Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Fools These Mortals Be!

     So today, I was at work checking my home email, and I saw the strangest thing: I'd received a direct message on Twitter from Colleen Clayton, saying, "Have you seen this picture of you?"
     A little background: I have never met or interacted with Colleen Clayton. I know who she is - the author of the well-received debut YA novel "What Happens Next" - but she, most assuredly, does not know who I am, let alone possess a photograph of me that I have never seen. But does this stop me from believing that she is DM'ing me? Hell no. My mind leaps to the invention of possible scenarios. Colleen and I were both at the same conference once and a group photo was taken, shortly after which I developed amnesia?  Colleen has recently befriended someone I knew in elementary school who was showing her some class photos and naming names, upon which Colleen said, "Susan Brody? Hmm... Isn't that someone whose name I once saw on a Twitter account? I need to check this out!"  Unbeknownst to me, Colleen has been stalking and secretly photographing me during my weekly forays to Shoprite? Why couldn't any of these scenarios be true? It is, as they say, a small world.
     I rush home after work and turn on my laptop to try to get to the bottom of this intriguing mystery. But alas, when I click on said alleged photo of me, my antivirus scanner informs me that danger has been detected. Oh, Colleen, say it ain't so! Tell me your Twitter account has not been hacked and that you really, truly wanted to share a photo with me!
     Moral of the story: people are delusional. They believe what they want to believe, no matter how nonsensical. And a new one of us is born every minute.

     Good night, Colleen. All is forgiven. Text me?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Falling Out of the Blogosphere

     Oh my Lord, I've neglected my poor blog. It seems like after my colonoscopy post nine days ago, I just hit bottom. OH, COME ON, IT WAS JUST A HORRIBLE PUN! I DIDN'T KILL ANYONE, DID I? Now. Where was I? Well, it's funny you should ask.
     Most of the time since then, I've been in New Jersey, doing my New Jerseyish things. But last Sunday evening, despite having come down with a bad cold, I was on an Amtrak train headed down to D.C. That night, I was tossing and turning and coughing and sneezing in the bed my son gallantly gave up for me. And early Monday morning, I was heading out to the Capitol building with my son's two current roommates and his one college roommate, while my son waved us off and went back to bed. (Yeah, I can't figure that one out, either.) And later on Monday morning, I was standing in front of the Capitol, wearing a ridiculous number of clothing layers, and watching the Inauguration.
     What was it like? Different than I expected. The weather was warmer, fortunately. The crowds were smaller and more sedate. People were happy to be there, but not delirious, as they evidently had been four years ago. It was an audience that was taking care of business, mirroring the mood of a president determined to do the same. There was no soaring rhetoric from Obama; instead, there was a to-do list. He's learned all too well that a four-year term is really so much shorter than that; that for someone trying to achieve real change, time is never on your side. He spoke like a man with his eyes on a prize that he won't ever see in his lifetime. The prize is the judgment of history, and I fully believe that it will be his, although neither he or I might be alive by the time it's awarded.
     I had more personal reasons, too, for being glad I was there. I got to see Nate and his roommates in their natural habitat, to meet one of his law school friends who was over on Sunday to watch football, and to spend time with his wonderful, smart, funny, loyal, motivated friends and see how much they all love and respect each other. There is really nothing like the joy of seeing how your child who's left the nest has miraculously learned how to construct a temporary one of his own.
     So it was a weekend of blessings, followed by a week of ... work. Some writing, too. I still have my cold, though it's on its way out of my system. I've been playing around on Twitter more than usual. You know... just stuff, I guess.
     But it's nice to be back here, in Blogland, where I belong. I hope you all are somewhere where you belong too, and staying warm and snug. And I probably don't say this enough: thanks for visiting me here. It's a lonely world if you don't have friends to share it with.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Prepping for a Medical Procedure

     You know, I thought I could pull it off, but I was wrong. Apparently there are levels to which even I refuse to sink. Although I was fully intending to distract myself this evening from the task at hand, I couldn't bring myself to finish this poem:

     Time's a-wastin.' Must get rollin.'
     Doctors need to check my colon.
     Tomorrow, so they know what's what,
     They'll shove a camera up my butt.
     So, tonight, to clear their view,
     There are things that I must do.
     These are all disgusting things,
     Of which nary a poet sings,
     But I, while being thus immersed,
     Thought perhaps I'd be the first
     To have my magnum opus be
     An ode to colonoscopy.

     Wimp that I am, I can proceed no farther. So, I am opening this challenge up to you, my loyal followers. Complete this poem, and you will have the world at your feet. Okay, that might not actually happen, but you will definitely have my gratitude and admiration, and who knows where that will take you? Get to work! I'm counting on you! And I'll check back tomorrow night, when (I sincerely hope) I will be in much better physical and mental condition than I am right now.  XXXX

Friday, January 11, 2013


  Sara Zarr's YA novel, THE LUCY VARIATIONS, due out from Little, Brown in May, is a different kind of novel. This is fitting, because Lucy Beck-Moreau is a different kind of protagonist: a 16-year-old recovering piano prodigy who has spent the last eight months learning, for the first time she can remember, to navigate a life not framed by music.
     Lucy is acutely aware of both the privileges and constraints into which she was born. Carrying her Italian leather messenger bag, she attends the "second-best" private high school in San Francisco; hunting through her closet for something to wear to a party, she comes across a forgotten sweater her mother had bought for her, still sporting its $397 price tag. Her family lives in a house co-owned by her maternal (Beck) grandparents, the sources of the extended family's wealth. No visitor who enters their home for the first time can escape Grandpa Beck's bravado-laced tale of his $17,000 conducting baton.
     But Grandpa Beck is the architect of Lucy's cage, as well as of its gilding. After we read a detailed description of the history of the Becks' heirloom baby grand piano, Lucy's mother's childhood is encapsulated in one chilling sentence: "Grandpa Beck, as the only child, inherited [the piano] the same year Lucy's mother was born, and determined that she would play."  It is only too easy to imagine what happened years ago in that young girl's life when she proved unequal to the task of becoming a concert pianist.
     But, unlike her mother, Lucy was born with the gift. Six years later, so was Lucy's brother, Gustav.  And there was never any question that each of them would be propelled through the ranks until they achieved their rightful places at the pinnacle of classical performance. The only problem, as far as Lucy could see, was herself - her own growing doubts that this was the life she wanted. She had been able to tamp down those doubts with fair success, until that day eight months ago, in Prague, that changed everything.
     After I finished reading LUCY, I turned to Andrew Solomon's FAR FROM THE TREE, a meticulous study of families in which a child turns out radically different in some way from his or her parents. I had flipped through that book earlier and seen that one of his chapters is entitled "Prodigies," with his focus on the musical variety. Solomon discusses a number of case studies before providing this assessment:

          Two distinct kinds of young people are grouped under the 'prodigy' rubric: the
          driven, single-minded baby virtuoso, and the youth who loves music in his bones
          and therefore has a better shot at a sustained career. The latter kids are more
          broadly intelligent, curious, often articulate, and possessed of a sense of humor
          and perspective about themselves. They pursue some semblance of normal
          sociability during adolescence and end up going to college instead of conser-
          vatory. Being pragmatic, smart, poised, and healthy is in their makeup, just as
          their musical enthusiasm and aptitude are.

     Lucy inhabits Solomon's second category. Looking back on her life as a musician, she says: "Time, that was the main thing. Years of it. Aka: her childhood. Gone." Yet she's been able to adapt to returning to a regular school after years of having been tutored so that she could travel on the international concert circuit, and to reconnect with her best friend Reyna, and to attempt to imagine a future for herself other than the only one that had ever seemed possible. With help, she's even able to approach the puzzle of how to reintroduce the music she loves into her life without getting back onto the hamster wheel.
     But damage has been done. Child musical prodigies, as Solomon poignantly observes, "need to mitigate the loneliness of having their primary emotional relationship with an inanimate object." Ironically, although the focus of their lives is their ability to perform on a stage, the prodigious children of ambitious parents "suffer from not being seen; their sorrow is organized not so much around the rigor of practicing as around invisibility." Lucy knows that her family loves her, but she also knows that, once the piano has been removed from the equation, they have no idea how to see her.
     As level-headed as Lucy is, she manifests the loss of her childhood in one particular, potentially dangerous way. Having for so long associated primarily with adults rather than with her peers, Lucy does not seem to be able to form attachments to boys her age. Instead, she develops serial, deeply felt crushes on older men, one of whom happens to be Gustav's new (married) piano teacher.
     THE LUCY VARIATIONS is a beautiful book. The action is minimal, but the themes are biggies: love, loss, empathy, trust, and the courage to move forward. There are some holes that I wish had been filled in. The biggest one, for me, is that there is no mention at all of the relationship between Lucy's father, the only nonmusical member of the family, and the domineering and often contemptuous Grandpa Beck. We never see them exchange a word. How have these two men managed to coexist for all these years without erupting into a fullblown turf war? Has Lucy's father just accepted being marginalized in his own home, or has he somehow earned Grandpa Beck's grudging respect? I find the situation fascinating in its potential for explosiveness, and I wish the author had chosen to give us at least a few hints (aside from Lucy's father having acquired an office downtown just to get out of the house once in a while) as to what choices these men have made in order to survive.
     This is, of course, just a small quibble. THE LUCY VARIATIONS is a convincing and moving portrayal of an unusual young woman in whom teen readers will nonetheless recognize themselves.
     And - I almost forgot! - it comes with a bonus CD of the music Lucy loves: rock, classical, some of everything! When was the last time you got a terrific book AND a free CD? Right: never!

Saturday, January 5, 2013


     Today I finished reading R.J. Palacio's WONDER (Knopf, 2012).  There was a lot to love about it; there were a few things I didn't love.  I'll start with the good.
     August Pullman is about to start fifth grade. He's also about to attend school for the first time in his life, having been home-schooled by his mother and snugly cocooned within his loving family until now.  Born with such severe facial deformities that he was not expected to survive, Auggie has beaten those odds, and undergone numerous corrective surgeries, but, in his words: "I won't describe what I look like.  Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."  Welcome to middle school.
     For the first 80 pages, the reader is inside Auggie's head, finding out what it feels like to have kids in your class stare at you out of the corners of their eyes and cringe when they touch your hand by accident.  Then the point of view shifts.  The reader learns what it's like to be Olivia, Auggie's older sister, who learned by necessity a long time ago that no matter what she does, she will never come first in her family.  Olivia understands and shoulders her premature responsibilities with such grace that it breaks your heart.  We learn what it's like to be Justin, Olivia's first boyfriend, and Miranda, her former best friend.  And we learn what it's like to be Summer and Jack, fifth-graders who have the courage to befriend Auggie despite the threat of social ostracism.  We watch as all of them grow and change through the course of a school year, nudged along at times by helpful adults, but often having to find their own paths through the woods.
     The need for kindness and empathy is a very important lesson, and this book teaches it in myriad ways, by expertly showing instead of telling.  Toward the end, unfortunately, I must admit that I felt I was being walloped over the head with the Message, and that the principal's speeches were the author's least successful way of conveying it.   I also found myself wishing that Auggie were just slightly less saintly - more 10-year-old boy, less  Gandhi.  Because his observations are conveyed so keenly, I think it would be easier for middle-grade readers to identify with being an ordinary kid who happened to have been born with a deformity - which, of course, could have been any one of them - but more difficult to identify with a nobility of spirit that almost never lapses into universal human failings.  I think that if I were ten or eleven, I would want to read about Auggie because no matter how different he was on the outside, he was like me on the inside.  But to be like 10-year-old me, he would have to be noticeably imperfect.  In other words: a little less of a wonder.
     Despite these quibbles, I found the book to be a wonderful read, and I believe that you will too.  Every middle-schooler would benefit from meeting Auggie Pullman.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Day

     I spent today quietly, rotating between two very pleasurable activities - workin' on the book, and reading R.J. Palacio's WONDER - and one very unpleasurable activity - obsessively tracking the ongoing Theater of the Absurd production of "Congress and the Fiscal Cliff."  Really - How can some of our duly elected officials stand to look at themselves in a mirror?
     But let's talk about fiction so we don't have to start throwing things.  Let's talk about fiction so we can be calm and rational and civilized. Let me report that, at 75 pages, my book is now beginning to feel like a book, or at least a first draft, rather than an amorphous blob.  Let me tell you how excited I am to have finally reached the stage at which I can put it on a leash and take it out for a walk.
     And let me say that WONDER is pretty wonderful.  I'm still only about a third of the way into it, except that for years now, I haven't been able to read books in any normal way.  I flip forward, backward, completely randomly.  I'd flip sideways if I could.  A paragraph here, five pages there, whatever strikes my fancy.  And then I go back and read the whole thing in linear fashion, and that way I can understand how it's constructed.  That's the way I learn.  So I already know everything that's going to happen to Auggie in fifth grade, but I'm still reading.  See the difference?  Anyway.  More later after I've read it from beginning to end, but it's been a satisfying companion to me today.
     And I guess that's my New Year message: be grateful for the little things.  A good book to read.  The time to write, and some well-turned sentences to show for it.  A warm house.  Two excellent dogs.  A peaceful day (if you don't count the Congress part, and I won't).
     Wishing you all those things, and other appropriate blessings, for the coming year.