(Sort of like Fun with Dick and Jane. But without the movie rights.)
I've been thinking a lot lately about the fiction that I've wanted to write for a long time. There is a short story I've been aching to work on, and at least two different children's book ideas just simmering on a back burner. And the thing is, it's SOOOOO easy in one's spare time to do the things that are most urgent (laundry so the family isn't naked, for example) or write the things that are easiest (a goofy story about my elementary school days), rather than take on a new and complicated project.
So I was thinking that perhaps a little fiction support group might help alleviate the feeling of Biting Off More Than I Can Chew-ism.
Here's the premise: once a week (on Mondays after today's post), I'll put up a post with a few examples and some thoughts about one aspect of writing a story. Today, it's about writing strong character descriptions. Other days might be about opening sentences, or plot development, or whatever. On the following Monday, there will be a Mr. Linky up so that you can link to your efforts at that small writing task, and there will be a new prompt for a new thing to try.
I'm hoping that together, if we break this writing process down into little bits, we might find inspiration to just try it already.
Are you in? If so, read on.
Today, I'm thinking about character descriptions. As far as I can tell, there are two things a writer needs to build a great character: a great opening description to make a reader see the person as unique, and a strong sense of what motivates this person (which may or may not be revealed to the reader initially).
I only want to work on the first part today: what will a reader see of the character in the first glimpse?
The beautiful part about this is that you don't have to start by knowing anything about what this character will do, or what the story will be, or anything. You just have to start with someone who is interesting, and a little blurb for the reader that will make a reader think, "OHHHH! I want to know more about this person." Here are some examples.
1. This passage from the middle of Oscar Wilde's famous novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, describes a very minor character in the story, but makes her perfectly vivid in a mere 83 words:
She laughed nervously, as she spoke, and watched him with her vague forget-me-not eyes. She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was always in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church.
It is the combination of not obviously connected details that works so well for Wilde here. Her dresses, her illusions, her "perfect mania for going to church" combine elements of her interior and exterior self to provide a reader not just a sense of how she looks but of how she moves through her life.
2. Here is the opening of a wonderful late-Victorian fairy tale by George MacDonald, called "The Day Boy and the Night Girl":
There was once a witch who desired to know everything. But the wiser a witch is, the harder she knocks her head against the wall when she comes to it. Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself -- only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel.
She was tall and graceful, with white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind, and onto her back.
Here, we are presented with what could easily be a stock fairy tale character -- the wicked witch. While she is marked as such for us by her "white skin, red hair, and black eyes," everything else in this description makes her unique. We as readers know from the opening that she is ominous because she has the qualities we associate with wicked witches; at the same time, we are intrigued by the fact that she is (unlike all those other baddies) "not naturally cruel." The image of the wolf in her mind, in addition to being highly original, also helps us know to expect more from Watho than we get in Snow White, by giving us a sense of how driven she is by forces that are not always within her control.
3. And finally, I offer this conversation from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. While the description of Traddles's hair is enough to give you an immediate picture in your mind, I love how it is followed by the bit of conversation and David's own musings about what Traddles's hair reveals about his good-nature.
Excellent fellow as I knew Traddles to be, and warmly attached to him as I was, I could not help wishing, on that delicate occasion, that he had never contracted the habit of brushing his hair so very upright. It gave him a surprised look—not to say a hearth-broomy kind of expression—which, my apprehensions whispered, might be fatal to us.
I took the liberty of mentioning it to Traddles, as we were walking to Putney; and saying that if he would smooth it down a little——
“My dear Copperfield,” said Traddles, lifting off his hat and rubbing his hair all kinds of ways, “nothing would give me greater pleasure. But it won’t.”
“Won’t be smoothed down?” said I.
“No,” said Traddles. “Nothing will induce it. If I was to carry a half-hundredweight upon it, all the way to Putney, it would be up again the moment the weight was taken off. You have no idea what obstinate hair mine is, Copperfield. I am quite a fretful porcupine.
I was a little disappointed, I must confess, but thoroughly charmed by his good-nature too. I told him how I esteemed his good-nature; and said that his hair must have taken all the obstinacy out of his character, for he had none.
“Oh!” returned Traddles, laughing, “I assure you, it’s quite an old story, my unfortunate hair. My uncle’s wife couldn’t bear it. She said it exasperated her. It stood very much in my way, too, when I first fell in love with Sophy. Very much!”
“Did she object to it?”
“she didn’t,” rejoined Traddles; “but her eldest sister—the one that’s the Beauty—quite made game of it, I understand. In fact, all the sisters laugh at it.”
“Agreeable!” said I.
“Yes,” returned Traddles with perfect innocence, “it’s a joke for us. They pretend that Sophy has a lock of it in her desk, and is obliged to shut it in a clasped book, to keep it down. We laugh about it.”
In all three cases, we get a visual image not merely because we are told what a character looks like but because we learn how those physical elements are indicative of something much larger about their personalities, their visions of themselves, and how they fit into the world.
So what do I take away from these three together? First, that there's no single "right" way to introduce a new character. Second, that the only "wrong" way to introduce a new character is to limit the description to physical detail alone. A reader wants to know not just (or even not mostly) what this character looks like. A reader wants to know who this person is.
It is possible to reveal character through actions, through conversations, through details of his/her interior life, through his/her attitudes towards personal external appearances, and through many other details. A great character description need not be long; it need merely be memorable. It can even riff on stock characters we've met before, toying with our expectations to help us place the person.
Between now and Monday, I'm going to try to write descriptions for one or two characters, and I hope you will too. On Monday, I'll come back here and show you what I've come up with, and I'll put a Mr. Linky on the post so that if you choose to post your descriptions on your blog in the meantime, you can link to my post. Or, if you don't want to make a post out of this, but you want to play along, you can paste yours in the comments section. Either way, we'll all get to read what each other is writing.
I'll also throw out the next prompt for writing another tiny piece of what may eventually become a story, and give you till the following Monday to work on that.
What do you think? Are you up for trying this with me? And if you don't want to write a short story, will you be interested to read what others are coming up with? Any suggestions? Please let me know if this is a good idea.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
(Sort of like Fun with Dick and Jane. But without the movie rights.)
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
In my travels around the interweb (not on a horse, though don't I wish), I find all kinds of interesting and mentionable things. I'm sure you do too. I keep lists, and I think to myself sometimes, "Self, you really ought to tell people about that. More people should know about this awesome bit of virtual real estate." But then I don't know how to work it into whatever post I'm writing.
Here's this funny story about something dumb I did when I was a kid. And, by the way, check out this great coupon site!
Not only are there simply no segues available to smooth that transition, but I run the risk of sounding like some really bad marketer.
So here I am, telling you about the top four sites I think more people ought to be checking out. (And just to clarify, no one put me up to this, paid me to say this, offered me swag or other bribes, or anything. I just thought you might be interested in knowing about these spots.)
1. Violence Unsilenced. The brainchild of Maggie @ Okay, Fine, Dammit, this incredible site offers a space in which survivors of domestic or other personal violence can tell their stories. It is possible to post anonymously. The rule of commenting (comments are moderated) is that only supportive comments will be allowed. The site is brilliantly designed with a giant "Quick Escape" button, should you be a reader of the site who is in danger and need to erase your trail fast. It also has a "Take the Pledge" page, where bloggers can show their support of the courageous stories appearing here and grab a button for their own sites. Having felt a tremendous sense of relief myself after telling the story of my own post-partum depression -- which is nothing like as scary as working through domestic violence, I assume -- I can only imagine what a tremendous service this site will prove to provide to people everywhere. Please, check it out, tweet about it, spread the word, and take the pledge yourself as a show of support.
2. Swap Mamas. This great site, net result of much loving labor by MommyPie, is a meeting place for all things swapable. The idea here is that you might have 2T little girl clothes, outgrown. You put your 2Ts up for grabs, pay to mail them off to the swappee who makes the best deal with you (no money is allowed to change hands), and get something in return. Perhaps it's some new books to read. Or a small kitchen appliance. Or size 4Ts. Or perhaps you find someone who needs what you have, but that person doesn't have what you need. Karma says, send your stuff on anyway. You can also put out the word that you need 4Ts. And if you've already done a good deed for someone else by sending your gently used things out into the world without a direct trade in sight, then the person with the pile of 4Ts that need to be mailed out is more likely to choose you as the lucky recipient. Even if you can't send her a thing she needs. See? What goes around comes around. Lots of great members are already there, swapping, chatting, and getting to know each other. So what are you waiting for? Go check it out and start swapping!
3. Retrevo. This clever site matches needy consumers with people who have extra coupons for the digital boxes necessary to convert analog television. Explicitly no selling of coupons is allowed. The only thing changing hands is a coupon. The idea is that some people who claimed these coupons for free boxes (coupons no longer available) may not have need for them, while others who no longer can get such coupons are now out of luck with the new digital-only broadcasts. If you know someone who has or needs such coupons, send them here. And twitter it if you can. It's good to get the word out.
4. The "For Parents" page on the Environmental Working Group website. This site is devoted to shedding light on the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. Although much of the site has technical information that can be hard to get through, the "For Parents" page is well organized, with all sorts of useful tips for everything from greening up your home to avoiding exposure to BPAs. This page is broken down into sections with quick tips, more information and comprehensive product information. From there, if you want to learn more, you can navigate throughout this extremely comprehensive and useful site to learn all the ways that you can help protect your children (and yourself) from unnecessary exposure to the dangerous and sometimes toxic chemicals that, terrifyingly, surround us in our daily lives.
And there you have it: four great, completely different, sites worth knowing about. Happy Travels!
(Cross-posted at The Best Stuff in the World. What?! You don't know about my shiny new review blog? You'll probably want to follow it, or subscribe, so you don't miss the awesome giveaways I have coming up in the next week or so. Hint: one of them starts tomorrow.)
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
San Diego Mama had this great idea last week to give each other post prompts, and the one I got, courtesy of Blognut, was to write about my most embarrassing sports moment. I hope the following suffices.
Do you remember Field Day?
It was the only day of the elementary school year when we were allowed to wear shorts to school.
There were races and ribbons.
There were hardly any classes or lessons.
We got to eat Popsicles. At school! Outside! Frozen cold and so fresh in the heat of the Georgia sun in June.
Field Day was magical.
Especially for a little girl who loved to run.
Back then, there were no soccer teams for girls. Just a few short years after I hit middle-school, there were teams starting for younger girls. But I was just ahead of that curve, and so I dabbled in ballet, brownies, and ice skating, but gave them up, one by one, as unsatisfying.
Back then, most girls wore skirts to school. At least, enough of us did that the fact that I wore one every day (was in fact prohibited by my mother from wearing blue jeans to school at all, as inappropriately informal) did not occasion any comment.
But in my peasant skirts and saddle oxfords, I still ran.
Every morning at the bus stop, we ran races. We ran from just in front of Tommy Lewis's house all the way down the block to the sewer cover, around it, and back to the waiting judge. I can still feel the sensation of my skirts flying around my legs, the blood thumping in my temples, my hair ribbons whisking around my ears as I skimmed along the pavement. I remember seeing the bus round the corner just as we were rounding the sewer cover, and putting my all into the sprint to get down the block so as not to make the bus driver wait. I remember breathlessly picking up my library books and lunch, sucking in air as I mounted the impossibly deep bus steps, and the bus driver grinning at me as I straightened my skirt. I remember demurely sitting in my seat, catching my breath, and dreaming of the race I would win the next day too. (I nearly always won. Even Tommy Lewis could not beat me.)
I remember the girl (though I do not remember her name) who lived two doors up from Tommy, and whose mother forbade her running races at the bus stop in the mornings as it wasn't ladylike to get on the bus all sweaty and disheveled. Crushed, she had to be our judge forever after. We still ran.
Is it surprising that I loved Field Day?
We had sprints and longer races, silly contests like sack races, obstacle courses, and hurdles. Hundreds of kids were outside at once, baking under the relentless sun on the barren expanse of crushed-gravel playing fields. Trees dotted the perimeter of the field...trees perfect for waiting your turn at kickball or trying to avoid your turn at bat during softball. But the field itself was all white and silvery bare, with little shimmers of heat rising up from it.
One year, when I was eight or nine, I decided that in addition to the sprints and other running contests, I would enter the hurdles. I had never run hurdles before, but that didn't matter. I could run. I was a good runner.
Shy and quiet, bespecktacled and timid of any sports that involved balls or equipment heading for my face, I excelled at the solitary sport. If I could run, I figured, surely I could run hurdles.
There were no limitations on what you could or could not do on Field Day but your own. You picked your own events, and there was no training. And so it was that I took my place at the starting line, dressed in my favorite outfit -- matching hot pink velour shorts and top with pink-and-white striped ribbed neck and trim -- stared down the lane of hurdles, and placed two fingers of one hand down to the ground as the judge called "Runners, on your mark."
I took off. I reached the first hurdle, leaped, misjudged, caught the hurdle with the toe of my shoe, and stumbled as I pulled the aluminum bar down behind me. Undeterred, I regained my balance and kept running. I might be able to catch up with the fleet-footed runners who'd cleared that bar, I thought.
Hurdle #2. I leaped, grabbed the hurdle with my entire ankle, and fell to my knees.
I got up. Ran as hard as I could, which I was beginning to sense was not hard enough. Leaped hurdle #3. Weakly. Got tangled up in the whole thing and landed on my knees in the crushed gravel.
Bloodied and wobbly, mortified, I got up and tried to run some more. Knew that there was obviously no other way to get to the end of this lane but by running the length of it. Made it to the last hurdle but, of course, had nothing like energy or speed left in my legs. Leaped anyway. Took a colossal face-plant of a fall as the hurdle and I tumbled together in a flailing mass of arms, shoes, and aluminum legs.
Completely humiliated, I got to my feet, pushed my glasses back into place on my nose, and trotted limply to the finish line.
I did not look around me. I knew, of course, that everyone else had long long long ago finished this race. I was too embarrassed to seek out a teacher to tend to my bloody palms and knees. I suspect I wandered weakly away to pick bits of gravel out of my skin.
Interestingly, I don't remember anyone else in that race. I know there were others running and many more watching, since I have a strong sense of the mortification I felt at of making a fool of myself in front of them -- but in my mind's eye, it is just me and those hurdles. One long, endless stretch of glittery white gravel, my pink shorts and pounding feet, my hopeful exhilaration being met with bars that were too high, the legs that would not cooperate with the unfamiliar motion I was requiring of them, the deadly silence of hot embarrassment flooding my face, the determination, the blood, the feeling of complete and utter failure at not clearing a single jump. And then blackness. Nothing. The memory ends.
It did not keep me from running races at the bus stop. But to this day, more than 30 years later, I have never tried to clear a hurdle. And I have a debilitating shyness of participating in anything that might be termed a spectator sport.
But on the up side, at least I have a story graphic enough to distract from the otherwise mortifying fact that I was dressed in a hot pink velour running costume.
Monday, February 23, 2009
When I was in high school, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be the sort of girl who wore scarves. So I began collecting them, and wearing them, and making them mine. I'm not sure what I thought was so desirable about Girls Who Wore Scarves, but I do know that I amassed quite the collection of silky prints, embroidered wonders, and large squares of woven Indian patterns that I still wear to this day. So it wasn't a bad decision, all in all, especially considering some of the other fashion choices I made in the early 1980s.
(Bluejeans so tight they required zippers at the ankles, anyone? Multiple pairs of socks, of different colors, layered over each other? Mall bangs?)
The point is that I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing simply to make a fashion ultimatum for oneself and stick to it.
The grown-up version of the Scarf Desire: I have long wanted to be the sort of woman who had lovely lovely handbags -- and yet I have not managed to pull the trigger on become a Handbag Woman. (Not to be confused with Bag Lady, obviously.)
I don't mean snazzy little evening clutches bejeweled with Swarovski crystals, although those are certainly luscious.
I mean everyday bags. Leather hobos, and fruit-colored buckle-bedecked totes, and sober creations with men's suiting houndstooth trim, and so on. I want to be the sort of woman who has a few GREAT bags from which to choose on a given morning, depending on my mood.
Of course, that would require several things.
First, I would need the time to repack a bag every morning. Given that there are days when I can't even dry my hair before leaving the house, this may be a pipe dream. (You think I'm kidding? Last week, several locks of my hair froze solid on the 7-minute walk from parking lot to office.)
Second, I'd have to find the money to buy said bags. Even if I eschew the heavy-hitting brands, this would require a not insignificant investment.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, this would mean I could actually FIND a handbook or three with which I can fall in love.
And this, in fact, is the biggest problem.
For example: I currently have a sweet little cordovan colored number, just the right size for my everyday stuff, but its straps are not quite long enough. What, please tell me, is the point of a shoulder bag whose straps are too short to make it over the stay-puff marshmallow arms of your winter coat? If I wanted to carry my bag in my hands, I wouldn't have popped out two children who need their hands held in every parking lot in the state, thereby rendering my hands permanently too full to carry anything else.
I have a red-leather sack-shaped bag that worked well for toting a book a a few other essentials while teaching in Italy and Greece one summer -- but it's more bookbag than fashionable accessory.
I have a gorgeous pink-and-white plaid Ralph Lauren leather tote, large enough to serve as a diaper bag (the purpose for which it was purchased) -- but it suffers from the too-short shoulder bag strap problem. Also, having successfully gotten my children past the formula, spare clothes, diapers, changing pad, diaper cream, bottles, urp cloth, bib, binkie and rattle stage, I am sort of into the smaller bags right now.
I have one perfect bag: a cream of celery colored Hobo given to me by my best friend since forever as a milestone birthday present. Its strap is just the right length; the bag is the perfect size; the leather is dreamy; the color is fun; it is everything I love. Except that I feel silly carrying a summer-colored bag in December in Michigan, and so it languishes in my closet 9 months of the year.
And so, I carry this as a dreamy dream. My desire to be a woman with lovely bags haunts me every time I see a friend with a bag I love. I have two such friends. You would think it would be easy to ask them where they got their lovely bags, and that would be the first step towards fulfilling the dream. But I don't.
I suspect this is because a little part of me is afraid to ask. What if I ask, and then I find a bag that completes me, and I am afraid to spend that much money? Or I buy it and then accidentally leave the house one morning in my pj's because I've spent so much time lovingly arranging the contents of my handbag?
You think a person couldn't do such a thing? Someday I'll tell you the story of the woman I know whose toddler threw up just as she was finishing getting ready to go teach a sewing class, and so she frantically cleaned up the floor and the toddler, tossed together all of the supplies for her class, deposited the toddler on his father's lap, slipped on her pumps, dashed out the door, made it to the shop on the stroke of 7:00 when the class was supposed to start, walked in the door, and made a bee-line past the entire class and straight to the back room where she desperately looked around for anything at all that she could put on over her slip. Which was all that she was wearing on her bottom half. She was not me, but I was there to witness the incident. So I know what can happen when one is desperately trying to wrangle children and get onesself out the door in the morning. Something's gotta' give. And that something just might be your own clothes. Having once picked up children from daycare in my slippers, because I didn't notice that I wasn't wearing shoes until I was walking across the snowy parking lot, I live in fear of this truism. It is not unreasonable to suspect that a truly great handbag might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Or at least, sends the camel to work half dressed.
Or what if the new, gorgeous leather confection faces the fate of the ugly red bookbag? In which, last month, I confess I found a completely dessicated clementine, covered with a fine sage-green velvety mold. The horror.
Perhaps a woman whose handbag contents regularly includes matchbox cars, packets of crackers, the backing of stickers ("littering is bad, Mama; here, I don't have a pocket"), a squishy rubber gecko, or a few cheese sticks just in case, doesn't deserve to have a lovely purse.
Or perhaps she just needs to get in the habit of putting all such detritus into a ziplock bag, so as to save the lining of her lovely leather accessory.
Do tell: are you a purse lady? And if so, how do (did) you manage that with preschoolers?
And if you want to read what I really think about some children's books, check out my whine today on Secret Spineless Whine. Amy and Marinka actually asked me to produce a whine to feature!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
There's been a lot of railing against the Facebook "25 Things About Me" meme lately in bloglandia and the Twittersphere. It seems people are sick of being asked to write these random lists, tired of reading them, and altogether over the whole meme thing.
But a friend of mine sent me a link to "Wm. Shakespeare's Five and Twenty Random Things Abovt Me," which nearly made me wet my pants laughing, and made me think that perhaps I could satisfy my obligation in this regard (yes, I've been Facebook tagged for this meme too) by writing a Dickens version. So here is my contribution to the genre.
Being But an Incomplete List of the Idiosyncrasies that Together Form the Better Part of One Man's Existence in the Present Age
by Charles Dickens
1. My life has been filled with the best of times. (The worst of times I choose not to mention.)
2. When I was a child, my father called me "Chuckles," in jesting reference to my less than enthusiastic reaction on being taken from school and sent to work in a blacking factory to help pay his debts.
3. The schoolmaster Mr. M'Choakumchild is based on a real teacher in my grammar school, who did his best to educate me according to his own philosophy (until I was sent to work in a blacking factory). I found his real name, Mr. Gentlesweet, to be odiously inappropriate. I am of the opinion that a name should reveal something accurate of a man's character.
4. And that children should not be sent to work in blacking factories.
5. I feel a desperate urge to throw stones every time I visit the Crystal Palace Exhibition. However, my friend Wilkie argues even I could not excuse such behavior in an immense glass-house by blaming the sparrows, which are an avowed annoyance. Pity.
6. I have a particular fondness for an elegant turn of phrase; and find that a descriptive passage, when once properly constructed, veritably takes on a life of its own and brings before the reader a vision of such power and vividness as to render him almost breathless.
7. I am paid by the page for my prose.
8. I have never read the whole of Bleak House.
9. My mother was a pretty, silent, persevering, delicate, loving, little thing. Had it not been for my father, she would have been quite perfect.
10. I would like to write more romantic scenes in my fiction and cannot fathom why I am unable to do so successfully.
11. My wife, Catherine, has chosen lilac for the drawing-room. I cannot abide lilac. I am not convinced she has considered this carefully as a means of torturing me; however, she is nothing but indifferent to the tremendous strains and pressures of my extensive work obligations.
12. I like my slippers just so, and my pipe already filled when I retire to the drawing room of an evening. Catherine cannot seem to recall this. I suspect laziness on her part.
13. I have lately lost my ninth child, a sweet infant called Dora, and am most crushed by the loss.
14. My other children are some comfort, but Catherine is positively useless. I cannot think why she is not more supportive of me in my grief. Certainly it affects my writing.
15. I am partial to hand-cut swan quill pens, constructed of right-wing feathers. I do not feel it is too much to ask that my desk be prepared accordingly before I come down to write of a morning.
16. Catherine cannot manage this either. I cannot fathom what she does all day long to make such a simple thing impossible to recall.
17. Once and for all, David Copperfield is not myself. The fact that he is sent to work in a bottle factory, having been removed summarily from school at the age of ten despite his promising intelligence, is merely coincidence.
18. I am of the opinion that every man would do well to mature far beyond the child he once was.
19. I find gruel abhorrent and would rather take nothing at all.
20. I strongly resist attending any dinner party that I reasonably suspect will not end with several games at charades and at least one impromptu set of magical tricks.
21. I have asked my publishers to withhold all mail suggesting plot changes for my novels while they are running serially. Having once been coerced by popular opinion to alter the outcome of a novel, much to my own dissatisfaction, I have sworn firmly to resist such influence forevermore.
22. In my experience, Americans have an ill-formed sense of humour when it comes to considering themselves. However, they have a quite proper respect for fame.
23. I once had an aunt who could not abide donkeys on the village green. She would chase them off with sticks. I used to lure donkeys to the village green with carrots, just to watch her emerge running from her house in her enormous turban (the headwear that had been fashionable in her youth, and that she saw no reason to change on a sudden whim after forty-years' passage of time).
24. I am unaccountably timid of railway travel.
25. I find David Copperfield to be the funniest of the productions of my pen and will be much gratified if the public adjudges it likewise. I should so like to be remembered as a man who could make people laugh.
And, seriously, if you have it in you to read another list of 25 things, you MUST go check out my inspiration, the Shakespeare version -- complete with archaic spellings and cod-piece shopping. You will not be disappointed.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I recently got a little award from the lovely Lori at A Double Shot of Espresso, and I'm supposed to pass it on to ten bloggers I love to read. Coincidentally, I've been thinking recently that I really need to update my blogroll because I've discovered so many new and wonderful writers since I put that together. So, in no particular order, here are ten of my newest favorites -- ones you'll be delighted to check out if you haven't already. I recommend having a box of tissues handy, though, if you click on through. Because some of them are very touching writers, and you'll need a hanky, and others are so darn funny that you'll thank me later for for the foresight to provide you with a means of wiping the coffee splutters off your keyboard.
1. Is there any mommy out there?
2. Deb on the Rocks
3. June Cleaver Nirvana
4. Life Just Keeps Getting Weirder
5. Bern This
6. Motherhood in NYC
7. Missives from Suburbia
8. Secret Spineless Whine
9. Sweet Juniper
10. Venus in Combat Boots
So, any of you above who like little bits of bling, please accept this award. Those of you reading? Enjoy yourselves immensely.
Now for Bling #2.
I got this award from DCUrbanDad, with this explanation:
"This award shows the values that every blogger shows in his or her effort to transmit cultural, literal, ethical and personal values every day."
Laws a' Mercy, this one is supposed to be passed on to 15 MORE bloggers!
I don't mean to be cranky about an award -- but who in his/her right mind invents one that is supposed to be be passed on to fifteen other people? (In DCUrban Dad's defense, this is not his explanation or rule; it's merely one he quoted from whomever passed the award on to him; who surely quoted it from whomever gave it to her; and so on and so on and so forth, to quote the King of Siam. So, please, DCUrban, don't think I'm aiming cranky your way. I'm really very touched that you like me enough to give me an award for values of any kind.)
But I have to ask: who transmits "literal" values on a blog anyway? Is it supposed to say "literary"? And if not, what ARE "literal values"?
I can't possibly bestow this on 15 people without making enemies, so I'm going to give it to the people who I think will best appreciate an award that looks like a typewriter on fire releasing clouds of toxic fumes. My twist on this award, then, is that it goes to the people whose literal values include a very very fine sense of humor (yes there is some overlap with the list above; these people are funny enough to list twice): Marinka, Mr. Lady, ShallowGal, TexasHolly, Jessica, Anne Nahm, BusyDad, HappyHourSue, Deb, and The Bloggess.
If you're in need of a good solid snort of laughter, do yourself a favor and check them out sometime.
Also, if you're excited about lots of new links, you could do me a favor and go follow my new reviews site, so you don't miss any of the (occasional) posts and giveaways that go up there. It's a little lonely, what with its ZERO followers. Thanks.
And finally, can anyone explain to me why sometimes Blogger blogs will show up with no posts on their home page these last few days? Header and sidebar looks fine; individual post titles can be clicked on and show up, but the main page shows no posts at all. Bizarre, I tell you. Beee-zarrrrre.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
I've said before, I love my children's daycare. I know I am extremely lucky to have reliable, loving care for them at a place that is more than generous about accommodating the scheduling vagaries of a mother who works fulltime but not on a traditional 9-5 schedule.
So please take the following petty rant for what it's worth -- a bit of venting, and a question. In fact, I thought about posting this as a straightfoward rant on my new favorite blog, Secret Spineless Whine, but then I wouldn't be able to ask you what you thought, so it's going here. But you can take that impulse as a sign that I am fully aware that this may seem vaguely small-potatoes.
My daycare is DRIVING ME CRAZY at the moment with all the requests for an extra $3 here and $2 there. For holidays (mother's day, father's day, and Christmas -- yes, they are not apparently aware that every person in their daycare may celebrate something else over the Winter Break), there is the obligatory $5 per child that we bring in to fund the gifts they will make us.
Then there's $2 for the pumpkin festival in fall, and $4 once a month for the visiting magician, and $1 for the pizza for the Valentine's party, and $1 for the ice cream party in summer, and sign-up sheets and/or money donations for the parties to celebrate Valentine's day, Easter, the spring tea, 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Let's do the math, shall we.
$4 per child
times approximately 150 children old enough to watch the magician
Either this magician can actually make things disappear, or he is really a lawyer and sets his hourly rates accordingly, or someone's getting ripped off because I don't know any child's entertainer who should be making $400 per hour, and his shows are never more than an hour and a half.
And yet, do you want to know the crazy thing? I don't even mind the money that much. The kids are having all kinds of good times, and doing fun projects, and having festive meals, and being entertained by a hilarious man with jokes about the days of the week, "Let's see," he begins to recite slowly, "Sun-day, Mon-day, Tues-day, Wednes-day, February, March...." "Noooooooooooo!" shout all the children in glee, and then come home and repeat the joke ad nauseum for a week or two, when they blissfully forget it until he comes back the next month.
I don't mind paying for these things.
What I resent is that I invariably need to provide a random $2 for one child or the other for some event whose fine print I have missed in the 275 sheets of paper sent home daily, and it is due TODAY, and I have no cash in my purse.
And then I feel guilty. And stupid. And like a bad mother for obviously not reading every word of every page of every art project, note and heart-shaped reminder that gets sent home.
This month alone, I owe $9 for the magician (x 2 children) and the Valentine's pizza. Fine. Here's an idea: add it to my bill! The place charges my credit card every single week anyway. Why not tabulate the "extras" fees at the beginning of every month, and add $9 to the bill in the first week. Then add $5 next month, and $7 the month after, and who knows what else after that...
But the point is, don't ask me for petty cash. I don't have a petty cash drawer in my office. I rarely use cash for purchases any more. And when I do have cash, it's almost always because I've specifically withdrawn some to pay the babysitter or some other earmarked fund.
Also? I have to remember to bring sleeping blankets, show and tell, lunch boxes, boots, snowpants, hats, mittens, spare clothes for the one who had an accident last week when the fire alarm woke her up mid-naptime, a container of baby wipes, a box of tissues, and a green paper leaf plastered with photos of the family for the wall-sized family tree. Do you think I can remember to dig $4 in quarters out of my change cup for the holiday party contributions too? You're darn lucky I didn't forget the children themselves.
So please, if you are going to do all these lovely extra things that cost extra money, could you just add the fees to my bill? You're stressing me out with your cute heart-shaped reminders to bring $1 today.
Am I crazy? What do you think?
Monday, February 16, 2009
Whether by a bell or a whistle or a particular kind of shout, I don't recall, but it is certain that we all knew when recess was over. We girls who hung upside down on the monkey bars and played clapping games, who climbed and giggled, had a tradition. One last flip over the bar before we righted ourselves and dashed across the tremendous field of gravel towards the yawning door of the school.
On this morning, I misjudged the timing or the distance and, in my enthusiasm, smacked the bridge of my nose hard on the metal bar itself. Immediately blood started pouring out. My two friends, the only ones left in the line of little girls once waiting for their turn at the flip bar, clamored down to help me. With one supporting me at each side, we trekked slowly across the now-deserted, silent expanse.
I tipped my head back, trying to make the blood stop flowing (or perhaps to keep it from landing on my clothes).
"Oh, don't tip your head back," said one friend, in an all-knowing voice, "all the blood will go into your brain and you'll die."
I promptly tilted my head forward.
"Oh, no!" said the other friend, equally knowing. "Don't tip your head forward, or all the blood will go into your mouth, and you'll swallow it, and die."
My eyes widened at this predicament. Unsure what else to do. I held my head straight up, hand to my face, willing the bleeding to stop, while my two friends walked me across the interminable expanse of playground.
When we got back to our second-grade classroom, our tardiness needed no explanation. The substitute teacher we had that day bustled off to get me paper towels, handed them to me, and sat me down at my desk.
Honestly, I was disappointed. I'd felt a little proud of the vast amount of blood. I was hoping for some flourish or fanfare. The attention a wounded war hero deserved. Cluckings of worry, petting, the kind motherly, sympathetic response my regular teacher would have given me.
At the very least, I expected a pass to the nurse's office, which conveyed with it a sense of importance. I am Injured, such a pass announced. I Deserve Special Treatment.
Instead, I got a scratchy wad of uncompromising brown paper toweling that remained stained on my desk long after my nose stopped bleeding. I don't recall whether I was sent anywhere to wash myself up, but in my childish mind, however I was dealt with was an indignity hardly to be supported. THIS substitute had no proper idea of how to handle a crisis. She was NO REAL TEACHER, I concluded. I held her in my silent contempt for the rest of the day.
* * * * *
Your turn. Tell me your most vivid memory of elementary school.
And then, do yourself a huge huge favor, and go check out my review of 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny -- a book that will make you laugh, cry, nod, and relive your own school days, with the added twist of letting you know what your teachers were thinking too. It's really one of the very best books I've read in a long long time.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
"Oh," she sighed, a little catch in her voice. "I've missed this view. Black trees standing like that against the pink sky..."
It's true that the view was particularly lovely last Friday night. Tall ashes and maples, their bark dark as wet ink, reached up against a backdrop of rose and tangerine and raspberry. The sherbet sky glowed with the setting sun and sent golden light across the feathery tops of the trees along the crest of the hill.
Still, I was a little confused. My first thought was, "Obviously the sun sets in Georgia." What I said, though, was, "Surely you have trees that lose their leaves back home."
"Well, but, they aren't the same kinds of trees," she said. "They aren't the same shape, and they aren't so black, and the sky..." she paused, "it just doesn't look the same."
My mother grew up in Michigan. No doubt she saw that view hundreds, if not thousands, of times in her life. But it has been decades since she's really seen a Michigan winter. (I don't count the January she came to help with newborn Son, since all she saw then was our dirty floor, a lot of dirty diapers, my broken, helpless, first-time-mother self, and one adorably scrunchy newborn. There weren't a lot of dramatic sunsets in her sightlines that year.)
Even though I was driving, I looked hard again at that view which always makes me catch my breath. It felt good, deep inside me, to learn that something that so moves me had touched my mother's psyche long before I was ever born.
* * * * *
Splashing water and echoing shrieks of joy filled the air as we half-swam and half-ran through the pool, chasing each other -- my mother, my children, and I, playing water tag.
"The merp merp is coming!" Daughter said, opening and closing her little hands like crab claws as she slowly bicycled her legs through the water. Her bright yellow vest bobbed near her chin because she refused to wear the between-the-legs strap that would anchor it lower.
Son dodged out of her way, laughing with his whole mouth open, enjoying the illusion of speed created by his limbs thrashing through the water.
My mother, meanwhile, did a little porpoise dive and swam quietly out of reach. Pausing, giggling, my children and I peered into the water, searching for her hiding amidst the ripples.
"There's Nana!" Son pointed excitedly towards the deeper water. I glanced over and momentarily could not place her, then felt my breath suck in sharply as a I realized that the pink scalp I could see beneath the thick strands of pure white hair was hers. To be sure the figure was swimming a lap of sidestroke, something I've seen her do countless times. But when, oh, when? I ached to wonder, when did she grow old?
* * * * *
Laughing, the toddler and the preschooler careened back and forth across the sodden street. In the warmth of a brilliantly sunny faux-spring day, the gutters ran with streams of melted snow, while the shady places on the road were still covered in a thick layer of ice. Clad only in street clothes and coats, my children moved with a buoyancy that implied the lightness they felt, the joy at having left snow pants and awkward boots at home.
The plowed-up walls of snow that lined the sides of the streets were reduced to a two-foot-high berm of icy crush, as if an enormous Snoopy Sno-Cone machine had expelled unlimited quantities of shaved ice onto the curbs. Daughter grabbed a tiny handful in her dirty pink mitten, zoomed across the street and stopped suddenly in front of my mother. From six inches away, she hurled her prize at the hem of Nana's coat. "Gotcha!" she sang delightedly. Nana had the good grace to be astonished, as Nanas always do.
The snowball fight lasted closer to two hours than one. We moved up the street at the pace of melting snow, prefering the sideways trajectory to the forwards one. Son's path: Dash to promising point at left curb -- scoop up two giant handfuls of snow -- zoom through obstacle course of icy, puddled road -- slip -- fall -- laugh -- dash to right curb -- scoop more snow -- zoom more carfully this time towards "unsuspecting" adult -- shout with glee, "Ha ha! Double handful! Gotcha TWO times!!" -- run like a madman away from Mama, who is gearing up with snow of her own.
We laughed and played our way through two sets of shoes, socks and pants for Son, admiring the sky so blue, the air so clear, the day not-yet-warm but certainly not cold.
"It's been years since I've had a snowball fight," said Nana with a satisfied smile when we finally came indoors.
* * * * *
This is why I haven't posted much lately. I've been spending a lot of time just living. There are no photos. But there are memories of unhesitating snowball skirmishes blissfully free of any worry about camera safety. There are no daily posts chronicling the events. But there are glittering images in my mind of warmth and connection.
Across the generations, and within my own self, I have been striving for serenity. I miss the mark some days. But I have realized that if one spends a lifetime looking forward to the next big event, it may be possible to miss every single important thing that is going on today. I have always been a girl and a woman with goals, always known what I wanted to accomplish next.
But now I worry: if I focus on what's next, won't I wake up one day and find that the baby dimples are gone, and I don't know when that happened?
I have decided to live in today. Not without goals, certainly; I'm far too type A for that. But within the moment. Within the life I have. Within the lives of my children. Within the time it takes to interrupt the email I'm answering to place my daughter belly-down on the very top of my head and spin her around in the kitchen because it delights us both.
* * * * *
In the dim light, the lavendar walls are an indistinct color, except that I know precisely their shade, having chosen it so carefully when six months pregnant with Daughter. She is sitting up in bed at midnight, hair touseled, eyes closed, crying fitfully. A bad dream, perhaps? A night waking she could not soothe without the recently abandoned pacifiers?
Whatever the cause, my remedy is simple. I stretch myself out beside her, gently put her head back on the pillow, draw the cover over us both. Her small body relaxes. She quiets, breathes softly. When I am sure she is settled again, I make a move to get up and return to my own bed. Without opening her eyes, she reaches out her arm, drapes her wrist over my neck, and gently pats the back of my head. pat pat pat . . . pat pat pat. I stare into her face, obscured slightly by stray locks of hair; her eyes, closed peacefully; her full upper lip slightly separated from the lower one.
And I stay.
Awake at midnight, I stay, bound by the grasp of a tiny hand and the sweetness of her childish breath.
Monday, February 9, 2009
I just got an email from a former student of mine, letting me know about a great-sounding new novel to be released in April, which he thought might come in handy if I were at a loss for what to read next in a class at some point.
It's called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Some enterprising soul has taken Jane Austen's novel satirizing the early 19th century marriage market and turned it into a hard-core zombie book, complete with ninja scenes in which the Bennet girls (trained by Mr. Darcy) fight back against their zombie attackers. I'm not sure what you call a novel that parodies another novel that is in itself a satire, but I do admire the layered literary effort.
The kicker, for me, is that the writer claims he has managed to keep 85% of Austen's original text -- and still he's turned this into a zombie extravaganza on which Hollywood studios are already bidding despite the fact that the book has yet to be released. 85%! That is nothing short of stunning. That is more than is contained in a "respectable" abridged version of most Victorian novels. That is so much, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few students read this instead of the real Austen novel, figuring they will have gotten the gist of it, and that's what matters. And really, it's not like it will be that difficult to figure out which bits aren't original. Those would be the bits about the zombies.
Of course, it will take a slightly more trained eye to spot the revisions if they are all along the lines of the new opening sentence, which is purportedly, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains."
HA! Work out which bits are Jane and which bits are Seth Grahame-Smith there.* If the whole novel is like this, it will be a book that delights eggheads like me, who are highly familiar with the original. Basically, it will be the literary equivalent of watching Shrek with your kids and getting all the references and innuendos that the little ones miss and that were obviously included just for adult amusement.
It seems there have been equally loud scoffings from both Austenites and Zombieites, both of whom are claiming that to pair the two is only to the detriment of the classic literature/story lines they so prize. Also, a small contingent is complaining that zombies are so 2008. But I predict that all of these naysayers will be in the minority, and I look forward to a year or two of awesome horror movies in which all the main characters are dressed in period costumes and know how to pour a really really good cup of tea.
With a cover like this**, don't you suspect that this novel will shoot almost immediately to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list?
I don't know about you, but the only thing I'm looking forward to more than reading the book itself is reading The Bloggess's take on it; she's sure to jump on anything with zombies, right? But oh, how I wish Chronicle Books would send me a review copy hot off the presses so I could tell you all about it myself!
* The original first sentence of this novel is, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife." ***
** One beauty, to me, of this cover is that despite the fact that the Austen novel is out of copyright, the authorship on this new novel is "Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith." Classy. Perfectly right, of course. But also, classy.
*** Edited to add: it has been pointed out to me that I have misquoted this first sentence, which I blame on my sleepless state due to my fractious toddler. The man need not be young; he only need be single. Also, the fortune must be a good one. Thanks, Jenniebee, for putting me right.
To learn more about this promising book, check out these articles.
(And don't miss your chance to score yourself some free lotion, guaranteed to ward off zombies. Well, not really guaranteed; perhaps more like suggested. By me. But worth a shot.)
Saturday, February 7, 2009
I have been known to write letters to my children on this blog, but they tend to be full of sarcastication and contain hints about table manners. Or, if they're earnest, they are on the occasion of no great particular occasion. On their birthdays, I have not written the loving letters that so many mothers write -- not because I do not love my little ones (which I assume is pretty obvious) but because I have a dread paranoia of admitting to the Internet what days exactly are their real birthdays. (Call me crazy; I'm not afraid to own it.) Also I try really hard to say in person the things that should go in a letter, to tell them how proud of them I am, and what I hope they will see in themselves. Granted, there is a limit to how articulate and sophisticated one's prose may be in a birthday wish of the sort that is spoken to a newly-five year old, but still, I like to try.
Then I read a hilarious little bedtime story to herself over at Deb on the Rocks, and realized how great it would be to read those birthday tributes to grown-ups. Of course, I've missed Deb's birthday by two days, so I'm not sure I can be her mommyblogger. (Also, it may possibly be the case that I'm not actually a mommyblogger at all but rather a "personal blogger" or "diarist" or "drivel-ist" or whatever the word is for someone who just writes whatever comes into her head on any given day without thinking too much about the category in which that writing topic falls.)
Conveniently, yesterday was the birthday of my best friend since forever. (You'll note that I also did not write a post of tribute to her because I am apparently too much of a slacker. And that's the first thing that she and Deb have in common.) So I thought in the spirit of spreading the love, I would enumerate some of the great things they have in common.
1. I've known Best Friend for 29 years. I've known Deb for somewhere between 29 days and 29 months.
2. Best Friend can always make me smile when I'm down and has known exactly what to say about every boy problem I've had in my entire life (with the exception of the trauma of 6th grade, when Matt bought Kristin a Hallmark card for Valentine's Day and thereby cruelly crushed my unrequited love for him; but in fairness to BF, she and I hadn't yet met when that event happened, so it's not really her fault that she couldn't solace me).
Deb can be counted on to make me laugh out loud any time I click over to her site, and I'm 100% sure she gives great relationship advice, even though I've never had any from her. How do I know? I read her blog.
3. BF knows there is a time for seriousness and a time for Ouzo, and she is excellent at telling them apart and involving me in both. Deb has given martketing advice to FAO Schwartz, which perfectly balances the serious and the astonishing. (If you don't know the link between Ouzo and astonishment, you've never traveled with my Best Friend from Italy to Greece on an overnight ferry with just a deck pass and been handed a shot of Ouzo at 7am by a preternaturally cheerful hotelier. I pity you.)
4. BF has fantastic taste in interior furnishings, and her house on a bad day makes my house on a good day looked like chopped liver. Deb has (practically) redecorated the White House.
5. BF is a dreamer and a go-getter, a woman I admire tremendously, and one who is destined to be successful at whatever she tries because she puts 110% into everything. Deb is the Golden Child.
The point of this little list? Well, really, there are two. (1) If you don't read Deb on the Rocks, you should. It's hilariously full of all the innovation and sarcasm you could ever want. (2) My childhood best friend is an amazing woman that I'm proud to know still as an adult -- and if you don't have you one of these yet, I highly recommend running out to find one. You can't have mine, because that's not how the gig works, but I just thought it was worth saying publicly that a friendship can last 29 years and still be going strong.
Happy Birthday to two incredible women: my oldest friend and one of my newest!
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Day 1: This isn't so hard. Are you sure this thing is working? My arms aren't even sore.
Bedtime on Day 1: I am an old old lady. My knee is so sore that I just took a glucosamine tablet. It's true: the medicine we give our aging dog to help out her stiff joints has become my new best friend. That and a pair of ibuprofen. Is it possible that I'm just so efficient at exercise that it only takes me ONE day to completely shred my body, instead of 30?
Day 2: Limp limp limp. Limp limp limp. Where is the modified version of these exercises for people who are sub-beginner? Is this woman crazy? Her plan destroys your body. It ought to be called the "30-Day Knee Shredder." The only parts of my body that don't hurt are my fingers, toes and ears.
Day 3: At work 9am-9pm. That's enough shredding for one day, especially since it took a lot of muscle control not to hobble visibly everywhere I went.
Day 4: Skip the Shred, run instead. When 40 minutes of running and sprints feels easier than a 20-minute video, what does that mean?
Day 5: "I am lazy lazy lazy in the morning...I am lazy lazy lazy in the evening..." (Make up your own tune. If it's not too much work.)
Day 6: If my kids can do this Shred, I can. Seriously? The toddler can do crunches with one ankle propped up on her knee. How come she's not sore?
Day 7: Swam a half-mile. Also sat in the hot tub to try to make my muscles forget that I'm torturing them on off-days from the gym.
Day 8: What is a one-word substitute for the gym, the 30-day Shred, calorie counting, and healthy eating? SNOWSTORM. (Two hours of shoveling = nearly 900 calories burned.)
Day 9: Resting on my snowstorm laurels, I do nothing. I suck. Whatever. I did spend a lot of time making a Super Spy outfit for a teddy bear.
Day 10: No Shred. Mondays are the twelve hour work day. Excuses excuses.
Day 11: Running like a fiend: 1 mile hill walk; 1.25 mile run; 3 sprints; cool down = 45 minutes of aerobic exercise. Also? Less painful than the Shred.
Days 12-15: Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. You can't even believe how much snow we're getting. I have blisters on my palms, created through my gloves, from so much shoveling.
Days 16-30: If even just keeping up with this daily log is too much, how do you expect me to exercise too? I did do the video one more time somewhere in here, but I couldn't tell you where. I ran a few times and swam a few times and spent a lot of time steaming myself in the steam room at the gym, with its lovely eucalyptus scented steam.
Tally: In 30 days, I did the Shred video four times. This video did not make me lose weight or get me more toned. Do with that what you will.
Conclusion: The 30-day Shred is for suckers. Or people who have more motivation than me.
New Goal: I'm going to try again in February. Given that I've already wasted five days of this month, and it only has 28 days to begin with, I think perhaps this more modest goal of making the 30-day Shred into a 23 day one might just happen. *snort*
Anyone with a magic pill for keeping motivated to exercise every day, please contact me. Will consider all reasonable offers, and am prepared for in-kind trade of gently used exercise videos in exchange.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
As a freshman in college, I took an introductory theater course to try to stay in touch with my long love of all things theatrical. This course was part literature, part acting, part technical elements of staging...a true broad introduction. One of the requirements was that we spend a minimum of ten hours that semester working on the production of a play -- as an actor, scene painter, lighting lackey, or whatever. As soon as I heard that one of the options for fulfilling those hours was in the costume shop, I took myself immediately down to the bowels of the theater and introduced myself to the professor who was head of the costuming department.
"I am in the intro theater course, and I have to do ten hours or work on a show, and I was hoping I could do them down here," I said softly, a little shy.
The spry, mustachioed man tilted his head to one side (I would come to learn he did that whenever he was considering anything carefully), looked me up and down, and said, "Well, the thing is, you have to already be able to sew."
"Oh, I can sew," I replied hurriedly.
"No," he said patiently, as if he'd heard that line a lot. "I mean you really have to be able to sew. I don't have time to teach you."
"I can really sew," I said, more forcefully this time. "I've been sewing all my life."
His head tilted so far to one side that I thought he might hurt his neck.
"Not just you think you can sew," he reiterated patiently. "I can only use someone who can actually sew. If I hand you something, I need you to be able to do it."
I was puzzled as to how I could prove to this man that I could really sew. And not a little mystified that he seemed so skeptical; his doubt suggested that he'd heard this a lot. I began to wonder just who these hordes were who came down to his windowless basement costume shop and asserted in off-hand, dismissive tones, accompanied by a casual wave of the hand, that they knew how to sew when, in fact, they did not. Did he really get so many patent liars about their sewing abilities that he had to be this cautious?
I don't recall whether I offered to hem something on the spot, or explained patiently that my mother was a professional seamstress and had taught me to sew as a child, or twirled around in some funky skirt I happened to be wearing that I'd actually made, or what. But whatever I said or did, he finally chose to take a chance on me. (Note, I do not say that he believed me yet, only that he agreed to give me a try.)
I do recall that he led me out of the costume shop and into his office to pursue the conversation further. I can pretend that I know how that talk went, but I don't -- although I suspect I trotted out phrases that I thought would help convince him, such as mentioning that I knew the difference between things cut on the bias and things not, that I had designed my own prom dress, or that my mother kept me home one day each year just before the big spring play went up to help her with all the last-minute details of the costumes. I had constructed bustles and trimmed hats. I knew my way around a pattern and could put a rolled hem into a skirt without ironing it first.
It came to pass that he decided I really could sew, and then he said, "Come on, I'll introduce you to everyone." He started to lead me out of his office and back into the costume shop, when he paused. "Your name is Andrea, right? Are you Andie?" I let him know in no uncertain terms that I was definitely NOT Andie. "Well, then, what's your nickname?"
I was stumped. "I don't really have a nickname."
He tilted his head to the side. "Everybody has a nickname," he said.
Finally I offered, "Well, my father used to call me AJ when I was a child, but no one has called me that since I was about six..." I trailed off. I didn't tell him that I'd insisted no one call me that because it was a "boy name." I simply assumed what you would assume too, I imagine: that someone you've known for fifteen minutes will not adopt a nickname for you that you have just said is not in fact a name anyone calls you.
And yet, he led me into the costume shop and proceeded to introduce me by saying, "Listen up, everyone! I'd like you all to meet AJ. She's going to be working down here this semester. She knows a lot more about sewing than you do, so mind what she says..." Or something along those lines. Basically, he told his entire diligently-working class that I was good people, I knew what I was doing, they weren't to mess with me. And my name was AJ.
As it turned out, I really had just met "everyone." The room was full of theater majors accomplishing some stage of the signature garment in the Fundamentals of Costume Design class: the Basic Ugly Bodice. This unwearable garment had curved seams and straight, two different kinds of sleeves, ruffles, trim, a zipper, buttons, and every other element of sewing you would need to know, all in one muslin blouse. Hence its name. I was later to learn that more than one student in this required course had presented his mother with a Basic Ugly Bodice as a Christmas present, so proud was he of having acquired the skill of sewing. In this room full of everyone who mattered in the theater at that particular moment, two things were assured: I was "in," and no one would think of me as an interloper from that day forward. And in the theater, my name was AJ forevermore.
It was unquestionably the strangest introduction I have ever had in my life, although it turned out to serve me well. I went on to be employed as a work-study student in the costume shop for twenty hours a week throughout my whole college career. I ran the shop during marathon sewing sessions before big performances; I worked as the main dresser during shows -- not just helping people in and out of clothes, but repairing things on the fly. And to this day, when friends of mine from those long-ago theater days find me on Facebook, they only recognize me because of my last name. And they address all their "hello, long-lost friend!" emails to AJ.
Although no one calls me that now, I do not find these greetings strange because it is the simple truth that I grew into the name. AJ was the person I was in that theater and in that crowd. AJ was confident, flirty, skilled, outspoken -- all the so many things I had a harder time being in real life. AJ loved to act but didn't have a lot of time for rehearsals due to her job, so she got her theater fix by hanging out with actors and sewing. And because all these people were in training, even the actors had to sew, so AJ -- in running the costume shop -- got to know absolutely everyone.
The AJ stories could fill a small book, and I smile to myself when I think back on those days of folly and wonder set in the magical space of a theater that served as a second home. And much as I intially resented being introduced under a name that was not my own, I know now that the new name gave me a chance to reimagine who I was. It became not just a nickname, but marker of my freedom. And for that, all these twenty-odd years later, I thank the man who foisted upon me, when I was only seventeen, a real and true break from my childhood.
Monday, February 2, 2009
So here's my bid for Mother of the Year.
Yesterday, Daughter was playing hide-and-seek in the folds of my long red bathrobe. It was funny and cute. Until she lost her balance trying to pop out and say "BOO!" and fell face first onto the tile floor. She burst into tears, and I gathered her up and held her tight, feeling particularly guilty because about two weeks ago, she and her brother were playing some game that resulted in her face planting on the very same tile and chipping one of her front teeth. The teeth are still sensitive, and I was sure she was hurting. When the sobs finally quieted enough for her to look up from where she'd buried her head in my shoulder, I realized that she and I were covered in blood. Serious bloody nose. Poor baby.
We got her cleaned up, and iced down, and dosed with ibuprofen, and snuggled up in Daddy's lap. Then guilt-ridden mama, who'd thought the peek-a-boo game was really cute (it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt), went to make waffles for a cheer-up breakfast.
Son dashed past me into the dining room as I headed towards the cabinet. I took down a big glass mixing bowl, turned around to put it on the counter, and CRACK! managed to bash poor Son in the face with the bowl. Apparently, he'd made the circuit of the house, and was sneaking up behind me. The lip of the bowl had smashed into the upper edge of his cheekbone -- the part that forms the eye socket -- which was already swelling, not to mention cut by the sheer force of the blow. He looked like a boxer who'd take a left hook to the eye.
Enter more ice. More ibuprofen. Lots more tears. More sitting on Daddy's lap. Frantic searches for butterfly bandages in very tiny sizes. HUUUUGE piles of guilt for mama.
I snuggled him, and read to him, as he hiccuped quietly and held a bag of frozen cranberries to his face. "You know, ice cream would probably make it feel a lot better," he said, looking into my face with a sly smile. I had to laugh.
In the end, he doesn't seem to be getting a black eye, and the cut stopped oozing blood, and her nose is still perky and cute, and they are both perfectly cheerful.
And, really, I think any mother who can inadvertantly cause serious facial bleeding to both her children in separate incidents less than ten minutes apart deserves some kind of award for accomplishments of the day, don't you? At least, as long as she is smart enough to fix things by serving waffles and ice cream for breakfast afterwards.