Catching Up

I haven’t posted much recently, so I thought I’d use this post to catch readers up on what I’ve been doing.

So what have I been up to lately?  Nothing much.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I’ve been walking a lot and I started some yoga for beginners, trying to get myself into better shape.  I know I’m working my muscles because they hurt.  Once I get to the point where I can walk briskly without gasping for breath, I might venture onto a tennis court for the first time in years.

I’ve read lots of books.  I’ve bought more books than I’ve read.

The novel I’m writing is coming along. Slowly.  Glacially.  On the bright side, yesterday I think I finally  figured out what will happen in the story.

I bought an iPhone.

See why I haven’t posted?

So now that you’re all caught up,  I’ll try to do better with the posts.  And by “better” I mean I’ll try to make them more frequent and more interesting.

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Book Recommendation: The Language of Flowers

Some books feature a plot so engrossing that I can’t put them down, gobbling up pages and chapters long after I should have gone to sleep or to work, but I can’t stop reading because I need to know what happens next.

Some books are so beautifully written that I want to savor every word, and I wish I could read  slowly enough to never reach the end, like when you keep halving fractions but never get to zero.  I could live caught up in an infinite string of perfect sentences, marveling at the depth of meaning and emotion conjured up by mere words on a page.

Some books have such well-developed characters that I long to know everything about them.  I want to reach through the page and comfort them, or slap them, or laugh with them.  These characters feel as real to me as anyone I’ve ever known.

Some books present ideas and thoughts and feelings almost too big to comprehend. While reading, and long after, they make me wonder, worry, believe, doubt, despair, hope.  After reading them, I am no longer the same person I was before.

Sometimes, on rare and special occasions, a book accomplishes all four.

 The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, may be one of those books.  Since I just finished it yesterday I’m not quite ready to enshrine it in my limited collection of Very Special Books, but I do know that I stayed up late one night reading it and then stayed up late the next night thinking about it.  I still haven’t completely shaken off the combination of sadness and joy evoked by the book.  I find myself thinking about the characters at odd moments, hurting for them, then hoping they’ll be all right.  The language in the book, like the language of flowers, is clear, clean, and at times filled with pure poetry:  “The sky was undecided, alternating orange and blue behind the approaching thunderclouds, full of the nervous anticipation of rain.”

The Language of Flowers opens on Victoria Jones’ 18th birthday, her emancipation day from child services.  She is angry, lonely and lost.   The story unfolds in two strands, one covering what happens after Victoria’s emancipation and one revisiting the past that led her to that moment.  Both strands explore the different aspects of love, and how hard it can be to communicate love—even when using the language of flowers. In the end, both strands merge together and we see how the past affects the present, and how both, hard as they are, may help us face the future.

In a few weeks, maybe I’ll reread the book, and then decide if it’s definitely worthy of joining books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Book Thief, and Wild Sargasso Sea in my list of special books.  But even if it doesn’t end up there, this is still a book I highly recommend.

If you’ve read The Language of Flowers, let me know what you think about it.  And also let me know what books meet your criteria for Very Special Books.

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Dark Shadows

As a kid, I used to run home from school, up a big hill, in order to watch Dark Shadows.  This is the show that generated my lifelong love for vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, time travel, ghosts, parallel universes, and nearly every other type of supernatural and fantastical character and event possible. 

The show itself started as a typical soap opera:  a young woman, seeking answers about her past, comes to a spooky old mansion as the governess for the troubled young boy of a highly dysfunctional family.  Apparently, when the ratings of the show faltered and the series appeared likely to be cancelled, the show’s creator figured, what the heck.  Let’s go out with a bang.

That’s when Barnabas Collins entered the scene. 

The 200-year old vampire, released from his coffin, brought whole new storylines to the soap and new life to the ratings.  For the next five years, Dark Shadows introduced viewers to a wide array of supernatural creatures.  Characters died, but came back as ghosts, or as their own ancestors in one of the time-travelling story arcs.  When Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas (and, sadly, died just a few weeks ago), needed a break from being on screen so much, they writers introduced Quentin Collins, a menacing ghost who turned out to be a werewolf.   This started the trend of vampires vs. werewolves still in fashion today, although Barnabas and Quentin did at times work together to banish some other supernatural creature threatening the Collins family.

I loved this show, and as a child was completely unaware of the campier side of the story.  It became such a part of my life that years later, as an adult re-watching the show on DVD, I realized that the setting for many of my recurring dreams was in fact the Collinwood mansion!

Which brings me around to the point of this—the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie of Dark Shadows comes out tomorrow, and I’m torn about whether or not to go see it.  On the one hand, I like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp and the previews look funny.  On the other hand, I don’t know if I want to see a comic version of the show that scared and thrilled me for so many years.

What about you?  Anyone planning to see the movie?  Anyone else remember watching the show as a kid?

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Opening Day

Baseball season is here again! Sometimes I’m not sure why I get so excited about Opening Day. I do love baseball, although college football is my favorite sport to watch on tv. Still, there is something special about baseball, the calming, almost Zen-like slowness of a game that isn’t driven by a ticking clock. Infrequent bursts of action surrounded by pitchers wandering around the mound, batters stepping into and out of the batter’s box, the third base coach flashing mysterious signs as he communicates the plan. Runners on base chat with the opposing infielders while they wait for the action to begin again. Then a moment of stillness as the pitcher stops, the hitter stills his bat, the runners and the fielders bend low, everyone anticipating an explosion of movement . . .

Of course, there isn’t always an explosion of movement. But maybe it’s that uncertainty that is so appealing. After all, in other sports you know something is going to happen every play. In baseball, all we know for sure is that the pitcher will throw the ball toward the plate. And that might be all that happens–the catcher catches the ball and tosses it back. Or maybe the hitter will knock one out of the park. Or get one of those dribbly little hits that stop a few feet from the plate and millimeters from the foul line. Or someone will sprint backwards and manage to catch the ball seconds before crashing into the fence.  All kinds of possibilities.

So let’s see what happens next.  Play ball!

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Wacky Songs From the 70s

As I wrote last week, we’ve been having unseasonably warm weather here in Michigan.  Everything is flowering and budding, and it looks more like late May or early June than March.  The warmth has lasted long enough to convince me spring is here—I can tell because I suddenly got the urge to listen to early 70s music.

I don’t know why I get this craving every spring. I do not listen to most of these songs the rest of the year.  I’m not even sure I like all of these songs.  But they are the music of my youth, so I guess youth=spring=70s songs in my brain.

This weekend as I listened two things stood out.  The first is that I’ve used up way too many brain cells remembering the words to these songs.  Honestly, I could (and did) sing along with almost all of the 200 or so I listened to.

The second thing is that lots of weird and wacky songs were popular in the early 70s.  One of my favorites is “Polk Salad Annie.” The singer starts with a helpful explanation of poke salad for any listeners not from the south, but the song is really a character sketch about a girl known as (you guessed it) Polk Salad Annie, who “makes the alligators look tame.”  Well, no wonder.  Her mother, “a wretched, spiteful, straight-razor totin’ woman” is currently working on the chain gang, and the gators got her granny (“chomp chomp”).  Her male relatives aren’t any better—lazy thieves, mostly.  But Annie seems to have made quite an impression on the singer.

There’s also “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance), in which our hungry hero wanders into a building with a sign advertising “food and drink for everyone.”  He’s so hungry that when he’s told he must dance for his dinner, he agrees even though he says he’s no dancer.  But wait!  Once he’s on the dance floor he turns out to be an excellent dancer.  This excites him so much (“I can dance!  Oh yeah, I can dance!  Look at me dancing!  I can dance I can dance I can dance!”) that he apparently forgets all about eating.

“Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes Love It)” is about a “craaazy dream,” which I believe occurred after someone indulged in illegal pharmaceuticals.  In his dream the singer sees a chick in a black bikini, chases her, then enters the “three doors in the top of her bikini.”  Everybody in the dream inexplicably says, “Chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom, don’t ya jes love it” whenever he asks for help finding the chick.  Then, when he finally catches up to her and tries to woo her with his smooth style, guess what he hears himself saying?

Then there’s “Dead Skunk,” perhaps the best song ever written about road kill.  The poor skunk who “didn’t see the station wagon car” ends up dead in the middle of the road, “stinkin’ to high heaven.”  The rousing chorus seems like a great place for everyone to sing along:

“You got your dead cat and you got your dead dog                  
 On a moonlight night you got your dead toad frog                     
You got your dead rabbit and your dead raccoon   
The blood and the guts are gonna make you swoon”

This last song became my favorite after repeated listenings this weekend.  I’m not a little embarrassed to say I laughed out loud every time.  The growling Wolfman Jackish voice that starts the song becomes something of a Greek chorus as the song progresses, providing answers and insights to the questions posed by the singer.

Q:“Ah, what good’s a metronome without a bell for ringing?”      A: “Well, you try and do your best.”

Q: “How can you ever hope to know just where you are?”      A: “Well, you look around.” 

By the end he’s devolved into a dirty old man:  “Ya gimme dat if you wanna make an old man happy.”  The best part of the song may be the jaunty dance hall piano interlude in the middle.

As I said, I still know the words to all these songs.  But what’s even more astonishing is that all of these songs got played on the radio in the early 70s and were fairly popular.  Now, that might mean we had little taste back in the day, but I prefer to think this shows that we valued diversity and had a sense of humor.

Next blog I’m going to talk about the obsession with death and murder we also apparently had back then, based on some other popular songs.

What wacky songs do you remember from those days?  Or, for the younger readers, what songs have you heard on some nostalgic radio station, or heard your parents talk about?

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From the Beginning (Part 7): Write This! No, Write This!

Decisive is a word rarely used to describe me.  And by “rarely” I mean never.  I’ve more or less learned to cope with this in my real life, but it has caused problems for me as I try to write this novel.

The main problem is that every time I make a decision I eliminate whole worlds of possibilities.  Every time a character speaks or acts, it narrows the range of future words or actions.  Each setting, each description, each word points the way down a road, and leaves behind all kinds of roads not taken.  And of course the grass is always greener down the road not taken (with my sincere apologies to Robert Frost).

Every time I work on plotting the novel, my attention skips back to all the options I didn’t select.  I want a do-over, just like I always want when I have to select an ice cream flavor.  I’m always positive that the ones I don’t choose will be the ones I should have chosen, the ones that will taste better and not cause me to gain weight.  Of course, with  the novel I can have all the do-overs I want and revise from now to forever.  Unless, you know, I want to actually finish the thing.

When I  re-focused on what I wanted the book to be about I had to narrow down the very wide range of ideas and themes and characters and plot points I’d imagined.  I was quite ruthless.  And as hard as it was to keep my focus and not get distracted by any shiny new ideas, writing did become much easier when I had a clear and concise vision of my main purpose.

But when the “are sure you want to delete” message popped up, I couldn’t make myself trash the ideas forever.  So—good news!—now I’m writing a trilogy.

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Bracket This

For the first time in my life I’m playing in a March Madness pool.  So far I’m #5,032,224 in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge and tied for 88th in my group, the Blue Fugate Challenge.

I might not win.

Failing to win could not count as a “shocker” since I don’t follow college basketball and knew very little about the teams in the tournament.  I almost randomly selected my teams—and I say “almost” because I didn’t actually go to one of the random pick generators out there, like the one where you pick by animals and the generator ties your choices back to the teams in some magical and probably humorous way, which would have been kinda fun, but that’s not what I did.  My picks were slightly less random than that.  I went with heart over seeding for some (UVa, Alabama, Southern Miss) and seeding over heart for others (VCU, Norfolk St, Notre Dame).  I guessed wrong approximately 100% of the time.

On the other hand, both of my final teams are still alive, as are 3 out my Final Four and 7 out of my Elite Eight.  As an inveterate gambler eternal optimist, I’m pretty sure that means I still have a chance to win, to emerge victorious from the darkness of defeat.  If this dream is a mathematical impossibility, please don’t tell me.

How many of you are playing in a pool?  How are your teams doing?  Anyone planning to join me in the winner’s circle?  Or the loser’s circle, whatever.

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Spring Forward!

The weather forecast on the radio this morning said we would have a near-record high today.  Now in July or August that’s bad news, but since we’re still in the first half of March, that’s great news. I didn’t spend any time at all pondering relativity or timing;  I just jumped right out of bed full of energy and ready to take on the day.

I love spring.  All the symbolism surrounding the season makes perfect sense.  When the sun regains its warmth, the days lengthen, the grass and trees take on a greenish tint, and the first brave flowers stick their heads up to add color to a gray world, I am filled with hope and a renewed belief in a new beginning.  I’m not big on making resolutions, but if I did I’d make them in the spring, not in the dark cold of January.

This is the time of year when new beginnings seem possible.  Why, yes, I will exercise more and eat better and clean out the basement and finish my novel and start playing tennis and become a better person . . .

Okay, maybe I’m overly excited by the 75 degrees we’re promised for today, March 14.  In Michigan!  I probably won’t make any huge changes in my life.  But I will be outside enjoying the sunshine, feeling lighter without the weight of my winter coat, and believing that this is the start of something beautiful.

Does the change in season affect your mood?  What do you do to celebrate spring?

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From the Beginning (Part 6)–Just Like Starting Over

The bad news is that I’ve made very little progress writing my novel in the last week.  The good news is that my apartment is much cleaner.  See, procrastination can be your friend!

I did make a decision about the novel that will ultimately be a good thing, I think, but that for now means almost starting over.  I’ve redefined the focus, which means I need to change the point of view, which means I need to rewrite pretty much everything I already have.  Of course, I always knew I’d have to rewrite, but I did think that would come later in the process.  On that other hand, I am re-energized about writing, so that’s another good thing.

Overall, seems like the good things outweigh the bad things.

Before, I had two main characters, and planned to alternate chapters with their point of view.  What I realized, finally, is that I kept getting stuck when writing from the perspective of one of the characters.  After my last blog about the writing, when I realized that I’d gotten lost in the weedy details, I did step back and re-focus on the story I wanted to tell.  When I did that, it became clear that I really wanted to tell the story of one character, and that the other “main character” had to be demoted to the supporting cast.  She’ll still be important, but we don’t need to see the story unfold from her perspective.

My relief when I made this decision tells me it’s the right one, although that hasn’t stopped me from second guessing myself for the last week (hence the clean apartment).  But in my mind, the novel now seems much easier to write, which means I should be able to get BIC* and get back to writing.

Right after I mop the floor.


*Butt in chair

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In a few minutes I’m heading out to buy Bruce Springsteen’s new cd, Wrecking BallThis will be the 15th or 16th time I’ve rushed out on release day to buy his music, starting with Darkness on the Edge of Town back in 1978.  Over the years the urgency to hear the music RIGHT NOW has dimmed a little, especially since new tracks are now available before the release date.  Still, a new Springsteen album is definitely a day of celebration for me.

I first saw Bruce in concert on October 16, 1976, when he performed at the College of William and Mary.  At the time I was a freshman, living in a dorm right across the street from the concert hall.  I wasn’t really a big fan prior to the show, although I loved the song “Born to Run.”  The only other song I’d heard at the time was “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” which I hated (and still don’t like).  But lots of students at W&M came from New Jersey, and their excitement swept me up.  Besides, I went to every concert that came through town, because I loved music and because the other big source of entertainment was watching a blacksmith shoe a horse in Colonial Williamsburg.  That was cool to watch the first few times, but after a while . . . not so much.

Saying that the concert changed my life is probably an overstatement, but it certainly had a major impact on my life.  The emotional connection Bruce had with the audience was practically tangible, but what impressed me even more was the emotional connection he had with his music.  From the very first song (a version of “Thunder Road” with only a piano backing), I knew this man believed in rock and roll, that music can save your mortal soul (to paraphrase Don McLean).  This was the first concert I attended where I felt an immediate connection to the performer, and not in an “I’ve got a crush on the singer” way.  Needless to say, within a couple of days I’d bought the three albums he had out at the time, and when Darkness came out a couple of years later I started my release-day streak. 

In some ways, Bruce Springsteen is the soundtrack to my adult life, starting with that first concert when I was 18.  I bought his records at Penguin Feather Records and Tapes back when funky stores sold albums along with bongs and pipes.  Later I bought them at Tower Records when bigger stores weeded out the smaller ones.  By the time CDs came around, I bought them at Borders or Best Buy, or ordered them from Amazon.  When I was teaching high school, I went to buy tickets from a teenage scalper, grateful that his house was a few blocks away from the boundary of the school where I taught.  No matter where I bought the music or heard the concert, the emotional purity and honesty of the music always grabbed my heart and forced me to feel right along with him. 

Over time Bruce Springsteen became an American icon, the conscience of a country, the voice of a generation. Today I’m going to buy his latest, and let his music speak to my heart once again

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