Getting Carded

I have a relic in the corner of my dining room, a dinosaur that I often have to explain to younger visitors.  They mistake it for a toolbox or curious storage cabinet.  “This,” I say, running my hand across the rectangular drawers, “is a card catalog. It’s how we used to keep track of books in the library.  Kind of a prehistoric  internet.”

I get it, when the young ones digest this information with puzzled expressions.  Now that information is a click away on a glowing screen, when Wikipedia does all the heavy lifting, a bank of file drawers with titles, authors, and subjects typed by hand on index cards seems archaic, like an abacus, or 8-track, or jello mold.

As soon as I was old enough to pedal my bike without training wheels, I headed for our local public library.  My mother helped me get a library card, an official laminated square with my very own name on it that magically gave me free access to shelf upon shelf of books.  When the librarian asked to see my card at the check-out counter, I slid it across to her like it was an American Express on Rodeo Drive.   That card was my sole reason for owning a wallet.

It was my impossible goal one summer to read every book in the children’s section.  I got mostly through the A’s before realizing there was juicier fodder in the card catalog.   I loved the crinkly plastic jacket covers.  I loved the pocket stuck to the back cover that held a card stamped with dates tracing the number of times this book or that one had been selected, borrowed, and returned again.

Then, privacy wasn’t such an issue, and the card bore the names of past readers, their signatures a witness to their interest in a given topic on a given day.  The names on those cards used to fill me with stories of the imagined lives of the borrcard-libowers.  Why did Alice Dodd renew Sounder three times?  Was her life so hectic she couldn’t finish it or did she just like a good cry?  What kind of a person was Mark Amos that drew him to read Sylvia Plath?  I always felt sorry for the books with blank or sparse check-out histories.  If I found one, I’d renew it just to give it an extra stamp.

High school research papers forced me to the library for business, not pleasure.  I gained blue-booknew respect for librarians:  the Fairy Godmothers of Knowledge.  No topic was too vague or obscure for them.   A few flips through the card catalog and they could unearth the holy grail itself.   I honed my hand-eye coordination by operating the microfiche machine in a dim-lit room, scrolling through old newspapers to find material.  Librarians will run heaven’s registrar office.  You will be able to cross the pearly gates after a nasty bump on the head with no idea who you are.  They will peer down at you, size up that scar on your left knee and the slightly upturned nose, flip through a dusty tome or two and recite your ancestry, character flaws and deeds of note leaving plenty of time for lunch.

Libraries exert no pressure.  Unlike bookstores, where I feel as if I must carry around a book or two to give the appearance of being a potential purchaser, libraries are for loafing.  Borrow it, or don’t.  Read the whole thing in the chair by the window and they won’t cast disapproving looks at you because they’ve lost a sale.  If they don’t have it, someone else in the world wide library family probably does, and they’ll send it over!  Even their overdue fees are ridiculous!  Ten cents a day?  No other civic institution operates on these sort of fumes.  Libraries are the best game in town.  They don’t play favorites.  Anyone can come to story time, have access to reading, and take home a stack of books to explore.  They give out library cards like Halloween candy.

Some of the most beautiful places in the world are libraries.   We stopped in Dublin’s Trinity College Library this past summer for a glimpse at the famous Book of Kells.  This was one of the most beautiful books in the world housed in one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.  When we left after our tour, my husband and I were both pretty much like this:

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Seriously, floor to ceiling leather-bound volumes with gilt edges.  An arched wooden ceiling with a spiral iron staircase leading to the topmost stacks. trinity-library Golden letters on the shelves to alphabetize by author.  Unfortunately, they weren’t keen on a couple of American tourists becoming “Readers in Residence,” despite our offer.

Because libraries often rely on donations and limited acquisition budgets, they tend to keep books around a long time. The more ancient and historical libraries are literal repositories for the history of the world.  As Virginia Woolf said, “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.”  Indeed.

Plus, when you reach a “certain age,” they’re one of the only places where you’re still going to get carded.  Free books and an ego-boost:  who can’t use more of those?

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-sept-2016

Too Quiet

The rules of physics shift when we become parents.  Somehow the airwaves change and we are suddenly tuned in to sound in a new way.  Noise is now a thing we both fear and crave.

A  baby can scream non-stop for two hours from colic or exhaustion or teething, fraying every nerve in your body until you make unholy bargains with the devil for some quiet.  When he finally falls asleep and that blessed quiet falls upon the house, the crazy sets in.  Now your radar is super-tuned to the static of the baby monitor.  He doesn’t usually sleep this soundly.  It’s awfully quiet in there.  You quiz your spouse:  do you think it’s too quiet? You ninja-creep into his room and hold a finger under his nose:  is he breathing?

With age, the noise increases, especially if siblings are in the mix.  I can scream louder than you.  No, I can!  Then eardrums are no longer a thing, and it’s worse than having spent three hours at an Iron Maiden concert.  It’s an endless barrage of questions, singing, yelling, and fighting. On the way home from an afternoon of errands, I used to tell my kids “Mommy’s ears are tired!  Let’s let them rest for 5 minutes!”  Who do you think invented the Quiet as a Mouse game?  A mom.

But you don’t want them to be quiet either.  You know the kind of quiet I mean.  A friend of mine foolishly relished a few extra minutes of sleeping in one morning.   Her rambunctious toddler twins were unusually quiet.  She got up to find they’d emptied five pounds of flour all over the kitchen and living room and were gleefully driving their trucks through the paths of “snow” they’d made.

Quiet does not bode well.  Quiet means smearing the contents of their diaper all over the crib and walls.  Quiet is eating the cat food, cutting their own hair with great concentration, dropping your earrings in the toilet one by one.  If siblings are involved, quiet gets more interesting:

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My older sisters quietly devised a fun game one afternoon while my mother made dinner.  The oldest had to capture the younger two in a cowboys-and-Indians charade.  She found the first sister, tied her hands and feet and added a gag and blindfold for good measure. She ordered her to stay put while she went off to find her other quarry.  As the bossy first-born, she expected her instructions to be followed and didn’t think it important to tell the prisoner that she’d been stationed at the top of the stairs.  Like any self-respecting prisoner, the first sister attempted escape:  hop, hop, CRASH, TUMBLE, CRASH!  She landed at the bottom of the stairs with her knee through the drywall, the other two sisters staring wide-eyed from the top of the stairs, and my mother incredulously trying to make sense of the scene as she rushed around the corner.  On the upside, they learned from my father how to patch drywall.

As tweens and teens, the quiet is harder to navigate. The noises are loud music, friends hanging out and raiding your fridge, slammed doors, and huffy sighs.  Does an eye roll have a sound?  Yes. It speaks volumes.  That Spidey sense when it’s too quiet still works, but the signals can be hampered by hormones.  They are the ones who now both fear and crave quiet.  Mom, why do you have to ask so many questions?   Seriously? I am transported back to their loud public toddler queries:  why is that lady so fat?  why do we have to poop?  do babies come out of your bottom, mom?   In comparison, my questions seem civilized and tame.  They want you to be interested but not too interested, near but not too near, available but not intrusive.  The quiet you worry about now is the silent scrolling through the phone or clicking sites on the computer.   What are they up to?  You’re still holding a finger under their noses, checking for signs of life:  are they depressed?  lonely?  sad?  worried?

Sitting on the porch this morning with my coffee, it was blissfully quiet. The good kind, not the hair-prickling uneasy kind.  It’s nice to have an occasional coherent thought and time to just be.  I get times like these more often now that the kids are mostly grown, but now I look forward to the noise.  There’s peace to be had in noise, too.  Noise means life and love live here.  Noise is wrestling, jumping in the pool, and slamming car doors when your kids come home for the weekend.   “Guys!” I yell, when the couch almost tips over.  “Quiet!”   A little voice inside pipes up with a smile:  But not too quiet.

Just a Minute

I had a solid grasp of time before I became a parent.  I knew how to keep appointments, schedule my day, and meet deadlines.  Time was my minion.  It was just lying in wait to stage a coup, it turns out.

Once the babies arrived, it was all about the clock.  Meal time, bath time, play time, blessed, blessed nap time.  I had to schedule the day around those things or we’d all pay the piper.  My first born thrived on routine.  She needed to know what was coming next, and counted time in “how many sleeps” before the next activity.  The youngest was more of a play-it-by-ear sort.  Sleep was to be avoided at all costs lest he miss the party.

Juggling these polar opposites was part of the universe’s scheme to undo me.  Toddlers don’t live inside time.  This is why you never, never tell a small child about an event more than 5 minutes before it happens.  Their emotions are volcanic.  Anticipation cannot be contained.  When are we seeing Santa?  Is it time for Santa?  Can it be time for Santa now?  Mommy, Santa, Mommy!!!!  If you mention Christmas in casual conversation sometime in October, you will hear about it 157,000 times a day for the next three months.

Minutes mean nothing.  Minutes are sands in the hourglass.  An hourglass snagged by small, sticky fingers that gets tipped, shaken, and hurled into the wall.  You hold up a finger to indicate these minutes while you’re on the phone:  Just a minute, honey.  While you’re checking out at the grocery store:  Hold on a minute, sweetheart.   While you’re in the bathroom:  For the love of all that’s holy, IN A MINUTE!

Once, I was in a long line at the post office waiting to mail six heavy boxes of Christmas presents I’d stacked on the counter. As the line inched forward, I slid the boxes and my squirming toddler along together.  She had to go potty, of course, because she absolutely did not have to go before we left home.  “Can you wait a minute, punkin?”  She sweetly nodded twice, and then let go, all over the counter and down the sides onto the floor.   Turns out “wait a minute” in toddler-speak means “now.”

Parenting is full of now moments. Our bodies get in on the game at ground zero and we have nine months of having to eat now, sleep now, go into labor now.   Parenting puts us at melting-clockthe mercy of the universe’s clock, which looks more like the ones in a Salvador Dali painting.  Babies demand soothing now.  Small children want everything right now.  From the time they can talk, we hear “Watch me!  Are you watching?  Look what I can do now!”  It’s exhausting.  Some days you spend wishing for time to speed up.  Bedtime can’t come fast enough.  If only they could walk, talk, be out of diapers, be more independent!  Some days, the ones you just survive, last forever.   Some days, the ones full of rocking and smiles saved just for you, you wish you could freeze frame.

Parenting is full of delayed moments.  Eventually, as they grasp the concept of time, instead of making life easier and more organizable, somehow it backfires into you having to wait.  The minutes you desperately wanted them to grant you, they give you in spades.  Except with the words “five more” tacked on as a prefix.  Time for bed!  Five more minutes??  Time for dinner!  Five more minutes! I’m almost to the next level/waiting for this show to end/on the phone/doing my hair/catching a Pokemon.  Some days you spend wishing they’d catch up.  Hurry up is an impossible dream.  How long can it take a human being to finish a bowl of cereal?  Find their shoes?  Walk out to the car?  For crying out loud, we are going to be late to school/practice/church/life again!   Some days, the days you spend in a mad scramble of calendars and agendas, disappear in a dizzy haze of push and pull.  You’re Alice’s white rabbit.

Parenting is full of later moments.  Teens want everything later.  When are you going to take out the trash?  Later.  Have any homework?  I’ll do it later.  When will you be home?  Later.  How about scheduling a college visit?  Can we do that later?  Gotta run, mom, I’ll text you later.  Their time becomes more their own and their friends’ and less of it is reserved for you.  The now’s have turned into “whenever’s.”  It’s rare that they yell for you to “watch me!”  More likely, they prefer privacy and hands-off.  Still, you watch the clock with sleepless worry when they’re out late behind the wheel.  You bite your tongue and try to wait to be invited to talk about the heartbreak or disappointment they’ve faced. With fewer demands on your time, there’s somehow the backward sense of time speeding by, those hourglass grains slipping through your fingers even as you try to gather them.  Time warps:  the days are long, but the years are short.

I’m fast approaching the empty nest, when I’ll return to being able to schedule my days and minutes sans interruption.  Funny thing is, I stopped wearing a watch about a year ago.  My oldest turns 20 this week–an age I can’t fathom.  All the now’s, hurry up’s and later’s seem like both yesterday and ages ago.  Suddenly, I want to pause:  just a minute!  Five more minutes?  But time, in its own cadence, marches on.

The Care & Feeding of Book Groups

A staggering statistic has been battered about lately.  Something like 28% of American adults did not read a single book last year.  Not in print, not on Kindle, not even plugged into an audio book on a long commute.

Who are these people?  I do not know them.  Books accompany me at all times, just in case I have extra minutes in the pick up line at school, in a doctor’s office, or at a kid’s sports practice.  Whispered confession:  occasionally, if it’s a real page turner, even at long red lights.  They tuck me in at night and share my breakfast when I wake up.  Going a whole year without turning a page would be like giving up chocolate:  no bueno.

My bookshelf houses mostly fiction.  Turns out, that’s mostly what women read, while most men who read (a much rarer species) head for the non-fiction. Supposedly this is because fiction has characters, and women specialize in empathy, making it easier for us to get caught up in the story.  Also, we are (again a generalization) a more patient gender, and from an earlier age have learned to sit still to actually make it to the end of a novel.

Women congregate.  We huddle up.  We have play dates, lunch dates, ladies’ night out, and entire girls’ weekends.  Women who read, it stands to reason, gather over books.  Book clubs are a lot like friendships.  Some weather all phases of life and meet steady as clockwork for decades.  Some wax and wane with the members’ seasons of life, knitting new ties and loosening old ones.

I’ve been in several book clubs since my 20’s, each with its own flavor.  With book clubs, as in life, diversity of membership is best for interesting discussion.  Over the years, members have included different nationalities, races, ages, religions, and marital status.  Best book we discussed:  Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy.

Book clubs are dynamic entities that require care and feeding to survive.  While book clubs are as varied as the books they celebrate, some basic principles apply to each.

First, (duh) book clubs work best if the members read the book.  If you hate it, choke it down so at least you can say why you hated it.  If you read it weeks ago and can’t remember any of it, jot down some notes or highlight your copy so you can point out thought-provoking or well-written passages.  Reading books does take time and some self-discipline.  Knowing I have to share some halfway intelligent opinions by a certain date spurs me to turn off the TV and quit scrolling through Twitter so I can finish and contribute.

Whether you rotate who chooses the book or your group is led by a scepter-wielding dictator, people’s preferences differ so don’t shoot the messenger.  The person who picked the book probably didn’t write it, so if it was the worst drivel you’ve ever slogged through, blame the author, not the chooser.  Intimidation and insults don’t stimulate meaningful conversation, generally.  If this happens a lot for you, maybe you’re in the wrong group.

Also, kind of the whole reason book clubs exist is so you can branch out, grow, learn from others’ experiences and perspectives, yadda yadda yadda.  So probably you shouldn’t dig in your heels and refuse to be flexible.  Unless it’s one of the group’s stated tenants that it “doesn’t read horror,” for example, it’s kind of like eating at someone else’s house.  You don’t make faces, declare it “Yucky!” and refuse to try a bite.  Surely something in the book will interest you.  Come on, just try it!  You can read your personal preference outside the group.

Some book groups are highly disciplined, following the reader’s guides in the back of the book and staying on task.  Some have good intentions but manage to keep falling down tangential rabbit holes.  If your goal is actually to discuss the book and not just to finish the bottle of wine, it helps for the person who chose the book to have some questions to rein in the gossip and chatter. Depending on the personalities in the group, this can be a herculean task and frustrating for those who came for a book club.  This is when Dory’s voice plays in my head:  “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, that’s what we do, we swim….”

Mix it up.  Many popular titles are released as movies or TV series. (Think Outlander or Girl on a Train.)  Double dip and have a girls’ night out field trip to compare the book with the movie.  (Spoiler alert:  the book is always better.)

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-aug-2016

Out of Reach: The Risk of Parenting

My oldest went sky diving a few weeks ago.  She took off with a group of friends and jumped out of a perfectly good plane while, 2 hours away, her dad and I checked our phones nervously for news of a safe landing.

This is par for the parenting game. About three seconds after I became a parent, every cell in my being zeroed in on the safety of that little bundle.  And about three seconds after that, my kids seemed to delight in finding new ways to hurt themselves.

I did all the right stuff–electrical outlet covers, car seats, a lock on the chemicals under the sink, talks about strangers, the internet, drugs and alcohol, driving skills, and safe sex. Still, they found ways to get broken arms, ding the car, and make asinine choices.  From their first steps (right into the edge of the coffee table) to the scraped elbows from the epic wreck on the bicycle, 90% of parenting felt like I was chasing them around with bubble wrap, which they’d fling off and set fire to.

I put my 3-month-old down for a nap once, grabbed the baby monitor and went to our unfinished upstairs to paint some window frames.  My husband came home for lunch that day, poked his head up to say hello, then left a short time later.  When I heard the baby stirring on the monitor, I headed down to get her and discovered he’d locked the door, which was always our habit.  I was trapped, the baby out of reach with no one around, no phone.

Panic!  I calculated how many bones would break if I jumped out the second story window. Tried throwing myself into the door to break it down.  (It doesn’t work like it does in the movies.)  Everyone else in the cul de sac was at work, except…  A solitary teen aged boy was playing basketball several doors down.  I screamed at him, hanging out the window and waving my arms like an insane person until he came over, let himself into my house, and freed me from my prison.  (Clearly, his parents had not taught him about Stranger Danger.)

This same child locked herself in her room as a toddler, and I sat on the other side of the door, our fingers touching underneath, frantically fumbling with the skeleton key.  There is nothing so agonizing to a parent as being helpless to reach a child who needs you.

Ask any parent of a chronically ill child, watching as they’re wheeled to yet another procedure.  Or the parents denied access to their adopted child month after month while foreign governments sift through red tape.  Divorced parents who share custody with an irresponsible or abusive ex.  Parents of deployed soldiers.  It’s all part of the package, except, eager to reproduce, none of us ever reads the fine print.

A friend who recently dropped off her kid at college lamented to me that she couldn’t stop worrying about something happening and not being able to get to her daughter.  I get it. My own is scheduled to study abroad next semester and I’ll admit to feeling similar twinges, especially after Paris, Brussels, and Nice hit the news cycle.  But that’s fear talking.  And fear is not the Boss of me.  “Love is what we’re born with,” says Marianne Williamson.  “Fear is what we learn here.”

Parenting is nothing if not risk.  From the time they’re born, we perform a kind of catch and release with our hearts.  It’s a tight-wire balancing act:  keep them close, send them out; swoop in to rescue, let them learn to fall.   The end goal is, after all, to work ourselves out of a job.

Full disclosure:  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when we rode our bikes miles from home (sans helmets) and drank straight from the garden hose  The surgeon general was barely even a thing.  I’m in favor of running barefoot, grabbing mane on a galloping horse, climbing trees, and “Swing higher, Daddy!”

Yes, there are moments of panic and anguish as a parent, times when you can’t protect your child or prevent every misstep.  Did we really believe it would all be giggles and lollipops?  We can’t fetishize safety because of a world that feeds off fear like it’s sugar.   When did failure became the new F-word?  Failure is the only way forward.

The flip-side of risk is where the good stuff hides out.  The flip side of risk is connection, creativity, a life with flourish.  Sometime, we have to let go of the back of the bike and quit running along behind.  I’m too old for that noise, for one thing.  And parenting was never supposed to be about my fear–it’s about their launch.

 

Annoying

It’s the kiss of death:  the eye roll accompanied by a muttered “she’s so annoying.”   If you’re around teenagers at all, you probably hear it often.  Everything, it seems, is annoying.  Their hair, teachers, friends, homework, schedule, chores, siblings.  It’s an endless list, and if you happen to parent one of these pleasant creatures, I don’t have to tell you that you often make the list’s Top 10 as well.   Your rules, your music, the way you ask questions, whatever you choose to wear out in public.

Maybe it’s most obvious with that age group because they haven’t yet mastered self-restraint.  While the millenials (a.k.a. Generation Me) may seem to captain the helm of narcissism and snark, this constant state of annoyance doesn’t rest solely with them.  A brief scroll through social media reveals a smorgasbord of political, societal, and personal pet peeves. Everyone is annoyed by something!   Which may explain last fall’s hype generated by the possibility of an eye-roll emoji.  Because we needed more ways to convey sarcasm and superiority.

This trendy dismissive attitude even shows up in the way people (especially females) speak.  One of my favorite examples is this clip from Faith Salie on the vocal fry used by young women.  As she points out, each generation will always develop a way of speaking that is unique to them. It’s a way to set themselves apart from the other, presumably more annoying, generations.  This current trend of vocal fry communicates a kind of apathy or cynicism that is apparently a means to appear chic.  Ironically, it also sounds totally–well–annoying.  Much like the toss-off “What. Everrrrr.”

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is about the “that’s so annoying” refrain that bothers me so much.  Sure, some things by definition ARE annoying:  mosquitoes, pop-up ads, and that 2011 “Friday” song by Rebecca Black.  But what is it that makes everything so annoying?  At its heart, annoyance is a symptom of preoccupation with self.  If it doesn’t suit me, my tastes, my needs, my desires, then it is beneath me and not worthy of my concern.  When it comes to a persistent house fly, yes.  When applied to another person, no.

Ask any middle schooler.  There’s no faster way to be ostracized than for someone to declare you “annoying.”  It seems more benign than “fat,” “ugly,” or “stupid,” but the label, usually delivered with a hair toss and eye roll, sets you in the category of the unseen, not even worth my notice.  As a tween girl, it doesn’t get  much worse than that.

Annoying is selfish.  Rooted in pride, it conveys superiority, and unchecked, it slides easily into contempt.  Contempt is a nasty beast.  In a court of law it can land you a hefty fine or jail time because judges, at least, recognize it for what it is:  disrespect.  Contempt is the last stop on the train to dehumanizing someone and making it okay to wound them.

Pride and contempt, says CS Lewis, have been “the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.”  Recent research has found that the eye roll may be the number one predictor of divorce.  Not that shocking given all it conveys to the person you’ve vowed to honor and cherish.

Annoying is a cowardly habit.  It requires less of us.  Annoying requires less compassion, less bravery, less personal change.  It’s much easier to be dismissively cynical than to engage another person, to know them and give them grace.  It requires nothing of me to dismiss with irritation any given political candidate and all his/her fans.  It’s nothing to me to drive by the homeless guy and grouse about his laziness.

How many consistently annoyed people do you know who are happy?  Are they fun to be around?  Do you enjoy their complaining?  The vicious cycle of everything and everyone being annoying is that eventually your annoyance becomes the very thing you despise–it makes you tiresome.   And then it’s just like your Mama used to warn you:  you keep making that face and it’ll freeze that way.

 

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College Move-In Day

We are two years in to having a kid at college.  This weekend marks our 4th move into or out of a dorm.  Sometimes we get lucky and have an elevator.  Occasionally we’ve had to lug carpet, mini fridge, and endless bags of clothes up and down stairs.  In August.  In the  sweltering humidity of the south.

I’ve watched the social media postings of friends over the past week as many of them experienced this transition for the first time.  It’s emotional.  It’s a big step for you, for them.  It  changes things for the siblings left behind, even if they score the vacated bedroom.

If you’re one of these first-time parents of a college kid, you’ve probably simultaneously relished the last weeks of summer with your darling at home still under your roof and occasionally gritted your teeth and checked the calendar as if to hurry along the exodus.  A pre-adult stretching his or her wings and chaffing at the bit to be free can be both wondrous and maddening.

When you moved in, you met the roommate and other parents.  You negotiated room arrangements and shifted furniture this way, that way until it was livable.  Then, you realized you had to lift everything AGAIN to put the carpet down.  Advil was your drug of choice at this point.  If you were really industrious, maybe you assembled a shelf unit or helped hang curtains, stocked the mini fridge with healthy snacks, delaying the inevitable goodbyes and hurried advice to “make good choices!”

Fast forward 9 months to the end of freshman year.  It’s hard to fathom now, here in the heat of August, but it will come sooner than you think.   Weren’t we just moving him in here?   The sheets, no longer fresh and creased, might never have been washed at all.  They, along with the comforter, pillows, and other bedding, will be stuffed unceremoniously into a garbage bag along with a sock or two that you’ll discover jammed between the bed and wall.   Don’t even open the mini fridge.  You don’t want to know.

The things that were so carefully packed in Rubbermaid containers back in August will be wadded up and crammed so the drawers hardly close.  And the carpet?  God help you if the dorm housed girls.  I don’t remember this being a shag carpet.  It’s not.  That’s the new three-inch layer of hair coating each fiber.  Try not to touch it as you roll it up and slide it into the elevator.  All of this is coming back home with you for the summer to be stored somehow in their room (over their sibling’s dead body!) or garage, or if you’re lucky enough to be out of state, maybe in a rented storage unit where you don’t have to see it.

Now, two years in, the towels and sheets have been replaced.   Sheets don’t stand up well to a bed that’s used as a place to sleep, study, hang-out, eat, and cry over finals.  We will not speak of the original first-year carpet.  The one we’ll be moving in this weekend is a hand-me-down.

As a pseudo-veteran of this process, I offer a few suggestions for key items you might put into your student’s boxes–if you can fit anything else into the back of the van.

  1.  Medication.  Odds are, with the new environment (which we’ve already established is not always as “sterile” as it could be), the stress (good stress) of being in a new place, and close quarters with lots of other germy people, at some point your student will come down with something.  If you are not there with chicken soup, it’s helpful to have a small pharmacy of cold medicine, etc. to choose from.  Give them their own insurance card in case they need to visit the campus clinic or other doctor.
  2. Chlorox wipes.  (see #1)
  3. Quarters, for laundry, not drinking games.  In theory, this prevents them schlepping it all home en mass, where 47 loads must be done in the space of one weekend.  In theory.  They still will schlep.
  4. Pizza cutter.  Plus a few other basic kitchen tools like a couple of bowls and silverware for quick cereal before that first class when there’s no time for the cafeteria.
  5. Tool kit.  A small starter tool kit with some extras inside like Command hooks, various tape, glue, tape measure, small hammer and screwdrivers.  They’ll be the most popular kid on the hall.
  6. Essential replacements.  Light bulbs, batteries.  Extra printer ink and paper.  These are lifesavers during late-night studying or paper writing when they’re up against a deadline.
  7. Starbucks card.  (see #6)  Just because you’re nice, and you will miss them, a little.
  8. Electric blanket.  My father gave my daughter a spare one of these and she has said repeatedly it’s her favorite item she took to college.  Dorm room temperatures aren’t always controllable, and it’s nice for a cozy afternoon nap.
  9. Useful decor.  If you have a daughter, consider assembling a place to hang/keep jewelry where it won’t get tangled.  We made one (see pic below) out of an old frame and painted pegboard with bookshelf rests.  Super cute!
  10. Car Stuff.  If they have a car, make sure they have all the insurance and registration info, and consider signing up for AAA.  Peace of mind for minor breakdowns or if they get locked out.

necklace board

About a third of the stuff they can’t live without the first time they move in will trickle its way back home over the next three or four or seven moves back and forth.  My cousin’s parents actually moved her thirteen times.  Thirteen.  Just let that sink in.

Take heart, rookies:  they do come back.  They won’t be the same shiny new freshman you packed off that first semester.  They will meet people and have experiences you will know nothing about.  They will grow into themselves and become even more interesting, funny, and big-hearted than you can imagine.  I know this to be true, and we’re only halfway through.

I found a chrysalis in the backyard this summer and watched it carefully for signs of the butterfly emerging.  Of course I got busy with life and the cocoonnext time I checked, it was empty, its inhabitant finding its wings just fine without me.  I’m not gonna lie:  I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to witness it all first-hand.  But I’m guessing maybe it needed that independent struggle to emerge the way it was meant to, in a flutter of brilliant color, winging skyward.

The Art of Porching

Wide was the divide between the northern and southern halves of my family, but one thing the southern side had going for them was porches.  In the South, before there was central air and climate control and before 432 channels were on every TV, there were porches.  That people actually sat on to “visit.”  With other people.

Mamaw’s house actually boasted two porches–one in back where Papaw worked on his electric fishing reels and where the wringer washer sat, and one in front, with actual windows, effectively her indoor greenhouse.   This was in northern Florida, but lest they become too soft, my grandparents hardly ever used the window a/c’s.  So when the summer air was sticky and close, we’d retreat outdoors to the back porch in search of a breeze.

My sisters and I would fight over the sacks of muscadines and peaches we’d picked up at the Georgia roadside stands on the trip there, and my mother and Mamaw would snap beans, shell peas, or shuck corn, depending on what the garden offered that day.  You could tell their moods by their pace–slow and lazy was a good sign; brisk snapping with a quickly filling bucket meant you’d best give over the sack and share the peaches.

My mother and her siblings grew up on those porches.  The screen door slammed behind them on their way out of the kitchen.  They greeted neighbors there, collected bins of reels that needed fixing, broke up, made up, and snuck back in, tiptoeing up the slanted wooden steps, shoes in hand and giggling too loud.  My siblings and I played cards out there, read books, and petted the raggedy cats that came to slink around our legs and meow for scraps of fish.

At the other end of the house, the front porch off the living room was filled with pots of philodendron vines and spider plants.  In the tropical heat, they grew to infinity, creeping out of their containers, their vines roping outward until they had to be tacked to the walls and ceilings to keep the chaos at bay.  Every surface was leafy, and if you were lucky, you got to sleep out there on the daybeds beneath that tangled jungle.  I used to drift off to sleep, slightly worried that in the dark of night, with only the buzzing cicadas bearing witness, I’d be incorporated, somehow, into the curtains of green, never to be seen again.

In the South, porches are where you cut your teeth on lolly-gagging.  You may or may not have a swing, screens, or the kind of upright rockers that come from Cracker Barrel, but that’s not the point.  There’s an unspoken art to it, an easy cadence.  Porch is more of a verb than a noun.  It means soaking in a long summer evening, the kids sticky from popsicles, bug spray, and sunscreen.  It means swatting a few mosquitoes and drinking sweet tea.  It is the South.  There is no un-sweet tea.  We are not philistines.

Porching is greeting your neighbors barefoot, garden tomatoes in hand, and asking about mom’n’em.  It’s digging splinters out of a kid’s foot with the nearest pocket knife and jawing about the finer points of local politics over the low grind of the ice cream maker and the steady thump of the dog’s tail against the floor.   Because we are commoners, it’s a far cry from the grand veranda and stately columns where Scarlett O’Hara held court for all her beaus.  But porching isn’t meant to be fancy.

There’s this place not far from us, up on top of Monteagle, Tennessee, called the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly.  An unassuming little slice of community, it sits quietly on top of the mountain, a collection of charming cottages with the best porches around.  The MSSA has been operating there over 100 years, conducting spiritual and educational activities during sessions each the year.  It’s a little like TV’s Mayberry.   Those who come to stay walk the trails and regularly stop by each other’s porches for conversation and company.   I drove around there once, met a few folks, and marveled at the trillium and wildflowers in bloom.  Lovely.

We work so hard trying to find things to salve our hurts, reading all the books, playing all the roles.   You can’t find a much better de-tox than morning coffee with the hummingbirds or talking it out with a friend til the moon rises and the moths beat against the porch lights.  We need less scrolling-a-screen time and more unwinding screened-in time.  What if the healing things, the holy things we need for sustenance and buoyancy, are the same as the ordinary things right in front of us?  Shucking corn while rain drips from the eaves.  Laughter with a sister or two.  Peaches, popsicles, and porches.

 

 

 

Jacket Judging

As the fourth of five siblings, most of my childhood books had already been well-loved by the time they came to me.  Covers, if they remained at all, were worn and tattered, often with some words rubbed off altogether.  My parents’ shelves were lined with classics, all with identical green and gold covers, designed to look swell on display.

In middle school, we were instructed to cover our textbooks with folded paper bags from the grocery store, which provided blank canvases for doodling in class.  Later, we learned to camouflage Flowers in the Attic or Wifey so we could read such contraband without parental interference.   My formative reading experience was with books from the local library, their jackets wrapped in annoying crinkly cellophane secured to the book with yellowing tape.

Book jackets were either absent or needed to be engineered or endured.  I learned not to pay attention to them.  Cover art only spoiled the images of characters or places my imagination would create, and reading the pert summaries might reveal too much of the plot.

Titles held the allure for me.  They were the beckoning finger, the enticing come hither.  Once the title had my attention, if I could make it through the first paragraph with my interest piqued, then I’d give it a go.   Happy, sad, horror, mystery, romance–it didn’t much matter so long as the story had a decent pace and the plot wasn’t too predictable.  A book’s jacket, if it had one, was useful as an impromptu page marker at best.

Turns out, I may be an anomaly.   Apparently, second only to favorite author, jacket copy is the next most important factor in the average person’s book purchase.  Plus, most people don’t want to work that hard to figure out what a book is about.  Who has time to read an opening paragraph or even a whole chapter to sample an author’s voice and style when you can make a quick judgment based on crafted adjectives and celebrity reviews?

Of course there’s a wealth of talent and creativity in those who design cover art and word jacket summaries!  Clever design and painstaking art are beautiful in their own right. Many covers can stand alone as frame-able.  Distilling a novel to its essence in just a few enticing sentences can be insanely difficult.  And woe to you if you mislead the reader, billing a plot as horror when it’s more suspense or thriller.  Forgiveness comes slowly.  Despite an entire industry devoted to them, jackets are advertising:  show and spin, designed to turn heads.  The meat lies within.

We are a fickle species, our attention diverted by sparkle, shine, the new, and the next.  Witness the trend of movie tie-in covers, which may generate additional buzz, but for purists who know the movie is rarely (never?) as good as the book, are insulting.  Plus, I don’t need Daniel Radcliffe’s face staring at me from my nightstand, thank you.   That’s what Google’s for.

An accidental experiment:  While writing this post, the book I’m currently reading (The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks) sat on the counter, sans jacket, just a plain dark brown cover.  My teenage son, who despite my best efforts would rather eat an entire can of beets than read (et tu, Brute?), repeatedly picked it up and thumbed through it, almost without realizing it.  When I asked why he kept being drawn to my book, he said it was because it had no cover and he wanted to see what it was about!

It was a mystery, an invitation to explore, which is what books are all about in the first place.  When it’s all done for you, laid out in bold type on the cover, maybe it steals some of the discovery.  When we were young, my mother would occasionally bring home a case of discount canned goods with no labels.   Sometimes you’d get pickled asparagus, but sometimes you’d get your favorite.  I guarantee it made dinner that week an adventure!

Am I a book jacket curmudgeon, shaking my cane at the bright and shiny displays lining the entryways of bookstores?  Perhaps.  But maybe jackets shouldn’t be abandoned totally. Juniper Books, based in Boulder, manufactures custom jackets on a large-format printer to create unique and artistic book displays.  What if bookstores displayed Jack London’s works like this, using murals based on some of the themes in his novels.

source: http://www.wired.com/2012/06/book-design/
source: http://www.wired.com/2012/06/book-design/

Maybe it wouldn’t be 100% practical, but wouldn’t it be interesting to look for books on politics in a section shelved like this?

source: http://www.wired.com/2012/06/book-design/
source: http://www.wired.com/2012/06/book-design/

There’s no denying the whimsy and visual effect!

Maybe book jackets are essentially costumes.  We have been conditioned to pay no attention to the guy with the crooked necktie and thick-rimmed glasses.  He may be Mr. Right, strong, faithful and affectionate, but he looks like everyone else.  When he steps into that phone booth and dons a pair of tights and a bodysuit emblazoned with a giant “S,” we sit up and take notice.  Same guy–he was there all along–but it took some primary colors and bold type to show us Superman was in our midst.  From now on, they’re not book jackets.  I’m calling them Book Capes.

 

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-july-2016

 

 

 

 

By Heart

If you don’t count song lyrics, I have a short list of things I’ve learned by heart:  the 23rd Psalm, a brief poem from my childhood, the Preamble to the Constitution, and Antony’s soliloquy from Julius Caesar.  Oh, and the Pledge of Allegiance.  Because ‘Merica.

Ancient Greeks used to believe the heart was the seat of intelligence, emotion, and memory.  In some ways, that may be true.  In many cases, people who have had heart transplants report having at least temporary memories of things that happened to the donor.

This week, we are celebrating our 25th anniversary, and while we may not have exchanged hearts in a literal sense, we do share decades of memories.  If such a thing can be true of people and not just poems and pledges, I know him by heart.  The date of our ceremony is engraved on the rings we wear, but we started learning about each other about 7 years before that, essentially growing up together since meeting in high school.

weddingOn a stifling hot June afternoon, we got married under a canopy of trees in a state park across the street from my parents’ house.  After the promises and shy public kiss, we walked hand-in-hand down the aisle to the Beatles singing “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”.   I was barely 22.  He was in the middle of vet school.  He had hair.  I had a waistline.

We had exactly one fabulous week at the beach, where we both got alarmingly sunburned and had to drive 10 hours home trying not to let our skin touch the seats of the car.   Good times.

Cue the sound of crashing expectations.  Those first years were sweet, but tough.   Tuition and car insurance led to cereal for dinner occasionally.   Late nights studying for vet school made for lonely channel surfing instead of foot rubs and cuddles.  Stress from work came home with me.  We fought.  Sometimes badly.  This was a far cry from hours of sharing dreams and giggles on the phone at night and going out on dates each week.  Now we shared finances, family, furniture.   Everything, it seemed, had to be negotiated, compromised.

Eventually, we leaned in.  His infinite patience and our shared sense of humor buoyed us.  That, and the fact that we treated the union as a third party, something separate from ourselves that needed care and attention.  Looking at our wedding photo back when we were fresh and doe-eyed, if I could have shared some wisdom with the Young Us, it might include the following.

  1. Congratulations!  You are now a complete family.  Notice children have nothing to do with this, so when people ask you when you plan to start a family, tell them you’ve already checked that off.   If later on you feel the need to procreate, rock on.  But you’ll just be expanding the family you’ve already made.  When the kids leave home, I still got you, babe.
  2. Your spouse cannot and should not fill all your needs or empty spaces.  While you might make a great team and complement each other in all the right places, you still need friends, interests, and soul-filling that have nothing to do with one another.  (Ditto for children, by the way.)   It’s not in the marriage job description for him or her to make you happy.
  3. Have a focus outside yourselves that you can look outward toward together.  I’m not talking about a weekly trip to Home Depot for the latest DIY project.  I mean a common service to your community/world at large, so you can remember that there’s a whole lot going on outside your little bubble of two.  Pray together.
  4. Learn how to fight.  Even if you can’t imagine a cross word in your lovey-dovey state of bliss, it will come, and arguments shouldn’t shake your whole foundation.  You’ll disagree about something–in-laws, money, sex, division of labor, children, or asinine stuff like rinsing out the cereal bowl or peeing with the door open–and if you know each other’s battle mode and can see beyond the conflict, the casualties are fewer.
  5. Assume the best.  Beyond the morning breath, snoring, hair in the drain, and the way she sings off-key is the person you chose for better or worse.  Remember their best self.  Don’t see them as they really are, see them as their best version–Spouse 2.0– and stockpile your grace.   Hope like crazy they’re doing the same for you.   You like someone because.  You love someone although.
  6. If you got married for safety or security, it’s too late for a refund.  You should’ve read the fine print.  Love is not safe.  Human love is never pure or perfect.  It comes with truckloads of imperfection.  Love like this is the biggest risk out there.  If life is kind and nobody gets hit by a bus, the payoff is golden.  You get to be those adorable old people that everybody envies walking hand-in-hand  in the park.  You’ll hold up your hair and he’ll automatically zip up the back of your dress.   You’ll straighten his tie and admire how good he looks in a suit.
  7.  Being a person is hard sometimes.  When you lose a job, or a parent, or a child, or if there are surgeries and procedures and prognoses involved, hang on.   Love is not the honeymoon at the beach.  Love is the roof sailing through the wind in the tornado, and the two of you huddling together in the closet, not letting go.  Be each other’s weight-bearing wall.
  8. Find other people who are doing it right and copy them.  Don’t make it harder by trying to do it all by yourselves.  Ask for help if you need it.  Sometimes an objective voice is critical.
  9. Forgive.  Forgive lots of times, and then forgive some more.  Kindness goes a long way.  Speak life to each other.  The world is hard.  Be each other’s safe place.

So, the Preamble, Psalm 23, a poem, a bit from Shakespeare, and Bob.  The things I know by heart.  Happy Silver.  old couple