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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bloom

Against all odds, it bloomed.

Sort of.

Readers may remember the experimental sunflower I planted in October. With a milestone birthday looming two days after Thanksgiving, I wanted a living reminder that new growth can sprout and beauty can blossom in all seasons. So I planted the seed with a view toward a flower that would become an eye-catching focal point on my Thanksgiving table as a kind of late-bloomer’s success story.

Despite several episodes of early frost, drear weather, and--I must confess-- resulting neglect, I was encouraged by the little speck of yellow cheer I spotted from my sunroom window a week or two ago. Since then, I’ve focused on the little flower as a backyard sun burst in the midst of an unexpected patch of cloudy conditions, even as I anticipated it’s burst into full-on Thanksgiving bloom.

Closer inspection, however, revealed that this garden specimen did not emerge unscathed from the harsh conditions of it’s off-season development. It became apparent that perhaps this isn't a flower of centerpiece quality. At first brush, this fact might seem to validate the notion that growth is a springtime proposition—that color, strength and vitality are the domain of the early months.

I choose to remain encouraged by the little spark of life my experiment produced. In a sea of withering decay, my little flower stands--a rugged beauty capable of weathering the elements and blooming anyway, alone and alive.

I’m thankful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Whittling

Strictly by choice, I’ve been spending nine minutes every day in complete misery, and I’m absolutely loving the results.

About three weeks ago, I adopted the “Speedy Waist Whittler,” a treadmill-based exercise routine I discovered in a random magazine that showed up in my mailbox. I was skeptical of the ability of this 20-minute regimen to deliver on its claim to carve a full inch of belly flab from my figure in a mere month. After all, I’ve invested over twice that time into efforts which have yielded nothing more than negligible results.

The Whittler rests upon the theory that the kind of measurable success I’m seeking can only come from short spurts of intense effort sandwiched between stretches of moderate momentum. Accordingly, The Whittler doesn’t get uncomfortable until around Minute Five, and by Minute 14, we’re closing in on the cool down. But those roughly nine minutes in between? Let’s just say, I feel lucky every time I make it to the quarter hour mark without paramedic involvement.

My narrowing midsection tells me that the time I’m spending in the upper register of my endurance range is critical—that what happens in those nine interminable minutes is the difference between where I am and where I want to be. It seems that even a small amount of time spent just beyond what I think possible delivers a far greater payoff than an extended effort in a mid-range zone.

What’s more, the standard changes as I go. The workout I’m calling challenging this week isn’t the same one I barely wheezed through last week. My definition of difficult is changing; expanding; evolving as I become stronger.

This all makes me wonder where else should I be stretching my endurance. What other extraneous flab could I excise from my life by upping my game for a moment or two every day? I’m inspired, really.

At least I was, before Thanksgiving week hit and my sister showed up at my door with our traditional pumpkin cheesecake. Now the only whittling in which I seem to be able to sustain interest involves altering the circumference of said dessert.

At the moment, I’m in the throes of decision. I’m completely committed to whittling—I just don’t know which soft circle to target--the one that I can reduce in about three minutes of sheer bliss, or the one requiring nine minutes of utter misery.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Seasonal Tale

There's a lot of seasonal action underway these days, and I'm not just referring to the hasty pounce retailers have made on the Christmas season.

Stray jack-o'-lanterns and the occasional roadside dum-dum serve as daily reminders that Halloween hasn't even fully exited the social arena--and with Thanksgiving waiting a mere two weeks in the wings, one can stand on virtually any street corner in America and witness pilgrims cavorting recklessly with elves and reindeer under the watchful gaze of a tardy grim reaper.

It's unsettling, really, this wanton intermingling of frivolity. Personally, I'm for strict regulation of inter-holiday commerce. Costumes and candies should enjoy a grace period into early November, handing the show over to the pilgrims and Indians around mid-month. As suggested by the format of the traditional Macy's parade, the North Pole should be ushered in on Tom Turkey's tail feathers.

This brings me to a dilemma. I've got a little something for my readers that it just doesn't seem right to withhold. Sort of like the Santa socks you receive on New Year's Eve, or the ornament you open on January 1st, this is the kind of thing you should be enjoying all season long. And I want you to share it, too, and I know that it can take awhile sometimes for things to circulate around cyberspace.

So I offer the following link to a short story I wrote as a Christmas gift to my readers. Set in the world of my two Young Adult novels, it also works as a little stand alone story that should get your thoughts moving in the right direction this holiday season--no matter which one you're currently celebrating.

http://www.greenroombooks.com/ACampEdsonChristmas.html

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Crunch Time

It's crunch time, and I'm not talking chips and salsa.

I haven't really had too much to complain about this semester--my weekends have been pretty much my own, and I haven't logged too many hours with my nose in a text book. In fact, most of what I have to look forward to in my masters program is my internship--ten weeks in a 7th grade classroom. Sounds like heaven, compared to sitting through three hour lectures.

But merging my syllabi with my calendar over the past few days, I've come to the realization that I'm actually going to have to engage in some authentic collegiate activity over the next two weeks.

I'll be in and out here, between now and Thanksgiving. Posts will likely be short--maybe even pictorial--but don't count me absent. I've got some good stories that I'll share in spurts over chips and salsa snack breaks. In the meantime, stock up on some tortillas and I'll meet you back here in a few days.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Finding the Rainbows

For about 10 mid-morning minutes every reasonably sunny day, the sunlight streams through a window in the back of my house at just the right angle to catch a little glass ornament that bends the light into mini-rainbows that scatter themselves across my bedroom.

Most mornings I miss the show-- I’m too late, my attention is elsewhere, or I just plain forget.

That’s kind of the way it is with rainbows: you have to look for them.

How many times have you seen a ray of sun emerge at the back end of a fierce storm and immediately heard someone say, “There’s got to be a rainbow out there somewhere,” prompting everyone to crowd the window, craning their necks in owl-esque circles in an effort to catch a fleeting glimpse of dissected light fanned in seven colors across the sky.

Most times we miss the show: we’re too late, our attention is elsewhere, or we just plain forget to look.

I’ve thought a lot about rainbows this week, as I’ve been tracking the weather with a devotion rivaling that of a retiree with the Weather Channel tuned to HD. See, I have plans to go on a thrice-scheduled camping trip this weekend. I’ve been working on making an annual pilgrimage to a favorite camping location since August. Poor campsite availability, rain, and the usual plethora or family commitments have rendered this trip particularly elusive. Considering this much-loved locale is on a lake in the mountains, I don’t need to tell you that it’s now or never, what with the calendar stating we’re a week away from Halloween, and the 10-day mountain forecast hinting at conditions like snow showers.

And a lot of rain, depending on which of the hundreds of forecasts I refreshed my weather.com screen proves most accurate. The conversation went back and forth all week: could it really be any worse than Maine? Should we get a refund, and book early for next year? What if the forecast was wrong? Wasn’t there a sunshine icon next to the name of one weekend day just ten minutes ago?

Which, when you think about it, is a dialogue that pretty much mirrors our real-life musings. Oh, sure, we're pretty good at recognizing a sunny day when it comes along, and we can certainly spot a storm brewing on the horizion--but most of life really plays out somewhere between the extremes: it's a partly cloudy (or mostly-sunny, if you happen to be a glass-half-full type) mix of showers and sun, cool and warm, arid and humid. And, frankly, we don't always know what to do with a forecast like that.

But as for the camping trip? We finally just decided that with the hodgepodge of sun and rain they keep showing us, there’s got to be a rainbow in there somewhere—so we’re leaving tomorrow at first light to find it. We don’t want to miss the show.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Think of This Post as a Test of the Emergency Broadcast System

Earlier this week, I alerted readers to be on the lookout for an upcoming numerical post in a Running With Letters preview trailer. We’re still waiting on that. In the meantime, I wanted to issue an alert concerning a post I hope never appears in this forum. However, considering that life is a fragile web of circumstances, luck, and providence, I thought it best to inform readers about a risky new pastime in which I am engaging, and to set up a clear system of communication in the unlikely event of my upcoming disappearance.

See, I recently got an inflatable kayak as a gift from my husband. It was originally purchased as an enhancement to our camping gear, but it quickly occurred to me that I am literally surrounded by water at every turn. In fact, a quick bit of afternoon research revealed that a brand spanking new launch dock for canoes and kayaks has been erected yards from my door step. Although the waters I’d be putting in are technically river waters, they are brackish, flowing as they do into the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, literature included with my new toy encourages the use of actual ocean waters, which I can easily access within five minutes of my front door.

Oh the possibilities! Morning coffee on the river! Sunsets on the high seas! The adventurer in me can not wait to embark.

My enthusiasm is tempered only by a certain nemesis of which I have been afflicted my entire life: I have no sense of direction. Readers, I couldn’t find my way out of a wet paper bag—and we’re talking land conditions here, with landmarks: signs, buildings, roads and the like. How will I fare should ill winds carry my craft off what I’ll metaphorically call the beaten path? What resources will I employ should I float adrift, with a 360 degree view of nothing but water?

I do not know. But adventure calls none the less.

Knowing that I am prone to disappear from this forum for days, even a week or more at a time, I did not want this news to cause a mass panic should my blogging schedule—prolific as it has been—experience what Wall Street would call a “correction,” or in layman’s terms, a sudden, downward plunge.

It is only a matter of time before routine eventualities will cause me to be absent, here, for a few days. Don’t let this make you uneasy. If you return to this page for two or even three consecutive days, you need not fear the worst. Under no circumstances should you imagine me adrift and clinging to the deflated remains of my craft.

Here’s why: before my maiden voyage, I will leave instructions for my husband to post the following message here in the event that I go missing: LOST AT SEA.

If these words do not appear, then you can rest easy, and assume that my absence signals only that I am reveling in the joys of a seafarer’s life.

Anchors away!

Friday, October 10, 2008

If You Can't See the Forest, it's Because There are No Trees

So, it’s my day off today, and I’m feeling like I should really go plant a few trees following what we’ll simply refer to as an incident that occurred at the Grad Office this week.

I showed up for work on Tuesday only to be greeted by a thick dossier situated prominently on my chair. You can think of it as a really fat file full of stuff that needed to be copied, if you’d like, but I feel it might trivialize the tale. The sticky note affixed to the top of the folder outlined the parameters of the assignment: a stack of 35-odd pages needed to be transformed into 60 sets of double-sided copies, sandwiched between the provided covers, bound utilizing equipment I was to obtain from an unfamiliar part of campus, and then delivered to a cross-campus professor.

I chalked all this up as mostly good news. The overarching message I gleaned form the communiqué was that the assignment was clearly anchored on not one, but two, out-of-office field trips, and I’m all over that kind of work. Sure, there were all those copies; regular readers know that I’m not very adept with office tasks of any kind, and copy machines in general are far beyond the scope of my expertise. However, well into my third semester at the Grad Office, I’ve acquired a modicum of basic skills that afforded me a guarded confidence in my abilities to perform the task.

So, I ran a test round, making sure I was all good with the double-sided format, and everything looked great. I programmed the copier to do it’s thing 59 more times, grabbed my noodle bowl, and headed off to the English Department to use the microwave, giving Dr. S., the professor for who I work, a confident thumbs-up style report on my progress as I passed her in the hall.

The next time Dr. S. saw me, I was on my knees, staring helplessly into the bowels of the copy machine, surrounded by a sea of printed matter, the shredded remains of extracted paper, and a rapidly cooling noodle bowl.

Evidently, the copier suffered a massive shut-down of it’s internal organs while I was nuking my noodles. Fortunately, it seemed to produce around 15 complete sets of booklet innards before it went on the fritz. These I’d dutifully sandwiched and stacked, grateful that all was not a complete loss. Scattered in dubious clusters across the floor was a disturbing amount of superfluous partials—papers I recognized from the project, but in no discernable order.

I’d managed to extract at least three pages from the copier’s innards before Dr. S. found me. I could see a fourth jammed paper, but just couldn’t quite reach it. Dr. S, trained for such an eventuality, showed me how to pull an entire appendage straight out of the core of the machine as removed the stray sheet with a surgeon’s precision.

The copier’s status screen gave us the go ahead to proceed, claiming it would get back to work if I’d re-scan all the originals. Everything seemed back on track until the copier reported that it would NOT get back to work due to a numerical discrepancy between the originals I just scanned and the ones previously entered. I went into a bit of a panic at this point, so I shut down the entire system, fired it all back up again, and scanned my current batch of originals—plus or minus, who knew?—deciding to compare the resulting set of copies against the pre-accident products, in a calm, page-by-page analysis.

The results were shocking. The post-accident booklet contained a page that the pre-accident editions did not—folks, we gained a page here, and, judging from the context, a key one at that. Book by-book, I removed all the pages from the discrepancy onward, thinking how ironic it was that if we weren’t doing this job double-sided to save paper, I could simply just print off copies of just the missing page and insert it in place, instead of recopying what amounted to roughly a fourth of fifteen booklets.

At this point, the copier randomly decided to start printing the materials on legal-sized paper, causing no less than half a dozen emergency stop-the-presses type situations, most subsequently followed by an intense jam session.

By now, the volume of printed matter strewn across the floor was so great, I was beginning to become overwhelmed and confused. Were the corrected editions in this pile, or the other one? Were these good copies or rejects? And where was that noodle bowl, anyway? I knew my co-worker, A, was about to arrive and I wasn’t sure if I should be grateful that reinforcement was on the way, or embarrassed to be seen like this.

“If you’re smart, you’ll turn around and run,” I said, as A appeared at the door.

A gave a knowing glace around the office—she’s seen this sort of scene before. She assumed an air of confidence, and suggested that she take over the copying while I established some sense of order on the floor.

Half way through copying her 3rd booklet, A seemed on a roll. The small office fairly hummed with the sounds of productivity—or maybe that was just how the copier sounds when it works. Whatever the case, you know why it all came to a screeching halt.

Dr. S. appeared about this time and blamed all the trouble on the advanced operations of double sided copies and had us switch to single sided sheets. A suggested I go get the binder while she continued to work on the machine, figuring a finished book or two might buoy our spirits. More than ready for the anticipated field trip, I bolted from the office.

The grad assistant in the department which housed the binder looked a little dubious when I requested the equipment, and went off to get Professor So and So.

I smiled warmly at the stout, stern professor as I introduced myself. “I called earlier, about the binder. I know we asked to use it over here, but we’re in the middle of a—er—situation—and it would really help us if we could use it on site”

“Is this the kind of thing we normally do for you folks?” Prof S&S boomed.

I wasn’t sure if she meant taking away the equipment, or using it in the first place, so I just smiled really big and said I was quite sure it was pretty routine.

Prof S&S handed the equipment over with no small amount of chagrin, causing me to I walk really slowly on the way back, because I wasn’t sure what would become of any of us if I dropped the binder. This gave me time to study the machine, and I kind of got a bad feeling that something wasn’t right.

I knew enough about comb binding to know that the whole process pretty munch hinged on having plastic comb pieces. There didn’t seem to be any visibly included with the machine, and this worried me. I convinced myself that they must be housed somehow inside the apparatus, that perhaps they popped out somewhere when you turned the crank on the side.

“Where are the combs?” A asked when I returned.

“Umm…inside the machine?” I tried.

I trudged back to the office of the irate professor, taking no glee in the bonus field trip.

“We have to supply the materials, too?” Prof S&S boomed when I reappeared in her foyer.

She thrust a box in my general direction, suggesting that I pass along to my department her sentiments that we invest in our own equipment.

“For the one time a year that we use it?” Dr. S exclaimed, aghast, scribbling rapidly on a note pad as I relayed the message.

“I’m sweating,” A panted from the underbelly on the copy machine as I entered the office.

M, a third graduate assistant, appeared at the door. “If you’re smart, you’ll turn around and run,” A and I said, in unison.

“We’ve been working on making booklets for three hours. The copier is down, and there’s a whole department mad at us,” I added helpfully.

M replaced A at the copier. “Which department?” she asked.

“The Dean’s Office,” I replied.

“Oh—that’s a big one. I was hoping it was just a little department.”

A and I looked at each other nervously as the binder groaned against the heft of the product. We ended up having to punch the pages in small batches, which didn’t line up properly.

I finally held the single, jagged booklet aloft three full hours after I found the dossier. Exhausted, I examined the reams of waste product which surrounded me. I imagined the legions of sacrificed forest as I calculated the tax dollars it took to pay three grad assistants to produce the sad specimen I held in my hand. I wasn’t quite sure what the booklet was for, but I imagined it must be pretty important.

Meanwhile, A examined the actual contents of the booklet for the first time. “Hey!” she said, noting the course number printed on the cover, “I took this class last year. I never opened this book once.”

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thrifty Business

I grew up with mixed messages about thriftiness. On one hand, there was the coupon clipping, comparison shopping (my mom actually kept a notebook in her purse, where she recorded the prices of grocery items at various stores), and consciousness over mileage logged on the cars (“a car only has so many miles between breakdowns,” my father would say, “you have to use them wisely”).

On the other side of the equation, I developed an understanding that there were limits to what was acceptable to do in the name of economy. Shopping for sundries at the Dollar Store was just plain smart. Hand-me-downs were a gray area, usually OK if they came from a known source—family was preferred. Under no circumstances were yard sales tolerated, and we never, ever went to—shudder—thrift stores.

“You just don’t know where this stuff has been,” my mother explained matter-of-factly. “Just think of the germs.”

Oh, the horrors! I swear, I could see the contagion crawling all over the wares at every yard sale we passed on our carefully mapped trips to the Dollar Store.

Chalk it up to morbid fascination, rebellion, or maybe just a healthy dose of good old American entrepreneurial spirit—but one lazy afternoon, circa middle school, I organized a yard sale of my own along with my best friend, Sunshine, and a schoolyard ruffian named Robbie.

It started in the Usual Way—a traveling carnival had pitched tents in the neighborhood and no parent was willing to fork over cold, hard cash for us to toss into fishbowls in vain attempts to score cheap, oversized toys.

Totally in character, I forgot all about my mother’s grim appraisals of yard sale fodder, and went into the venture pretty much expecting to rake in enough cash to stage a hostile takeover of the carnival. I wound up asking way too much coin for too little bauble, clashing vehemently with The Ruffian, who just wanted to give it all away. Where was this kid’s vision?

As for me, I’ve slowly acquired a new view on the second run market over the years—I’m not sure that it would be accurate to credit the yard sale (although all three of us earned enough money for a full evening of Tilt-a-Whirl rides and cotton candy) but I’ve been flirting with used goods with increasing abandon.

First there was ebay—a great, big worldwide yard sale—and I love imagining where some of that stuff has been. Ditto for antiques, which I later grew to love. From there, it was just a short leap to vintage clothing—of which I have exactly one piece, if you count the skirt I have that was cobbled together with vintage saris from the 70’s—and it wasn’t exactly a bargain.


In fact, none of the clothes I buy really are.

Then some friends took me shopping during a girls’ beach weekend a few weeks back. They said they were hunting for some bargains. I was really excited to see where they shop- these girls are, to a person, some of the most fashionable friends I have. I couldn’t wait to see where they got their clothes.

I trailed them into a store, not really looking at the sign over the door—sort of blindly following the stylish crowd.

“Three dollars!” someone called from behind a rack of jeans.

“Wow,” I thought, making a beeline to the rack.

I’m not sure what hit me first, once my senses kicked in. Maybe it was a lack of fluorescent lighting. Maybe it was the absence of piped-in music, or perhaps things didn’t have that fresh-from-the box smell—whatever the case, I was suddenly struck by the awful truth that I was in a thrift store. A yard sale with a roof! The last frontier into an unknown wilderness of germs and unknown origins!

I know my mother will be mortified when she reads this (hi, mom), but I actually purchased a couple things. And, even though the girls congratulated me and praised my finds—I sneaked them in my house and attempted to introduce them into my wardrobe without fanfare.

But my family insisted on knowing where I’d gotten such a great shirt, and, later, why they’d never seen that fashionable little skirt before.

When I sheepishly admitted where I had been shopping, everyone laughed heartily. Perhaps there was even a hint of relief in my husband’s chuckle, as he realized I got those trendy numbers for chump change.

“What’s the big deal?” my daughter asked. “I’ve always wanted to shop at a thrift store.”

To borrow a phrase being bandied around the financial sector these days, I still don’t know where the bottom is in all this, but lately I’ve found my thoughts turning to the food industry —specifically two out-of-way little shops I happen to know (one in Oregon, and one right here in Virginia) that carry a large selection of vintage foods.

For me, this is the last frontier. Mom, I promise—I walked right away from those six- month-old eggs and late 80s boxed mixes—really. And those rusty cans encased in a layer of dust so thick I couldn’t even make out the dates…I turned my heel away in disgust.

But that was some time ago, and with the economy as weak as it is, I may have to give vintage foods a second look. Now, I’m keeping the little shops I know to myself, but readers interested in risky little off-the-beaten path investments will want to keep a close eye on the rural mom-and-pops over the coming months. In both shops I was in, the decades-old staples came complete with period price tags. People are going to be clamoring for this stuff. Eighty cent boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes, thirty-nine cent mustard…this stuff is going to go like hot cakes—which happened to be selling for a low, low price of a dollar fifteen.

At least I think these prices are good by 80s standards, but we won’t know for sure unless my mom’s price comparison notebook should happen to turn up.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Think of This Post as a Preview Trailer

At some point within the coming days, alert readers should be on the lookout for a post containing a single number. If the number is greater than or equal to 172, then we’re good: the world here at Running With Letters will progress as normal. Pop the champagne on my behalf, send me some congratulatory remarks if you feel so inclined, as a sum of such stature will indicate that I have passed my proficiency test, and I’m looking at a straight shot toward my post post-graduate life. If the reported value falls short of the target number, it means that you’ll be able to follow along live, online, as my grad program implodes around me. Should be good reading either way. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Here’s Hoping You Are Still Able to Read This After Business Hours

There’s a lot of buzz within the newspaper industry these days to the effect that blogs are replacing newspapers—a sentiment which has caused me to ponder the role of the Running With Letters forum in the ongoing reorganization of the news industry.

I’ve decided that it’s pretty safe to think of me as a fixture in the Lifestyles section—you know, the humor columnist who frequently subs for the books and literature editor, spots the religion columnist on occasion, all the while angling for a plum travel assignment.

However, in the interest of providing relevant and timely commentary to my silent but stalwart readership, I digress from my normal format today to bring you a muck raking exposé from the technological sector.

Readers, it is my duty to inform you that the Internet is not the 24-7 machine in which we have come to believe. Last night, I logged on to the Information Superhighway in search of pertinent information only to have my search engine come to a screeching halt upon discovery that the site I wished to access was “closed.” Not down for maintenance, mind you, not, “currently unavailable,” but closed, like the bank after 3:00. “We’re sorry,” the screen informed me, “the site is currently closed. Please try again during the site’s hours of operation.” This zinger was followed by a breakdown of the site’s operating hours, such as one might find after 5:00 PM in the window of the local five and dime.

Alarmed, I immediately called an IT industry insider (ok, so I bellowed to my husband who was in the next room) to find out if perhaps I had missed out on some sort of new online protocol.

“What kind of crackerjack outfit is this?” the IT insider boomed after an extend scowl at the screen.

At this point, I’d like to be able to report that it was the homepage of a 3rd grade classroom, and that perhaps little Jimmy got a tad carried away with the html. However, I was on the website of ETS, the educational behemoths who bring us the SATs, GREs, and proficiency measures of myriad other alphabetic configurations.

About four weeks ago, I, myself, was required to take one of the legions of proficiency tests they administer, and was seeking feedback on how I may have fared. The internet, I’d been informed, was the fastest and most timely source for test results—just as long as you don’t log on after 8 PM on a Sunday, or before 7 AM on weekdays.

My guess is that the newspaper industry might be in the midst of a premature panic. After all, paper carriers are a robust group of early risers, successfully delivering the news before sunup with stunning consistency. Once the word gets out that the Internet has taken to banker’s hours, people might be just as happy to find their news on the front lawn at 5 AM every morning.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Reality Therapy

"And so then all the children started to clap. We clapped very hard and very long. My palms hurt and even started to bleed I clapped so hard."

Many years ago, I delivered this line while sitting on a sofa in my bathrobe in front of a dinner theater audience during a presentation of Christopher Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis, a sort of off-beat art house production involving the emotional unraveling of a girl named Jane, whom I portrayed in the drama. At the root of my character’s disintegrating mental health was a particularly bad staging of Peter Pan she attended in her youth.

Among sundry other irregularities, the production adhered to a grim interpretation of the “clap to save Tinker Bell” scene, whereby the audience was informed that they had failed to cheer loud enough and had caused Tinker Bell to succumb to an untimely demise. Jane, so the story goes, was never quite the same.

Regular readers probably won’t be surprised if I admit to a certain level of identification with my character’s disappointment. Doesn’t the impossible become probable if you just believe hard enough? Can’t you hope and pray and sweat and cheer your wildest dreams into reality? I always thought so.

Why, in recent weeks alone, you’ve witnessed my unshakable confidence in a Bronx World Series. You’ve been on hand as I’ve sown September seeds in full anticipation of sidestepping blooms as I string my Christmas lights.

And that’s just the small stuff.

When my first, independently published YA novel failed to climb to the top of the New York Times best seller list, I was stunned. Oprah didn’t even call.

It only gets worse from there. I pretty much go through life expecting the blind to see, the lame to walk, and mountains to move on a routine basis. I not only believe in the impossible—I’m scoping it out at every turn.

Perhaps Hollywood is to blame, or maybe I’m more of an optimist than most people realize. Whatever the case, I spend a whole lot of time feeling more than a little disillusioned—which could be why more people don’t immediately peg me as an optimist.

I think the hardest lesson I’ve encountered thus far in the curriculum of life is that there are outcomes that can’t be changed no matter how much we clap and cheer. The team doesn’t always pull through in the clutch. Some books don’t even become sellers, let alone best ones. Some seeds don’t grow (although my sunflower is holding on—albeit in need of a pep rally, or, failing that, some Miracle Grow.)

Sometimes the most healthy, practical, and even spiritual thing we can do is to simply embrace what is.

And, more often than not, what is is usually pretty good.

Sure, it might look like a mess from where you’re sitting. Chances are, you’re reading this post from a cramped cubicle in a dingy office. Perhaps you’re trolling the internet out of sheer boredom, clutching the metaphoric scraps of disfigured dreams.

Me? I have a fridge full of decaying leftovers, a schedule of classes I don’t really like, an attic full of orphaned books, and a bathroom that’s been under construction for over a year. I’ve procrastinated on a project and slacked off on my exercise plan. Mouse traps surround the perimeter of my house.

A far cry from a six-figure advance and a New York book tour? You bet. But you know what? It’s a wonderful crisp October morning and I get to work at home today, surrounded by my silly cats and my demanding dogs. I’ll get to spend some time with my kids today, and my friend, Lori, is threatening a visit. The upheaval in my bathroom reminds me that my husband did a lot of good work this weekend. And the coffee this morning is reasonably good, if not quite superb.

Best of all? I’m still here to clap and cheer. Life is good.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Game Over

"I guess I'll just go to bed and start dreaming about next year..."

--a resident of the Island of Misfit Toys

from Winter Girl's notable quotable archives

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Stadium's Dark, but the Story's Not Over

The stadium went dark last night, and I don’t believe it.

I don’t want to believe the story is over, and I’m not saying this is in the same nostalgic where-did-all-the years go vein as every other sports writer you’ll read today.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with the New York Yankees will admit, if pressed, the story of Yankee Stadium can only be properly concluded one way: with a dramatic, one-for-the-ages O’Henry of an ending.

And it is still possible.

You’ll be tempted, should you choose to proceed, to chortle dismissively at the at the ember of hope that the virtually-retired stadium is on the cusp of going out in a blaze of unprecedented glory

But for perhaps just this one, last day, I have the power of mathematics on my side. Yes, I know that there’s a full seven game disparity between the Bronx Bombers and our nameless Northern Nemesis. I know that only seven regular season games remain in the 2008 season. I’m aware that for the darkened stadium to burst into post season life there is absolutely no margin for New York error, or Boston success.

But I also know that the Sox are facing a Cleveland team I’ve learned not to underestimate. Should the Indians pull off an epic Fenway sweep, the season could come down to a battle for post-season life between New York and Boston during the season’s final three games.

From there, who is to say that Yankee Stadium won’t play host to Game seven of a Fall Classic destined for the sports record books?

Far fetched? You bet. Chances are that by the time you read this, the whole point could be moot and Boston will be celebrating in their clubhouse. But what’s baseball about, anyway, if it isn’t long shots, larger-than-life dreams, and dramatic twists of fate?

So I choose to savor the dream of a final World Series in the House that Ruth built, knowing that by definition, dreams are fleeting and subject to sudden disruption from harsh sounds such as cracking bats in Boston.

But for today? The dream lives—

Play Ball.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Planting

I know it’s mid-September, but I’m still planting seeds—as in outside, in the ground, 60-70 days until maturity kind of seeds.

Call me an optimist, but I don’t consider this experiment an exercise in futility—I’m fully expecting some incredible November sunflowers—bold, gorgeous flowers that might even play a starring role as a bouquet on my Thanksgiving dinner table.

My unorthodox gardening habits took root a little over a year ago when I realized it was early August, and I still hadn’t planted any sunflowers due to the fact that I’d been traveling all summer and hadn’t been home to tend them. A few days after my return, I tore open a seed packet printed with verbiage which clearly suggested that I’d missed the sowing window by at least three months. Since the packet was also stamped with a disclaimer that the contents were intended for the 2007 planting season, I figured I had nothing to lose and went ahead and planted them.

I was rewarded with big, June sunflowers in the heart of October—an experience that cast some serious doubt on the calendar’s jurisdiction over growth and beauty and life.

This year I decided to push the seed envelope even further past recommendations, partly because I have leftover seeds and the last of this year’s flowers are fading in the yard, and also because I just want to see if I can.
So I planted some seeds the last day or so of August. All but two succumbed to the whims of a vicious predator whose oft-seen MO involves severing the thin little stems of sunflower seedlings. Dismayed but determined, I started more seeds just a couple days ago.

Why? Because this year, more than ever, I need to believe that vitality, strength, and beauty can survive into deep fall. I need to know that blossoms aren’t the sole domain of spring, and that just because the calendar says something isn’t likely doesn’t mean that it is so.

I need that reminder, and I need it on my Thanksgiving table because two days after that I’m celebrating a biggish sort of birthday, the one that says summer’s over with the certainty of a Jerry Lewis Telethon. I need some bright, yellow confirmation that life unfolds in all seasons and that surprises can bloom any time.

Grow, little fall seedlings…grow tall, and strong and healthy. Show us how it’s done.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Ker-plunk

I scrolled past the Facebook notifications, newsletters and general SPAM in my inbox this weekend, homing in eagerly on a message entitled “ker-plunk”-- mostly because it was from a friend I’ve been waiting to hear from, but also because I seldom, if ever, receive email in which the author employs onomatopoeia in the subject header.

Opening the email, I found the following assessment of my communication skills:

“That's the sound a pin makes when it's dropped. Why so quiet out there? How's life? Talk to me!”

Now, I fully acknowledge that my last post may have read like a grim elegy, no doubt fueling speculation among my friends and readers that I simply withered away at the end of the summer season. With a twinge of guilt, I’ll also allow that there have been more than one or two emails and Facebook greetings that seemed to float off, unanswered, into cyberspace. And, yes, the dust got a bit thick here, too.

Life has been very, very full for the past three weeks. I have taken—and rocked—two major proficiency tests while studying for an even more important third. I finished my hang gliding lesson. I helped my daughter get her driver’s license and buy her first car.

And then school started—oh, did it ever! The semester began with a two-week full time stint in a 7th grade classroom that I will return to at various points throughout the year (most notably, February, when I will teach these students for 10 weeks). This two-week assignment was rough because I also had to attend my normal classes—two of which go until 7 PM. I don’t like to run the numbers much, but the whole thing involved a few too many 12-hour days and even more coffee than I’m used to drinking.

Things have settled down a little now that my two-week rotation is complete, and my guess is that everyone will probably be willing to overlook my recent negligence and I’ll start showing up again in all of my favorite places (online and otherwise). Although I’d love to mirror the professionalism of other successful bloggers who post like clockwork on set days, that’s a feat I can’t pull off as long as I’m in grad school. I can, however, feel pretty safe speculating that you’ll find at least four or five new posts here each month. For those who appreciate a helping hand with the math, that averages to at least one new post each week, a consistency rivaling numerous major publications but with the added advantage of being absolutely free!

So the next time you pull up this page and think that the plinking sound you heard was the fall of a stray pin, it’s probably safer to bet that you’re just hearing my fingers at the keyboard as I type my next post.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Embers and Ashes

I feel like summer was snuffed out along with the Olympic flame last night.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fits Me to a "T"

I like to think of myself a reasonably stylish person. Granted, the only pieces of my wardrobe that hail from New York are a couple pairs of striped socks I got from a Manhattan street vendor and a sweatshirt purchased from a seedy hole in the wall in the Bronx—and I’ll submit the cavernous gap through which I ducked in order to access the store’s singular broken mirror to illustrate the literal nature of my description. But even in the absence of 5th Avenue panache, I like to think that I’m holding my own with off-the-rack finds from Target and JC Penny.

So it was with a dual sense of shock and concern that I faced the realization that an entire segment of my wardrobe is decidedly substandard. Folding laundry on a recent evening in an attempt to stay awake for the Colbert Report, it occurred to me that perhaps none of the t-shirts and sweatpants that comprise my gym and sleepwear collection are the kind of garments I should ever chance being caught dead in; not unlike the underwear my mother used to discourage us from wearing outside the house--you know, the ones with holes and frayed elastic—just in case we became involved in a traffic accident. Maybe it’s just me, but I always figured that if I lost my pants in an accident, I’m looking at bigger problems than second string underwear.

But the specter of sudden disaster looms large as I consider the possibility of being a victim of one of those fires where you escape “with the clothes on your back.” For typical folks, this sort of thinking might be categorized as catastrophic, “worst case” sort of thinking, but—let’s face it—I start a lot of fires. Even without my help, the circa 1930s wiring in my home has been known to smolder on a whim—so I really don’t think that escape-the-flames type musings are that far-fetched. So I see it as entirely likely that I could find myself—should I execute a particularly noteworthy escape--being interviewed on camera in the lawn in front of my burning house, actually modeling the clothes with which I escaped.

Which opens the door to the possibility that I could be on television wearing any number of commemorative t-shirts from 1990s youth events, some sporting archival residue from the actual event—including but certainly not limited to roofing tar from a 1999 work camp, or one of several shirts splotched in a shade of dull green paint from a Mexican house raising a couple summers back. Then there’s the plethora of “thank-you” wear I’ve accumulated from various schools and libraries who have welcomed me in for book readings and writing workshops. A couple shirts—such as the middle school spirit T splotched Mexico-green—even pull double duty. In short, this is fabric that has served hard time—working class cloth from the front lines of life. I like to think of the attire collectively as threadbare pages of a wearable cotton journal.

Now, I’ve heard of people who have used similar clothing to create quilts, effectively transforming an unsightly wardrobe into an instantly-well worn security blanket. Unfortunately, I only know one quilt pattern, a sort of pinwheel affair that I suspect--if applied to my t-shirts—might just render an overall effect of my life tossed in a blender.

Besides, I find it vaguely comforting to surround myself with the experiences I’ve lived, and maybe this sort of wearable history is exactly what I’d want to have on my person in the slightly unlikely event of fire.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

No Sweat

I wear a lot of black. And while I really like to believe that this is because black makes a fashionable foundation for a range of looks, it’s also due to a more practical reason:

I sweat. A lot.

Now I know that revealing this fact doesn’t portray me in the most glamorous light. In fact, the last time I blogged about sweat, my own husband—typically my biggest fan—dismissed the whole post as “thirty year old girl bathroom humor.”

Chances are, he won’t like this story a bit. The bulk of it actually takes place in the bathroom, and I find it fairly hilarious.

Fudging a bit on the black-top format, I wore a shade of chocolate brown to an event I was at, let’s just say, sometime within the last month. It was hot—faulty air conditioning—and I was feeling damp enough to warrant a check into how the lighter-than-black garment was shoring up. To my horror, the bathroom mirror revealed an unacceptable level of, shall we say, water damage. I looked around the room, frantically searching for something—anything—to enable me to return to society without my arms crossed forebodingly across my chest.

My eyes settled on a basket of assorted feminine products. Ah ha! I unwrapped the two thinnest liners and got to work sticking them to the inside of my shirt. Did I mention that the dripping chocolate shirt was a sleeveless number?

However, with a little adjusting and readjusting, I was soon confident enough to circulate among the general public. Moments later, I was feeling dryer and a subsequent check in the bathroom mirror confirmed that my idea had been right on the money.

And money was precisely what I began thinking. Oh, the possibilities! Why had no one thought of this before? Letters to the leading feminine hygiene companies began composing themselves in my head. Which one would jump first at the opportunity to foray into a whole new world of keep-dry products? I began brainstorming names for my thin, contoured feats of engineering—catchy monikers like The Pit Stop, or The Dryer Sheet.

Eager though I was to share my excitement here in this forum, I gave pause upon remembering an article I recently read about the family responsible for the current Croc jewelry craze. Evidently, the whole, multi-million dollar industry began with a couple little girls doing what little girls do—decking things out with beads and bangles. One rainy afternoon, they cut loose on the family’s wardrobe of rubbery, candy colored footwear, making all manner of adornments with which to plug those unsightly holes. The father came home—and seeing the same mental dollar signs that enlivened my oh-so-dry visions—refused to let a single decorated Croc walk out of the family abode until he had the idea patented.

Ah, the patience! The wisdom! The calculated restraint demonstrated by this successful entrepreneur is, of course, the difference between being the common girl with a good idea or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

That, and research.

Mine lasted the amount of time it took my computer to display the results of my first google search.

Evidently, “sweat shields” aren’t so novel an idea. There are entire companies devoted to keeping folks like me dry and presentable—since 1869.

So, while my wardrobe may soon be venturing out of consistent shades of deep midnight, it doesn’t look like I will be able to transfer the permanently black color scheme to my bank account.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

MWF ISO Beachside Rentals and Urban Sublets

I have no idea why I remember an interview I once heard with Madonna—it could have been as long as a couple decades ago—in which she expressed a wish to have an entire lifetime to spend with each one of her many boyfriends. The impossibility of this fantasy has apparently hampered any fidelity efforts she has subsequently undertaken.

Happily married to the same wonderful man for over eighteen years, I really can’t relate to The Material Girl’s plight—at least in the arena of matrimony. However, when it comes to real estate, I think I’m destined to take the Madonna approach.

Nine days on the road concluded as they always do—with a return to the same faithful home in which I’ve lived for the vast majority of my adult life. The partnership has been safe and stable. It was love at first sight when my realtor introduced us in the mid-nineties: The textured walls! The spacious kitchen! We even weathered the difficult Remodeling Years of the early ‘00s, hammering out solutions to issues that had managed to accumulate. It’s been good, having strong beams and sturdy rafters to surround me in good times and shield me through rough winds. Lately, though, I can’t shake the feeling that I might be outgrowing the relationship—like there’s other things on which I might be missing out.

See, I keep thinking about a shameless fling I recently had with a quaint little cottage on a rocky beach. It was only a one night stand—but oh, it was so sweet. The shore breezes, the lullaby of lapping waves…it left me wanting more.

And I’ve been having other fantasies, too. Like the Manhattan brownstone I admire from afar. The glamorous nights I’d spend reveling in the fast-paced urban high life! So enticing. SO out of my league.

Then there’s the So-Cal surfer crush I have going on the west coast with a colorful bungalow on a steep cliff with an ocean view. Oh, my…the memories I want to make there!

And I just can’t shake my desire to while away the hours in the company of a distinguished Victorian with a spiral staircase, bay windows, and closets that go all the way to Narnia.

It doesn’t even stop there. There’s no telling where my roving gaze will settle next. I’ve been blatantly gawking thanks to For Sale signs, classified advertising, and various other come ons.

I love my house. I really do. We’ve been together for a long time. I’m not really sure that I want to break things off completely, but I just might have to convince my husband that it’s time to enhance our stable marriage with some experimental renting action on the side.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I'll Take the Whole Cookie

“The good parts are good,” my son said, nibbling his way around a mostly scorched peanut butter cookie. A failed campfire experiment, the cookies—or at least my son’s response to them—spoke metaphoric volumes about a long-anticipated vacation punctuated by sustained stretches of torrential rain.

Any time suitcases emerge from closets and sleeping bags pile beside doors, it is the lot of the vacation-bound traveler to be swept into an excited frenzy fueled by a heaping dose of optimism and a shot of high hopes. We recall breathtaking views from lofty summits, food from far-flung places, and the crackle of campfires that will forever burn inside our hearts.

And although we may fondly recall any number of days passed on open roads, back woods trails, and sandy beaches, there are certain trips that live large in our memories for a lifetime. Perhaps for you, it was the week the whole family went to Disney, or maybe it was that deep woods scouting adventure when you first knew you could conquer anything as long as you had the pack at your side and compass in your hand. Personally, I’m never more than a blink away from a little bed and breakfast in San Diego. And that month on the road, traveling cross country with my family? There’s not a single moment that I wouldn’t live a thousand times over.

These storied excursions develop epic reputations that tend to loom large over future travel plans. We want every trip to live up to the fabled glory, and the expectations don’t leave much margin for error. Sure, we expect complications—after all, what trip would be complete without a blown tire or a mishap or two with a map? But I must admit that none of the scenarios I imagined befalling our trip to Maine included sustained rains and accompanying fog which reduced days’ worth of trip pics into so many grey rectangles.

My sister blames herself for the soggy turn in our fortunes. After a successful first day in the wilderness of Acadia National Park, she claims that lightening and thunder punctuated her declaration of utter happiness as her head hit her pillow that night. My thought is that if you’ve experienced unmarred happiness long enough for it to become notable, then you are more fortunate than most.

The truth is that the duration of pure happiness can only be measured in moments. Perfect days are an illusion—a smoke and mirrors bit of revisionist history which softens the edges of our mental pictures into Impressionistic snapshots of the Best Moments. This is a feature of the human brain for which I’m very thankful—the airbrush treatment the mind gives to the sharp and jagged angles, leaving us with a nicely framed interpretation of What Was Good.

Our ability to remember life in terms of moments should not be underestimated. After all, fog, rain and mud are the ingredients of daily life. How often do you wake up to a day of unlimited visibility, warm, fuzzy feelings and sure footing? If your life is anything like mine, I suspect those carefree conditions are the exception to your daily forecast. And a place as far north as Maine exemplifies the reality behind the metaphor.

Maine has a reputation built solely on moments. Flawless days certainly number below 100 a year, and a large percentage of residents depend on the temperate conditions of a four-month window to earn their annual income. The vast majority of Maine days are cold, dreary affairs—but the moments in between are so sweet, the state boasts the moniker “Vacation Land” on its license plates and literature.

Our trip was capped on either end by moments that proved worthy of the title. The blueberries were ripe...



...and the flowers were lush and plentiful.



We slept under stars numbering in the hundreds of thousands on two occasions, and our last night was spent in a beachside cabin so inviting, there is a movement among our family to spend our entire vacation there next year. The “good parts” were very, very good.And the other parts weren’t so bad either. They gave me the chance to notice the beauty in rain,




understand that ships can stay afloat in less-than-perfect conditions,


and to acknowledge that these are the moments that will sustain me through all the patchy weather I’ll encounter before I hit the road again.

Friday, July 25, 2008

G.R.I.M.

Sitting around the campfire two nights ago, our family collectively worked to come up with a name for our excursion.

"GRIM," my son offered.

"Grim?" my sister questioned. "Isn't that a bit negative?"

"It stands for Great Living in Maine," he countered, sticking with the acronym even when the spelling indiscretion was brought to his attention.

As fate would have, his moniker has proven sadly apt.

It is my duty to report that the clouds in Maine are not pink.

They are, um...dark. And plentiful.

It's a bit wet. And somewhat...grim.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ice Cream, Sandwich, and a Chorus of Voices

“I don’t think this is the fastest route to anywhere,” my husband said.

Creeping up a winding hill at 25 mph, he furrowed his brow, contemplating the latest instructions our newly-acquired Global Positioning System was dispensing.

It’s July, and somehow it just feels right to be packed solid in our Saturn Relay, headed to parts unknown. Although this year’s adventure—a camping trip to Maine—shares some commonalties with last summer’s excursion-- such as time of year and visiting new states--there are really more differences than similarities between the two trips. We’re spending time with friends and family, for one thing, rather than braving it alone in the wild. We actually know where we’re planning to sleep each night. We’ll be gone just over a week, instead of a month. And there’s a lot more people in our car.

This summer, our additional passengers include Yoda, Big John the DJ, Max the Low-Talker, and any number of generic British blokes. These voices emerge periodically from our GPS, giving instructions such as “In 800 yards, right you will turn,” or “bear left and join the Speedway.” Often, these voices offer a wealth of information and guidance. Other times—such as this morning's slow and winding route to the Speedway, or an oversight by Yoda yesterday, which dumped us unceremoniously onto random busy roadway—we just aren’t sure.

I was hoping we could count upon this cast of advisors to direct us on a detour into Vermont, based on a news item I recalled hearing last week involving some Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream which is apparently available only this month, and only in Vermont. After all, how can I show my face back in Virginia next week having gone to New England without eating exclusive New England ice cream? And with such a vast team to guide me—-finding a Ben and Jerry’s location is as simple as a typed request into the GPS device—-there really seemed no excuse.

However, unlike the objects in my rearview mirror, Vermont evidently isn’t as close as it appears, and my exclusive ice cream junket is about to be deleted from the itinerary—a fate that almost befell the last detour I requested to Cape Cod. These stalwart guides—-bent on realism—-offer frequent, shockingly accurate, and often grim time estimates on what a detour looks like from a time perspective. Once on the Cape, they really didn’t advise going beyond the seaside hamlet of Sandwich, where our hungry crew enjoyed a dinner of -–what else—-sandwiches, although we were alarmed to note that they only served them in halves that wouldn’t make much of a showing if they ever find themselves stacked against the sandwich I ate in Nags Head a couple weeks ago.

Still, I can’t complain—we ate sandwiches in Sandwich, and in the words of my son, “it doesn’t get any more sandwich than that.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

At the Intersection of Moose and Books

I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of moose crossing signs over the next few days. Better yet, I’m hoping to see them in use by the clientele they’re posted to serve.
Whether that happens remains to be seen—in the meantime, I’m having fun with another kind of Crossing:Book Crossing. I’m traveling with three sets of my books in tow, and I’m looking for just the right places to “release” these tagged copies, in the hopes that local “book crossers” will find them, read them, love them to pieces, and share them via another “release.” Best of all, I get to track all this activity online.

So I’m scoping out just the right places to leave them—and that’s a little trickier than it may seem. You want to leave the books where they’ll actually be found—a place that’s busy, but not too busy. A place where people travel, but maybe not where people are traveling, what with security guards not really being keen on people dropping off foreign items. You want to pick a place where booklovers go, but not necessarily a place where books already are. A place where people stop and smell the roses…but probably not a place where roses actually grow—what with the uncertainty of weather, and all.

So, while I’m hunting for moose, I’ll also be hunting for places to “make the drop.” But I think I’ll keep the two activities separate. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Maine Thing

Remember the old Calgon bubble bath commercial where a houseful of kids and muddy pets drive a young mother to plead for said bubble bath to come and “take her away?”
The last we see of the woman, her placid face is bobbing just above suds level, and we’re left to assume that the children and animals have conquered the home. Although I certainly enjoy taking a dip in my Jacuzzi tub at the end of a long day, I get much faster relaxation results in my living room, simply by transporting myself, via wall print, to a mythical location I refer to as “the Maine house.”

Much in the way that Jill and Eustace entered Narnia through a picture on the bedroom wall in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I can enter the tranquil lakeside cottage depicted on my wall with nothing more than a steady gaze. Oh, the wonders of the Maine house! The lake, the rustic row boats, the cozy cottage…and the parties I’ve thrown there—you really should stop by sometime. Simple wine and cheese affairs on cool evenings, private book readings, coffee and blueberry cobbler on the lake. Artsy people talk literature, music, and mixing brilliant shades of cerulean and fuchsia late into still nights under starry skies. And the romantic picnics! Fresh berries and simple sandwiches on a worn quilt at sunset to a soundtrack of smooth jazz.

Bouquets of wildflowers, bountiful produce, and secret woodland trails (moose use them all the time) are all part of daily life at the Maine house. Mornings play out on the water, and evenings on the shore….but the afternoons are for writing, or, failing that, painting …all serious art that always sells.

See, I have this thing about Maine, and I’ve passed at least some of it on to my kids. First of all, it’s one of the few states they haven’t visited—and I only barely did, as a kid in the 80’s. Best I remember, we stayed at a resort of the same ilk as the one in Dirty Dancing. I seem to remember tuxedoed waiters, a formal dining hall, and lots of shuffle board. But then, pre-adolescent angst probably warped my impressions of much of the trip.

So I don’t really feel like I’ve experienced Maine yet—at least not the Maine I see in all the pictures, the land with the pink clouds that seem to perpetually hover over everything, the Maine with the blueberries, and moose. I’m off to discover that Maine this week.

I’m excited, but I’m also wary. First of all, I don’t even know that the scene depicted in my Magic Painting is even in Maine. The print was an art gallery cast off, and I trimmed off all the identifying information to get it into a frame. This is one work that will be permanently left to the interpretation of the viewer, and I’ve just made it into my version of what I want Maine to be. And let’s face it, the Maine house never deviates from a state of perpetual August, and one with a flawless forecast at that.

Furthermore, I’m beginning to suspect that moose don’t even really exist, that maybe they are extinct, or perhaps even mythical, like the unicorn. We traveled into several so-called moose habitat areas last summer, and didn’t catch so much as a glimpse of an antler. Church friends just returned from the same area of Maine into which we are heading, and reported a moose-less trek. My mom didn’t even see any moose as far noth as Alaska, unless you want to count a brown blob out the window of a fast-moving train that a tour guide labeled as such to pacify tourists hungry for a sighting.

In short, I’m not certain if the Maine in which I believe is real. But I suspect that even if my experience fails to deliver the Maine of my dreams, my Maine will live on in an 18’’ X 24’’ inch rectangle in my living room.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Green, Beans, and Things Not as Bad as They Seem

Racing against the bank of bruise-black clouds on the immediate horizon, I was certain of just two things: that finding my car unlocked and running on the other end of the parking lot was the best I could hope for, and that things only got grimmer from there.

Clutching my canvas bag full of over-priced cleaning supplies, I was regretting my decision to leave my cell phone in the car, in the interest of “traveling light."

I was in the check out line when I realized that I had no idea where my keys were. I’d been at the part of the transaction where you grab the receipt and gather your personal effects—purchased items, wallet, and—typically—keys…only to discover that mine were, simply, gone.

I rooted through my bag of purchased items, and seeing no keys, decided to go with the odds and just head out to the car like nothing was wrong. Chances were, I’d find my vehicle waiting for me, unlocked and running, in the parking lot—just like last time. Failing that, the keys would just be sitting on the driver’s seat of the (again unlocked) car. Just like a bunch of other times.

With the first drops of rain already falling from an ever-darkening sky, I comforted myself with the knowledge that history was on my side, squelching the voice of the self-righteous “Told You So” character who kept nagging me about how stupid it was to leave my phone behind, and the equally annoying, “You Need to be More Responsible” figure, who kept trying to analyze What Went Wrong..

At this point, I was blaming it on the canvas bag—or at least an earlier decision to go back to the car for it. See, I’ve redoubled my efforts in my struggle against the ever-present Plastic Grocery Bag—call it my own personal “surge” in the war against terrifying encounters such as the avalanche of overstuffed bags of bags that rolled from my closet like so many snowballs down an Alpine ridge.

Now before you tell me how fashionable it is to shop with re-usable cloth bags, let me tell you that this is only due to the efforts of early anti-bag pioneers who endured the scorn of store clerks and jeering family members in a Less-Green Era. I have personally been traveling with canvas bags in my car for at least two years, but confess that my efforts had been whittled down to simply reducing and refusing plastic bags, due to a combination of forgetfulness and a certain amount of buckling beneath the contempt of the Unenlightened Public. Now the same stores that used to sneer at my little Save the Earth totes are even offering discounts to shoppers who employ Green Bags emblazoned with their own logo, and will gladly fill even the plain or alternately adorned shopping bag.

At the risk of having to weather a deluge of snide comparisons to the beleaguered Al Gore, allow me to veer slightly off the linear course of this narrative to state for the record that I’ve been on the cutting edge of a lot more than just green shopping. MTV? My Barbies were doing that in my bedroom in the late 70’s. Malibu Barbie and Suntan Tuesday Taylor were the first veejays, ever. I’m not even kidding. And reality TV? During a large segment of the third grade, I was convinced that my life was being beamed to the airways, live (a la Truman), but that’s less about me being a visionary and more about me being a little weird. But I digress.

Of late, I’ve resumed my assault against The Plastic Bag, full-on. “This can’t go on,” I explained to the children, “we’re being inundated.” One of them thought I was referring to some kind of legal action, and got really freaked out. So we’re all about the bring-your-own-bag movement, except for the times we forget to grab one on the way into a store. In an effort to reinforce the BYOB concept, I’ve taken to the extreme measure of returning to the car when I forget--which brings me back to the parking lot.

I was at once saddened and relieved to discover my car in a locked and resting state, which bolstered my feeling that whatever went wrong with my keys happened during my earlier retrieval of the forgotten shopping bag. I must have set them down on the floor, or accidentally tossed them into a console—or who knew—maybe even the glove compartment. I was grasping at straws. After peering forlornly into every window and poking through my bag some more, I figured I may as well go back and, you know, retrace my path through the store. What else was I going to do? Call someone? Nooo…I was traveling light.

I wove in and out of the cleaning aisles, eyes cast downward, knowing there wasn’t any way I could have dropped the impressive collection hardware that is my key chain without knowing it—unless the sound had been muffled by the peals of thunder that were now rocking the store. I interviewed my cashier and a handful of customers before I figured I’d better turn myself in.

I fidgeted with the handle of my bag as I waited at the end of a rather slow customer service line. I didn’t really mind the wait, as I had no idea what I was going to say when I got to the counter. I suspected that it was Phone-A-Friend Time, but I really wasn’t sure who to call. My daughter would be helpful, and amused by the whole affair, but she doesn’t have a driver’s license. OnStar could unlock the car, but that’s pretty much the extent of their services. They don’t send detectives, or even beach combers with metal detectors, angling for extra cash. I asked about that last time. And as far as my husband—he was about the last person to which I wanted to tell this story.

Repositioning the rather heavy bag on my shoulder, I was suddenly poked by a hard object. I reached into the bag and withdrew my keys, immediately making a discreet exit from the line. Hopefully no one would ever know.

“Oh, you found them!” a customer yelled in excited tones. “Where were they?”

Readers, there’s a whole lot that I don’t know. The events recounted in this post are a mere sampling of my deficits. But I am certain that there is really only one thing a girl can do in the aftermath of self-inflicted trauma such as I have described. I pointed my running vehicle in the direction of the nearest coffee establishment and drowned my sorrows in a large cup of iced joe as the sky opened and rain poured down in violent torrents.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tuesday, Squared

What could be sweeter than a group of girls huddled around a pan of double chocolate brownies? How about two groups of girls discussing the Important Things in Life around two different brownie pans on opposite ends of town?

For almost a decade, I’ve looked for ways to encourage other people to replicate what we do at my house every Tuesday. Lot of laughter and tons of love over big helpings of chocolate…why keep all the fun to myself?

When the newspaper reran a magazine article I wrote last spring, I finally got a taker—an amazing young woman who just survived her first night with a houseful of girls who were hungry for a dose of scripture and a whole lot of chocolate.

The combination is so good, you should join us so we can serve it up cubed.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Intermission

“I have the memories in my head and heart. I’m OK with going to live somewhere else.”
--woman on the local news, about city council plans to route a highway through her living room.

The first time I ever went to my friend, Lori’s, house she was bailing me out of a jam. Mere days before the birth of my son, I accidentally became the chairperson for our church’s Christmas food drive. Don’t ask me how this happened; I was as baffled as those poor saps one occasionally reads about in an Offbeat News Brief who suddenly finds themselves Mayor of some small Burg after a family member scribbled their name on a ballot on a lark. All I know is I showed up at the wrong place with my three year old and a box of crayons, and next thing I knew, there were turkeys to buy, canned goods to sort, and a perplexing list of deliveries that had to be made to unfamiliar neighborhoods. As with any trauma, the subsequent memories are hazy and dark.

The next thing I remember is being Lori’s living room, surrounded by a cast of people who may well have been wearing halos and white robes while they stuffed boxes with food and told me encouraging stories about Childbirth and Christmas Babies. I seem to remember Lori tying my shoes, which I’d taken to wearing unlaced after I became too large to see my feet. I may have handled a can or two of beans and applied my Crayola seal to a few cards before the metaphoric angels whisked everything away. A Christmas Miracle, played out on a set that would become a second home to me for the next fourteen years.

The last time I left my friend Lori’s house, I had no way of knowing it would be the Last Time. Oh, I knew the house was going up for sale, that a long-threatened move northward was inevitable. But considering today’s slumping real estate market, I figured an Actual Sale was something I wouldn’t need to worry about for a long, long, time, kind of like taking Metamucil, or collecting Social Security.

Readers, don’t allow the media to lull you into a false sense of security. A home can disappear from the market faster than two scoops of Ben and Jerry’s on a hot summer day. I’ve seen two go in less time than it’s taken me to get all my flower beds weeded. Should a for sale sign appear in the lawn of one of your loved ones, run, don’t walk to the local bakery to order your Bon Voyage Cake and Farewell Balloons.

Even after it became apparent that, against all odds, a sale was, indeed, imminent I fully anticipated making an official Final Visit. I suppose I imagined a scene not unlike a series finale of a much loved sitcom: the last shift at Cheers, the Friends gang meeting for a final round of coffee at Central Perk, M*A*S*H, post-cease-fire. However, a parade of realtors, perspective buyers, inspectors, and handy men descended upon Lori’s home over recent weeks, hampering on-site visits. But I also I detected a faint reticence in my friend’s voice whenever talk turned to a home-visit scenario: she didn’t want any help painting or packing, just some time to sit at the coffee shop and get away from it all.

It wasn’t until the Last Day that I got it.

“Don’t go over there,” Lori said. “It’s empty. Everything’s gone. I don’t want those images in your head,” she said, immediately listing some of the pictures she hopes I’ll retain: poker parties and pasta dinners, bad movies and mugs of coffee. Oh, the snapshots I can add to the slide show—the day of the Big Yard Sale to raise money for my Africa trip, the night we pulled my five year old son’s stubborn, blackened front tooth, the Thanksgiving the tablecloth caught fire. Fourteen years of birthdays, picnics, fireworks, and made up holidays. We trimmed trees, planned weddings, and dreamed up terrific adventures—some that even happened. There were special days and ordinary days, with the Very Last One thoroughly indistinguishable from all the rest.

There are the kind of goodbyes where everyone involved knows that something good is over. Other goodbyes are simply transitions. That’s not to say they’re easy; on the contrary, ever writer knows how tough it is to nail a smooth segue. But no matter how choppy a transition may prove, a finale isn’t the right response, any more than a standing ovation would be between acts of a play. So I’ve decided that I have no choice but to accept that stories move forward, and that just about any decent production involves a set change or two.

I figure that while the furniture’s being shuffled around for the new set, it would be a good time to think about what I’ve derived from the plot so far:

That life is more about people than perfection. (Who knew that you could show up at a picnic with the three deviled eggs you rescued when the rest of the platter crashed…and no one will be disappointed in you.)

That bodies are really, really awkward, and it’s OK to laugh about them.

That “I’m sending you drugs, costumes, and a man” is the most reasonable thing you can tell a friend when you’re sending your son to her house with cold medicine on Halloween.

That with the merest amount of research, you can find a legitimate reason to celebrate just about any day.

That dreams are the stuff of life, even if they don’t always come true.

That life is too short to eat bad cheese. (Lori’s response to me on her first visit to my house when I offered to make her a grilled sandwich with low-fat cheese. I never bought it again.)

That there are Givers and there are Takers, and Givers have a lot more friends.

That flexibility is a good thing. (Did you know that it’s OK to end a New Year’s Eve party for a bunch of tired moms at 9 PM because it’s midnight somewhere, and you can
pretend you’re there??)

That it’s never about the stuff.

That home is a place where you are accepted and loved, even if it takes you three hours to get there.

Lori, it’s been an amazing Act One. I can’t wait to see what happens on the set in Act Two.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hang Time

I’m taking the world’s longest hang gliding lesson.

Eleven years, ten months, six days, and counting.

My adventure started in the mid-nineties with an early fall trek to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina with some friends. Following a brief instructional session, we hit what the Kitty Hawk folks like to reference as the “soft, forgiving” sand dunes which cushioned the fledgling efforts of none other than the legendary Wright brothers.

Our package included 5 introductory flights. I recall two things about my time on the dunes: the thrill of my running feet leaving earth as I went airborne, and an unfortunate crash and burn into said forgiving sand. I’d managed three flights before ill-winds turned the cushiony dunes against our party, reducing many of us to sand-blasted recipients of “wind checks”—a kind of extreme sport IOU—for the grounded flights.

Yesterday I attempted to cash in. See, wind checks are a pretty durable form of currency—you can cash them in, evidently by just claiming to have them (no one even asked to see mine) and they never, ever expire. So my daughter and I headed south, me clutching an aging wind check and her signed up for the same introductory lesson package I was planning to complete. The day was sunny and mild. We were set to fly. That is, until we pulled into Kitty Hawk beneath the specter of ill winds that blew a band of thunder storms just ahead of our arrival. We ran to the Flight School building through a cold sheet of rain and reviewed a range of options with the Instructor Studs, who basically delivered a lot of bad news in extremely charming fashion.

Our chances for flying that day were “abysmal.”

They were happy to troll the internet for lodging options for us, even though radar predictions for the following day weren’t appreciably better, and all the classes were full, anyway.

But they did know a great sandwich shop, in case we were hungry.

So with my hang gliding lesson back in a state of suspension, and it occurred to me that I should probably take some notes on what I’ve learned so far, just in case it takes another 12 years for me to resume it (although I’m aiming for August).

Here’s what I’ve got, just shy of mid-lesson:

That it is possible to keep track of something as small as a coupon for nearly 12 years. I find this fact fascinating. Let’s face it, I live in a home where key items such as passports, social security cards, children’s immunization records, and at least one queen sized striped sheet routinely vanish. The thought of a simple 3" x 5" piece of newsprint surviving nearly 12 years under our auspices leaves me frankly stunned. The fact that neither the document itself or even a scrap of verifying evidence was ever requested from the coupon, would admittedly be depressing had the Instructor Studs not issued me a new wind check for 5 full flights, which means I essentially redeemed the coupon for more than twice it’s worth. Not bad in today’s economy.

That my daughter is a great driver, even in the rain.



That Instructor Studs really know their sandwich shops.


(those are thin slices of sweet apples, just beneath the cheese.)

And that anticipation is a pretty cool thing. I can’t wait for August. Maybe I’ll wrap this thing up in under 12 years after all. Or perhaps the adventure will stretch out a little further, capturing even more memories to savor. I can’t wait to find out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Finding My Story

I learned in college that the problem couldn’t be solved by not sleeping, although I certainly tried.

I knew that no matter how wee the hour was when I finally went to bed, I was missing key events.

People were heading to all night dining establishments, drinking coffee and eating pies and pastries. Others were on trains, taking late night forays into the city. Some were just on campus, having heartfelt conversations deep into the night.

And I was missing it.

So I’d get up, get dressed, and get back into the action.

After awhile, I took to wearing a comfy sort of semi-sleep wear, suitable for both late night socializing and early morning class—“instant ready,” my roommate called it. Simply put, I wore pajamas to class nearly a decade before it became fashionable.

I know now that no one can be a part of every story and that times of rest are chapters in everyone’s tale.

I’m keeping all of this in mind as I head out for four days in the Pennsylvania mountains for the Creation 2008 festival. As a registered member of the media, I will have the opportunity to participate in countless press conferences which I could potentially weave into dozens of salable articles. As a journalist woefully low on work, the possibilities are tantalizing.

But as tempted as I am to generate all of this material, I know that there is only so much I can process in a timely manner, what with all of my educational responsibilities and all. So I’m going to keep this manageable. I’m looking for one story. I don’t know yet which one I’m after, but I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll jump on it and make it sing.

That’s my goal: one stellar story. My story. Isn’t that what life is really all about?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It's a Pitcher's Game and my Bullpen's Thin

Thank goodness for Major League Baseball. Without the combined efforts of a gaggle of umpires, mangers, and team mascots focused on discovering why gifted players are requiring increasing amounts of time to deliver a finished game, I might have gone on thinking that I'm incompetent.

I now know that my situation really isn’t any different from the one perpetually plaguing the New York Yankees: I have pitching trouble.

Although the cause wasn’t clear to me at the time, I knew something was wrong when I turned into the school pick up line one day last week and realized that “What did you do today, Mom?” has officially replaced “What’s for dinner” as the Mid-Afternoon Cringer.

With my daughter’s recent interest in the culinary arts, no one in our house is really worried about going hungry these days—we have hot, tasty food popping out of the oven at all hours. What’s really got me wringing my hands is the fact that every day at 3:15 my son asks me what I’ve done all day and I end up looking like a Little Leaguer gaping at birds in left field. Now, I’m certain I’ve been busy—ever since I finally ditched Chaucer, I’ve adopted an impressive range of projects, plans, and pointless diversions—problem is, I have little to show for the four weeks I’ve supposedly been working on this stuff.

Still, I face my son’s daily query in true journalistic form, working my best material into my lead. “I was on my bike this morning,” I invariably say, highlighting the singular pursuit in which I’ve managed to make any kind of visible progress. I’ve been biking the boardwalk for a solid hour every morning, even stopping periodically to execute various crunches and dips on the seawall. And it’s working, too. I'm looking less and less like a graduate student every day.

Mmmmm. My son nods encouragingly at my report, but he’s clearly expecting more. I shift nervously in my seat. What did I do? What did I do? Is that a wren over there?

As it turns out, this sluggish, unproductive response is consistent with what the MLB task force has identified as the end result of a game lacking disciplined pitching. Valuable time is lost by pitchers who dawdle between throws or require frequent mound visits from plodding coaches. It doesn’t matter who you’ve got on the field: if your pitching is off, your game’s gonna drag. In the words of Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, it’s all about having a pitching staff that's trained "to work quickly so they establish a rhythm and keep fielders from getting too spacey.”

Well, that clears things up. No wonder I’m striking out. Life was so much easier when I had professors and editors tossing out metaphoric pitches in the form of due dates and deadlines. I am bereft of both this summer, what with not being enrolled in classes and the newspaper on the blink (I anticipate any day the news that they’ve parted out all their assignments to a fifth grade creative writing class in exchange for some free pens and a classroom subscription).

Regular readers may recall that over spring break I contemplated dropping out of my Masters program. When I returned to school to discover that my scholarship had some fine print indicating that my funding would expire if I didn't abandon the “slow and steady” plan I’d hatched with my advisor in favor of an accelerated track, I figured game over.

I got more of a seventh inning stretch, instead. My quick-thinking advisor managed to waive a bunch of prerequisites and set up a couple directed studies. At the end of the semester, she sent me home with some books, the names of a couple tests I’m supposed to take and instructions to email her every now and then, in lieu of the intense, summer-long marathon of coursework perscribed in the normal program. As far as traditional schooling, I'm pretty much done until the fall. I was pleased with the innovative plan, although all I initially gleaned was the part about not showing up for four months.

So, I'm pretty much expected to self-regulate, which, in baseball terms makes me a one-girl team. It's no wonder, then, that I'm a month in and riddled with guilt over my lack of accomplishments. Here I was, figuring I’m a lazy embarrassment to society who happens to bike on the beach every day, when I find out that my game’s just stalled because I've got no relief pitching.

With no one but me to keep things rolling, I’ve gone spacey. And as comforting as it is to know that my problems are in the same league as those of the Bronx Bombers, it's clear that I'm choking on the mound. Someone really needs to call the bullpen soon.

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