Saturday, December 29, 2012

Eulogy for Rat Bastahd

Jack Freakin' Bauer
 Jack Feakin' Bauer was a rat bastahd.

He was also a guinea pig full of awesomeness, even if he preferred emo when it came to music.  He was also a punk guinea pig that came to us a few years back after sharing his cage with a rat for several years.

He was Pi's in that he chose to hang out with Pi.  Pi used to yell at me for buying him yogurt treats and chew toys saying I spoiled him but he would look at me with that awesome little face or sing a little song to me and I would cave and buy him yogurt treats to sneak to him on the weekends when Pi wasn't here.  Sometimes I left them on top of his cage hoping Pi would relent too.  Given that they were often gone by the weekend, I suspect he relented more than he wanted to let me know.

He liked to sit on Pi's head and listened to Pi as he played, sang and would rant about life, the universe and everything.

I just bought him a chew toy for Christmas that hung off the top of his cage because, well, it was Christmas and Jack was full of awesomeness and needed something fun to play with.  I suspect it was appreciated it.  I was going to talk about it with him this weekend to make sure it was cool but as luck would have it, this morning Mr. Bear went in to feed him to find the cage open and a stained glass box Pi made a couple of years ago sitting in the cage with a note.

It started off, "So yeah... I died.  What did you think I was a vampire or something?"  He requested to be buried by the left corner of the red shed in our yard and a solid marker ("No lame ass tombstone for dogs.")  So the garden angel that was in front of the shed has moved to the left of the shed to show clearly where he lies.  I left him some honeycrisp apples so he wouldn't be hungry waiting at the rainbow bridge with Ms. Kitten, Pusselle and Moses.

As Mr. Bear and I complied with his final requests, I started singing "I'll Fly Away."  Flatfoot 56 recently recorded it and it's been an old favorite of mine, so it seemed appropriate.  Mr. Bear asked what was the proper punk anthem for him, so I sang the chorus from the Dropkick Murphy classic "Fields of Athenry," a favorite of his (he used to sing it with me when I sang it to him) and then a chorus of "Amazing Grace" (covered by both the Dropkick Murphys and Flatfoot 56).  As I write this, I have a playlist of those along with "You'll Never Drink Alone" by the Skells, "Good Rats" by the Dropkick Murphys and some others Celtic Punk favorites.

So Jack Freakin' Bauer, rest in peace you rat bahstahd.  We'll miss you but your awesomeness could only be contained on this planet for so long before you became a shining star to help guide the boy along.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

National Picture Book Month!

Did you know November is National Picture Book Month?

Picture books are the first exposure kids get to poetry, literature and art.  While I have known this for a long time, I have to admit that it first struck me when I discovered the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA about 8 or 9 years ago.  We took my step daughter out to Amherst to look at schools on a "mini vacation" and I was looking for something to do with the boys while she and her dad interviewed with admission officers.

It was an eye opening experience for me to see the artwork on the walls and be able to enjoy them in a new way.  One memory that stands with me was the time we went to the opening of Chris Van Allsburg's exhibit.  Not only was his artwork from his books on the walls, but some of his sculptures and other pieces were as well.  The closest I have ever come to criminal thoughts was seeing the full sized version of this piece from his book "The Widow's Broom."

I fell in love with this piece.  It is a large drawing with incredible detail and I stood there for a good 15-20 minutes before one of the kids dragged me away.  It is such a beautiful drawing with incredible details.  It was far larger than I expected and it was one of those works that drew me in and I could feel myself being able to do that one thing they always tell you in art appreciation: put yourself in the picture.  I have read the book so many times over the years to a variety of audiences and it never grabbed me like the way I saw it that evening.

I want the original of this piece.  Some day I may be able to purchase it but I admit, for a fleeting moment, I actually thought, "I wonder if I could smuggle this out of here?"

That night, two things happened, my oldest son met two of his childhood idols: Eric Carle and Chris Van Allsburg.  He had a lovely conversation with Chris and became absolutely tongue tied when he met Eric.  On the way home, I asked him what happened and this teen merely said, "Mom, it was Eric Carle.  Eric Carle!"

I can't even begin to express how I love going out time after time to look at Eric Carle's work.  His illustrations as well as his "artart" (as he calls it).  When we were there for the dedication of a piece of William Steig's, I noticed my son's hair was the same shade of green as the green painting in the main hall of the museum that Carle thinks of as the museum's end papers and snapped this photo.

it's still one of my favorite photos of Pi and it made Eric Carle smile.  The museum is also a special place for us because it gave us access to artists and authors in an unexpected way.  It is how Pi met and came to know Tony DiTerlizzi, who has mentored my son in his art. Tony encouraged him to think in ways others couldn't and encouraged him.  Now at MassArt, my son hopes to one day become a SPED art teacher and children's illustrator.

All of these thing are the result of the picture books we spent hours upon hours upon hours pouring over.  We searched for the details in "Animalia" looking for various little secrets in the pictures, I still have many Sandra Boynton books memorized after 20+ years and so many others.

Picture books are truly the great introduction for children.  Art, language, literature and learning at a time when they are still little sponges soaking all of it up thirstily.  So take at least the month to celebrate picture books.  Buy one for a child, read them for yourself, visit the Carle (if you can) and spread the word.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I voted

This morning I left the house at 7:30 to drop a few things off at school and then stopped at the polls on the way home to vote.  I had to wait in line to get my ballot.  I had to wait in line to mark my ballot and I had to wait in line to put it in the machine.

It was wonderful.  It was exhilarating.  It was good to be an American even though the whole process took 15 minutes.

In many parts of this country, that's not the case.  People are waiting in line for hours to exercise a basic right.  They are experiencing intimidation from partisan poll watchers.  They are being told that the polls are closed, even though they are in line and have the right to vote even though hours are over.

Don't be intimidated.  VOTE and demand your right to VOTE.  It counts, it's your right and your responsibility.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What did I get myself into?

As of Friday, 35 kids had signed up for NaNoWriMo!  Really, it's more than that but a couple of kids decided to write in pairs and I'm good with that.  One fifth grader heard about it from her brother (who didn't sign up) and wanted to try, so I told her no problem.

I even have to order more pencils because I ran out!

Today I will be going to a write in and I will also finish preparing tools to distribute to the kids tomorrow: progress charts, writing prompts and such.

I'm floored.  I am absolutely, gob smacked and floored by the response.

I figured the best way to do the writing prompts was to print them on business cards and put them in a small box for each classroom.  That way, each set of kids have their own set to reference during their writing time.  The writing count chart is a little more difficult as each kid chose a different amount of words to write.  The most common are 50 words a day (1,500 total) and 100 (3,000 total) but there are a lot of one-upping as well.  The adding one more to a count over a friend as a bit of a challenge and rivalry.

Although one of the real tests for me won't actually come until the spring.  My theory (and this is the stuff of which graduate theses and dissertations are made) is that these kids will excel when it comes to the MCAS because they will know that it's no big deal to write an essay.  That this month they are building a habit of writing and over the next couple of months they will learn about other writing traits (revision, editing, etc.) as we clean up their November work to prepare to upload stories and publish them with their create-space code.

Of course, I also have to write my novel through all this while finishing school, working and life, the universe and everything.

To be honest, I don't know what else I'd do with myself if I didn't have all this on my plate. This is my happy writing time, I hope it is everyone else's as well.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Let the Madness Begin!

It's November First, that means it's National Novel Writer's Month!

Along with leading a bunch of 3rd graders through the process this year, I'm also writing my own 50k work novel.  Unlike past years, I have no idea what I'm writing this year.  All I have is an opening:

My family is the punchline of a joke: an Orthodox Rabbi, Catholic nun and Buddhist Unitarian Universalist minister sit down for a family Thanksgiving dinner together.....

I'm not sure but I think it will involve a (possibly) haunted house, an overgrown park and pixies.  I don't know the gender or age of the main character as they haven't told me yet.  I have a vague idea where it might be going, but I'm not positive.

My 3rd graders are excited.  Yesterday they received a composition book and a NaNoWriMo pencil that has "There's a novel in this pencil" printed on the side of it.  I have stickers and pins for the kids as well and I'm going to have a couple more pins I'm going to have made up for them.  Many of the kids are shooting for 100 words a day (kids set their own word count).  Part of the reason I'm doing this is because I believe that many of the reluctant writers will will lose their fear of the MCAS - a huge source of anxiety already - if they know writing an essay is no big deal.

Heck... after writing a novel, it will be no big deal.

It will be interesting for me because these kids really only made the transition to being writers a month ago when Writer's Workshop started for them at the beginning of October.  Last time I lead a group of students through, they were fourth graders who had been writing, many of them reluctantly for a year.  It will be interesting to see if this group of 3rd graders go into 4th grade thinking of themselves as writers and how that changes them as they continue on.

I have been developing some tools for the kids as well: writing prompts for when they get stuck and progress charts (which I have to modify as different kids are going for different counts).  I'll keep talking about here as well as my own progress.

In the meantime, think about jumping into the deep end with us this year.  There's still time and 1667 words a day isn't too bad.  It's a great habit to get into.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: Writing Magic:Creating Stories That Fly

Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine.  2006 HarperCollins Publishing New York, NY; 161 pages.

In looking at books for instructors, I am also looking at books to recommend for kids, after all, what's the point if all the books out there are technical and school like? Don't kids need a place to turn to for instruction and advice that speaks to them?  What kind of books should teachers have available to students?  

I have always liked Gail Carson Levine's easy style so I wanted to take a look at this book and found, like her fiction, this has an easy style to draw the reader in.  Each of the 30 short chapters cover an aspect of writing and finish with a writing exercise.

For the student, Levine starts by making the reader "promise" to save everything they write for at least 15 years.  Each writing exercise ends with "save what you wrote," harkening back to that promise without that nagging reminder: you promised.  It is merely part of the writing exercise instruction.

She draws heavily on books of her own the students most likely know (Ella Enchanted, Dave at Night, etc.) but also on other books that they are most likely familiar.  Just like teachers in a writer's workshop, she gives her own stories and examples along with advice.

For example, chapter 17 "Stuck," has the words, "There is no such thing as a perfect book or a perfect story," set in large, italic type so it truly stands out on the page and draws the reader's eye.  She goes on to explain why perfection doesn't matter and options for approaches when a writer is stuck. 

Geared for kids ages 9 and up, this is a great resource book for a classroom library or for exercises in the classroom.    Like Lucy Calkins, Ruth Culham and others, Levine is hitting on writing habits and traits but her lessons are echoing what the students hear in the classroom in a language that is comfortable.  Adults can benefit from this book as well in spite of the target audience as the quick mini lessons with advice and exercises are universal.

Overall, this book is well worth the price tag.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sifting through the data

As part of my thesis, I am giving a survey 70 third grade kids with 15 questions where they check a box for "A Lot" "Some" "A Little" or "Not At All."  There are also four short answer questions and an old Kliban cartoon with the question, "What is the cat dreaming about?"

One of the statements was "I think I could write a book some day."  The answer was surprising in that 44% of the kids said "A Lot" and 17% said some.  That's over half of this year's third graders think that they have a book in them.

What was also heartening for me was to see the large number of kids who like to write about non-fiction.  One third of the class like writing about Science and a quarter of them like writing about Social Studies.

This is at a time when the kids are just starting to really receive instruction in how to write.  I love that this is the age where the kids are moving from learning to read to reading to learn.  They took the survey a week after they started writer's workshop instructions, they'll take the same one again at the end of October and again at the end of November.  The big difference will be kids who choose to participate in National Novel Writers Month Young Writers Program.  My theory is that kids who are on the fence about writing and then participate in YWP don't fear the blank page the way kids who don't participate, even though they all have the same instruction.  I'm also curious to see what happens to the "I could write a book some day," numbers.

But I have to share some of my favorite cat dreams (so far).  As expected, a number of kids were rather literal.
Many of the kids observed the cat was "fat" and had the cat dreaming about chasing, catching and eating mice.  One kid  had the cat dreaming of a land where the grass is made of kibble and the rocks were made of turkey.

There were also a lot of answers about the cat feeling safe and secure.  Sometimes the cat was dreaming of chasing dogs or in a world where there were no dogs to chase them.

Another popular theme was the cat playing with or meeting new friends.  One kid had the cat trying to sleep before going on a cruise with lots of other cats that will stop in every country and be able to buy souvenirs to remind him of his trip.

Many of the kids mentioned flying carpets and had the cat flying over Egypt or referenced some form of the story of Aladdin.

There was even a "since this is a writing survey..." answer where the student determined the cat was dreaming about writing since he saw people writing in the house and figured he could too.  But there were some that made me laugh, some that made me sigh.  Among my favorite was a story about the cat being the first cat in space and how he was going to colonize Mars and create a new civilization.

One of my favorite comical answers included, "Bots!  A lot of Bots!  The stars.  The stars are beautiful!!!! Go stars!!!!!!!!"  From one of the most touching stories "...The cat thinks almost everything below is beautiful.  The cat observes its beauty and then moves on to the next thing.  Then eventually he looks at the stars and finds the beauty in them.  He is feeling the wind and think it is the intense version of leaping through the air....."

It will be interesting to see if the numbers do shift at all and, if so, how much and in which direction.  Right now I'm looking at my two sleeping cats and wondering if either of them are dreaming about colonizing Mars or cheering on the stars.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide

(This is the first in a series of reviews about books on teaching writing to kids.)

Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi.  2001 Heinemann Press, Hanover, NH; 159 pages.

For those going into teaching and trying to slog their way through Lucy Calkins books and curriculum materials, this is a companion book that you may want to have on your bookshelf.  What Fletcher and Portalupi do is take Lucy McCormick Calkins method of teaching writing and boil it down into essential steps right down to a timeline for the educational year for teaching writing.

At the end of each chapter is a bullet pointed breakdown called "Making it Work in the Classroom" and the appendices contain a variety of check lists and materials that can be used in the classroom for charting various writing, editing, evaluation and progress steps necessary for the teacher and student.

One main drawback, because it is a boiled down version of the full curriculum, the authors are trying to cover everyone from primary teachers through upper levels of education.  The results are the kernels are there but not everything applies to everyone, which can be a bit frustrating.

While this can't replace the broad spectrum of materials and instruction provided in the books and series by Calkins, it is a solid quick reference book for teaching professionals for a reasonable price.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

School, NaNoWriMo, reviews and such

After a summer of intense classes, I am now in final push mode.  This includes my capstone thesis on changing how 3rd graders view writing and the ever looming NaNoWriMo in November.  Not only will I be writing again this year (and going for the the fourth win) but I'll also be leading a motley crew of 3rd graders through as well.


My capstone thesis is thus: kids don't like writing because they are scared of things like blank pages, how much they're expected to write and because it's not always perfect.  (Hmmm... sounds like most adults I know.)  I think that as they go through Writer's Workshop, they begin to deal with some of those issues but pushing a crew through NaNoWriMo blows those fears out of the water.  Because NaNoWriMo has the Young Writers Program (YWP) where kids set their own goal, it's less intimidating than 50k words, but still a challenge.  We're thinking 50 words a day for the kids for a 1,500 word push is pretty good.  I suspect a lot of the kids will choose to do more while others will hang on.  One kid that has started talking to me about YWP is one of the kids who struggles greatly with writing but is so excited about writing a pirate story, he's already counting the days to November first.

The other part of this is the research component.  Many of the books on teaching and encouraging writing I am reading, I must review which leads me to....


I will start posting reviews of various books I am looking at for my research component.  It will include some of the more instructional sort of stuff from folks like Lucy Calkins and Ruth Fulham to more general advice by folks like Gail Carson Levine.  Those will start springing up here in the next few days and will continue through the end of November.


Finally what I'm writing about this year.  Last year I wrote 30 short stories in 30 days.  The year before that was "Cyn," about a young girl torn between familial duty and her own desire to be a mechanic set on a steampunk airship.  My first year was an MG piece called "Diversity is Not a Race," about the weirdos in a middle school.  While that piece is truly horrible on many levels, the reality is that it gave me the confidence to write and reminded me that I had novels in me even if I'm not currently writing them.

This year is looking like I may finally write that epic adventure "Bring me the Cryogenically Frozen Head of Ted Williams," about a couple of typical Masshole Red Sox fans on the quest to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything and how it all relates to their passion for the hometown team.


Through it all, I still have to do weekly essays for my child psych class, my big paper for my history class on Profiles in Power (DeGaulle, Nixon, Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev).  Then there's always the mundane things like cooking, cleaning and such in all of that too.  But do stay tuned as things heat up here once again.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Camp NaNoWriMo

Novel writing isn't just for November you know....

Over the summer, there's a far more informal session called "Camp NaNoWriMo" to keep you motivated.  Last year I gave it a shot but between an August vacation and interviewing for jobs, I fell short.  This summer I've planned to take August to write, having a level of accountability will help.

I have an idea in my head; however, right now I'm looking at a 12 page cultural criticism of Hawthorne's "The Blithedale Romance" due on Monday that takes precedence.  Once I attach the paper and press the send button, I will be free to be doing my writing again and, like November, I will also be posting bits and pieces up here for feedback.

In the meantime, Hawthorne calls.  Apparently he needs a friend to answer the question, "Why do Emerson and Alcott get all the girls?"

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Going to my happy place....

I have a private happy place.  As a kid growing up in Scituate, MA, the one place I always loved was the lighthouse down on the coast of Scituate.  I can sit out on the jetty for extended periods of times looking across the Atlantic thinking about how Europe is on the other side of that body of water and wonder, is there someone sitting over on the coast of France looking at me thinking, "Wow, next stop America!"

I have been known to throw fruit off the jetty as an offering to Mother Ocean.  I treat the fruit like trouble dolls, whispering my pain and worries to them before I toss them away for Mother Ocean to hear and whisper back later.  Sometimes her voice is soft and subtle - responding with me noticing a particular point of beauty that answers my question.  Sometimes it's a particular poem or passage in a favorite story.  Sometimes it's as intense as hitting me upside the head with a cosmic clue by four.  (Admit it, we've all had that moment.)

I remember standing on the edge of the inner jetty that divides Scituate Harbor from the ocean during a storm.  It was too dangerous to go out on the outer jetty that extends into the ocean and my normal place for reflection, so I got as close as I could and screamed through my anger and tears at G-d.  I demanded to know why there was suffering in the world and why did my boys have to experience that suffering in particular?  I screamed my anger into the wind, my tears mixing with the salty spray of the water and I clearly heard an answer.

"I am a father too," the voice said.

Standing alone on the jetty, I realized what I heard in that moment.  My Creator suffers along with me when I suffer too.  In that moment my happy place transformed to something more.  It grew to a place of understanding.

Sometimes, as a writer, I feel that's my job.  Even in the silly and mundane my words will to help someone understand in a moment, whatever it is they are feeling when they take refuge in my work, they are not alone.  Someone else understands their pain, joy, frustrations or victories.  It may be a bit inflated to think that I can be a tool of those forces beyond all of us, but that's what writers do.  Whether it was someone approaching me to say a particular column I wrote made a difference in their lives or watching a student go from "Do I have to write?" to "I can't wait to share this piece I wrote with you...."

We all have our happy places, physical and emotional.  As a writer, I realize that my role - conscious or not - is to help guide others to their happy place as well.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Clearing my mind

The old Einstein quote about cluttered desks seems to be a popular one for people like me.  After all, like many writers, I'm a pack rat and you can tell the moment you look inside my office door.  That cartoon that is a great piece of inspiration, and a few magazine articles in that stack over there are about how to get through writer's block, don't forget the box of holiday decorations (wait a minute, why are they in my office and not the basement?), little bits and pieces of memories that are on paper, stuffed, in frames, on cork boards and cover every surface... you name it and it's probably in my office.  Like the warehouse in the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," you never know what you might find in my office there.

I avoid shows like "Hoarders" afraid I'll see myself in those life-threatening teetering piles of stuff.  Yet, when I dig through the articles many of them are "How to de-clutter your space..." or "Organization for the pack rat..." and other such handy bits on how to get yourself decluttered, organized and otherwise cleaning up your space and, by extension, your act.  After a while, even I can take a hint and dive in to purge 30 years of stuff.  For the past few weeks, I have worked feverishly at removing the extraneous pieces of life in bags separated for trash and recycling.  Many things have been filed while others still sit in the few remaining "to be sorted through - for real this time and I MEAN IT MISSY" piles.

There are things I realized as I look my office, which is now 80% cleaned and organized:

- I can think right now.  That may sound odd and my son pointed out that I could think before, but I realized more and more recently that I think in short bursts and can't focus.  Today, I feel like I'm thinking in pages, not paragraphs.

- It's not perfect.  Even if everything were 100% organized and clear, it still wouldn't be perfect.  I'm good with that, this isn't a Zen garden that I've meditated upon and seen clearly.  It's a comfortable working space.  I could use a return over here or a shelf there and wouldn't it be awesome to paint the walls in white board and chalk board paint and make another wall a bulletin board, the printer still takes up too much space (and ink) and why can't the cat sleep in a cat bed instead of taking up a valuable piece of real estate on one of the bookshelves....  but this is good enough and sometimes "good enough" is as good as it gets.  I will splurge in a can of white board paint and paint the ends of the bookcases.  It's not the whole wall, but it's a start and it's good enough.

- The furniture all matches.  Seriously, how did that happen?  Oh wait, IKEA happened. Amazing what a couple of hundred dollars and an allen wrench can do to make your world feel more uniform.

The biggest surprise: a pile of poetry I wrote in high school.  My son asked, "Is it any good?"  I looked and said, "Let me repeat myself: I found a pile of poetry I wrote in high school."

He thought for a moment and said, "Well, maybe some of it's OK."

He was being kind.  It's now filed with the old journals from high school.  I can't bear to part with them but I will leave instructions to burn them without reading upon my death.  Like those odd, interesting dreams, high school journals are something that should never inflicted upon other people.

I will say this about my space, suddenly writing a piece of psychological criticism for one class and an essay on Shlaes "The Forgotten Man" for another don't seem to be scary, daunting tasks any more.  But the next question to ask myself: why did I let this happen?  Why was I so scared to let go?

Who knows, maybe I'll even be able to brave an episode or two of Hoarders... just not anytime soon.  My wounds are healing but still a bit too fresh.  My desk and office are no longer cluttered, but they are cleared and that makes all the difference in being able to write.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


It's summer vacation time.  Yesterday was my last day and I tearfully said goodbye to my 5th graders as they go off to middle school, finished listening to my 3rd graders mysteries we wrote over the past two weeks and looked forward to really digging back into my steampunk Cinderella variant that I wrote during NaNoWriMo a couple of years back.

To celebrate my son, Pi, and I went in search of the two food trucks in town as part of the Great Food Truck Race somewhere near Copley Square.  It was there that I had a bit of an epiphany, but first a quick trip back in time.

When my oldest was in 5th grade, we had this conversation with his teacher asked him the following at a parent/student/teacher conference:

Teacher: "I know you're young, but any ideas of what you might want to do when you grow up?"
Chesley: "Be a writer."
Teacher: (smiling) "Like your mother?"
Chelsey: "No, I'd like to be published."
Me: "Hey!  There's a word for that - unemployed."
Teacher: (rolling eyes) "Now I know where he gets it."

I am pleased to say that he is now a college graduate and, like his mother, he is a writer.  He is also unemployed. <insert evil laughter here>

Back to the present and waiting an hour in line for the most amazing burger I have ever had at Seoul Sausage's food truck with Pi.  (Yes I would stand in line for an hour again and I would totally buy more than one for me this time.  People in LA, I am jealous of you being able to have this tasty treat when you want.)

Pi's pop punk band, Vegan Arcade (which is funny since none of them are Vegans), is looking for a drummer after the last guy didn't work out for them.  As we sat on the curb enjoying our burgers, he noticed a guy enjoying his food next to us.  The guy had a bunch of drumsticks in the pocket of his backpack and Pi initiated a conversation:

Pi: "Hey, are you a drummer?"
Guy with sticks: "Nope."  (laughter) "Yeah, I am."
Pi: "My band's looking for a drummer.  Are you available?"
Guy: "What happened to your drummer?"
Pi: "We lost him somewhere around Boise, ID.  We didn't even notice until we got to Poughkeepsie."
Guy: (saucer eyed in surprise) "Dude, you ditched your drummer?"  (realizes it was a joke and starts laughing)

I have maintained for years that the sense of humor exhibited in our family is genetic.  Perhaps it is, perhaps it's just that somewhere along the way some ancestor realized you have to look at life through a slightly distorted lens and just laugh.  I say some ancestor because I have distant cousins from Germany, the midwest and other parts of the world that I have run into as an adult doing family tree research that share the same sense of humor.  I don't see my parents as particularly sarcastic people (although my father was always one for a good twist that turned into a memorable laugh) but still these sharp observational comments punctuate our lives.

Perhaps that is why the characters I hear in my head have that twist in their voice?  They are like my children who demonstrate the apple doesn't roll far from the tree.  I then wonder, is that why detectives tend to be snarky?  Is it why we all want to see vapid cheerleaders?  Perhaps that's why we have these stereotypes in stories and in our heads - they are programmed there from early on.

It's a new challenge for me now, to really take a deeper look at my characters to see if perhaps I can understand them just a little better.  While Cyn is sarcastic, her circumstances have really set her up to view life that way, but what about the others?  Is her sister really that vapid mean girl or is she fighting for something deeper?  Is it that the prince is handsome, he's a prince or he just wants to be himself?  It's a good way to really rethink these guys a bit and hope it makes the story even stronger.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Where do stories come from?

Any writer will probably tell you that one question people ask is, "Where do you get your ideas?"  That along with, "How long did it take for you to write that?" are some of the ones that should be on every writer's FAQ list.

Where do my stories come from?  Sometimes it's a phrase I hear or event I observe.  Did that child informing his mother that she now needed to watch the baby because he was going to play with his friends say that because he has become the primary care giver or is it because he does he have an overdeveloped sense of "I'm the big brother and need to take care of him?"  I can write a story from several perspectives in that moment: from the mother who finds it annoying and/or adorable he takes his duties as an older brother so seriously.  I can write from the young boy's
perspective who doesn't understand why this is now his job.  I can even tell the story from the baby's perspective the way Kurisawa did in Rashomon.  The whole idea of personal recollection from the angle of perspective would work well in that situation, whether or not that's the story of that particular family.

Then there are the odd observations that trigger the imagination.  Riding my bike home through an area of the neighborhood I normally don't travel through, something caught my eye at the base of a tree.  There was a little door, complete with a fan-like window at the top of it that seemed to fit perfectly.   I needed to take a closer look and noticed there was a little creature at the open panel at the bottom and a couple of frogs in a tub just beyond the door, on top of the roots.  Were the frogs stranded there after a flood?  Was this a friend they came to visit?  Perhaps they were evil frogs that were finally confined by the tub.  I don't know.

At least not yet.

But what a unique and unusual find in a neighborhood full of manicured lawns (and landscaping services to maintain them).

So to answer: where do stories come from?  Here, there and everywhere.

To answer: how long does it take to write a story?  As long as it takes (unless I'm under deadline, then whatever the deadline may be).

I have a feeling I'm going back to visit the tree to ask the characters there about their story this summer.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Saturday Office Organization

Ah yes, my office.  For 5 years I've been promising myself that I would get it cleaned out and organized.  All the writing and work stuff, school stuff, sewing stuff, art stuff, etc.; a place for everything and everything in its place!  Every year I draw maps of the room, make plans, draw up lists and attempt to tackle a monumental project only to find the fatal flaw shortly after I get started.

Last summer I got the furthest into my plan when it hit me: my desk was way too big for the space and it was throwing everything off.  Another map was made and I made my way to IKEA where I figured out what I needed to do, how much it was going to cost and how many pieces I would have to sell in order to pay for the renovation.  The amount was small enough (c'mon we're talking IKEA, not hand carved heirloom quality from rosewood or mahogany here) and decided I would save up for it.  My February break would be purchasing, assembling and redoing my space.  Then fate threw me a curve with a black Friday weekend sale where I could pick up a version of the bookcases I was eyeing for 1/2 price.

Damn you fickle finger of fate!!!

A little measuring and thought had me realize that my son no longer used his desk that would fit perfectly where I needed it and it matched the rest of the set.  Between repurposing his old desk and the sale, my costs dropped to under $100, the same amount for the tax receipt for donating my old desk to the office of a local church.

Soon phase 1 was done, the work area but then things stalled with classes, work and life.

Enter kitties.  Two new kitties means looking at your house in a new way.  In this case, a giant hide and seek playground for cats.

For Data (aka Schtinky Cat) this means my office.  First he decided the shelf where the spare net book normally lived was his.  He knocked off the various cords stored there while the netbook was in use elsewhere and staked his claim.  Then he noticed that 1/3 of the office that I have been too ... scared? lethargic? disinterested? all?  none of the above? ... to attempt to get done.

Do you know what it's like to have to pull out several banker's boxes of "stuff I need to go through..." in order to find a cat?

But what Schtinky did was force my hand.  The banker's boxes are now sorted, filed, recycled or put away.  This was my second wind.  This morning a number of other "I'll deal with it laters" from the end of last semester are now filed, recycled, trashed or put away and plans for the next trip to IKEA to pick up a bookcase, desktop and media tower.

Who says cats don't know what it is you need?

This morning the room feels reenergized and that treasure map I drew up at the beginning of the year is just had a new landmark added to it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A poem from a kitty

A pair of cats moved in with us the other day.  Their owner is traveling too much to really give them the attention they need, so she's been searching for just the right fit for them for a while.  Happily, it's us and Odin and Data moved in on Monday.

While I will, at some point, talk about Odin, today it's all about Data.  Data has not only taken up residence in my office on the shelf just below my reference shelf but has also learned, when my computer is open, how to turn iTunes on and off and adjust the brightness on my computer screen when he chooses to take up residence behind my computer.

Yesterday he spent about an hour in my lap, listening to music and getting his ears scratched.  Then he looked at me and I heard his poem.

I Knew I Would Love You

I knew I would love you
When you sat quietly
     watching me
     watching you.

I knew I would love you
When you smiled softly
     and held out your hand
     and then waited for me to take it.

I knew I would love you
When you laughed at me
     and that joyful noise
     made me smile through my fear.

I knew I would love you
When you recognized my sadness
and told me you understood
you were sad too, but together we'd be OK

I knew I would love you
When you sat patiently
offering me food
even though eating was the last thing I wanted.

I knew I would love you
When you didn't scold me
for messing with your music
or your computer.

I knew I loved you
For all those reasons and more.
     So I sat in your lap and purred 
and let you scratch my ears
and rub my soft belly 
to tell you I was now yours.

For all those reasons,
You may now say I'm your cat.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Yesterday I received my copy of Writer's Digest. This month's poetry corner was on Quaterns: 4 quatrains, eight syllables each line with a refrain.  I skimmed the article briefly before heading out to the mall to buy a birthday present for my mother and was immediately hit with three lines that would make some Quaterns.  In the car I jotted down this one from the first line that struck me:

I went out running this morning

I went out running this morning.
The fresh air moved my feet along
the black, buckled asphalt pavement
in the early morning sunlight.

Other runners greeted me as
I went out running this morning
with the promise of summer's kiss
lingering on my sweaty face.

I could hear the sparrows singing,
saw puppies pull their masters as
I went out running this morning
at the end of the spring season.

My spirt felt renewed, refreshed
as the squirrels and bunnies played
on manicured suburban lawns.
I went out running this morning.

Monday, May 21, 2012

My Very Own Garden

When my boys were little, we read Lobel's stories about Frog & Toad all the time.  The one they loved the most was when Toad tried to grow a gardent from the seeds Frog gave him.  Toad yelled at them continually to start growing until Frog came along and determined they were too scared to grow.  Toad then was worried the seeds would be too scared to grow if he left them alone, so he read to them, sang to them and stayed up all night until he finally fell asleep.  At last the seeds poked up out of the ground and there was much happiness on Toad's part.

Many years ago, a folk singer wrote a song about the story and I used to sing it to the kids.  (I know it was many years ago because my oldest just graduated from college last week... so it had to have been at least 20+ years ago.)

Yesterday, with the sun shining and summer's scent on the breeze, I figured it was time for me to once again plant my very own garden.  I visited the local community farm and picked up a couple of varieties of tomatos, tomatillos, lettuce, broccoli, sugar peas and peppers.  I picked up some herbs to add to the herb garden and planted them in fresh soil all while singing the story of Toad's garden.

This morning, I looked out on the gray New England morning that was such a stark contrast to yesterday's bright sun and noticed that the little broccoli seedlings I was so worried about seemed to nestle in and stand up a little straighter.  I could also see my tomatoes and tomatillos reaching up, willing themselves to grow and the peppers saying, "Not so fast, bubb... I can do this too!"  In that moment, I knew there was also a story growing in that garden.

I don't know what it is yet, like the little seedlings, it needs a chance to wiggle its roots around in the fresh earth and reach up towards the sun.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


The mysterious cabal of "they" always say writers have to have goals.  Sometimes "they" get motivational speaker level specific about wishes are actions that aren't acted upon and to make actionable wishes or "they" say put the big rocks in the bucket first then fill in from there and so on.

I tend to feel, "If I wanted a Tony Robbins lecture, I'd watch an infomercial...."

It's not that I don't understand the value of goals, I do.  It's just they're sort of like outlines: a good idea for some and an attack by the Black Hand on Franz Ferdinand for others; losing your nerve until a lucky shot creates an opportunity to maybe (hopefully) nail it and... oops, did I really mean to start WWI over this?

For the past 3 years, I've gone into National Novel Writer's Month with a lot excitement and dread.  This summer, my goal is to take my 2010 novel idea and turn it into something legible.  This is a goal.  While I'm sure for some this is not enough.  I envision "they" would be pounding their fist and demanding I break this down into actionable steps or apply habits of success to create a sellable product.

Me, I'm OK with "them" working themselves into a lather about foreign subjects while I dance around my home office singing Katy Perry at the top of my lungs or envisioning the music video I would make to Imagine Dragons' song "Top of the World."

Thanks to National Novel Writer's Month, I have achieved step one: write the damn thing.

I have achieved step two: break the damn thing into 3 acts.  This is my problem (and I must emphasize it really is my problem).  I start strong with a general idea.  The opening is always strong and then I get lost and then I feel like I have to stretch and end it.  When I'm done, I feel great about hitting 50k words and a complete (if pretty flawed) story and then wonder what to do next.  Now that I have figured out the three acts, I can take that weak middle and the "am I at 50k yet?" ending and turn them into something that can be read without too much pain.

Part of that step included some background on the society.  I have already done all the character background: how would I set up a Facebook page for my character?  What photos would I put up?  If my character was in high school, where would the character sit in the lunchroom?  The usual.  I don't always think through the society beyond the cafeteria.  That came out as I figured out my three acts.

While these are all the sorts of things "they" get all excited, these steps are more of a treasure map without the path drawn on it yet for me.  I can see the map and the markers, now I have to connect the dots to where X marks the spot.

It's a stretch for me as I'm so used to short pieces.  I used to make a living telling my story in 800 words or less.  Stretching the story to 50,000 words, well, now that's a challenge and, dare I say it, a goal.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Higgelty Piggelty Pop, goodbye Maurice

I grew up with some rather conventional children's books.  Essentially, if it wasn't a standard Golden book, it was either something crazy from my older siblings (yes Spider, it's all YOUR fault for giving me Dr. Suess books for Christmas) or hand me downs.  Discovering Maurice Sendak on my own opened up a whole new world of imagination for me.

It's no surprise that my children, nieces, nephews and other little ones received lots of Sendak (and others) from me.  One of my sons decided he was going to learn German at an early age after I read him "Wild Things" in German.  I'm not surprised to see inspiration from those books I read the boys long ago in another son's artwork and secretly suspect that he will eventually find himself immersed in the world of children's literature and art.  (When you have mentor like Tony DiTerlizzi, how can you not?)

Recently I introduced "Pierre" to a room of first graders who were studying folk tales.  It fit the lesson in when we discussed what made a folk tale, the kids listed talking animals and a moral lesson.  I absentmindedly replied, "There once was a boy named Pierre, who only could say, 'I don't care.' So read his story my friend and, you will find in the end, a suitable moral lies there."  The kids all looked at me and I asked, "Have none of you heard of Pierre?"  They all said no.  Off to the internet to find Carole King singing the nutshell library and, as a reward for good behavior, I showed them the video of "Pierre."

The kids were so enchanted, the asked to watch it again.... and again.  I instructed all of them to look for the Nutshell Library the next time they were in a bookstore.

I am known for my reciting of "Where the Wild Things Are."  I make the kids put on and zip up their invisible wolf suits, we have a wild rumpus and I point out how the illustrations grow and grow like the jungle in Max's room and shrink as he returns to his world.  I use it as a lesson that, no matter how big our imaginations grow, we need to write within constrained spaces.  The magic comes from transporting your reader to your wide open imagination.  It's a lesson that older kids love and gets younger kids thinking.

But right now, I'm feeling the need to dig out my copy of "Higgelty Piggelty Pop or There Must Be More To Life."  A book Sendak wrote to deal with his grief in losing his beloved dog, Jenny.  I hope that he is now happily playing with her and feeding her salami.  I need a way to deal with my broken heart in losing a man who changed my life.

Higgelty piggelty Pop, the dog has eaten the mop.  The pig's in a hurry, the cat's in a flurry. Higgelty piggelty pop.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What are my responsibilities?

Last week I visited my 90+ year old uncle in the nursing rehab facility he's been in for a couple of months now.  While there, he told me some great stories about my mom, dad, aunts and uncles.  My favorite was he told me a story about before my dad was dating my mom.  In WWII, my dad was a navy medic and was stationed in Okinawa.  As a result of his job, his tent had a wooden floor to keep the living area from getting muddy.

My uncles Jimmy and Ernest - who were twin brothers - were both stationed in Okinawa as well.  Ernest relieved my dad's unit and moved into my dad's tent.  Jimmy was with the SeaBees.  Jimmy went to visit Ernest with some buddies and had Ernest show him around the camp.  He had his buddies steal my uncle Ernest's booze that was hidden under the floor boards.  When my dad and mom started dating after the war, Ernest told about how someone stole all his booze and he knew it wasn't my dad because he had already moved to the next assignment.  In the background, my uncle Jimmy was signaling my dad not to say anything.

I told the story to someone who said, "It's a shame we're losing these stories as these guys die off."

I thought about it.  Is it my responsibility as a writer to be capturing these things?  I have thought about it a few times, tracking down WWII vets and recording their stories before they're lost.  The issue is, as always, time and money.  The question then becomes, do I have a greater responsibility?  Do we all?

On my end, I'm going to go back with a voice recorder and start capturing some of the stories.  I don't know how much longer my uncle has, but anything I catch is better than losing it all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Resolved for Adventure

To resolve, according to the dictionary, means to come to a definite decision and determine to do something; to make up one’s mind. So moving into the new year, what do I resolve and why?

Well, one thing is that I will buy a calendar since my 2011 Kliban cat calendar doesn’t really work for 2012. That’s more of a practical resolution. Along with the new calendar, I guess cleaning the house over the next couple of days before a party here on Saturday falls into that category too. But beyond that, I don’t have a lot of resolutions.

I’m taking a new approach this year and creating more of a treasure map than a road map.

Treasure maps are fun, they are the things of which dreams are made. Think about it for a moment and picture a treasure map in your mind. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I bet it was brown with age, curling at the edges and tattered. Did yours have big, thick broken dashes curving and swooping across the page to mark the route? Did it have a skull and cross bones on it? An ornate compass rose? How many cool, scary names of places were on there? Was there a big X to mark the spot?

Mine starts in 2011 and ends with an X over a treasure chest labeled "2013" and most of it can’t be read yet. It wanders through dangerous swamps like “save money” and “lose weight/get healthy.” (Not surprisingly both swamps have a distinct pig-like shape.) One corner has a robot built of Legos on it and another has an ornate feathered quill hovering over a parchment labeled “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the famous unanswered question posed to us by Lewis Carroll. There is a runner passing through the “half marathon” ribbon. The path is still unclear in how it is all connected. I suspect that it will be come clearer as the year progresses. As it becomes clearer, I'll draw in the dashes connecting the various sections.

I decided on a treasure map after I looked at my traditional list and realized it reminded me of something (other than every previous resolution list). It reminded me of a grocery list and I had to ask myself: isn’t life more exciting than something that looks like: milk, eggs, bread....? I didn’t need another to-do or check list. I needed something to remind me what the year is full of new adventures.

I’m saving the check list for the practical “buy a calendar, clean the house, go food shopping, etc.” stuff. For resolutions, I’ll seek out the treasures the year is hiding.

After all, I deserve an adventure.