Saturday, March 15, 2008

Snow patrol


Driving back from a specialists' office three hours away, my mom and I crested the big hill, the one where the bay spreads out below and you know you're home. This song (hit play) came on the radio as we silently looked out the windows at melting white snow and cold air and the glinty last remnants of sunset on the bay. It was that time of night where everything exhales blackness, and the blackness slowly absorbs the last light.

The sky acutest at its vanishing, as Wallace Stevens wrote.

The doctor ordered more IVs, different IVs, and said there is a school of thought among some physicians that Lyme causes what the French call Maladie de Charcot. But no one knows. Our motor neuron maladies are more mysterious to modern science than AIDS and cancer and the moon, so mysterious that even accurate diagnoses elude us. So we're left to lay still, minds intact, as our voluntary muscles stop working.

My mother arrived three weeks ago and now helps me move from thing -- bed, chair, bath -- to thing. My boy has been a trooper but the night before our trip to the new doctor, he broke. I tried and tried to stand and pivot into bed to lay next to him and read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but again and again, my legs wouldn't lock. I told him I was so sorry, but I couldn't do it. He began sobbing.

Try again! Try again! ONE MORE TIME! he cried over and over. I just...couldn't. As much as I wanted to. I finally grabbed him from bedside and held him and sang him into quiet. He finally talked. Maybe the special doctor will make you better.

And maybe he will. The special doctor ordered an array of new drugs, said such regimes have been successful in halting symptoms in his patients who've been diagnosed with ALS, and one's been alive and kicking for 12 years, when most with that dx are hit in the lungs and die in two to five years, starved for air.

So there is hope.

My mother and I believe this. I looked over at her as Snow Patrol played on the radio, and we both were crying. We both looked back at the water and snow. Then I felt her warm hand slide into mine, and we drove the rest of the way home like that, saying nothing, as night fell on the bay.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Question of the day

At breakfast:

"Mom, when was love invented?"

"Probably when people were invented."

He mulls this for a second.

"I think maybe love was invented when Jesus and Crisis were born."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why we can't sleep at night

Medication seems to leave tracers. In the case of the steroid treatment I just started, it's insomnia -- just can't get to sleep at night. So the other night, exhausted after a week of this, I decided to lay down with my boy and make myself try to sleep early and catch up.

And we laid there. And he kicked and swirled around, burrowed into my arms, twisted around, asked to play the alphabet game ("astronaut"... "baby"... "chinchilla"..), wanted to know how much food we'd have to take if we went camping for a whole month, and I finally smoothed his little head and said "shhhh..."

And, well, that didn't work, so we laid there for a minute and I finally said I was getting up so he could go to sleep, so he'd have energy for school tomorrow.

"Mom?" he said sleepily.

"Yes?"

"I know why I can't sleep."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I can't stop looking at you -- you're so beautiful."

God bless the little children. I tried to see this through his eyes -- not eyes clouded by IVs and exhaustion and over-googling terminal illnesses, but the eyes of a little boy in bed on a Tuesday night: What in this world could be more blissful than laying there, gazing at your own mom, who in your mind is probably as radiant as some biblical-era Madonna? It's got to be a place where all is, indeed, well. Where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. And I was there, with him, in that luminous place. Not just there, but providing the shine itself, even though I thought there was no light left.

So here's a shout out to the universe for frame-shifting moments like these. Thank you.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Where it's "at"

Laying in bed last night, my boy began naming the words on the word wall in first grade. "At is the first one," he said. He got quiet and considered the implications.

"At is a very famous word."

At is transportation and definition. It takes and places you. It's a tiny two-letter vehicle that minuses the alternatives, and collects everything into a here-and-now-boys place that's clear and cohesive.

" ... I'm at Hollywood," Jack said happily, magically.

I love where he's at. But me? It's not so clear. Moms can't get sick. It's just not done. And yet, that's where we're at. For the past four months, I've watched as my feet then my legs have lost function, to the point I'm in a wheelchair. I've watched the everyday things we take for granted slip away ... taking a hot bath, reaching to open curtains to the snow, getting the day's mail. The world has kept spinning as my peripheral nerves have stopped firing, inch by inch; I've filed stories (mostly) on deadline, as doctors poke and cut and load me with medicines, as we all remain puzzled. And despite it all, no one knows where my body is at.

Jack is right: At is a very famous word. And I am going to keep trying to find it.

Maybe I need my own word wall.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book Marketing Ideas: Live Contests


Here's another outside-the-box approach to book marketing: Author Rachel Weingarten is hosting an all-day email-in contest for giveaways (think diamonds and Sephora gift certificates). Here's how she's handling it:

For those of you who have been waiting to get your hot little hands on a copy of my new book Career and Corporate Cool- now's your chance! To celebrate the first week of autumn on 9/25 from 9 to 5, we'll be having an all (work) day long promotional event that will include hourly giveaways including an icy cool diamond pendant, gift certificates to iTunes, Sephora, FabulousStationery.com, Barnes and Noble, autographed copies of my book, magazine subscriptions and more.

The rules are fairly simple: Purchase a copy of CAREER AND CORPORATE COOL™ from any online retailer on 9/25/07 between the hours of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (EST) and e-mail your receipt to backtocool@careerandcorporatecool.com for a link with access to exclusive hourly updated content not included in the book. Once purchase is verified, you will be entered to win the cool prize for that hour, with one grand prize winner announced at the end of the workday.

Visit www.CareerandCorporateCool.com for more information and complete contest rules.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Question of the Day















Mom, Can you
text-message
from heaven?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Book Marketing Ideas: Amazon Reviews

Forget mailing 150 copies of your book to print editors, praying for a review. My friend Heather Shaw took an innovative path to snaring reviews that'll help sell her new novel, Smallfish Clover. Shaw went right to the heart of Web-2.0-land, and got some citizen reviewers on the job. Lo and behold, it was a stroke of genius: She's received a thoughtful, extensive, rave review from one of Amazon.com's Top 50 reviewers.

Read the Amazon.com review here.

Find out she did it here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Publicists: Lost in (the Time-)Space (Continuum)

I've been writing a regular column for a major metro daily's home section for a year or so now, where I spy dazzling furnishings and decor on TV and in movies.

Take designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohes' classic 1930 Barcelona couch, right, for example—that's the kind of thing I'm writing about. It appears in Daniel's office on Ugly Betty, and in the upcoming Jake Paltrow movie, The Good Night, above, starring sister Gwyneth, Penelope Cruz and Danny DeVito. It's a great gig. I get to scout movies for fine and fun design and talk to production personnel, most of whom are well-schooled in design, about why the item works on set, how it adds to character and dimension and story.

I love it, except for ... the publicists, at least the vast majority of them. It's amazingly difficult for them to come through, by and large. Let me repeat: amazingly difficult. Like, for instance, taking two months to round up a photo. Or doing a run-around for three months, then coming up empty handed -- can't muster a single quote from anyone (even themselves).

Some dreadful cases in point:

Ugly Betty: Calls about the Barcelona couch went unanswered in winter and spring, but since journalism is like watching crops grow, it was July before anything happened, like a response. Weeks later, in August, a quote appeared — about the wrong couch — but sorry, no set shot. Another publicist graciously helped sort everything out quickly, and got me a quote from the (amazing) production designer about the right couch, all in one day. See how quick it can be? Like watering a chia pet.

Colbert Report: After seven weeks of emails and I'm-checking-on-it phone calls over the black Eames chair used for guests on set, she says: "I don't think this is going to work out." Like after seven weeks, we were breaking up. Maybe she's just not that into the press. (Um, nation? Why do you hate your country's fourth estate so much?)

Because I Said So: Two weeks of calls and emails about a lovely silk chaise resulted in the company hired for publicity saying "We’ve exhausted all our contacts for the film, no one is being responsive. I apologize for the inconvenience." So it comes down to this bureaucratic irony: The company hired for publicity cannot locate its publicist.

There are plenty of sweet, responsive, snappy publicists out there too, so here's a shout out to the folks working on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Traveler, The Rachael Ray Show, Top Design, Nanny Diaries and 23. Hollywood kisses to all of you.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Remembering the State of The State

I came across this shout-out to my brother, Tim (above), and it brought back some great memories from a couple summers ago when he and I were on the founding committee of a local film festival. We worked day and night along with a small handful of people to get the thing up and running in a breathtaking nine weeks, an endeavor that included the Herculean renovation, sans cash, of a downtown theater that had been shuttered for a few years and virtually abandoned for nearly a decade.

My brother (an indie filmmaker) and I were the first to walk back into that darkened place, and it was an incredible moment -- seeing it in all its musty despair, quieted, but with us knowing that it was no longer going to be quite so dark; it would be returning to life soon, welcoming back the community that loved it so much. Our gathering places, the places where we connect with others and share time and events, can hold such a powerful place in our lives. They belong to us, collectively, serving as sort of a bookmark in time, much as movies and music do. They're among the pantheon of sets where we live out our lives. We share them. And to bring such a place back to life, honoring its integrity, respecting its place in the landscape of a community, well, what a gift.

That morning, while Tim surveyed the damage, I went down to the basement and found the red plastic marquee letters and began dusting them off, then carted them to the lobby. My brother flipped on the yellow marquee lights and we walked outside on that warm summer morning, and for a moment, we watched silently as people passed by in cars, sometimes honking, sometimes waving, mostly just smiling happily to themselves, like they'd found something they'd lost. It was an electric moment of togetherness and redemption, and it was an honor to be part of it. A town was about to reclaim one of its sacred spaces.

A little later, I hoisted up a red letter "W" for "WELCOME."And then, with the lights flickering Hollywood style, people began stopping by, asking if they could help too.

Tim, here's a shout-out from me too. This whole shebang couldn't have happened without you. (And your whole crew of Jedis deserve colossal props too.) Those of us who were there remember all those nights you stayed up till 4 a.m., heroically painting sky-high theater walls, pouring your heart into something you believed in utterly: The power of story; the magic of movies.

Bravo, brother.

Us, arriving opening night.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Press Liberties: Valerie Plame


At a family get-together in Flint this weekend, talk turned political, as it's inclined to do among the offspring of sit-down strikers (don't even get us started on NAFTA). My mother expressed dismay at the lack of a riot -- by the press and public -- over the president's commutation of "Scooter" Libby's sentencing for obstruction of justice, etc. "It's treason," she said. "Why would Martha Stewart have to serve time, but not someone who commits treason? Why isn't the press up in arms about this?"

It's simple. The press isn't reacting much because they'd be implicating themselves. Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and whoever else is involved on the executive-branch level didn't buy themselves some airtime on CNN or ad space in Time magazine to reveal CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the world. Columnist Robert Novak wrote about it, and the press published this information. Valerie Plame was outed by national media, not just the president's operatives. When this first happened in 2003, I fully expected Novak to face charges, along with a slew of publishers.

And why didn't that happen?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Today's Quote: The Lightbulb Factory


This was not my first stint as a freelancer,
but it was the first time I was forced to think,
and write, on my feet.
It taught me the truly invaluable lesson
that inspiration is a product, not an engine.


—Heather Shaw, introducing herself as the new editor in chief of Foreword magazine, a trade publication for independent publishers, bookbuyers and librarians. Congratulations, Heather!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Freelancers: Forging a New World Order

A witty freelancer on one of my writing groups recently posted this must-see parody of the many please-write-for-free ads on Internet job boards: "If All Craigslist Job Postings Were for Freelance Writers."

It does beg a sad question: What other industry--besides publishing--has such seriously medieval modi operandi?

Backwater MO 1: The byline is payment. I once had an editor, after distributing my work to 19 other papers in his chain (without permission), tell me: "Most writers would be flattered by the exposure." BZZT! Wrong answer! Freelancers, like normal grownups, trade work for money.

But maybe I'm stuck in industrial-age thinking. Maybe publishing is the front line of an economic revolution. Imagine all the people living life in an economy that operates on flattery and exposure. Hey big guy; Well aren't you just the sexiest, most magnificent mortgage company, EVER? Imagine my front lawn filled with those promo signs for house painters, electricians, pool builders, Prius, couture houses, FAO Schwarz, Travel Barcelona!, Bank of America, and so on. Imagine newspapers giving us free subscriptions for giving them good word-of-mouth.

I think we're onto something.

Inexplicable MO 2: Returns. Booksellers order as many books as they want, put their spines on shelves for a month and return those that don't sell via distributers -- and publishers are charged for all of this, including shipping and the distributor's time and shelf space. Any wonder why author royalties have slipped into single digits? This approach began during The Depression as a way to entice sellers to carry products in lean times. It made life simple for booksellers because there was no risk—ask any consignment shop.

Instead of feeling pissed-upon and slighted as writers and independent publishers, perhaps we should reframe this one too: Maybe the planet would benefit if all industries adopted this business model. If our Bibb lettuce wilts before we make our BLT's, return it to ConAgra on their dime, for a full refund. If we never wear that mall-bought T-shirt from China, just ship it back across the Pacific, C.O.D. If we don't finish our antibiotic, return the unused portion to Glaxo-Mega-Pharma for $20-a-tab, plus shipping. (And turn those returns around quickly: Buy more stock in FedEx and UPS.)

Naturally this everything's-on-consignment M.O. could extend to non-tangibles as well. Haven't exercised your Second Amendment right to own a gun this year? No problem! Since you didn't use one of your Bill-of-Rights rights, return it! Expect a 10 percent tax abatement. No car accidents this year? Great. That means you didn't use your insurance. Return it! Allstate will send you a full refund for a year's worth of premiums. Fall asleep during trailers on that DVD? Only watch three of the 76 stations on your cable roster? Well.. you get the picture.

See? It's the start of a new world order.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Parade of Homes: Rooms With(out) a View


A girlfriend called with tickets to the region's parade of homes, so I ditched work to see what's happening out there in the world of high-dollar abodes. Nothing earth-shattering, but I'm loving the little Seaside, Florida, neo-urban communities that continue cropping up, with a pre-suburban mentality: alleys, sidewalks, close proximity to one another. (Thanks for saving some farm fields, folks!)

The biggest delight was a cottage-style home with high ceilings and transoms over the regular windows. The use of up space totally changed the scale of the home, making it cozy and expansive at the same time. (And apparently it's good for the brain. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research says high ceilings prompts a sense of freedom, which lets problem-solving skills to flourish.)

I didn't see any huge home design or decor innovations, just lots of the white Bosch washers, silver SubZero refrigerators, granite countertops, cherry-wood floors, wine cellars, home theaters, bazillion-jet showers and a fixation on Prairie-School-meets-Pacific-Northwoods design. Colors trended toward browns, taupes, bamboos and buttery tones, with occasional black and red accents.

The biggest surprise? Home design. Most of the extravagent homes up here have million-dollar views of waters, primarily Grand Traverse Bay, a huge body of water off Lake Michigan (see below). These homes of course played to those views. In most, you see water the instant you walk into a space. It was gorgeous—until you looked more closely at the space, and realized that if you lived there, you'd only see the water when you walked in. Not when you're in bed. Not when you're in the tub. Not when you're sitting on the couch knitting. From beds, tubs and couches, you'd see walls, cabinets and rooftops. Ouch!

Here's hoping next year's parade features rooms with usable views.


Top Photo: Morgan Farms, a neo-urban community in Traverse City, Michigan. Above: A view of the bay.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Before Staying Overnight at Grandma's


My son says:

"When you're here,
and I'm there,
and you're dreaming—
will you come and locate me?"

Monday, June 18, 2007

JRN 101: The Secret Language of Newsrooms

Recently, someone asked what op-ed meant -- was the "op" for "opinion"? Well, it could be. Most newspapers, magazines and etc. have their own in-house style. In my experience, however, op means "opposite." This is just the beginning of a joy ride with language and meaning. To wit:

op-ed is "opposite editorial" — a physical location, usually directly opposite of ...

editorials, which are unsigned opinions, usually based on an editorial board's consensus, and part of...

The editorial pages, which are written by...

The opinion department, which is not to be confused with ...

The editorial department, which has its own zip code in a typical newsroom. Opinion vs. editorial is an important distinction, on the order of church vs. state, because opinion writes opinionated editorials; editorial writes objective news and features, and writers in editorial would get shot if they wrote an editorial (for the opinion department, that is) in most places.

Communication, baby. It's a fabulous business.

And remember: Magazines are books.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Jack and "The Man"

For my son's last day of school, we took him out for lunch. He picked his favorite diner—J&S Hamburg, a downtown institution. This small, white, cinderblock building has big strawberry shakes and regulars who hang out and give my son quarters for the M&M dispenser. Jack's loved the place since he began having opinions on such matters, and as a mom, it's perfect. Nothing too fancy. People are charmed, vs. affronted, if a kid stands up and shouts "Hi! I'm Jack!" They let him spin on the stools, instead of shooing him off for scaredy-cat liability reasons.

But things are changing. For one, they just banned smoking. And secondly, the end times have arrived. The demolition next door is in full swing. Developers are razing a former auto dealership in order to build a four-story complex of apartments, offices and storefronts, including a new home for our beloved diner. J&S will be bulldozed, to make way for a parking lot.

We're collectively sad about this. "Can't we have any small buildings?" I ask, rhetorically.

After we pull in, Jack darts over to the construction zone, where a yellow scooper truck is biting a tangle of steel beams. Jack turns to me, and quotes SpongeBob:

"Smells like big business."

***

Inside, before we leave, the waitress congratulates Jack on "graduating" from kindergarten.

"I'm a first-grader now."

"How nice!" she says.

"Why can't we have any small buildings?" he asks her.

She thinks for a second, then gets this nonsequitor. "I know," she commiserates. "All the buildings are big." She assures him that the new J&S will be nice. Jack says he likes this one. They're at a standstill.

"But you can take that with you." He turns around and points to a black-and-white picture on the wall. It's a vintage photo of diner, maybe from the 1930s.

"Yes, we can," she says. "And we're taking the grill too."

"What else are you taking?" he asks.

"I'm not sure," she says.

"The plates?"

"I don't know," she says.

"The radio?"

"I don't know," she says.

"Everything that's detached?" he asks.

She blinked at him. "I don't know."

"But you are taking the picture," he says, clarifying the situation, content to nail down at least one fact in this ever-changing world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

One of Those Days: Walking on Broken Glass

Blogger Seth Godin has a lovely post today on the good-vibe environment. He should've visited my house this morning for the antithesis. It was one of those mornings, where everything's gone rotten, quickly and mercilessly, capped by my son tossing clothes across the hall, missing the doorway and hitting a large mirror, which we watched fall in slow motion, hitting a chandelier, and then everything shattered, with little shards raining down on the pile of bedding I'd pulled off at 3 a.m. when my son threw up in bed.

Lovely. So what did I do? After tending the immediate issue — get away from the glass, check for injuries — did I turn this into a teaching moment, demonstrating can-do spirit when things go awry? No. I felt overwhelmed. I nearly cried.

Godin asks in his post: "Who's in charge of the vibe at your place? " Well, duh. It's me. And, as a single parent, only me. And I totally abdicated this morning, which created vibe of chaos. This mess — and my reaction to it — could be traced back to one simple act: a late cup of coffee. It set off a chain reaction. I couldn't sleep, then was too deeply asleep to hear my son coughing, so I didn't wake in time to spare him (and the sheets), then we woke late, then I was rushing both of us, setting a disorganized and unruly vibe, the kind that leads to boys going a little wild and throwing things. And I was too tired to do anything but melt down, instead of hugging him and saying how happy I was that he wasn't hurt.

I know, bad parenting moments happen, and it's not the end of the world. But now it's time to pull it together and turn things around, to take charge of the vibe: throw out the glass, put in a good day's work, hug my boy and have some fun, and get us both to bed in time for a long night of sweet dreams.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dear Schools: Teach Our Children Well

Here's my boy, on his first day of kindergarten. Today's his last full day of kindergarten. Nothing says tempus fugit like children.

The clock also is ticking on Central Grade School, the historic brick elementary across the street where Jackson attends. Will it still be open in two years? Or, worst case, will the district raze it, pocketing millions for its primo land value, as other Michigan districts have done?

That's a good question. And we've only a few weeks till my district decides about closing three more schools.

Elementary schools are closing nationwide, and the reason isn't some muddy mix of societal trends and inflation and rising property costs. It's a simple matter of numbers. Enrollments are declining because there aren't as many school-age children as there were 10 years ago. Population is cyclical: Baby Boom, baby bust, mini-baby-boom, mini-baby-bust. And that's where we are now, a mini baby bust. In many communities, birth rates began declining by more than 25 percent in the mid-'90s. Add to the mix programs in many states that allow students to attend new charter schools on the public dime, and we've got empty classrooms across the nation. It's simple math.

Yes, it's a problem, and school districts are handling it by closing elementary after elementary. There are a number of issues here that affect all of us, whether we have kids or not, and I've written about many of them (see links below). But beyond those very important issues is something new that I'm concerned about-- the big picture of school-construction, nationwide.

School Deconstruction, Meet School Construction
In March I received a press release titled "Record School Construction," that began: "Dear Colleague, As you know, California's Proposition 1D passed on November 7, 2006 and authorized $10.4 billion in education construction in California. Similarly ambitious construction agendas are arising across the nation for Education." The release directs us to a new online catalog of firms that provide constructions services to school districts.

So there's that -- record construction -- and then there's a record number of schools closing.

So is the right question this: What the...?

What comes to mind right now is .... Journalism Rule No. 1: Follow the Money. Because this needs some explaining.

I realize in some cases, things need updating and populations shift, but none of that is happening on a record scale. What is happening is that as schools are shuttered, billions are going to construction and renovation. My district, which is closing in on shuttering its fourth, fifth and sixth elementaries in a few short years, has simultaneously undertaken massive renovations of two of the least populated elementary schools, stripping those schools to their bones and redoing them in high style. Why? Are we short of money, or are we not?

On top of that , billions of dollars were spent in the '90s to accommodate the mini-baby-boom that graduated several years ago. My own district built new junior and senior high schools. And today, to keep them filled, they're shifting elementary students (sixth-graders) up into junior high, creating even more empty classrooms in elementaries.

The thing I've heard no one mention is this: With all that mid- to late-90s construction, every district nationwide already could see that the mini-baby-boom was ending soon. Most if not all the kids who would populate these newly built junior and senior highs one day soon were already born--and there were definitely too few of them. What were school boards thinking when they asked for bonds and paid for bricks, foundations and new desks? Did they expect that 25 to 50 percent more children would just ... materialize?

The cost to folks in my district for those mid-'90s bond issues has been $270 a year on average. For five years worth of needed classroom expansion? Wouldn't Quonset huts been a better choice?

What it's looking like is that I'll be paying $8,100, all told, for this: Building unnecessary schools in farm fields, closing vibrant and historic neighborhood schools, subsidizing the local building trade, and, possibly, watching my son spend in hour commuting on a bus that's chugging $3-a-gallon fuel.

What does this teach our children?
Related Links: Two Essays on Central Grade School
—You can find a reprint of an essay on my neighborhood school at YourPlace. The story won first place in this online magazine's first essay contest, and I remain honored.
—For a look at the land-use and community implications of school closing, check out my essay at the Michigan Land Use Institute's Elm Street Writers Group, where I float some ideas for co-use of facilities.

##

Friday, June 1, 2007

Game On: Clan of the Cave Writers

Today begins a two-month novel-writing challenge with a writer friend, part of my endless quest for motivators that actually work. This latest offensive is prompted in part by reading Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art," a tough-love homage to creativity that sweeps away all our "yeah, but..." detractors and tells us to just sit down and do this thing.

Pressfield contends that we're programmed, genetically, against creative action. As cave folk, we either worked with the group, hunting and gathering, or died. Well, writing is an act of self that doesn't necessarily generate prehistoric berries, leg of pterodactyl or wooly mammoth fur -- and if you're not pulling your weight, you might get voted off the island. And then what? Writing also physically separates us from The Group. In cave times, being on your own meant imminent death. (I mean, what if you had the flu and a sabertooth tiger stumbled across you? Could you run fast enough? No, you could not.)

So our deep-down self resists, with all its got, anything that could separate us from the safety of the group, because apparently our genes can't tell time. (Don't be mad at yourself--you're just trying to stay alive.) And because we're so evolved, that resistance can get extremely sophisticated.

Beating our own self-immobilization is a matter of getting up every day and disabling resistance before it figures out what's going on. How? Just sit down and do this thing. Write. Rituals help ritualize this, and habituating writing lets your autopilot fight resistance so you don't have to (at least not as much). This is an unending battle, and you're going to need allies to cover your back, especially on weak days. If you don't take the offensive, every day, resistance will begin making its case. You'll want to spring clean, analyze your childhood, question your work, suffer incurable maladies, create relationship dramas and fiscal crises, all to prevent yourself from working. Sound familiar?

Yes! It does! Because I only know two writers who actually sit down and write their novels without a deadline, without kicking and screaming and having their lives fall to pieces. Two, god love 'em, out of scores and scores. That's all. (Maybe they need their own diarama?)

Thanks for the insight, Mr. Pressfield.I'm going to take a stab at sitting down every day with fiction for the next two months, and see if I can mud-wrestle my inner mini cave-me to the forest floor.

Check out "The War of Art" here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Unsubscribed!

A few months ago, at breakfast, my son pointed to page one in the daily paper and asked "is he hurt?" It was an AP photo from Iraq showing a car bombing, a man slumped over, dead. I lied and said he'd had an accident.

"The ambulance will be there soon," I said. My son was visibly relieved.

In the old days, newspapers policed themselves on the matter of corpses. Most simply didn't show them, the same way they didn't use the F word repeatedly as an adjective. But things change. I saw my first corpse in the local paper about 10 years ago, someone who'd died in a boating accident. Today, it's not at all uncommon. And my firetruck-loving son--who's got a built-in radar for emergency situations--always notices.

Last summer, he found some papers from September 12, 2001, and came running to ask what happened. "Bad guys," I said. He seemed to get it. These were burning buildings, after all. Not people. Recently, he found another front page and wanted to understand what those men were doing. They were Iraqis mourning, wailing painfully over the corpses right there in front of them, bodies half wrapped in white cotton, laying on a street curb.

Journalism rule no. 27: Don't make readers wince at the storytelling itself. Stories--the very real things that happen in this world-- may make readers wince and scream and cry and pass out because life can be a wretched, brutal, unmerciful thing, filled with as much misery and Guantanamo as mom's love and the Magic Kingdom. But storytelling, the device that conveys information, the photos and words, doesn't have to be cruel or flip or screaming in your face to get the point across. The story itself is enough.

My son didn't get it -- those bodies on the curb.

"Are they dead?" he asked.

"I think so," I said, thinking maybe I shouldn't shield him so much.

"But the ambulance will come and make them alive again," he said, decisively. It was not a question.

He believes so powerfully in the inevitability of rescue. That ambulances and firetrucks can--and will--fix everything. Even mortality. And it breaks my heart to know that one day, the world will reveal its truth: there's a terrible shortage of rescues and heroes.

One day he'll learn that. But not today.

*

Not so long ago, I began avoiding the daily paper, despite my obsession with Jumble and Sudoku. They'd sit for days on my snowy porch. Then I tossed them in a pile. Until one day I realized I was totally ignoring the news. I just wasn't doing it. And it wasn't just that my son chancing upon images of death and destruction was as inappropriate for a 5-year-old as stumbling across a Playboy or internet porn. It's that the news, right now, is just too much. The stories themselves hurt too much.

I called to unsubscribe a couple times but hung up out of total cognitive dissonance. How could a journalist unsubscribe? How could I leave a paper where I once, long long ago, was a reporter and editor? Well, it turns out that you just can. And finally, when the stack of unread papers reached 2 feet, I realized my indecision was making a mess, probably killing a whole aspen tree or something, and so I called, and I didn't hang up.

Now at breakfast we look at the morning sun or argue about how much cartoon-watching is healthy or look at the calendar and talk about all the things coming up--the birthday parties, vacations, picnics and parades.

It's liberating.

It's peaceful.

And life is beautiful, even if it's not. And that's okay. For now ...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Beyond the Tipping Point: Green Mac-n-Cheese

I was disproportionately overjoyed to find Kraft organic mac-n-cheese at the local grocery store recently, a clear sign that we've hit the tipping point in the go-green-go-organic race to the moon.

Now, I feel a little vulnerable here, outing myself, admitting I use boxed anything for dinner, but ... hey ... it happens. Even with those supermoms out there. At some point in the journey, we come to peace with the reality that we can do a lot, but we have our down days. The days when "what's for dinner?" is a tipping point into some sort of nuclear meltdown. Enter convenience foods.

Boxed mac-n-cheese give us a little break, now and then, from meal making. It's that simple. As with delivered pizza, it's a little like having a staff, if only for one meal. And now, with the advent of mass-produced organic boxed foods, mother's little helpers don't contain ten-syllable ingredients, cost $8 a serving, or take more than 12 minutes from start to finish. Hallelujah.

I know in some circuits, there's great debate about multinationals and organics. Yes, I'd prefer to be paying for locally made, organic, affordable convenience foods. But until that's available, I'd like to say thanks for all the foodmakers out there -- big and small, high and low -- who are helping us out with dinner and giving healthier foods, inch by inch, macaroni by macaroni.

Jack's Macs

Until this year, when my son encountered untampered-with macaroni and cheese at school (and liked it like that), we'd mix something (anything) into this childhood staple. Sometimes I'd hide things so he was getting vegetables without even knowing it. And usually I make homemade macaroni and cheese. Here's what we'd do:

Homemade: This is a no-bake version that's fairly quick and easy. Cook up several cups of macaroni. Any macaroni works, but our favorite is white spelt, which is usually only available at co-ops, and even then sporadically. (Rice macaroni seems to get a little soggy.) I douse each serving with a simple cheese sauce. Make a white sauce (2 T. butter, melted; stir in 2 T. flour until it's congealed; add 1 cup liquid (milk, broth) slowly, stirring as you go to eliminate lumps; toss in a cup or two of cheese (sharp cheddar seems to work best, but I use whatever's on hand.) For flour, use whatever works for you. We've used whole grain spelt flour, which has kind of a rustic autumn taste to it, and rice flour, which is really refined tasting (but doesn't store well, so don't do leftovers with it.)

Spinach-Tomato: This is the only kind of macaroni and cheese my son would eat for a year, between about 2-1/2 and 3-1/2. Just toss in (canned or fresh) tomatoes and (fresh) spinach. It's that simple. I always chopped the spinach into tiny slivers. For homemade, I'd mix everything together after the sauce/macaroni were ready, for boxed, just toss it all in at the end. There's enough heat there to warm the tomatoes and wilt the spinach. Grate some Parmesan on top if you like it.

Broccoli: If your child loves fresh broccoli (or cauliflower or asparagus), chop some up and toss it in. With homemade, I cook the broccoli in the cheese sauce. With boxed, I toss it in with the macaroni to cook. When my son was small, I chopped broccoli into tiny pieces, almost mincing it, but the pieces grew larger as he did.

Hiders: Best bets are onions, zucchini and summer squash. Cut them into pieces smaller than the macaroni, either cook in sauce (for homemade), with macaroni (boxed), or saute them separately until they're translucent. Be sure to peel the squashes so they can go undetected. Warning: Skip the onions if your child can detect them. These hiders also work well in spaghetti sauce (try finely finely sliced fresh spinach too).

Monday, May 7, 2007

Smallfish Clover: The Secret Lives of Boys


My dear friend, writer Heather Shaw, just launched a small cooperative press and is blogging her journey publishing "Smallfish Clover," a young adult novel about the adventures of an American boy who loses himself in a Peruvian market. It's a larger-than-life quest/adventure filled with street waifs, medicine girls, street theater and incredible writing.

I love how Heather gets kids and honors the epic worlds inside them. Here's a quote by Orson Scott Card from her web site, www.iamopress.com:

We forget, in our society, that adolescence, for males at least, is not the age of preparation-for-career or getting-an-education, even though that's what we compel them to do.

Adolescence is the age of heroism. The age of poetry. The age of great dreams and noble ideals. The age of sacrifice…

…They hunger for something great to do. When cynical liars get to them, men of this age can be talked into strapping bombs on their bodies and blowing themselves up.


Pre-order her book here. Keep up on her publishing adventures at SmallfishClover.typepad.com. And hats off to Heather for undertaking her own epic journey.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Boys rule, TV drools

A few weeks into kindergarten, my son casually informed me: "Girls are cool; boys are dumb."

This felt like a gut punch. "Where did you hear that?" I asked.

"I don't know. Maybe at school?"

"Well it's not true," I said. "Girls are cool, but boys are cool too -- way cool. You are definitely a cool kid. And you're all smart."

He looked at me and took this in. "Okay," he said, and zoomed off to crash some trucks.

I thought this kind of gender nonsense was as passe as moon boots and Nixon. I wonder why, in this lovely new millennium, this kind of thing ever became part of my son's frame of reference. Why, as he's entering kindergarten, did he have to get smacked with the notion that he's dumb because he's a boy? This is a child whose vocabulary doesn't even include the word dumb -- I'd never heard him say it. This is a child who's always felt empowered. At age two he proclaimed, "I am as big as the air!" And age three, he distilled democracy and the election process to its bottom line: "I am the boss of the country!"

And so I'd like to track down the parent of the child or children who said "boys are dumb," who afflicted my son by proxy, and give them the Kim Possible Kung-Fu treatment, in the same way I'd want to Kung-Fu someone who negligently infected my boy with a deadly virus. They caused my boy, at age five, to doubt his worth. To deflate. To consider for the first time that he's not as big as the air. And that is definitely not cool.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Let it snow II: Fire and ice

I was still sleeping the other morning when my boy, in his Thomas the Tank Engine jammies, crawled up next to me and stared out the window at the falling pre-dawn snow. "Mom?" he said. "A lot of people have died already. Right?"

I open my eyes and look at his still-sleepy face. "Right," I said.

He takes this in. I thought I should probably think of something to say, but what? I want to tell him we're immortal, that (to crib from Kurt Vonnegut) everything is beautiful and nothing hurts here on this planet. That it's a perpetually snowy, sleepy, jammied-up and cozy-with-mom place. I want to tell him not to think about these kinds of things, that it's forbidden until he's at least 21, or he'll be grounded.

"Why do you ask?" I finally say.

"There have been a lot of crashes and fires," he quickly replies.

"Yes," I say. "there have been."

He looks at me and smiles his 5-year-old smile. "But it's okay." And he tackles me.

Jack's crash-and-burn gear

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Let it snow ... please

Here's an essay from last year on snow shoveling, which hopefully will help remind January what season it is.

SHOVELING GAME

Winter’s first snow is a happy magic—shimmery flakes falling from the black sky, sparkly white covering up barren grass. Last year, when the first flurries descended from heaven, my 3-year-old son and assorted relatives fell over each other trying to get out and play. We scrambled for mittens. We threw snowballs, made a teetering snowman, stuck out our tongues for flakes. We fell backward into the powder and made angels. Later we went to bed, cozy against the cold, listening for snowplows, snug and exhilarated by winter’s white.

The next morning, the newspaper skidded onto the white-white-white sidewalk. Inside was a handwritten note: “Please shovel the walk.”

Oh.

That.

Each season has its magic. Each season also has its chores. Now, shoveling shouldn’t be difficult but I’d never actually done it in any meaningful or comprehensive way. It was as if I’d had a get-out-of-jail-free card: Someone else had always cleared the paths. Until now. So--still giddy with snow fever—my son, Jackson, and I headed to the store to buy shovels.

He zeroed in on a pint-sized orange model and was off, pushing it up and down the aisle, making snowplow noises as I stared at the grownup options. Scoop or shovel? Bent or straight handle? Metal or plastic edge? How hard could this be? “You’re going to need a metal edge with all the snow we get,” said a fellow shopper offered.

My son drove his shovel back and forth, unfazed by the choices. He gets it, I thought.

“Don’t forget pellets,” another shopper said. “You don’t want ice.”

I grabbed pellets and a sober gray model with a metal edge and, as my son snowplowed his orange shovel to the checkout, calculated just how much snow we really do get: something like twelve feet a year, give or take. Take the cubic weight (I guessed oh seven pounds) and multiply it by all the walkways and driveways, paths and porches. Well, the winter’s scary math equaled something like, oh, 25,000 pounds of snow, all for me and my shovel to push around.

That night, I parked the shovel on the porch and planned to call the neighbor kid first thing in the morning.

And that night, we got a ton of snow. My son is a boy who dreams of machinery—bucket trucks, front-end loaders, firetrucks. Useful machines, made to do useful things. That night he dreamed of his very own useful tool, his new orange shovel. He woke and sped down the stairs and pulled his boots on over his footie pajamas and told me to hurry please hurry.

“We have to shubbel,” he said urgently. I thought about it for a nanosecond.

“I have to drink coffee.”

“We have to shubbel.”

The universe was commanding him. And I thought, why not? I could go out on a blue-sky sun-bright morning and watch him shovel.

Jackson zigzagged his orange shovel down the drive, then looped back and completed his “racetrack.” He pulled his tricycle out of the garage and positioned himself on the track. As he pedaled, his tires lodged in snow. He pushed and on his pedals, inching forward on the thin track. “Here,” I said, setting my coffee down and grabbing my shovel. “I’ll make it bigger.”

I widened his road and he pedaled like mad, circling and circling, delirious as only toddlers on trikes can be. Then he got up and grabbed his shovel and said, “Come on mom.” He blazed more roads. And I followed. From the backyard to the front. Down the city sidewalk. Up half the neighbors’ walks in our downtown Traverse City block. He cut the trail and I widened it. Then he ran for his Radio Flyer tricycle, and as he pedaled around his mini-autobahn, I sprinkled pellets so ice wouldn’t build up. The drive was nearly clear, so I swiped it a few times to finish up.

The next day we did the same thing. And the next. I never got around to calling the neighbor kid. Day after day, week after week, shoveling became part of our winter rhythms. I woke up happy about going outside into the freezing sunrise with my hot coffee, squinting at the winter dawn. There was something Zen-serene about the pure motions of scraping and pushing, the mindless repetitive movement. Back and forth, tiny diamonds. A red tricycle in snow.

We’d push the snow into a pile that became Jackson’s igloo, with walls and windows, and he’d invite me in for pretend pancakes. We raced our shovels down sidewalks to see who was fastest. We’d throw snowballs at icicles. But mostly we were quiet in the morning, clearing the way together.
As those twelve feet of snow piled up—to my knees, to my waist, above Jackson’s head—the paths became more and more distinct. Soon they were the only passageway from home to the world, our only way out.

And one winter morning, the newspaper skidded up the walk. Inside was a handwritten note: “Nice job on the shoveling.”

Exhale

School starts back up tomorrow and tonight, my boy just couldn't get to sleep. For two hours, he tossed and turned, calling me upstairs to tell me he'd found a solution for the Christmas tree (take it to the chipper truck behind the library tomorrow at 3:30...???), asking for a drink, wanting me to cuddle him. So I did. We sang some songs, which only made things worse--he got up and started dancing in Vogue-like poses to the old Christmas tune, "Hey, Ho, Nobody Home."

"The cough syrup must be keeping you awake," I said. "Lay down. Just relax. Close your eyes."

He tried. He really did.

"I know," he said, finally. "I'll just lay here and breathe everything out of me. Except my name."