Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's Not About The Food

When I was younger I definitely thought Thanksgiving was about the food. Oh, and time off from school. Actually, it wasn’t all about the food until we were teenagers—at least that’s the way I remember it. My parents are immigrants so Thanksgiving was a very “American” holiday, and my mom wasn’t keen on turkey, so I don’t recall us doing the whole feast thing until we were teenagers and we kids said We want turkey! We still didn’t do the sweet potato and stuffing thing—I remember rice, mushrooms, salad, and rolls. We also didn’t do the whole extended family thing because there wasn’t much family in the States. My mom’s brother and sister immigrated, too, but they probably viewed Thanksgiving much the same way as my mom did. This is all conjecture on my part, but the point is, Thanksgiving became more about traditional foods after I got together with Mark. His relatives crossed the Wild West in covered wagons, so I picture his great-great grandfather tracking down wild turkey with a blunderbuss. It didn’t take long for me to acquire a taste for the traditional Thanksgiving fixin’s (I love stuffing!)and soon we were in the rotation for hosting the meal. And it became about the food—having all the traditional side dishes and condiments and an array of homemade pies and breads and a nicely set table. And yeah, as for most women, it became about the stress, too. Mark’s been saying for years that it’s not about the food (well, except for pumpkin pie—there has to be a pumpkin pie)—it’s about the people. He says it’s about seeing people and just hanging out. Now, I could gripe that that’s because he doesn’t do the shopping or the cooking, but that would be wrong as well as false. He’s actually a great cook (and knows how to make a mean gravy). I could, however, legitimately grumble that it’s because he’s a guy and he doesn’t get the whole stress-for-success aspect of hosting Thanksgiving, but what does that say about me? And since I don’t like to face it when he’s right and I’m wrong, I avoid swimming in those waters. Once I get in I have to admit the Undertow of Truths is just too strong. But I did dip a toe into those waters this year. I cut back on the enormity of the food prep (less dishes, less variety, no homemade bread) and asked other people to bring things. Then I tried to go with the flow and enjoy our guests. Dinner was over before 5:00, but a lot of people hung around until after 9:00, and I hung out with them, just talking and catching up instead of being a maniac hostess trying to clean up. When it was all over, I had to admit that it was very enjoyable and that Mark was right—it really is about the people, not the food. Well, unless stuff’s inedible, and then it’s definitely about the food. It’s also no joke that people can also ruin a Thanksgiving—I’ve experienced that, too. But that’s a separate issue—one that requires a team of psychologists and the couch department of a Furniture Depot. Anyway, if the tradition of the meal is what motivates people to travel long distances to get together, that’s fine. But when hosting the meal starts overshadowing the enjoyment of the company, that’s when it’s good to take a step back and figure out why you’re going through all this effort. Enough musings for now. Here’s hoping you had a nice time with family and / or friends, and that there was enough pie, and that the potatoes weren’t burned. See you next week!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Other Shoe

I’ve been promising information about The Running Dream. It should be something I’m dying to talk about, and in some ways it is, but in bigger ways I find myself shying away from it. I don’t even like to summarize what it’s about because the premise sounds so…tortured? It’s not tortured. It’s an uplifting story. I swear! But even mentioning that it’s an uplifting story sounds contrived to me. Like I set out to write some epic tale that will bring you to tears then lift your soul to new, profound heights. Please. I’m not nearly so clever. The only effect I can really gauge is the one a story or character or situation has on me, and the only way I can sustain the energy it takes to complete a novel is if that effect on me is substantial. The main character in The Running Dream is named Jessica Carlisle. She is not me. She wasn’t based, even remotely on me. I ran track in high school, and I ran “Jessica’s race” – the 400 meter – but that is because authors write what they know. I can describe that race with authenticity because I ran it, and remember the pain of the last stretch quite well. But this book was also never a story about running to me. I didn’t set out to write a “sports book.” Running was intended as the vehicle used to present a larger concept. It was like the train that moved me from the depot to my destination. The real story takes place inside the train as it rumbles along the track. But it’s true that the title of the book leads you to believe it’s about running. The track shoes on the cover also give that impression, as does the little detail that the main character is, oh, a track star. So I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that people assume this is a book about running – it’s completely logical. But it leaves me wanting to explain that it’s not actually a book about running, which then gets me describing a story that sounds so…tortured. Which it’s not! It’s uplifting! I swear! Authors are supposed to talk their work up. It’s actually a big part of our job. But if there’s one profession I would never choose for myself, it’s sales. I’d rather shovel dirt for a living. Way. So I’m not going to trumpet the merits of The Running Dream (or any of my other epic tales that will bring you to tears then lift your soul to new, profound heights). But I will tell you that the journey through Jessica’s life had a huge, emotional effect on me, and that during this past week promotional efforts by other people have brought some very strange coincidences to light. Most notably, my track shoes. Let me back up a second and explain that the cover for The Running Dream was presented to me as a finished design. There were several to choose from, but to me, my husband, and my editor, the one that became the jacket was hands down our favorite. It wasn’t the look of the shoes, it was the look and feel of the entire design. I immediately loved it. It wasn’t until this week when there was a request for a picture of my track shoes and I unearthed them from a box in the bowels of my garage that I realized how uncannily like the shoes on the cover they were. It was actually kind of spooky. For a moment I felt like I could have been Jessica. Not her as a person, but that what had happened to her could have happened to me. Because, really, it could happen to any of us. And even though I’d explored this as Jessica when I wrote the story, it made me wonder what life would have been like—how Wendelin would have coped—if it had happened to her. Or, you know, me. And as I sat on the floor in my garage, turning over my petrified track shoes in my hand, I had a fleeting, sort of out-of-body thought that a book like The Running Dream would have helped me through it. As small as a book would be in the enormity of such a crisis, a story like The Running Dream is a reminder that there’s light at the end of our dark tunnels. And light is what we move toward. It’s what keeps us going. Step by step. Thinking all this also made me recognize how grateful I am that—despite the profound effect the writing and research has had on me—I’ve only had to “live” this crisis through Jessica—not live it in real life. So no. Even though Jessica and I ran the same race, even though the shoes on the jacket look very much like my racing shoes, Jessica is not me. She’s just someone who’s run through my life and taken with her a piece of my heart.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Risky Whippet Christmas

If you’re tuning in this week to find out about The Running Dream, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve got something else on my mind. Christmas cards. Or, really, holiday pictures and the long standing tradition of tension and tears that invariably accompany the taking thereof. It’s in similar territory as the Christmas tree, which is a romanticized icon disguising its true identity—a big bushy pine tree that takes over a great area of your house and sheds needles and demands water and, on occasion, harbors bats. Yes bats. (Or, if you’re lucky, simply ladybugs.) Yes, the Christmas tree fools you into believing it’s a lovely, fragrant presence, so you return to that memory each year. And when it’s standing and all decorated you do forget that between the time you loaded it in (or on) the van and the time you stood back to admire it fully trimmed, there was a lot of yelling and lifting and turning and missing the hole in the stand and spilling water and crookedness. Much, much discussion of crookedness. Oh. And the hiding of the Bald Spot. Honestly. Who picked this tree? But back to the card, which, of course precedes the tree, and, if you’re going for a family picture it takes some doing and planning and, in my case, convincing males that shorts don’t really go with the theme this year. Add to that the complication of dogs and you have a pretty good idea of how I spent my morning. We do have some nice Christmas pictures of our sons and the dogs, but all six of us? It’s never really worked out. There’s lots of advice throwing regarding getting the dogs to behave or look in a certain direction, and in the past we’ve just said, Forget the dogs, and shooed them away to chase down lizards, or avocados, or whatever. But this year the dogs (Bongo and Jazz, our whippets) were a must. Why? Because we’ve finished our “family band” EP and the name we’re using is “Risky Whippet,” and since we’re mailing EPs out in our Christmas card and there’s a picture of one of the dogs (Bongo, if you must know) on the cover, it will make a lot more sense to the recipients if there’s some connection between the EP and the person sending the card. It does take a little clarification, too, because most people don’t know that we have a band. It’s not something we really talk about outside the sphere of people who already know about it. For one thing, it sounds ridiculous. Or people think it’s cute. You play in a band with your kids? (Or, gag, parents?) Or they go, Oh, you’re like the Partridge Family, how cute! And we’re like, Uh, maybe the Partridge Family meets AC/DC? Anyway, it’s loud and it’s rock and who knows if anyone’s gonna like it, but Merry Christmas anyway! But back to the point: The picture had to make sense with the EP, which meant the dogs had to be in it. So I hauled all this Christmas stuff and music stuff out on the deck, slapped on Santa hats (and jingle bell collars) and the 5 males (3 human, 2 furry) had to put up with my little vision. Well, make that 6 because Mark’s (saintly) dad came over and snapped the pix, trying to get us all to a) look at the camera and b) smile. It was a little like a tree with a bat and a bald spot, but that’s okay. We’ve got 59 outtakes (one of which I’ve posted here) and one that’ll go on the card. And when we stumble upon it years from now we won’t remember that the dogs tore up the couch and wanted to hide underneath it, or that the sun was too bright and everybody had way too much advice. We’ll just point and say, Hey! That was our Risky Whippet Christmas, remember that? The rest is just family tradition.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mary-Mary, Never Contrary

Today was the Ing NYC Marathon and I’m proud to report that a former student of mine crossed her first marathon finish line. Good for you, Mary-Mary! Her name’s actually just Mary, but we call her Mary-Mary because she babysat the boys when they were little, and my younger son called her that. He did not like us to leave him with babysitters (even though it was usually just so Mark and I could practice with our band in our detached garage), but Mary broke through to him and became his “Mary-Mary.” She was, for the record, never even a little contrary. When Mark and I ran the NYC Marathon three years ago for Exercise the Right to Read, Mary-Mary joined a small group of us at a restaurant on Park Avenue, where I rejuvenated my exhausted body with a bowl of soup. I wish I could have been there for her today. Crossing your first marathon finish line really does make you feel like you can do anything—at least that’s what I’m hoping she’s feeling tonight. Anthony Edwards (who played Mr. Loski in Flipped) also ran NYC today as a vehicle to raise funds for his charity, Shoe4Africa. Mark and I met him for the first time when Flipped was being filmed in Michigan, and since I happened to be wearing my San Francisco marathon shirt, the conversation turned to running pretty quickly. He was fairly new to the sport and had definitely been bitten by the running bug. He’d do a take for a scene for the movie, then come over to us on the sidelines and talk more about running. Then he’d go back and do another take, then return to talk running. It was fun to have such an immediate bond with him. So congrats to Tony too! And Shalane Flanagan…wow! So enough about running, right? What about Night of Skulls? Well, I’m very happy to report that as of this morning it is “done” and submitted to Nancy. It’s 289 pages of headlong adventure woven through the bony fingers of Death. Plus, handing out nicknames like El Zarape, Ruby-Red, the Oversized Eggplant, Shovel Man, Teddy Bear, and the Vampire, Sammy is…well, Sammy! And it was great to spend more time with Billy Pratt. (I love that boy!) So I’m *big sigh of relief* really happy with the way it all turned out, and that it’s turned in. And I’ve got to tell you…I am SO looking forward to NOT sitting at this desk. I have so much to catch up on, and as long as it requires me to stand, stretch, lift, or move, I am looking forward to it. So until next week (when I hope to finally share some info on The Running Dream and the January book tour), thanks for checking in. I’m glad you do!