Entries in The Game is Afoot (30)


Warning: This Post May Ruin Your Life

I'm really not kidding. I won't be offended if you leave right now and move to the next blog on your "Favorites" list. You may be really, really sorry if you continue reading. Kids under 18, I really want you to go away now; I don't want your parents harassing me later.

Still here? Okay. But I warned you. Don't give me any grief in a comment once you're done here.

According to my Scavenger Hunt spreadsheet, Pezmama gets a rest for a while starting tomorrow. Today, though, her burning question is this: why have both an Almond Joy and a Mounds candy bar? Why not combine the two?

It's something I have often wondered myself. I've come to the conclusion that there are some people who have strong preferences regarding dark and milk chocolate. The decision to have the almond paired with the milk chocolate version seems to somewhat arbitrary, but no doubt the Peter Paul company did some sort of market research into the situation.

I enjoy both milk and dark chocolate, so I find both delicious. If he hasn't heeded my warning and is still reading, poor Patrick is now shuddering. He loathes and despises coconut, but I LOVE it. I prefer Almond Joy to Mounds, since the almond adds that toasty, nutty crunch to the experience, but I have never had a problem eating a Mounds if that's all there was left in the Halloween bag.

Until now.

I don't know if I'll ever eat an Almond Joy again. Or a Snickers or MnMs or a genuine Toll House cookie. I recently read some shocking news on Bitsy Parker's excellent blog (links will come when I get home). Hoping what she'd written wasn't true, I did a bunch of independent research, and I can now confirm her report.

Have you ever wondered why chocolate is so cheap? Why you can dash into a 7-11 and buy a chunk of cocoa-filled goodness for less than a dollar? Maybe you haven't; maybe you've just taken inexpensive deliciousness for granted as a basic human right.

But speaking of human rights, it turns out that virtually all mainstream chocolate--that produced by the Big Four: Mars, Inc., The Hershey Company, Cadbury Schweppes, and Nestle--is made at least in part with cocoa beans grown, harvested, and processed by slaves in West Africa. A little more research revealed that my beloved See's is also a buyer of slave-produced cocoa.

Worse, many of the slaves are children, children who have been sold by their parents to the plantation owners for a few dollars. Or they've been lured off the streets with promises of bicycles and high wages, but once they reach the cacao farms, these children are horribly abused and malnourished and live short, horrifying lives of backbreaking work and despair.

Reports by UNICEF and the International Labor Organization confirm this. The BBC did a documentary on the problem in 2000, and the next year The Philadelphia Inquirer put out a series of articles on the horrors of slave chocolate as well.

After some limited public outcry, the Big Four agreed to a four-year plan called the Harkin-Elgin Protocol to eliminate child slave labor from the cacao industry. But according to many human rights groups, that deadline has come and gone, with the big chocolate doing little, if anything, to keep their agreements. Crocodile tears have been shed, but not much has changed.

What are we chocolate lovers to do? The only way to be sure that your chocolate hasn't come to you at the expense of slave labor is to make sure it says "Fair Trade" on the packaging. Fair Trade cocoa has been produced by workers paid a living wage and who are housed decently.

Believe me: I know this news is depressing. When I first read about it, I wanted my ignorance back, because knowledge brings accountability. It's tempting to make a disconnect, to try and forget about the tragic reality so that I can satisfy my base desire for sensual gratification in the form of an Almond Joy.

Then I think about the cotton plantation owners in this country 150 years ago, living with the evils of slavery but unwilling to make changes to their lifestyles because they didn't want to sacrifice their comfortable way of life. We look back at those slaveowners with horror and disgust, but are we any better when we support the slave industry one step removed? In a way, it's worse to be the disconnected consumer, because we then add hypocrisy to our list of sins in the matter. Most of us would never beat a child or force him to sleep on a wooden plank in a padlocked shack with a tin can for a urinal. But how many of us will continue to turn a blind eye when a craving hits us?

Again, l'll post all the links to the reports I've read once I'm home. Until then, do an internet search of your own, if you feel up to further shock. It's not pretty, and you may never be able to look an MnM in the eye again--at least not until drastic change comes to the chocolate industry. Which will not happen until you and I stand up and vote with our dollars.


West Meets East

Pezmama's post request for the day was for me to compare living in the West with living in the East. It's an interesting topic, but one I don't feel qualified to address.

For the first 21 years of my life, I lived in the West; I'd never been east of the Rocky Mountains. I lived mostly in California, but we also spent time in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

I moved to New Jersey in February of 1988 and met my BFF Patrick a few months later. We got married in 1990 after my church mission to Montreal, Canada; I've been here in the East ever since. We lived in Manhattan for 11 years and have been in the Hudson Highlands for the past 6 years.

So. All my time in the West was as a young single person; all my time in the East has been as an ever-aging married person. I'm so different from the eager, shy, confused girl who grew up in the West that I almost don't recognize myself. It doesn't seem like a very apples-to-apples situation to me.

What do I miss about the West? One on-ramp for every off-ramp. The smell of manzanita bushes in the hot summer sun. Mother's Circus Animal cookies. Henry Chung's Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco. The Pacific Ocean (SO much better than the Atlantic). Highway 1. Road trips through Nevada from California to Utah. Joshua trees. The green Livermore foothills in February, windmills and all. A relative lack of humidity. But most of all, proximity to my family of origin.

What do I treasure about the East? The ubiquitous green; miraculously, there are trees everywhere. The changing seasons. The sunsets that always look like a Frederick Church painting. The mysterious, inimitable smell that comes up from the subway grates. Ready access to local, organic everything. The Metropolitan Museum; everything about Manhattan. Being near the roots of our American heritage. The comparative lack of urban sprawl. But most of all, the history that I've built here with my husband and children.

I love to visit the West, but I don't know if I could ever leave the East. How's that for a non-answer?


This Post is Brought to You by PEZ

Well, not really; that would mean that I'd be getting paid right now. Unfortunately, I'm not.

I'm blogging remotely from the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY this weekend. Christian and I will be here through Sunday hearing from favorite writers like Jane Yolen, Peter Straub, Dave Duncan, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Garth Nix, among many others. And I tell you: if Stephen King shows up for the awards banquet on Sunday, I'll just die.

I love my MacBook, but I do not love Blogger's lame Mac version. Since I refuse to learn HTML, I'll have to come back to these weekend posts and put in links and images when I get home. But NaBloPoMo must go on!

Pezmama requested that I post about PEZ today. Though she owns over 80 PEZ dispensers, I don't recall that Pezmama has ever posted about the origins of this fine candy. I've loved PEZ since I was very little, so I was happy to comply with her request.

Ahh, the wonders of Google. Everything I'm about to tell you is information that you could have obtained yourself within a matter of seconds; I am no expert.

PEZ was invented in Austria in 1927. The first flavor was peppermint; in fact, the name PEZ is taken from the German word for peppermint: PfeffErminZ. The candy was first sold in tins, as Altoids are today; later the inventor invented a dispenser shaped like a cigarette holder and marketed the mints and their dispenser as an alternative to smoking.

The PEZ dispenser as we know it was developed in 1955. Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse were two of the original dispensers and remain among the most popular today. The dispensers are highly collectible, but the rumor that eBay was founded for the trading of PEZ dispensers is false (though eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's wife is an avid PEZ collector).

The PEZ company has had a general rule against making PEZ heads of living people. The Teutul family of Orange County Chopper fame is a notable exception (I know: RANDOM).

PEZ the candy has come in many flavors over the years, with the most popular being the classic lemon/strawberry/orange/grape variety pack. (See? No lime! PEZ is perfect.) I'm intrigued by the new SourZ flavors; gotta find me some of that.

PEZ has been featured on Seinfeld and in a Nickelback song. It also apparently played key roles in the TV series The Pretender and the movie Stand By Me.

My favorite PEZ dispenser of all time was Chewbacca. You probably have one or two lying around the house; what's your favorite?


A Word Spoken By Chance

Today is the first day of National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo for complicated). My readers have kindly pitched in to help me get through this with a modicum of grace, and have furnished me with a topic per day for the next 30 days.

First on the scene responding to my call for help was the ever inspirational Pezmama. You'll be seeing her name here frequently in the next few days, as she came up with several great post topics for me. Before I address her question for the day, though, let me tell you a bit about her.

Pezmama's Rattling Around was the second blog I read with any regularity (Jane Brocket's Yarnstorm being the first). I first encountered it at a Five Minutes for Mom blog carnival last March; I spent spare minutes for the next few days reading through all her archives. She's fantastic: funny, honest, thoughtful, and generous. Pezmama is no longer an active blogger, but she had a tremendous influence on me when I was finding my own voice in this strange new medium. She has a great mind and a huge heart; because of these sterling characteristics, I have not let the fact that she doesn't like to read fiction tarnish my great admiration for her.

Pezmama's question of the day is as follows: "What kinds of writing exercises do you do (or prompts, maybe) that help you get your ideas on paper?"

For me, different kinds of writing demand different approaches. Here are the kinds of writing I do in ascending order of regularity: lyric writing, personal essays, blogging, and fiction (almost exclusively fantasy; my realistic YA novel Shannon's Mirror was an anomaly).

When I write lyrics, I usually start with a single image that grabs my imagination; with "New Birth," I used that of a candle burning in the darkness as my jumping-off point. I like parallelism in lyrics, so once I had the initial trope worked out for that song, the others followed quickly: a lily blooming in the snow; a fountain flowing in the desert.

Out of all the kinds of writing I do, the personal essay challenges me the most. When I read the work of a great essayist--E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Anne Lamott, or Adam Gopnik, among others--I'm in awe. It's like reading a well-plotted mystery: I enjoy reading it immensely, but it is difficult for me to puzzle out how it's actually done. As far as I can tell, a successful personal essay is constructed in sonata form: Introduction; Exposition; Development; Recapitulation; and Coda. This is the structure I used for my very first "book": a Mother's Day gift booklet called Legacy of Self: A Celebration of Motherhood; it's also the form I tried to follow in the two essays published in the collection Silent Notes Taken.

So with a personal essay, I'll take a powerful memory and see if I can explore its meaning in my life through sonata form. Arduous? Yes. Satisfying when done to the best of my abilities? Yes. Essays are the Crossfit workouts of writing for me.

I use no prompts when it comes to blogging--until now. NaBloPoMo will certainly be a boot camp of sorts, because in the past, if I haven't awakened with an idea for a post, I simply haven't bothered. Looking back at my archives, I see that I write between 12 and 22 posts per month; putting out 30 this November, even with all your help, will be a stretch.

Fiction: speculative fiction: fantasy. This is pretty much where my inner writer lives, plays, and takes joy. I have so many ideas for books that I doubt I'll ever get them all written, and I get new ideas all the time. Many of my favorite ideas come from dreams: often just a single, vivid image, the mystery and sheer coolness of which captures my attention and compels my imagination. I keep an Idea Journal on my computer; when I have a great dream, I try to write it down as quickly as possible while it's still fresh in my mind.

When I'm ready to start writing a new story, I pull out the Idea Journal and read through it. Often two or three images or ideas will attract themselves to one another in some sort of sympathetic harmony. I'll illustrate how this happens by using the example of a partially written novel of mine called Septentrion. For this story, three different components came together.

First was the discovery of the word 'septentrion' itself. I found it by chance in a French-English dictionary when I was looking up something else entirely. It has several related meanings in the OED: "1. The constellation of the Great Bear...; 2. The north; the northern region(s) of the earth or the heavens...; 3. A northerner...." The word instantly sparked my imagination, speaking to me of unexplored regions, mysterious and remote.

Around the time I discovered this intriguing word, I read the following verse in the book of Zechariah in the Old Testament (KJV): "Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the Lord."

This scripture is unusual in its metrical symmetry and rhyme structure, giving it the flavor of an incantation. It triggered for me an extensive topical search on the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. This theme has been a matter of great speculation among both Jews and Gentiles (and later, Mormons) almost from the time of the tribes' disappearance. After reading many opinions on the subject--all very pragmatic--I began to toy with my own more fanciful theories regarding their dispersal and eventual regathering.

The third component of the beginning of Septentrion was an anonymous Inuit poem called "Magic Words":

In the very earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on the earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen--
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody could explain this:
That's the way it was.

These three things combined in my mind into the seed of the book: a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in Manhattan, upstate New York, and the Canadian territory of Nunavut. I started playing with the idea, using the only prompt I ever use when writing fiction: "What if?"

What if the Lost Ten Tribes became somehow absorbed into Inuit culture? What if a shape-changing polar bear came to Manhattan in search of a girl who could save his people? From there, the story grew almost effortlessly, until I killed the joy of discovering the story by synopsizing it. But for me, it is such a compelling idea that I know I will eventually return to it and finish it.

A bit of Luisa trivia: as I first envisioned it, Septentrion would have had two sequels: Noctober and Novembrance. When I was searching for a domain name for my email address years ago, the first two titles in the trilogy were taken. Thus the genesis of Novembrance-the-Blog.

ZF-360 started with other "what if" questions: "What if the story of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute could be told so that it made sense? What if Irish Travellers kept themselves out of mainstream American culture to hide their magic from the world?

The Holly Place came from applying "what if" to several different arresting nightmares I am very grateful to have had: What if a person taught himself astral projection, but came home one night and couldn't get back into his body? What if there were a haven, mostly lost to the world, where a person could find healing if certain conditions were right?

I envision my answers to "what if" in the form of scenes. Characters seem to present themselves to me, inviting me to get to know them. As I learn who they are, I find out what they'll do in certain situations. Then I write what I see and hear and feel, with as much precision and clarity as I can muster.

If I'm ever blocked, it's as if the movie in my head is paused. Sometimes it takes some fiddling to get it going again; often it's a random sentence I write that gives me the next turn of the screw. "Cathy heard Mae crying in her bedroom." Oh, but Mae's sound asleep; who is really crying? Or did Cathy imagine it? A whole new plot point then unfolds and take shape.

Going back to the Inuit poem, "a word spoken by chance": that's all it takes to spark imagination when you're really listening. For me, ideas are all around, like a garden full of perfect, ripe fruit that needs only to be picked and eaten. And turning the ideas into stories is a matter of focusing energy and setting aside time for them, nothing more.

Which I need to go do right now, seeing as how National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) also starts today! 50,000 words in 30 days: I'd better get started.


Venatio Detritivorum

"The game is afoot!"

(Have you ever seen the movie Young Sherlock Holmes? How I love that film.)

Oh, and my post title? That's my Rowlingesque, fake Latin translation of 'Scavenger Hunt.' (For the real Latin, try Jenna.)

Since I have made the insane decision to participate both in National Blog Posting Month (Nablopomo) and in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) in the month that includes my birthday, that of our eldest child, and Thanksgiving (which I host for between 16 and 20 people each year), I figured I'd need some help.

Enter RaJ the Great and Terrible and his genius idea for a framework for Nablopomo: that of a scavenger hunt. For Nablopomo, I need to post once a day for the 30 days of November. I know; not onerous on the face of it, right? Except for the fact that there are MANY days when I wake up thinking that there's nothing very blogworthy going on. Ergo, I am silent.

And that can't happen in November. For I must win. And when I say 'win,' I mean 'finish without humiliating myself.'

RaJ suggested a way to get our readers involved: ask THEM (that would be YOU) to provide us with items/ideas as post subjects. They can be concrete items (a toaster) or abstract ideas (world peace). They can be burning questions you've been dying to ask. They can be topics you'd like to see addressed. They can be obnoxiously obscure things you'd like to see dealt with in a (semi-)creative fashion. It's up to you.

So I'm taking the first 30 ideas you, gentle readers, submit to me, reserving the right to toss any I deem inappropriate. Feel free to submit more than one, but if you do so only submit ONE IDEA PER COMMENT. Otherwise, I'll just take the first one you list and ignore the rest. What? It's my blogparty, and I'll be picky if I want to.

That's it! The first 30! So submit your idea now, before Halloween is over! (I really, really hope you can come up with 30 items between the lot of you, or I'll be shamed forever.)

**UPDATED**We're there! Thank you; I have the very best readers in all of Planet Blog.

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