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?

Posted in Movies, Television | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

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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