Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy, Merry

For my grandpap’s November birthday, I got him a pen, as seen on TV, in which you can record messages. From the commercial, I thought the gift was a little bittersweet, a good present for someone who’s experiencing “senior moments” or has had trouble with absent-mindedness. The gift giver is led to believe that, if you care, you can prevent a loved one from forgetting why he went to the grocery store. You can make it so your friend or family member doesn’t wander around a parking lot for hours, looking for the car. You can give the joy of memory, prevent the embarrassment of forgetfulness, become a human ribbon tied around a finger.

In reality, Grandpap and Gram took it to the bowling alley and used it to punk members of their bowling league.

Here’s to good surprises and joy and peace of mind for everybody this season. See you in 2009!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pick Up Your Pencils, Boys and Girls

This morning, I went to Caleb’s school for a Writers’ Hot-Chocolate House (a coffee house for the under-eleven set.) A group of the kids had gone to the museum to participate in a writing contest where they penned a poem or story inspired by one of the pieces of art. The teacher ran the readings beatnik-style: The lighting was low, the writers sat on a stool, and we snapped our appeciation.

With a few exceptions, the boys in the class seemed to focus on plot (a robot’s head was punched off, a sumo wrestler ate some art, a stone that could blow up the world was revealed). The girls? All up in character and motivation. (But WHY were you murdered?)

Which is pretty much the gender stereotype of adult writers, too. Even setting aside the obvious spy thriller/ chick lit divide, there’s this idea out there that women writers create memorable characters and men writers create ground-breaking changes to the form. Me, I’ve mostly been of the opinion that book publishing is a weird enough creature that gender is a minor factor in whether a book is successful or not.

And yet. I’ve been thinking about character a lot. I’m better at it than plot (I say, as I’m plotting this thing I’m writing within an inch of its life). Maybe it’s the hot chocolate talking, but after this morning, I’m just a teensy bit more open to the idea that if women are better at character (a big generalization, granted) and character is less valued than form (another big generalization), then women writers might have a harder row to hoe than men writers.

Last night I was reading Bitch magazine, and there was a discussion of an article they ran on ambition. “[I]t’s harder for women to have a strong, colorful persona without appearing like a hobo,” one commenter wrote. “The range of acceptable personalities is still wider for men.” Not everyone agreed, but still.

There is a class of literature, no matter how widely acclaimed, I won’t read. It’s the tale of the older guy who, fearing his mortality, has an affair with a younger woman. I know this story. It’s called About Half the Dads of People I Know, and there are no surprises in it. But other than that, I’m pretty much open to characters of all sorts. No matter who’s writing a book, I do like a strong character. It can compensate, in my mind, for a weaker plot in a way that a strong plot can’t compensate for a squishy character.

Am I being such a girl for thinking this way? Or is my own bias—that I’m better at character than I am plot, that I’m a lady writer and reader, that I don’t think I have many biases against strong female personalities—showing through?

I don’t know the answer. But this whole strong personality thing might explain some of the reviews of Practically Perfect. There are definitely positive ones (for which I’m very grateful), but I’m always taken off guard by the negative ones that aren’t criticisms of the book but of me. One called me an “irritating personality.” Another claimed that if she knew me in real life, she wouldn’t want to spend much time with me. (Aw, please?) And the local daily may or may not have equated me with Paris Hilton (the book review writing was unclear).

Or maybe it doesn’t explain anything at all. I haven’t set up a Google alert for, say, A.J. Jacobs so I don’t know if his personality gets enmeshed in his reviews.

Thoughts, questions, concerns? What do you think?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Music for Your Ears

God, I love this woman's stuff:

You can get the version with the f-bombs. Work your YouTube. It's the one with the rainsdrops.

That's right. It's a cover of Nelly's "Hot in Herre."

Her name is Jenny Owen Youngs, her CD is "Batten the Hatches," and the appropriate person has already been strongly advised to get it for me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I Could Give a Shit How Much Oprah Weighs

If you’ve read Practically Perfect, you know that I like Oprah, despite some of our deeper philosophical differences.

But I really hate that her weight is in the news again. (And she put it there.) She could have framed the issue like so: I’ve been sick with thyroid problems, and here’s how I started to feel healthier. But, noooo. It’s all about 40 pounds more, 200 hundred total, two years, embarrassment, can’t stand seeing myself in pictures. If there’s anything I’m not interested in, it’s math-shame milkshake.

I know. Even Oprah admits that she’s a food addict, and I believe I’ve watched enough Celebrity Rehab to know that sometimes it’s not her but her addiction talking. But I do feel compelled to put out some karmic balance here:

Weight is not a moral issue.

Barbara said it really well here.

Dodai on Jezebel said it well here.

Rubens said it well here.

Weight is influenced by many things, including genes, metabolism, diet, exercise, how one deals with stress, shifting priorities in one’s life, age, and the ratio of satin monstrosities to regular clothes Lane Bryant is peddling. With apologies to Dr. King, it’s the content of your character, and not the junk in your trunk that I’m judging. Well, that, and if you're willing to play Scrabble with me on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The New Kid

I was the first grandchild on both sides of my family, and for years, I had a whole slew of childless aunts and uncles. This can cut both ways—you can either be the annoying kid who won’t shut up, or you could be showered with attention from people who have not yet experienced the 24/7 of, say, playing with dolls or listening to your litany of facts gleaned from the World Book Encyclopedia.

My Aunt Kathy was (and is) an awesome aunt. Tall and blonde and leggy, she’d turn heads when we walked down to the store a few blocks away. She lived in Florida, which seemed incredibly glamorous to me. She was the perfect mix of fun and silly and cool. I’m saying as if all this stopped at one point. It didn’t, but it felt like it did.

She had a baby.

By then, I had two sisters. On some level, I must have known what was to come. In those days, in my family at least, mothers alone bore much of the responsibility of the raising of the kids. I must have sensed that Kelli’s arrival didn’t mean anything good for me. While it’s true that love is endless, time is not. However cute my first cousin was, with the little ringlets and all, she was cutting into some good Aunt Kathy time. I was six or seven when Aunt Kathy and I were sitting on the porch swing sometime post-baby, and I suggested that my mom watch Kelli so that she could “take a break from the kid.” (And presumably hang out with the mature lower-elementary school crowd: me.) “Why would I want to take a break from her?” my aunt said, smiling, love-drunk with her baby. “I love her!” God knows what World Book fact I said in response.

I’d almost forgotten this whole episode, but this past weekend, Krissy came to visit with her three-month-old son. And I have to say, Caleb was acting a little, um, off.

“Why is Nick crying?” Caleb asked. “Is he hungry again?” And in anticipation of our driving together to Richmond, an hour away, he said more than once: “I really HOPE Nick doesn’t CRY in the car the WHOLE WAY THERE.” Caleb brought ear plugs.

I mean, Caleb was nice to Nick for the most part, but however I diced it, I could still see that this was a loss for him. Last time Krissy was here, she cuddled with him on their side of a booth at a restaurant and taught him how to extract the meat from crab legs. This time, she was functioning one-handed and went to bed early.

There really isn’t anything to say to Caleb at this point. He has his feelings and I have to respect that. But it gets better, I want him to know: These days, I love Kelli, too. We spent the Friday after Thanksgiving this year at her house where she hosted the whole extended family, and I got to know her sons. She’s a terrific woman. These aunt-stealers, they turn into allies, into extra repositories for your memories, into pals.


Confidential to H., C., and J.: Get well soon! Sending mad love!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Under Pressure

Yesterday afternoon, I picked Caleb up from chorus practice and the school book fair and took him to run an errand with me. We went to a local kids’ clothing store to get a Christmas present for Nicholas, my nephew who will be here with his mama today.

Caleb stuck with me, his nose in a book. I’ve been to this store a million times before, and I generally like the women who work there. This time, the woman who owns it was working, and she did something to cause me to generally dislike her.

Not once, not twice, but three times, she asked Caleb if he’d seen certain merchandise. He was clearly reading and not interested in shopping, so he didn’t start begging for it, but still: Girlfriend was trying to upsell to my child.

We are unapologetic TV watchers, so from the time he could talk, we’ve taught him that THE COMMERCIALS don’t make decisions about what you buy, YOU do. We talk about the quality of products, if they’re worth the cash, yadda yadda.

Yesterday, I didn’t quite know what to say. I probably should have pointed out that I’m the one with the credit card, not the ten-year-old boy, or something. I at least should have said something to Caleb so he could recognize what she was trying to do. I guess it just took me too long to put a name to what was happening, and by then we were in the car on the way home.

What would you have done? Me, I’m just going to not go back. That, and post this on my blog.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Every time I think about sitting down and writing about Thanksgiving, I get a little overwhelmed. It was really great, and I worry that I’ll leave some detail out. So let’s just say that it was super groovy—I got to hang with both the Niesslein ladies and our extended family—and dinner was delish. And now, as is my way: on to more unpleasant things.

The first night we were there, Brandon ran up to Giant and bought some beer. The fridge was full of Thanksgiving things so we put the beer on the front porch to keep cold. We all were in and out of the house, having cigarettes, grabbing another beer, taking Mom’s dog out. We were singing some karaoke and having a good old time.

Until someone stole the beer right off the porch.

I try to be generous of spirit. I try to be forgiving. I try to turn the other cheek, take the high road, wonder what Jesus would do. A lot of time I succeed, but there is a deep vein in me that is decidedly un-Jesuslike. This streak is more like the ancient gods, getting their undies in a bundle over petty things, smiting indiscriminately, flinging lightning.

I threw on my coat and shoes and ran out into the street to look for the perpetrators. My head was thrumming with adrenaline. I stomped around in the darkness, peering down the bike paths for a figure that had a Stella Artois-shaped box on his person. My hands were shaking. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I caught the thief, but he would be sorry. (Because there’s nothing more intimidating than a chubby thirtysomething in a puffy jacket.)

Brandon had followed me out, not to assist in my quest but to make sure I was safe. When I finally realized that the beer was gone for good, I came back in. I hatched a plan that I would put something really gross in the empty beer bottles and I’d then leave those on the porch. Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha ha! Ha ha! Sweet vengeance!

These sorts of plans are not new to me. When I was fifteen, I dated a man who was twenty. I figured he was immature for his age, I was mature, it was okey doke. He’d take me to Friendly’s for ice cream, or to the movies. One night, though, I sat in the living room for far too long, ready to go, dressed up, make-up on, waiting for him to show up at the door. He never came. That weekend, I bought a few containers of chicken livers; they come in a small vat of blood. I asked my friend to drive me to where he lived and I poured the blood over one of his belongings, and I never spoke to him again.

This weekend, I didn’t even collect the empty bottles for the plan for vengeance. After my adrenaline ebbed away, I realized that it just wasn’t worth the effort. I guess you could make the case that all that has happened from when I was fifteen to now is that I just got lazier. I like to think, though, that I’ve matured.

Also, I couldn’t figure out how to get the bottle caps back on.