realms of human experience that serve to inspire these night frights. And not only have I lived to tell, it’s quite possible that reality has conspired to shatter the power of these nightmares.

Here’s how it went down. Last week, a nameless professor had us pair up to produce a joint piece of homework—now I know homework doesn’t hold quite the same weight as “the big project” but indulge me for the sake of the story.

After class, my partner Spencer and I exchanged e-mails, made plans to meet at the coffee shop and the like. Midweek, everything was going according to plan—our plan, which evidently had nothing to do with real life, as evidenced by the panic on my partner’s face as I entered class.

“Who said?” I demanded as I scrambled for my notes.

Spencer made a sweeping gesture across the room. “Everyone.”

He then dissolved into a lament about his ruined grade, his past failures, and his dismal future.

Although stunned to be in the middle of a situation that had never failed to be anything but a dream, I retained my faculties.

“Don’t worry,” I assured my distraught classmate. “I’ve got this.”

Now, fortunately, I had a little something working in my favor. Seems a couple weeks back, Professor Nameless had asked me to do some volunteer work, which I’d heartily tacked. He asked for my aid because he was impressed by my study habits and contributions to the class.

Now, if I were a sane individual, I probably should have succumbed to the dispair that felled my partner. After all, arriving to class with incomplete work, and worse, being unaware of this fact isn’t the mark of the studious person Prof N had taken me for.

What’s more is, we still don’t know where we went wrong. Spencer and I evidently attended some sort or parallel class, where Prof N. said things to which only we were privy. No one else can attest to the existence of that class.

By no account should I have felt empowered by these events, but, nonetheless, I went for it.

“Prof N!” I exclaimed as he came through the door. “Such and such isn’t due today, is it?”

Now, Prof N. may have been startled, but he didn’t show it. He coyly dodged my question, leaving a general sense of mystery in air, while simultaneously conveying through the merest nuance of tone that everything was going to be all right.

By the end of class, he was referring to “those who finished early” while reiterating the essentials for “those who were turning in on Friday”—all two of us—in seamless fashion.

Ironically, the topic of the assignment concerned the lowering of stress levels in the classroom environment.

“Did you have a high stress moment there in the beginning?” Prof N. said with a laugh as he exited the room after class.

“Oh just a little bit,” I laughed.

Spencer was stunned, but he's fully recovered. I think we both got an A.

A Tale of Two Lists

There's a post in the works, I promise.

There are things I must do today, and there are things I will do today because I must. Today I must edit a paper, draft another, and go to class. Today I will go for a run, re-pot some herbs, play with my children, brush my dogs and finish the post I'm working on--because those are the things I must do, the things that give life substance.

Don't confuse the things on your to-do list with the things you really must to do. Bump a must-do item or two to tomorrow's list if that's what it takes to make room to laugh with a child, make pumpkin bread or plant some flowers--because that's the list from which you'll draw your memories when you're eighty or ninety or even forty five., read for pleasure, take a walk...then check back here later for a longer post. If you come back here before I do, leave a comment about what you did today--not from the must-do list, but from the do-because-you-must one. And if you make pumpkin bread, save me a slice. I'm on my last piece.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Foreign Affairs

Exiting my "Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages" class yesterday, I had no way of knowing how quickly I’d find practical use for the theories jotted inside my notebook.

Who knew I’d find useful application for notions such as comprehensible input, or the conversation between Josh and Miguel, which my textbook lauds as exemplary communication between a member of the native population and a new arrival?

What would have surprised me the most, had I known what awaited me at the office that sunny afternoon, was that circumstances were about to cast me into the role of Miguel, and I’d need every ounce of that lad’s pluck and fortitude to chart my path through the foreign territory that lie ahead.

Blissfully unaware, I strolled across campus, glad that I could enjoy the walk, unlike last week when I waited too long line for cheap Wynton Marcellas tickets and had to sprint across campus clutching my lunch cooler like a medic en route to surgery with a fresh organ or detached limb.

All pretense of leisure vanished as I arrived at the threshold of my office. Ominously huddled around the computer were Dr. S, Professor F and the One I Knew to be Samson.

Now, the arrival of Samson was an event that had loomed large since my own arrival, weeks earlier. Known as a Computer Guru with a penchant for inadequate explanations of Computer Phenomena, Samson’s presence was also indicative of an event I’ve heard referenced as the Vital Upload, or perhaps Download, invariably spoken of with a shudder.

I thought of excusing myself, not wanting to rudely barge into a meeting obviously well into its prime, but Dr. S. ushered me in with enthusiasm, introducing me in a tone I felt should only be reserved for someone with Key Player status.

Both Samson and the Vital Up-or-Down load are associated with a program that, they tell me, “doesn’t let you fix your errors.” Dr. S, Professor F. and the outgoing graduate assistants—perhaps I failed to mention that the other two grad assistants are leaving, and it’ll be down to just me in mere weeks?—are all understandably tentative of this system, thus the summons of Samson.

I know my readers will agree that a rigid system of Tough Standards is not one that seems a good fit for my skills, and every day that passed without mention of my involvement was chalked up to the "no news is good news" category.

I was hastily handed some literature and guided to a chair near the terminal. Samson’s lips were moving, but he wasn’t saying anything to which I could connect meaning. His literature was equally incomprehensible.

In a wave of understanding, I suddenly realized I’m Miguel.

Quickly summoning the particulars to memory, I realized that I was in an ideal situation for foreign-tongue acquisition. The lesson indicated that “situationally-bound” interaction—I think the book had activities such as the construction of model cars, or baking cookies in mind—lended itself to learning new language.

The text also made mention of an idea known as comprehensible input, or vocabulary with which one is familiar, mixed in with language that is slightly out of reach.

Focusing carefully on Sampson’s speech, I came to realize that we, indeed, possessed some shared vocabulary. I could, for instance, pick up words like “computer” and “internet.”

What would Miguel do? I wondered. Bringing the printed conversation to mind, I recalled Miguel contributed only two utterances to the dialogue: “Huh” and “OK,” as Josh prattled on endlessly about colors and shapes and crayons. And the authors of the text seemed to think he did just fine.

In the tradition of Miguel, I fell silent, nodding only occasionally.

I realized I was beginning to gather meaning when I clearly picked out my name in the conversational flow. From context, I was pretty sure the Vital something-or-other was the topic, and there seemed to be some concern over this business of the non-correctable program with which someone had to work.

Dr. S seemed pretty convinced that not too many people should get involved, in fact, she seemed to want only one person to handle this tricky situation.

And then she said my name.

Yes, readers, it all became clear. It’s an Upload. Of significant data. Scores. Social Security numbers. Student Records. Into a no-compromise program unforgiving of even the common typo.

Did I mention that I really can’t spell or type?

Reeling, I leaned heavily on the structure provided by Miguel’s discourse with Joshua. I had only two responses from which to choose.

All eyes on me and all I can mange is “Huh?”

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Office Hours and Minutes

I’ve decided that I’m not suited for office work.

Of course, this really isn’t a surprise, considering that I’ve held one office job, ever, for a few months when I was 20-- a colorful patch of employment that ended in a spectacular inferno fueled by so many missing memos and lost message slips.

If she doesn’t already, Dr. S may soon regret that she didn’t ask for enumeration of my office credentials before taking me on as her graduate assistant. At the time, last winter, when she selected me for this opportunity, she was wooed by my creative writing pursuits, and by the fact that I’ll be around for awhile, considering that it’s going to take me an unnaturally long time to obtain my masters degree in English, having done all of my undergrad work in psychology.

I’m two weeks into the gig, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my particular graduate assistantship is likely going to wind up light on teaching, grading and literary pursuits, and heavy on the messages, copies and secretarial skills.

Too bad I don’t have any.

A typical shift—two hours, twice a week for me this semester—consists of taking messages, filing, making copies and sundry tasks.

Nearly 45 minutes into my Wednesday shift, I was still attempting to communicate vital information from the three messages I found on the voice mail. I had to replay each one any number of times, as the callers had random names with ambiguous spellings and a collective tendency to mumble. Ten post-it notes and five message slips later, I took at look at the filing. The folders were topped with notes containing ominous instructions such as “remove from program.” Quickly determining that no one’s academic future should be tossed to the erratic winds of my organizational guesswork, I moved right on to copies.

By this time, I was two hours in and ready to go home, but I had to put in an extra hour to make up for the shift I missed on Labor Day. I was pale and fighting the effects of vitamin D deprivation. My muscles were succumbing to atrophy. I was thankful for the opportunity to travel to the second floor copier, a fickle, computerized monstrosity with a tendency to die as soon as I cross the threshold.

I’ve never personally made copies. Generally, I look so confused, poking and peering at the copying device that some kind soul within the department takes the papers off my hands, and performs a little smoke and mirrors routine with the machine that I never seem to be able to replicate. The single time I attempted a complex, two-sided job, the machine instantly jammed and I stood there saying helpful things like “That’s not a good sign” as office personnel pulled shredded paper from deep within the inner workings.

I spent the last hour of my extended Wednesday shift attempting to impress Dr. S with my detective skills and web acumen in my attempts to dispose of a surplus piece of computer equipment I was asked to have removed. I scoured the campus directory for listings from three departments--IT, Housekeeping and Plant Operations—looking for the mysterious “warehouse” to which I was to banish the unwanted equipment. I came up empty, and finally had to ask for help. Wouldn’t you know, there’s a whole department called “Warehouse,” listed right under the W’s.

Of course Warehouse needed some forms before they’d even think about coming for the computer, so I had them talk me through a trail of links so I could download all the forms and have them ready for Dr. S. I spent no less than 20 minutes trying in vain to make the forms print. When Dr. S happened by, I casually mentioned that I was having a bit of trouble with the printer. Turns out, the computer is hooked up to three printers and a simple click of the mouse sends the printed matter right where you need it to go.

Of course, Dr. S. had already filled out the forms. They were sitting, all signed and dated right on top of the surplus computer.

On Friday, I made up my other missed Labor Day hour by attending a free lunch with Dr. S and taking the minutes of the Important Meeting that transpired over the sun dried tomato wraps and lemon cake. It was my duty to sit with my laptop like a court reporter, noting the details of key events.

Not knowing the names of the key players posed a bit of a challenge, but I soldiered on, typing up important quotes from “guy with the green tie,” “Justin, the student” and “Artsy guy in black.” Which would have all worked out just fine if my computer hadn’t frozen up just as “Important Person from the School District” made some fine observations that made Dr. S nod deeply in agreement.

I began making hasty notations on scratch paper with the pen I’d had the good sense to borrow just before the meeting began, but quickly discovered that I couldn’t keep up. Turning back to my computer, I discovered that my document was frozen, but the computer in general was not. I opened a new file and carried on, until THAT file froze as soon as I attempted to save it. By the time the meeting ended, I had the account thereof recorded on three unsaved files I hoped to keep on life support by plugging my computer into the outlet in the back of my van.

By the time I got home, my entire computer had locked up, and the annals of the Really Important Meeting would have been lost to history were I not married to a resourceful computer guy who managed to save two out of the three files.

Thank goodness for all that creative writing experience. Dr. S was right on. When it came to filling in the information from the missing file, it really came in handy.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Read Two Chapters and Call Me in the Morning

“If we can have aroma therapy, then why not?” my friend Steve said.

It was somewhere around the 7th inning of the Norfolk Tides season closer, and I’d just outlined the cutting edge, interdisciplinary field of practice my sister and I stumbled upon earlier in the day.

Now, admittedly, the idea is choppy and according to my friend, Jen, there are several outstanding “key issues” to address, but what we’re thinking is literature therapy.

The idea behind this revolutionary concept is to pair clients with literature that would resonate with their own personal “key issues,” leading to wonderful epiphanies and the like. My sister’s thinking it will lead to magazine covers and television interviews. I’m imagining scholarly references to our research in upper level text books. Presumably, I would handle the fictional match making with my literary prowess, and she would put her imaginary counseling certification to work once the, you know, emotional issues surface in response to the readings.

Jen, who doesn’t have any official psychology credentials under her belt, yet, either, says the whole thing will fall apart as soon as an ADD client falls under our auspices.

“What are you going to do then, hand them a copy of Don Quixote?” she scoffed.

My husband was quick to jump on the Quixote angle as well. “What kind of client would benefit from Don Quixote?” he asked.

I told him it was hard to say, being only a tenth of the way through the tome myself. “All we really know at this point is that he’s a Spanish gentleman who read so many books about knights and chivalry that it deranged him. He’s gone off now, in search of adventures, and we don’t know how it will turn out,” I said.

“Yes,” my husband said, “Very interesting. Especially that part at the beginning about how he became deranged by all the literature he read. Let’s explore that.”

Friday, August 31, 2007

DQ Isn't Always a Frozen Treat

From my last post, readers may have chalked up my recent absence to the assumption that I’ve rode off happily into the sunset, concluding this account of my life with a “happily ever after” feel. Perhaps the more cynical among you have surmised an ironically tragic fate in the form of a freak camping accident, or a mix-up in the Radiology reports.

But alas, I have spent much of the earlier parts of the week utterly convinced that a man was trying to ruin my life.

Although I have in my possession nearly 900 pages of documentation of this fellow’s lunacy, the long reach of Don Quixote’s broken lance is not to be underestimated.

This fictional foe managed to steal not only the ample chunk of time I’d penciled in for his literary exploits Monday evening, but a hefty portion of Tuesday as well. By nightfall, I saw my life vaporizing into a haze of makeshift armor, lance work, and sword fighting.

As if stealing my time wasn’t enough, he attempted to pick my pocket as well, robbing me of the ability to turn in a feel-good back to school article I’d hoped to put to bed on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, I discovered that I’d read what my professor intended as an entire week’s worth of Quixote material within a 14-hour span. I softened slightly toward Quixote. Perhaps I could begin to view him in the same light as the rest of the unusual regulars that frequent my home, such as my daughter’s hungry friend, who is in my kitchen as I write this, eating a PBJ.

Today in class, I was quizzed on the extent to which I’ve retained data from my visits with DQ. Evidently I’ve been too chummy with Don, smiling and nodding during our visits when I should have assumed a therapist’s role with Mr. Quixote, taking notes on his case.

So, dear readers, don’t be too hasty to picture me heading off into the sunset, unless I’m fleeing an armored stalker on a scrawny horse.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Sunny and 75

There's an up-side to being a hypochondriac, and I have the good fortune of enjoying it at a perfect time.

I do not claim to be the Voice of Hypochondria, so I do not speak for hypochondriacs at large; however, I have found that the nature of the beast seems to run in waves.

Typically a "flare up" is put into motion with the advent of some disturbing or strange symptom. Depending on the nature and/or severity of the triggering symptom, a corresponding investigation/panic/general unrest ensues.

For instance, the time an ENT informed me that the sensation of fullness I felt in my right ear could be could be "a tumor, cancer, or worse", I plummeted quickly.

Worse than brain cancer? No web page anywhere on the trail I'd blazed through the worldwide web had mentioned possibilities that could stack up against such a prognosis. This was exactly the kind of situation I feared: an ongoing investigation in search of unknown and potentially terrifying horrors.

Without a doubt, I’d end up like the faceless patients I’d just read about in newspaper article on new advancements in facial reconstruction. I would be hideous, if I even lived, and would I want to, anyway?

My husband, the poor man, isn’t a lot of help at times like this. Having seen me through other tumors, gynecological uncertainties, and numerous suspicious moles, he’s become a bit hardened to medical drama.

“Your symptoms aren’t any different from the 20,000 other patients he’s seen,” he has said, resorting to factual statistics to back up his unnerving calm. “How many people have you seen walking around Hampton without a face?” he demanded.

“Maybe one,” I said, determined not to lose ground. There was the facial reconstruction article. Truthfully, I didn’t know where the woman featured in the piece actually lived, but she was in my local paper and that was certainly good enough for the purposes of this argument.

“One?” my husband raised his eyebrows in challenge. “And the newspaper doesn’t count.”

Transactional analysis, I remembered from my undergraduate psychology studies, purports the idea that we all live by a set of life scripts, or predetermined ways of responding to life events. TA- based therapy focuses on examining the predictable patterns, the scripts, by which we live by and changing or erasing those that are destructive or that we’ve outgrown.

As the author of scripts, director of productions, and small time actor, the concept of living by a psychological script intrigues me. On one hand, I don’t like the idea that I might interact with the world according to a limited range of predetermined responses. On the other hand, I am the author of the script, so the responses are mine.

Which brings me to the Dark Place. Over the past couple years, I have become much better at managing my spirals into this dim realm, but it's always a danger when I'm confronted with any type of medical uncertainty.

In the Dark Place, I shuffle around listlessly. I fall into inactivity. After all, with a host of disfiguring treatments and the grim reaper looming, there's no point in working on my novel. Ditto for working out.

Instead, I wonder if Brad and the kids will decorate for Christmas, and if they know the recipe for pasta fagoli. I burst into tears at the mere sight of any book from the Series of Unfortunate Events, because I’m certain I can’t hold on for enough family readings to see the Baudelaire’s through to The End.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Images of the Dark Place don’t quickly fade and I don’t want to burden you with them.

But the Dark Place isn't the only setting in which the Medical Drama script unfolds.

It was during the episode with the ENT that I realised that the promise of euphoria drives me to the Dark Place. I totally get off on the moment when the whole tawdry affair is laid to rest by whatever negative x-ray, lab result or simple a reassuring office visit the situation requires.

I’d get the good news and realize that I was going to live. After which the sky would seem bluer, the air would smell cleaner and life’s little trials would roll off my shoulders with ease. After all, I just last week I was dying. Reveling in life, I called it. It was a tremendous high that can only be achieved by going very, very low.

Once I identified this trend, I became better able to manage it. Now I don't often travel deep into the heart of the Dark Place, I just skirt the neighborhood periodically, get roughed up by a thug or two, and meander back home.

Consequently, the euphoria isn't quite as grand, either, but just as I'm still familiar with the outskirts of the Dark Place, I'm also pretty glad when I get to visit the suburbs of euphoria, and that's where I am today.

After my "look around" test was derailed by twists and turns in my internal terrain, I was sent for a CAT scan of my entire abdominal area. Evidently, things look pretty normal, and I get to be just a person who experiences occasional stomach aches, not a person with looming masses or chronic diseases.

It feels pretty good, especially since I'm headed out the door to spend the weekend at one of my favorite places. School starts Monday. Life is good.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Even the Title of This Post Eludes Me

I have no idea what’s has been shuffling around in my walls in the wee hours of the morning, but it wakes me up as it travels behind the headboard and by the time it makes its way to the ceiling I’m halfway out the door with my blankets and sheets.

Having this thing cavorting around inside the wall is unsettling enough, but directly above my head is an entirely different matter. I have a drop ceiling—you know the kind--compressed, cardboard-y type tiles that you can break with one hand and a knee. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s heavy enough to break though those flimsy tiles and, as curious as I may be about the identity of this thing, I don’t need to find out in a 3 a.m. nosedive through a cloud of ceiling dust and rubble.

Don’t bother sending me comments assuring me that it’s is probably just a mouse—that’s why I have a husband. And he’s wrong. Just as surely as he was proven wrong on that November night in ’02 when months of speculation over “what’s living under the tub” ended when a Virginia Opossum feigned death on the bathroom floor after an altercation with my cat.

I’d like to report that the not-a-mouse is the only thing about which I’m currently unsure, but that would be sloppy journalism.

For instance, classes start Monday, but despite a rocky-but-ultimately successful roadside registration, I still wound up with a hole in my schedule. To my great joy, I recently found out that my full-ride scholarship really is a full ride—covering not only my master’s courses, but the undergraduate fill-in work I have to do as well. So I dropped the community college course in which I enrolled to save money. Only trouble is, classes are pretty slim pickings at this point, and I don’t really know if I’m going to find a class to fill that hole.

On the employment front, my editor is leaving the newspaper and we “don’t know yet what that will mean for the organization of the community news team,” according to an e-mail memo distributed last week.

On Thursday, I submitted myself to the long-avoid “looking around” test that Dr. M suggested as a tidy conclusion to all the stomach ache drama. The entire procedure was abruptly terminated upon realization that my insides feature more twists and turns than a Michael Crichton novel. Of course, it yielded only ambiguous results.

These uncertainties are merely representative of the steady stream of question marks that punctuate our lives. It would seem, then, that successful living requires the ability to carry forward in the midst of the unknown.

I’m not so good at that.

But then again, the Unknown is an untamed frontier that has stymied even our nation’s Secretary of Defense, I realized, recalling Donald Rumsfeld’s ruminations concerning “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns.”

I think I prefer the Yogi Berra approach to nebulous events. “You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there,” Yogi advises.

My first response to the arrival of the not-a-mouse was to move out of the room until a corpse was produced, but after two nights on the not-exactly-a-sleeper-sofa, I returned to the bedroom in the interest of reckless living. After all, the intruder might have been a hapless passer-by. Sticking firm on the corpse thing could leave me displaced for a very long time.

I hit the door running around 3 this morning. Yogi’s right. Caution is in order—but where I’m headed is no mystery. I’ll like the Known, and the not-exactly-a-sleeper-sofa is a fine place to wait for a corpse.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Classical Education

I have no idea who Scheherazade is, and I’m pretty sure this is a problem.

At various points over the past year, I’ve been impressed by my need to “bone up” on my knowledge of the classics, as in, I got caught with my pants down in one too many literary discussions with folks much more well read than I.

The magnitude of the affair came to light when I innocently attended a luncheon several months back and somehow wound up co-teaching a writing seminar with an author who may or may not have been named Buckaroo.

Now, Buckaroo was a man of great literary acumen, capable of wielding references to Faulkner and Hemingway with the same skill that you and I might handle a butter knife.

I got excited when he mentioned C.S. Lewis, but Mr. Buckaroo wanted to delve into The Space Trilogy and The Great Divorce and other of Lewis’ meatier works that I have on my shelf in an untouched boxed set, right next to my well-worn Narnia volumes.

No match for Buckaroo, I went home to read magazines. Unfortunately, I stumbled upon an article in one of my writing magazines that leaned heavily on references to classical literature to illustrate points. Updike was quoted heavily, as well as several selections from The Grapes of Wrath, along with large doses of Scheherazade, whoever he is.

Recalling a failed dinner conversation involving Gatsby a few weeks prior, I plucked a dog-eared copy of Fitzgerald’s capstone work from my shelves. It was time to expand my literary horizons. I went with The Great Gatsby, because as I explained to my sister, at trim 180-medium type pages it’s a “celebrated, yet manageable work.”

A week later, I was tossing about references to Gatsby’s shirts and Fitzgerald’s thematic use of the concept of time. How quick! How effective!

Wasting no time, I pressed on to Walden. Around chapter three, my graduate school application was due, and I stalled out.

But I figured that a master’s program in English was bound to, you know, remedy the situation.

So it was with a sense of excitement last week that I perused the reading list for the upcoming semester. Don Quixote! Great classical fare! Searching my mental database, I remembered some sort of humorous battle with an army of windmills, and I thought I recalled some wooing of women.

At the Barnes and Noble on Saturday, I spotted Don Quixote among a display of classics. Eagerly, I grabbed a copy off the top of the stack—until I realized that the single copy in my hands was the stack.

Don Quixote is a formidable work. 900 pages. Small print. Glancing across the display, I spotted Don Juan, and realized he was the Don responsible for the wooing of women—evidently working quickly, too, judging from the slim spine.

I fear that leaves Quixote with only windmills; although you never know—-maybe somewhere in those 900 pages he’ll meet Scheherazade.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

The first clue that I was in for an interesting afternoon came in the form of a sci-fi enthusiast who stopped by my table to offer a blow-by-blow account of a dragon warfare scene from a favorite novel.

I hoped the encounter would prove to be an isolated event in an otherwise productive afternoon of book promotion at Barnes and Noble, but those hopes were dashed in the form of a spindly, newbie writer of epic poems in search of a personal, on-the-spot reading and appraisal of said work.

After what I hoped was a gentle letdown in the form of an explanation that my presence on the premises was actually a work-related venture involving my own written prose, I settled in for a chat with Rain Man’s long lost twin brother. The conversation circled around a loop of instructions he was giving himself concerning what he referred to as “appropriate behavior.”

The conversation underscored why Dustin Hoffman’s deserved his Oscar, and why my BA in Psychology didn’t take. I attempted light and witty banter, before I remembered that savants are literal folk, not prone to levity. I helplessly offered the man a bookmark, actually finding myself wishing the poet would return.

Throughout the course of the afternoon, it became apparent that I need to add "Where's the restroom?" to my FAQ list. I also need to take note of the Barnes and Noble shelving policies, so I can better direct patrons to the works of other authors, although I was able to loan my book-signing pen to a gentleman wishing to jot down the name of an author he wanted to research later, at home.

Judging from the high-pitched incomprehensible chant I witnessed a woman delivering to the inside of a recently purchased book (not one of mine), I'd have to say that bizarre behavior wasn't limited to my little display table. An ill-wrapped sarong and cowboy-boot combo sported by one shopper indicated layers of complexity that transcend verbal interaction.

Perhaps the most shocking event of the afternoon was that I somehow managed to sell some books. The new characters I met along the way were simply a bonus.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The difference between lemon juice and lemonade

As I was heading out the door to give a book talk at the Gloucester Public Library yesterday, I found myself anticipating the Interesting Question. The Q and A segment invariably consists of a standard stable of stock questions that keep the rhythm, kind of like the drum line in a concert situation. But at every event, there’s always some off-beat query that calls for a bit of improv.

These are the questions that keep things fresh and fun, because, let’s face it, as relevant as it may be to discuss the origins of my literary pursuits (an early surviving work, The Happy Tree, dates back to 1977) and where I get my ideas (um, doesn’t everybody find 6 or 8 things utterly hilarious, significant or depressing before they get out of bed in the morning?) it’s much more fun to tackle questions like the one from the aspiring writer who wanted to know how many times his submissions could be rejected, as though there’s some kind of cap on the number of people who can dislike your work. (Wouldn’t that be great, if there were some sort of Writer’s Guarantee Program? Muster up the resilience to send something off, say, 30 or 40 times and then—bam! You’re a writer!)

Then there was the guy who wanted a breakdown of the “rules” governing exactly how mean or benevolent you’re allowed to make your characters.

I love that stuff.

Yesterday the question that caught me off-guard wasn’t strange or quirky, but it made me think. A young woman asked what gave me the confidence to think I could write in the first place.

Even though I gave her an honest answer involving some combination of feeling pretty in touch with the teen culture and all the encouragement I received from my supportive husband, I realized later that the question goes a lot deeper, because it really asks me to evaluate what kind of person I am.

See, I always thought of myself as someone who was up for a challenge. But I recently found myself wondering if that image is just a snapshot of Ideal Me, who we’ve already established as radically different from Actual Me. Because it seems Actual Me has a tendency to curl up into the fetal position at the first sign of adversity, a fact was underscored by a visit to the herbalist a couple weeks ago. During the course of the visit, Herbalist J suggested that the transient stomach aches that have starred in this summer’s medical melodrama could be gluten intolerance.

I received the suggestion with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old who’s just been taken off lollipops.

See, I don’t eat red meat. In fact, I don’t eat white meat, either, with the exception of fresh chicken breast cooked just so. I don’t like fish or seafood. Vegetables are good, but nothing too exotic, like artichokes or avacados. I like beans, but they make my stomach hurt.

Minus bread and pasta, I’ve got nothing.

At the mere suggestion of a gluten-free lifestyle, I envisioned an existence of corn meal and fritters. I was haunted by memories of mass cornbread baking late-seventies, when my mother filled little corn-ear shaped pans with a thick batter that baked into hard little corn-ear bricks. My dad, known for his indiscriminate ability to eat anything, made a valiant attempt to stomach the little cakes before taking them to work with a view toward eliminating a rogue band of mice. They didn’t take the bait.

So I went home and rebelled, gorging on wheat matter of all kinds. And I got a stomach ache.

So I decided to take my mind off things by curling up with the newspaper. An article outlining the progress of a major dig underway in Jamestown caught my eye. Turns out, they’re digging up a lot of teeth there these days. So they interviewed one of the archeologists to find out why. Here’s what he had to say:

“When the English settlers switched from their traditional wheat-based diet to a diet based on Indian corn, all the sugar in the corn led to what some of us call ‘Virginia mouth.’ They really suffered a noticeable decline in their dental health.”

Who knew? I altered my mental picture to reflect this new information: now I’ve got myself working through a bag of Fritos with a single blackened tooth, onward to the frame where I’m left gumming my way through a pan of cornbread.

Then I made a foray on to the information superhighway, and found a fellow blogger who goes by Gluten-Free Girl. I access her page, expecting nothing more than photos of a skeletal frame surrounded by corn husks and false teeth.

Instead, I’m greeted by pictures of plates of food and bouncy little stories featuring food as the protagonist. I figure I’ve clicked on the wrong blog mistake, but I read on to discover that it’s all for real. Every post is a celebration over some new perfected recipe or a fabulous dish or new restaurant she’s discovered.

Turns out this girl is one of those elusive famous bloggers we’ve all heard so much about. She also has a nice book contract and a new marriage to a chef who cooks gluten-free. I read and read for days, to the neglect of my own blog, fascinated by the fact that this woman’s career, even her life was jumpstarted by the very events I from which I’m seeking cover.

Isn’t it amazing that victims and adventurers can emerge from the same events?

I Have Not Succumbed to PVIRA or Other Ailments

Readers, I know I assured you that my blogging slump was a thing of the past, and that my current visible productivity does not match that rosy report. Please be assured that a post of reasonable length is the works. Go, do an errand. Sip some tea on the patio. Listen to a ball game. Then check back. In your absence, I will have returned with a post of substance and content.

Friday, August 10, 2007

And the Band Played on...

I caught the first whiff of the latent but impending danger as my daughter was preparing dinner. The smell was vaguely familiar, in a bad way, but was lost in a jumble of wonderful cooking aromas and quickly forgotten.

In the following hours, the smell of meatloaf permeated our home. Friends and family may be surprised to learn that I was entranced by the fragrant smell of the cooking flesh as red meat hasn’t passed my lips in years; however this loaf was loaded with veggies and bread which undoubtedly contributed to its enticing aroma.

The meal was cooked, served and consumed without incident, a detail I will insert at this point—once again for the benefit of family and friends who will be tempted to jump to hasty and inaccurate conclusions as the story unfolds.

Fire, you see, is a normal component of kitchen life in our home. Just as you might ask as family member to say, grab the flour from the pantry, we might ask someone to drop a flaming spatula into the sink; or open the windows to dissipate the haze.

Regulars no longer bat an eye at the sight of flames leaping from my stove top or oven; although once a kitchen conversation with my friend, Kathy, ended in some commotion over the discovery that my sleeve was on fire. Her fireman husband actually heard the “I’m on fire!” cry in the living room, but he disregarded the alarm as commonplace conversation and failed to respond.

Despite reasonable expectations to the contrary, casualties have been limited to the occasional spatula, bread bag or item of Tupperware.

Which was why a wave of recognition washed over me when the fumes reemerged as we were cleaning up after dinner. I’d smelled that chemical, laced-with-death scent in the aftermath of many a kitchen fire. Burning plastic!

For a steady fifteen minutes we searched to no avail for the spatula that had fallen, aflame, beneath the stove, or the piece smoldering Tupperware lurking somewhere beneath the scrubbed-down surface of our kitchen counters.

Nothing. Not so much as a plume of smoke or a warm surface was found.

Puzzled, we widened the parameter of our search, and discovered a crispy plug hanging tentatively from an outlet in our daughter’s room. Half in and half out, the plug must have shorted the circuit. Could have been worse, we thought as we headed out for ice cream.

Arriving home, we found the house had filled anew with the troublesome stench. Our daughter went to her room and returned with the report that her wall was hot. I wanted to call the fire department, but my husband insisted on “checking things out” for himself. Cutting the power to the upstairs, he ascended the steps with a flashlight. Feeling like a fiddler aboard the Titanic, I carried on--puttering about the kitchen, fixing a plate of leftovers for one of my daughter’s hungry friends, puzzling over the impending headlines: Woman Feeds Teen, Washes Sink While House Burns.

With the power off, the wall eventually cooled and the smell disappeared.

While we still have no power in the upper regions of our home, and our daughter continues to camp on a downstairs sofa, my husband’s electrician friends assure us that a sound plan is in place to rectify our electrical issues.

Perhaps, then those ill-fated musicians aboard the sinking craft had it right after all. Perhaps in the face of danger there are those who simply must carry on, feeding the young, entertaining the masses, carrying on the specter of normal in the face of the unthinkable.

So, my friends, should you pass my home and hear cries of fire or smell the stench of flame—-fear not. Carry on in full confidence that you are bearing witness to nothing more than a normal day.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Is there an Awareness Ribbon for PVIRA?

This post comes to you at the peak of a productive day of artistic craftsmanship, journalistic acumen and feats of home management. Oh, wait—that’s what Ideal Me did today.

Reality is a bit harsher. Actual Self has a well-documented history of Post Vacation Inability to ReAssimilate (PVIRA), last seen when I fell from the public eye for much of August ’06 following my return from Mexico.

I’d like to tell you that I use these periods for contemplation of my travels—but that’s the domain of my Ideal Self who would be engaged in writing elegant prose, crafting queries to magazines, and selecting photos for submission to contests.

Actual Self tends toward wandering…lost, bereft, prone to moping. A lot of choppy, start-and-stop activity. I drift from room to room, project to project, thought to thought.

It’s not that I’m doing nothing. In fact, at moments I’m somewhat impressed at the number of things I’ve checked off my little post-vacation to-do list.

It’s just that Ideal Me was going to do so much more. Ideal Me was scheduled to have completed a survey of American and English Literature and have taken 12 credit hours worth of CLEP tests. Ideal Me was at the helm of an ambitious promotional campaign destined to have propelled my new book within striking range of the New York Times bestseller list.

Ideal Me isn’t walking about with even a hint of vacation flab. She’s toned, on top of her game and working on a number of incisive stories with local flair and meaty angles.

Which reminds me that another new culinary establishment has debuted within city limits. Dean’s Dollar Dogs and Carnival Foods is now open for business, reportedly catering to the recently-escaped-from-the-Circus crowd, according to one eyewitness. Kim Bab is not on the menu, although I’ve learned since my last post that the Korean specialty follows a free-form spelling policy on a routine basis. One word, two words, bab, bop or even bob are all acceptable variations by which to spell the ethnic fare.

Although I won’t be pitching any culinary story ideas to my editor, the silver lining in my hazy sky is that I think the blogging slump is officially over. Unless this post is just another display of erratic, on-again-off again behavior. Time will tell. PVIRA follows its own course.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Extra! Extra!

In the interest of journalistic responsibility, it is my duty to report that you should not go looking for kim bap.

Further research has revealed that—gasp—a repeated typo in the New York Times led to my inaccurate report concerning the delicacy known correctly known as kim bab.

Evidently, the NY Times reporter suffers from the confusion of p’s and b’s, a malady that has oft afflicted me as well, albeit not in print in a publication of world-wide renown. In a humorous aside, I will confess that upon proofreading the preceding sentence, I had to correct the portion that referred to a “bublication of world-wide renown.”

As correcting the error in my previous post would completely ruin its title, I will follow the great journalistic tradition of referencing inaccuracies in later publication as opposed to a recall and reprint of the erred text.

In other journalistic news, I am happy to report that I do have a new assignment. However, it will be challenging to write the riveting slice of local Americana that I alluded to in my prior post, as the story concerns heartwarming yet commonplace happenings at the neighborhood Target.

At least I wasn’t sent to cover the opening of the new hot dog stand.

On the Map Without Kim Bap?

Having spent much of the past four weeks seeing a large portion of America, I’m left with a single burning question.

Why do I live here?

After all, in the grand scheme of things, Hampton, VA isn’t prime real estate, although the city sends us frequent communications to the contrary in the form of city property assessments.

Most of the email in my inbox would suggest that I live in New York, or failing that, South Africa. Both locales send me online newspapers and update me daily on items of culture and artistic concern.

Why just today, the New York Times sent me a “snack food alert” informing me where I can score the best kim bap—"a crunchy, chewy jumble of savory and sweet, spicy and cool, familiar and surprising"sort of entrĂ©e served in Koreatown. We have no kim bap. In fact, the biggest thing we have in culinary news is the new hot dog shop that opened near Wal-Mart.

Which calls to mind my city’s shopping situation, the centerpiece of which is a JCPenney surrounded by a pile of rubble that used to be a mall. Outside of the aforementioned, we have Target—and did I mention Wal-Mart?

I can’t offer much in the way of first-hand Wal-Mart commentary, although my husband and daughter assure me the police had the clientele pretty much under control during their trip last evening.

We have a lot of traffic, too—but none of it headed toward a ticket quite as hot as Negativland—a band playing in Midtown NYC tonight with a repertoire consisting of nothing but “found sounds.” I’ve never heard “found sounds” assembled into a concert, although I’ve stumbled across quite a bit of racquet that I imagine holds potential for riveting melody if properly assembled.

Considering my two-day plus blogging slump, I suppose I should put all the out-of-town literature aside and find some local art or culture to get the creativity flowing again. Maybe I’ll stumble across something I can pitch to my editor for an assignment.

I’ll write with such panache that when the online edition of the Daily Press finds its way to an inbox in New York or Johannesburg, folks will wistfully quote my prose on their blogs, wishing only for the opportunity to live right here, in Hampton, VA.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


You don’t have to be the author of much more than a term paper or book report to understand the difficulty transitions pose for the writer. Sliding seemingly seamlessly from one scene, concept, or thought to another can be jarring. Choppy. Sloppy.

I’m sure my sister would be happy if I were to report some sort of breakthrough or insight into the mastery of the craft, as she has encountered some tricky transitional elements in a novel she has undertaken; however, the only wisdom I can impart comes from the hard-knocks school of first-hand experience, and I can’t say I’m impressed with the curriculum.

Transitions can’t be simple on paper, because there’s nothing simple about them.

In Stranger than Fiction, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Professor Hilbert, explains to the Harold Crick, the protagonist who hears a voice narrating his life, that plots are driven forward by action. For instance, he explained, exiting his office continues his story--the story of him through the door. On the other hand, staying in the room would halt the plot altogether.

When I woke up this morning, I was tempted not to advance my plot. At the time, it seemed preferable to let my story just kind of drift off—you know, go back to sleep and avoid the next scene.

I decided I liked the vacation passages of my story, and I really wasn’t all that interested in opening the scene with the laundry and dirty camping equipment set in the house with no food. I wasn’t too jazzed about the heavy rain and rolling thunder backdrop, either.

I realized that in upcoming chapters, I’d no longer be driving a new car, but rather a slightly scarred model with a vanishing warranty. Furthermore, with a full time course load and a lot of field work on the horizion, the plot is taking a decisive turn in a direction that seems to involve a lot of work.

Having served their purpose, foreshadowing devices--the map on the kitchen door, covered in stickers marking our route; the now-depleted collection jar on the counter where we used to dump our change to fund our journey— would have no longer hold meaning.

In short, the pultzer-prize quality plotline I’d been following for the past month ran cold, and I just couldn't find a good lead with the material with which I was left.

Fortunately, I have hoarded dozens of writers’ magazines addressing sticky transitions, and I knew the articles all offered the same advice.

If you don’t know exactly how to get your characters from point A to point B, you just have to go to the next thing you do know. Press forward. Get the characters moving--or at least out of bed. Just keep typing--or cleaning out coolers as the case may be--and sooner or later, you’ll hit on something.

In the meantime, I discovered that coffee has the ability to smooth over even the rockiest of transitions. After the first pot, I had the sense to throw a little bit of foreshadowing into the otherwise dreary scene by dumping all the change I found into the collection jar. The glass is nearly half full.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Putting on my Game Face

"You're not the manager," I said to my husband as we wove through heavy traffic en route to PA to retrieve our dogs from my parents' house.

Men seem to categorize highway driving as a sport, drafting themselves in key roles such as coach, manager, or quarterback. Instead of just acknowledging that there's a traffic jam, they seem to have the need to analyze the situation to determine where the players need to move, or who needs to take a bench in a rest area.

"It's the red SUV," my husband announced with satisfaction. "He needs to move to the right." Later, he charged an error to the driver of a silver sedan for botching a play through improper use of the deceleration lane.

Fortunately, we travelled nearly 10,000 miles without experiencing any real traffic, save small pockets near the Golden Gate Bridge and a sector near Boise, so my husband's highway managerial prowess was not a component of our vacation.

However, since returning to home field, I've found myself in the midst of more mental traffic than I encountered in 10,000 miles.

Right now I've got thoughts of my upcoming school semester wrestling with practical concerns like an empty fridge, a filthy van, and Dr. M's tests.

Perhaps I need a coaching staff to to come in and manage the chaos. You know, issue some yellow cards for hypochondriatic ideation, or perhaps put a playbook together to dictate the position of all the other players.

But alas, this assemblage of miscreant thoughts and rogue ideas is mine alone to manage. It is with a heavy sigh that I grab my whistle and clip board and take the field.

Friday, July 27, 2007



The number of diamonds we unearthed at the mine. You know the old phrase, finding a needle in a haystack? Well, finding a diamond in a mine is now a more meaningful metaphor to me.

Here's the mine:

Here's the diamond Brad found. Note its pre-cut state and plastic appearance.

I have new respect for the prospectors--those stalwart souls that embarked on the route I've just taken, but for months or years instead of weeks, without Best Westerns or restaurants or even travel fridges.

Back in Yosemite, we made two failed attemps to ride a stagecoach--after an hour of travel from our campsite the first afternoon, we arrived to find the Wells Fargo office completely shut down. Upon our return the next morning, we purchased tickets and sat on a bench to wait. We waited for almost an hour before we were finally told that the stage coach just wasn't going to show that day, which lended an authentic feel of historical realism to the entire experience. While waiting, however, we had the opportunity to look over some old coaches on display. I gave the children one of those reflective, just-think-children type missives similar to the one above. When I got to the part about the prospectors possibly never seeing their families again, I said: "Imagine your cousins and aunt waving goodbye from the driveway as we left, and knowing you might never see them again.
To which my daughter replied, "We still don't know that we'll see them again."


The number of flavors we sampled at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta yesterday. Allison and I like Simba, from Latin America. It has a bubble-gummy type edge--pretty tasty in a sample, but I'm guessing in full-sized form, it would get too sweet really fast. Over at the European station, I encountered Fanta Magic--probably the worst beverage I've ever encountered in my life. It was situated right next to Beverly, a beverage that the Coke people say is uniformly rejected by visitors. I didn't think it was that bad, but it's an Italian beverage, so I suppose I'm genetically predisposed to at least tolerate it. My daughter likened the experience to a wine tasting and we systematically went around taking little sips of all seventy selections. After becoming woosy and sluggish, I now understand why wine tasters have adopted the swish-and-spit format.

And my son? I just turned him loose with a cup. It was the last day of vacation. after all.

Allison's Trip Mix CD #2, Track 5

Daughtry's Home--I'm going to crank it when we hit I-64 late this afternoon.

After an incredible 25 days, we'll be sleeping in our own beds tonight. But just for tonight. Saturday morning, we have to head full circle back to PA to get out dogs.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Along an Arkansas Highway

So…what do OnStar, Verizon, and something called “Gemini” have in common?

Although one may be tempted to reply that these are essential must-haves for the safety-conscious highway traveler, please heed the following and resist the urge to fall into this popular line of thought.

The collective power of these pricy, peace-of-mind style “”guarantees” could offer none of either when put to the test this evening on a busy Arkansas highway.

The van took another step toward the possibility of filling in as a stunt-double for the SUV Ice-T or Cube drove in Are We There Yet when one of the beefy, high-end tires we splurged on for their peace of mind and warrantee properties imploded into smithereens just after the close of normal business hours.
At first, this seemed to represent little more than a minor setback. Brad got to work on the spare while I pulled out information from Gemini, the organization backing our guaranteed tires.

Gemini entertained me with a little game—a sort of scavenger hunt—that followed a little trail of interconnected phone numbers that ran in a little loop.

In desperation, we called the outfit that sold us the Gemini deal, and reached a live person who actually suggested that I turn to the internet for help. I’m in a smoking van on the side of a busy highway and the best he can offer is the internet?

I finally reached a live Gemini worker and explained our plight, to which she replied, “I’m not OnStar, you know,” and repeatedly stressed the untimelyness of a 5;30 PM blowout, as opposed to say, a four o'clock. She then proceeded to explain to me that if we didn’t have a type of special stickers, we really didn’t have a warranty with them, after all.

Do I actually need to waste the keystrokes to explain that I didn’t have the stickers?

So, I figure it’s time to get OnStar involved. Would you believe that OnStar was down? All they could manage was a little recording pleading technical difficulties, unless I was near death. Then I could use the red button. They seemed sure that was operational.

My husband suggested that I use my phone to call OnStar. For clarity, I’ll reiterate that the phone in question was the one that had just sustained connection throughout the entire sticker argument with the Gemini rep. Although mere moments had passed, the call to OnStar couldn’t be placed due to a sudden influx of heavy circuit activity.

So we drove on. Without the aid of Gemini, OnStar, or Verizon, just as any family would have twenty, thirty, or even fifty years ago. We’ll drive on with our spare until we find a Goodyear dealer where we’ll purchase a new tire out of pocket.

I’ve determined that the only value in these we’ve-got-you-covered programs is the feeling of confidence during times of smooth sailing. It’s a little illusion you get to carry around to help you feel secure and on top of things.

I’m sure friends will jump in to remind me of times OnStar has bailed me out in the past, but really, it’s all been pretty namby-pamby stuff. It’s nice that they’re able to unlock a car that’s sitting in front of my house, but they’d really dazzle me if they could save their best stuff for when I’m in a thick haze of smoldering rubber astride a foreign highway.

At several of the more remote points on the trip, I was tempted to press the OnStar button just to, you know, see if they were there. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to shatter my image of the army of information at assistance at my fingertip. After all, that’s what I’m paying for.

After all this, will I continue paying for these services? You betcha’. I love that feeling of carefree confidence I get to walk around with, on average, 360-plus days a year. Once you understand what you’re really buying, you’re better able to appreciate the value of your purchase.


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