Saturday, September 26, 2009

Chicago, Round 2

One of the upsides of writing historical fiction is all the research I get to do. (If this doesn’t sound like an upside, then you are probably not a major geek. Me, on the other hand...)

The downside is, I learn a lot more fascinating stuff than I can possibly shove into the pages of a novel. Not without expanding it to four volumes, complete with footnotes and a fifty-page index, at which, no longer a novel. So…what to do?

Why, create a multimedia presentation called A Hepkitten’s Guide to the War, of course. And then take it on the road.

Back in February, I went to Chicago—the setting for Ten Cents a Dance—to present A Hepkitten’s Guide to a few groups there. I had an absolute blast…which is why, when two of the venues asked me to come back, I enthusiastically said YES!

First up: Chicago Public Library. Like most writers, I adore libraries. I especially adore libraries that have enormous gargoyles. Ain’t nobody going to mess with their books, not with these fierce creatures hovering from the roof!

Robin Willard, Young Adult Specialist and Librarian Extraordinaire, set up a wonderful tour of three CPL branches: Back of the Yards, Beverly, and the Harold Washington Library downtown. Robin, you rock!

This is me in all my 1940s regalia with Migdalia Jimenez, children's librarian at the Back of the Yards branch. She gave us such a warm and wonderful welcome, she made us feel instantly at home.

After the Back of the Yards talk, with some of the students and their teacher. It was a privilege--and a ton of fun--meeting these smart, charming kids and talking with them about their vibrant and unique neighborhood...the same neighborhood my character Ruby lives in, back in the day.

These wonderful women drove two hours to attend the Back of the Yards event. Their book club read Ten Cents a Dance over the summer, and I met with them via speakerphone to discuss the book. Thank you, Lynn and friends--your coming such a long way to meet me in person touched my heart.

Speaking at the brand-new, fabulous YOUMedia space, dedicated exclusively for teens, at the Harold Washington branch downtown (home of the gargoyles). These high school students came from three different schools--Hyde Park Academy, Kenwood Academy, and King College Prep. They were a fabulous audience, not least because they asked some seriously sharp, insightful questions. They kept me on my toes, and as a speaker, I can tell you that makes an event outrageously fun.

No photos of the Beverly branch gig, unfortunately (camera snafu!) But a big shout-out to children's librarian Kimberly, and to the teen book club who came out on a Tuesday night to hang with me and Ruby!

The last presentation of my trip was to the seniors group at the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. What an honor to talk about Chicago, the Back of the Yards, and the homefront during World War II to people who had actually lived it first-hand...truly, an amazing experience. After the talk, this lovely group invited me and my sweetie to stay for dinner. Better even than the food (and oh yeah, it was good) was hearing stories of the real Back of the Yards, back in the day.

At some ungodly hour the next morning, we were back on a plane to Portland. A whirlwind trip, but this one left me more in love with Chicago--and Chicagoans--than before. Sure, yeah, this time it wasn't 20 degrees and blowing snow, like February...but more than the gorgeous fall weather, it's the people. Can I just every Midwesterner nice? Is it something in the water, or what? And can we ship it to, oh, I don't know...L.A.?

One of these days, we're going to plan a trip that gives us enough extra time to really explore the city. Until then, I'll leave you with a picture of world-famous Sue the T. rex, in her abode at the Field Museum:

Roawrrr!!! Thanks, Chicago...see ya next time!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Gentlemen...Start Your Engines!

There’s the kind of dream vacation you think about for years, cutting out pictures of pink beaches and pinning them on your bulletin board, sighing, One of these days…

And then there’s the other kind of dream vacation. As in, Never in a million years would I have dreamed anyone could talk me into this.

Well, gentlemen (and ladies): Start your engines. This last weekend my sweetie and I flew more than halfway across the country to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place I’ve never in my life thought about for more than four consecutive seconds. Why?


MotoGP is motorcycle racing. The GP stands for Grand Prix. The riders compete against each other at races all over the world for the annual MotoGP championship. (Three days at Indianapolis, and those are pretty much all the hard facts I know.)

My sweetie was concerned that before the weekend was half over, I’d liquefy into a festering puddle of boredom. (Like the two women we saw sleeping in chairs underneath the stands, behind the Indy Dog vendor.) But this is the thing about that other kind of dream vacation: discovering stuff you never knew existed. The T-shirts alone are another whole subculture. Lots of black, lots of old English font, lots and lots of skulls. The T-shirts supplied information…

Hell yes it’s fast


Those who dance are considered insane
by those who cannot hear the music


Ride it like you stole it

…and often, a powerful simplicity:

Your bike sucks

And then there are the brolly girls. Brolly girls hold umbrellas over the riders so that they don’t get hot/rained on/otherwise inconvenienced. Here’s a brolly girl practicing:

If you’re imagining four men to every woman at MotoGP (including the brolly girls), you’re about spot-on.

But if you’re also picturing bad mullets, chrome studs, and leather fringe, a la a Harley Davidson rally...nope. If Harley Davidson is the pit bull, MotoGP is the greyhound. Sleek. Stripped down. MotoGP isn’t about chrome. It’s about speed, baby.

Sunday—Race Day—dawns. After nodding off during the qualifying runs and practice laps the day before, I’m taking no chances. My satchel is crammed with a netbook computer, two novels, a magazine, and a newspaper crossword.

The thing is, I’ve never understood motor races. Horse races, yes. Horse racing is spirit and muscle and power and skill and immeasurable, limitless heart. In comparison, motor races always seemed so…well, mechanical. And loud. And endlessly repetitive, with all that going around and around and around. Yawn.

But it turns out that a motorcycle flashing past at nearly two hundred mph is…well, it’s like this:

Wow. Okay.

I got the crossword partly done. And then I couldn't help it. The motorcycles hooked me in.

Three laps into the race. The cyclist in the lead, a Spaniard named Dani Pedrosa, crashes his bike. Long skid over the grass, but he gets up. Whew. Then he gets back on the bike and rejoins the race. From the lead he's now dead last, by an enormous margin.

A few laps later, the next guy in the lead, Valentino Rossi, also crashes. Also rejoins the race, but his bike is too damaged, and he drops out for good.

That leaves one rider, Jorge Lorenzo, waaaay in front. Unless he crashes, too, it’s now a race for second place.

Bikes flash past. Zoom. Zoom. Last of all, Dani Pedrosa on his orange Honda Repsol. He’s by himself on the track, the rest of the field literally a mile ahead, but he’s flying. He has no hope of finishing anything but last, he’s already crashed once, and yet he’s not letting up one iota. Even a rank amateur like me can tell.

The field comes around again. A mile back, Dani Pedrosa. I squint. Look at the field. Then back at Dani. “You know," I say, "I think Pedrosa is catching up.”

“No way,” says my sweetheart. Another lap. “Damn, you’re right," he says. "He is catching up.”

Now we’re not watching the battle for second. Everyone's watching the battle for last. Every time Pedrosa flies past—gaining, always gaining—the crowd cheers. When he catches the rider in front of him and passes, the stands erupt in roars. I’m whooping right along with them.

Twenty-eight laps. The checkered flag comes down. Jorge Lorenzo wins. Good on ya, Jorge.

And Dani Pedrosa? Tenth, in a field of fifteen. Crashed his bike, ended up more than a mile back from the field, and still passed five other riders.

Yeah. That’s heart. From this out-of-left-field vacation, I found a new hero. And something to remember the next time things get tough.

No matter what, keep on flying.

I ought to put that on a T-shirt.

For some of the action, click here...I tried to embed it, but MotoGP won't let me. But it's a great video. And if you're dying to find out about engines and highsides and lowsides and what all the flags mean...then this is for you.

Many, many thanks to my brother, who invited us out for the MotoGP, and to all their family for putting us up... especially my nephew Michael, who bunked with his brother Ryan so we could have his room. You guys are the best!