Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Last Book of the Year

Could there possibly be any better way to spend the last day of the year than to curl up by the fire with a good book? Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm has been on my to-read list for ages, and when, browsing in the library last week, I happened upon Penguin’s paperback edition with its irresistable cover by Roz Chast, I bumped it up to the top and brought it along to read during this self-indulgent week in Michigan.

The first sentence, alone, made me see how it became one of those “cult” books that so many writers love. “The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged: and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

Unfazed by her lack of skills, Flora has no intention of trying to find work. When her friend and confidante, the widowed Mrs. Smiling, points out that the hundred pounds a year left to her by her parents won’t even keep her in stockings and fans and inquires, “What will you live on?” Flora replies, “My relatives.”

She rejects her Aunt Gwen’s offer, which involves sharing a bedroom; her elderly father’s cousin’s offer, which is likely to involve not only bird-watching but hearing about his ailments, and her mother’s cousin’s offer, which involves a cohabitating with a parrot—leaving the offer from her mother’s eldest sister’s daughter, Judith Starkadder to take up residence at Cold Comfort farm.

“It sounds “interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling,” Mrs. Smiling observes.

What ensues is rather like Jane Austen gone awry. Flora arrives at the ramshackle farm, takes stock of her relations—among them, the miserable Judith; smoldering Seth; free-spirit, Elphine; Amos, preacher to the Church of the Quivering Brethren; and mad Aunt Ada Doom, who “saw something nasty in the in the woodshed” when she was a child and has never gotten over it—and sets out to civilize them, with the most delightful laugh-out-loud commentary along the way. Like—

“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.”

“It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists call a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.”

The vague gesture of her outflung arms sketched, in some curious fashion, illimitable horizons. Judith’s gestures had the same barrierless quality; there was not a vase left anywhere on the farm.”

“Most young men are alarmed on hearing that a young woman writes poetry. Combined with an ill-groomed head of hair and an eccentric style of dress, such an admission is almost fatal.”

Cold Comfort Farm was the perfect last book of the year: it made me face the new one, smiling.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Day after the Day after Christmas

I got some lovely presents for Christmas—among them an i-Phone, the new P.D. James mystery, a totally over-the-top selection of lavender goodies from L’Occitane, a book mark with Jake’s artwork on it, two little balancing toys from Heidi, and a deck of “Go Fish” with art masterpieces on the cards. But the present I felt best about receiving was a trio of rabbits from my nephew Sam and his girlfriend Katie. That is, a trio of rabbits given to Heifer International in my name. I perked right up out of my holiday funk when I opened the envelope.

Rabbits! How excellent! They're so cute—and, as Heifer International so tastefully points out—“have so many offspring, the process of passing on the gift multiplies each gift quickly and helps many other impoverished families better their lives. In fact, thinking about my trio of rabbits somewhere in Africa doing what rabbits do is making me happy right now.

It also makes me happy to think about taking Heidi and Jake to see Jenny dance in “Yuletide” and, later to see “The Lion King,” which they loved. So does thinking about Jake making Darth Vader noises while wearing his Star Wars helmet and Heidi combing her Tini Puppini’s hair. Thinking about our annual Christmas morning brunch (which involves a goofy tradition of tossing leftover waffles and trying to get them into an open car window) always makes me smile.

Mostly, though, I don't like Christmas. I’m not a Christian, and I resent feeling obligated to celebrate the major event of a religion I don’t believe in. I resent even worse feeling obligated to participate in the materialistic frenzy this allegedly religious holiday has become. But the real problem is that Christmas never fails to make me painfully aware of what so many people don’t have—which spirals me into a tangle of guilt, sadness, and regret.

It’s stupid, really. There’s no rational reason for the intensity of this annual decline. Plus, it’s a drag for the people I love and who think Christmas is swell—which you’d think, alone, would make me snap out of it. But, no! It compounds the guilt and makes me even more annoying.

Every end-of-November, I swear I’m not going to let the Christmas season get me down…again. Sometimes I even get a week or so into December before being drawn onto what feels like a treadmill cranked by some malevolent cosmic hand. It gets faster and faster and faster and I get tireder and tireder and tireder and more and more and more depressed until finally…it’s over.

Which it is! Woo-hoo! I can breathe again!

On the day after the day after Christmas, I am happily ensconced in our cozy cabin in Michigan. There’s no shopping mall for miles. No social obligations. No sound but the crackle of the fire, pages turning, the click of my keyboard.

All the more pleasurable for the knowledge that Christmas is almost a whole year away.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Looking for Light

Two shopping days till Christmas
and I set aside my list for the quiet
gallery: a little Fra Angelico nativity
that I have always loved.
I want to imagine him, palette in hand,
brush dripping with Byzantine blue sky
the delicate pink of angel wings,
I want to see stars, light, hay, flesh itself
living, breathing—everything made
of his great faith.

But all I see is that Mary and Joseph
are not looking at each other,
or at the poor, naked child
laid on the hard ground.

There’s only half an angel on the mountain,
the cow is a yellow lump,
the mouth of the cave papier mache,
the sheltering lean-to looks like a carport.

Just a predella, never meant
for such scrutiny, I know—
still, I had counted on its comfort,
hoped it might transport me
to Italy, where I was happy,
to the museum at San Marco—
room after room of Beato Anglelico
and the monks’ quarters above,
each tiny cell frescoed by the Master
its own world, each door opening
onto a wide, whitewashed corridor
drenched in light, guarded by angels.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jenny Dancing

My oldest daughter Jenny has loved to dance since she started taking ballet lessons when she was a little girl. As a teenager, she took dance class every day as a student at Broad Ripple High School’s Center for the Humanities and the Performing Arts; she was a dance major at Butler University. Her love for ballet morphed into a love for jazz and musical theater along the way and, after college, she gave professional dancing her best shot. She won a scholarship at a good studio in New York and lived in the city for a while, checking coats at the Sherry Netherland Hotel and doing various other weird jobs to pay the rent—like being a Ninja Turtle for a day. She worked in and out of New York and, in time, earned her Equity card. But a dancer’s life is a hard one, even if it goes well, and she came home after a few years and went to law school. Now she’s married, with a little boy (my fabulous grandson, Jake); a partner in a commercial law firm…and she’s still dancing.

This determination to continue to make a place for dance in her busy life is one of the things I love best about my daughter. I love watching Jenny dance; it’s like watching joy in motion. I never get tired of it.

Over the years, I’ve see I’ve seen her perform in community theater productions of, among others, Joseph and the Amazing Dream Coat (four times!), Swing, Annie, My Fair Lady, Little Shop of Horrors, The Wizard of Oz, Smokey Joe’s, Anything Goes, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

This holiday season she was a tapping Santa in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s “Yuletide.” There were a dozen or so Santas, all dressed exactly the same, but I instantly recognized Jenny. She was the Santa most totally there, in the moment, her movement perfectly in synch with the others and, at the same time, uniquely her own.

My grandkids love to watch her dance, too—and at seven and eight, they’re already (well, for the most part) good little theatergoers. “My mom’s in the show,” Jake proudly tells pretty much everyone who will listen. He puffs up every time Jenny comes on-stage. Heidi leans forward in her seat, legs crossed, rapt. It’s lovely to see. After Yuletide, as after every performance, they presented Jenny with a bouquet of flowers, beaming at the glamour of it all. It's way cool for your mom/aunt to be a performer, to hang out backstage with her and meet all the people you just saw on stage.

But what I hope they’ll carry into their own adulthoods from watching Jenny dance is the realization that you can be a grown-up, with all the responsibilities that entails, and still keep what you loved most when you were young close to your heart, a fundamental part of your best, truest self...forever.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Preparation, Foolish Preparation

Today is Jane Austen's birthday, which I learned while in downward dog during yoga class this morning. It just happened to come up--too weird to explain how or why.

I had arrived in one of my legendary Christmas funks.

"Why not spend the whole day at yoga," my husband suggested before I left.

"The funk is your fault," I said. "It started when I was wandering around the mall yesterday looking for the perfect present for you."

Anyway. Finding out it was Jane Austen's birthday brought me right out of it.

"Why not seize the pleasure at once?" she wrote. "How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation?" An observation that perfectly suits the holiday season, it seems to me. By the time Christmas actually gets here, I'm too exhausted and frazzled to enjoy it.

During relaxation, my favorite part of yoga, I took myself on a little mind's-eye journey to Jane Austen's house in Chawton, where I once spent a lovely afternoon with my English cousins. Here's the poem I wrote when I got home from the trip. It was published in the Journal of the Jane Austen Society--a copy of which resides in the archives at Chawton, which makes me feel extremely happy.

At Chawton

Under the oak tree you planted
the guide lectures a new group of tourists.
Soon she will show them the drawing room,
your jewelry,
your music on the fragile spinet,
and a first edition of Pride and Prejudice
once owned by the wife of William Lamb.

She will lead them to the dining parlor,
to the collection of silhouettes,
the Wedgewood you chose,
the stove that warmed you,
the portrait of your brother.
She will identify your writing table.

Leaving, she'll make the hall door creak,
smile, say, "Jane valued this--
it warned her when someone was coming."

Upstairs, they'll see your bedroom--
the quilt you made, your silk shawl,
the cup-and-ball you played with
when your eyes hurt to much to write--
the room from which laughter spilled
when you read scenes to your sister.

We are laughing in your garden,
picnicking on strawberries and cream
in rare English sunshine.
The guide frowns to quiet us.

But it is lovely,
in the middle of our lives,
to be amazed--

that your tree can shade us,
that your blue delphiniums
are taller than we are,
that in another century
you glanced up from your spindly table
and saw all
that surrounds us.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Georgie's Moon

Years ago, my nephew’s fifth-grade teacher organized book groups that were led by parent volunteers. My sister enjoyed reading, and loved going over and talking to the kids about books. But after reading The Bridge to Terabithia she called asked me if I’d consider leading that discussion.

“That book is too sad,” she said. “I don’t think kids need to read sad books. I have no idea how to talk to them about it.”

I jumped at the chance. I love The Bridge to Terabithia, and had a wonderful time talking about it with the fifth-graders—or, I should say, listening to them talk to me. It was not news to them that the world was full of sadness, or that life can be really, really hard. They didn’t know it, but talking about Jess and Leslie they were talking about themselves.

I remembered this last weekend when I had the good fortune to be seated next to Chris Woodworth at the Indiana Authors’ Fair. She’s a wonderful writer of middle-grade novels, and the best part of my day was getting to know her better. We talked about books and writing…and life in between hawking our novels. I am lucky to have two avid young readers in my life—my granddaughter Heidi and my goddaughter Julia. How cool would it be for them to have a book signed by its author, I thought. So I decided to buy both of them copies of Georgie’s Moon for Christmas.

Chris opened the first to sign it, then stopped, pen poised, and said, “I should tell you this book is really sad.”

Georgie’s Moon is definitely sad. Seventh-grader Georgie Collins desperately misses her dad, who’s serving in Vietnam. To complicate matters, she and her mom have moved…again, so she is friendless. Plus, there are the noisy, sticky, clinging toddlers her mom baby-sits for to contend with every day.

When the book opens, Georgie is living in a state of rage. She’s mean to the children, rude to her mother, and actually destroys a cherished object owned by the counselor who tries to help her. At one point, she starts a fistfight with a boy who speaks out against the Vietnam War during a discussion in social studies class.

Her only solace is the moon.

“You see that moon up there?” her dad said the night before he left for Vietnam. “When it’s night in Vietnam, it’s daytime here…Do you realize that means I’ll see the moon before you do?…So if you start missin’ me, just look up because every night I’ll send my love to you on the moon.”

Georgie has done this every night since then, and it brings her some comfort. Still, he seems so very far away.

Glendale Middle School is brand new, built to accommodate a merger with North Ridge Middle School, and there’s some tension among the students, who used to be rivals. Right off, the first week it opens, the principal announces that all students will be involved with"Good Deeds for Glendale," a project designed for them to get to know each other. They will spend six weeks performing good deeds in teams of two and then write joint reports about them—the only rule being that they have to team up with somebody they don’t already know.

When Lisa Loutzenhizer invites Georgie to be her partner, Georgie plays a little trick to make sure Lisa is the kind of person she wants to spend time with—which lands them both in the principal’s office. “Don’t push me, Georgie,” he says when she talks back to him. “My hunch is that, for whatever reason, you wanted to get caught. You seem too clever to set yourself up like this. So I’ll play along for now. You’re in the principal’s office and you’ve established yourself as a troublemaker.”

Then he tells the Georgie and Lisa what their project will be: visiting Sophie Albertson at the Sunset Home for the Aged the next six Saturday mornings.

A prickly friendship develops between the girls as a result. I won’t give away how the friendship grows, or why. I’ll just say that it's fueled by the girls’ family troubles, secrets, and their broken hearts.

Chris Woodworth perfectly evokes 1970 in this book, a time that, with its unpopular war, is not so different from the time we’re living in now. There are twists in the book worthy of a good mystery—and what the last one revealed about Georgie made me cry.

Kids who read Georgie's Moon may cry at the end, as I did—which, to me is not a bad thing at all. Feeling the sadness of the world, feeling anything, feeling everything—is what makes us human.

The sooner young people begin to understand and embrace the world they’re living in, the better place the world they’ll make as grownups will be.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hemingway's Iceberg

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Ernest Hemingway

That book I mentioned a few blog posts ago? The one I’d failed at again and that was driving me crazy? I think I’ve figured out why it’s not working: it’s only a good idea. Here’s what I’m (presumptuously) calling “Shoup’s Corollary to Hemingway’s Iceberg” as explanation:

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due not only what the writer knows about the novel she’s writing, but to how much is at stake for her, personally, by writing it. That is, the question that fuels the plot of a novel must be one that originates in the writer’s struggle to live her own life honestly and well. The process of finding and writing the story that answers the question must have in it the potential for some crucial insight about or resolution of an issue that has shaped the writer in some profound way and which she needs to try to understand to be able to move forward.

Caveat: This does not mean that good novels are true (i.e. factual, autobiographical). The range of fiction is vast: from a true story shaped by the writer to explore a question in her own life to a completely made-up one that reveals the writer’s actual life only in the question at the heart of the problems its character or characters must solve.

Robert Olen Butler says that yearning is at the heart of every successful story, and he is right. I don't mean to go all corollary on you, but it's also true that this yearning must be directly connected the writer's own yearning.

Anyway. When I started that so-far-failed book—lo, those many years ago—what interested me was the dissolution of a friendship. The death of Maggie's best friend Lydia, who had been in the process of dumping her since she'd been lured to the popular crowd, complicates the grief she feels about the loss of her friend and forces her to come to terms with what the friendship really was and who she really is. What I meant to look at through Maggie’s lens was my own grief at being dumped by my best friend, a a girl I adored, when a more popular girl decided she wanted her as a friend and how that shaped my idea of friendship for the rest of my life. (Okay. I know. I should be over junior high by now, but I’m not).

The major problem was, conceptual idea of the structure of the novel--an explanation of which would would make this blog post way longer than you’d want to read--made it impossible for me to bring it alive on the page.

It also didn’t work when I switched the point of view to Will, who became Maggie’s friend after Lydia’s death, and made it his story. What Will had going for him was a strong voice and a set of that problems were complicated by Lydia’s death and that might have been resolved in the process of allowing himself the vulnerability of entering into a real friendship.

Hindsight being 20-20, I see that yearning is at the crux of my problems with the novel. Maggie’s yearning grew from my own yearning for a lost friend; my failure to write the book I wanted to write was mostly a result of my inability to consider (or even realize that I needed to consider) a structure that would be able accommodate this yearning. The problem with the novel in Will’s voice was what he yearned for was never clear to the reader, and this was because it wasn’t (and still isn’t) clear to me. Yearning for a resolution to his estrangement with his twin brother or yearning to be befriended by someone who understood him would have been worthy yearnings, but were not in any compelling way connected to yearnings of my own. So I was trying to make a novel of plot and voice alone. This might, eventually, have worked on the surface, resulting in an entertaining marketable novel—which, God knows, is no small thing. But neither I nor the reader would have emerged from it knowing anything we didn’t already know—at least not anything that really mattered. This might be fine for a lot of readers. But, for me, writing is too damn hard to settle for that.

My insight about the part the structure of the first incarnation of the novel played in its failure is so new that it came in the process of writing this blog post. It needs to cook awhile. Maybe it will nag at me enough to make me revisit the novel in time. It probably will: abandoning my characters feels a lot like I think it would feel to abandon my own children. Even if I did abandon them, I’m pretty sure they’d be quite alive in my head, popping up regularly to remind me that I’ve failed them.

In the meantime, I'm living in Looking for Jack Kerouac—a book that was only a good idea until I one day a girl with straw blond hair and turquoise eyes standing behind the counter of a diner appeared in it, my sister Jackie at eighteen. Jackie had died recently, after suffering a long, terrible illness, and when I saw her in the incarnation of the girl in the diner I saw that I could bring her back alive again in a world where she would live forever. I saw, too, that the main character’s mother had died and flight from the confinements of his life was a desperate attempt to right the shift in his world that had occurred with her death.

I still miss my sister Jackie more than I can say. Paul’s yearning is my own yearning to come to terms with her death and to imagine my life in a way to remember her before and during the illness that doesn’t make me unbearably sad.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Chicken Fat Song

I love research! There’s nothing more fun than chasing after details to make a story come alive, and the best part of all is how you find cool things you weren’t even looking for. Like “The Chicken Fat Song.”

I’ve been working on a novel about a kid who ditches the girl who thinks they’re getting married to hitchhike with a friend to St. Petersburg, Florida in search of Jack Kerouac—who turns out to be not at all like they expected him to be. It’s set in 1963 and 1964, so I’ve spent a lot of time poring through my old yearbooks, listening to early 60’s music, and looking at photographs in ancient issues of Life Magazine to trigger memories of what it was like back then. I’ve read fiction and nonfiction about the era. I took a road trip down Highway 41, the route Paul and his friend, Duke, travel, thumbs out—and another to St. Petersburg, where I found Kerouac’s house and got a lay of the land so that I’ll be able to set authentic scenes when the boys roll into town.

In the midst of all this useful research, I came upon “The Chicken Fat Song.” Like I said, I wasn’t looking for it. I was looking for information about the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, particularly the fifty-mile hikes that I remembered had become a fad when I was in high school. Kennedy had come upon an executive order from Theodore Roosevelt that challenged Marine officers to complete a fifty-mile hike in twenty hours, I found out, and passed it along to the current commandant of the Marine Corps, suggesting that he encourage modern day Marines to duplicate the feat. When Bobby Kennedy took it upon himself to complete the hike, slogging the distance through snow and slush wearing a pair of dress shoes, the public became enamored of the idea and took up the challenge—to such a degree that the Council sent out a press release recommending a moderate, gradual program of walking for exercise.

I remembered that part of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness was geared to encourage kids to get more exercise, but I did not remember (perhaps I’ve blocked it1) that, as a result, daily calisthenics became a part of the school day for many children and that these calisthenics were done to “The Chicken Fat Song.” (A record of the song was sent to every single school in the United States to be played over the intercom for just this purpose!)

The song was composed by Meredith Wilson and performed by Robert Preston, of “Music Man,” so you can imagine the following lyrics sung in rousing “Music Man” style…or actually hear them sung by Preston at (search: Chicken Fat).

“Touch down
Every morning
Ten times!
Not just
Now and then.
Give that chicken fat
Back to the chicken,
And don't be chicken again.
No, don't be chicken again.”

It goes on. (And on and on).

Sometimes the weird details you come upon serendipitously can solve a problem that's been driving you mad or profoundly affect a book’s direction. Discovering “The Chicken Fat Song” did nothing but delight me. Which is no small thing. ‘’

The only problem is, I can’t get it out of my head.