Thursday, December 16, 2010


"What's in a name?" Shakespeare had his Juliet ask. I recall the line because naming people and places is a struggle for me in writing fiction. One reason? News articles like this, which includes government officials accused and convicted of accepting bribes. A couple of the bribe-rs were affiliated with a company named Synagro.

Synagro. If I read that name in a novel, I might accuse the author of high cheeseballery. Add the details of Synagro's business, that they process sewage sludge, and I might set the book down with a tiny growl.  But this not an imagined tale, this is real life, and thus the name strikes me as a cosmic present.

A Synagro by any other name would not be nearly as sweet. Sometimes, a name just fits. It happens in real life, why can't I let it happen in stories?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Neil, baby

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2011 is official. The list includes Dr. John and Tom Waits, two artists that most people are not afraid to claim. Dr. John makes me happy, and our old dog, Jersey, was named after a Tom Waits song.

The list also includes Darlene Love and Alice Cooper. I've got no personal connection to Darlene Love, except my affection for this:

Alice terrified me when he was on the Muppet Show, but I was alright with him on the radio. My kids loved this, from the Cars and Guitars exhibit at The Henry Ford Museum:

Leon Russell will be in as a sideman, and the final artist inductee is Neil Diamond. Where do I even begin?

It is not an overstatement to say that I grew up on Neil Diamond. Hanging in our living room, we had my mom's needlework depicting Mary and the Christ Child, and a poster of Neil. I cannot find a copy of this poster online, but I recall that he was in a black vest, a flowing white shirt, mouth agape, one hand grasping the microphone, and the other iconically outstretched. He was a priest of something, I'm sure of it, and we were often in his church. "Holly, Holy" people! "Brother Love's Travelin' Salvation Show!""Crunchy Granola Suite!"

I know he's kitschy, I know he's over the top, I know his later music (certainly from "Heartlight" on, maybe even sooner than that) is riddled with badness. Even my mother, one of the faithful, recognizes that he no longer has what he once had. But what he once had, I loved.

C'mon. Admit it. You've rocked out to "I'm A Believer." You love it when they cut the music to "Sweet Caroline" and the whole crowd hollers, "Bahm bahm bah." You've swept through a high-end lighting store, singing along with his version of "If You Go Away", emoting at your beloved.

Alright, maybe that last one is just me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tis the season

A friend of mine posted a poem on risk from a soup kitchen in Detroit. I don't have a lot of time to polish anything this morning, but I just want to say to my friends, and anyone else who might stumble into this blog, that this holiday season can bring many needs and opportunities to the surface.

If you are experiencing a need, take a risk and share it. Everyone goes through something. Nine years ago, my husband was injured and unable to work. Two weeks before that, while vacationing with him and our toddler, we found out I was pregnant with our second child. He went back to work toward the end of the summer, but re-injured himself shortly before our baby was due. He was out of work again for the rest of the year.

During this, we needed all sorts of help. I was hormonal, I don't handle money stress well, and all along our journey, my friends and others gave what they had - one gave me some part-time work, another personal and financial and diaper support, another the ability to give our oldest a Christmas gift, several more coming when my husband couldn't drive and I couldn't drive and we had to make a trip to urgent care. We were humbled and blessed by their care for us. They loved us as Jesus loved, in deed and in truth, but we had to let them into our lives.

If you are not experiencing a need, help. In our area, need is increasing. Our small local pantry registered 60 new clients from July-December. According to our school district, the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches continues to rise, one school nearing fifty percent.

Maybe you don't have much, but, as our area director said, "Even a can of corn helps." A can of corn is on sale this week for fifty cents. Take the time to understand who serves your communities and see what you can do. Here's a place to start, but you may want to go a little further. My local pantry, started during the economic downturn in the late seventies or early eighties, is not listed here. Maybe it's the same for yours. Ask around. If you've got kids in school, ask teachers and administrators who they contact when there's a need and see how you can help.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Embracing my dark side

Here’s a modern-day bad word in some circles: competition. 
Maybe the word shines where you live, but around here it’s tainted. When my oldest was little, he was in two beginner sports. Both had scheduled games, but the adults emphasized “we don’t keep score”. My family figured we could suffer through that, but then came T-ball. 
Imagine the point of view of a competitive 5-year-old who’s been watching ballgames since he was a baby. Finally he is no longer a spectator. Finally he gets to play. He’s in the infield. The batter makes contact. He fields the ball (!) and throws to first (!!). Before the batter makes it down the line, the first baseman catches it (!!!) and touches the bag (hallelujah!). Imagine the joy, and then the heartache. In this league, even if by some miracle you managed to get a kid out, he or she was not out. Every child batted every inning, and ran the base paths, regardless of the play of the other team.
Somehow this was going to protect kids from getting their feelings hurt, but all it did for my son was leave him confused and upset. This was six years ago, and look at how I can still foam about it. Sad, really, but by now you’ve guessed that my son got his spirit from at least one of his parents. It’s true, I am competitive. I’m a girl and one of them artsy types, but I like sports. I like to battle and I like to win. 
NaNoWriMo pushes participants toward their goal with two competitive elements. I discussed the line and bar graph in an earlier post, and they stir a little of the competitive fire. You see yourself up against time, up against a goal. This is good for the inner conqueror, but for your inner competitor, the website offers the word count of your buddies. I loved being able to peek in on their reported numbers. Sure, I felt happy for them, but seeing them race toward their goal made me want to reach mine even more. 
So thanks to all my NaNoWriMo buddies. Especially the one that called me a grabastic puke. Your trash talk (and success) was an extra push.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Sense of Revival

December heralds a season of preparations and celebrations, bursting with family and friends and fun. For some. For me, it is a harbinger of doom, an implosion of dread. My husband works for a shipping company. 
We are thankful for my husband’s job, but our gratitude does not change the fact that it is tough work in December. The weather, the volume, the long hours, all this devours our Christmas. For him, the music comes too early; the decorations come too soon; instead of smelling cinnamon and vanilla, he breathes fumes of diesel and cardboard. People complain of late night soirĂ©es and near-gluttony, he’s getting home as the kids are going to bed and eating whatever can be rewarmed. His fingers crack and split. His body is still cold after a hot shower. He dreams of boxes and wakes exhausted. His sense of humor shrinks. He is infected by a holiday-induced Scrooginess.
Revival comes from unexpected places. Over the weekend, he attacked the house: scrubbing, cleaning, tearing through backpacks. Among the dirty clothes, uneaten snacks, and balls of paper, he unearthed a homework assignment for our kindergartener, requiring the attention of the whole family. 
We were to decorate a large construction-paper Christmas tree, keeping in mind the current “Five Senses” unit at school. The kindergartener wandered as the rest of us tried to think.
“What does that mean?” I said. “We need to decorate it with noses?”
“Or fingers?” said our oldest.
“Toes!” said my husband. “Big toes.”
The kindergartner returned and my husband asked her, “Which sense do you want to use?”
“Pennies,” she said. She held out her hand, and showed them to us. She had found exactly five.

Monday, December 6, 2010

NaNoWriMo and Rewards

The National Novel Writing Month encourages people to attempt to write a first draft of a novel, 50,000 words or more, in the month of November. I made it, and I’ve taken some things with me. I’ll be posting them over the next few days.
When it comes to first draft writing, I’ve been shackled by the need for ongoing rightness. 

From Wikimedia, Bill Woodrow's 'Sitting On History', John McCullough
Every word, as it comes to my mind and goes forth from my fingertips, ought to be quality. This is poppycock, batfaced fantasy, but I embraced it. What I’ve learned and relearned is that striving for quality in a first draft means you never finish, and never finishing is the opposite of true quality. 
So I can’t force first-draft quality. What I can force is output. I can write a certain amount of words every day. It is hard, but not that hard. It is achievable, and make-upable: if you fail today, you can make the time tomorrow. You can write a lot in 30 days by working piece by piece, or, as Anne LaMott suggested, bird by bird. Some of those words may have life in them, and that life, along with the craft of rewriting, is the source of quality.
The NaNoWriMo experience reminded me of an article I read (and took with me, sorry about that to my doctor’s office) in Time magazine. It covered research on incentives in school. One of the things the researchers learned was that small rewards for things that a student can control are more effective that rewarding a student for grades, which are viewed as out of his or her control. 
NaNoWriMo’s website gave registered users small rewards toward the bigger goal. They provided a line and bar graph to chart individual progress; my commitment to it surprised me. I entered my ongoing word count more than once a day: almost every time I stopped writing, I would check my numbers and self-report. Watching the blue bars tick upward toward the purple line pushed me to continue. 
This became especially important on November 30th. I had failed to hit my numbers over Thanksgiving, so I wrote for the entire day, entering my counts, driving toward the end. Just before dinnertime, it appeared that I had achieved my goal. It was time to upload my story for word count verification. I’d read that this could take some time; I’d read that sometimes the word bot didn’t agree with the software. My palms were sweating, and I was laughing at myself. What kind of a dork gets nervous uploading a story? My husband called in the middle of this, so he had the pleasure of laughing at me too. While we were agreeing on my lameness, it became official. The winner’s page came up on my screen. He congratulated me generously, much more so than I congratulate him when he has a successful hunt, and we said our good-byes. 
The NaNoWriMo organizers embedded a video on the winner’s page, and I clicked it. They were cheering, and I laughed some more, because what sort of person shakes her fists in the air as a bunch of strangers in Viking helmets celebrate? I do. 
One of my boys walked in during the hoopla, and he wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I explained the whole NaNoWriMo thing to him. He asked if 50k words in a month was good, and I told him that I thought so. He asked me what I’d won. I described the prize I was most interested in (50% off Scrivener, yay!), and explained that this was not the real value of the work. 
I shared that, in a way, the prize was like climbing a mountain. What’s waiting for you when you get to the top? I asked. He said, I don’t know, an ice cream sundae? 
After dinner, I emerged from my interior realm, breathed the last of the November night air, drove out to pavement and beyond. I went to the grocery store and bought ice cream, Coconut Macaroon for me, along with a carton of vanilla and Sander’s Bittersweet Chocolate Fudge sauce. A prize to be shared, the best sort of reward.