Friday, November 22, 2013


So anyway...

I was six. It was a normal day until the announcement, and then it was anything but. What happened after that--the whole weekend that followed--became what I refer to as my earliest memory.Of course I have snippets of memories before that, bits and pieces of things that happened on the first day of first grade, in kindergarten, at home in my childhood, etc., but it is the weekend of Kennedy's assassination that forms the first solid, continuous sequential memory in my mind. I realize it is only highlights of what happened, but still it lingers in all of its stark vividness.

It also marks the start of a lifelong passion for knowing what is happening in the world. At the age of six, I started reading newspapers that weekend. Why not? They were and are aimed at a reading level of sixth grade and I, a precocious reader, was reading well above my grade level. I certainly did not comprehend most of what I saw there, but I gleaned enough to understand what was happening, and I learned that these things that were delivered to our home each day could let me know about a lot of things...and also that they had col comics. (Hey, I was a kid.) I have always read papers or sought news online; it almost hurts not to know what is going on. Even if I am on vacation, I need to know. This began fifty years ago today; I still have all of the papers from that weekend.

Many years ago, I wrote a poem that expresses my childish reaction to the events of 11/22/63. Today, half a century later, I share it with you.

Eternal Tears

The crackle of a classroom speaker.
Dozens of small voices, stilled
             by the sudden intrusion,
             stop at once.
A silence.
No movement in the room but
the rhythmic metronome of the teacher's ruler
swinging back and forth in her craggy hands.
The crackle sounds once more,
and our faces turn in unison,
in anticipation,
towards its source.
A small, broken voice--
recognizable but not normal,
not the rich, strong voice usually carried into the room that way,
but a fragment of it,
a shell, without depth,
cracking like the speaker itself--
interrupts the silence.
"Bow your heads in prayer," it says.
Confused eyes stare at the oval grill
awkwardly jutting out of an ancient beige wall.
The voice, more broken now, continues.
"We have just received word that the President has been shot."
Vaguely we try to recall just what a President is;
visions of white-haired men in blue coats leap out of history books into
our brains, blur, roll into each other.  Names, mostly from holidays,
flash through our minds.
And one more.
Again the electronic crackling,
as if the speaker itself does not wish to hear the news:
"President Kennedy was shot this afternoon in Dallas."
A pause.  A sound like weeping.  "Pray for him."
Dozens of eyes,
watch the teacher sit in stunned silence at her desk,
tears welling in her gray eyes,
the ruler grasped still tightly in her palm,
some connection to the world which has ended so abruptly.
Her face quivers, the gray in her hair even duller,
and her head slips to the desk.
We look at each other, recognizing
that something is terribly, unalterably wrong,
and bow our heads as well.
Eternity goes by.
No sound in the room but the humming of the clock
and the almost imperceptible click of its hand
every minute.
An airplane in the distance rattles the blinds on the window.
Somewhere a woman is calling someone,
her pained voice reaching out into the bright autumn sky.
Somewhere a baby is crying.
And we sit, heads on our desks, unsure exactly
what it all means,
still as we have ever been, waiting.
And the history book images flood back in:
Abraham Lincoln was a President who had been shot, but that was long ago,
very long ago,
and the quaking voice from the speaker had said, "this afternoon."
Voices from the mind: fathers' voices, mothers' voices,
in dinner conversation,
working around the edge of a roast,
red and dripping,
saying something about a new age, a new life for the country,
a new hope.
The speaker comes to life again, startling us out of our thoughts;
the voice is choking back tears.
"President John F. Kennedy died this afternoon in a Dallas hospital."
Wailing from somewhere down the hall.
Silence in the classroom.
Our faces blank, our minds blank.
All silent.
The speaker fades.
In the halls, there is silence.
Something terrible has happened, something
which will shape and define our lives.
So young, but we know that.
And we file quietly to our buses,
no tears in our eyes.
On this day, the tears are left to the grownups.
On this day, it helps to be a child.
And the buses roll through empty streets,
early afternoon traffic
stilled by the flickering blue light
of the television screens all are staring at,
and we go home to the arms of our waiting mothers,
and the blue lights transfix us too
Perhaps some of us cry then.
Perhaps some of us wait
for the scratchy images
of a frigid November morning
with a horse-drawn carriage
rolling along the street lined
with men in black and
women in dark veils and
the young boy raising his hand
in a silent salute,
or perhaps we wait until the small flame
begins its eternal vigil,
solitary on the hillside,
or perhaps we never cry at all,
and return to our desks
next week,
bursting with children's vigor,
forgetting what we have seen
and heard,
not fearing the next crackle of the tiny speaker.
But there are some memories,
stark or vivid,

that haunt and cling and will not let go.
And there are some tears, shed or withheld,

that never go away.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Provocative Measure For Measure

So anyway...

I saw Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure on Saturday night at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. I had already seen a production of Romeo and Juliet in school (a traveling company) on Friday, so this seemed like a weekend of Shakespearean immersion; I felt like finding a festival somewhere.

Anyway if you happen to live in the Chicago area I just thought I’d let you all know that it is a typical Robert Falls production, which is to say that it’s not for the Shakespeare purist but it is certainly worth seeing.

 Falls has always had a tendency to set his plays in unusual eras and twist them accordingly—some might recall his post-apocalyptic Midsummer Night’s Dream from the 1980’s—and this is no exception: it is set the extremely decadent NYC of the 70’s and the sex, drugs, rock and roll (and disco) are plentiful. Measure For Measure  is a perfect vehicle for this. If you are unfamiliar with the play, it is about a Duke who has coddled the decadent elements of his kingdom by turning a soft eye on the harsh laws that are in place. Seeing the depravity of his country and knowing himself responsible, he cannot stand it and decides to vanish for awhile, leaving a successor he knows will not be up to the task to try to clean it up and fail miserably (so that he can return and lead his people back to a new golden age, one assumes). That successor is the two-faced ass Angelo, who decides to impose a harsh, Puritanical interpretation of those aforementioned laws and clean up the streets despite his own secret sins.

Falls incorporates the kind of broad comedy that the play is known for in his use of his ensemble, but this is at its core a dark, serious and troublesome script—it features the attempted rape of a nun—and he treats its central characters seriously—so seriously, in fact, that an appended scene features one of them being murdered in the renewed violence of the city’s debauched streets. It is a provocative, racy and often very funny theatrical experience—exactly what one would expect from both Shakespeare and Robert Falls.

If you live around here, it's worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Romeo and Bella and Edward and Juliet

So anyway...

It's been a while, but I'm back. Lots to do in these past few weeks and I have not posted for quite some time. So, what issue of world-shattering importance drags me out of my self-imposed mini-exile? Would you believe the Twilight Saga? 

I know, and you're right: Twilight is a pretty slight entertainment. It's likely that many of you don't even like it, deeming Meyer a less than capable author, and it is also reasonable to assert that she (like Rowling before her) began with a story rather than any discernible unique skill set. Still, it's a cool story (even if these vampires do sparkle for no appreciable reason). And I am an incurable romantic--and a teenage girl at heart--so I readily admit that I read all four books and watched all four movies and enjoyed all of them.

But why bring it up now? It's over! Even the last movie is yesterday's news.

Well, here's the thing:

Bizarrely, I found myself on facebook this weekend doing something I never imagined I would be doing as a 56-year-old writer/English teacher: spending over a hour of my time defending the honor of Twilight and its characters! (I don't wish to go into the whys and wherefores here; it was a tired old internet meme that seeks to equate 100+ year old vampires protecting human girls from dangers they cannot possibly foresee with hypercontrolling, creepy, abusive boyfriends, and in my mind it is ridiculous. Edward Cullen is not Adam on "Girls.") The point is that, in doing so, I found myself actually thinking deeply--God help me--about the Twilight Saga.

And this is what I wrote at one point:

Ultimately, this is a story of the same kind of obsession that drove Romeo and Juliet. One look is all it took to seal them for life. For Bella, this may have been something in her teen nature. For Edward, perhaps it was a fragmentary remnant of his humanity; who knows? For both, it is clearly impetuous, as it is dangerous and forbidden. They should never have embarked on it, but once they did they could not stop. In Meyers' version of the story, as the dangers of the world seek to destroy them, they discover that they are the only thing each other needs, but also the only thing causing the danger to each other. 
Edward, being the older, wiser and stronger, tries to break it off, but in the end he is too far gone and, as do Romeo and Juliet, in Book Two they both find themselves crying and bemoaning their forced separation until, in Book Three, they are brought back together to be wed. Once wed, though, a whole new manifestation of their trouble occurs: in R & J, that is personified by Tybalt; here, is comes in the form of Renesmee. Book Four, as Acts Four and Five of the play, is the playing out of the inevitable climax of all of this drama. 
That Meyers elected to keep her heroes alive is more a matter of playing to her teenage modern audience than anything else; I would like to think that something inside of her would have liked them to die and leave the baby to Jacob and the Cullens, united as the Capulets and Montagues after the final sacrifices. I even suspect (hope?) that, somewhere, a draft of that version exists.

Now I have not read New Moon in many years, and I was utterly unaware when I wrote these lines that the novel actually begins with the following epigraph:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in the triumph die like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.

These lines come from, of course, Romeo and Juliet.  With a bit of internet research today, I see that Meyer did in fact consciously pattern her second book after that play, even (and I did not recall this either) having Bella and Edward watch and discuss the play and its lovers within the text. I do not feel here the need to rehash what has already, it turns out, been thoroughly hashed elsewhere, so I'll merely make my own point.

Meyer has acknowledged her intentional pattern in her second novel, but I think that the entire series is built on the Shakespearean story. While one can certainly find within the plot arcs of New Moon the story of Romeo and Juliet if one wishes to do so, I would argue that it is not that simple. The fact is that it is the first novel that takes us through the first two acts of the play. For Act One of the play, you truly need to read the original Twilight, in which the dangers are established as well as the uncontrollable infatuations, as in Shakespeare. Twilight takes us through the Act Two balcony scene as well, in which they pledge themselves to each other despite all odds, though Edward remains sullen (Cullen?) even after this because he knows too much of the danger he and his life bring to her. He is in fact both Romeo and Mercutio--though he lacks both characters' wit--and he knows it. He fears the darker Mercutio side of himself and all that attends it. And then it concludes with a violent battle that signals the impossibility of the life they are planning for themselves.

The reason many people are unhappy with New Moon--and I know many who are--is that Bella spends the whole novel whining and doing little else. But if you look at this novel as a microcosmic exploration of what happens in Act Three of Shakespeare's play after Romeo kills Tybalt, but before the ultimately catastrophic plan with Friar Laurence is concocted, you might better understand it. In that section of the play, Romeo, having done that deed, is banished from Verona and his "three hours' bride," Juliet. Our lover's response to the punishment?

Banishment? Be merciful, say death
For exile hath far more terror in his look
Much more than death. Do not say "banishment." 

Meanwhile, Juliet spends her time crying so deeply that she cannot be comforted, and the excess of her tears is so dread that her father, mistaking them for grief over her dead cousin, decides to speed up Juliet's marriage to the County Paris from a month from now to two days from now, bringing about even more fits and sobbing.

Oh, shut the door, and when thou has done so
Come weep with me, past hope, past care, past help.

It is Romeo and Juliet in this mode (and this mood) that Meyer is showing us in her second novel. Once Edward decides, with finality, that they are "past hope, past care, past help," and tells her so, Bella lapses into a despondency so deep that she cannot come out of it, much as Juliet did upon losing Romeo to the Prince's proclamation. Juliet would do anything to see her lover again:

Chain me with roaring bears
Or hide me nightly in a charnel house,
 O'ercovered quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls...
And I will do it

For Bella it is much the same. She begins to have visions of Edward everywhere, but discovers that they appear to her only when her life is in danger. So she determines to put her life into more and more danger, even at one point diving recklessly from a high cliff into the sea, her actions mimicking a line of Juliet's--"O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris / From off the battlements of yonder tower"--and at the same time fooling the clairvoyant Alice into believing she is trying to kill herself and ultimately setting into motion a sequence of events that leaves Edward believing her to be actually dead so that, like Romeo, he determines to kill himself as well.

Of course this is where Meyer swerves off the Shakespearean path at very high speed in a bright yellow Italian sports car. Bella rushes to stop her lover's suicide and succeeds at the very last minute, and they both live to see another act of the saga. But this is all Meyer jumping ahead of herself: we were mired in Act Three and she simply skipped ahead to the ending of the play. Whatever happened to Act Four and the rest of Act Five? Easy: Eclipse and Breaking Dawn.

With the Volturi now a huge threat, Bella and Edward must marry, so the third book is a giant tease, making it a perfect metaphor for Act Four, which in any Shakespearean play is the Great Holding Pattern between the climactic Act Three and the denouement of Act Five. During Eclipse, events (intense though they may get) just play out to get everything in place for the monumental occurrences of Breaking Dawn, when all hell will potentially be unleashed.

So now we are nearing the end, and we finally get the big bold wedding that Romeo and Juliet never received, complete with invitations to the Capulets (Jacob/Tybalt and the werewolf clan).We've momentarily jumped backwards in the play to that brief scene before the lark sings its morning call and disrupts the young married couple from their one blissful night together, which I suppose is fair since New Moon jumped right to the end of the play. After giving them their bliss, though, a new enemy arises, and it comes from within: Renesmee, the baby who at first threatens to kill her mother from the womb and then threatens to kill all of the Cullens through her mere existence.

Death does indeed take our young Juliet--as it does in the play--as she attempts to give birth to her half-immortal baby. It is only through the supernatural interference of vampire blood that she is saved, and her salvation is uncertain for awhile--as is the case in the play as well. Our despondent Romeo, though, this time has his family with him as well as his new baby, so he is safe at least for the moment. And besides: Meyer has already played out that ending and has a completely different one in mind.

She has carefully set up two possible scenarios: one in which Bella and Edward do not survive, and one in which they do. (Giving Jacob his own narrative section in the final book was perhaps the best authorial decision Meyer made in the entire saga.) But, as this is a commercial and not an artistic series, there is really no doubt as to which she will choose. As I said in my little blurb above, I really hope that somewhere there exists a version of the end of Breaking Dawn in which the fight with the Volturi that we witnessed in the film (the stand-in, of course, for the chaos that reigns at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, but which this saga is missing) actually happened, and Edward and Bella die valiantly in it, leaving Jacob with his child/lover and the knowledge that

A glooming peace that morning with it brought.
The sun for sorrow would not show his face.
The internet would yap of what was wrought
Some wishing Jacob could take Edward's place.
There'd never be a tale with more tears shed
Than this of Bella, and her vampire Ed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscar Sunday

So anyway...

So I am home from the second (and last) day of the 2013 Oscar Showcase and I have now seen all nine nominated movies, and I am ready to give you my choices on my own mythical Oscar ballot:

Best Picture: Silver Linings Playbook* Argo
Best Director: Steven Spielberg Ang Lee
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis 
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence 
Best Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro   Christof Waltz
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway
Best Score: Life of Pi
Best Song:
Best Editing: Argo
Best Animated Feature:
Best Cinematography: Life of Pi
Best Original Screenplay: Django Unchained
Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo
Best Foreign Film: Amour
Best Animated Short: Paperman
Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina
Best Make-up/
Hairstyling: Les Miserables
Best Production Design: Lincoln
Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Best Sound Editing: Skyfall and  Zero Dark Thirty
Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables
Best Documentary Feature: Searching For Sugarman
Best Documentary Short: Inocente
Best Live Action Short: Dream of a Shadow Curfew

*Please note that I believe that Argo will win; I'd just cast my vote for SLP. I do believe it could pull an upset, though. :-)

Let me say a few words about these choices.

First, the minor category selections are based on what Ii have read in various critical sources. I have not seen most of the films in the short subject and documentary categories, for example.

As to the main events:

Before I saw anything at all, I was ready to be utterly wowed by Lincoln, and I was. The movie is vast in scope, gloriously accurate in its recreation of the era (hence my nomination for Production Design), and brilliantly acted by a gifted cast led by everyone's odds-on favorite to win best actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. (If he does not win, I think a sinkhole may open up and swallow the Dolby Theatre.) No actor has ever won three Best Actor Oscars; Day-Lewis will become the first. But he is only the tip of the iceberg, as the cast is solid from Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones (a Supporting Actor frontrunner as a leading House advocate for the 13th amendment) right down to the child actor playing Lincoln's son, who is given a powerful and emotional moment near the end and hits it perfectly. This is an amazing film, and Steve Spielberg deserves the Best Director Oscar he will very likely receive, even if it appears that the award is his only because Ben Affleck is not nominated.

(On that: Ang Lee or David O. Russell could win Best Director, and neither would particularly surprise me. I just think it will be Spielberg.)

Yes, Lincoln wowed me as expected. And Argo was every bit as good as advertised: a dynamite bit of serio-comic film-making that offers a tremendous recreation of a harrowing moment in much more recent American history and a behind the scenes look at one of its lesser known heroic endeavors. I truly enjoyed this movie, with its cast of mostly unknowns telling a harrowing story of survival and escape. It too was brilliantly directed; Affleck has been rightfully rewarded (though I think he may have been a bit aided by the Academy slight). But the movie overall, as great as it is, did not leave me with the emotional high that I felt at the end of Lincoln, and I suspect that the reason has little to do with the story or with Affleck the director; I think it has a lot more to do with Affleck the actor. I don't dislike him as a performer, but he does tend to be dark and clouded in his films, and here, hidden behind a beard, dark and clouded too often equaled (for me) unreadable. I wonder if Day-Lewis might have brought more life into this character.

I loved Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi as much as I thought I would, but I never thought I would feel that either of them would be Best Picture material. I just thought that each of them, in its own way, would be spectacular, and they are. Beasts goes from outrageously beautiful scenes to incomprehensibly horrific scenes as an island below New Orleans is devastated by a hurricane. What makes it work is strong direction, a dynamic lead performance by the then-6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a spunky island girl named Hushpuppy, and a sense of magic that springs from the core of the world she inhabits, a magic that "breaks" when the hurricane hits and is only repaired by an act of faith and acceptance on her part. Pi follows the book faithfully (as far as I can remember), though it exaggerates--or invents??-- the role of a writer to whom Pi is telling his story. It's the cinematography that makes this one incredible, as anyone who has seen any of the trailers already knows. If Lee should win for what he did with this allegedly "unfilmable" book, absolutely no one will complain. 

Django Unchained won't win and shouldn't, but it is undeniably a fun movie, a typical Tarentino bloodfest with great performances by Jamie Fox and Christoph Waltz (who could take Supporting Actor, but I don't think he will). What it should win (unless Lincoln does) is Best Original Screenplay. Amour won't win either, but it will emerge with an Oscar anyway, as it is a shoo-in to win Best Foreign Language Film. Emmanuelle Levy could pull an upset in Best Actress--at 84, the Academy may feel, she won't get any more chances--but I don't think so.

Two more films that had early Oscar buzz but faded were Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty. (The former is the only one of the nine that I had seen before.) I went into both expecting to like them a lot and wondering if I'd think them worthy of Best Picture. Well, I did like them a lot, but neither is Best Picture this year. Les Miserables, on second viewing, suffers from a grievous flaw: the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert. I was able to look past it the first time because the spectacle of the rest and the magnitude of Tom Hooper's accomplishment with his live on set singing to create more dynamic performances overwhelmed me--I've never cried so often during this musical (which I'd seen more times than I can recall)--but not this time. Crowe's ineffectual singing was, in a word, offensive. Javert is supposed to be able to provide a counterpoint to Valjean, and Crowe simply is not up to the task. (Some fault Hugh Jackman's singing too, especially on "Bring Him Home," but I cut him slack there: even Colm Wilkinson said he should not try to do it the way that it was done originally but rather make it his own.) So I ended up being moved and impressed by the film but held back by its serious flaw.

Zero Dark Thirty was a bit of a different story. I admit that the torture thing was off-putting, but I disagree that the film appeared to be endorsing it. In fact, it appeared from the film that no actionable intelligence was gained from the torture scenes, so if the film was doing anything it was condemning torture. No, this was a strong film of a ten-year long quest for an elusive and hated man, and who cares if it is completely accurate or not? It's a movie. Like Argo or Lincoln, it's accurate enough. This is an excellent movie in almost every way, with an outstanding performance by Jessica Chastain (whose Best Actress star has inexplicably faded). But it, too, has a flaw that keeps it out of my consideration as Best Picture. At its core, this movie is a procedural. And as a procedural, it is filled with long, slow stretches of dull bureaucracy at work. This one happens also to be filled with repetitive scenes of people being tortured. The combination is not healthy for a movie, and although it is undeniably exciting in its last half hour, there is a lot of territory beforehand that I ended up wishing had been covered differently.

Which leaves me with one:

David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, when I first heard of it, seemed as if it would be a fun movie, a good entertainment for an evening, and a vehicle that would allow Jennifer Lawrence to be nominated for the Academy Award they would never give her for The Hunger Games. I had no clue, before seeing the nine nominees in the Showcase, that this film would be The One. And yet...

Of all of them, it is Silver Linings Playbook that stays with me. It is this film that sticks to my gut and won't let go. It feels very real and honest even while it tells a story laid out in romantic comedy fashion. Its handling of mental illness is no holds barred. The family at its core is severely flawed but loving and lovable. The two main characters, brilliantly performed by Oscar nominees Bradley Cooper and Lawrence (who should take the trophy home), become endearing by being exactly the kind of characters that, in another movie, you might find utterly annoying. Cooper and Lawrence infuse them with dark and manic energy, and the resulting chemistry is explosive whenever they are onscreen together. In addition to them, fellow nominees Robert De Niro (my choice for Best Supporting Actor) and Jacki Weaver create such a memorable family for Cooper's character that the side stories here become every bit as important as the main one. 

By the time I saw this film, I had read that it was a sleeper possibility as an Oscar upset. I can tell you right now that I'll be rooting hard for that possibility. Argo and Lincoln are strong films, but Silver Linings Playbook is, without a doubt, the Best Picture of 2012.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

writing update

So anyway...

News from the wonderful world of Trying To Become a Published Novelist:

Well, I have completed my first Destructively Insane Short-sighted Game of Unholy Senseless Truncation (DISGUST). By eliminating three entire storylines, I have taken my novel from 150,000 words to 133,000 words, which of course is still way too freaking long. One character is all but gone now, and the book is the poorer for it. Two characters no longer fall in love; that's fine, for the book can handle that without too much loss and I had already been thinking about that anyway. But one character's backstory's disappearance hurts a lot: it set up a growth for her that basically turned her into one of the book's main characters, and without it she now slips deeply into the background.

I have also taken the hatchet to the specific political scenes. As much flavor as they added to the book, I figured that they ultimately were going to have to go in any edit that chopped the book down close to 75,000 words, so why not just do it now? There is still the national political story--the book's situation depends upon that--but specific scenes are fewer and mostly involve the kids directly instead of behind the scenes stuff.

Still, I need to cut far more if I am to bring this thing in under 80K. Basically, I need to cut 1/3 of all remaining words. And I need to do that without the direct truncation or elimination of any major aspects. So...

It is time to pick up the Insane World's (most) Extreme Edit Pen. (I WEEP)

Oh, there is another piece of news:

The novel has had an official title change!

I've been looking all along for a better title than Parkland, and I have finally found one. I am going to call it Abomination, a title that will pick up a word used several times in the text, an event that occurs in it, and (one would hope) the reader's reaction to that event.

So that happened. Until next time...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day

So anyway...

Until I started posting things online, I don’t think that I had written the phrase “Happy Valentine’s Day” in a formal way since I was about seven years old. I’ve sent cards, of course, to friends, to my spouse (and to my mother, for Valentine’s Day is her birthday), but not a missive. It is one of those elements of life that is probably interesting to some strange person somewhere, but certainly not to me. I’m not going to give the matter a second thought.

Well, maybe a second thought. When I was seven years old, what did I possibly know of Valentine’s Day? It was a holiday--those were awfully important in grammar school.  (Remember decorating classrooms with autumn leaves, Ninas, Pintas, and Santa Marias, pumpkins, turkeys, Christmas trees, snowflakes, Lincoln top hats, Easter eggs, flowers, or whatever else was appropriate? With all of the fuss, how did we ever learn anything?)  Anyway, it was a holiday, and it was undoubtedly the worst one of the year.

First of all, we didn’t get the day off of school. (How can any day be a holiday if you have to go to school?) Second, it was painful. I suppose it was not painful if you were well-liked, but I was the weird child, the one people picked on. And I was also the child who never got any valentines. Well, not never. I mean, I got some, but only token ones from the kids who sent them to absolutely everyone. (Although I do recall one little fledgling shit who actually sent them to everyone except me. I mean, really: who teaches second graders that kind of cruelty?)  And the kids were not the only cruel ones. The teachers back then always had everyone pass out the valentines right there in class. We would wander around the room, placing cards on various desks. Of course, I always brought one for everyone. (Both boys and girls. It can’t hurt to cover all bases. Turned out to have been rather prescient of me.) But no one returned the favor. So while Suzy Sweetheart and Peter Popular were enjoying digging their way out from the mountains of valentines that turned their desks into termite mounds (not exactly an appropriate image, I know, but it does reflect just about how I felt about the holiday) I was sitting there trying to crawl inside of my desk with the two lousy cards on it.

Such are the torments of the Valentine’s Days of my joyous youth. May they rest in peace with all of the other hells of my childhood.

Now the Valentine’s Days of my adulthood are much more palatable. For one thing, it was on Valentine’s Day that I met my former spouse, so it was an anniversary of sorts. True story (which some of you may have heard before): we were working at this greasy spoon in Evanston while we both attended Northwestern (note the clever, unobtrusive reference to my alma mater; it’s nice to have graduated from there, at least if you live in the Midwest--it sure sounds impressive). We met when some time in the winter when our schedules changed and we both ended up working mornings. Several years later we went back to our old schedule books (since we were in school we kept Chandlers assignment books, and we never threw anything away) on a whim, curious to discover exactly what day it had been when we first met. And there it was: February 14. Obviously a match made in heaven. At least for a while.

So all Valentine’s Days were fun for a while. And of course my daughter Julianne’s birthday is next week; she was born on February 19, 1992. I can hardly believe how old she is now; it seems less than a week since we woke up at 3 AM and made our way to the hospital where, a sleepless night and morning later, we found ourselves the parents of a second daughter. All in all, a fairly decent little holiday, I guess, if you do not happen to be the weird kid in the back of the room.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

my poem featured in this article

So anyway...

I have four poems included in the new anthology Reflect and Write, which is getting plenty of press lately. One of my poems is featured in this article about the book and its core philosophies.


publishing crossroads

So anyway...

I'm at a crossroad regarding my latest completed novel, Parkland.

The thing is that it is good. I know it is. It's (immodestly) more than good. I am not saying that it is flawless; I've been editing it constantly and will continue to do so until the day it is published (if it ever is), and (like George Lucas) probably wish to do so even after that. But the story is strong, the characters are well-written and deep, the narration good, the concept timely, the pace varied, and all of the other things that a good book ought to be. And everyone, young and old, who has read it thus far has enjoyed it. Offered feedback--which I have incorporated--yes, but enjoyed it.


I cannot get an agent interested in it. And I know why.

According to the rather arbitrary rules of the publishing biz these days, my book is absolutely, positively, by a factor of about 100%, way, way, way too long. You see, publishers these days like YA-ish novels to clock in at between 55-70,000 words. (Translation: about 180-200 pages at most.) Parkland contains 150,000 (400 pages). And even though I'd argue that this is for mature YA readers and adults, well, that does not help much, because in any genre, the most a publisher wants to see is barely over 100,000...and that is only in fantasy/SF.

(What about Harry Potter, you ask? Don't bother. When the books got obscenely long, Rowling was a well-established writer who could do whatever she wanted. Sorcerer's Stone was much shorter.)

I cannot keep fooling myself. Although it is possible that a 150K first novel will sell, it is incredibly unlikely. Although I strongly believe in this book, I don't have that kind of belief in the industry right now. So I am, as I said, at a crossroad.

I have choices:

First, I could cut the book in half, leaving it (still longish) at 75,000 words, a more satisfactory length. To do so would be to cut many, many subplots and characters, to eliminate much of the richness of the narrative and character depth and back stories, and basically to make it a very different reading experience and, I firmly believe, a much lesser one. But it could be done.

Second, I could chuck it all and self-publish, hoping that I know enough people who know enough people that sales could reach the magical 10,000 mark that would interest publishers.

Or I could try something utterly new and bizarre. Or rather: old and bizarre.

I thought of this yesterday while I was considering the long novels of the past and, in particular, the godfather of long novels, Charles Dickens. Dickens was a neophyte trying to get a publishing contract when he managed to get an interview with the premiere booksellers/publishers in London. They came to his apartment (which he claimed was also his office, though it was a mere studio), and he pitched them on his book. They liked the idea but were uncertain he could pull off the sales.

(Some things never change.)

So he told them he had a scheme wherein he would not only guarantee them sales, but guarantee them that people would buy the thing three times. He would serialize it, three chapters at a time, in pamphlet form. At the end of the third of these chapters, he told them, he would have his main character hanging from a cliff or some such thing, and the reader would be terrified about his fate. And to up the suspense, there would be an approaching pair of legs at the cliff's edge but we would be uncertain whether they belonged to someone who would rescue him or stomp on his hands to send him to his death. It was the origin of both the cliffhanger and the soap opera.

They were intrigued by the concept, but how, they wondered, did this translate into three sales?

He explained: they'd buy every month's installment, and he'd drag these out as much as he could. They could sell official bindings in which to collect the pamphlets, for people would wish to turn them into a volume to read. But when it all was complete, they would sell the complete novel, and of course everyone would buy that because it would be much nicer. And then, as a crowning achievement, a year or so later they wold come out with a collector's edition in gold leaf for private libraries and they'd buy that one too. Three sales of a single book.

It worked too. Everyone who was literate owned multiple copies of Dickens.

I don't think that would work exactly in modern times, but what if I could manage to release a novel in serialization through subscription in e-book form, selling the full book only after the subscription is complete? (Or heck: even giving away a copy of the whole book once the subscription is complete.) A few chapters a week...automatically sent to your kindle or nook? There must be a way to do that. (And if someone reads this who can figure out a way, please write to me!) Somehow I think I might get noticed.

Anyway, I have choices. My first choice as always is the traditional route with my actual complete novel. But I fear that choice is fading away.


Friday, February 8, 2013

the meaning(s) of love

So anyway...

I thought that, with Valentine's Day coming up, I might spend a few minutes expounding upon the subject of love

A friend of mine once told me this:

“I believe the way we talk, the words we have, partially determines what concepts we have available, what tools we have for dealing with and clarifying reality around us and more importantly within us.  There are some areas in English, however, that greatly need expanding. English is one of the most plastic of all languages, adopts and absorbs and modifies anything from anywhere, yet it’s so stilted in some crucial areas.”

One of these areas, I’m convinced more and more, is that concept of “love.”  So much confusion and misconception could be cleared up just by adding some words to expand it from its simple singular existence into something that more accurately reflects the myriad ways in which we employ the word. It goes far beyond the romantic connotations.  Adding more words would add corresponding concepts into the national consciousness and clarity to the vagueness, and maybe a little revelation and self knowledge.  It could save a lot of wasted lifetime nationally.

The ancient Greeks had, what, 4 words for different types of love?  The Hopi Indians have a dozen.  We have one.  A person can say I love my car, my mom, my house, my artwork, drag racing, milkshakes, my lover, my song, freedom, my dog, flying, the smell of burning rubber, my country, my spirit, God, and even sports teams, and that person doesn't mean the same thing at all by each 'love.’ And when we do speak of romantic love, we don't love each person the same way.  It's not even about amount--they are just different, different frequencies and flavors, and sometimes not comparable.  

I think that making assumptions from the vagueness of language causes a lot of problems and damage. People automatically assume the other person is talking about the same concept/emotion/experience they mean just because they're using the same word.  I think English needs some tuning up clarifying words. Maybe we should add some.

It probably won’t matter though.  No matter how many words you have in your vocabulary for a concept, it doesn’t matter if you don’t truly believe in the concept in the first place.  We give it lip service, but we don’t pay attention.  I think that’s what our problem really is: too many of us “love” our cars and our houses and our flags, but we have never truly learned what it means to love each other. 

And to love ourselves. 

Anyone feel like making up needed new words for very specific kinds of love?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

truth and other trivial pursuits

So anyway...

I started this blog and I figured: write whatever you want, and I thought: cool, maybe I’ll spend several hundred words placing complicated clues in my article that seem to point to something Really Important if you take the time to figure them out so that people will spend days and days puzzling over them, tearing hair from distended follicles and rubbing already dry skin until it peels off like old cracked corn husks. I mean, what the heck: people love that kind of crap!

But the thing is that I really didn’t have anything Really Important to reveal, so I was just about ready to give up on the whole thing when I saw a campaign commercial and it occurred to me that it really didn’t matter whether I did or didn’t: no one actually cares in the long run whether you speak the truth; they only care that they think you do. Or anyway they only care that they can act in a way that makes them believe they think you do.  And that is usually good enough.

Being deep is not a human characteristic.  Neither is making sense.

Too many people spend too much time fighting over which version of The Truth is Really The Truth and they forget that most versions include some kind of message about being kind to each other.  It would all be pretty funny if they were fighting over, say, whether it is ever permissible to eat pastrami on dark rye.  (Absolutely.)  Or whether sea foam green is the new fuchsia. (I’m not quite sure that fuchsia was ever the new fuchsia.)  But fighting over whether it makes more sense that Ultimate Truth was handed down on a bunch of stone tablets or a burning bush or a carpenter who liked to hang around with beggars and hookers or a prophet who was, by all accounts, seriously image-shy, seems rather a waste of good television time.
I mean really: we might have just as easily been handed “The Truth” by a rainbow colored sandpiper or a free-floating chalk drawing or some guy named Bob who lives in a cardboard box near the train station.  Walk around in a dark room with a flashlight.  Every once in a while, randomly point it somewhere and turn it on.  Then think this about whatever you see: that’s The Truth. Because it will probably make just as much sense as most stories. 

I am a Unitarian Universalist. As UU’s, we’re not all that into “The Truth.” We’re more into the search for it.  Which is sort of cool.   It’s always more fun to look for something than to think you know the answer.  Life is not about the finding; it’s about the searching.  Harry Chapin said it best: “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.”  And that’s The Truth.

At least that’s what Bob told me when I visited his box last week.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

faux business letter fun

So anyway...

Just being silly today; here is a faux business letter complaining about a defective product:

To Whom It May Concern:

I have recently purchased a jet-powered SuperBrush (TM)  for dogs from your company under the mistaken belief that, using it, I would finally be able to keep my Labrador Retriever’s hair clean and free of matting.  I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed I am in your product.

First of all, the on/off switch failed the first seven times I tried it.  Following all instructions carefully, I kept it far from open flames, light sockets, and hot tea kettles, but still it would not ignite the brush.  Finally, on the eighth try (which, in subsequent attempts to start this product, is the earliest I have ever managed to succeed), the jet ignited and the brush began to whirl.  However, that led me to a second problem: the jet is apparently set so high that the entire mechanism flew out of my hand, flying around my living room at something near the speed of sound, sending shards of shattered window glass rocketing through the room along with at least two dozen back issues of magazines which I had not yet read (and which I could not replace because they were out of print) and decapitating two stuffed teddy bears on the couch before I could bring it under control.

There being no kill switch on the jet itself, I had to wait for the jets to begin to run low on fuel, by which time the brush had nearly destroyed my CD collection, parted my hair too severely, and eaten everything from my refrigerator.  This missing switch is a serious design flaw, I might add: what would I do if the thing decided to fly itself to the next county?  While I am sure there are deserving and appropriately mangy dogs there too, I think you would agree that my brush should remain in my home until I decide to remove it.

Finally bringing the brush under control, I began to use it for its intended purpose: cleaning the coat of my dog.  It was at this point that the worst of the flaws made itself known.  The sudden surges of power should not have been a problem, but I happened to be brushing Eddie’s hind quarter at the time of a massive energy surge in the brush.  When the dog is released from the hospital, I will be renaming it Betty.

I am sure that you will agree that this brush has not lived up to the high standards indicated by your advertising.  Therefore, I request the immediate refund of the $20.95 which I spent on your product.  It is severely defective and has caused me no end of trouble.  (And I have not even mentioned the stains that burning jet fuel leaves on my carpet.)



Also, I would like to share with you an actual letter I sent via e-mail to a company which had solicited my business over the internet in an attempt to sell me what it called “a way to shed fat and loose weight fast.”

Dear Sirs,

Even if I were prone to purchase things from unsolicited e-mail, there is no way I would buy something from a company so lightweight that it cannot even find its way clear to proofread the subject line of its mass mailings.

If you want to find any loose weight lying around, try your marketing department.


Forgive me.  I’m tired and cranky and I need to spend some time in Hawaii.  Anyone got a condo I could borrow?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

a rose by any other name

So anyway...

We don't all get to choose our own names. Most of us live with the ones that our parents selected for us before we were born. Most of the time that seems to work, although I have known plenty of teenagers who wish they had been named something other than what the attendance lists call them.

My oldest child's name has been an ever-evolving phenomenon, it seems just about forever. At birth, we had chosen the name Caitlin Patricia. Caitlin, in fact, had been such a solid selection that there had been no second choice at all, and no male name had ever even been decided upon. In middle school, Caitlin dubbed herself Angel, and the name stuck enough that the administration even (to my chagrin) called it out at graduation. But that was far from the end of things.

Some time in high school Angel/Caitlin realized that she was transgender, that he was actually male. And that was when all of the fun began. Because not only was he male, but he also was multiple, meaning he had several different personalities within him--of both genders. Super. At first, my new son christened himself Nick. He also created a name for the collective group of personalities: Moss Alexander. Over time, Nick became John. Then it became Rory, which it is today. Moss Alexander morphed into North Homeward. I don't know why. It doesn't even sound like a name to me. It sounds like a street name. Still, if it's what he wants...

Most of the time, people around here just call him Bob.

As to me, well, I have been Karen all of my life, at least to myself. I do not know why. I have a cousin Karen, and we used to play together when we were young, but I don't think that is it. Who can really say? As to the middle name: I never had one until I needed one, so I gave it a lot of thought before settling on Renée because it means rebirth, it's Frenth (which I love), and I happen to like it. Full disclosure: I also happen to have a cousin named Renée. Make of that what you will.)

Here are my thoughts on my name:

There’s something solid, I think, about my first name: Karen, a simple, direct-sounding name, only five letters, grounded on both ends by firm consonants, the clipped K and the melodic N at odds with each other but working in harmony to compete the sound.  I like its simplicity, the ease with which is slides off the tongue, as I like its traditional spelling despite childhood flirtations with more cutesy versions with C’s and Y’s and a brief but passionate affair with Corinne.

My middle name, which flows directly from the ending of my first, is Renee.  Karen Renee.  Karenee.  It’s as if my middle name’s sole purpose is to remove the weight of the first, to change its innate structure, to transubstantiate it from a grounded name to something of air, a whimsical name that is only five letters long, three of which are E, a name that begins with the quietest of consonants and floats off into the nothingness of the French ée at its ending, lighter even than air, slipping into dreams.

These names are me.  I am my name.  So much of me is grounded in the firmness of normalcy, from my occupation to my children to my home.  But there remains at my center the whimsy of Renee, freely drifting wherever my life’s movements take me.

So I drift on, floating with the current, borne on whimsically into the future.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dear Karen...

So anyway...

I spent a nearly sleepless night in a hotel in Madison, WI last night, having driven my daughter and her boyfriend there so they could go to a rock concert that apparently just was not available in little municipalities like Chicago. Sometime as I was lying there not sleeping--wondering weird things like how, if Keanu Reeves decided to direct a film, he could get his actors to show emotion--a thought occurred to me that would not let go:

What if I were an advice columnist (or what in England is referred to as an "agony aunt")?

So I thought I'd give it a shot. Using actual "Dear Abby" letters, here is my stab at a "Dear Karen" column. What do you think?

Dear Karen

Dear Karen,

I have a man I never could trust. He cheats on me so much I'm not even sure that this baby I'm carrying is his.          --confused

Dear Confused,

I suspect you're meant for each other.

Dear Karen,

I joined the Navy to see the world, I've seen it. Now how do I get out?  --seasick

Dear Seasick,

Join NASA?

Dear Karen,

What do I do about all of the sex, violence and nudity on my VCR?  --concerned

Dear Concerned,

Convert it to DVD before the tapes go bad.

I think I could do this! what do you think? :-)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A writer in flux

The thing is:

I finished my novel Parkland last summer after nine years of work. Crazy, because while I was writing it, I actually completed two other novels (neither of which I have yet found a home for). Parkland, though, is different. I believe in all three, but this one is my baby. This one is the one I have been trying to make happen for all of this time, the one that was so hard to write I needed to take the breaks in which the others were written. This is the one I know will make it. All that remains is patience and perseverance.

My students ask me how I start writing a novel. Where do ideas come from? And I answer: damned if I know. I'm only being partially facetious. I know where all three of these ideas came from, but I do not know where the things that are in the books came from other than to say that the characters themselves created them.

I wrote a fantasy novel for young adults that began in 2003 while I was in Edinburgh--at about the same time I started Parkland. My goal in writing that one was simple: the fourth book in the Harry Potter series had come out and JK Rowling had announced that there would be seven; I could foresee a time when there would be this great black hole in the publishing world, a large vacuum waiting for something to rush to fill it. I decided to be that something. And I thought that something Potter-esque, but set more firmly in the real world (a world in fact in which Hogwarts was a bit of a joke) and steering clear of what I felt were some of the failings of the series (black v white characters, lack of technology, lack of interconnection with the "muggle" world, a kids v. world mentality, etc.) might be just the right thing. So I wrote this wonderful, expansive book with all sorts of twists and turns, only to find that Rowling, in her later books, anticipated pretty much every one of my issues. (Damn her.) It's still a good read, but it needs something more now, and I am going to have to work on that.

I wrote the second book because, over a Christmas break several years ago, I was motivated to write a few brief comic episodes essentially about my almost impossibly ridiculous family and living situation. Once I had begun what was a slightly fictionalized version of my reality, I found it enjoyable enough to keep going, and very quickly had written a slim book of 42 such episodes that told a complete story.


I suppose I should explain 42: I long ago decided that any book I ever write will have 42 chapters in it, a tribute to one of my favorite writers, the late great Douglas Adams, one of the most original comic minds ever to open a computer. 42, for those who have never had the incredible pleasure of reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and what the heck is wrong with you???), is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

(You need to read Adams to understand. OK, you won't even then, but it will be funny.)

As to Parkland, this is a story I have always wanted to write because, in essence, it is my story. Or anyway it is my story as I wish it could have been (give or take the horrific elements). At this point I will settle for being a huge advocate to LGBT (and especially transgender) rights. It is a story that needs to be told and needs to be out there because TG people are still way too misunderstood.

I think novelists get their ideas from their own lives a lot of the time. But they can also come from pretty much anywhere. I tell my students to start being aware of the world around them. To read the paper. Watch the news. Listen to conversations. That's where ideas come from. And if one comes, run with it.