Monday, November 30, 2009

Prayer #90: Advent Sure

I ask you again ... does fear reverse faith?

Prayer #90: Advent Sure

I'm not so sure about this. Or that. Or anything, really, if we're being honest here (and I trust we are).

Sure, everything looks rosy and lovey-dovey right now. But who are we kidding? I'm sure it won't go uninterrupted. My rose-colored glasses will break in several places when I sit on them, and then I'll see the stark truth: It's a gray, harsh world, and I'm condemned to slog through it, alone and unsure.

Then again, I'm not so sure.

It could be the specs expose the world's vast potential. Instead of masking fear, they mitigate it. And maybe they're exercising my eyes with little bright bursts of truth along the way, so when the big reveal comes, I'm sure-footed enough to handle the blinding wonder.

Yet ... I'm not so sure.

So let's meet halfway, God. We are, after all, in the season of uncertain certainties, when folks were sure a Messiah was coming, but not so sure when ... if ever.

I offer to live in doubt and belief (depending on the weather) so that my faith is fortified. I will try hard not to pre-worry, and I will do my best to pre-rejoice.

In return, please help me live out this adventurous life Advent-sure, so I may better strike the fragile, essential balance between cautious optimism and instructive weakness.

Because when we work together, surely hope will carry the day.

Amen. (aka, Sure!)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Blame it on the rutabaga: A Thanksgiving reflection

Photo by karenwithak

If I'm defeated by a rutabaga this Thanksgiving ... so help me God.

I'm standing in the supermarket produce aisle at 10:30 pm on a rainy Tuesday before Thanksgiving because frantic holiday shoppers make me misanthropic, so I'm choosing to lose sleep than murder a dawdling old lady with my shopping cart.

I'm tired, and I'm damp, and I'm cranky. But I have only one item left on my list: rutabaga. And then I'm home-free, ready to rock and roll, all set for Thanksgivingpaloozafest '09.

Except for one problem. I don't know what a rutabaga looks like. I've never grown, cooked, or tasted one. I'm not even sure which section of the produce aisle to hit. (It is produce, right?)

All I know is that this rutabaga has a bounty on its head. Its fate lies in my cornbread dressing, and I am NOT leaving this store without the mystery root vegetable locked in my grubby fist.

You can run, rutabaga. But you can't hide. Not from a first-time holiday hostess.

Oh, I've done plenty of dinner parties -- many a successful feast with good home cooking and candle arrangements and even an artistically placed napkin setting on occasion. But this is big. This is a HOLIDAY. It has expectations attached.

I mean, the Pilgrims and Indians managed to get along on this day, so I have to hit at least an equal level of satisfaction. Because if guests don't walk away happy from Thanksgiving, I haven't ruined their night -- I've ruined their year.

Just consider all the moving pieces for Turkey Day. First, the menu. You must plan a variety of dishes that complement one another in flavors, textures, colors, nutrition, and preparation timing. God forbid you have a food allergy in the mix -- your head might explode.

Then the turkey is in a class by itself -- the poultry personification of peer pressure. An imperfect bird signals your inability to provide for your family. So tent it, marinate it, deep-fry it, brine it, make it out of tofu, just don't dry it out. In fact, do everything to that bird but wring its neck yourself. And even that you should handle if you get the opportunity.

Then comes meal execution, where you purchase ingredients (ahem, rutabaga), cook the food, serve the dinner, clear the table, clean the kitchen, and have Poison Control on standby just in case the time-honored family mashed potatoes recipe is sending everyone to the family plot in your less-than-capable hands. (Though according to my Betty Crocker cookbook and episodes of Mad Men, it appears I can salvage any situation with a well-made highball.)

Oh, and let's not forget the hosting. What time is everyone arriving? Where are they sleeping? Have you dusted? Vacuumed? Wiped the banisters? Changed the hand towels? Refilled toiler paper? Made enough ice? Hidden the vibrat -- I mean ... um ... moving on.

But here's the kicker element: guest dynamics. For my first holiday I'm hosting the long-held parents and the newly minted fella. Which leads to such agitating trains of thought as, "Will Dad wear pajamas under his robe? Will Mom take her bra off in front of Fella? Oh god, is Fella allergic to rutabagas? I don't even know! I'm a terrible girlfriend! I DON'T DESERVE LOVE!"

The stress is enough to make a girl go food-shopping at 10:30 p.m. Oh wait. It did. I am.

It makes me wonder how people who never cook or clean or have civil conversations with their families survive these ordeals. Because I love cooking and hosting and visiting and ensuring hygienic living spaces, and even I'm overwhelmed by the societal pressures of a holiday feast.

I blame it on the rutabaga. Damn you, rutabaga. Damn you.

I can't hold out any longer. I have to do what I never do at the grocery story, my second home: ask for help. So I head over to the nearest employee, who is stocking shelves with unnatural vigor given the hour.

Me: "Excuse me, what are -- I mean, where are the rutabagas?"

Employee: "I don't know. Why don't you tell me why you're masquerading as a capable, sophisticated hostess with refined tastes and savoir faire, when all you're really capable of is Easy Mac mixed with tuna, and that's on a good day?"

Me: "Wait ... what?"

Employee: "Near the carrots, next to the turnips."

I go to the carrot section. I see a pile of strange vegetables poking out from behind the parsnips, looking part-turnip, part-Ernest Borgnine. I pick one up and hold it out to the store clerk.

Me: "Is this the rutabaga?"

Employee: "GOD. YES. Get out of my STORE, you shameless poser!"

Me: "Wait ... what?"

Employee: "Yep, you got it."

I nod, half-smile, and look down at the rutabaga. It's rougher than I expected. Some dirt sprinkles onto my hand.

I expected to feel more triumph in this moment. But now that I've made my conquest, I simply feel ... relief. Good. I don't have to go to another store. I have everything I need for my menu. And for the first time, I believe I can master this holiday, one root vegetable at a time.

That is, as soon as I figure out how to peel a rutabaga.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here's a prayer for your own feasts (and preparation thereof).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Prayer #89: Virtual Theology

Prayer #89: Virtual Theology

Game on, God.

You want me. I'm right here. But first You have to track me though multiple levels of increasing difficultly, each with new villains and daunting obstacles and floating manna that racks up points when You jump to grab it.

You want me. I'm on the move. You call me to come back, to rest, to wait for You. But oh no, I'm too clever for that, Player. Think I'm just going to sit here and let You get me? Wrong! Poof! Gone.

You want me. I'm hidden. Keep hacking the vines. Ford the moat. Scale the gate. Leap the chasm. Where will all Your daring get You? I'm tucked away in no-man's-land, comfortable, wondering if You'll ever catch up.

Game on, God. It's solely in my power to hit pause and give You a breather. But I don't know if I'm ready to risk that. Because when You catch up to me ... will it be game over?


Monday, November 16, 2009

Prayer #88: Ends of Days

How is there a plural form of apocalypse? Isn't that it?

Prayer #88: Ends of Days

Apocalypse now? Later? Sometime next Tuesday?

I don't care. Bring it. Because I've got 8 million gajillion things to do, and frankly, it would be easier if You pulled the plug on the whole shebang.

Hence my prayer for the ends of days. For that precarious point after work and before dreams when the mortal coil wraps around my neck. For my hubris in thinking those few hours can somehow add up to more than 24. For the steady calendar movement that insists on marching even if I'm stumbling.

And if You are seriously thinking about ending it soon, then please prepare me for acceptance. Prepare me for accountability. Prepare me for awe.

But if we've got some time left ... can you just prepare me for bed?


Saturday, November 14, 2009

How to add tension to your writing

Photo by wildphotons

No one likes an impotent story. Even worse: an impotent story that thinks it's all that in the sack.

Of course, no one used these words today at The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference I attended, because they're all too nice. (Exception: presenter and author Steve Watkins, who joked about condoms and gave us tips on how to kill characters.) But it's basically what we were talking about: impotent writing.

The good news is, you can bring back the magic by adding tension. Not sure how to do that? Check out this handy primer courtesy of literary agent Linda Pratt, one of the presenters at today's SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference.*

* My first real SCBWI event. I'm on my way to fame, fortune, and endless school visits, baby!

Enjoy these helpful notes distilled from my obsessive nerd-like furious scribbling during her presentation. And then work hard on coming up with creepy, incongruous writing metaphors of your own. Trust me, it adds tension.

1. Diagnosis that tension is indeed missing.
* Get feedback from others whether your work lacks tension.

* Keep in mind that agents and editors have different ways of sharing that information. There's no uniform vocabulary for this important story element. So you're more likely to hear phrases such as "too soft," "quiet," "I wasn't vested," "or "I didn't connect emotionally."

* Note: You can have a soft narrative arc and still incorporate tension. Hard action does NOT equal tension (more on this later).

2. Accept your diagnosis.
* "We don't want to hear it, especially when we think it might be true." [Sing it, sister.]

* Linda evaluates books by current market standards, and one such standard right now is tension. So keep that in mind as you're writing.

* Don't try to find example of stories without tension to justify your own. Just fix it.

3. Adjust to your new condition.
* Ask yourself, "How am I going to do things differently [in my story]?"

* Understand what tension even is -- a balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements.

* Create empathy "without having feelings and thoughts communicated explicity." This means NOT saying, "He got mad." Show, don't tell.

Linda also pointed out that different genres have unique pitfalls, and shared technique-rich toolboxes for overcoming them:

Pitfalls: Picture Books :(
* When the lesson drives your story. If your primary goal is to preach to the child, your story will fall flat. Clear, straight lines lack tension.

* When you forget plot. Remember, you need conflict and resolution to add some zing.

Toolbox: Picture Books :)
* Remember and practice that less is more.

* Text is most effective when it sets up illustration. The reader's brain should anticipate the illustration.

* Use page turns to highlight tension. One tip: Dummy (read: mock up) 32 pages of scrap paper to test out the text placement.

* Start with the story. Avoid starting from the point of teaching.

Pitfalls: Young Adult Novels :(
* When you protect your characters. You're probably already planted the seeds in the characterization and plot to kill them. Be gutsy; pull the trigger. Allow things to happen to them.

* When you confuse action for tension. Great example of an author/book who strikes the critical balance (says Linda): Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Again, you don't need to explode buildings or kill characters to create drama. Focus on crafting empathetic characters. Be selective about who receives the reader's emotional investment. This will give you more freedom in whose decisions/actions drive the tension, and the story overall will resonate more with the reader.

Toolbox: Young Adult Novels :)
* Step outside of your work. Chart the character arcs. Are the characters changing, growing, maturing? If the line's not budging, introduce some new traits or events to incite change.

* Play "ifstory." Also known as "keep asking what if." These two little words can keep opening up new brainstorms and new possibilities for your narrative and character arcs.

* Embrace character flaws. Perfect characters are wooden characters. Give them a trait you don't like so much to force different actions/reactions within the plot.

* "Feel it." Stuck on a particular emotion in a scene? Forget the novel for a sec, and write separately about a time you felt as the character did. In writing out that memory, you can reconnect to your character's feelings in a similar situation.

Done all this, and you're still stuck? Break this technical glass in case of emergency:
* Reread books and scenes that accomplish what you're trying to accomplish.

* To quote Linda: "Art is about stealing." Reverse-engineer what works, and duplicate the process in your work.

* Once you can articulate hits and flops in other work, you can better execute your own. Bone up on your editorial understanding.

Writers and editors out there: Any tips to share with our viewing audience? Oh, and thanks for a fun and informative day, SCBWI! More craft-oriented posts to come based on today's lessons.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A tale of three veterans

Today's post starts with a story -- a story from Grandpop Taraborelli.

The scene: My grandparents' living room. My cousins and I are playing on the green shag carpet. Grandpop is sitting in the armchair. I am 8 years old.

Grandpop: Kids. Kids! C'mere. Did I ever tell you about the time I fought the Japs? When I was in the war?

Kids: Nooo! (we scurry over and sit at his feet)

Grandpop: Well I tell ya, it was the scariest thing I've ever done. First we had to hike to camp. It was 100 degrees out. And we got caught in a blizzard.

Kids: Oooooooo.

Grandpop: And we had to walk uphill. Both ways.

Kids: Aaaaaaaa.

Grandpop: But then we saw them. The Japs. Our enemy. There were hundreds of 'em.

Cousin: Whadja do, Grandpop?

Grandpop: Well, I only had one bullet. So I asked all them Japs to line up in a straight line. And I put the gun on my shoulder, and I took real good aim, and POW! I shot that one bullet through all of 'em.

Boys: WOW.

Girls: Eww.

Grandpop: (shakes head) But I wasn't fast enough. (he rubs the side of his torso)

Cousin: (gulps, whispers) Why? What do you mean, Grandpop?

Grandpop: One of 'em got me. He stabbed me real good with his bayonet. Right here. In my side.

Cousin: Nuh-uh, Grandpop. You're LYING.

Grandpop: Oh yeah? Then take a look at THIS!

Grandpop whips up his shirt. We see a jagged scar on his abdomen. Grandpop wasn't lying.


End scene.

This, ladies and gentlemen, was my first exposure to World War II.

At the time, I didn't know that you couldn't shoot one bullet through 100 people. I didn't know that Japs was a derogatory term (my parents cleared that one up real fast). And I definitely didn't know that Grandpop's scar was from his appendix removal.

As I got older and learned about the war, the gaps in the oft-repeated how-I-got-this-scar story filled out. My grandfather had been in the CBI theater. He told me he was a mechanic and a foot soldier. He spent time on board a ship where they pranked the officers during the night. If he actually killed Japanese soldiers, he's never said. (I assume he did. I also assume it took more than one bullet.)

I heard my grandmother's stories too, told to me as I thumbed through her rations-centered Victory Cookbook. She moved in with my great-grandmother once Grandpop left. Their oldest child -- my uncle -- cried when Grandpop came home on leave because he didn't know what to do about the strange man sleeping with his mother. Grandpop went AWOL once so he could spend more time with Grandmom. She reused everything, saved everything, cut corners on everything.

And there was a third story -- this time from my Grandpop Rocchi. Except it's a non-story, because he never talked about his experiences. All he revealed was his station (Panama, Pacific Theater). It was the historical equivalent of a job reference who can't speak kindly of a candidate: "Yes, Mario was here."

How can this be, I thought. Why are Grandmom and Grandpop T. so ready to share, but Grandpop R. won't peep? Didn't they see the same things, fight the same fight? There I was, gobbling up every sepia-toned story I could find, and he was just sitting on a treasure trove of knowledge, not budging an inch.

This Veterans Day, I find myself replaying my grandparents' stories and silences, and my adult perspective casts a different, sharper light.

For example, I now see that my younger self had latched onto the era's romance. I thrived on the human dramas, sorrow, and celebration. To this day I can't stand in Philadelphia's 30th St. station without picturing Grandmom T. climbing onto one of the benches and waving so Grandpop could find her when he disembarked, home for good. War in my young mind was not a march toward death and destruction; it was a ticker tape parade preceded by a mere scuffle.

I've learned more about war since then. History classes showed me the arc from traditional to modern warfare. I watch the footage and read stories from our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I walk through Arlington Cemetary, where only a fraction of our soldiers are buried. The crosses stretch, it seems, for miles.

I've learned more about life too. Everything about World War II seemed so pat, so cut and dry when I read about it in books. But now I see the complexity of international conflict and diplomacy, how it's never just one issue or one country.

In WWII's case, I'm astounded that the whole world could topple into conflict like that, as if a master hand had laid out the dominoes for a quick game and ended up knocking over the walls. The war's course was a labyrinth of complicated human decisions. A mere whim could have changed civilization's history. It still could. The enormity of that idea leaves me breathless.

This would be an excellent point to reveal why Grandpop R. was silent about his service and bring this reflection to a dramatic, profound conclusion about human nature in the face of conflict. Except I don't know. I never got an answer before he died, and I've never followed up with anyone else about it.

But I don't think I need one. My grandparents' opposite expressions of wartime capture the triumph, fear, and ambiguity of such conflicts. What's more, it reminds me that each soldier (whether on the battlefield or homefront) views these events through a unique lens comprised of their past, their morals, their decisions.

Once and future history books cannot impart such varied and expansive versions. Only those who were there can. Only veterans can fill between the lines and reveal the truth about peace, war, and the chaotic spectrum they bookend.

So today I think about my grandparents, their fully lived lives, and how much I will never understand because I wasn't there with them. I'm thinking of the people who are living similar sacrifices and choices right now, and how I stand a better chance of understanding if I ask, listen, and stand beside them.

I pray that one day war is a sepia relic and the term 'veteran' is outmoded. Until then, I say thank you to all who serve our country, and I hope you tell your grandchildren your truth.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Prayer #87: Cantcentrate

Photo by fotologic

Burning physiological question: If you're concentrating on your concentration face, will your head explode?

Prayer #87: Cantcentrate

My mind is hopping. It started the week over there, and then it skipped around over here, and then it turned in circles until it got so dizzy it collapsed. Now it's lying in a heap in the corner, twitching.

I wouldn't mind my loss of mind so much if it didn't mean my heart followed suit. Stupid heart. Such a copy cat. The minute the mind fidgets, it perks up, saying, "Hey! Whatcha up to? Can I come too? Wheee!"

And then it scampers off behind my errant brain, blissfully ignorant that it has its own beat, own rhythm, own purpose.

I would prefer my heart had a mind of its own. I'd get much more done.

But that's not the way you constructed us, is it, Lord? We are mind and heart and soul and sinew. We are a solid unit, seamless. Cog A affects Wheel B. Lever C bends on Fulcrum D. And so our psyches whirl, with no beginning and no end, accomplishing mighty things, sometimes in spite of themselves.

Mechanic God, I give myself over to Your engineering. I will let my brain run its own route, and allow my heart to romp behind it. I will permit my body to creak and sing. I will give my gut a room to call everyone together in the end.

And I will listen to all they tell me along the way, for they are Your kinetic megaphone, moving me toward concentrated revelation.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Prayer #86: Gone Voyage

You know, this all would be much easier if you had just come with me.

I could tell you how I stood among ruins and reached out my hand toward snow-capped peaks, so large and looming they appeared within my grasp.

I could tell you how my legs burned when I clambered up the mountain, how the thin air stole the little breath I had, how soundly I slept in the cold night, five inches from ancient soil.

I could tell you how I bore witness to a world that was nothing like yet exactly the same as the comfortable bubble I left. How I cried with homesickness. How I exhaled in wonder.

But I'm not sure it would mean anything. Odors and movements and sensations don't pack well. And pictures only say so much.

This prayer, then, is for that frustration. It's for when 'wish you were here' becomes 'yes, I was there.' It's for my loneliness in having been there without you.

Prayer #86: Gone Voyage

Lord, why did You put so many wonders in the world, yet not give me the capacity to absorb them?

My body is fighting to regain its footing. My routine is struggling to return. How then, in the midst of such corporeal upheaval, am I expected to deliver on the emotion of all I saw, experienced, and witnessed?

It's all a drop in the bucket to You, I know -- nothing You haven't seen or heard or created before. But for me, it's revelatory. And I need your help in expressing it.

Unknot my stubborn tongue so I can share the stories with others. Relax my tense muscles so I can embrace the events. Lend clarity to my now-memory, and space to my history, so that I can best explain why -- and how -- I changed.

In the name of He who needs no passport to cross the universe --