Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Stockpiling experience, salad and sweet smells

Deadlines are knocking at my door this week, so I'll keep this short and sweet. Some things that made me smile:
  • From my best good friend Stephanie (who should probably just create her own blog for all the useful stuff she sends my way): 
"I was listening to NPR TED talks series the other day, and they were interviewing poet Billy Collins. The interviewer asked him how he combats 'writer's block,' and I thought his response was great. He said that he doesn't believe in/like the term because if he wrote all the time, he'd go crazy. So, he refers to the times he's not writing as 'waiting' and suggested that he's building up experiences to write about while he's living life in between. I thought this was a positive way to think about those times when the writing just doesn't seem to flow."
Yes! I'm not waiting. I'm stockpiling! Seriously. I know the excuse that I don't have time to write is the oldest one in the book. But at this juncture, with the girls and the freelancing, I really don't know where to find the time. Well. I guess I could give up blogging. Sigh. Decisions.
  • A local farmer I was interviewing about salad greens was (unintentionally, I think) rather poetic. "A lettuce that’s stressed is more bitter," he said about creating the ideal growing conditions. "Lettuce that has good growing conditions tends to be sweeter and has better flavor." When I pointed out that the same statement could be said about people, he just laughed. Now how to use this analogy ...
  • This week Lily has taken to giving Jovie copious hugs and telling her she's the best. It's wonderful and frightening all at once (especially the neck hugs).
  • And it's hokey, but this:

My baby smells more sweet to me
Than smells in spring the elder tree. 

(except for sometimes, when my baby smells less sweet to me .. I'll let you figure out of which times I speak)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

What's behind the curtain (and self-centered pigs)

We stopped by the library this week to freshen up our reading repertoire. 

After visiting the fish and playing with the new toys they have, Lily wanted to pick out an "Olivia" book, so we grabbed "Olivia and the Missing Toy" for the second time. 

Mom used to take us to our library all the time growing up. My sister Sarah and I would bring home gigantic (not to mention heavy) stacks of picture books -- often the same ones over and over again. I had visions of browsing for the books I remember reading as a child -- "Amelia Bedelia," "Miss Nelson," Stephen Kellogg books, and any story featuring horses. Alack, Jovie had visions of climbing through the shelves, picking up shrapnel off the carpet and putting it in her mouth and crawling away at high rates of speed to anyone who acknowledged her. 

Suffice to say, there was no browsing. I grabbed "The Hat" by Jan Brett, "Maisy Goes on Vacation" by "Lucy Cousins" (we're big Maisy fans, too), and a couple of books from a section of princess books seemingly curated for Lily.

I can always tell how good the haul is by how many times we go through all the books in the stack -- Lily has me read this round at least three times a day, so I'd say we made out pretty well.

After finishing "The Hat" for third or fourth time, I was reading the back of the dust jacket and was excited to find that the author had included the anecdote that inspired the story about a hedgehog who wore a woolen sock as a hat. It turns out Jan Brett had a pet hedgehog who had wandered into a slipper sock and gotten stuck because of her prickles. The setting for the story was inspired by a visit to the home of Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark. 

I've always thought it was cool to get a peek behind the curtain when it comes to art. It's interesting to see how someone can take a simple image, event, moment, etc. and build a narrative around it. As a reader,I always wonder about the seed that planted the story. I wonder about how much of the author is in the story -- which people and places are real, which events actually happened -- and which were a figment of the writer's imagination.

It's not that I still can't get lost in a story, but there are always characters you wish might have actually existed. And especially now that I'm taking a stab at fiction, I never know how much I'm allowed to borrow from reality. Maybe you can borrow as much as you want, you just don't tell the reader.

I recently wrote a story about self-publishing for the Daily Record. Pam Bender, one of the writers I interviewed, told me that her novels were deeply personal, but that she categorized them as fiction because it's not as if she could remember every conversation and every event that occurred to the letter, and anyway, they were all told through her perception. 

"Never be afraid to tell your story and don’t be timid about what you’re saying because you wonder about how other people feel ... If you’re going to tell your story, you have to tell your story and be brave," she said. 

She learned early not to tell her readers what actually happened and what didn't; which characters were real and which weren't. 

"You never tell your readers what is fiction and what isn’t," Pam Bender said, adding that one of her readers was devastated to find out that a character she'd love wasn't based on a real person.

I don't know that I'd ever be crushed to find out a beloved character wasn't an actual person. But sometimes it's nice to know they do exist.

Take "Olivia," for instance. I enjoy reading "Olivia" books as much as Lily loves listening to them because Olivia herself has such a fantastic voice and presence. She is so life-like in her dreams and digressions that she has to be real (albeit not in pig form). 

I was talking to another mom recently about "Olivia" and she said she'd heard the character was based on writer and illustrator Ian Falconer's niece. Here's what Falconer told

"All of the characters are my sister's family: my niece Olivia's parents, her two little brothers, and their cat and dog. But they are all just peripheral. It's really all about Olivia -- at least in her mind!"

I knew it!

Also, I believe Lily would embrace (if she hasn't already) the concept that everyone else in the household is peripheral to her. In fact, it's probably so evident in her mind that it never needs to be expressly stated. Oh to be 2.

If anyone were to peek behind my curtain (I hope they don't) they'd find a 60,000-piece puzzle scattered about the floor with pieces of reality and pieces of imagination waiting to be fitted together in some sort of meaningful way. And me staring out the window.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An Update from the Neighborhood Watch

First off, the squirrels and I would like to wish you a happy, though belated, President's Day.

While I like the flag and lei, I kinda feel
like he needs a stovepipe hat and
moustache-less beard. Is there a name
for those? The other one could get
a tricornered hat and a miniature powdered wig.

Profound apologies for failing to mark the occasion on time.* I snapped the picture while on a walk yesterday with all intentions of posting it, but was hit by an epic case of the sleepies last night and decided to just go to bed instead. 

Actually, the sleepies are pretty rough tonight, too. But I do believe in timeliness and also I'm trying not to procrastinate on stuff (even meaningless hobbies) I'm going to soldier though.

Yesterday was lovely -- cool, but with blue skies and sunshine. And, more importantly, there were plenty of things to observe around the neighborhood.

Updated squirrels, for instance. And buds on my neighbors' tulip trees and on my rhododendrun:

It's gonna be a good one.
And flowers in bloom. That's right! Flowers! In bloom!

There were pretty little snowdrop flowers at a house on Russell and crocuses at the dog trainer's and in my front yard (we don't get out in the front yard much this time of year).

I ran over the mums a couple of weeks ago.
These might be my only hope for flowers this year.

Crocuses are supposed to bloom in late winter/early spring. As of tomorrow, we're still a month out from spring so these guys seem to be popping up a bit early even for early bloomers (man they're gonna have it rough in school...). I won't launch into any discussions on climate here ... but I will say even if they are abnormal, I was happy to see them. 

Of course, just as enjoyable to these signs of spring throughout the neighborhood are the signs of season's past.

For instance, there's a house that not only has a giant plastic Santa hanging out on the front porch, but also a row of miniature pumpkins lining the window sill.**  

Of course, there are at least a few houses with lights still hanging from the gutters. 

And then there's the 'Parkly Deer. 

To recap, the 'Parkly Deer was put on display around Christmas 2011. Then he fell down. And he stayed down until Christmas 2012, when in a glorious show of hope in the season of light, he was righted and given a friend and surrounded by many other festive decorations. Then he fell down again. He's still down. And now, sadly, so is his friend.

Avert your eyes, children!
This is the part they didn't show in "Bambi."
The grainy nature of this photo has to do with the fact that I was taking it at a distance, with my phone while holding the leash of my dog who was barking maniacally at the fence pug. Neighborhood surveillance is not for the faint of heart.

You'll no doubt notice that they're both still surrounded by festive decor. I'll remind you that I took this photo yesterday. During the first week of Lent. Nearly a month from spring. Next to the house where there are crocuses blooming. 

But it gets better.

See, I've been trying to figure out the deal behind these neighbors. It doesn't bother me so much that they're Christmas decorations are still up mid-February. I'm assuming they'll be up until next Christmas. I can appreciate the level of procrastination or apathy that goes into ignoring the yard situation day after day after day (I mean, it's cold out! Who wants to deal with holiday decoration take-down when it's cold out). But the thing is, they're not ignoring their yard situation. 

In fact, they seem to be celebrating it:

This photo was also taken yesterday (Feb. 18). 
It's not just that they still have they're holiday decorations up, it's that they're still using them! What's more, their house is totally visible from the highway (which is where I was when I spotted it last night). This opens up a whole new 'parkly pandora's box. Who are these people? 

Or, more importantly, who can I invent them to be for noveling purposes?

And that's what happens when I walk by your house too much.

*I was only kind of kidding about this. I got an e-mail from my friend Becky with photos of her family's annual birthday party for Abraham Lincoln. The event was complete with red, white and blue birthday cake and homemade stovepipe hat party hats (including one for her 2-month-old nephew). So. That happened.

**I'm not judging. The spawn of 2011's pumpkins are now sitting atop my mulch pile hopefully decomposing into this year's pumpkins.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Art: just do it ... right now

There's a lot I want to say about this video my sister Sarah sent to me about how being an artist is just about unleashing your inner child and how everyone should be an artist ... right now. 

But I'm going to be brief (for once!) and just tell you to watch the video and then go do your art ... which is exactly what I'm going to do ... right now.


Now go play.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Squirrels, heartbreak and friggin' Natalie Portman

First off, happy Valentine's Day eve. No, that's not a holiday I normally celebrate, but the journalist in me appreciates timely posts and I needed a good intro for the latest squirrel update:

As Minnie Mouse would say, they're Bow-utiful. 

Moving on, while checking out the show schedule at my local theater, I was excited to find out that Josh Ritter is coming back to town in May. I sat in the front row when he came through town in 2011 in support of his album "So Runs the World Away" -- the show was fantastic. 

It was such a pleasure to watch a performer who was so totally in his element and took so much joy from the music he played. It was infectious. And he was so gracious to the audience -- even donning a York Revolution jersey at the end of the show as seen here (in miniature):

(Here's an easier-to-understand version of the song)

I'm generally not one to fawn over musicians*, but he was adorable. I thought we could be friends. In fact, while I'm thinking about it, I think I'd add him to my list of people I'd want to go on a celebrity cruise** with (the only other people on the list right now are Tina Fey and Terry Gross -- it's a very selective cruise). And it's not just his stage presence. He's a wonderful songwriter, too. 

In a note on his website about his new album "The Beast in its Tracks" (due out March 5), Ritter writes: 

"I wrote and recorded this record in the 18 months after my marriage had fallen apart. All heartbreak is awful – my broken heart wasn’t unique. But writing these songs was helping me get through the night and I didn’t have the strength to care or question.
It felt like a different record from the start. Far from the grand, sweeping feel of the songs on So Runs the World Away, these new ones felt like rocks in the shoe, hard little nuggets of whatever they were, be it spite, remorse, or happiness. I told all this to Sam Kassirer, my producer and friend. If we recorded these songs, which felt so personal, their starkness needed a corresponding simplicity of production.
I hadn’t composed this stuff, I’d scrawled it down, just trying to keep ahead of the heartbreak, and they needed to be recorded like that."
Even in writing about writing his songs, he's a poet. I love the description of his songs as rocks in his shoe, but what stuck out to me the most was this line:

"I hadn’t composed this stuff, I’d scrawled it down, just trying to keep ahead of the heartbreak..."

Heartbreak comes in so many forms and of course it's been the driver for my novel. I would love to keep ahead of it. There are times when I hear it all flooding out in my head, the words to my racing heartbeats tumbling over each other begging to be written down, but I'm not a responsible writer. I don't always have a pen and paper or a laptop handy. In fact most of these moments happen when I'm out walking or in the thick of various family crises (Jovie's screaming for dinner, Lily wants chocolate milk, the dog is staring mournfully at his empty bowl) -- not ideal times to drop everything and get it out.  

Even today, I can recall the where I was walking or what I was doing when the muses were speaking, but for the life of me, I can't remember what they were saying. I know the sentiments, but the magic of the moment is lost. 

So what's a mom/wannabe novelist to do? How do I keep all those moments from slipping away while staying in tune to the needs of my family? I laugh as I re-read that sentence. When your family is playing in the key of "I NEED 9 BILLION THINGS AND I NEED THEM ALL RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!" it's clear where the priorities are. 

I know it sounds bitter and silly to mourn the loss of a few sentences when I have the gift of these two marvelous little people who, despite their endless demands, can cancel out all the world's suffering with a smile. I know this.

But damn. I almost had it.

* Well. This might not be entirely true. I have been known to engage on some minor fawning over Bob Crawford, the bass player for the Avett Brothers. I have a slight weakness for bass players.*** 

** I've never had any interest on going on a cruise. But I haven't seen any celebrity mountain retreats or celebrity beach vacays offered ... so cruise it is.

*** Also, I don't feel the slightest bit guilty sharing this. Especially because in the course of writing this post a Dior commercial featuring Natalie Portman came on and Brad let me know she's on his short list and that she deserved to flop into piles of flowers and skip about town in super-fancy dresses and pose in front of gigantic bottles of perfume. Friggin' Natalie Portman.

(More reasons to love Josh Ritter: Listen the sweetest breakup song you'll ever hear: "Joy to You Baby"

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The importance of cheerleaders and SoulPancakes

So last week, I think in reaction to the final aside on my Pirate Post, my best good friend and go-to taste-maker Stephanie, sent me a note on Facebook.

"Don't doubt yourself, and if you do, this will cheer you up," she wrote, sharing this video:

Now, I'm not sure who SoulPancake or Kid President are*, but Steph was right, I did need a pep talk and it did cheer me up.

"What will you create to make the world awesome? 
Nothing if you keep sitting there!"

I went with the big font here because this is a quote that begs to be shouted. At me. Several times a day.

Luckily, I have plenty of people willing to yell at me. Or, you know, at least encourage me to keep on keepin' on. 

Let's face it, we all need cheerleaders. 

Sometimes we need them for basic functions, like getting through a bad day or a rough patch in life. To tell us it's worth it to keep waking up every day even if you're just going through the motions, because sometimes going through the motions is all you can handle at that moment. To remind us that once our muscles have gotten used to living and breathing through crushing disappointment and sorrow, that they'll be strong enough to take that first step out into the day. And the one after that.** 

And we need them when we're attempting something new and scary: Starting a family. Leaving a career to stay at with your babies. Attempting potty-training. Writing a novel. 

We need their faith in us because it's almost certain there will be times when we won't have it in ourselves. 

I am blessed to have many cheerleaders. 

  • Obviously, there's Steph, who's been guiding me through relationship, family and fashion crises since freshman year of high school when we were assigned to share a locker. 
  • And my mom who has been telling me for years and years that I need to write that children's book and who's always trolling the web in search of articles that I have written, but didn't tell her about. She's the first to tell me that I'm a great mom -- even when, in a two month period under my watch, my 9-month-old falls down a flight of stairs and my 2-year-old hits her head somewhere in our sunroom (didn't see it!) requiring three stitches. She even used to tell me I should be president. Clearly, someone who believes in me, way more than I will ever believe in myself. 
  • My sisters who always comment on my blog posts and share links. 
  • My dad who suggests writing projects he thinks I should pursue. 
  • My husband who doesn't seem too bothered by the fact that even on the nights I don't have work to do, I'm still planted in front of my computer writing. 
  • My editor friend who is always willing to take time out his busy schedule to read my work and who told me that I was a writer, even before I would use the word to describe myself. 
  • My neighbor who always tells me she enjoys my work and who even let me write about her
  • My former landlord who's given me this huge gift -- her life story, this really daunting, but exciting project I have simmering on a back burner. 
  • And anyone who's ever said that they're looking forward to reading my novel (when, not if! It's finished. Even if that's 20 years from now).

In my mind's eye, right now, I feel like my cheerleaders are kind of milling around the bench I'm sitting on, waiting for me to get in the game. (Don't worry, in my mind's eye, none of my cheerleaders are actually wearing cheerleader uniforms or carrying pom-poms). And I have this fear about the game. The same fear I get in the first seconds of going into a soccer game

"What if I can't play? What if I forget how to do it? What if I'm awful?"

Everyone has these voices when they set off to pursue something scary, right? It's the people who can mute them (maybe with the help of even noisier cheerleaders) who go on to make the world more awesome. 

*Actually, that's a lie. I just Googled them. To be fair, when I wrote that sentence, I didn't know who they were. Then right after I wrote it I got my Google on. So Technically, in that moment, I didn't know who they were. Now I do.***

** For those ready to go into crisis intervention mode, I wasn't talking about myself. Well, certainly, this would've been relevant to me at various points in my life, but not right now. I just thought it's important to mention that cheerleaders aren't just useful to people trying to win a game or complete a masterpiece. That they're equally as important to those fighting physical and mental battles for their lives -- whether that's cancer or depression or whatever other Combo Platter of Deliciousness**** life throws at you. 

*** SoulPancake is a website created by Rainn Wilson (of Schrute Farms) and two of his friends. Here's what they say about the site:
"SoulPancake sprang out of their desire to create a space where people from all walks of life could discuss and question what it means to be human—a place to wrestle with the spiritual, philosophical, and creative journey that is life. They sat around one night trying to figure out what to call the site, and eliminated Spirit Waffle (too square) and Soul Casserole (because, let's be honest, casserole is a bitch to spell) before settling on the tasty SoulPancake."
Kid President is the "self-appointed voice of a generation" (at least according to his Tumblr). 

****Combo Platter of Deliciousness is a phrase coined by my sister Laura, who was very wise, to describe those moments in life when bad stuff keeps piling up. We're a rather sarcastic bunch.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

An app that turns writing into a game (plus irrelevant "Star Trek" reference)

I came across this story will paging through the Sunday paper (yes, I still read the physical paper -- there's something about ink-covered fingers and the satisfying crinkle of turning pages I'll just never get over): Mobile app would turn writing into a game.

What's this? Writing stories can be a fun, carefree activity* enjoyed between friends on the convenience of their cell phones? Brilliant!

Dallastown resident Eric Thiegs -- CEO and co-founder of another cool writing website (Stage of Life) -- is raising money on Kickstarter to build an iPhone app called Writing Race.

Hoping to bring literacy to the plugged-in masses, Thiegs wants to create a game in which two players write a story three words at a time. Here's the description:
"Players will take turns with friends writing a story on their mobile phones - three words at a time – only they must do it as quickly as possible!  The story shouldn't be sacrificed, and spelling is an essential part of the scoring system.  Pressed for time and racking their brains, players will test their wits and exercise their creativity as they write a story, turn by turn. (In the “free write” mode, timers and scores are turned off, allowing friends to write together without the pressure of a ticking clock—many may find that even more fun.)" 
I love the idea of an app that encourages collaboration and creation for entertainment purposes while sneaking in a little brain workout. I imagine that's like Holy Grail of every English teacher in the universe (yes, even alien English (Vulcan? Romulan? Wookie?) teachers are raking their brains for ways to engage their young padawans)**. 

I think there should also be an Autocorrect mode, in which stories take on Mad-Libs-esque hilarity by allowing your phone to guess what you really wanted to say. (Seriously, phone when I type "Lily" I don't mean LOL. Stop trying to acronym everything. (There I go verbing nouns again. hehehe).

Anyway, if they ever develop this app for Android phones, I'd totally download it. Since I barely have time to think beyond three words at a time anymore, it might be the only fiction I ever write!

There's just six days left to back the campaign if you want the app to exist. 

Other things you should check out in today's paper (aka shameless self-promotion):

  • Brad's awesome story connecting the Super Bowl to literature, history and avian enthusiasts. 
  • My latest Smart column about sibling rivalry (revelry?) in which Lily goes all Daffy Duck on her sister -- but then secretly likes her, too.

* You know, instead of the frustrating, solitary mental slog that you drag yourself through in the hopes that you uncover even just one inspired/thought-provoking/original sentence. 

** That was an aside within an aside. Do my digressions know no boundaries??