Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Lead Betterment Society Begs: Forget Where You Are; Lose the Dictionary

When I was sixteen, I thought something mattered, and then I found out it didn't. That knowledge has changed the way I've been writing the rest of my life.

Allow me to me explain.  There was a radio station at my high school, from which sports games were announced. One blustry April day, at the start of baseball season, I happened to be standing nearby when the advisor yanked open the door to the rickety control booth and barked in at the two teeth-chattering announcers, "Stop talking about how cold you are.  No one cares.  They just want to hear the ball game."

No one cares?  That may seem obvious to the beaten down and middle-aged, but it was a revelation to a teenaged girl. I had thought that minute-by-minute reports on my well-being and mood swings were as interesting to others as they were to me.  And now I was hearing differently.  The dim lightbulb over my feathered hair began to flicker.  From that "we're so cold the only color commentary we can offer is covered in icicles" wrist slapping, the foundational theory for my writing life was born.

Okay, perhaps the revelation was not quite that grand in scope, but it was important nonetheless. I've managed to eke out a living as a writer for several years now, and I know I owe part of my modest success to the understanding that, most of the time, no one cares at all about me, but, if I do my job right, they might find themselves caring at least a little about about what I have to say. My job as a writer, I think, is to get out the way as quickly as possible and let that thing we now call  "the content" take center stage.

Which leads me to the notion that one of the worst possible leads is the one that signals, "I had absolutely no idea at all how to start this piece of exposition, so I resorted to telling you where I was when I was writing, and (even more pathetically) what the weather was like while I was writing it."

This laziness gives us leads such as, "As I sit writing this in front of the warm fire nook of my multi-story Vermont chalet, it's hard to believe that you, dear reader, won't be able to read these words until you stay up all night at the bookstore to get the first possible copy of part VII of my "Vermont Story" series this coming June.  Do wear sunscreen; you know how unattractive a red and peeling nose can be."

The reason people resort to this ploy, I believe, is boredom.  They sit staring at a blank screen for so long that they finally start to look around and think about their surroundings.  "It's hot in here" or "I have a boil on my butt and it itches like a sonofagun" are not great leads; they're finger exercises. It's not writing if it's just typing.

Really, no one cares where you're physically located when you're writing.  They guess it's at a desk, and they also guess that you have a nicer laptop than they do.  Also, if they had as much free time to burn as you seem to possess, they'd be writing something, too.  So shut up and get to the point.

In the pantheon of awful leads, the only one worse than the locational throat clearing is the Webster Maneuver.  If you thought this one went out with your fifth grade report on "Our Friend the Python," think again.  A few times each year, I sit in a conference room, stunned into gape-jawed horror as I view a PowerPoint Slide One, 72 point type, reading:  "Webster's defines [my topic] as ..."

And there it is, pasted right from dictionary.com onto the first slide of a Very Important Presentation. Unless you are in the employ of the Merriam-Webster organization, try again.

Just for the record, that company is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, and no one much cares about what the weather is like there now, either.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Girl Who Lived

In case the Minneapolis Star-Tribune goon squad shows up at my door sometime soon, I just want to make my confession now – I ghostwrote Emma’s entry in the “How Harry Potter Changed my Life” essay contest. She has already claimed her prize – two tickets to a special preview of HP Part II last night, so I’ll take my lumps without a whimper.

To be fair, I tried the aboveboard route first. When I saw the announcement of the contest in Sunday’s newspaper, I suggested to Emma that she should try writing her own thoughts for an entry. “It’s only 150 words,” I cajoled. She was unmoved, having an important announcement to post on Facebook. “Just Inhaled.” (Next post: “Just exhaled.”)

“Is it okay, then,” I asked, “If I enter FOR you, and if you win, you can keep the tickets?” Generous girl that she was, she agreed. When I asked later if she wanted to take a look at my entry, she was feeling too languid for editing. 

With the unerring luck that seems to surround every aspect of her life, she won. She went to the preview with Olivia, and she did tell me “thanks” when she got home last night.

It wasn’t hard to write the entry. Even if she doesn’t recall it now, Harry Potter did change her life when she was younger. Harry, like Emma, was an orphan. That his parents had been murdered by Lord Voldemort and hers had placed her at the local orphanage in Wuhan did not matter to her. She and Harry, they had things in common.

It’s hard to remember a time before the books were turned into a multi-media empire, but the year she was in kindergarten, it was just a story that I read to her at bedtime, unattended by actors and directors and computer games. That year, Dayton’s Department Store announced that Harry Potter would be the theme of the annual Christmas display. We made our trek downtown for Santa, dinner at the Oak Room, and the display. As we wound through the show, we were entranced with the invisibility cape and Platform 9 ¾. 

Then we rounded a corner and came to the display of Harry at the Mirror of Desire. As the little mannequin waved, his parents appeared and disappeared in the mirror. He had never been able to see James and Lilly, but, with the magic of the Mirror of Desire, he could.

Intended to be a 30-second pass through on the way to the next display (and the gift shop, of course), the Mirror of Desire became Emma’s semi-permanent home. “Time for Santa,” we could cajole, trying to pull her along, but we’d learned some time before that she was not a girl who moved when she did not want to. She remained stock still, her little face turned up, her eyes riveted.

And then I realized what she was thinking – “If I just look hard enough, stand still enough, I will be able to look into that mirror, and I will be able to see MY parents.” 

So we stayed, passed around by a stream of grannies on walkers, mommies with strollers and kids who had seen enough and were ready for Santa.

Not Emma. She knew she could see them if she just tried hard enough. 

I can’t remember how we finally got her out of there. I can’t remember how I ever got to her sleep every night, either – with Emma, the hard parts have often become a bit blurred.

After that day, I started to tell her that I believed she would meet her parents someday. I had a couple friends in the adoption community who thought I was imprudent, leading her along. But I persisted. “You never know,” I would say. “What could happen with politics, with science, with DNA. Someday, somewhere, I bet you’ll find some family. It could be one cheek swab, one web site, away.”

She’s leaving for China in two months, ready to spend a school year studying and traveling. I don’t know where she’ll go or who she’ll meet. But I think I know her well enough to know that, in every face she encounters, she’ll be wondering, “Do I belong with you?” She carries that Mirror of Desire in her heart. And I hope that, sometime in her life, she can have a chance to find some family looking back at her, from the place that’s been empty for as long as she can remember.

With a backstory like that, I figure, at least the Star-Tribune can sport for a couple of movie tickets.

Here’s the entry:
I was an orphan in China and was adopted when I was a baby.  The first book I remember having read to me was the first one in the Harry Potter series. Harry was an orphan, just like me. When he looked in the Mirror of Desire and saw his Mom and Dad, I wished that I could do the same thing as Harry. But he found lots of other people to love him and look out for him, and so have I.  Like Harry, I’ve been able to find loving friends and family who protect me and love me. It makes me sad now to realize that I’ll never be able to look in the Mirror of Desire and see my birth parents, but I’m glad that I’ve shared my struggles along the way with Harry Potter, the Boy who Lived. By Emma, The Girl Who Lived.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What we Learned on our Summer Vacation

It wasn't the traditional Minnesota "getaway" (italics mine, of course) to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, but Mary Katherine and I did manage to turn our recent sojourn in New York into a wholesome(ish) sort of vacation. 

We played games. 
Bench Bingo, our own creation, awarded points for the highest possible diversity on the subway bench opposite the one on which we happened to be sitting.  Here is an example of a top-point bench:  a white guy in a suit, an elderly lady with a church-going hat, a toddler, a Chinese granny, a thuggish, tatooed rapper and a monk in saffron robes.  We hoped that we might be point-getters for someone who was looking for "two tired tourists" to win a round.  (As Nina Ariadne asked at the stage door,"So, you two are from ... Jersey?")

Bluetooth or Crazy? was a game we appropriated from Mary Katherine's friend Maren. Is the wildly gesturing person approaching you -- the one with the foam-flecked lips and the rolling eyes -- receiving bad news from his stockbroker or instructions from his alien leader on the planet Whackjob? Take a guess and earn big points.  Just don't get in a subway car alone with him.

We observed the native dress.
The Scarves of Summer
Apparently Mayor Bloomberg sent a personal message to all females that went something like this: "I don't care how hot it is, girly.  To maintain your NYC street cred, you MUST wear a long scarf at all times, draped in a circle around your throat in a manner that's intended to look vaguely European.  Do not be deterred by the fact that the actual Europeans, here on vacation, are wearing t-shirts and Birkenstocks and are sweating just to look at you."

Rompers (Don't Get Us Started)
 Mary Katherine channeled her inner Diana Vreeland in quickly dismissing the romper trend. "If you're not currently enrolled in pre-school, you're too old for rompers," she declared. One night at dinner, she turned to our uninterested-in-anything about-girls dining companion and queried sincerely, "Uncle Joel, what do YOU think about rompers?" I've known him for 25 years, and this was the first time I could ever describe him as "nonplussed."

We experienced wildlife.
Of course, the sea lion show at the Central Park Zoo counts as wildlife, as do the numerous dog runs we sat in (illegally, it turns out, since big signs warn that you must have a dog to enter). 87th and Riverside, Union Square, Madison Square, Washington Square and the Natural History Museum "Bull Moose" runs were all checked off our "fauna" list.

We told stories around the campfire (sort of).
Sure, we enjoyed our outings to the Al Hirschfeld, Stephen Sondheim, Cort and New World stages. But our favorite theatrical experience was at the Food Emporium on 8th Avenue & 49th Street, where we discovered a new sort of street theater. We had quick pre-show snacks there, perched on the stools that faced the street, and discovered a constant stream of dramas, comedies and elaborately choreographed maneuvers from the passersby.  Mary Katherine, the reigning queen of the backstory, wove all the parts together into a wonderful tale; I never wanted to leave for curtain time.

We felt at home.
A recent observation in the New York Times, from novelist Ruth Pennebaker, captured the essence of our experience. On a recent visit back to Manhattan, she wrote about her“crazy infatuation with this city [which has] reblossomed like a full-body rash. It's a rush of exhilaration and freedom and possibility in a jam-packed island of mothers wielding strollers like battering rams, young men screaming into cellphones, the beautiful, the hideous, the blighted, the golden. Here you can see and hear everything. In this teeming, frantic world, nothing and nobody is weird.”

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Little Give and Take (to Quote Mr. B. Joel)

Something flew at my head as I exited the 14th Street subway this morning.  While I remained upright (always a major feat), I did swat at it several times before Mary Katherine, with her best director-of-the-nursing-home demeanor, informed me, "It's only a butterfly, Mom."

I congratulated myself at behaving like such a New Yorker that even a normally appreciated creature could confound me. Nature, to a New Yorker, is to be avoided with all the brio that one brings to eschewing the subway car that holds the stinky hobo. And now, I was freaking at a fritillary. Brava, me.

Mary Katherine and I have been in Manhattan the past two weeks, while she attends an acting workshop and I take my brain to Empire State Cerebellum Rehab (i.e, vacation). It's been a grand experience, and I've even managed to learn a few things.

My biggest revelation is that I have the capacity to be a good friend to myself. Most of time time, my self talk tends towards a Lucy Van Pelt level of bossiness. Any vacuum in my brain is filled with comments like "Finish that article; it's due on Tuesday," "Put the laundry in the drier," or "Don't you have anything better to do?" With six hours a day to bop around the city like a free bird,  I've found myself asking nicely, "What would you like to do now, Julie?" As a result, my free time has been a delicious stew of walking, reading and people-watching, my top-three favorite things (four and five are napping and having just completed a yoga class).  In two weeks, I haven't cooked anything I don't plan to eat, cleaned any messes I didn't make or driven anywhere I don't want to go. No wonder I feel so good.

In my many rambles, I've discovered some characterics about myself that would make me an ideal New Yorker. I possess low standards for sanitation, a big bladder and a willingness to tip (modest frequency, not extreme largesse, is my motto). I love the New York Post, especially any sex-scandal headline (see above). Also, after 16 years of motherhood, my personal space bubble remains in little sad tatters, so I tend to manage just fine on even the most crowded subway line.

On my "not so much" list of chacterstics, I am somewhat unfond of cockroaches, especially the giant flying variety that used to inhabit Debbie's first place on West 44th. Also, I really do not understand the appeal of eating on the subway platform or the street. I've witnessed on-the-run consumption of french fries, burritos and large platters that looked as if they contained turkey dinners. While far from a connoisseur of fine dining,  I must confess that I like to sit down when I masticate, preferrably in a place where the bacteria are not actively whirling around my plate. And, finally, I lack the two things that this city seems to require for ultimate success:  Youth and Money.

However, I still manage to have a lot of fun. My curiosity and social bravery allow me to ask questions of just about anyone who has information I want (I have confirmed directions with about a hundred different letter carriers, and they were uniformly (ha!) kind and helpful) or who seems interesting (the grandmother of a girl in Mary Katherine's acting class turned out to be a vintage couture collector who had once been pictured in Bill Cunningham's NY Times Styles of the Times photography feature). I meet these characters everywhere.  Today it was a guy in the dog park who not only gave me tips on handling Boomer's dog park agressiveness, but shared tidbits about his own life as a cameraman for MTV and later, in a war zone.  Trust me, those topics don't come up at Lake of the Isles on an average afteroon.

Back home in Minneapolis, any comment I offer to a stranger is dispatched with a lutefisk eye and a frosty demeanor. I say things like, "Cute dog!" or "Pretty baby!" or "I like your dress!" and they scurry away and clutch their children close.  Here, they light up their smart-and-savvy faces and answer back. "I know, he's a rescue, can you believe it?" or "She's only five months old and she sat up today!" or "I shouldn't have bought it but it made me feel so pretty!" They aren't offering to become my best friends, but they aren't afraid to make conversation, and I appreciate it.

In the words of that immortal eighties' bard, Billy Joel, the New York State of Mind calls for a little "give and take." I've been giving for a long time in my frosty, disciplined and humorless home, and I can feel my soul warming up here, just like the lawn in Central Park, the garbage on the street and the urine wafting up from the sidewalk as soon as the weather gets warm.

It's all part of New York, and I'm willing to take it all, in case anyone asks. And here's a little tip to thank you for your trouble.