Monday, September 24, 2018

Road Song

Americans' love of the road is legendary and all that, and of course Jack Kerouac's iconic book is said to be a symbol of that love affair. I never thought about it much, growing up near a city where public transportation was incredibly easy, and it wasn't until I moved to the Midwest that I started figuring it out.

Driving is freedom, and freedom is about getting where you want to go whenever you want to go there. Other countries have their trains, and America is starting to here and there, but I have a feeling that no matter what happens in the world, Americans will always love their cars and the open road.

I myself am not in love with driving and never will be -- though I am married to someone who adores it. This morning while (miserably) driving to work I thought about a friend with marital troubles. About two years ago, he got in his car one morning (after leaving a note, I presume)? He drove from the Midwest to the coast where members of his family lived, saying he needed time to think.

I believe his mind was made up the minute he got in the car, but he didn't know it yet. He needed every stoplight, highway entrance, gas station, motel and pot of coffee before he hit Chicago to realize he wasn't coming home again--at least, not to stay. He needed every smile from diner waitresses and he needed the smell of rain on asphalt to tell him he was alive. He need the sound of children whooping as they play with their dog at a rest stop and maybe a couple arguing in the motel room next to his.

The road comforts us and shows us the way; it also terrifies us sometimes with the ugliness of certain drivers. At those times, other roads lead us to safety and we can always find a way to a new path that takes us somewhere else. It gives us time to think of what we want to say and how we want to say it.

My friend needed to leave his life, and start a new one, or take up strands of his old life and rebuild them into something stronger again. When we spoke after his journey, he said, "This will not be a rational conversation," but I didn't need rational conversation to know he was gone, just as you don't need to talk to a hawk when it leaves the ground.

America offers us the road the way other countries offer up castles or cathedrals--as a monument to the Possible, and we all need the Possible more than life, because without it, what is life worth? I think of my friend's journey from time to time as a journey back to his Self.

The road was there to help him regain that self before he lost it forever. This morning, I realized all of this while driving to work and thinking about my own journey--what I lost, what I found, what I wanted and still want.

I have a new home now, and my husband and I get up every day and look at water, which gives us the illusion that at any time, at any moment, we can jump in a canoe or swim our way to Canada and beyond. I hope we do some day, but I have a feeling if we go, we're going to need a car for at least some part of our trip. Because if you're American, the road is always calling you.

There's always the promise of where you might go.

Road photo: Syuzo Tsushima
Lakeside Tree photo: Syuzo Tsushima

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Seeing Through Her Eyes: When Your Main Character is "Poor"

A friend who read The Beat on Ruby's Street gave me a unique compliment last year -- and I'm thinking about it now because of a recent New York Times story following a group of people interviewed during the recession. While some have succeeded, others have never been able to regain what they lost.

My friend thanked me for writing positively about someone poor, and making her the heroine of my story. When I heard this, I started thinking about poorer characters I'd read about, whether it's Dickens or a book written yesterday.

I'm not saying these portrayals are bad -- I absolutely love Dickens and there's a ton of books where poor characters are featured that are superb in every way. I think my friend was trying to say that instead of making someone's life miserable because he or she is poor, she found it refreshing that Ruby wasn't ashamed of not having much money -- and no one in her community was, either. Plus, they weren't shamed for it.

I think the Beat Generation was like an advance guard for Baby Boomer hippies who came later. I chose to set my book in the 1950s, when a large majority of Americans were pretty prosperous, because I was interested in the Beats who rebelled against prosperity and property. (In fact, they referred to it as "square," meaning the opposite of cool).

I didn't start writing about the Beats for any special reason. It was just that I liked the idea of an artists' community rebelling against convention, including a house in the suburbs, fancy car, clothes and jewels -- and all the trimmings.

That's why Ruby's family doesn't have a car or TV or much of anything. They focus on art and how they can get by in order to concentrate on creation. Their work may not give them much materially, but they are more interested in conversation, coffee, music, painting, poetry and community than they are in anything else. That's what interests me.

The Beat Generation was not the only group of people to withdraw from conventional society. I think that has happened in almost every generation; sometimes it succeeds, sometimes not. I think what my friend enjoyed in the book was how Ruby and her friends enjoyed life, without having a lot of money. I'm not sure there's a lot of support for that in our society. (Maybe not any)?

But isn't that what we tell our kids? "You don't have to make a lot of money to be happy." Except we model something very different -- working 60 hour weeks, grasping and grabbing every straw, stepping on people right and left to get ahead -- and a lot more.

The difference between what we think of as a good, ethical way to live and what we really do about it is huge. Which is why I wanted to enter Ruby's world and stay there for a little while. And, of course, it's why I want to invite you to do the same.

By the way, I looked for articles about how to raise a child who won't revolve his/her life around money and only found articles about raising rich, successful kids.

So I can't share that with you. Unfortunately.

Young girl: Christina Welsh

Monday, September 10, 2018

Back to School: Pencil Days

When did you stop using pencils, do you remember? I know I used them in high school for tests but can't remember if I used them for class work, too. I remember being a child and having to sharpen them, and buying a sharpener for my son, too.

I don't know what kids have been doing since my son graduated eighth grade, but I do know it's been ages since I used a pencil. Once I figured out how much faster you could write with a pen - especially gel pens -- all I wanted was to float on a cloud of ink across any page I had to write physically on. And then of course, in high school we learned to type and use a keyboard.

I still use pens for thank you cards, making notes (especially writing notes) and a few other things, but mostly write on computer. But today, unpacking boxes in my workroom, I found a box of colored pencils.

I used colored pencils when freelancing about 8 years ago as a copy editor. After a while the profession insisted everything be done on track changes, but I do remember liking the pencils, especially the red ones, which made marking up manuscripts more fun. My late friend Susan, who had edited the Harry Potter books, liked using pencils too, and I sometimes wonder if J. K. Rowling's manuscripts were marked up in Susan's red pencils.

There is something a lot more personal, of course, in physically sitting with someone's work and writing on it. Susan had sets of different colored pencils, and though I have to say it's a lot faster and easier to use computers, I loved to watch her work. I also loved all the hieroglyphic-looking marks the editors made with pencils. Is it a lost art?

Is there anyone in the world any more who uses pencils, not just to edit, but for other stuff? I'm guessing architectural draftsmen types, but who knows? Maybe they do everything on computer now, too.

The summer before last I found six colored pens in a Stillwater stationery store with erasers. I don't think the erasers worked, but I loved them anyway. In fact, I wanted to jump up and down screaming when I found them, I loved them so much. Something about using colors and ink together that is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

Unfortunately, I packed them somewhere and will have to dig through nearly everything I own to find them. And who knows when that will be?

Still, I do like the look of pencils better than pens, especially when they have new, square-tipped erasers and their points are newly sharp. The summer before last I found six colored pens in a Stillwater stationery store with erasers. I don't think the erasers worked, but I loved them anyway. In fact, I wanted to jump up and down screaming when I found them, I loved them so much. Something about using colors and ink together that is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

Unfortunately, I packed them somewhere and will have to dig through nearly everything I own to find them. And who knows when that will be?

Maybe I need pencil wall hangings, just because they'd look so interesting? Pencils also give us a rite of passage, one of the only instruments that allows us to learn writing skills and then slips into oblivion after being crucially important for si or seven years.

I can't help but wish that pens had the versatility of pencils, because the ability to erase ink would be wonderful, especially when you're writing out your thoughts on a greeting card. Speaking of which, are those getting obsolete, too?

I have to say I will always love getting a hand-written card, so it's hard for me to stop sending them. Maybe what we need our kids to learn in school is not just how to write with pen or pencil; but how writing, particularly hand writing, connects us to someone in ways a computer cannot.

And sorry, not sorry, but crayons, however wonderful they are, do not count.

Then again, I'm sure I sound impossibly old fashioned. But isn't that what moms are for?

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Summer Silliness: Favorite Lines

Labor Day weekend. End of summer? (NO!!!) Still wanting the green, wanting the light, wanting the warmth here. Trying to distract myself and think of silly summer things to post for you.

All I can manage right now are my favorite lines, from books, movies, plays, anywhere. These five are things I come back to again and again, or even now and again, and I love how they've stayed with me.

So, in no particular order, the lines I wish I'd written - or said:

1. "The Tingler is loose in the theater." This comes from one of my favorite horror movies, The Tingler (written by Robb White), about a spine removed at a period of high anxiety after someone died of fright. Obviously taking off from the idea of a spine-tingling scare, and obviously a very B-grade movie (but nonetheless one of my favorites). Because the Tingler should always be loose in the theater, especially when it's showing a horror film.

2. "Beware my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meet it feeds on." Spoken by one of William Shakespeare's greatest villains, this line nails the feeling of jealousy better than anything else. I know the green-eyed monster and love the use Shakespeare made of it. And when I am feeling jealous, it's the first thing I try to tell myself.

3. "Fuck. Ethel." This line from Tony Kushner's Angels in America occurs as part of a hallucination had by the character of Roy Cohn when he sees Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed at Cohn's urging after the Rosenberg trial. Angels in America is one of my favorite plays and, though I love the line exactly how it's used, I also use it for anything and everything in the course of a day - especially when I'm knocked out by something or some other thing goes wrong.

4. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" This question, asked at every Passover seder, is also the question I ask myself before (and while) I'm writing a new work, or revising an older one. I love it because it forces me to tease out exactly why this particular play or story or novel needs to be written--and what about it is unique.

5. "It's a great life if you don't weaken." This is something my father always said, and I loved it so much I named a play after it. He would say it when things didn't go his way or when they did; and often said it to buck me up when I was depressed (which happens a lot in adolescence). What I really need to do is keep it on my wall, so I can always look at it, and try to find my way back from whatever ledge I'm standing on.

So. Was that summer-silly enough for you?

Saturday, August 25, 2018

No Surprises

I was at a stoplight this week, waiting for the light to change, when BUMP! Someone rear ended me. The driver's companion got out after a few minutes, and he followed.

It turned out the driver didn't have insurance, and his companion asked me not to report anything because she'd already had a bad morning. Poor thing!

The couple asked if I wanted to pull over and talk, which I agreed to; but by the time I reached the parking lot, they'd gone. I hadn't gotten out of my car to get their license plates, so... here I am, without much recourse except to report the accident to my own insurance company and watch my rates go up.

I'm not bringing this up to whine, I promise. I'm bringing it up to talk about surprises, and how we handle them. More importantly, I'm interested in how we teach our kids to handle them. These days, I tend to feel a lot like the Radiohead Song, "No Surprises" -- because I've gotten more negative surprises than I wanted. Or at least, there are days it feels that way.

So, no thank you, accidents, no thank you illness, no thank you, deaths of good friends or family, no thank you, floods or divorces or burglaries. If you want to surprise me with flowers or something like that, by all means. But what do we tell our kids about the stuff nobody wants?

I'm not sure I did a good job of preparing my son for adversity; and like all of us, he has his share. Some people say the best you can do is model behavior when the bad surprises strike, to give your kid an example of how to handle things. That makes sense to me.

I remember being terrified as an eight year old when my sweater caught on a slide and I was stuck and started choking. Luckily my friend Carole climbed up behind me and broke the sweater's button to get me loose.

Carole was angry with me for getting stuck, but when I told her how amazing she was and that she saved my life, she calmed down and changed her mind. We both decided she was pretty terrific, and then forgot the whole thing. Or maybe we just pretended we did, which was okay too.

But yeah, there's going to be illness and accidents, bullies, breakups and tragedies. You can tell your kid life is like that, but until something happens, will they really understand? Maybe you can give them coping strategies when they're sad, like drawing, baking, writing stories or playing guitar.

You can also teach them to try and help people whenever possible (while telling them to be careful of strangers--this isn't easy, is it)? If I could tell a child anything, I'd say the one thing I regret - really -- is not being kinder when I could have been.

What that has to do with bad surprises, I don't know. I guess it's something we can control, instead of the surprises we can't. Maybe it holds a clue to how we interpret all the bad stuff. Because the surprises, good and bad, will always come. And the best way to handle them may be to share them, I think -- by helping each other through.

Here's a few thoughts I found from others on the web:

When Bad Things Happen
5 Tips on Talking to Kids About Scary News
How to Talk to Children About Difficult News

Girl: Alvaro

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

My Father's Books

Childhood photo of my father (at right, in dark shirt) with his
father and brothers Harry and Sam
Remembering my father today, though it isn't his birthday or death day. Still, the memories surface often, and today I'm thinking about how much he loved books and especially literature. 

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, one of whom had escaped at breakneck speed, my dad had not been able to afford a college education. He talked about having holes in his shoes in school, with classrooms chock full of kids from wall to wall. When he won an award and was asked to accept it in front of everyone, he recalled being embarrassed by his shoes.

My dad was a wizard at math and talked about wishing he could have been a teacher. Infinitely patient, I think he would have been a grand one. Instead, he and my mother opened an appliance store and he worked there until he retired in his mid sixties.

Yet every night that I can remember, he read before going to sleep, and on Sundays read the paper. I don't think he read because he wanted to impress anyone; it was simply his hunger for good stories, well told. 

Once, I remember reading a young-adult book and he asked why I wasn't reading "the classics." He spoke at length and passionately about the consequence of missing out on great writers; losing their vision and particular way of phrasing and the discovery of what made something truly classic, versus a book everyone might read and no one remember.

And when a Jane Austen story might appear on our public TV station and my mother would be bored by it, he would try hard to explain the story to her, and I could easily see how engaged he was and how much stories meant to him.

When I write now, I think of him, tracking stories and books through my childhood and remembering them. I think of how much he wanted to be part of an academic setting and wonder what books he would have selected as his favorites.

He read everything he could get his hands on, and taught me to do the same. I think of books like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and how that would have resonated with him. Today, I realize that much of what I write is still going out to him.

And... thanking him for teaching me to love reading. Thank you, Dad.

For more on getting kids interested in reading, I found these:

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Doctor History Dispatch

I don't really think of myself as a writer of historical fiction, even though the Beat Street series is set in the 1950s and I've written plays set in the past too. I also set plays in the present so I would never think of myself as exclusively wedded to one time (or genre, for that matter).

But history has always interested me, as I know it interests many writers, because we just can't help wondering what people were doing back then. Some traditions are so weird they invite curiosity--like the long-beaked masks doctors wore in earlier centuries.

I was thinking about doctors now, I guess, having been seeing them more than I'd like lately, and thinking about what's different now than in the past. I've heard they wore those odd masks to guard against "bad air" believed to be the cause of the plague and other illnesses. 

It makes sense that doctors would want to armor up with herbs and masks if they were afraid of bad air making them sick. I also remember stories about using leeches to thin people's blood and how in some cases that worked (while in others, not so much).

THAT makes me think of something someone said in a group I attended with my son once for families of cancer patients. He said, "Medicine is really an art, not a science."

I think there is a lot of science in medicine, but I believe part of it IS an art as well, and I'm not sure how doctors approach that. (Not sure how artists approach science, exactly, either). Science is supposed to be based on cold, hard facts, but to get there, it seems to me you have to go through a lot of trial and error, while artists work a lot on instinct, on what our gut is telling us to do.

All of THIS makes me think about how when you write a story in a historical era, you need to think about WHY you are setting it in the past, and how that past informs the present. Setting book 2 of the Beat Street series (not out yet, but coming) in the time of the Blacklist made it easier to show how some of the hysteria of that age (with it's terror of Communists) might inform our own (with its terror of immigrants).

When all is said and done though, I'm still not sure what I think of those medieval doctor masks, except that in every age, we are likely doing something that people in the future will call primitive and misguided.

Cool-looking masks though. May have to use them in a story some time. We'll see.

Medieval doctor mask photo: Thomas Quine

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