Friday, November 28, 2008

Interactive James Joyce

(with thanks to P.D.Q. Bach)

I’ve heard amazing, wonderful things about the Kindle. Even bibliophiles seem to love Kindle. I think I would love to have one (if Amazon wants to send me a free one, I would love to blog about its fantastic features…hint, hint to Amazon). But what would clinch the Kindle for me is if they had an interactive James Joyce feature. With apologies to my Irish friends, it seems to me that Joyce’s prose, “sound well enough, but don’t actually mean anything.” So, I got this idea of an interactive James Joyce feature. You would call up a book, say A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (APAYM). Then a menu of choices would appear. For example: If you would like to read APAYM where every pronoun actually had an antecedent, press one. If you would like to figure out who the real protagonist is, press two. If you would like to read the novel with a commentary by an impecunious grad student hoping to finish his dissertation, press three. If you would like to read APAYM with every tenth word removed and put together as a short story at the end of the novel, press four. If you would like to read APAYM as Joyce would have written it had he been on anti-psychotic drugs, press five. And finally, if you would rather have APAYM deleted and replaced by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, press six.

Yep, that would do it for me. And I have no doubt that Kindles would sell like hotcakes, especially among undergraduate English majors.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving despite the fact that I woke up at 2:30am and realized that I didn't have a roasting pan for "Tomas," our turkey. I got several helpful suggestions, which included using a painting tray (eww!). Thankfully, the grocery stores anticipated people like me, and they were open until 3 in the afternoon. My dad and mom went and bought a roasting pan, so we didn't have paint-flavored turkey.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Publishing Perils: Querulous Queries

Many of you probably know that I write fiction as well as this blog. Well, I am currently on the hunt/look out/search for a literary agent. Why do I need a literary agent? In the good old days, maybe you didn’t need one. But now days a good editor doesn’t read through the “slush pile.” You need an agent who can call said editor and say, “You’ve got to read this manuscript.” And you need an agent to protect your rights. In this economy, a publishing house can make a lot more money by not giving the author too much. For those of you who haven’t been through the experience, I thought I’d share what it’s like to look for an agent.

Imagine that you’ve spent anywhere from one to five years crafting your novel. Writing, rewriting, agonizing over word choice—should I use the words “he paused”? No! Those are considered cliché words now. So, you’ve got to find another phrase. Something along the lines of “The young woman’s beauty caught his eye, and so he didn’t notice the flag pole until his bicycle crashed into it.” You get the idea? Good. So, you’re done editing. Now, comes what is referred to as the “dreaded query letter,” in which you explain your novel, your qualifications for writing it, throw in a must-read-the-manuscript hook, show off your voice, and give your contact information. All in one page or less. In other words, shove knitting needles into your eyes while juggling ginsu knives. Oh, and by the way, the whole thing must be written in present tense. Why? Who knows? Some literary god with a perverse sense of humor must have planned it this way.

Assuming the “dreaded query” is finished, you now have to research agents. This means hours spent on the web tracking down literary agents and finding out what genres they represent, how they prefer to be contacted (email or snail mail), and what they want to be sent (query only, query with first five pages, query with 1st five pages and synopsis, or a query along with a recommendation from a New York Times best-selling author). Of course, it gets more complicated because there are sub-genres. The book that I’m currently “shopping” to agents is a young adult fiction (not to be confused with children’s or middle grade). In young adult fiction, there are multiple sub-genres: fantasy, chick-lit, paranormal, urban paranormal, literary, coming-of-age, etc., etc. And, of course, agents don’t specify what kind of YA they’re looking for. In fairness to agents, they may get a phone call from an editor saying, “Hey, I want an urban paranormal with a male protagonist.” Guess what the agent’s going to be looking for that day? Yep, a New York City-dwelling 17 year old male protagonist who’s also a werewolf/vampire/zombie living in 2099. Guess whose book is going to get a rejection letter that day? Yep, mine. If I’m lucky the rejection letter will say, “Interesting/intriguing premise, but it’s not what we’re looking for.”

So, you’ve researched literary agents, and sent off your queries. Now, is the waiting game and you try to ignore the statistics, which say that only 1% of queries letters will elicit a request for a partial or a full. Yep, a whole one percent, or less. And that’s only to get you to the next step, which doesn’t guarantee you anything. I know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth do she do this?” The answer is simple. I can’t not write. It’s a kind of madness. But thankfully, it’s one that doesn’t land you in an institution, just garners remarks from acquaintances like “Oh, you’re still doing that.” Yeah, I sure am. It’s a disease—watch out it’s contagious, like chicken pox.
Tune in tomorrow for the next step in the publishing saga. “What happens when an agent requests to see your manuscript?”

ps Yes, yes, I know the queries aren't querulous, it's the writers who are. But, I just couldn't resist.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ice Pit

My parents have come to spend the holidays with us. The kids are thrilled, of course. And it’s not just because they love their grandparents so much, although they do. And it’s not because my mother showers them with exotic chocolate, which she does (and they love). And it’s not because my parents will take us out for dinner, which they will (we take the kids out once a year, so it’s a big deal for them). One of the biggest thrills for the kids when my parents visit is that I turn up the thermostat. My mom has cold intolerance, so I can no longer keep the heater set at 62. Instead, it’s set at 68. From the kids’ responses, you’d think they were in Hawaii. No longer do I hear things like, “Hmm, guess I’m going to have to go outside to warm up.” No longer do I see children walking around the house in snowcoats. And no longer does Ariel point out to me that she’s wearing flannel pajama pants under her jeans. In self-defense, I must say that normally I crank the fireplace from the time we get up to the time we go to bed. And by afternoon the living room is a balmy 72 degrees. I’ve pointed this out to the children, but they sneer and tell me it doesn’t matter how warm the living room is because the heat never penetrates the Ice Pit. (I will admit that once I actually saw my breath in the Ice Pit, but I haven’t told the kids that.)

What is the Ice Pit? It’s the name the children have given to Calvin’s and my bedroom. Why do they even care you ask? Because the television and the Wii are in our bedroom, so the kids can’t play a game or watch a movie without descending into "arctic chill" of the Ice Pit. And why is the room so horribly cold? Well, that is a combination of many factors beyond the setting of the thermostat. Our room is hidden from sunlight by a massive 100 year old Southern magnolia tree, which the kids despise since it’s always dropping something on the lawn that they have to clean up (flowers in the spring, pods in the summer, and leaves in the fall). The other heat challenge to the Ice Pit is that whoever was the heating engineer for the house obviously got his degree from an Internet-fake-yourself-a-degree web site. And thus, with that superior education only designed one heating zone for the entire house. Consequently, balmy in the living room means the Pit is never heated.

I’ve told the kids that the room isn’t so bad; after all, I sleep in it every night. “Yeah,” Ariel said, “and do you notice that you wear an undershirt, flannel pajamas and wool socks and you sleep on flannel sheets, under two blankets, and with a down comforter over the top. Plus, I’ve heard Dad complain that he ends up sleeping on the edge of bed because you scoot over to his warmth during the night.”

Okay, so maybe the Ice Pit is a little cold, and maybe their little fingers ice over when they play Wii, but last month our gas bill was $40 instead of $120! I can buy a lot of blankets for the Ice Pit with that. Plus, spring’s right around the corner—there’s only 3 months of winter left to go.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Scholarship Apps 101: Or, Why You Paid for Basketweaving Lessons

In parenting, there are many woes. Cleaning up a dirty diaper is bad. Not as bad as cleaning up the vomit of a child who started puking in bed and then walked down the hall, still puking, and by the time they got to the bathroom were finished. And that’s not as bad as taking a sixteen year old out driving for the first time. You end up screaming “Stop!” and stomping your foot. And in response the teenager screams back, “Which one is the brake?!” Of course, any parent with a college student will tell you that all those horrors pale in comparison to the horrors of scholarship applications.

Those of you who have not gone through the horrors will roll your eyes, but that’s only because you haven’t yet experienced it. Have you noticed parents of high school seniors lately? They have permanently etched frowns, facial tics, and a hair-like temper trigger. Those are all the results of scholarship applications.

In order to understand this, you must understand the stakes. The parents view scholarship applications as a means to avoid debt that will keep them and their child in servitude for the rest of their natural life—this is because college fees are now so expensive that if an average human being were paid to donate both kidneys, it would only cover the “technology access fee.”

So, the parent sees these scholarships as a way not only to recoup the investment they made in their child’s education (I don’t even want to figure out how much we paid for music lessons over the last 12 years), but also as a way of being able to avoid personal bankruptcy.

Here’s what happens. Said parent finds a scholarship for “Underwater basketweavers who were born in California on a full-moon and have SAT scores of more than 1300.” So, you print up the application, which is nine pages of 10 point type, and break out your reading glasses. Much to your overwhelming joy, you discover that those 12 years of underwater basketweaving (read piano lessons) might finally pay off. You wave the application under your child’s nose and they say, “Oh, I guess you want me to fill this out, right?” You respond, “Yes, absolutely.” The child says, “Okay, could you put it on my dresser?” Things sound good at this point, right? Wrong!! The next two weeks are spent gently reminding your child of the application while at night you yell into your pillow, “I will not nag!”

After three weeks, your child picks up the application and reads it. You hear a moan from the general direction of their bedroom and head over. The moment you walk through the door, the accusations begin. “This has an essay!!” You blink. “Of course, it does. All scholarships require essays.” The child says, “You didn’t tell me that.” You explain, “Well, they don’t give you money for nothing.” The child scowls nastily and says, “Have you read the essay topic?” You ponder this, it is a loaded question. You say carefully, “Yes, but I’m afraid I don’t quite remember the topic.” Now, the child reads (imagine a painful whine), “Explain the importance of basketweaving both in its underwater and on land forms, and how this impacts the economy of both the United States and the world. Include in your essay how underwater basketweaving makes human beings more compassionate and better leaders!!!” The child adds, “How could you do this to me?”
You scratch your head and say, “Would you like suggestions?” The child sighs, very heavily, and the scholarship paperwork goes on the shelf for another week. Finally, after several “screaming into the pillow sessions” from you and nasty looks from your children at meals, a draft appears next to your computer. The child says, “Well, there it is.” He/she smiles meanly and says, “Dad helped me.” In case you don’t know teen-speak that means, “Mom, you clearly lost all sense of the real proportion of this and so I had to get a sane parent to work with me on this.” And, since this is vaguely true, you say, “Great, honey.”
The child begins to walk away and you say, “Um, did you finish parts 3 and 4 of the application?” The child turns and scowls, “What is that?” You lick your lips and say, “Part 3 is a listing of all your favorite underwater basketweaving classes and why you liked them. And Part 4 is an explanation of how you’ve used underwater basketweaving to serve mankind.”

At this point, your child’s eyes fall out of their head, their face turns purple, and they lose the ability to speak. You decide not to give them the next five scholarship applications until tomorrow and you don’t notice the tic that’s developed in your left eyelid.

Monday, November 17, 2008

36 Eggs

How many days does it take a family of six to use 36 eggs? I remember days when I’d buy a dozen eggs, and they’d last forever. Eventually, I graduated to buying 36 eggs because they were cheaper that way and we had four kids so we’d eat them before they went bad. But, now…how long does 36 eggs last? Assume for this task that no one breaks any eggs or feeds them to the dog, or bakes for a get together. Take into account that I don’t make eggs for the family breakfast. How long would they last? Would you guess three weeks? Or maybe two weeks? How about even one week? Those guesses would all be wrong. 36 eggs lasted 4 ½ days. Yes, that’s 60 hours! That’s more than one egg every two hours. Maybe we should buy chickens—but that would take a lot of chickens. Well, at least eggs are cheap protein…don’t even get me started on how much milk Luke and Jacob can drink in a week.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” And to a certain extent that’s true. But, if a rose were called a skunk cabbage, I don’t think men would give them to their wives on Valentine’s Day. Names are important things. Take for instance our five month old black Lab. If we’d named her “Pumpkin” or “Tinkerbell,” I don’t think that we’d get the same reaction from strangers that we do when we yell, “Jezebel, get back here!”

Yes, that's her name. I take responsibility for it. There aren’t a lot of things I really, really want, but I had to name her Jezebel. I’ll explain why. When the FedEx guy knocks on the door with his signature pad, I yell, “Jezebel, down!” By the time, I open the door the guy is halfway to his truck and calling over his shoulder, “Hey, lady, don’t worry, you don’t have to sign. We’re good.” Or, when Ariel takes the dog out front and Jezebel runs out to sniff at the gang kid on his cellphone, and Ariel calls out, “Jezebel, come back here”….believe me, you’ve never seen a gang kid run so fast—he might trip over the crotch of his low-rider jeans.

Now, of course, this would be irrelevant if she were a big, tough snarling beast like our last dog, Jill. (Yes, I love irony.) Jill was the snarliest 100 pounds of teeth and muscle that I’ve ever met—other dogs laid on their bellies when she walked by. Seriously. But, Jezebel, well, let’s just say that her nickname at home is “Jellybelly” and Jinglebells.” I think you get the drift. But, it doesn’t matter. When she runs up to sniff someone or to lick them to death and I call out “Jezebel!,” people panic.

So, right now I’m waiting for the holidays. Christmas package deliveries should be fun. I hear those UPS guys can really run.
P.S. You notice the cool "biker" collar--it's all about image.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Communist Car Wash

You know, it's clear to me that Marx and Engels didn't spend a lot of time with their children. If they had, they would have given up on communism before it started. Why? Let me give you an example. Have you ever given your children buckets, soap, rags and water and told them to wash the car? And, of course, it goes without saying that they aren't getting paid--they get a place to live, food to eat, a good education, etc. So, you smile at your dear offspring and then go inside the house to iron their Sunday clothes or chop vegetables for their dinner. Forty-five minutes later, your offspring, who are now wet and filthy, trudge back into the house. You assume that given their current condition, they have done a good job.
Of course, since you've been a parent for many years now, you know that "it's what's inspected not expected that gets done" and, thus, you go look at the family vehicle.
The car isn't clean--it's in a state of semi-wash. There are various factors that contribute to this. First, since collectivism wasn't working, i.e. most of the kids played with soap or squirted each other with the hose, the oldest child assigned various jobs to unpaid subordinates who chafed at this usurpation of authority and felt they got the hardest job. For example, the hubcaps are notoriously nasty and so look horrible even after their cleaning. You find the laborer given this task and ask what happened. He (n. b.: not a sister, she got out of this job by invoking feminine privilege--Euw, that's gross!) explains that he tried, but it just won't come clean. You pick up a brush and scrub the hubcap and discover there is clean metal underneath. The child assumes a posture of "shock and awe" and suggests under his breath that you ought to be doing this job, it's too hard for them.
The second problem is that the children have no stake in the vehicle--they don't care how clean the car is. They view it merely as a conveyance of their parents that allows them to schlep their stuff (fencing foils, musical instruments, and robot club goodies) from one place to another. So, it's irrelevant that most of the hood is clean except for the big blotch of dirt in the middle.
The final problem is that since they aren't getting paid, they actually hope they get fired. After all, the "management" will still provide everything they need--including dinner and freshly ironed clothes for Sunday. So, getting fired is what they're hoping for. (Though no computer time seems to be an excellent "reward" for work poorly done--but now I'm abandoning the communist analogy.)
At any rate, the communistic approach to labor is an utter failure. If Marx and Engels had spent more time with their children, we could have saved the world a lot of grief. Which brings to mind Piaget, whose theories of mind and personality could have been greatly enhanced if he'd watched his children instead of making his wife do it...but that's for another blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Math, part 2: Calculus

This school year, Luke and Ariel have been taking calculus at Chattanooga State. I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how they’d do, etc. Once again, I worried about nothing.
When Ariel returns from class she’s giddy. That’s right giddy. One day, Cal leaned over to me and whispered, “She’s acting like she’s been on a great date.” I whispered back, “I know, she’s like this every day. And it’s calculus.” We shrugged our shoulders. How can someone be giddy over math?
The other day she sat with me on the couch and told me in near breathless terms about the glories of anti-derivatives. After she finished, her face fell and she said, “You don’t seem very excited.” I said, “Ariel, it’s like you’re speaking Swahili to me.”
I mean, anti-derivatives, does that mean “against derivatives”? If it does, I could kind of go for that. Or, is it ante-derivatives, meaning “before derivatives.” Whatever that would be… This is the problem—I have to parse our conversations. And even when I do, they mean nothing to me.
The scary thing is when Ariel got home from class today, she gushed, “Next semester in Calc 2, it’s all anti(ante)-derivatives!” My eyes glazed over, and I said, “How exciting for you, sweetheart.” Can someone rescue me?!

p.s. Later in the day Ariel called out to me, “Mom, what’s 38 plus 26?” I said, “Ariel, you’re the math tutor—you should know you’re math facts.” She replied, “That’s what calculators are for.” I said, “What does that mean? Are you implying that memorizing math facts is for people who are bad at math—so they can feel better about themselves?” She just smiled and said, “Math facts are just toooo hard.” Hmmm, does that make me her private calculator?!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Poem for Writers

A writing friend of mine sent this poem. I think it's exactly on target. Hope you enjoy it.

Many people hear voices
when no one is there.
Some of them are called
mad and are shut up in
rooms where they stare
at the walls all day.
Others are called writers
and they do pretty much
the same thing.

Pit Orchestra

If you look at the title of this post, it seems a little Dante-esque. But it just means the orchestra is playing down below the stage, in the "pit."

Last Friday Calvin and I went to see Crazy for You, a Gershwin musical, because Ariel played in the pit orchestra. The orchestra and the actors/singers/dancers did an amazing job. Here are pictures of Ariel. They had three performances last week and three more this week. After that, hopefully there will be some normalcy. (But probably not.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Technology Intervention

I have always admitted that I am technologically ignorant. So, when Ariel confronted me about having a blog, I gave her my first line of defense. I don’t like technology. If I’m honest, I view my antipathy as a badge of honor—I am content with those things which have satisfied writers through the ages, i.e., paper and pencils and beautiful pens. In response, she raised an eyebrow, something she’s very skilled at, and reminded me that I love email and that I write my novels on a computer. Clearly, the first point in this discussion goes to the sixteen year old. Time for my second line of defense. I don’t understand how it all works. She raised a second eyebrow (I told you she was skilled at this). “Mom, it’s completely self-explanatory, besides I set one up for you last year. All you have to do is write!” Score two for the daughter with naturally curly hair. Now was the time for my final excuse. “Ariellll, my blog is ugly…” She looked down her cute little nose at me. “Mom, you’re whining.” Then, she proceeded to explain/lecture me how a writer in the 21st century needed to take advantage of the new methods of communication. Finally, she ended with, “I’ll make your blog more attractive, but then you have to promise to write more often.” I promised I’d write at least once a week. I can’t help but wonder if this is a foreshadowing of thirty years from now when she’ll be saying, “Mom, now take your heart medicine like you promised the doctor…” Sigh.

P.S. If you enjoy reading this or like the way the blog looks, I guess you should tell Ariel. :-)

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I am a bit bemused by the title of this post. How is it that I’m writing about math?! But I live in a home of mathematicians. No, not my husband. He’s with me—two art-loving humanities type people who ended up with four math-loving children. I’m still not sure how it happened. We read together as a family—we still do. They get assigned all the classics: Homer, Hemingway, Austen, etc. When I bemoan the fact, Luke says to me, “Mom, we love Shakespeare. It’s really the best you can hope for.”
I’m still assigning the kids lots of reading—the younger boys are making their way through the Odyssey now. When someone mentioned the volume of reading, Jacob said, “Yeah, it’s amazing how much you can read when you don’t sweat comprehension.” UGH. Somebody pass me the smelling salts, quick.
P.S. Please note the prefered subject is everywhere--calculators, graph paper, math books, economics, etc.