Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pink Poodle Envy

Kids really do teach us how to live. Here are ten profound lessons my four-year-old daughter taught me today at the mall:

1. Buy pink things.
2. Skip and sing as you go from place to place.
3. Notice everything pretty, sparkly, cute, and cuddly.
4. If you hear music playing, stop right where you are and dance.
5. Wear a backpack with a pink poodle sticking out of it.
6. If you notice a kid with pink-poodle-envy, flaunt it.
7. Try on some glitter lipstick, then wiggle your hips and smile like a diva.
8. Act like you could afford to buy every single item you see, but just don't feel like it right now.
9. Believe you are a princess, and you will be one.
10. Capture the fun moments, and laugh while you’re doing it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Coke's On You

Being a mother has so many rewards. One reward came today in the form of a little ceramic-something-or-other that my eight-year-old son made. It's painted in colorful strokes, it's about the size of a shot glass, and it has all the wonderful imperfections that come from little fingers and thumbs squishing it into shape. "It's for you, Mommy. Merry Christmas." He flashed me a toothy grin.

"I love it! It's beautiful. I love the colors."

He went on to explain all of its many uses. "You can put candy in it, or stuff in it, or just look at it, or other things. But I don't know if you can drink out of it because it has paint."

"It's great. And I know just where I'm going to put it. Right on the kitchen window sill where I can see it all the time."

There were more rewards to come. "Now Mommy, here's a joke. What happens if somebody throws a porcupine at you?"

"A porcupine? Ouch. I don't know. What happens?"

"The poke's on you."

"Ohhhh, I see. Funny."

"Mom? What happens if somebody throws an egg at you?"

"I have no idea."

"The yolk's on you."

"Good one. Now here's one for you," I said. "What do you say to somebody who offers to buy you a soda?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"The Coke's on you."

He smiled.

"Now what happens if somebody gives you a piece of meat that's too big to chew?"

He looked at me, squinting.

"The choke's on you."

"Funny, mom."

"And what happens if some guy in an English pub falls on top of you?"

"I don't know."

"The bloke's on you."

He stared at me for a while, with the same raised eyebrow a psychiatrist gives his patient. And then he simply said, "Mommy, I love you. Merry Christmas." He reached out his arms to give me a hug.

"Merry Christmas, honey. I love you, too."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What a Book in the Hand is Worth...

Last week I received a surprise package in the mail. It was my very first hard-bound copy of COOL DADDY RAT. What a surreal experience it was to hold it in my hands. The rhythm drove me along as I wrote this story. I could hear a smooth saxophone and some low drums with a few faint cymbals behind them. It was a jazz rhythm, cool and lingering, the kind that gives you a whole new walk and a breathy talk. You've gotta snap along with it--that's what I thought, but didn't know whether anyone else would "feel" it too. Setting up the internal rhyme was tedious: "He bowed proud to a wowed crowd."

As the manuscript survived countless rewrites over the years, I similarly went on a personal journey of change, growth, and introspection. Revision, especially revising oneself, is always a struggle. To hold COOL DADDY RAT in hand now feels a little bit like swimming underwater though a long, winding channel and finally coming up for a delicious breath of air.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Release Date for Bedtime at the Swamp

It looks like there's a tentative release date set for Bedtime at the Swamp... and it's July 22nd, 2008. At least that's what is announcing. It's interesting that my first two books will be on the shelves just months apart. The sale of Cool Daddy Rat came years earlier than Bedtime's sale. Yet because two different publishers and illustrators are involved, schedules vary. We had to wait a while for an illustrator for Cool Daddy Rat, postponing the production process. But Mr. Lester was well worth it. His "Times Square" spread is my favorite. And I'm thrilled with the rich landscapes and darling characters Mr. Pamintuan created for Bedtime. Here's a sneak peek.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Searching for Sparks

Last night I had the opportunity to be a judge for the annual "Reflections" contest at a local elementary school. There were probably one hundred entries in the literature category, and I was asked to select five who would receive an award plaque and move on to a larger state-wide contest. The theme was, "I can make a difference by..."

It was fun. Elementary school kids write silly things like, 'I can make a difference by picking up trash in my neighbor's yard and not kicking my little sister." Some children had long lists of chores and duties they could do to make a difference. Many entries--at least fifty--were about picking up litter and recycling. Some even talked about saving the planet and eliminating pollution, but couldn't offer any specific ways to accomplish those lofty goals. (Do any of us really know how to save the planet and eliminate pollution?) As the other judge and I carefully read each entry, most were easily placed in a "no" pile. And then, suddenly, we'd find a spark--an entry with something unique, heartfelt, and special.

One child wrote about laying on her trampoline with her father, watching the stars. She compared finding litter on nature walks to "eating at a fancy restaurant and finding gum under the table." Wonderful images. A spark. Another wrote a piece of fiction about a boy who decides to help his neighbor with cancer by planning a neighborhood talent show. Unique. Different. And yet another child wrote a story of a woman who looks out her window each morning across the lake after waking from a recurring dream, determined to help her town. This was a fifth grader, with the ancient heart of a writer. While reading her entry, I had a strange flash of recognition where I remembered myself from the past, writing stories and articles and dreaming of the future. My soul connected with that little anonymous author.

In so many cases, I believe writers are born, not made.

Judging "reflections" is something I hope I'll be asked to do again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Why the Beatles Belong to Me

It started with a radio program in 1980 when I was thirteen years old. (Now you must realize that this is before Itunes, before MP3s, and before Gwen Stefani. The stone age.)

I tuned my radio to the station getting the best reception. "OOooh, I like this song," I said. The song that came next was also familiar. "I like this one, too." And the next. I didn't know a whole lot about music or which artists played what tunes. I figured this was just a great station. How had I missed it? I remember laying on the floor of my bedroom, listening intently. And then the announcer said, "We're doing a Beatles A to Z weekend."

I was fascinated. These were all Beatles songs. The same band performed them all. Each piece initially sounded so different, especially when played out of chronological order. Yet every one had the same powerful, connective energy. On that day, I took down my John Travolta poster and declared myself a Beatles fan.

I became a student of the Beatles and their music. I wanted to read more about the history of the band, the instrumentation used for each song, and what inspired the lyrics. I listened to George Harrison's Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps countless times. And I adored Across the Universe, before it became the title of the recent musical and the average listener would have considered the song obscure. I bought books. I read articles. There was plenty of trivia to immerse myself in.

Here I was, a teenager, born a decade late and a Beatle short. Only months earlier I had witnessed the televised throngs of fans sobbing in the streets of New York after John Lennon was shot. I thought it was "utterly ridiculous." Now it all made sense. I played their music incessantly on my cassette tape player, eventually learning to differentiate their British voices. "That's Paul. That's John--no, that's George." I sang harmony to every song, and when there wasn't an obvious harmony I invented my own. The experience of falling in love with Beatles music felt so uniquely my own that I secretly believed I owned the Beatles, and somewhere in the psychedelic vibrations that float across the universe, the Beatles owned a part of me. Yet I never dove into the nuttiness of a hysterical fan. I had missed the phenomenon of Beatlemania, and could now only be a student of its history.

Sure, I tried playing Revolution 9 and Rain backwards. I knew all the "Paul is dead" clues even though they were preposterous. One of my favorite Saturday Night Live episodes has the now-late Chris Farley talking to Paul McCartney and asking him if the "Paul is Dead" clues were really a hoax.

"Yeah, I wasn't really dead," said Sir Paul.


So fast-forward two-plus decades to last weekend, when on a long drive home my four sons and I sang Beatle songs in the dark in three-part harmony. It was spontaneous, groovy, and ridiculous. These are boys living in the era of Reliant K, Maroon 5, Weezer, and Five for Fighting. And Beatles music is still cool. You see, I had decided to share it with my kids, since without this knowledge they would surely be musically-illiterate. And isn't it my parental responsibility to educate my children? So (sigh) yes, I share the Beatles, but I will not give them up. They belong to me as they do millions of other souls who like to believe, as I do, that the music was written for them alone, as a personal gift.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Long Live My Bonsai

Do other writers...

  • cool their overheating laptops on a bag of frozen peas

  • have the strange habit of using a unique word, then absent-mindedly using it again, so those identical words are too close together in the manuscript and one must be excised,

  • worry that their last sale will be their last sale,

  • feel as though they’re constantly floating in a strange state of manuscript submission limbo,

  • decide several times a day that they’d rather have their tombstone say “author” than “her house was always immaculate,” and

  • spend time reviving a dying Bonsai tree for inspiration

like I do?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Life in Lighted Windows

Everyone has a story.

Now don’t mistake this for “true confessions of a peeping Jane,” but for years I’ve had this strange interest in looking at houses. I especially love the charming or grand homes--driving past them at night and seeing their lighted windows. Sometimes I'll catch a glimpse of the homeowner's décor or a flash of activity, and then imagine the stories going on within those illuminated windows.

I’m also intrigued by mountain shacks you sometimes see all alone beside a stream, or curious little houses tucked away in a grove of trees. Who lives in those places? Perhaps a family of gnomes? A deranged killer, hiding out? An elderly lady who believes she owns any creature that crosses her property line? And if I lived there, what would my life be like? What would my story be?

Years ago when I lived in New York City, I had that same lighted-window awareness. My apartment faced the Empire State Building, and I could see it standing in the distance. The surrounding buildings blinked with changing geometrical patterns of lighted windows. Each one represented at least one human being whose heart was beating with life. Was he or she painting, arguing, brushing teeth, watching television, or maybe sitting at a desk, writing a novel? Was this human being challenged by disease? Disillusionment? Defeat? Disappointment? Death? A piece of chocolate cake beckoning from the refrigerator?

Everyone has a story.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Losing Claremont

This summer I must say goodbye to my childhood home in Claremont, California. My father has sold his house and will move away forever in two weeks. I feel like I'm reading the last few sentences of a cherished novel.

My parents and I, along with my two younger sisters and brothers, moved to Claremont from Rolling Meadows, Illinois soon after the Chicago blizzard of ’76. It was a record-breaking storm that left snow piled so high you had to dig yourself out of your front door. For a kid my age, playing outside was like navigating an alien planet. You’d go out in your puffy astronaut attire, and your feet would begin to sink all the way down to your waist. If you weren’t careful, you just might be sucked into a cold white, endless void and disappear.

So Claremont was a foreign, but welcome place. As we arrived at the airport and headed toward our new home, the California palm trees beckoned us like pillars along a palace entrance. Dad had purchased a new house already, and it was empty and waiting.

Claremont is a college town, with Harvey Mudd, Scripps College, and others. The colleges give it both an educated, stately air, and a secret hint of rebellion. Every street in that town is named after a college and lined with a different species of tree. Yes, trees are an important part of its appeal. Old Claremont has enormous trees that umbrella the street, and charming homes that hint of both the old south and beach front property mixed in one. Our house was in a newer section of town, on Occidental Drive, exactly where Occidental intersected Scripps Avenue. So you could see it peering at you for quite a distance as you approached. It had an enormous princely tree in the back yard, lined with noble subject trees on both sides, and I named every one of them.

Claremont was a friend to me at a shining time of my life. I quickly left my awkward pre-teens behind and entered a realm of self-assuredness. In Claremont I learned to drive, date, and dance. I got my first job at the Danson Café downtown. It reeked of bread, wine, and steamed scallops. There were chocolate cakes in the window, made by the owner’s wife, decorated with chocolate candy leaves and raspberries. On weekend nights, a saxophone player piped out “Misty.” I learned to cut tomatoes properly and to count back change.

My years at Claremont High School were “glory days.” Everything was golden then. As a freshman, I was a performer in Mrs. Allen’s award winning dance team. The Band and accompanying drill team participated in competition half-time performances all over the state, and won the “Sweepstakes” trophy nearly every time. We were unbeatable. In my remaining three years I was a junior varsity cheerleader and then a songleader for a football team that won every game and eventually claimed the C.I.F. Conference championship. I still envision the opposing players dropping to their padded knees and sobbing as those final seconds ticked away and victory was ours. We had Dan Mcguire as our quarterback, brother of Mark Mcguire of baseball fame. I had a tight group of girlfriends who were adventurous, hilarious boy-magnets, and we re-wrote adolescent history. Glory days.

My parents had two more children, making a total of six younger siblings who I secretly adored and openly tolerated. I had a feisty younger sister who I thought I hated but was in reality my best friend, and the only one to stand up for me when rumors flew and friends turned their backs.

I remember my mother in Claremont. She was alive and well in those days, with a knowing laugh and a gentle, wise demeanor. She made apple spice cake and macaroni shrimp salad. She always wanted to do the right thing and had a giving spirit. She and my father taught me to love God and to approach religion with a desire for truth. Mom rescued me hundreds of times, but mostly from my own stupidity. She died of breast cancer, and we buried her in Claremont’s Oak Park Cemetery. Over the years, when I would return to Claremont, that cemetery became a spot for private contemplation and remembering. Even though my mother wasn’t physically with me, I could rummage through my feelings while I sat on a bench engraved with her name, under a tree that looked like the open palm of a hand. I remember my mother in Claremont.

Eventually Dad remarried, and his new wife at first brought confusion, then courage and peace. She redecorated the Claremont house. She reinvigorated the dying garden and breathed hope into my broken father. He became healthier and renewed. It was a testament that change carries along some good if you give it enough time. But change has always been hard for me to handle. Over the years I faced many painful changes: Divorce, single parenthood, remarriage, step-motherhood, and raising children with special needs. But Claremont was my anchor, my familiar retreat, my link through time and space back to the excellent days of my youth. On a few occasions I came back alone or with one small child, and found myself exploring the familiar streets downtown where despite growth and renovation, Claremont’s charm has survived.

After thirty years, I am losing Claremont. Even mother’s body will be respectfully relocated to a cemetery closer to Dad, so my connection to her there will vanish. I will now have easier access to my parents, and this is a positive thing. Yet I am heartbroken over losing Claremont. There will be nothing in that town to call my own except my memories. Can a person retain a small sense of ownership through recollection alone?

If Heaven exists, and if I’m fortunate enough to ever find myself there, then somewhere in its vast setting of splendid landscapes is a place that looks and feels a little bit like Claremont. That’s where my home will be, if you care to visit. I’ll have a fire burning brightly in the fireplace. Come stop in for a while.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Painful Writing Itch

I remember when I used to say, "If only I could get one story published--just one--that's all I'd ever need. One book on the shelves. One publication. If I could get a single book published, I'd be satisfied for the rest of my life."

Well, that's a big fat load of hogslop.

After I learned that COOL DADDY RAT had been purchased by Putnam, it started all over again. "If I could just get one more book published, I'd be a legitimate author. I'm only a one-hit wonder with one book. Anybody can do it once. One's a fluke. I've got to have two to be real."

Another enormous lie.

Three is still not enough. So I write and submit and wait. Write, submit, wait. A torturous undertaking, but I'm hopelessly compelled. It's not that my previous books don't matter, because I am delighted to see each one in print. It's a rewarding thing when those illustrations arrive, smelling like crisp paper and ink, and I get to meet my characters for the first time. But I'm learning that nothing ever completely satisfies the writing itch. It's relentless. And what's the invisible rash behind it all? Is it the need for validation and more validation? Is it the idea that "I've got something to say, and I want it seen by as many eyes as possible?" Or is it just the love of creation?

All and none of the above. I can't begin to explain this condition; I've just gotten used to it. It's been around since childhood.

So with these "uffish thoughts" recorded, I'll close for now and go to bed.

Or then again, maybe I'll begin working on my novel.