Monday, July 18, 2011

Closets and Recollections

So I'm cleaning out my closets, and this time I swear I'm going to be ruthless. It doesn't matter how cute something looks on the hanger. For once, I'm going to accept the fact that...

...I never got around to buying a top to go with these pants, and what's more, I never will. matter how much I hope it won't, the red fleece sweater will always attract every dog hair within fifty miles.

...the '90s are never, ever coming back.

No rationalization. No denial. And it's working. The donation bags are getting full, my overstuffed drawers are breathing sighs of relief. Then...I get to the T-shirts.

I pull out this tank, squashed near the bottom of the drawer, and instantly I'm back in Italy. Hot blazing blue sky, turquoise water. White pebble beaches and crooked narrow streets. It was my first trip abroad. I was 22. That fall, I started...

...veterinary school, where I met... sweetheart. Yellowstone was our first road trip. Every night, we had to find a hill to park on so that we could roll-start the VW van the next morning. VW vans have crappy electrical systems. On the upside, every other VW driver on the road will wave to you.

After we graduated, my sweetheart moved to Kansas, while I drove down I-5 to my first veterinary job in...

...Mariposa, just outside Yosemite National Park. I made a wonderful friend, Marybeth, and we went to the county fair and I got this tee promoting Mariposa County's Division of Alcohol and Drug Programs. I have no idea why. Anyway, the butterfly is pretty.

From thousands of miles away, my sweetheart sent me an Indigo Girls song:

"To let this love survive would be the greatest gift we could give
Tell all the friends who think they're so together
That these are ghosts and mirages, these thoughts of fairer weather
Though it's storming out, I feel safe within the arms
Of love's discovery."

Not surprisingly, soon after that we moved to Tennessee together...

...where, among other things, we went to Indigo Girls concerts. And then...

One by one, I lay the T-shirts out. They're old. Most of them I haven't worn in years.
Get rid of them, the ruthless voice demands. They're just taking up space.

I smooth my hand over the worn fabric, the cracked designs. And then I fold them back up, one by one, and I nestle them back in the drawer.

Sometimes, the best memories aren't in photographs.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Summer of the Book

Memories of certain summers taste of certain books. These are the summers that held A Book so memorable, I can never think of one without the other. To reread a particular passage is to bring back the bright sweltering day I first read it. Where I was. What I was doing. The colors and flavors of that time.

Anna Karenina. I was between my first and second years of veterinary school, supporting myself as a lowly tech in a campus research lab. The work was beyond tedious--it involved counting lesions on microscopic sections of rat lung, section after section, hour after hour--and every free moment I had, I dove back into Tolstoy. I read Levin's marriage proposal to Kitty on a lunch break. I was more than captivated; I was transported. I felt for Anna, but Levin--Levin to me was real, more real than almost any other character I've ever met. I felt as though he drew breath next to me, with his passion and temper and terrible longings, and the battles he waged within himself about what it means to be a good man.

Middlemarch. Oh, Dorothea... while you were in Rome, stuck on a joyless honeymoon with that empty husk of a husband (really, darling, how could you?), we were on a road trip through the Carolinas. I broke my toe the day before we left. The doctor told me to stay off it or it wouldn't heal. Instead, I limped with my sweetheart through the Biltmore estate in Asheville and up the spiral stairs of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. We swam in the Atlantic, explored Fort Sumter, walked the Battery in Charleston. We were newly in love, learning each other day by day. I felt sorry that Dorothea (and poor Lydgate) hadn't chosen as wisely as we. (A bit smug, was I. About the toe, too. The doctor was right: it never did heal.)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. My agent had sold my first novel that spring. I spent the summer working like mad on revisions. Every afternoon, I took a short break in the backyard sun and immersed myself in Susanna Clarke's incredible imagination. The world she built is so rich in detail and nuance, its characters so alive, that reading it is like a master course in fiction writing. Not to mention it's funny and heartbreaking as hell.

A Suitable Boy. By now, I was blogging. I wrote a whole post about this one. Picked it up by chance, read the first couple of sentences, and was hooked. A Suitable Boy remains one of my top arguments for bookstores. I'd never heard of this book; browsing shelves is the only way I would have found this sprawling, gorgeous novel. I spent that summer in the dust and heat and rain of 1950s India, following the lives of four families, dozens of characters, coming back always to Lata Mehra as her mother seeks a suitable boy for her to marry. Sheer reading joy...which I couldn't possibly keep to myself. To date, I've made Vikram Seth fans out of five friends. All of whom gasped when they saw the 1,348 pages, and all of whom loved it as much as I did. We've had some passionate debates about the boy Lata finally chooses at the end. (I still say she made the right choice, Laura, I don't care how hard you argue.)

And this year? This is the summer of fantasy series. I grew up with fantasy novels, read them all through college. And then, for some reason, I just sort of stopped. Now I'm catching up with a vengeance. I just finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and just started A Clash of Kings, second in the Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin. HP and the Order of the Phoenix awaits, and then A Clash of Swords, and then... It won't stop with the books, either. Then it'll be the HP movies, and after that, Game of Thrones when it comes out on DVD... *rubbing hands in delicious anticipation*

What about you? What book is keeping you up nights this summer?

This post was inspired by Melissa over at Writing With Style, who asked, "What are you reading this summer?" Which got me thinking and writing. Thanks, Melissa!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chasing Giraffes, Part II: In Which Our Heroine Actually Chases Giraffes

When last we spoke of South Africa, our plucky travelers had been challenged to a foot race to determine who was the speediest among them. Alas--but not surprisingly--I finished dead last. Track star, I am not.

The need for all this speed?* Our first hands-on wildlife capture with Andre, game capture specialist and our tour leader/instructor.

First on the schedule for that day: observing a rhino capture. The rhino, a pregnant female, was to be transported to Moholoholo, a wildlife sanctuary and rehab center. Now, one does not simply walk up to a two-ton animal with a wicked horn and tendency to charge and ask her to pretty please get in a trailer...that is, assuming one can even find her. This is where modern technology comes in:

Once the rhino was spotted by helicopter, a veterinarian on board darted her with tranquilizers from the air.

Rhino down. That's Andre on the left. In front is our own intrepid Margot, taking a respiratory rate to be sure sleepy mama is doing OK. Just after this, her beautiful horn was sawed off, leaving only a stump. (Rhino horn has no nerves; the sawing was painless.) Rhinos are killed by poachers for their horns. The hope is that if the horn is removed, then any poachers who find her will let her live.

This strategy doesn't always work, Andre told us. A poacher who has spent three days tracking a rhino--only to find out that the rhino is hornless, and thus (to him) worthless--may kill the animal anyway. That way he won't waste more time tracking the same animal. And perhaps retaliation, too: the horn was stolen from the poacher, and so the poacher will steal the animal from the world.

Horn off, next came the tricky bit: the veterinarian partially reversed the sedation, enough so that the rhino could stand. Then the game capture crew--all experts, no amateur types like us--liked arms around the blindfolded, groggy creature and guided her onto the trailer. We crossed our fingers for her and her baby. And then we headed to our own adventure: the capture of three adult giraffes.

Our crew from left: Lindsey (veterinary student and Andre's intern), Brent, Kevin, Margot, Mitch (aka sweetheart), Tanya, and Ferris. (Our friend Dave isn't in this pic.) The adorable little truck is Andre's bucky.

Andre loading darts with etorphine, an extremely powerful narcotic sedative.

Giraffes spotted from the helicopter. (We didn't get to go aloft, alas. At this point, the eight of us are squished in the back of the bucky, awaiting directions.) For each capture, Andre darted one giraffe, had the pilot land the helicopter, hopped in the bucky, and drove us like mad over the veldt after the target. Contrary to popular belief and Hollywood movies, tranquilizer darts take several minutes to take effect; animals can run a looong way in that time.

Once we got close to the staggery giraffe, we leaped out of the bucky and started running. The footrace winners, armed with ropes, halter, and blindfold, took the lead. The rest of us followed in a mad dash, dodging acacia bushes, holes, and other hazards, while trying not to drop our own equipment. By the time we caught up, the giraffe was safely down.

Here Mitch is supporting the sedated giraffe's head. (Brent provides a sympathy tongue loll.) Meanwhile, under Andre's direction, I was pulling up the dose of drug that would partly reverse the sedation. I may not be fast on my feet, but...

...I can hit a giraffe jugular with the best of `em.

Once the giraffe was up and walking, people took turns leading it the quarter mile to the parked trailer. Here Andre is guiding it up the ramp.
These three hours are among the most intense and surreal of my life. Looking back, what I remember best is the excitement. And the fear. Vaulting out of the bucky, my feet pounding across hard uneven ground. Concentrating, trying to block out everything else, as I pulled up drug doses and gave injections. Relief at the sight of blood curling into my syringe, the easy slip of drug into veins. The smooth dusty feel of giraffe hide under my fingers. The whole time, afraid that I'd mess up somehow. Let down the animal. Let down the rest of the crew. That fear kept me from taking a turn on the giraffe lead rope. I should have done it anyway.

And the others? If you've ever traveled, you know that in a strange country, in unfamiliar situations, people (ourselves included, let us be honest) are not always at their shiny happy best. But we didn't have time to be strangers looking askance. No time for ego or self-absorption. We pulled together as a team and got the job done. Three giraffes. Three smooth and successful captures. Nobody hurt.

We did almost lose Mitch once, when the bucky hit a particularly sharp bump and he bounced off the tailgate. He was literally in mid-air when quick-witted and quick-handed Ferris grabbed him and yanked him back into the truck bed. (Thanks, Ferris! I like my sweetie in one piece.) And I sliced my finger open on an acacia thorn. Acacias do not kid around.

The worst casualty was Mitch's photo card. Popped out of his camera while running through the bush. It's still on the veldt somewhere.

That night, back at the game lodge, sitting around the fire after dinner, listening to Andre tell wildlife stories...surreal, still, and perfect. The eight of us, most of us newly met, but already with stories of our own that bound us together.

And more to come...

*Apologies to Top Gun

Monday, May 30, 2011

Another Beautiful Light Lost

Three years ago, I was the only young-adult author I knew. I think of that time as Before: before I discovered how many other young-adult authors live here in Portland, Oregon. Amazingly talented writers who are passionate about their work. About the teens they write for. About the world of young adult fiction. And about each other.

We go to each other's book launches and readings. We celebrate successes, commiserate over writing woes, are outraged for each other when publishing doesn't treat us well. We laugh a lot. And lately, we've cried.

In February we lost one of our little community, Lisa Madigan, to pancreatic cancer. And then, last week, Bridget Zinn passed away.

Two years ago, Bridget was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Shortly afterward, she married her longtime love in a ceremony at the hospital. Her agent sold her debut novel. Bridget went through rounds of treatment. She revised the novel. She and her husband bought a house. More treatment. More revisions. She died before her book could be published. She was only 33.

I didn't know Bridget as well as others in our little group, the Portland KidLit. But every time I saw her, I was in awe of how happy she was. She laughed so much. She seemed absolutely steeped in love. Brimming with it. Appreciative of every good in her life, no matter how small.

Her good friends and fellow Portland KidLit-ers Jone MacCulloch, Lisa Schroeder, Laini Taylor, and April Henry, and her agent, Michael Sterns, have all written about Bridget much more eloquently than I can.

I hope her book continues on to publication, so that her words live on after her, so that the world has the opportunity to discover her.

And I try to remember: Be grateful now, this moment, for all I have that is good.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chasing Giraffes, Part I: In Which Our Heroine Sets Off on an Adventure

We are sitting in a small conference room with brick walls, blinds closed against the bright South African sun, listening as nurse Gillian Thompson describes all the possible ways we might vrek once we go out into the bush:

Puff adder bite (tissue death and gangrene).

Black mamba bite (respiratory paralysis).

Accidental exposure to etorphine, a large animal sedative (respiratory and cardiac arrest).

Animal attack (massive internal trauma).

If you've guessed that in South Africa, to vrek means to die, award yourself fifty smart points.

My first clue that this wasn't going to be your standard relaxing vacation had come months earlier, when my sweetheart sent me an email about a South African ecotourism trip. At the word ecotourism, I'd immediately pictured one of those safaris you read about in magazines: khaki-clad tourists snapping photos of wildlife from a rugged jeep, then toasting the day's sightings with champagne and chocolate eclairs. I eagerly skimmed the description:

"If you are physically fit, enjoy strenuous outdoor work and a high level of adrenaline, this is the course for you!"

Hm. Actually, I prefer lying on the couch with a glass of wine and a Jane Austen novel. Still, I kept reading.

"For safety sake, you are expected to be able to sprint short distances (100meters), run medium distances (200 meters), climb over 2 meter (6 ft.) fences, and have a great deal of endurance!"

Wait a minute. What about the jeep? The photograph-snapping? Exactly what kind of ecotourism are we talking about here?

"Depending on what captures are available...your experience may range from a nighttime lion capture to catching several hundred antelope in a day. Your participation in captures will be as extensive as possible...We will work with very dangerous wild animals in free-ranging situations."

The sprint-and-climb-fences thing was now starting to make a horrible kind of sense. But...surely there would be chocolate eclairs?

"You must be prepared to be up very early, working outside, in the sun, doing physical work most of the day. And you will have the time of your life!"

I'm going to shamelessly give myself credit here. To my sweetie's emailed question: What do you think? I did NOT shoot back, Have you EVER met me?

Next thing I knew we were in Hoedspruit, South Africa, about to embark on an intense, hands-on, 9-day course in wild animal capture. Our leader: Andre Pienaar, founder of Parawild, specialist in game management and conservation. Our companions: two friends, Dave (zookeeper) and Margot (zoo veterinary technician); Kevin (4th-year veterinary student); Brent (wildlife major and self-described professional river rat); Tanya (2nd-year veterinary student); and her boyfriend, Ferris (computer specialist).

Andre's original plan was to have us rough it in tents on the open veldt. Thanks to logistical difficulties, however, we ended up at Landela Lodge, a game ranch with private rooms, en suite baths and beautifully prepared South African cuisine. Here I am devastated at the unexpected change:

You may have noticed the decor. Something you should know about game ranches: While they welcome ecotourists, like us, their main business is providing hunters with animals to shoot.

More about that later.

We may have escaped roughing it in tents, but rising early was still part of the program. Most mornings we got up and breakfasted on the Landela patio while it was still dark, in order to be ready for a game walk at dawn.

Those were the days we got to sleep in. Otherwise, when we had someplace to be, we were up and on the road even earlier.

On our game walks we mostly saw animal tracks, which Andre taught us how to identify.

We also saw a lot of scat, which is either a style of jazz singing or wildlife poop. Ella Fitzgerald wasn't on the trip, so you can guess which one I mean.

Actual creatures spotted ranged from the very large... the very, very small. These are pants. Each teeny, tiny little dot on the pants is a pepper tick. Thankfully, these are not MY pants.

After the game walks, refreshed, wide awake, and de-vermined, we headed inside for coffee and education. Before we got the chance to round up wild creatures, we had some larnin' to do. Over the first two days, Andre taught us about the history of game management and wildlife conservation in South Africa, as well as the physiology, pharmacology, and techniques of game capture.

Then came Gillian Thompson, explaining in her pleasant, lilting voice the many ways in which we might vrek. There's no LifeFlight in the South African bush; if something went wrong, all we could rely on was each other. Under Gilly's cheerful supervision, we practiced CPR and setting IV catheters in each other. Note Margot smiling as I stab her wrist vein. Margot can smile through almost anything. Plus she's a whiz with a hypodermic. If you are going on a trip in which you might vrek, these are qualities you want in a traveling companion.

After catheter practice, Andre organized a footrace to see which of us was fastest. Brent and Kevin, the top two finishers, were awarded a massively long rope. Then they got to run some more, chasing after Andre in a kind of dress rehearsal:

The rest of us were given our assignments, and Andre led us through the plan. Our time had come: the next morning, we would be assisting in the capture and transport of three full-grown giraffes.

Coming soon, Part II: In Which Our Heroine Discovers that Acacia Bushes are Sharp & Giraffe Hide is Tough, and Her Sweetheart Almost Fricks Off the Back of a Leaping Bucky.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Rain + Naughty Dog = Waterproof + Pockets

After coming home drenched from yet another Roxie-walk (did I mention it's still raining?) I told my sweetie what I really want is a waterproof dog-walking jacket.

"What about a regular waterproof jacket?" says he. "Why does it have to be a dog-walking jacket? Does anyone even make a dog-walking jacket?"

Silly gander. As if any old Goretex will do! But in these days of specialized niche products, surely someone has heard the cry of the dog-walker in need. Talk to me, Google!

And voila! Behold: the Let's Go K-Rosco Dog-Walking Utility Jacket!

These people clearly understand dog walking. You've got the big cargo pockets to hold treats, plus a special plastic pouch for the greasier hot dogs/cheese bits. You've got the belt which not only provides a flattering fitted look, but also doubles as an extra emergency leash for any stray mutts you come across. You've got zip-off sleeves to convert to a warm-weather vest. You've got a back mesh pocket for your water bottle. In short, you have everything you could possibly want...but in the immortal words of the TV Ginsu knife guy, that's not all! Take a close look at the cargo pocket. That little gray thing poking out the grommet hole is (...wait for it...) OMG yes, that is indeed a poop bag. This thing has an automatic built-in poop bag dispenser!

I want. I wantIwantIwantIwant. How much howmuchhowmuch?


Whoa. Say again?

I remind myself that that's a pretty good price for a waterproof 4-season jacket with all those bells and whistles, plus (let us not forget) an automatic built-in poop bag dispenser. I mean, have you seen the cost of jackets at REI lately? It is to weep, truly. However. I love you, Let's Go K-Rosco Dog Walking Utility Jacket...but alas, our passion is not meant to be.

After all, I already have a dog-walking jacket. Really all I need to do is spritz it with water repellent. But still, summer is (allegedly) coming, and I'll need something a lot lighter...

You know all those anti-clutter experts, who say if you haven't worn something for a year to get rid of it? This is why I don't listen to those people. Ten years ago, my sweetie and I went on a big-game capture course in South Africa (oh, haven't I told you about that? I will. With pics. It was awesome) and anyway, we were required to bring a vest with lots of pockets. Which I did. And never wore again. But I always kept it, because even if you're not going to South Africa again to chase giraffes,* who knows when you'll need a vest with lots of pockets, right?

And so, dear readers, here it is: my four-season dog-walking jacket system. Eat your heart out, K-Rosco!You might be wondering why I carry 1) kibble, 2) hot dogs, and 3) chicken. You know those really obnoxious dogs who bark and lunge at other dogs when they're on leash? That's Roxie. Or at least, that was Roxie. Training still underway. Boatloads of food required. Hence all the pockets.

But ain't she cute?

*Actual big-game capture activity. Seriously. Pics forthcoming.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Still Geeky After All These Years

Yesterday was the five-year anniversary of my blog. In that time, I've written fewer posts than many people do in a single year: 183, including this one. In the same five years, I've also written:

2-1/2 books,
a dozen guest posts for other blogs (more or less...I'm too lazy to go back and actually count),
a dozen or so interviews (ditto),
a couple of recommendation letters,
a few thousand emails,
one or two actual snail mail letters,
259 tweets, and
a really bad poem for a contest to make Bella Stander laugh.

When I started this gig, experts insisted that one had to blog EVERY DAY. They were so adamant about this, I almost expected them to hunt me down and slap my face for my impudence. I didn't mean to be naughty. But I knew I'd end up with 1) a helluva lot of crappy blog posts and 2) a very short-lived blog, because 3) all my neurons would explode from the pressure.

Just say no to detonated gray matter, that's my motto.

Which maybe is why I'm still here, writing about geeky stuff that interests me. So to everyone who stops by, thank you. (Pink, so you know it comes straight from my heart.) I truly appreciate you.

Year Six is going to be fun. Puppy adventures. And (I hope) a brand-new foray into publishing. More news on that as I get it. For now, dear and faithful reader, I leave you with this...because nothing says love like yet another goofy cat video.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gray Funk

"...for he hath given you the former rain moderately, and he will cause to come down for you the rain, the former rain, and the latter rain..." Joel 2:23

I don't know what good old Joel was actually prophesying, but if he was talking about the Pacific Northwest spring of 2011, I'd say he hit the nail right on the head. We've been getting the rain. And the former rain. And the latter rain. Day after day, our weather forecasts have called for "steady rain," "increasing rain," "continuing rain," "rain turning to showers," and then, just to shake things up, "showers turning to rain." In between all that downpour, it drizzles. Unless, for kicks and giggles, it decides to hail.

This isn't standard-issue Portland damp. A sample of the records broken last month:

Consecutive days of rain in March: 23. (Old record: 16.)
Total days of rain in March: 28. (Old record: 27.)
Latest date in the year to hit 60 degrees: March 31st. (Average: February 16th.)

I wish I could report that the first two weeks of April have turned it around. But so far, it's been more of the same. You know it's bad when even the natives--who normally pride themselves on their dewy complexions, from all that moisture in the air--get cranky and start complaining.

Anyway, I think the unremitting, dripping gloom is why I've been in a funk lately. That, and the cold from hell that won't go away. The euphoria of spring, the exhilaration and new energy that come with the daffodils and lengthening just ain't happening, people.

Of course, compared to what's been going on in the world, this is nothing. I shouldn't even be complaining. Time to stop moping out the window and kick the cheery part of my brain back into gear. But how?

Hmm. Perhaps I shall type "cutest kitten in the world" into Google.

Oh, yeah. That helps.

So does this *geeking out, yay!!*

What about you? What do you do when the weather gets you down? Does music pick you up? Favorite movies? A special kind of tea? Doughnuts? Please advise, my friends!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Raising a Puppy is Like Writing a Novel

Puppy and novel are both massive time-sucking vortices. Their needs expand to fill every waking hour. Your daily routine is bludgeoned to death; your entire life is now THE NOVEL. Or THE PUPPY. If, in a sad attempt to snatch two minutes for yourself, you ignore the puppy, she will pee/vomit on the couch/pull down the bath towels, shred them and eat the carnage. And then vomit on the couch.

Since novels don't do any of those things, you may think you can ignore yours with impunity. hahahahaha You can't. Because:

It doesn't matter where you are. It doesn't matter what you're doing. If you're not working on the novel, then a little voice is yammering in your head: Chapter 7 isn't going to write itself, you know.

"But I HAVE to renew my driver's license/buy groceries/go to work!" you cry.

Not if you really loved me, Novel says. Not if you were REALLY dedicated.

Puppy races around the house with a half-demolished remote control in her mouth. "No! Bad puppy!" you shriek, as you pry crumbling bits of plastic from between her molars. Knowing that if you'd just sucked it up and taken her for a good run this morning, even though yes, it was raining, she would at this moment be tired and napping and not looking at you as if you've just stomped the last bit of joy out of her soul.

Face it. You will never be good enough. Learn to deal. Also learn to put the remotes away. And anything else small enough to fit into Puppy's maw. If something looks too big, put that away too. Puppy likes a challenge.

Partly, this is because every puppy and every novel come with unique issues that you've never dealt with before. Issues like digging, and multiple points of view. What worked for the last puppy/novel, you finally realize, won't work for this one.

But before this comes the inevitable period of denial. The last one was so easy, you think in despair. How come this one is so hard? What am I doing wrong?

Buck up, little butterfly. You're indulging in Retrospective Canonization, in which the last puppy or novel is viewed through the fond, hazy spectacles of selective amnesia. The last book never tied you up in knots like this; it practically poured itself through your fingers onto the pages! The last puppy never had diarrhea under the dining room table; in fact, the last puppy hardly had bowel movements at all. Ever!

Forgotten are the tears shed over literary corners you kept writing yourself into. Forgotten are the wee hours of the morning when you shielded your eyes from the copyeditor's notes, moaning, I can't rewrite that damn chapter one more time, I can't, why, God, WHY? Forgotten are the decimated vegetable beds, the ruined carpets, the lunatic barking which made the neighbor complain.

Take off the spectacles. Remember it all, both fair and foul. You figured out the last one, didn't you? And it didn't turn out so badly. This one will be just as hard. But you'll get there, and you'll learn some new things along the way.

Bear in mind, though...

Maybe it's the unlikely coincidence in Chapter 18 that you hate, but without which, the entire rest of the plot falls apart. Maybe it's the cat-chasing. You try everything. Nothing works. So you end up jerry-rigging. You set up something in Chapter 2 so readers believe Chapter 18 might actually happen that way. You wedge baby gates in strategic doorways to keep Puppy from careening around the house after terrified felines.

Perfect? No. But it'll have to do. Because...

You never completely finish writing a novel. You never completely finish training a puppy. You simply get to the point where, with whatever time and talent you have, you've done the best you can do.

At that point, with all your hard work, and a little luck, novel or puppy can then appear in public without causing you embarrassment.

Or at least...not that much.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Beautiful Light Lost

In September 2008, I went to the Kidlitosphere Conference here in Portland. Of the many people I met that day, one of the most delightful was Lisa (L.K.) Madigan. Like many authors, Lisa had spent years pursuing her dream of publication, and that dream was about to come true: her debut YA novel, Flash Burnout, was published in 2009.

I liked Lisa immediately for her sharp sense of humor, her wit, her kindness, and her down-to-earth good sense. At the launch party for Flash Burnout, the loving tribute of thanks she gave her husband and son moved me to tears. As one of the Portland KidLit, Lisa was an enthusiastic cheerleader for all of the rest of us. Even in the midst of her own publishing ups-and-downs, she always made us laugh with her dryly funny, spot-on comments.

Her talent was immense. Flash Burnout is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Blake, and Lisa nails Blake's teen male voice. To our delight (although not our surprise, because the novel is that good) Flash Burnout won the American Library Association's William C. Morris Award for a debut YA novel. Lisa's second critically acclaimed novel, The Mermaid's Mirror, was published last year. After the years of writing and revising and struggling and waiting, Lisa had earned her place among the brightest lights of YA literature. I looked forward to many years of devouring her books and enjoying her friendship.

Those years are not to be. On February 23rd, Lisa passed away from pancreatic cancer.

I last saw Lisa in December, shortly before she was diagnosed. She'd been ill, but was already back at work and looking forward to getting back to her writing. Less than three months later, she is gone. She leaves behind her husband and the son who was her world.

The video below, in which Lisa thanks the William C. Morris Award committee, gives a taste of her wonderful humor. Lisa's tremendous grace and strength shine through in her last blog post. I will miss her. Godspeed, Lisa.

If you would like to donate to a college trust fund for Lisa's son Nate, please click here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Pint of Ale and the Deathly Hallows

The other night we caught a movie at one of our local pub theaters. We love our pub theaters, because 1) $3 admission, and 2) I've yet to see a movie that is not improved by pizza and beer. (Or if you prefer, a vegan wrap and Pinot Noir. This is Portland, after all.) One of our favorites is at the Kennedy School, which is an actual elementary school that sat empty for decades before being converted to a B&B. Guests bunk down in the former classrooms. There's an Honor Bar (no smoking) and a Detention Bar (light `em up!), and the school auditorium is now the theater. Instead of metal folding chairs, though, it's stuffed with vintage sofas, chairs, and loveseats, with little end tables for your grub and ale.

Another of our favorites is the Bagdad Theater.* The Bagdad is one of those old-timey movie palaces from back in the day, with a fabulous Mediterranean decor that has been lovingly restored.

And the movie? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Let me confess right here: I have not read any of the Harry Potter books nor seen any of the movies past The Sorcerer's Stone. Not for any snobbish or disdainful reason...I just sort of haven't gotten around to it. The main reason we picked it was because the showtime fit our evening the best. Sometimes, it's all about going with the flow.

Which goes for the movie, too. Because the last time I looked, Daniel Radcliffe was still like, twelve and had baby fat in his cheeks and he and Emma Watson had the same build. Apparently, much has changed. When you haven't seen a HP movie since little Harry was trying on the Sorting Hat, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 comes at you like a fever dream: gorgeous and incomprehensible. Sudden shifts in scene with no apparent reason...characters I couldn't place saying things I didn't understand...Ralph Fiennes without a nose. But I still had a good time. Although why Harry, Hermione and Ron spend the entire middle of the movie in a tent, moaning about how they have to find Horcruxes and a magical sword, or else all is doomed, but instead of actually searching for the damn things, they listen to the radio and get into snits with each other and then the sword coincidentally shows up like, ten feet from where they're camping...well, maybe it's explained in the book. (But hey, did I mention the scenery was gorgeous?)

So, OK. Apparently it's time I catch up with the biggest cultural phenomenon in living memory. All you Harry Potterities, what do you advise? Read all the books first, then watch the movies? Or watch, then read? Or...?

*Not all the pub theaters in Portland are owned by the McMenamin brothers--there's also the Laurelhurst, which is fabulous--but the McMenamins have four, including Kennedy and the Bagdad. The McMenamins specialize in buying old, abandoned buildings and either restoring them to their original use (like the Crystal Ballroom, which was and is again a dance palace), or converting them (the Chapel Pub used to be a funeral home, and has an eternal flame burning outside; Edgefield used to be the county poor house, later an insane asylum, and now it's a B&B and youth hostel with taverns, a restaurant, a golf course, pub theater, glass-blowing shop, a...oh hell, you just have to go there and see.) All of them are beautifully renovated and loaded with original, custom artwork that just makes me smile. Like this.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Writing Buddies Blog Carnival: The Shredder Edition

The typical writer's cat is content to curl up for hours at his owner's side, purring subliminal messages of comfort and peace; furry, faithful balm for a weary writer's soul.

And then there's Seamus O'Leary. To Seamus, being a writer's cat is a full-on competitive contact sport. Seamus has only three legs, yet he is undeterred in his pursuit of gymnastic excellence.

This is Seamus. These are his moves.

The Lap-Sit

Easily mastered even by kittens, the Lap-Sit is the foundation on which many of the more complex maneuvers are based. This move lulls the unsuspecting writer into a false sense of trusting companionship. From here, cat can easily segue into:

The Big Sleep

Cat leans toward desk until writer's view of keyboard is obstructed. This should successfully disrupt the work of the novice writer; however, experienced writers on a roll are unlikely to notice. In this case, the move is extended until full lateral contact with keyboard is attained, thus blocking writer's access to the space bar and all mid-keyboard letters. Bonus points if cat actually falls asleep in this position.

The Wrist-Breaker

Essential components of the successful Wrist-Breaker include: 1) forepaws and chest draped over writer's forearm, such that most of the cat's weight is concentrated in the writer's wrist; 2) an irritated stare at writer every time writer uses the mouse and joggles the cat; and 3) ignoring writer's complaints that if the cat would just go loll somewhere else, he wouldn't get joggled in the first place.

Bonus points if cat baps other cat in the head. Championship status if escalation of bapping results in other cat moving to a quieter location. If writer loses concentration and/or temper sufficiently to dump cat off lap onto floor, cat loses round and must immediately begin again.

The Time-Bomb


highly advanced maneuver requires not only agility but a pronounced degree of shamelessness. As there is no way to accomplish this move without attracting the writer's notice, the goal is to astonish writer such that she is willing to see if cat is actually going to go there. Phrases such as, "What the hell do you think you're doing" and "You can't possibly think this is going to work" will assure the committed cat that he is on the track to success.

"Time-bomb" refers to the possibly explosive response of the support-cat, as well as the likely reaction of the writer if one or both cats slip and utilize claws in a desperate effort to regain balance.

Due to extreme difficulty rating, successful completion automatically confers supreme championship status.

The Wrath-Slayer

Deceptively simple, the Wrath-Slayer is an essential move in any writer-cat's repertoire. Highly recommended anytime a previous move ends in disaster (for example: coffee spilled on keyboard; bloodshed. See under The Time Bomb.) When properly executed, the Wrath-Slayer confronts writer with cat's undeniable cuteness, thus ensuring that cat will not be permanently barred from writer's presence.

The Wrath-Slayer may also be utilized after a successful maneuver; before a difficult move is attempted; or anytime cat is in need of writer's adoration as well as restful sleep.

Although the Wrath-Slayer is essentially free-form, it is critical that cat position himself such that every time his writer glances down, she sees cat's innocently adorable sleepy-face. A view of the back of cat's head, for example, is far less effective. It should go without saying that this is not the time to flaunt one's backside.

A DVD with step-by-step instructions to these and other moves, plus tips and tricks from the master himself, Seamus O'Leary, will be available for the 2011 holiday season. In the meantime, to those writers' cats weary of endless boring days full of nothing but the clack of keyboard keys, remember: her office is your arena. Go forth, and excel.

Many thanks to Melissa for putting together the Writing Buddies Blog Carnival! For peeks at other, undoubtedly nicer writing buddies, click over to Melissa's blog, Writing with Style.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Philadelphia Story

Last week I was discussing romantic comedies with a co-worker, and--as always happens when romantic comedies are being discussed--we wondered why so many of them are so terrible.

I mean, when someone sits down to write a romantic comedy, the word comedy ought to be a clue. As in actually funny, instead of one contrived gimmick after another. You know what another key word is? Romantic. Chemistry, people! That's what we're looking for, not two leads who go together like flashbulbs on a goat. **cough cough Hugh Grant Sarah Jessica Parker cough**

But when a romantic comedy is done right...ah, then what a sparkly, joyous thing it is indeed. And hardly any romantic comedy does it more right than The Philadelphia Story.

I don't remember when I first saw it. I just remember falling head over heels for it, and I've been head over heels ever since. Katharine Hepburn is glorious as Tracy Lord, strong-willed society aristocrat and ex-wife of Cary Grant's C.K. Dexter Haven, whom she divorced because of his alcoholism. Tracy is preparing to head down the aisle again, this time with George Kittredge, a self-made man and budding politician.

Enter Sidney Kidd. Kidd is the publisher of Spy magazine, a tabloid that specializes in prying into celebrities' private lives. Kidd wants the inside scoop on the society wedding of the year, and he doesn't care how low he has to stoop to get it. He concocts a plan to sneak writer Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (the drily hilarious Ruth Hussey) into Tracy's wedding as bogus "friends of the family." Mike doesn't want any part of it. He has no use for celebrities and even less for snobby rich folk. But his true calling--writing short stories--doesn't pay the rent, so rather than lose his job, he reluctantly goes along with Kidd's scheme.

In the hands of lesser screenwriters, this would turn into a stale sitcom of mistaken identities and breathless last-minute revelations. Instead, The Philadelphia Story is an unpredictable, riotous delight. Witty barbs fly like darts--and at times, they stab deep. The characters have lots to say about class, prejudice, passion, human frailty, and what it means to be truly loved. "The time to make up your mind about people," Tracy Lord insists, "is never."

Add to that the sizzle between Hepburn and all three of her leading men, Jimmy Stewart in a side-splitting drunk scene (he won an Oscar for this role), and Cary Grant as the discarded ex, all casual flippancy on the surface and desperate yearning underneath...oh, it doesn't get any better than this.

So if you're in the mood for a romantic comedy, but you just can't find one delicious enough to hook your finicky heart, do yourself a favor. Pop The Philadelphia Story into the DVD player. And then, when someone like me sighs and says, "Why can't they make them like they used to?" you'll sigh too, and say, "I don't know...but wouldn't it be wonderful if they did?"