Saturday, August 27, 2011

Jennifer's Wedding

My daughter’s wedding day looms ever closer, the day we’ve been anticipating, imagining and planning for more than a year. I say we because, I’m quite sure that in addition to the bride and groom, the most vested person in this event would be me, mother of the bride. Fortunately, the site for the reception was agreed upon very quickly. Then, we relaxed. After all, September 16th seemed so far away. We are organized women. How hard could planning a wedding be?

In retrospect, I wonder at our smug naiveté. Weddings are an enormous industry and, if resources are limitless, I’m sure it’s possible for the process to flow seamlessly. But, most of us, at some point, must adhere to the ugliest of words: the budget. As soon as the word wedding is mentioned, prices for flowers, music and photography double and the organized, intelligent and beautiful young woman a mother has raised suddenly reverts to someone who is incapable of arranging her own hair and applying her own makeup. Her decision making ability regresses. She cancels her subscription to the Wall Street Journal and orders 12 months of Bride Magazine.

The mother, another organized, equally intelligent, although older woman, will comb Joann’s and Michael’s for rhinestone hearts, card stock and picture frames, all the while debating the merits of silver, gold or black numbers in order to create the perfect place card design.The two, mother and daughter, will debate seating arrangements, bridesmaid's gifts, favors, colors, linens and the height of centerpieces. They will shop until they drop for the perfect dress, the perfect veil, the perfect shoes. They will discuss jewelry, chairs, flowers, cakes, the registry, honeymoon destinations, colors, wines, the bar, the music, the vows, the invitations. They will be consumed with the anticipated occasion.

The mother will ignore the plunging stock market, earthquakes that shake, hurricanes that flood, turmoil in Libya, drug cartels in Mexico, and the depressing state of all world economies, except those of China and India. She will forget that hunger, poverty and drought affect much of the planet and will spend exorbitant amounts of capital because all she wants and hopes for is one perfect day when everything falls into place and her daughter stands before family and friends proclaiming to all that despite natural disasters, tumbling markets, global warming and other unforeseen disasters, this is the person she has chosen to weather them with from this day forward. She also hopes it won't rain.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Children Are Like Books

Once again it’s September and for many of us, September means the beginning of a new school year. A thought occurred to me as I mailed my latest endeavor, HANNIE RISING, to my literary agent in New York: books have a great deal in common with children.

Books and children require a great deal of effort to reach maturity, when the author/parent steps back and says, “That’s it. There’s no more I can do. From now on, you’re on your own. Parents have more difficulty reaching this point than authors and, probably, use different vocabulary, but that’s really the crux of it and, just like with books, the process happens in stages. I’ll skip the conception/plot idea which in both cases, for parents and authors, is quite pleasurable and, typically, not difficult, and begin with stage one.

Stage one begins at the onset of mandatory education: Kindergarten or, in the case of a novel, submission to agents/editors. This is where most of us learn, for the first time that our precious offspring/manuscripts are not perfect. In fact, their imperfections can be easily identified and must be worked on/edited.  This usually involves, in both cases, homework, hands-on involvement including reading, writing, studying.

Stage two for parents is junior high. For authors it is distribution. A certain amount of release is required by both parents and authors, “certain amount” being the qualifying words. At 12 and 13, children can shoulder a degree of responsibility; writing down assignments, asking questions, completing homework. However, they need supervision every bit as much as they did when they were in elementary school, for obvious reasons. Books, also, require some attention. They must be introduced or  “marketed” to distributors who will, based on the interest engendered by sales representatives and authors, place said books in bookstores, airports, convenience stores, markets, etc. Both children and books are in serious trouble without careful monitoring during this stage of exposure.

Stage 3,  for parents, is when a child leaves home for purposes of higher education, marriage or a job. This truly is the point where a parent should think, “This is it. I’m finished. I can do no more. You are my masterpiece. Go out into the world and be competent, compassionate, productive, honest and joyful but don’t forget us, your parents. Call, email and please visit. We’re here to emotionally, not financially, support you as needed. Many parents, me included, aren’t always confident that our finished products are where we hoped they would be at stage 3. Still, we no longer have the remotest shred of control, so we learn to recite the serenity prayer. 

Books, also,  must eventually stand alone, their authors finished with their stories, their prose printed for reviewers and readers, their merits critiqued and blogged about, their ratings published. But, like children, books shouldn’t be released altogether to languish on the shelves or in cyber space. Authors must support their books in the form of promotion. Books must be introduced to booksellers and readers. Although the creating part is finished, authors must tour, virtually or on the road, cultivating fans, acquiring mailing lists, hawking newsletters, gathering Facebook and Twitter fans, in the hope that their books will interest, inspire and bring joy.

I am a 6th grade teacher. I’ve had many, many successful students and some not so. Most children begin the year chomping at the bit and flying out of the gate. Some need more time to settle in and pick up speed. A few never do. I worry about them. I wonder what I could have done differently.

I am also an author. I’ve had many successful books and some not so. Some have earned awards and bestseller status and, a few, have had too few copies sold, qualifying as flops. I wonder what I could have done differently. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Art of Wielding a Knife and Fork

I have to confess that whenever I go to a restaurant in Ireland, I’m fascinated by the way people eat, the intricate play of the knife, held between the fore and middle fingers of the right hand, and the fork, positioned backwards, held in the left. At what age, I wonder, does it take hold, this complicated act of coordination, cutting and maneuvering with the knife to assure that just the right mouthful of food sits on the back of the fork before it is carried, with the left hand to the diner’s mouth? How do they manage it, especially the children, their manners exquisite, their eyes like blue glass? Why don’t they spill the tiny peas that I can’t begin to carry, with any kind of dignity, more than two inches before they fall, if I’m lucky, back to my plate, but more typically down the front of my blouse?

Where, in the annals of our history, did we switch from the European style to our own Americanized way of eating, where the sole purpose of the knife is to cut, and where the fork is transferred back into the dominant hand to bring the food to our mouths?

Our language is full of idioms that refer to common practices from our past: sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, or, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely, there must have been an event, a logical evolution at the root of this table etiquette change from the countries of our European roots, a change so dramatic and recognizable that spies in both world wars were unmasked because they reverted to using silverware the way they were taught as children.

And, naturally, there is such a reason: apparently, during colonial times, hostilities between the loyalists and the patriots heated to such a degree that tavern keepers were afraid of fights breaking out and, subsequently, property destroyed. Because most people are, and were, right handed, a mandate was set in place: knives were to be used for cutting meat only and then set down, at which time the fork was to be transferred to the dominant hand. Interesting.

The origins of sleep tight are disputed, but my favorite is the explanation that early mattresses were supported by ropes pulled tightly to insure a well-sprung mattress.  The bedbug warning needs no explanation, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater refers to the order in which families took their Saturday night baths: dad first, then mom, eldest child and down to the baby, at which time the water was murky enough to sustain the joke that the baby might indeed be lost in its opaque depths.