Poetic Mercy

I've been having a grand time with Radioactive Jam's Titanium Haiku Contest. It brings back sweet memories of adolescence; I'll sketch a couple of scenes for you.

In eighth grade I had a friend named Monica. We were in the G&T program together; in California in the late 70s, "Gifted & Talented" meant "tons of field trips." It was excellent. Our most frequent destination was the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where we saw a boatload of Shakespeare and other great plays.

On the bus rides from and back to Rancho Cordova, Monica and I collaborated on a very specific subgenre of poetry. We had studied "The Raven" early in the year, finding Poe's meter of choice compelling to the point of addiction. Monica and I took turns writing stanzas about whatever occurred to us. Monica was obsessed with the TV show "Dallas." Many of her verses speculated on the marital strife between Pam and Bobby and what kind of evil conspiracy the Cartel really was.

I, not being allowed to watch "Dallas," had no such bounteous muse, but I found plenty of fodder in hot topics such as:

Whether Mr. Scimemi Hates Me Specifically or All Students Generally;
The Comparative Merits of a Hostess Cherry Pie or a Lemon Pie for Lunch;
Would I Have Made Frodo Female, Had I Written The Lord of the Rings; and
Will Ian R. Ever Return My Affections?

Here's a sample of Monica's work:

While J.R. employs his cunning, poor Sue Ellen sits out sunning,
Hoping for her tan to bring her new love through the open door--
But at South Fork, many worries: This affair will bring more flurries!
Cliff should really try to hurry, take his Sue away before
J.R. finds out their betrayal, calls his Beauty Queen a whore!
Quoth Miss Ellie, "Nevermore!"

And mine:

While I sit here, hoping, dreaming, Ian doesn't know my scheming,
How I try to catch his fancy, make him mine forevermore.
Two-faced Heather looks so trashy. How can Ian find her flashy?
Can't he see I'm so much smarter? How in common we have more?
Both of us like books like Tolkien's. He must know I'm not a bore.
My love cuts me to the core.

Chief among our challenges were finding new, workable rhymes for 'nevermore.' Our poems were a sort of group therapy; the bonus was that I stayed in the loop on the hippest TV gig of the decade, a key to social success in junior high.

Three years later, my Debate and Reader's Theater partner, Jim Orlando, was one of my best (read: only) friends. Traveling to and from Speech and Debate Tournaments, Jim and I kept stage fright at bay by composing outrageous blues verses. These were in A-B-B-A (not the supergroup), call and response form:

Jim: Really late last Saturday night-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.

Luisa: Joanie and me, we had a fight-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.
She told me my speech was bad-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah.

Jim: I gave her a slap like she'd never had-nah nah na-na-na naaaah-nah. infinitum.

The key to this game was coming up with a perfectly scanning and rhyming line to the one first set out without any kind of pause. The scat breaks gave us a little extra time to think. Beats could be subdivided, if necessary. We never got tired of this, and it had the added advantage of keeping us mentally in sync; that year the two of us went to State Championships in the Model Congress event.

My takeaway on these images of versifications past? A) I'm a doggerel junkie; and B) road trips seem to be conducive to inspiration. Next time I feel any writer's block, I'm heading for the parkway.


It's the most wonderful time of the year....

I love it when my kids get out of school and are around all summer long. I love that they can play and read for hours on end. I also love what has become a family tradition: we have had a home-summer school every summer for the past nine years. We spend two to three hours together each weekday with structured schedules and high expectations.

Every May I take inventory of what we have, figure out what we need, then order it so that we'll have it by the end of June when 'regular' school gets out. That's what I'm doing today.

Here's what we use:

Overall Guiding Syllabus and Inspiration: The Well-Trained Mind (TWTM)
Grammar: Rod & Staff Building English series
Spelling: Spelling Workout series
Penmanship: Rod & Staff Penmanship series
Math: Saxon series
Art: Drawing with Children, Drawing with Older Children & Teens, museum websites
French: The Rosetta Stone program

A caveat on the Rod & Staff curriculum: These are scripture-based books published by devout Mennonites in Kentucky. I use them because they are the most rigorous, thorough texts available. Because we are Bible-readin' Christians, I don't mind assigning my children to write out or diagram sentences like "John, the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, was the forerunner of Christ" or "Abraham, trusting in God's promise, obeyed His command"--but you might.

Usually we follow TWTM's comprehensive four-year rotating History/Science curriculum, but this year we're taking an interdisciplinary approach to that carrot of all carrots: The School of Rock. Yes, just like in the fabulous movie, we'll have courses in Rock History, Rock Theory, and Rock Appreciation. It may sound like a boondoggle, but we'll be working hard on analytical skills and expository writing, with daily, level-appropriate essay assignments.

Luckily, I've already prepared the School of Rock syllabus. My uber-friend Shauna has created 17 CDs to supplement our own collection for the listening/appreciation sections. We started the School of Rock last summer, but chose to abort the mission due the insanity of the house renovation. The kids are raring to go this year and are especially excited about our culminating Road/Field Trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland at the end of August.

We use a very effective reward system, with the kids earning stickers for every subject assignment accomplished every day. At the beginning of the summer, they each choose something they'd like to earn, a Harry Potter book on CD, for instance, then we figure out how many pages of stickers they'll need to fill up to earn it. Piano practice and a minimum of a half hour of independent reading are also mandatory, daily sticker-earning activities (independent reading is always a slam dunk).

There is occasional grumbling, but for the most part our program runs smoothly. I always have the kids start with math, grammar, and penmanship, since these are the least liked subjects. Science and history (and School of Rock this year), being the most fun, are saved for the end of the school 'day.' The baby naps, then plays with math manipulatives, pattern blocks, or puzzles while the rest of the kids study.

We all sit around the kitchen table; I travel from chair to chair as needed, spending the most one-on-one time with the youngest. The older kids can work independently on quite a few of their subjects at this point.

Special foci this year will be intensive work on essay construction for Christian and James; having Hope memorize the multiplication tables; and teaching Tess to read. I'll also get some Elton John, Billy Joel, and other piano-heavy sheet music for the boys to explore as part of both the School of Rock and their piano time.

I've got composition books full of the kids' work from summers past; it's satisfying for all of us to page through them and see their progress from end of June to end of August as well as from year to year.

Why do I do this? Because I believe knowing the difference between an appositive and a noun of direct address is important. Because as good as our school is, my kids won't learn how to parse sentences, who the Merovingians were, or how Earl King influenced Led Zeppelin during their time there. Because it gives some structure to our otherwise free-flowing summer days. Because I like being involved in my children's learning processes. Because I cherish the hope that they will become lifelong learners, and I want to give them the tools to be able to do so.

But mostly? Because I said so.


Time keeps on slippin,' slippin,' slippin'

Eager cheerleaders: no, I didn't finish. But before that admission sends me into a spate of self-flagellation, I will say:

a) I'm very, very close to being done;
b) I'm much further along than I would have been had I not set the goal;
c) Being accountable to you all got me working at times when I just didn't feel like it; so
d) All in all, I think it's been a very successful 30 days.

Now I'm not sure what to do. My first impulse was to push the deadline back to June 1st, but I've got a ton of sewing to do before the trek. I also have two trays of seedlings to plant and a Weed Dragon to wield. Late May and most of June are extremely busy for anyone with kids in school: concerts, field days, exams, and tournaments abound. This is why May 15th was such an ideal deadline to begin with.

What do you think, O Friends of the Ethersphere? Should I go for June 15th? Try and pound it all out by May 31st? Go for the sure thing and say Fourth of July weekend? Throw up my hands, delete the whole manuscript from my laptop, stop once and for all pretending I'm a writer, and go eat some Cherry Garcia?

I'm betting you can guess which option I am favoring in this bitter moment. But your opinions and advice will be greatly appreciated nonetheless.


Why I Love Stephen King

Patrick watched me climb into bed the other night with an enormous Stephen King library book under my arm and remarked, "I just don't understand why you like to be scared." I've been chewing over that comment ever since, because I like to feel completely understood by Patrick at all times. For me, feeling understood equals feeling loved.

The next morning, an award-winning bloggy pal wrote a post about having read Stephen King's memoir/writing manual, and I felt the coincidence was too good to pass up.

I don't know whether many readers of this blog have read much of King's work. Some, like Patrick, shy away from horror fiction for various reasons. Others may be too busy reading Litrahchah; still others may not want that much sheer poundage for their reading buck.

I don't read Stephen King because I like to be scared, though his books can often be terrifying. I'm not recommending his work; even his less grim stories are liberally peppered with earthy language and grisly images. They are not for the faint of heart, or for those under the age of seventeen (yes, Christian, that's when I'll let you start reading them). But I will tell you that I think Stephen King is one of the great writers of our time, right up there with Mark Helprin, Umberto Eco, and Don DeLillo. Here are some of the reasons why I love him:

10) He's an original. He has a distinctive writing style and voice which he has honed over years of consistent work. He has re-worked old tropes and invented new ones that have become iconic in our culture. Think of Jack Nicholson grinning through a splintered bathroom door, the epitome of a violent paranoiac. But there are plenty more. Troubled teenage wallflower? Call her Carrie. Aggressive dog? 'Cujo' is the shorthand term you're looking for.

9) He taught me to listen to people others dismiss as crazy, to see them with fresh and open eyes. In the world according to King, it is usually the crazy people who see things as they really are. I find this instructive, with biblical precedent.

There was a man who would walk the streets of Manhattan when we lived there, bellowing at the top of his lungs, "Alleluia, ah-lay-looooo-yuh, JEE-zuzzz." We would hear him at all hours and in a variety of neighborhoods. I've always wondered what motivated that guy, whether he saw himself as a latter-day Jeremiah or John, a voice crying in the wilderness of New York City. You can bet that he'll end up in a book of my own someday. I learn something new about myself when I pay attention to those who are a little (or a lot) marginal. And they make great characters.

8) SK is passionate about baseball. 'Nuff said.

7) He doesn't take himself too seriously. I have no patience for writers or actors who start talking in lofty tones about their 'craft,' reinforcing the mystique that they are somehow better than the plebes that make up their audiences. When asked about his work, my pal Stephen says that he simply loves telling a good story, and that he is grateful to have been able to support his family doing so. Down to earth. Confident in his gift, but with no pretensions to grandeur. Love it.

6) He tells a wing-ding of a story. His books are whoppers in the best speculative fiction sense of the term--tall tales like those told around campfires. The characters are complex; the conversations sound authentic. The stories feel true, even at their most unreal. An underlying theme of much of his work is the stark symmetry of the opposites found everywhere around us in the world: peace and hatred; beauty and atrocity; good and evil.

5) His book On Writing is one of two writing manuals worth anything at all, in my opinion (the other one is Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird). Tangent: here are the other books worth having on your shelf if you want to write fiction: a good dictionary; a good thesaurus; Strunk & White; a good grammar book; and The Chicago Manual of Style.

4) Stephen is unbelievably prolific, having written 45 novels in 33 years, plus a whole lot of short stories, quite a few screenplays, and a pack of non-fiction. He doesn't understand why this astonishes people. In On Writing, he comments, "If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?" Amen. I've enjoyed at least a book per year of his for the past 25 years; I am confident that this bounty will continue as long as we are both alive.

3) He can make a long plane ride feel like five minutes. There are many great writers whose work I can enjoy in small packages: a chapter here, a chapter there a week later, if need be. Stevie is one of a handful of authors whose books I save for the binge times. If I can, I'll read them straight through in a day or two, absentmindedly shoving DVDs and boxes of crackers towards my family members when they make a bid for my attention. Among other writers in this category are George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams, Peter Straub, and Diana Gabaldon.

2) He's not perfect. He's written a few spectacularly bad books: The Tommyknockers and Rose Madder come to mind. But he's a fighter. He kicked drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol years ago; more recently, he fully recovered from severe injuries, including a shattered hip, after being hit by a car while walking near his house.

Anyone who can come back from scathing reviews, unrelenting snobbery, serious addiction, and several weeks in intensive care has big-time character. You want more evidence of his character? He's been happily married to his college sweetheart for close to forty years. His three grown children adore him. That's all I need.

1) He asks deep questions and wrestles with them all the way through his stories. Sometimes he comes up with answers, sometimes not. That's fine with me; I like questions better than answers anyway.

His books are almost always allegorical, but because King doesn't have a didactic bone in his body, the deeper story never shows through at the plot's expense--brilliant. Stevie has a great heart; he believes that good will prevail. This may sound wiggy to anyone who has ever seen The Shining, but I feel uplifted and energized after reading his work. He inspires me to be a better writer, but more importantly, he inspires me to be a better person.

If someone were undaunted by my caveats and wanted a good introduction to Mr. King's work, I would recommend:

1) The Green Mile
2) The Talisman (written with Peter Straub)
3) The Shining
4) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
5) Lisey's Story

If you get that far, write me; we'll chat. Until then, I can't wait for Duma Key!


Queen for a Day

Here are some flowers from my yard for you in honor of Mother's Day. The lilacs make the whole house smell heavenly. I hope your day was as great as mine was!

Mine started off with ambrosial French toast made by my personal chef. Church was lovely: the kids sang and I got appropriately misty. Bonus: all the moms scored charming little boxes of fabulous See's candy! It's hard to get in the Northeast, so it was doubly treasured even as I scarfed it down.

I received handmade items: sweet cards, a beautiful tissue paper corsage, and bright paper lilies that now grace my dresser. My very exciting gift from the family was my very own Weed Dragon! I cannot wait to flame all the dandelions and plantains in the entire yard. It might even be able to vanquish the dreaded ground ivy. I'm raring to go.

In the late afternoon, my personal chef fired up the grill and made his patent-pending Boursin Burgers. I drool at the memory. Really: Patrick makes the best burgers in the universe; even his regular cheeseburgers are better than any others I've ever tasted.

The weather was perfect--cool breezes, warm sun, brilliant azure sky--truly fit for a queen. I'll toddle off to bed now feeling pampered and special. Thanks, guys!