Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tagline, I'm It

The perfect tagline for a counterculture skate shop in France

Who are you?  If you had to make up a T-shirt that you wore every day to advertise your identity to everyone, what would it say besides your name?  In other words, when people think of you they would go, “Oh yeah, isn’t she the one who X?”

Richard M. Nixon was known by “Tricky Dicky.”  Taco Bell tells us to “Think Outside The Bun.”  Or there’s the guy who wears a nametag every day (even has it tattooed on his chest) -- “Hello, my name is Scott” -- and thinks we all should wear one, too.  What kind of label would you put on yourself?  What would your brand be?

Right now I’m trying to brand myself and I just can’t figure out how to sum me up in so few words.  For those who aren’t steeped in the parlance of the contemporary writer’s life, not only do we have to try to write words that might end up on some bestsellers list, we have to figure out how we’re going to market ourselves.  We have to create an “online presence” (Hello?  Friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, subscribe to the blog, and the like).

Writers need to come up with a pithy slogan that defines who we are and what we do.  I had thought I’d try something snappy like “Stephen King, mega-bestselling author,” or “Beyoncé, the most beautiful woman in the world,” but those seemed to be taken already. 

I need to come up with a “tagline” – a phrase that says something essential about who I am, what makes me special, and why the world should care.  It clues you in to my audience.  It should raise interest in me or make someone say, “Hey, that sounds like me, too!”  It’s the end of my 30-second elevator pitch.

But I’m stumped because I started writing before I started reading the billion blog sites telling me I needed a tagline.  Instead of targeting a specific topic or audience, my writing is a bit all over the place – travel, family, books, gardening, mid-life.  I’m not yet an expert selling one special set of skills to a market.  My interests range from rhetoric (yeah, I studied Greek and Aristotle for years), to country music, to American art pottery, and France, and, oh, and writing and taking pictures.  For the record, I wasn’t good at choosing a college major either.  At midlife I’m at the point of reinvention, so I’m still changing.  One suggestion offered to me was “Tomorrow it might be different.”  At the top of my blog, you’ll see the line “Traveling through the world, the second half of my life, and my own mind.”  Does that really cover all the bases?  Is it as catchy as the nametag guy?

Socrates was very forward thinking when he told us “The unexamined life was not worth living.”  He totally was predicting the internet and modern marketing when even the most lowly of us need a short bio we can spurt out at the drop of a hat and a flexible tagline that we can eventually stamp on coffee mugs and websites and spread like the “wave” at a baseball game.  So I’ve been sitting here trying to remember every detail of my life and all my credentials all the way back to grade school to figure out what to emphasize, what I’m selling (not in that crass “here’s my Etsy site” way).

Maybe I just need to become a writer of historical vampire romance novels.  I could have a killer tagline like “Julie Farrar – Are you ready to take a bite out of life?”  That certainly would give me a laser focus.

When I was a university professor it was so easy to say to people, “I’m an associate professor and director of freshman composition programs.  I do research in theories of argumentation and how we reason together about values in public discourse.”  However, life isn’t so clearly defined anymore.

Even if I didn’t have to do this in connection to my writing life, it’s a fabulous exercise.  Like the many life-improvement gurus who tell you to develop a personal mission statement, this bio and tagline exercise encourages me to make a choice where to channel my energy and attention.  There’s not enough time in a day to follow every random interest that catches my eye. I’m pulling my hair out in the process, but I like the idea of bringing more discipline to my practice and to my day instead of constantly going, “Ooo, squirrel!”

So as I move forward with this writing thing I’m asking myself:  Who am I?  What do I do?  What’s it to you, the reader?

My assignment:  I have to write a 200-word biography for my blog I can spit out in those awkward moments when someone asks, “What do you do/write?”  Then I have to tag myself.

I’m open for suggestions.  Feel free to tell me, based on your limited knowledge from reading my posts over time, what details or characteristics you think I should include in my bio.  How would you tag me (and remember that the Beyoncé one, unfortunately, is taken)?  Who do you think I am? With that done, I’ll be so ready to start promoting when the book I haven’t written yet appears on the bestseller lists and NPR and Charlie Rose call me for interviews.

And if you yourself solved your own tagline problem, please tell me how you worked it out.

If you have any ideas that I could throw into the mix I’d appreciate them all.  Even if you don’t, share in the comments box your short bio and what you think would be your own fantastic tagline that you could stamp on a coffee mug or website if the need arose.  I want to know who you are.

My favorite boulangerie in Dijon has a good tagline: The taste of tradition

I’m so far behind on telling you about great stuff I read on the internet.  I’ll keep it short and sweet this time:

Nadine Galinsky Feldman always has posts to make you think.  This week she told us all to “woman up. “Can you feel it?” she says.  “It feels as though there is a new wave of feminism rising.”  Read about what it means to “woman up” here.

On Brevity's Non-Fiction Blog Dinty Moore continues to protect the border in the skirmish between Fiction-Land and NonFiction-Land.  “To knowingly invent, in my view,” he argues, “is to cross that line entirely, and suddenly you are standing in Fiction-Land, even if only a few feet in.”  His argument could hold for crossing other kinds of borders in life.  Go here to read and think about it.

Author Samuel Park tells writers to take care of their emotional health on Anne R. Allen’s blog.  His 8 tips are good even for non-writers.  I especially like the one “Use Up Your Brain Cells.”  When we haven’t done the work we should be doing (e.g., writing every day) that allows worry and frustration to slide in.  When you do what you should be doing, “the world feels terrific.”

Happy reading!  Happy writing! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can I Borrow Some Butt Glue, Please?

This is what the inside of my mind looks like.  Is it no wonder I have trouble starting
and then completing projects, writing or otherwise?

This might sound like a broken record after two posts on the subject in a week (broken record - when will we reach the point when that metaphor becomes completely incomprehensible - after my children have children?), but my weekend was filled with more inspirational awesomeness as well as some good, old-fashioned butt-kicking of the necessary kind.

I spent the weekend at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference.  It was two and a half days of trading business cards, repeating a million times “What are you working on?” and trying to scribble every bit of fabulous writing advice as my hand cramped like Captain Hook’s claw.  Those of us in the audience hoped every session that the über-successful writer/speaker would hand us the secret to making our writing come easily and brilliantly so that the first agent we approached was sure we had a book that would sell a million copies and become a movie starring George Clooney.

They kept telling us in many ways that we had to spread glue on our chair every day and stay there until we accomplished something.  Maybe I need to try a different conference.  That doesn’t sound like some “magic wand” answer.  Maybe I need to follow the right person on Twitter who will, in a surprise move, direct message me with that writing success secret I failed to hear at the MWG Conference.

Maybe I’m just doing what Christina Katz (aka, The Writer Mama) called “living an imaginary writing life.”  Reading about writing, talking about writing, declaring I want to be a writer but not really finishing anything.  “Be projected oriented,” she told us.  Writing more and more builds writing momentum and focuses my “sweet spot.”  All of that hungrily taking in what other authors say about their writing habits or their strategies for building character or their process of finding an agent aren’t really transferable.  We can’t emulate another’s path, she warned all of us novices.

The essential question we have to ask ourselves:  What are the things I want to write about before I’m done?  Katz is all about having a million ideas, but making them distinct and then making choices.  Writers tend to exist in an abstract realm.  We see visions of where we want to be.  Our heads swirl with other worlds, a thousand great ideas, the perfect final lines, entire biographies of characters we haven’t even plugged into stories yet.  We get bogged down in all that “potential” and become too overwhelmed sometimes to even move forward in any significant fashion.  (What?  Not you?  Never?  It’s only me that falls into that “great idea coma” on a regular basis?)

Katz has a straightforward response to that swirling cloud of stuff that gums up the cogs in the writing wheel.  Just ask yourself “What can I do next week?”

It reminds of me the story Anne Lamott (you remember her, don’t you?) told in her fabulous guide to writing and life, Bird By Bird.  Her brother had a school report on birds that he had not touched in the three months since it had been assigned.  On the night before it was due he was paralyzed by the amount of work he had to complete.  Their father put an arm around her brother’s shoulder and advised him, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

What can I do next week?  Pick a project and just get to it.  Put some butt glue on my chair and focus, first for one paragraph, then one page, then two.

A writing life is really not so different from any other life.  We writers may spend a little more time in total isolation, staring into space and talking to ourselves, but whether we decide to train for a marathon or change a career or clean the basement, we have to focus on what is in front of us.  Pick one thing, one project.  Set a frame of reference for measuring progress, and then understand that we have to work toward it in increments.

We can’t write a book in one day.  We can’t be qualified to run a marathon the first day we lace on a pair of athletic shoes.  This lesson seems almost too obvious.  But why is it so hard for me to see, not just in writing but in every other area of my life?  Probably I give too much time to visualizing how I want that project to look when it’s completed.  It’s so complex and perfect and awe-inspiring that I’m afraid to even begin the process.  The process can’t possibly be as perfect as the project fully formed in my mind.

However, this weekend Christina Katz had immense tolerance for this one novice writer who asked questions incessantly as if she might hit on the magic one whose answer would reveal all.  And because Katz had a marvelous blend of patience and well-placed butt-kicking I decided to write one page today rather than collapse in a useless heap because I couldn’t write an entire book in 24 hours.

It’s better to accomplish something than be perfect.  I can always revise after I have pages in hand.  Lesson learned.  I better get in a large supply of glue.

Are you someone who has that enviable gene that lets you focus until something is done?  What strategies to you have when faced with large projects or distant goals so you can make progress?  Or have you always been the kid up at midnight trying to make the poster of all the natural resources found in each state in South America, with accompanying data legends and sources (be honest; I know I’m not the only one)? Share in the comments box your fears or your wisdom of just getting it done, whatever “it” is.

This is me with the so-patient Christina Katz.  You can't see it in the picture,
but she's in the process of kicking me in the rear.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Celebrate International World Book Day!

Molière at Place du Theatre in Chalon-sur-Saone

23 April is a symbolic date for world literature for on this date in 1616, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.  

Today is International World Book and Copyright Day.  I’ll celebrate by going to my local independent bookstore to pick up the memoir Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, and catch up on my reading today.

Some cities may also be celebrating this special day with a World Book Night.  For this, bookstores, libraries, restaurants, and other groups are giving away books from a list of thirty titles.  You can go here to see what books are receiving that honor this year.  Google “world book night” and your city to see how it might be celebrating.  Independent bookstores in my town have put out a call for a “read mob” (like a flash mob, but with less dancing and more standing there and reading in a large mass).  Alas, I can’t make it because of more physical therapy for my back and shoulder.

So pick up a book and read today.  Then come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you about my weekend spent surrounded by book people at the annual Missouri Writers Guild Conference.  It was filled with the words of inspiring writers like Claire Cook (author of Must Love Dogs) and Christina Katz (The Writer Mama).

Now go read!

Wouldn't it be great if every town in America had an Edith Wharton Ave. or Mark Twain Blvd.?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Keith Urban - A Lot Of Nashville Nirvana, Pt. 2

Keith Urban takes time to talk to his fans after a show

Last week I made another pilgrimage to my Mecca – Nashville.  I’m a huge fan of country music and swooned over Conway Twitty’s “Hello, Darlin’” way back when.  But this particular visit was to worship at the feet of my guitar god, Keith Urban.

As I told you in my last post, I traveled there for the All For The Hall concert to benefit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  Keith Urban and Vince Gill hosted the show and invited a whole passel of their music-making friends to raise money in support of programs the CMHOF takes to the community.  But let’s be honest, the #1 reason I traveled there was for this:
 While part of this trip allowed me to bow at the altar of books and filled my word-loving soul, going to a Keith Urban concert is like a spiritual cleanse, an emotional release.  He’s a man who was born to entertain; he was born to play guitar.  Three hours in the front row at one of his concerts watching him follow his passion can be as reinvigorating for his fans as a weekend on the beach.  He anoints you with his unmitigated joy in making music in communion with the crowd.

Despite his country music awards, Australian music awards, and Grammy Awards he continues to bring his personal warmth and enthusiasm to as many people in as many ways as he can.  After concerts he’s gone out to the parking lot of arenas to play a short set for the stragglers who haven’t made it to their cars.  He’s played free shows in shopping malls and train stations even though he could just spend his time filling arenas.  At every show he wades into the crowd to play in the most up close and personal way he can.  He invites audience members onstage for singing contests or just for a hug.

What comes through in every performance is his sense of immense gratitude that he is allowed to play his music for us every day.  The road to success was filled with hairpin turns.  After all, who would assume that when a young boy in Queensland, AU says he wants to become a country music star in Nashville that it’s a slam-dunk?  People on both sides of the ocean thought he was insane.  Without a plan B, though, he kept writing and playing until finally people heard what he wanted to say musically.  In this new American Idol culture, we forget the struggling artist still exists.  He kept chipping away at Music City for almost 15 years before he had a hit record.

He shows that gratitude in so many ways.  On the morning of the AFTH show his fan club hosted a free breakfast for the members who had bought tickets to the concert.  The 300 or so who managed to make it there in the early hours of the morning assumed Keith would show up to thanks us for supporting the CMHOF, perhaps sing one song before heading off to rehearsal.  However, after the first song, he sang another, and another, and another.  And he asked who had come the farthest to the show because his fans actually cross state lines and national borders to see his shows.  A woman called out that she had come from Finland.  Finland, Indiana we found out.  And he sang requests.  And he sang songs about being an Ed McMahon Sweepstakes winner he had written before he had won the music lottery himself.  His “thank you” lasted almost an hour.

Up close and personal at his fan club appreciation breakfast
The AFTH concert put me somewhere north of four dozen Keith shows since I started following him.  For his fans, “following him” is a literal act, not a metaphorical one.  My concert count is small potatoes compared to the woman next to me at the stage that night.  She was on her 98th show.  The farthest I’ve gone to see him perform is a small club in Birmingham, England.  I know fans who’ve traveled to his shows in his home country of Australia.  When people ask why I go so often, they inevitably follow it up with, “Isn’t it the same show every time?”  No one ever asks me “Why do you go to church every week?  Isn’t the service always the same?”  No one says, “If you’ve heard Beethoven’s 5th once, why listen again?” or “Van Gogh’s ’Starry Night’ hasn’t changed.  Why go to the museum again?”  Or “Why read To Kill a Mockingbird again?”

Most of us chug along through our days surrounded by people giving half-hearted efforts, perhaps doing jobs that make us just count the hours until 5 o’clock.  The atmosphere is filled with cynicism or competition.  We might feel stuck.  We’re not even sure what we want to do.  If I feel like that, a trip to a bookstore, or a writing conference, or a Keith show is exactly what I need.  They are living pictures of what persistence and a dream can achieve.  When I’ve lost ardor for my own path, I want to go someplace where I can soak up the intensity of someone who might be living this philosophy:

When I surround myself with excellence and passion, even if just for a couple of hours I want to dress myself in that feeling and wear it for a week.  I want to create.  I want to do something with a lasting impact, even if it were only as mundane as reorganizing cabinets so that life in my kitchen works so much more efficiently.  I want to pursue a goal and take it as far as I can.  Yes, the feeling may fade in a few days, but that just gives me an excuse to look for the next model for living my best life.  Or I can just crank up some Keith Urban music and dance around until everything that drags me down has been pushed to the back and I’m ready to move forward to something great.

What do you want to have passion about?  What do you do to pump it up when you feel it fading?  Get us excited about something in the comments box.  Let us know what drives you and brings out your creativity.  How do you get back in the game when life has just been dragging you down?

"Put You In A Song" at the All For The Hall breakfast concert

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Lot of Nashville Nirvana (Pt. 1) -- Books, Yes Books

My favorite town, Nashville -- the street of dreams, Lower Broadway

Country music and books.  Pretty much a perfect kind of week for me when I get both on the same day in my favorite town – NashVegas.

Last week I was in Nashville for the third All For The Hall concert.  It’s a fundraiser for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  Two Nashville guitar gods – Keith Urban and Vince Gill – began the series of concerts, pulling in the best of country music both old and new to make a lot of music and raise a lot of money for the repository of country music history.  I was there for the first two and plan to be at every one, front row, until they decide to stop.

But first let’s talk books.

Recently Nashville upped the independent bookstore ante when Parnassus Books opened on Hillsboro Pike.  Author Ann Patchett and veteran of the publishing world, Karen Hayes, decided to buck the decline of independent bookstores by opening one of their own after Borders went under and a town of that size was left with only one national chain store and some used book places.  So of course I had to do my part to support their endeavor by spending a small fortune.

I got lucky on that trip, though.  I showed up on the day they inaugurated a conversation series with local luminaries talking about books they love.  The place was packed to the gills with people there to talk about the written word and hear what the mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, had been reading.  I love the written word.  I love reading it and I love writing it.  I want to smell the binding and the pages.  I want to scribble my comments in the margins to create a dialogue with the author.  With a book I commune with the past and contemplate the future.


At the store I was surrounded by so many great books I needed to read.  Over here the recommended new fiction.  Over there tables of non-fiction I hadn’t read.  A special display for poetry.  If I had won the half-billion dollar lottery prize the previous week I could have used a wagon to haul all my book purchases to the car.  Since I didn’t and I still had a stack of books at home waiting to be read, I but the brakes on and bought only two: an essay collection I knew nothing about but loved the title, When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, and a novel that got great reviews, The Song of Achilles by first-time author Madeline Miller.

Patchett herself walked in as I was paying for my purchases.  She stood behind a table stacked with books, giving recommendations in abundance to customers seeking her guidance.  If I had not already been so drunk on books I would have done something profound like demonstrate insights I had gained after reading her new memoir-ette, the Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing And Life.  When she wrote, “I’ve come to realize that I write the book I want to read, the one I can’t find anywhere” I nodded in agreement because I, too, am writing to create the small stories I don’t see very often.  I should have told her that when she talked about a willingness to be bored at the computer instead of giving in to distractions, it was a kick in the pants I needed to persevere because too often if I’m bored while writing I take it as a sign to give up.  The point, she declares, is that you keep writing until you’re past boredom.

Oh no, it didn’t occur to me to talk to her, writer to writer.  In that room, surrounded by a couple thousand linear feet of books all I could do was tell her how much I loved her store and how much I enjoyed the afternoon listening to her mayor talk about fascinating books I hadn’t yet read (but I have the list and will add them to my TBR pile).  I congratulated her on stepping in to the literary void and taking the chance on the dying animal, an independent bookstore.  I told her I’d be back.

And then instead of doing the logical thing of grabbing the nearest copy of Bel Canto and asking her to sign it, I did a very Nashvillean thing.  I grabbed the Parnassus Hatch Show Print I had just bought to add to my collection and stuck it out for her signature.  What?  You don’t know Hatch Show Print?  It’s a Nashville – and American – institution that puts words on paper the same way Gutenberg did with the first press.  Instead of talking about writing, we had a serious discussion of where to put her autograph so as not to destroy the symmetry and art of the poster.  She also added the date.


As I walked back to my car I realized I had blown the chance to start a conversation that would give Patchett an opening to say something immensely wise that was original and directed specifically at me, writer to writer.  I had been so in a trance from breathing in the aroma of the pages and leather bindings and dreaming of finding my name on a similar spine facing outward to a reader one day that I had come away only with a bag of more books I don’t have time to read and her clear signature in the white margins of my Hatch print.

Sometimes when I’ve gotten all fangurl and wanted to talk to a singer after a performance or stand in line for an autograph at a book signing or wait to talk to some other notable person, I’ve had some people say (usually while waiting impatiently for me), “Why bother?  They don’t care.  They’re not going to remember you.”  But I know that I myself don’t get tired of hearing someone say they appreciated something I put my heart and soul into, whether an apple pie or a piece of writing.  And I harbor a desire to connect, even for a moment, with those that inspire me to pursue my own interests.

An art like writing is almost completely about reaching out to make a connection.  Yes, I may have been forgotten by Patchett before I left the parking lot, but it was a perfect and perfectly energizing moment.  It engaged my passion.  That’s never a wasted moment.  Nelson Mandela said, “There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”  No, nothing penetrating or heart-stirring happened in an afternoon at a bookstore in Nashville.  However, it’s often those small and random encounters with what drives you that can encourage movement onward to something bigger instead of sitting still.

I came home from Nashville and set to writing again.  Even if I temporarily bore myself.  I want to be on the bookshelf of Patchett’s store and talk with her engaged Nashvilleans.  And perhaps have another chance at a conversation, writer to writer, that I missed.

Watch what goes in to making a Hatch Print


Do you have a favorite bookstore? What makes it so special?  Have you had an inspiring encounter with a place or person that spurred you in your passions?  Or did you have an opportunity and blow it?  Inspire us all with your story in the comments box.

Come back on Wednesday and we’ll talk Nashville and music.   

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who's The Worst Enemy Of Women?

4/13/12-worst enemy1
Modern art or objectification of women?

After three days of traveling, I returned home with a two-day migraine, plus had more trigger point injections for residual muscle spasms from my surgery.  All that made it impossible to complete the blog post I had started for today.  I’ll tell you all about Nashville on Monday.

Meanwhile I want to leave you with an op-ed piece I found as I caught up with this week’s news.  Actress/activist Ashley Judd is writing in response to comments made about a photo in which she looked “puffy-faced.”  By now she had become practically immune to nasty comments about her appearance, but she said that even her husband was outraged by all the judgments that appeared.  She decided that if she (who had a platform) didn’t speak up about the objectification of women then who would:

“The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”
read the rest of her statement here

One of the most interesting parts of her analysis of this situation is that women are just as guilty as men.  They judge each other just as harshly as any gossip rag with a paparazzi shot of a female celebrity leaving the grocery store on a Monday morning.

I’m not judgment-free.  I do have a tendency to look at women and form an opinion about their appearance.  However, it doesn’t go so far as to criticize them for not meeting some impossible standard.  Every day when I look in the mirror it’s quite obvious that nothing I see would meet that standard.  On the other hand, I make comments on how far they are from being their best selves.  I don’t say “She’s too fat,” but instead say “Doesn’t she know that is too tight/short/shapeless and makes her look horrible?”

This week while I was in Nashville some friends of friends encountered the great singer Faith Hill in the grocery store and were eager to tell everyone how horrible she looked.  In that instance I spoke in her favor, reminding them that she wasn’t young and fresh-faced anymore, plus she had three children she was chasing after.  Besides, I added, none of us are getting any younger either, adding, “But she sure cleans up good.”

Yes, I make judgments.  Brad Pitt should cut his hair.  Angelina Jolie looks unhealthy.  Any man over 35 should stop wearing muscle shirts and any woman over 35 should give up mini-skirts and the braless look.  Many women at my public pool have skin like cowhide because of their tanning obsession.  Any man not an Olympic athlete shouldn’t wear a Speedo.

But I’ve raised a daughter trying hard not to comment on her appearance except for health reasons.  For example, I may have commented on her skin out of a concern over her diet or lack of sleep at college.  And when she was in high school I couldn’t keep quiet about the length of her skirt because everything would show if she ever dared to sit down.  And I tried to get her to wear more color and less black because it made her look even more beautiful.  However, always aware of the images constantly bombarding her as a young woman in American society, I never said a thing about her weight or muscle tone or size of clothes she wore or adolescent acne.  I praised her athletic ability and the effort she put into her education.  I did everything I could to teach her about being good to herself through a healthy diet (Spinach, T!  More spinach!).

When I saw the picture of Ashley Judd that caused so much controversy I just didn’t understand the people who had such a discerning eye that they could consider her anything less than a beautiful, intelligent, talented woman.  Yes, it’s wrong for men to objectify women.  There are many days, though, when I think they’re not our worst enemy.

(You can go here to read what other women said about their “puffy-faced” moments.)

Do you think Ashley Judd is on target with her op-ed piece or do you think she’s blowing things out of proportion?  Have you ever experienced your own puffy-faced moment? Are men equal victims of this obsession with appearance?  Why do you think women critique other women so often?  How do you respond to it?  Share your thoughts in the comments box today.

Return on Monday to read more about my trip to Nashville
4/13/12-worst enemy2 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What I Read: "Some Assembly Required," Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott


Writer Anne Lamott had one of those conversations with her 19-year old son that most parents dread.  He told her that he was going to be a father.  And he had barely started college.  Anne handled it the way she approaches most things – she wrote about it.  The result is the poignant yet hysterically funny memoir, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son.  The book is a literary duet between her and her son, Sam Lamott, as they come to grips with the new directions their lives have taken.

When Anne was a single mother pregnant with Sam she had journaled the first year of her own son’s life in the book Operating Instructions.  She spoke honestly of all her insecurities, her fear of failure, the days she hated her little baby for ruining her life and the days she was excruciatingly in love with him.  She also wrote about all the people who helped her make it through.

With this new book she comes full circle.  It seemed a natural choice to record the first year of her grandson’s life.  She hesitatingly asked Sam if he wanted to be part of the project.  He agreed immediately because of the effect the story of his first year had had on him: “To this day, that book is the greatest gift anyone has given me . . . . I hear [in Operating Instructions] and feel my mother’s love for me.”  Although he has chosen art and design as a career, he has the same gift for language (and sense of humor) as his mother.

I always love reading Anne’s essays.  Her quick-witted voice never changes.  She’s open and honest about all her foibles – her compulsive behavior, her intense desire to manage everyone’s life, her obsessions about how the political climate will eventually lead to extinction of the human race.  And she was absolutely certain her grandson was going to pick up ticks as he rolled around on the floor with the dogs. In the end, all of her well-detailed but hilarious fears are ours. 

In this book she’s just as honest about how hard it is to learn how to be a grandmother.  In other words, she constantly wants to rush in and give advice to Sam and his girlfriend about raising their son because, she admits, she has “great ideas.”  She struggles to make that shift from seeing her son as the teenager he was six months before the baby was born to seeing him as a father. 

The greatest lesson she learned (great, but so difficult to master) as she fought her own nature was that she didn’t have to “correct” Sam and his girlfriend.  “Life is the correction,” she shares with us.  We also see Sam mature and grow more confident throughout the year as he balances fatherhood and his college studies as well as stands up to his mother who has those “great ideas.”  He’s learned that the buck stops with him.  “The problem has to stop at this chain of command.  I’m not going to turn over my problems to you – to my mother – and say ‘I just can’t take it anymore,’” he reflects.

Considering that many days my 20-something son and I can’t communicate clearly enough to even make a decision about where we’re going to eat lunch, I have to wonder if we’d survive with the same grace as this mother and son have.  By the time I had children I didn’t have parents.  I didn’t have to struggle with either depending too much on them or rejecting all offers of help.  Watching Anne Lamott and her son navigate these new boundaries in their own relationship made all things seem possible.  The hardest thing for a parent to do always is to do nothing.  She shows us how that works.

Have you read any of Lamott’s books?  Which is your favorite?  As you moved into adulthood, where did you have skirmishes over boundaries with your parents?  What lessons did you learn for negotiating them?  Share your bits of wisdom and handy hints in the comments box.

Spring in my garden is always marked by bearded irises

Friday, April 6, 2012

That Easter Day Was Bright With Crinoline and Tulips

My love of crinoline petticoats started at a young age

Yesterday I walked through the giant discount store shopping for plastic knives and folding chairs for Sunday’s family gathering.  However, the children’s clothing section stopped me for a moment.  I briefly fingered a white dotted Swiss bodice over overlapping layers of lace trim in a skirt enhanced with a bit of crinoline.  The empire waist was a peach sash set off with a large peach and yellow flower pinned to the satin trim.  Sometimes I think that Easter Sunday was invented so little girls would dress in crinoline and lace, with ruffled socks and black patent Mary Janes on their feet.

My mother had four girls to dress each Easter.  That was the time of year when we bought our new patent-leather church shoes that would see us through the rest of the year.  Each Sunday morning I’d pull out a Kleenex and the Vaseline to work that clear jelly into my shoes until they gleamed.  With four girls, Mom couldn’t always afford the glamorous Easter dresses on display in the department stores.  The ones that flounced all the way out to there and that were made in colors that looked like a bouquet of tulips out of Mom’s garden announcing Spring’s arrival.  They came decorated with smocking, or lace, or a rainbow of grosgrain ribbon.

I loved the years we got a store-bought Easter outfit because that frequently included a new petticoat.  I always chose a dress with a large bow tied in back, with the trailing tails resting on a skirt that had a diameter that could have easily been 3 feet.  I’d top it off with a wide-brimmed straw Easter bonnet decorated with a matching organdy bloom or other colorful trim, all held on over my Easter curls with an elastic strap under the chin.
Note the trés fashionable white gloves

But we didn’t suffer in the years Mom couldn’t give us store-bought dresses.  Those years we’d hit the fabric stores.  Mom would find a single McCall’s or Butterick pattern that looked good on all of us.  We would each get to choose our own material, and then she would stay up to ungodly hours for weeks before the big day, sewing four matching outfits.  My favorite ever was the year she made us simple sheath dresses with matching spring coats.  I chose yellow for the coat and skirt of the dress.  The bodice was a white with yellow vertical stripes.
Easter in yellow

It’s astounding to look back and realize what Mom undertook to make us look so beautiful when we lined up on the sidewalk in front of the house for our annual Easter photo – bonnets and Easter baskets and white gloves included.  I slept through her labors.  And it wasn’t just at Easter I did that.  After working in an office all day, cooking dinner, seeing us through homework and Girl Scouts and music lessons and then to bed, she began the third shift of her day.  Perhaps she made the cupcakes one of us needed for a class party.  Or as I headed of to sleep I might leave her sitting on the floor of the living room, straight pins in her mouth as she draped fabric over a chair and chalked the lines she would cut and sew to make a new slipcover.  Or my bedtime might mark the beginning of the never-ending laundry cycle for a family of six.  Or she was brushing all the mats and tangles out of the long hair of our dog, Pandy.

For Christians, the weekend from Good Friday to Easter is a time of remembrance, reflection, and ultimately celebration.  My sisters’ families and mine still come together to feast on that Sunday, although my sister Melinda finally said aloud this year that we should stop saying we’re getting together for Easter because the only thing marking the holiday is the candy dish filled with pastel M&M’s and the number of Peeps we’ve eaten leading up to the holiday.  I’m the only one still going to church regularly.  We should just say we’re having a birthday lunch because her birthday usually falls sometime around Holy Week and our meal always includes a big coconut-iced cake and candles for her.

Although she may think we’re not celebrating Easter anymore, she’s wrong.  We will remember the eggs Mom boiled perfectly so we could dip them in a solution of vinegar and food coloring.  We’ll remember the dinners she made on that day that were shared with grandmothers, grandfathers, beloved aunts.  We’ll laugh over every picture we took on that front sidewalk and our favorite Easter couture.  We’ll reflect on what a blessed childhood we had and celebrate the family we’ve been given.  With a bounty of spring tulips on the table we’ll sing (at least in our hearts) “That Easter day with joy was bright.”

Do you have any favorite Easter (of Passover) memories?  What is your favorite food or ritual you practice for the holiday?  If you celebrate neither of these holidays, do you have a favorite ritual or food to celebrate that winter has finally left and spring as come?  Share all in the comments box and have a beautiful weekend of remembrance, reflection, and celebration in your own fashion.

And today I’m also remembering a few blog posts that brightened my past week:

"Never let today's urgencies rob you of today's chance to seed your future."  Read the post by Scrollwork to see what led her to such wisdom.

Tami Clayton eats ice cream bigger than her head and panics over child safety issues at a playground in Morocco.

Nancy Hinchliff interviews Teresa Rhyne about her soon-to-be-published book The Dog Lived (And So Will I) about cancer diagnoses she and her four-legged friend shared.

Leah Singer is the uber-creative Mom I never could be.  This time it’s about including your children in Passover planning.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Friendly Skies Are Now A War Zone

The London Metro -- I love public signs that strive for politeness.  I really feel they care about my safety here

Anybody who just loves to fly, raise your hand.  Anybody?  You, over there in the corner.  You like the whole experience of traveling by air?  Well, you must be part of a new kind of 1% group because, while people like to go more places than ever before, I rarely hear anyone say that they actually enjoy the “getting there” part of the equation.

Perhaps having to arrive two hours early so you can be poked with cattle prods, undressed, publicly x-rayed, and interrogated like criminals might have something to do with that.  Or the flight delays.  Or the lost luggage.  Or the random passenger or pilot meltdown in midair.  Or the sense that you are starving on a slow death march when you combine delayed flights with the absence of any kind of food service by the airlines.

But the last sign that civilization as we know it (emphasis on civil) is coming to a quick end is the vitriol exchanged in the comments for a couple of stories in the Travel section of The New York Times.  The question at issue: to recline or not to recline?  You can read them here and here.

The controversy, in a nutshell, was whether any passenger should recline a seat in an airplane, knowing that leg room is now practically non-existent as airlines cram more rows into the plane and that reclining that seat will probably shove the work/dining tray straight into the gullet of the passenger in the seat directly behind him or her.  We won’t even touch on the fact that with a seat reclined in this airborne version of the sardine can, the passenger directly behind is prevented from getting into that head-down-prepare-for-a-crash-landing position.  And then there’s the minor inconvenience during a trans-Atlantic flight of not being able to access anything in the small carry-on stashed under the seat in front of you because with the seat reclined you can’t even bend forward to tie your shoes.

Comment after comment people said that it was their inalienable right to do whatever they wanted with the seat because they paid for it.  They remained completely unmoved (well, except for their reclined seat) by the stories others told of the inconvenience and outright pain they caused when they pushed back a seatback that had nowhere to go except into someone else’s space.  They were adamant that their whims and comfort superseded the effects on anyone else.  Those opposed told of the techniques they used to get back at those perpetual recliners.  It was a war of small, strategic strikes.

I’m not sure at what point our culture reached such a “me first” attitude.  Maybe it’s always been there but I’m just now noticing it.  When I was growing up I learned that you conducted yourself in a way that did not inconvenience another.  That didn’t mean we had to be rugs for someone to walk over us.  However, in the behavior of all the adults around me I saw what it meant to act with kindness and consideration toward other people.  Gasp – even strangers!  I learned that what I wanted or needed didn’t have to be achieved at another’s expense.

A gentle reminder on French trains that no one wants to hear your killer ring tone.  And it works.
I can spend a month in France without hearing a phone ring
4/2/12-friendly skies3  

I see this in the financial crisis.  There is plenty of guilt to spread around for its cause, but the struggle to find a solution is held hostage by an unwillingness of so many to budge just a little, give up a little of their gains in order to benefit a larger number.  I see it on the highway in the crazy drivers tailgating or whipping from lane to lane on the highway to save themselves thirty seconds of travel time while the rest of us slam on the brakes.  I see it in people who pull out their phones with the heavy metal ring tones to talk about family problems in a volume that might make you believe they’re standing next to a roaring subway train rather than sitting in a small sandwich shop.  I see it in children left to run wild in grocery stores or restaurants by parents who set the bar for behavior low, as in no actual criminal activity.

I won’t continue listing every act that indicates an apocalyptic destruction of the smallest sense that we are part of a larger community.  I wonder if it’s just my imagination that we’re becoming a less civilized society where the most basic niceties and considerations are disappearing.  Or have I become one of those kinds of people who begins every sentence with “Well, when I was younger . . .”?  Is this just a rant fueled by standing behind someone with a cartful of groceries on a Saturday in the line that said “12 items or less” then waiting until the order was rung up to start digging through the purse for a checkbook?  (Debit cards, people! They’re the same as checks!)

But maybe we can start small.  Be kind.  Life is tough for everyone flying today – unless , of course you are part of the privileged first class section with hot towels and your own bathroom.  Someone somewhere must have prophesied this situation.  It has to be why manners were invented.

What’s your take on the seat reclining issue?  Should airlines simply immobilize all seats so none recline, or should it be worked out between the ones who want to recline and those whose space is restricted? (I realize my language reveals my position but don’t let that stop you.)  Do you think our sense of community and consideration is declining or do you think I’m being a crotchety old woman (you can say it – it’s not like I haven’t heard it from my kids)?  The comments box is a great place for you to offer your opinion on the world.

A fabulous moment at the Sunday morning Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, London

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