Just A Stranger On The Bus

What if Santa were one of us?
What if Santa were one of us?

I was born on a snowy Christmas eve. Perhaps because of this, as a child I always embraced the Christmas season with unfettered enthusiasm. Lights, cameras, presents! And my birthday!

It was many years before I realized that not many people had any interest in my birth. But the enchantment of Christmas traditions remained with me into adulthood, and gained a booster rocket of momentum after I had children of my own. However, it was that shift in perspective, from being the recipient of Christmas glee to the provider of same, that let the air out of my festive mood.

It’s easy to be a good Santa when the kids are young. A teddy bear, a doll, a set of blocks elicit happy shrieks of surprise. But expectations grow with each passing year, even as the wide-eyed willingness of children to believe outlandish tales of elves and chimneys and stockings diminishes, and the scale of the gifts seems to reflect the doomed desire of every parent to protect children from the inevitable truth that lasting happiness never comes gift-wrapped.

Once the kids get to the age where they want cars and computers, it’s safe to say that Santa is out of the picture. But even after he’s slipped back into the pages of a children’s book, the Santa inside every parent lives on, hoping to bring a moment of joy to someone.

And that’s about where I am now. Kind of fed up with the whole marketing of Christmas, but still believing in the essential product. It’s not as easy as buying diamond earrings or iPods or whatever the trendy toy of the moment may be. But, if the true goal of the holiday is for us all to lay down our arms and live in harmony for one day, well, I can still sing along with that.

And to all a good night. Pa-rom-pa-pom-pom.

Write Stuff

When I first read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a wise and wonderful book of advice for aspiring writers, I was encouraged by the author’s gentle nurturing approach. So many would-be authors falter after a few pages, daunted by the overwhelming task of building whole worlds out of mere words.

With humor and grace, Ms. Lamott reveals the simplest path to success. One step at a time. One word at a time.

It’s a lovely idea, and soothing in its way.

But although I’ve used that method, in the last couple of years I’ve also been trying a different approach. The organizers of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) encourage hopeful authors of all ages and genres to throw caution and spelling to the winds, and write as if someone’s life depended on it.

The goal is fifty thousand words in thirty days. It helps to be slightly insane.

For some reason this system speaks to me. The craziness of it. The self-induced panic. The steadily mounting pressure. I find it strangely tonic.

Last year I managed to crank out a mediocre murder mystery in the time allotted. This year I started out with a kind of memoir idea. But one week into it I realized it was a mistake. I had to start all over. This meant fifty thousand words in twenty-three days.

Today I crossed the finish line. The book isn’t done. But it’s got muscle, bones, and some raw personality.
I can’t wait to see what it will do when it grows up.

We Came For The Vampires

A little more than a year ago I went on a road trip that wound through some of the more spectacular scenery here in the Pacific Northwest. We took in the view from Hurricane Ridge, watched orcas cresting in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and felt our own insignificance beside ancient trees in the Hoh Rainforest.

One sight that we more or less breezed through on a pit stop was Forks, the tiny hamlet on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula which, since the release of the film version of Stephenie Meyer’s chart-breaking bestseller Twilight has become something of a tourist hot-spot, especially for families with adolescent girls. Visitors now can enjoy seeing the high school where Bella, the awkward heroine, first encounters Edward, the sensitive but extremely macho vampire. They can also see other sites touted to be the actual places these fictional events occurred, although true Twilight aficionados will tell you the film was actually filmed in British Columbia, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

At the time of our road trip the Twilight books were selling like hotcakes, and I had brought the first volume along for something to read, and to see what all the fuss was about (and this was before the fuss really got its game on). As we drove slowly through Forks we saw one homely sign that touted a “Twilight Special” at a local motel, but that was about it. The Twilight fans had not been hit with the image of Robert Pattinson yet.

Not long ago we had dinner with some friends who have a daughter in the target market age, and they regaled us with an enthusiastic account of their recent pilgrimage to Forks, where they saw not only the house Bella lived in, and the school she attended, but the truck she drove, the house Edward’s family lived in, etc. etc. Clearly the Twilight tide has lifted many boats in Forks.

It’s become fashionable in certain literary circles to sneer at Stephenie Meyer’s writing, as if anyone could have done what she has, such as land a $750,000 contract during a pitched bidding war with the first book she ever wrote. Hah. I suspect most of those sneering may be feeling just a wee pinch of envy at the 75 million books Ms. Meyer has sold so far with her Twilight saga.

I read the entire series eventually, although I slowed down after the second book because it looked to me as if we were headed toward a conclusion that no mother could love (although Meyer is the mother of three sons, so clearly the ending felt right to her). But, although the end of book four ties things up squarely for the most part, my criticism remains. Perhaps some mothers would be pleased to see their daughters become vampires and suck happily ever after. But while I yield to no one in the readiness with which I can suspend disbelief in the most improbable fictions, when it comes to a mother’s love, I’m less flexible. I didn’t enjoy Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, because it was just too painful, but I wouldn’t deny the power of her observation and the truth of the emotions she puts on the page. The mother in Beloved commits a horrific act, but one that is consistent with a mother’s passion for her children. There’s a lot of passion in the Twilight series. But a mother’s love is nowhere in it.

Still, that hasn’t hurt sales. And the cross marketing continues to boldly grow where vampires have never gone before. This Christmas the hot Barbie dolls are the “Twilight” series, Bella and Edward in plastic, proving that reality still tops fiction for sheer wackiness.

There Is No “I” In Scream

I once went to a truly scary movie by accident. It was “Repulsion,” a riveting psychological suspense thriller starring Catherine Deneuve as a delusional young woman alone in her apartment, imagining the worst. There was very little actual blood, no monsters lurching, biting or slashing. The horror was all in the heroine’s mind, and Ms. Deneuve conveyed her terror with such conviction that I could hardly bear to sit through the entire thing.

So. Not such a big fan of the horror genre. That said, I appreciate a finely wrought suspense film or novel, and admire the mastery of Hitchcock, the snarky brilliance of Polanski. But I wonder sometimes about the current gentrification of horror. Tonight is Halloween, a holiday which once occupied a single day, and was celebrated mostly by children under the age of twelve. Now in this country, the only country where Halloween has undergone a kind of Hollywood makeover, the Halloween season lasts for the entire month of October, and adults throw themselves into it with far greater abandon than the kids. I know, because I was once one of the happy party people arrayed in wigs and sparkles and fake gore, where applicable, and it was fabulous fun.

But as I wandered past the Halloween stores in the malls near Washington, DC, last week, I found myself wondering if perhaps we haven’t taken the thing too far, and if so, why?

For myself I know that Halloween used to offer a kind of release, a temporary escape from the altogether more frightening and far more entrenched terrors of the modern world. I’d list them but I don’t see any point in Pox News. Maybe the reason Halloween has grown so huge commercially is that people are responding to the underlying paranoia that lurks like a poisonous gas beneath the surface of our slick technological confidence.

If only werewolves and vampires and zombies were all that we had to fear.

I just finished reading “Boneshaker,” a cool steampunk novel by Seattle author Cherie Priest which explores the ways in which we humans allow fears and rumors to keep us from taking positive steps to fix problems. I related to the novel not only because it was set in a kind of alternate Seattle, but because the heroine is a mother battling hordes of undead and fiendish psychopaths in addition to her own sense of inadequacy as she tries to make things right with her only son. I like a heroine who can kick ass when it’s called for, while still retaining a core of emotional vulnerability.

That’s just one reason I detest most of the “women-in-jeopardy” films and novels which purport to be entertainment. Women all over the world are in enough jeopardy, and have been since the days when they were considered chattel. To perpetuate barbaric attitudes and to depict them in such quantities that people get numb to the ideas embedded in them seems criminal to me.

However, if the annual crop of slasher films is any indication, clearly the hooligans are dictating the playbook these days. It seems a large number of people enjoy screaming in horror at the movies.

I guess I understand. In the face of of global warming, nuclear threats, terrorists and plagues, it’s easier to avert an imaginary disaster than to work to prevent the real thing. I could just scream.

Know Moore

I only recently delved into the works of the remarkable writer Lorrie Moore, who has won honors from the likes of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and awards including the PEN/Malamud. While her short stories deliver breathtaking insight and a marvelous comic touch, she also has the ability to extend her reach. I just finished reading her new novel “A Gate At The Stairs,” and it shook me to the core.

Moore can be hilarious and heartbreaking in the same paragraph, sometimes in the space of one sentence. In general, I think there’s far too much heartbreak in the world to go out of my way to encounter it in fiction, but Moore sugars the path with treats such as this week’s Great Sentence:

“Sarah’s cell phone played the beginning to ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ its vigorous twang not unlike a harpsichord at all, and so not completely offensive to the spirit of Mozart, who perhaps did not, like so many of his colleagues, have to roll about as much in his grave since the advent of electronic things.”

When Brevity Fails

In the years I wrote for a newspaper, my editor had a number of basic rules. Keep sentences short. Use simple words. Put no more than one idea in each sentence.

This system put a choke chain on my rambling verbosity, but, although I learned to keep it short, tight and focused during the decade I worked there, I never truly embraced the doctrine of “cut till it bleeds, and then cut a little more.”

Newspapers, struggling to survive even before the advent of global communications giants, online competition, and ubiquitous Twittering, have to make every column inch count. There’s no room, and certainly no budget, for fanciful prose. I respect that.

But it ain’t me, babe. I am a lover of sentences. I like ‘em long, cadenced, complex and poetic. Sometimes when I’m reading a novel I’ll come across a sentence that simply thrills me with its richness, its daring, its lift and style. People who want to cut to the chase all the time don’t get it. Reading is a journey. You’re supposed to look out the windows and take in the scenery. You’re supposed to try new foods, sample new experiences, be stimulated, renewed, and maybe even a little frightened by the grandeur and terror of it all.

Okay. I know, some of you might be skimming to the bottom even now. Well, that’s okay. Go on. I can’t make you love what I love. But for anyone who is mildly interested, I am starting a semi-regular feature on this irregular blog on favorite sentences. It’s possible some of them may be short. After all, context is everything. But I can assure you that many, if not most of them, will be the kind that would have made my former editor gnash his teeth and snort impatiently. Too bad, Lou. I’m free now. Free, do you hear?

And so, without further ado (hah), here is this week’s wondrous sentence. It comes from a short story by Joshua Ferris, who wrote the National Book Award Finalist novel “Then We Came To The End,” which is a deeply funny and insightful take on the twisted social hierarchy of the modern office. The sentence appeared in The New Yorker in a story called “The Valetudinarian” and it gave me chills. I feel that it delivers in one sentence, in a highly literary and more serious way, the message I hoped to convey in my light comic novel “Potluck.” As if. At any rate, here it is, this week’s Great Sentence:

“The infielder missed, and the ball went long, and when he saw that he was free for a run to third he jumped up and took off, despite the hairline fracture that would make itself known—through a pain that came with a dawning awareness of what lay in store—only later, long after he passed the third-base coach gesturing like mad and made it home, graceful as a dancer, bodiless, ageless, immortal, a boy on a summer day with a heart as big as the sun, with all his troubles, his sorrows, his losses, all his whole long life still ahead of him, still unknown, unable on that still golden field to cast its tall, unvanquishable, ever-dimming shadow.”

Mad Men, Madder Women

The other day I saw a guy, a kid really, wearing artfully paint-spattered pants, a black T-shirt, and a pout, crossing the street while I waited in my car for the light to change. At first I smiled to myself, thinking how predictable it is to see the next generation go through its rebellious stage. But then as he passed by I saw the back of his shirt, which read “Kill All The Hippies.”

The light changed and I drove on, but I have to say that kid’s shirt harshed my mellow. I mean, come on, dude, what did we ever do to you?

Well, perhaps if I had grown up in a world which seemed to be overflowing with casual fun-loving peaceniks I might have yearned for a darker future. And I can certainly respect that the endless playlist of “classic rock” could be viewed as a sort of psychological torture. Later that same day I saw another guy, also wearing a black T-shirt, only his slogan was on the front: “Who the F**k is Mick Jagger?”

And I thought to myself, is this a trend? Has the next generation had enough of the Woodstock alumni? And, if so, will they remain content to express themselves through fashion?

Rebellion is a rite of passage, of course. But if the kids today want to get a sense of what the hippies were up against, they should tune in to the AMC original series “Mad Men.” Set in an advertising agency in New York City in the very early ‘60s, the show presents a remarkably nuanced and accurate portrait of the way things were before I became a hippie.

The first thing that struck me about the show was how everyone on it smokes. Cigarettes. All the time. Doctors, pregnant women, in the office, on the plane. The rumors about tobacco’s dark side were effectively buried by the power of advertising. Everyone on the show also drinks alcohol as if it were water. Pregnant women, doctors, in the office, etc. And the women in the show wear clothes that dramatically accentuate their physical differences from men, as if to underscore the validity of the social and professional barriers which loomed large before anyone ever thought of burning a bra.

The show is brilliant in its depiction of the era. But what makes it great is how it explores the anger and discontent brewing beneath the surface of all that slick style.

These days we’re so acclimated to living in a world where advertising is a part of life that it’s hard to imagine there was a time before people watched the Super Bowl and voted on the best ads. Modern advertising has become so seamlessly embedded in our lives that we walk about in logo-emblazoned clothing without a thought. With pride, even. We’ve all become enchanted by the power of the slogan. Slogan-speak is so pervasive it shapes the way news is delivered, in easily swallowed nuggets of “fact” which go down so quickly there’s no way to judge whether or not they have any value or truth.

In a way, all of this advertising bears a parallel with medieval magic. It’s all about belief. If you believe you will succeed if you wear the right shoes, maybe you will. And if you don’t, you can always blame the shoes.

My favorite character on “Mad Men” is Peggy Olson, the spunky copy writer played by Elisabeth Moss. Peggy isn’t content to play the hand she was dealt, to dress like the other secretaries and to engage in the kind of self-defeating back-biting over men that keeps most of the women in the office in their “place.” Peggy is smart and creative and unwilling to let others define her. When the men try to diminish her work, she smiles and surpasses them.

She doesn’t waste time worrying about her shoes. She understands how the advertising magic works. And she has the power. You can see it in her face. She’s not interested in getting mad. She’s going to get even.

Write on, sister.