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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tupper-where?

I don’t have to look at the calendar to know that the end of the school year is upon us. All I have to do is open the Tupperware drawer. It’s pretty slim pickings, and I’m not even that picky. The only piece of actual Tupperware brand plasticware in the drawer is a hand-me-down that was billed as a hotdog carrier. The bottom of the container is composed of bumps and pits which I expect serve as some sort of traction system for the wieners—even the children won’t use it.

They have, however, managed to lose every other remotely airtight container we owned. They claim to only remember a stray piece here or there that they “may” have forgotten, but friends have reported certain aromas that have been traced to their respective lockers. I imagine it’s similar to what exterminators tell us about termites—for every one you spot, there are a thousand more lurking in the unseen depths.

Which was why I found a recent New York Times article so heartwarming. Seems an industrious network of delivery men in India’s Mumbai known as dabbawallas manage to personally deliver tens of thousands of made from scratch lunches to businessmen straight from home to the office—on time, every day, even “in the pouring rain or during political strife.”

The lunches are shuttled via wooden carts, trains, and finally on foot. The Times likened the inner workings of the operation to the Internet: “packets”—in this case, lunch containers—“identified by unique markers are ferried to their destination by means of a complex network.”

Now, if you read my previous post, you know this resonates with me on several fronts: the computer metaphors, the Indian motif. To impart a full picture, it seems like a good time to mention that Prof C, the instructor of my IT class, is Indian. In fact, my daughter accused me of wearing my vintage sari skit to class as a way to “suck up.”

In actuality, I wore the skirt as a personal reminder that although life is wrought with cyclical issues, we deal with them and press on. Enjoy the good, repel the bad. A personal firewall, if you will.

Which actually is another function of the dabbawalla delivery service. Despite the rampant urbanization of Mumbai—with cafeterias, caf├ęs and upscale restaurants cropping up on every corner—the time honored Indian tradition of the home cooked lunch remains intact—insulated as it were from modernization.

We all need firewalls in place to protect the special and sacred elements in our lives.

Yet even as all these layers of meaning and metaphor appeal to me as a writer and journalist—here’s the part of the article that resonated with me as a mom:

“After lunch, the service reverses, and the empty boxes are delivered back home.”

I’m heading straight for the Yellow Pages to see if I can find a local dabbawalla. It would be a whole lot cheaper than replacing the Tupperware.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Vintage Issues

“My jaw line hurts,” I say to my husband this morning.

“There’s nothing wrong,” he said, as he’s programmed to do at the mere suggestion of physical malady.

It’s a simple line of code in his operating system software: if wife lodges physical complaint, then respond with pre-fabbed, reassuring remark. (Having completed the second week of my Information Technology class, I feel confident tossing out computer metaphors.)

No one has taken my tumors, coughs or structural anomalies seriously since I was stricken with a rare woods-borne illness following a nature walk in first grade. Ever since my husband found out I scored a 54 on the Whiteley self-test for hypochondria, I could tell him my cranium detached in the shower and he’d give a distracted nod and output “You’re doing just fine, Girl.”

Nevertheless, my jaw line DOES hurt, and the Google results are pretty clear that “this is not a condition that is likely to improve on its own.” Dialogue box indicating the need for immediate medical attention notwithstanding, here I am blogging away merrily even though my internal-CPU is pulling up data from an article I read as a child in one of my grandmother’s inspirational magazines.

A woman was walking through the woods (so much lurking out there) and she discovered swelling along her neck and jaw line. Much of the data from the article is corrupted, but I seem to remember some surgeries were involved and things were touch-and-go for awhile.

Just last month, the preschool teacher from the school where I work was felled over lunch hour by swelling that rendered her appearance as that of a chipmunk sucking on a tennis ball. Surgeries and tumors were hinted at there as well—but as it turned out, she ended up sucking on lemon drops for three days and was fine.

Now I thought I had this hypochondria thing licked a time or two, but it always crops back up, which was what I was thinking later in the day as I washed my vintage sari skirt that I wore on the train ride last week.

I bought the skirt at a San Diego street market. Triangles of sheer, swishy cloth—salvaged from vintage Indian saris in fabulous colors—with layers that can be arranged to create multiple looks—charming! Exotic! From my mental archives, I recalled an National Geographic-style article I’d read—non-medical in nature—extolling the benefits of the sari.

As the article may or may not have read—a search of the Geographic archives reveals records of no such article—saris not only pack a punch with their mystique, they also have a practical side. They dry tears; they mop up soiled children. Nurturing-type stuff. Come to think of it, just this morning my skirt absorbed a stray slosh from my coffee cup.

The street corner vendor assured me that a thorough washing had been included in the recycling process, just in case I read the article and might be tempted to feel like I was purchasing a hankie from the 70’s, rather than a quality vintage garment.

Which was all well and good until I took it home and actually washed it myself. Let’s just say there seemed to more soil than you’d expect from the street market (three sinkfuls more)—not to mention a bit of vintage aroma.

Google sources remain united in the opinion that slight vintage aroma is par for the course. I decided to be OK with this and hung it out to dry in the summer breeze.

That licked it. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh, clean smell when the sari had to be deployed as an air mask during a portion of last week’s trip that was marred by odor from a stagnant river.

Which was why I was so surprised when I washed my skirt this afternoon and more soil billowed from it than you'd expect from an Amtrak excursion(three sinkfulls more)-- followed by that vintage aroma!

Which goes to show—you never know when some stray text from an old storyline is going to resurrect and insert itself into your open document.

Monday, May 28, 2007

No Wonder I Got a Note from the Civics Teacher

“Welsh? Who wants to be Welsh?” my 12-year-old son wailed. “I’d rather be a barbarian… or a Viking!”

I’m in the van, with the family on the way back home from the Major Book Tour yesterday when some sort of genealogical controversy broke out in the backseat between the children concerning whether or not they really are Italian—a deep seated illusion of which I am thoroughly responsible.

We eat pasta. We have family stories peopled with characters with names like “Uncle Icy". We recognize Italian phrases uttered by the Sopranos. We even took our daughter on a pilgrimage to the Mother Land when she was 4.

Trouble is, my husband never tasted gnocchi until he met me, and, if you must know, I’m a hybrid myself.

The Italian myth is a great testament to the powers of oral tradition. My full-blooded Italian grandfather filled me up with tales of old country emigration and hints of new world Mafioso in between healthy servings of pasta fagoli and antipasto.

Besides a certain currant-filled fried cookie that makes an annual appearance around the Holidays, nothing from Wales appears in my family lore, dispite the fact that I knew my granmother to be at least partially Welsch.

After a quick question to husband revealed that Welsh blood abounds in his family, too, my son dialed my grandmother from his cell phone.

“She’s half German and half Welsh,” he reported unsteadily.

“Welsh are just as good as the rest of the people, Brother,” my daughter explained in a no-nonsense tone.

The children decided to call my mother for more information. More German roots were unearthed.

“Brother, you have to call Grammie,” my daughter said, realizing the need for data from my mother-in-law to get a full picture. “We might be German.”

“I’ve already told half the world I’m Italian!” my son lamented. “Now I’m going to have to post a pie chart on the Internet!”

“We have to dig for the truth,” my daughter said, calculations flying across a sheet of paper. “So far, we’re an 1/8 Italian and 3/16 Welsh,” she reported, “and we might be a whole lot of German—MAKE THE CALL!”

Today finds the children still missing gaps in their heritage. Calls to Grammie were not immediately returned.

This morning, my son—the native Virginian who’s spent his entire life with Colonial Williamsburg in his front yard and Jamestown out back—proudly strode into the front yard to admire the flag we hung in honor of Memorial Day.

“We’re the most patriotic people on the street, Mom,” he said. “And we’re not even American.”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sans linens

There’s an egg salad sandwich at large, last seen circa Thursday in a small brown bag in the company of a miniature muffin.

I’m the only one that seems particularly upset by this fact.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t do well with “missing.” It’s just not a concept with which I’m comfortable.

Much to my family’s dismay, I still log hours each week in search of a blue striped bed sheet that went missing in late winter.

A 10’ X 8’ sheet doesn’t simply disappear. It’s lurking about my house somewhere, and the possibilities are unsettling.

Missing things have a brief window of time to turn up before garbage day. After that, someone will shrug and proclaim the item was “accidentally thrown away.” Everyone accepts this. It’s a reasonable explanation in which we can all take comfort—Whatever it was didn’t just drop off the face of the earth. Of course not. We move on. Order is restored.

I’ll submit right here that if everything chalked up to the dump actually turned up there, our current understanding of the landfill issue would be redefined. We'd take to burning our trash in the streets, as I understand they're currently doing in Naples.

Something the size of a Queen bed sheet doesn’t get accidentally thrown away, and I’m pretty sure the sandwich wasn’t either.

The sandwich—a hasty purchase made at the height of my “major book tour”—was purchased at the suggestion of sister while we were in line at the coffee shop at breakfast Wednesday morning.

I thought her efficiency had reached new heights when she suggested that I order lunch as well. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a moment to realize that she only meant for me to purchase the lunch for later consumption and not just snarf it down it right along with breakfast.

The sandwich kicked around. It spent time in my sister’s office refrigerator. It went to my mother’s house. It was nowhere to be found when I became famished between assemblies at the middle school.

The sandwich was eventually transferred to a brown bag and handed to me at some point on Thursday, and from there the details are murky.

The journalist in me likes to report, analyze and interpret events in a way that is enlightening and informative. To me, missing represents sloppy.

To reach a part of a story where there are simply no details smacks at best of poor research or sketchy interviewing. At worst, it’s a lack of creativity—an inability to connect the dots, to frame events in a meaningful way.

Now, my dad says that good writing should take a reader all the way to nine, but let them find 10 on their own—his personal interpretation of “show, don’t tell.”

Which leaves some wiggle room for uncertainty.

I guess that insisting on tidy, neat and conclusive excludes most of life. A basic tenant of all writing is really the unknown. If we all knew just where everything stood, we wouldn’t need newspapers, or books, or blogs.

Typing a concluding sentence is not to be confused with the end of the story. A finished article is really just an illusion, after all.

Story subjects go right on living beyond the margins of the newspaper.

Sandwiches disappear, laundry vanishes.

And a good story can still be put to bed—even without sheets.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Drip Dry

“I forgot my pants,” I say to my sister this morning as we’re heading into town. She’d just announced to my niece and nephew in an unnaturally chipper tone that we were only “5 minutes behind schedule today,” so I didn’t give her offer to turn around much weight.

I was wearing a pair of khaki Bermudas with a chocolate brown shirt. Classic, yet casual. Very me. Appropriate for shuttling coffee to my sister’s office and reading from the computer textbook I’m supposed to be studying for the class I’m missing this week—but definitely not what to wear when returning to your alma mater to deliver an assembly, which is what I was asked to do this afternoon.

From the get-go, clothes--shirts in particular--have been an issue on this trip.

T-24 hours before my train departed, the red shirt I planned to wear to the Beaver Library event went missing. I don’t do well with missing. It’s an issue with deep roots—as a kid, I was always on the hunt for a missing Barbie shoe, or getting my head stuck between the banisters in pursuit of a stray marble.

We turned the house upside down into the wee hours before my departure, finding the red shirt in a remote outpost with mere seconds to spare.

After the unfortunate sweat-through before yesterday’s radio interview, the red shirt was deployed early on an emergency basis.

Alone at my parents’ house after the interview, I was forced to toss the shirt out the front door, aiming for a sunny patch of sidewalk in a frantic attempt to dry it.

By this morning, clean shirts were slim pickings. I stuffed the sweaty ones in my backpack, hoping to throw them in the washer at my parents’ house before I left to conduct assemblies at the middle school. The clock was ticking on the getting the must-have red top ready for a fresh soaking tonight.

But I forgot. Things here have taken on a bit of the feel of the American Idol scenes when the finalists visit their hometowns before the finale show. A reporter appeared at the school assembly. More radio cropped up—OK,OK—this time it WAS at my dad’s station—the illusion of a “major book tour” is beginning to take a toll on my wardrobe. Remember, I gave up a percentage of my luggage space for the five year old Africa memorabilia that my sister claims to have never seen.

“I know, let’s trade clothes at lunch,” my sister said.

There were so many reasons the red shirt should have just been waved aloft as a flag at this point.

Wednesday began with a controversy over a janitorial smock that my sister won’t let me tell you about. She’s reading the blog these days, and freely admits the clothing swap was a flagrant ploy to insert herself into the plot.

The problem is, my sister’s wardrobe is cut from different cloth than mine. She’s skirt-and-blouse, I’m jeans and leather. This isn’t a bad thing—it’s just the way it is. I know this. You probably get it, too. But even as I write this, my sister is waving a Mexican skirt around the kitchen in testimony to her “fun” wardrobe.

There wasn’t anything wrong with what she was wearing—a chocolate brown skirt with a rope tie and a khaki-colored striped shirt. Some would say it was the reciprocal of my outfit.

But for reasons no one can pin-point, I looked like a frumpy, oversized school marm in her clothes.

And my sister? The poor thing grabbed the blow dryer and started fanning her pits as soon as she donned my chocolate shirt.

After the assembly we did a hasty load of wash.

“Aunt Cindy, how many times have you changed today,” my nephew asks on the way to the Beaver Library.

I counted four, including the black top I had on then.

We almost lost my sister at the Q + A.

A hand from the audience.

“So, with writing, how much is inspiration and how much is perspiration?”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Duck Umbrella

So this morning when I got up, I was pretty calm about my radio interview--until breakfast where, my sister—familiar with the interviewing style of the broadcaster I’d be chatting with—began to throw out potential questions.

He might say such-and-such, she’d say, “what would you say to that?”

I took it as a bad sign when she frowned and shook her head frantically.

I became rattled and printed out my downloadable press kit to take along as my own personal 911 system. I figured, worse come to worse, I’d just start reading and hit on something.

I sweated through my original outfit, suddenly quite happy that this wasn’t TV.

My dad picked me up and we went for coffee. “So, Cindy”, he said, Broadcaster L might say such-and-such. “What would you say to that?”

I began to say things like blah-blah-mumble-blah. My 911 notes were in the car, and I began to question if I could read anymore, anyway.

Back in the car, my dad behind the wheel, I turned to the backseat and bean rifling through bags, searching for a pen to write down some good material my dad threw out in the coffee shop.
I frantically grabbed a pen from the bag under my mom’s duck head umbrella. As later events would reveal, this was an important point to note. My mom’s relationship with ducks is similar to the one the Press Enterprise reports I have with tigers—she’s frequently sighted with random duck memorabilia.

In the lobby of the radio station I realize I still have my iced coffee, which was now sweating worse than I was. I decided it might be poor form to bring the dripping beverage into the studio.
I went back to the car, deposited the drink, and went back to the lobby. A few minutes later, a staffer came through the door, carrying an object to the receptionist’s desk for examination. “It was in my car,” she said.

“Is it cold?” the receptionist asked, puzzled.

“Yes….must be some sort of joke…”

They murmured at the desk even as a realization swelled within.

“It was me!” I blurted, in the split second before she waved the half-empty, dripping beverage aloft. In my haste, I’d stashed my cup in the wrong taupe sedan.

My own perspiration keeping pace with the cup, I was ushered into the studio…and had a wonderful time.

Broadcaster L didn’t ask anything I wasn’t prepared to answer. I felt confident, happy…relaxed.

It wasn’t worth the sweat.

What I should have been worrying about was the fact that I evidently have no idea what my father’s car actually looks like.

I borrowed it later to get a salad from the grocery store. I returned to the parking lot only to realize that I had no idea which car I drove there.

Now, if this were one of my stories, I’d just go for it. My character would confidently toss her salad into a car and drive off, only to be pulled over for grand theft auto in rush hour--but in real life, I was stymied.

Until I remembered the duck umbrella.

With that great icon to guide me, I quickly identified my father’s vehicle and drove off, unpursued.

Which only goes to show that having a personal mascot isn’t a bad idea. I think I’m going to go with this tiger thing after all.

Africa True and False

So my sister doesn’t read my blog. I know this because after the incident with the screaming headline article, she took to complaining about my Africa trip.

“I didn’t know your clothes were shredded by lions, Sister!” she exclaimed “How is it that I have to read in the paper that your clothes were shredded by lions?”

Now, I am sure I told her all about Africa—about the bossy team leader who inspired my “Paige” character in my YA novel Drink the Rain, about the sleepless nights, the lack of food, and most certainly the lions. It’s all posted on the book’s myspace page, not to mention the publisher’s website. The journalist at the Press Enterprise had no problem finding out. But no. My sister says, “We just don’t know much about what happened in Africa. Nanee and I say it all the time. Just what we read in the book—and who knows what of that is real.”

So here I am, the night before this major book tour, and I’m reorganizing the Africa pictures into this tiny photo album because I’m going on the train and there’s a weight and size limit for the baggage. I’m not even packed, but I’m sitting there, dutifully filing photos into the album for over an hour. Then I have pull my lion-shredded sweatshirt out of storage and find room for that in my baggage—all this at the expense of my black journalism portfolio that I had to leave behind. It wouldn’t fit.

I write this to you from the train. I will post pictures from the road provided I make it. We just passed an unsettling pile of wrecked railway cars on the right hand side of the tracks. Hopefully, my sister will read about this here after my safe arrival, but if I don’t make it, I'm sure the Press Enterprise will dig up the info and print it alongside AUTHOR DERAILS, FAILS TO TALK AT THE THOMAS BEAVER LIBRARY.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

At the Beaver Without My Tiger

So my sister called me yesterday and she says there’s this big write up about me in her hometown paper—screaming headlines, color photo, the works.

I had not idea there was an article being written, and, secretly, I’ll tell you that I liked the idea of journalists taking the time to write about me of their own volition. It’s a career first—kind of made me feel like a celebrity author—especially because of the fact that I’m off on a book tour.

Now before you start thinking “wow, selling a whole 6 books last weekend at that Girl Scout Fest must have gone to her head”, I guess it’s time I’m up front about the facts. The entirety of this book tour is playing out in the town I lived in when I graduated high school, where my parents have lived for 20-odd years and my Dad works at a radio station.

This is a pretty small place, and a local-girl-made-good story plays well—thus the screaming headlines, the fanfare at the local library and the radio talk show (although I might add that the talk show is NOT on my dad’s radio station, thank you. Just one of his friends.)

But, in the spirit of things, I’m still treating this with the utmost of professionalism. That’s why I suggested to my husband that we update the company website last week. Now, in his defense, the site is pretty current. All the major bases were covered. I read this great marketing book (Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul—great read, I highly recommend it.) and I actually followed the chapter on building your online press kit pretty faithfully.

Except for the part about getting some professional headshots.

No, I’m afraid the only picture on our website is of me, heading out my front door with a bag slung over my shoulder at a jaunty angle—with Tony the Tiger poking his head out the top.

Now at the time of the photo, I was working on a long-abandoned non-fiction project in which my childhood Tony—complete with Labrador attacked, surgically altered face-- was a key player.

This (being of course the only available photo) was the one the editors chose to run alongside the screaming headlines.

My sister was quick to point of the difficulties with this. There just no context, Sister, she said. You’re coming with books about summer camp, and Africa, and teen angst. Next to the headline AUTHOR TO SPEAK AT THOMAS BEAVER LIBRARY it just looks like you’re heading out the door to catch the train with your sleeping toy.

So I call my husband—“you know how you said that working on our website wasn’t a priority because there was only one hit all week?”

“Sure.”

“Well guess what?”

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