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Archive for November, 2012

The tree is up, the outside of the house is decorated, and the holiday cards are in process. Every year, December seems to go by faster and faster — the month hasn’t even started yet and I already can feel the days slipping away. I want to pay attention to every single second this year. I want walks in the snow, nights curled up just gazing at the tree, meals eaten by glow of candlelight. I want carols on the stereo and lots of time just hanging out, reading or talking or playing board games. I’ll let you know how that plays out sometime in January, ok?

In the meantime, here are some ways to make the holiday season more merry for you and your loved ones:

Watch From Time to Time It’s written and directed by Julian Fellowes, the selfsame fellow behind Downton, and you’ll recognize several of the faces.  It’s a lovely, haunting story set at Christmastime during World War II.

Invest in your inner writer (or the inner writer in someone you love).  If you live in New England, consider giving a gift membership to Grub Street, or a workshop or class. It’s a great organization that truly helped me grow as a writer (and continues to do so). Which reminds me, I need to renew my own membership….

Eat chocolate. Okay, chocolate makes a good gift too. I’m particularly fond of Taza chocolate, especially their chocolate mexicano line. It’s sweet and spicy and addictive.  I also love the dark chocolate sea salt caramels from Whole Foods. (An awfully nice friend gave me an entire box just before Thanksgiving, and I have hidden them away for those dark writerly moments of the soul.)

Give a book. Sadly, I cannot post many of the books I plan to give because a certain eleven-year-old who lives in my home has figured out how to subscribe to my blog. (It’s bad enough when they snoop in closets for presents!) But I can safely share two here. They are:

  •    Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull.  I loved, loved, loved this fairy-tale esque story so much that I might have captured it from the local library several times in a row.  I’m planning on purchasing it so it can live on my shelves without guilt.
  • Papertoy Monsters.

    Our paper monster family. Aren’t they cute?

    A cross between origami and cartoon art, the book has over 50 teensy  monsters, each with its own backstory, to be pressed out and glued or folded together. Both my kids love making them, and I may have created a few on my own when they were asleep one night. I’m not confessing.

What’s on your holiday list this year?

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ImageI am, as I may have mentioned a bazillion times before , not the fastest runner. I’m not even the second, third, or fourth fastest.  And yet, when I’m out running and I come across another runner heading in the same direction, I get this insane urge to try and keep pace with them, to not fall behind.

Last year, I trailed behind this guy who must have been an extra from X-Men, with mutant speedy powers, because he flew ahead of me for MILES. I kept working and working to keep him in sight, and wound up with a stitch in my side and out of breath. He kicked to a fast finish and gave me a friendly nod and wave as he turned to walk and cool down. He was done, and I’d wasted my energy with three miles left to go.

This past Sunday I set out in the afternoon and in less than a mile, at the stop sign where I turn, I caught sight of a woman about my age jogging in my direction. I had to struggle to remind myself that her pace, no matter what it was, wasn’t mine. I listened for her footsteps behind me as I ran the next leg of my route, and when I crossed the road, I risked a look back. 

She was gone, finished and headed into her house or running down some side street I’d passed. Our routes had never really been the same after all, aside from that brief moment. And yet I’d concentrated on hearing her footsteps instead of my own.

In writing, it’s the same. It’s easy sometimes to focus on what others have accomplished instead of on your own journey, and hard to watch as others speed by to land agents, book deals, movie rights. But your story is unique and there’s no timeline, no correct pace for success. All you can do is control what you can — your writing — and remember to breathe. The rest will come on its own. 

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A very bright kid I know likes to share what he calls the “irrelevant statement of the day” every time I see him. I’m stealing the phrase and using it here, because this blog post is a digression.  Today I’m not talking about writing or kids — I’m talking about killer whales.

Okay, it’s not TOTALLY irrelevant.  There is a book involved — Death at Sea World, by David Kirby. I am obsessed with this book.  I have read it twice in the past month.  It is a history of killer whales in captivity, specifically at Sea World.  It looks at whether keeping giant-sized, intelligent,  highly social animals in the equivalent of bathtubs is humane or crazy-making,  and it details not just the attack that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, but also a host of other, lesser known incidents, some of which also resulted in death.

Here’s why I’m fascinated. For over half my life I’ve been around big animals.  Not orca big, true, but the Slobbering Beast is the first pet I’ve had in 13 years that didn’t top out at over 100 pounds. I’ve trained big dogs, shown them, loved them, and been concussed by them. And that’s just the dogs.

I’ve also had horses. And since I wasn’t gifted with a million dollar trust fund, I learned about horses the way lots of young women do — by saddling up whatever I could afford. That included a mare that fell asleep on me in the cross-ties and nearly broke my back, another that liked to jump paddock fences in the middle of a lesson and gallop the hills, a former stallion who tried to mount any mare that stood still on a trail ride, and a gelding who, when he wasn’t kicking you across stalls, was doing a credible imitation of a bucking bronco. Not only would he throw you, you had to ride with someone else on the ground at all times because once he got you off, he came back around to finish the job.

(True story: I took the bronco to a horse whisperer-type  clinic, and after we got him saddled and into the ring, the poor cowboy who had to ride him turned to me with the most mournful gaze ever. “You tiny women,” he said. “You always bring me either the nastiest horse or the biggest one.  You tiny women will be the death of me.”)

I rode like this because I was young, foolish, and loved what I was doing. At yet, aside from a few truly bone-headed choices I’d prefer not to share, I have always, always kept in mind that these animals were exactly that — animals.  I wore a helmet and sometimes a safety vest. I carried a crop and used a bit. Because much as I loved every horse, my instructor had taught me there would be days when he or she would not want to do what I was asking, that it would go against the animal’s personality , its nature, or simply its mood.  And that my safety could depend upon my being prepared for that refusal.

I teach my kids the same thing — to love animals, but to respect their nature. Much as you love the Slobbering Beast, remember he is a beast. Don’t stick your face too close to his, don’t put your hand in his mouth, don’t put yourselves in a position where your safety depends on trusting him to do the right thing.  Because the right thing to you and the right thing to him may be completely different. 

These trainers — the people who got in the water with the orcas — were also often young and deeply in love with the animals and what they were doing. But they don’t call orcas “fluffy bunny whales” — they call them killer whales. Whether the name is a misnomer or not, the fact remains that — unlike domesticated dogs and horses — these are wild animals.  They do not share our history, and they do not share our element.

And that is why although I am awed by the courage of the trainers who entered the water with orcas, I am also flabbergasted by the hubris that made people think we could control the outcome.  In Kirby’s book, in case of an attack the orcas are trained to return to the side of the pool when a trainer slaps the water with her hand or sounds a specific underwater tone.

I once held the number nine  spot in the entire country for obedience in my breed (my father used to like to point out that probably only nine competed). I’m a decent trainer.  And yet  I can’t guarantee a reliable recall on the Slobbering Beast a hundred percent of the time. Would I trust my life — or my children’s lives — on my ability to call him to heel when he’s chasing a squirrel or removing the drain pipes from the house? Not bloody likely. And yet that was the extent of the orca trainer’s arsenal in an emergency — the simple hope that this wild, intelligent animal would always do what it was being asked to do.

Apparently OSHA agrees that hope alone doesn’t create a safe working environment. In OSHA versus Sea World, the government agency ruled that a slew of safety measures would be required for future trainer/orca work.

I think orcas are beautiful.  By all accounts, they sound intelligent and social. But after seeing videos like this, would I want to get in the water with one?

Would you?

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So, today there was no school in our town, since several of the schools are polling locations. Normally, I am happy happy happy to have my children home, but today, I was looking at three deadlines that raised their hairy eyebrows and leered menacingly at me.  Not to mention that I am doing a pretend NaNo this month (more about Nano here) and the only thing that makes my pitiful word count goal more pitiful is not meeting it.

To distract myself from the work that would not be getting done, I packed up my two kids, borrowed two more, and headed to the Museum of Science, where we spent the next five hours playing with pirate stuff and being eaten by Woolly Mammoths. There are fabulous Woolly Mammoth eating pictures, which I cannot show you, because I have made a deal that I will only post child-approved pictures here, and those particular pictures were not approved. I do have this lovely picture of myself in a wind tunnel, looking rather bemused. (That’s because the two small boys were taking advantage of my momentary lapse to run helter skelter through the museum, and I was counting the seconds until the tube would pop open and I could reclaim them.)

Just wait until this thing opens…

It was a lovely, fun day, and it kept me distracted from both the deadlines and the election.  All I will say about that tonight is that the five of us did stop off to vote on the way to Boston. The kids were thoughtful, and asked good questions, and were interested  in how people in the same town, in the same neighborhood, can believe different things and vote for different people and still all wake up in the morning and still be neighbors and friends. It’s hard, but what amazes me even more is that somehow, every four years we manage.

See you in the morning, neighbor.

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