Monday, December 12, 2016

Marley's Ghost

Christmas time. For many of us, the season would lose much of its atmosphere and charm without what is perhaps the second most famous Christmas story: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Reading it is as much a part of my family's tradition as baking cookies, trimming the tree, and eating the chocolate in our Christmas stockings before having breakfast.
As a writer, an English literature tutor, and a huge fan of Dickens, I've read and analyzed several of his works, most notably A Christmas CarolGreat Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Indeed, I have notebooks filled with vocabulary, plot and character information, quiz questions, essay prompts, and all manner of things Dickensian. While I pride myself on knowing these works fairly well, I readily admit there is still much I can learn about and from one of my favorite masters of the English language.
That point was brought home to me just a few days ago by my brother. Now, my brother hasn't read any Dickens except A Christmas Carol, but he managed to point out a simile that occurs early in the story (page 15 in my copy) which I had managed to blow right past. Scrooge has just returned home after begrudgingly giving his clerk Christmas Day off.
"And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley's face. Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar."
Huh??? A bad lobster in a dark cellar?
What kind of a simile is that?
So, here's what I learned from my brother, who may not be an English lit scholar, but he knows his way around the sciences better than anyone I've ever met. He'd been reading a book called A Field Guide to Bacteria by Betsy Dexter Dyer when he ran across a passage explaining Dickens' seemingly bizarre reference to cellar-dwelling lobsters. Ms. Dyer explained that in Dickens' era, it was common to store lobsters in the cellar. Lobster exoskeletons are apparently covered in a bacteria that thrives in salty conditions (sea water) and phosphoresces in low temperatures such as those found in an ice chest or the cellar of a 19th century house. Indeed, a quick search of the internet will reveal that this trait is common to other seafood, especially crabmeat, shrimp, and prawns.
Just for kicks, if you happen to be at a holiday party where a platter of shrimp is on the buffet, turn out the lights and see if it glows in the dark. Guaranteed to be a conversation starter.

Merry Christmas!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

This Was Supposed To Be About No Vacations


This post was supposed to have a lovely picture from our October trip to Door County, Wisconsin, but apparently my limit has been reached with the amount of photos my computer will accept, so nothing is hitting up from my phone/camera.
This post was supposed to be about writers never being able to take a vacation because our writing means taking a computer (or at least a fat notebook) with us on all trips. We juggle story ideas, characters, and plots in our heads during driving trips, in airports, walking along beaches, and hiking in the woods.
I was going to mention the friend who recently posted on FaceBook a photo of the room that will be her home for a writing retreat, undoubtedly her idea of the perfect vacation. Another writer friend blogs about her habit of writing every day, no matter what.
Clearly, I'm not that focused, dedicated, or free from distractibility. For instance, I've just spent 15 minutes looking up how to spell distractibility, which isn't actually a word according to spell check but shows up just fine on all the ADHD sites. It's even got a medical definition, so the damn word does exist.
And this glitch with the photos probably means a trip to the Apple store, which measures only marginally higher on the Driver Scale of Blood Boiling Aggravation than dealing with Comcast. But, hey, computers make our lives so much easier, right? Here's where having Trumpian tons of money would be useful: I could just buy a new computer. Or four.

However, in an effort to prove to myself (because no one else seems to give a rat's ass about this blog) that I am a serious writer and can discipline myself to produce one post a month, no matter what, I am forging ahead, past the technical glitch, past the frustration, past the spelling issues, past my own insecurities and bad temper to get this frickin' post out there.

And once this is done, I will get back to my novel and the slew of short stories I'm working on because they are important to me. If we write to discover things about ourselves and the world, then I guess my take-away from this fiasco of a day's work is that I have rediscovered that Fictionland is my favorite vacation venue. In Fictionland, I can mine every boring, scary, uncertain, infuriating situation from real life into fictional (sort of) story material. And that is an awesome threshold to cross.   😎

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Go Cubs!

Full disclosure #1 --I stole the above image off someone's FB post. Disclosure #2 --only extreme circumstances would have me posting something about sports, let alone steal an image. And who would argue that the Cubs poised to beat 108-year curse is anything less than extreme?
I didn't grow up in a sports-oriented house; it just wasn't important. My father "skated a little." His way of saying he played ice hockey for Harvard. My parents' only encounter with professional sports was most likely the night at Ravinia when my 4'11" mother turned to the talkative man seated next to her and told him to shut up. Turns out the guy was Mike Ditka. (Ditka was football, right?)
But back to baseball, which along with ice hockey, are the only two games that make any sense to me. Of the two, baseball proved harder to grasp. My Dad taught me to skate and explained the basic rules of ice hockey when I was little, but no such lessons were offered for any other sport. Here's how I learned about baseball:
Second grade, a sunny spring day. We raced out to the playground for gym class, where we were divided into two teams, weighting girls and boys equally because everyone knew girls couldn't throw the ball. Or hit it. I'd never played baseball before, but being me, and being a know-it-all second-grader, I figured I could just watch, do what everyone else was doing, and that would be that. Easy-peasy. Our team was at bat first. Clearly, you were supposed to stand, knees bent, with the bat resting on your shoulders and, when the ball came, you hit it. No big deal. In those days, I was a tough little monkey, strong for my size and fast. My turn came. The ball barreled at me. I swung and hit that sucker high and far across the playground. According to my observations, I was then supposed to run to first base. No problem. Everyone was yelling, cheering, I thought. But while I was trying to figure out what they were saying, a couple of the boys retrieved the ball and threw it to the kid standing next to me on first base. He caught it easily and touched it to my shoulder.
Turns out, I had missed a couple of critical components of play: I was supposed to keep running if I could and, most importantly, I was supposed to have literally stepped on the canvas base. The learning curve was a little steeper than I had thought. In fact, if memory serves, by the time I was in high school, we actually had written exams in gym class testing our knowledge of the intricacies of line-ups, fair and foul flies, and the short hand used to fill out score cards. (Like when would I ever need to know that again?)
That day in second grade, I learned enough humility to still blush with shame at my ignorance and chutzpah, lo, these many decades later. And from the Cubs, I am seeing 108 years of perseverance. (Some days that feels like a great deal less than the length of time it will take me to get good at this writing stuff.) But the main take-away for me is that sticking with something despite disappointments and perceived failures is a pretty good lesson to learn from a game.
So here's to the Cubs! Go get that World Series.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


The start of the school year has been typical in its craziness. Monday through Friday presents as a blur of racing from one thing to the next, always with an eye on the clock, always feeling like there are never enough hours on that clock. We all know the story. In our culture, most responsible adults are forced to multi-task just to get through the day, get dinner on the table, and attempt to sleep long enough to do it all again the following day.
When my kids were little, I honed my multi-tasking skills getting a family of five dressed, fed, and out the door every morning. Most days, there were no major disasters, and somehow I lulled myself into the belief that not only was I able to multi-task, I was quite good at it. I could watch my children's soccer games and grade my students' homework. I could pay the bills and fold the laundry in the course of one television show, never losing the plot line. Weekly menus were planned and grocery lists written during staff meetings. Cookies for the bake sale scented the house as I prepped for the next day's classes. You get the idea. I flatter myself that I can still accomplish more in one day than some people will in an entire week, and I have two published novels and a slew of short stories to prove it. Ah, but therein lies the rub.
This writing stuff can play havoc with multi-tasking. I now work from home and, perhaps because of that, doing more than one thing at a time poses an unexpected hazard. Yes, I'm fine developing characters and story arcs while scrubbing the floor, weeding the garden, or walking the dog. But I have learned I should never, ever, under any circumstances attempt to cook while I'm at my computer writing. The thing is, when I am into a story the way I need to be to understand my characters and what is happening to them, I cross a threshold. That threshold into Fictionland doesn't allow casual backward glances at reality to check what's happening in the kitchen. You're either in the story, or you're not, and crossing that threshold exacts a toll. It requires suspension of all else, including time. Equally tough is crossing back over the threshold to the real world. Deep in a story, sometimes only extreme external forces can pull me back. Like the smell of a dozen eggs boiled so hard the water in the pan evaporated. Anyone up for Green Eggs and Ham?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jiffy Mix

It's late August. My self-imposed deadline for the first draft of the next novel is Sept. 30. I'm about 3/4 of the way there and stuck like some pre-Cambrian creature in a tar pit. Hoping to tease the Muse back, I've been wandering around in the literary toy store, playing with flash fiction and poetry. Just for kicks; no great expectations. (Yes, those last two words were deliberate.)
So here is one of the poems on which I have spent very little time, refusing to get all serious and angsty over it. I'll save that torture for the "real" writing.

Jiffy Mix

Still. they stand on grocery shelves,
This Jiffy blue and white boxes
Redolent of strawberry-filled sunshine,
Summer Sundays.

Thirty-three cents, then, for biscuit mix.
One egg and one cup of water
Rendered it to viscous batter,
Summer Sundays.

Batter baked to golden shortcake,
A hundred sweet, sliced berries within,
Released its buttered fragrance,
Summer Sundays.

A cavalcade of childhood days
Remains within those Jiffy boxes,
Now relegated to the lowest shelf, and ahlf-forgotten
Summer Sundays.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Haunting

I should be writing this deep in the middle of a dark and stormy October night instead of high noon on a lovely July day, but ghosts apparently choose their own time and place.

The story begins innocently enough. I went to a summer luncheon meeting with one of my writers' groups. Over chicken salad and iced tea, one of the original members of the group reminisced about her early writing career in New York where she worked at Mademoiselle magazine with Sylvia Plath. She remembered Sylvia as someone amusing who liked parties and wore the bright red lipstick so fashionable at that time. The conversation evolved to discussion of Plath's work. I kept quiet, certain I was the only person in the room who had not read her poetry or The Bell Jar.

Easily influenced by the mood of what I read, depressing novels and poetry aren't good for me. Back in high school, I discovered Thomas Hardy, and while I loved his prose, his stories sent me into such black swamps of depression, I vowed to avoid further relentlessly bitter literary journeys.
Still, after that summer lunch surrounded by lovely people who hadn't put their heads into ovens after reading Plath, I thought perhaps I should read her work.

This is where things get weird.

This past June, my husband retired from thirty-two years as a high school English teacher. Among his summer tasks was the clearing out of materials he would no longer need. On the very day of the  luncheon with my writer friends, he sorted through several boxes of stuff, hanging on to a few items he thought I might like. I came home that afternoon to find The Bell Jar and The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath on my desk. Coincidence?
Okay, then what about two days later when I am looking for an exercise on metaphors for another writing group, and the first example I find is a Sylvia Plath poem. Coincidence?
"Perhaps," says the phantasmal voice of Rod Serling.

I finished reading The Bell Jar last week, with no particular ill effects, though I don't seem to sleep well lately. The copy I read (see the photo above) looks as if its been to hell and back. Perhaps it is indeed a gift from a ghost.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Preconceived Misconceptions

I didn't want to go. The weather forecast called for severe thunderstorms, the venue was not a place I frequented, and my previous experience with story tellers had been total embarrassment on behalf of  wide-eyed, rambling raconteurs who substituted goofiness for story substance. However, I wanted to support my friend, Bobbie, who had been performing her stories with the Short Story Theater group for several months. From the writing group we both belong to, I knew her stories were well-written, and she's the sort of capable person one can trust to do a good job with whatever she sets her mind to.
So off I went to Miramar in Highwood on a cloudy but dry Thursday evening. Parking was the first hurdle. I left my car four blocks from the restaurant, hoping I would not get a ticket if I departed the minute Bobbie's presentation was finished. Second hurdle: at the restaurant I was shown to the back room where the stage had been set up, but no one was allowed in. I and another woman who, like me, didn't think 6:45 was too early to show up for a 7:00 event, were both told to go away; rehearsals were in progress. The other woman and I stood outside on the sidewalk chatting until her husband and friend showed up. They went in the restaurant to get a table while I stayed put, feeling about as welcome as a Zika-bearing mosquito. I seriously debated ditching the whole event.
Instead, I stood on the street corner, checking my phone like a teenager. Or whatever. Two messages: both from people in our writing group who said they, too, were coming to support Bobbie. All I had to do was wait. Back in the restaurant, the waiter who had led me to the back room noticed my re-entry.
"You can sit at the bar."
If there had been any seats available, that might have been okay, but the bar was packed.
Just then, a voice behind me said, "You can sit here. I'm on my own."
The voice belong to a pleasant-looking woman about my age, and the clincher for me was her British accent. Anyone who knows me knows I miss England every day, so I figure sitting with this stranger for a few minutes might give me an auditory mini-fix for the land I love.
She introduced herself as Ruth and explained that she adores Short Story Theater and had been to multiple shows. We shared new-friend information and soon thereafter, we made our way to the back room. I was startled to see the place had filled up with at least fifty people, yet we managed to secure seats at a table near the stage. I was also startled to see several people I knew and began introducing Ruth to my other acquaintances.
Long story short--the evening blossomed. The story tellers were first and foremost very capable writers who read their work with grace and style. Bobbie shone as one of the best. Our table, comprised of new friends and people I knew from various clubs, groups, and schools in town, was lively, friendly, and full of positive energy.
The big surprise for me was seeing so many people I knew who knew each other and had shared the experience of this venue multiple times. Why had I not been here before? Here was a whole network of interesting people to whom I was connected by only the most peripheral of strands, but there were many more strands available to me should I choose to pursue them.

Much as I love the time I spend spinning stories, perhaps I've been spending a little too much time with fictional people. The real ones can be fun, too.