Saturday, December 6, 2014

Lazy Movie Weekend: Extortion, Larceny, and Women on Fire - A True Family Christmas

Happy Holidays! I hope that everyone enjoyed the Thanksgiving holidays and the marathon of food and guilt that I'm sure ran rampant across the world. Hopefully you also spent some quality time with loved ones (I certainly did) and learned the true meaning of the holiday. Or something. I realized that I'm super awkward at holding babies. I'm not sure how marketable that skill is but it's mine and I like to focus on those things in which I excel.

I thought we'd return to Lazy Movie Weekend with an often overlooked holiday film that should really be part of your regular rotation. Throw it in somewhere between Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Jim Carrey version of The Grinch. Or maybe hold off until the kids are in bed; there's a lot of adult language in this one. This movie has everything a holiday movie should have: larceny, extortion, Christine Baranski, sarcasm, and women on fire.

Slice up the orange marzipan cake with creme de menthe and lime zest and let's settle in for The Ref.
  • What is it about odd movies from the mid-1990s that make me feel comforted and like life makes sense? Is it the pleated pants and shapeless dresses? Maybe it's the fact that so many very good actors were in these little gems so it's like hanging out with old friends before they become incredibly famous. 
  • The town of Old Baybrook looks like Christmas threw up on it. This is probably why I avoid small towns and Connecticut during the holidays.
  • The entire opening sequence is meant to introduce us to characters and plot points that will become important later - the chief of police, two bumbling police officers, George, the town Santa who will be responsible for the ending of the movie (in a way), and the missing Baby Jesus. I never realized this until this viewing. 
  • Does B.D. Wong ever play anything but a doctor or psychologist? He's Dr. Wong (so creative) in this movie, a marriage counselor that our protagonists, Caroline (Judy David) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) visit at the beginning of the film. He will also be important later.
  • I love the quick pace of the dialogue and the movement between Caroline and Lloyd and Gus (Denis Leary), our thief. The pace of the movie is great.
  • Confession: I have had a huge crush on Kevin Spacey since around 1994. I love him. But I don't watch House of Cards since I don't have Netflix. I prefer to watch this movie, The Usual Suspects, and every other movie he's in instead. Except for Horrible Bosses - nothing good can come out of either of those movies. He's perfect and amazing and awesome.
  • I love movies that came out before cell phones were part of our daily lives. We also get to see some cool 1994 computer technology that Gus uses to break into the Willard mansion. So advanced. So amazing.
  • Let's talk about Murray, my third favorite secondary character in the movie (we'll talk about numbers one and two shortly). Murray is like that drunk relative in so many other holiday movies; he provides an odd amount of comic relief mixed in with a little sadness. He's Gus's partner in crime (in a literal sense) and probably should not be responsible for things like driving the getaway car and stealing a boat. But he is since Gus gets stuck in the fifth ring of hell otherwise known as the Chasseur home on Christmas Eve. Murray is the best and I sort of wish we knew what happened to him after this movie. I want to believe that he ended up in a nice comfy home after this and is able to watch Happy Days reruns forever.
  • Who waits until Christmas Eve to buy eggnog when they know they have 25 people coming over? Who does that and then gets into an argument with the cashier at the tiny grocery store about there only being one carton? Don't people in small towns (in movies) know how to plan ahead? This bothers me more than it should I'm sure.
  • Let's talk Denis Leary for a moment: does anyone else want to be around him all the time just because there's the hope that he'll just go off on one of his wild, stand up rants? This movie is basically a vehicle for him to do just that. He's just so good in this movie that you want him to win no matter what. He's not a bad guy, just not a great citizen. 
  • "Don't annoy me. It's Christmas." Connie (Christine Baranski) has so many excellent one liners in this movie, I lost count and couldn't write them all down. Her amount of awesome lines rivals the number of times Gus says the f-word. Connie is my second favorite side character - she is the stereotypical annoying relative in a holiday movie. It's a long tradition and she plays her part beautifully.
  • Did anyone else not know what a mudroom was until they say this movie? 
  • "So that means you, too, are a liar. Capital "L", small "i", small "a", small "r", period." I used this line of Gus's for years. It still creeps into my head along with, "What are we? Girlfriends here?"
  • Jesse and Lt. Siskel - we finally get to meet Lloyd and Caroline's delinquent son, Jesse at military school where he happens to blackmailing Lt. Siskel over some naughty photos. You know, like all 15 year olds do.
  • Connie: Who would catch a criminal and then let him go free? Mary: Republicans?
  • "You know what this family needs? A mute." Gus is the best.
  • Does every town in Connecticut have an eccentric millionaire? I'm just curious. 
  • I also realized on this re-watching that Gus is Jesse's criminal Yoda. Let that sink in for a bit as you watch.
  • "Why do you get strange at family gatherings? Finally, Lloyd's Satan mom arrives in the form of Rose played by Glynis Johns. Rose is my favorite side character in this movie. Keep in mind that Glynis Johns is Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins. Mrs. Banks! Seriously, how great is that? And she's Mary Katherine Gallagher's grandma in the movie Superstar. Just bask in the awesomeness that is Rose for the entire rest of this movie.
  • I believe that we all need to invest in some Lucia wreaths and bring the story of St. Lucia into all of our homes this holiday season.
  • Caroline at dinner is the absolute greatest. I realized that I am Mary in my family - just listening to the adults gossip and talk about life. Watching Mary and John through the rest of the movie is so much fun. You also have to appreciate that they jump in and help save Gus too.
  • The best line in the entire movie from Lloyd: "You know what I'm going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so every time you feel unappreciated for all your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it." 
  • Remember George, the town Santa? Throughout the movie we're treated to scenes of George getting increasingly intoxicated as he visits homes for Christmas. He arrives back at the Chasseur house just in time for everything to go to hell as the army arrives (Lt. Siskel to talk about the blackmail), the state police begin house to house searches looking for Gus, and Mary and John help tie up the rest of the family. Ultimately, George saves the day even if he's passed out when it happens.
  • Does Gus get away? I'll let you watch the movie to find our for yourself. I can tell you that both endings exist. 
Really The Ref is the ideal holiday film: we learn lessons about family and the true meaning of forgiveness. It takes an outsider (a thief in this case) to teach the Chasseurs that what they have is really great if only they'd stand up for themselves and occasionally beat the crap out of the Christmas tree with a fire poker. The Ref belongs on everyone's holiday movie list. 

Dinner picture
The trio

Monday, November 24, 2014

The conclusion - Actually, It’s Pronounced Mil-e-wah-que

And so another NaNoWriMo has come to an end. I have successfully completed my second year and second novel. It was another year of people asking me "You're doing what exactly?" and "You mean you don't really win anything?". I take these questions as one should, with a smile and the knowledge that I did win something at least to me. Now I have two novels that are in some shape that I can do something with. That may be very vague but it's what I have for now. I commit to editing my novels this year and doing more with them. And of course, sharing it with all of you.

Let's take a look at this year in numbers:
  • Days to complete the novel: 22
  • Final word count: 50,963 (I thought I would be 1K over; I was close.)
  • Most words written in a day: 6,202 (done on the day I finished)
  • Least words written in a day: 591 (all other days were over 1400 words)
  • Number of pages: 106 (everyone asks me this)
  • Number of chapters: 33 and an epilogue
  • Alcohol consumed: 2 beers, 1.5 bottles of wine over 22 days (#hemingwaywasadrunk)
  • Number of times Pumpkin gave me the "you are a horrible pet mom" look: 4000
I finished early again this year (four days earlier than last year) only because I gave myself a deadline of finishing before going to visit family for Thanksgiving. I like my characters a lot and am looking forward to revisiting them in a few months.

Here's the epilogue of the novel. It may be a "spoiler" of sorts but it was one of my favorite parts to write so I think it's fitting that I share it here. It's the final column Harper writes for the magazine that she's written for since graduating from college. She named her column after a line in a song by The Replacements.

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!

I Never Travel Far, Without a Little Big Star

Actually, It’s Pronounced Mil-e-wah-que
By Harper Monroe

I live a very privileged life. I have a family who cares about me, a job I love, and the possibility of a future with a person who sort of fell into my life. I can honestly say that the worst thing that has ever happened to me is that one day a long time ago someone that I thought was my best friend, that I would know forever decided to end our friendship. He ended it because adolescence is a confusing time and hormones and petty jealousy make things seem like more than they actually are. At the time, I felt nothing. Then I felt anger and rage and sadness. Then nothing again. Until now.
First loves are magical and awkward and hurt more than any other love you’ll ever experience. It’s especially hard when you’ve never met the person you’re in love with, when you only have their words to rely on to figure out who they are. In our hyper-connected, tendency to over share world, it’s easy to hide behind a status on Facebook or a tweet. You can craft and re-craft your image and how you want the world to perceive you. You can be casual and impersonal all the time. You can respond in haste and anger without any meaning. If you wait long enough, people will forget. That’s how social media works. Wait a news cycle and it’s all forgiven.
Writing a letter is more personal than that. Sure, you can paint the picture that you want to in a letter too but the mere act of sitting down and taking pen to paper is more personal than any status update, text. or email. You have to know the person. You have to be personal. You have to ask questions and answer questions. You have to give of yourself in a way that we don’t when we tell everyone in our network what we had for lunch. You have to believe that those letters and the conversations are the conversations you’d have if you were face to face. There is trust and the expectation of privacy when you send a letter to someone.
When I was in the fourth grade I met a boy named Ben. Well, I never actually met him. He was my pen pal, assigned by some company that created pen pals kits for elementary schools. I’m sure a very sophisticated algorithm was used to match us. We were supposed to learn about how to write letters, practice our cursive writing, and learn about someone who lived in a town that was different from ours. There was no expectation that we would remain friends or even write to one another after the assignment ended. The only expectation was that we would send twenty letters to each other. Our teachers couldn’t force friendship. I was crushed when I found out that my pen pal was a boy. What would I have in common with a boy? What would we talk about? My teacher, Mrs, Henderson, wouldn’t budge. She challenged me to write to this boy, to stop being the hyper serious nine year old that I was. She wanted me to have fun and be myself.
In the end, Mrs. Henderson was right. I had fun and I was myself. Ben and I became best friends, something I don’t think Mrs. Henderson would have ever expected. We learned from one another, shared music and books and movies. We made each other mixtapes. We grew up together. We told each other secrets. We were ourselves and the start of who we would grow up to be.
I have almost 200 letters from Ben. We wrote to each other almost weekly from 1988 to 1994. One day, Ben met a girl and fell in love in the way that ninth graders fall in love. The only things that mattered to Ben were his band and that girl. He decided that it was time stop childish things and that included being friends with me. The thirty-five year old me totally understands. The fifteen year old me did not.
Twenty years is a long time. In that time I’ve graduated from high school and college, moved to California, and started the only job I ever wanted to have. I have a book coming out in the fall and might even have a television show out later this year. My siblings have both married, my parents moved back to Michigan, my sister has twins of her own. All of these things are significant and important. All of things are what normal people do (well maybe not the book and the tv show but you get my point).
Ben became a rock star.
That’s something that I cannot wrap my head around. It happened but it does not compute. Of course, he’s not really Ben anymore. He’s Martin Hendrixe, lead singer of Transient Suburbia. His life involves studios and tours and adoring fans. He both is and is not the boy I knew.
I am sitting at a place called The Diner. It’s in Milwaukee, WI and it’s an actual diner. You can order breakfast all day long if you want. Frankly, I could use some pancakes but I am not here to eat. It’s 10 pm on a Thursday in the middle of August. It’s the corner booth, the best booth in the place. This is the booth where Ben, Jane, Adam, and Dave became Transient Suburbia. I am waiting with 100 Transient Suburbia fans who followed the clues on Twitter to find the secret show at the place where the band was born. I was brought here partially because this is what I do and partially because I am as much a part of Transient Suburbia as Ben or any of the band members. All those letters to Ben inspired the lyrics for some of the band’s most famous songs. I called my life “transient suburbia” in a letter once and that became the band’s name. I am what you hear between the lyrics and the music.
The audience is getting restless in the way excited concertgoers get restless. The crowd buzzes with a mix of anticipation, boredom, and rock and roll. They’ve been standing for two hours. They are ready for the show to start and their heroes to appear and sing their favorite songs. Or disappoint them by only playing new stuff. Such is the life of a music fan.
A young woman, maybe seventeen or eighteen, keeps looking at me sitting in the booth, jotting notes and observations in my trusty notebook. She and her friend consult one another in whispers. After ten minutes of this, she decides to ask me what my deal is. That’s her actual question. It’s not rude, not really. I tell her I’m a journalist and that I traveled with the band so that I could see this show. I introduce myself. She freaks out; she knows who I am. She reads my column and more importantly, she knows that I am the girl that “Outlaw For Your Love”  is about. It is her favorite Transient Suburbia song. She asks if I would be in a picture with her. I agree as long as she agrees to send it to me so I can add it to the web version of the article. Her name is Marlene. Marlene’s excitement has drawn attention from others nearby (it’s a diner after all and not that big). A murmur goes through the crowd. They know I’m her, the girl that Martin/Ben let go. The girl all the songs are about.
I wave at a few people and go back to my position as observer and recorder.The show should be starting any minute now. The lights will dim, the crowd will get quiet for a split second, and then erupt in the exuberant way that concert crowds do. I suspect this show will be very loud; diners are not really designed for rock concerts. No one in the room cares about that of course. They are ready for this once in a lifetime experience. None of them have ever been this close to their favorite band before. This is a night they will never forget.
The lights dim. The crowd gets quiet for just a second or two. And then bam! The lights come up and there they are. There is Transient Suburbia. There is rock and roll glory. They launch into their first song and I can feel the crowd move with them. The acoustics are such that I can feel the drums in my stomach and the guitar is in my head. I am in the song. I am the song. We all are.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

There should probably be a commemorative coin

Welcome to the 200th Island of Misfit Toys post! Who knew that the Island would make it this far? Who knew people other than my mother would read it and enjoy themselves? I'm glad that so many of you have stuck with me for the last few years and enjoyed visiting my little corner of the world. It means a lot to me that there are so many loyal readers and so many people who stumble upon this little world when searching for things like "Andrew McCarthy bobbleheads" or "hobo symbols." The Internet is a strange and wonderful place.

Many of you know that I'm currently participating in National Novel Writing Month. It's almost over (which is crazy) and I'm about 5K words away from hitting the goal and about 6K words away from being done with the novel. In the novel my protagonist, Harper, gets assigned a pen pal in the fourth grade. This is the most important thing to happen in her young life and it's "ruined" by the fact that the pen pal ends up being a boy. She does not want to write to a boy and tries to get her teacher to change her assignment. Her teacher refuses and presents this as a challenge to the young girl. She encourages Harper to be herself and not worry so much about the boy/girl aspect of her potential new friendship. Harper stubbornly agrees with her teacher and writes the boy, Ben, her first letter. Of course, they become friends. They talk to each other about all manner of things from music to movies to books to how to ask someone to a dance. They grow up together. However, adolescence happens and eventually, Ben stops writing to Harper. The second half of the novel is about reconnection and how we figure out which people in our lives are supposed to be the people in our lives.

The fictional universe that I've created shares some similarities to the real universe where I reside. It's hard as a beginning writer to not rely on what I know and my experiences when I create a character or a place. There is that old adage to "write what you know" and I think there is truth in that statement. I can still challenge myself even in that familiarness to try new things and to think about events and relationships differently than I do in real life. I can also thank the technology gods that Google street view exists. When I was writing about a trip to see CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, I could look at the street view image and describe the sadness of seeing iconic landmarks disappear (at least in name and clientele). It wasn't as good as being there in person but it worked for what I need to accomplish.

The inspiration for the novel came from two places: a reconnection with an elementary school friend on Facebook and the Jack White concert I went to back in September. Facebook is a lot of things but at the end of the day it is supposed to be about connection to people. I've kept in touch with former students, friends around the world, and my very awesome colleagues. I've enjoyed reconnecting with friends from elementary school; it's cool to be able to see the people they've become and their families. After this friend sent me a friend request I started to think back to all the fun we had at slumber parties and in school. It was so easy to make friends back then; I don't know why that stops when you get older. I was thinking about this while brushing my teeth one morning and the idea of Harper and her pen pal popped into my head. I had the first chapter mapped out by the time my hair was dry and I was dressed. I couldn't write it yet but the idea was there. Who are the people who are supposed to be in our lives? Do they only come back to us when we need them? I don't really have the answers to these questions but I thought maybe my characters would. It's a good thought.

A Jack White concert is not where I expected to get the second idea for the novel but it's where it happened. I was sitting at Merriweather listening to him plow through a killer set and the novel came back to me. What if her pen pal was famous but she didn't know that it was him and they meet again? What would happen to them? How does fame change the way we think about our friends? Would we want that person back in our lives especially if we felt they had wronged us? Shouldn't people always use their rock star powers for good?

I know that I'm a lucky person. I have some really amazing people in my life. They come in and out at odd times and appropriate times and unexpected times. They connect me to places and times in my life that are both wonderful to recall and painful to remember. Harper will have to decide if the errant rock star is worthy of being in her life or if their time together has passed. I don't actually know yet which option she will choose. I have five thousand words and nine days left to figure it out.

Coming soon to the Island: The conclusion of NaNoWriMo, a return to Lazy Movie Weekends, and we discuss how I'm doing everything wrong when it comes to holiday shopping. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

This Is the End (an excerpt from Transient Suburbia)

It's National Novel Writing Month! A little check in on my progress:
Total Word Count (as of 11.7): 15197
Words Left: 34803
Days Left: 22

My protagonist, Harper Monroe, is all grown up (finally through that high school section) and has started her journalism career. She writes about musical pilgrimages. Enjoy a journey with Harper.

This Is the End
June 1999

I am lost in a cemetery. It’s a beautiful cemetery but it’s a cemetery nonetheless. I love cemeteries particularly ones where famous people are interred. But right now this cemetery is getting on my nerves.
I have a terrible sense of direction. Even with a map, I can’t say that I know where I am or where I’m trying to go. Interpreting cardinal directions is not a skill I possess. We all have our skills; mine are mostly related to making mixtapes, baking exceptional banana bread, and having opinions about 70s punk bands.
Cities of the dead are intriguing to me. My family visited New Orleans when I was in high school and I remember seeing the above ground tombs there for the first time. The cities of the dead are both creepy and beautiful, monuments to death and life. Tour guides in New Orleans like to tell people that the tombs exist because the dead would float if they were buried underground (New Orleans is below sea-level after all) but that’s really only partially true. The French and Spanish settled the city and the tombs have more to do with their influence than floating corpses.
I’ve come to Paris to find a rock star. Well, the resting place of a rock star. Like so many before me, I’ve come to pay my respects to the Lizard King, Mr. Mojo Risin’ Jim Morrison. Most people come to Paris for romance and good food. I want Jim to tell me my future. Or something.
There are some that don’t believe he’s dead; that the tomb is a simply a ploy to make fans believe he’s gone. Morrison no longer wanted to be the Lizard King; he just wanted a life of obscurity and quiet. People claim to see him at gas stations and on isolated stretches on highway. Morrison and Elvis forever alive, never being able to rest.
I believe he’s dead and buried here at  Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (Père Lachaise Cemetery). Morrison was an addict and heroin would be his downfall. July 3, 1971 - the day the music was over and we could turn out the light.
I have to believe he’s dead. I’ve been walking around this beautiful cemetery for an hour and am lost. I half expected him to appear to me like he appears to Wayne in Wayn’e’s World 2 and convinces Wayne to create the music festival Waynestock. Maybe Jim and aren’t connected on that level. I’m sad about that but I soldier on.
The official map of Père Lachaise Cemetery does not include the tomb of Jim Morrison. It used to and I suspect that it will again one day. The devoted have been making their way to Morrison’s tomb since it was erected and they don’t always exercise the right amount of respect for those buried near Morrison. At one point the tomb was even removed to combat the graffiti and destruction committed. This is why we can’t have nice things.
So finding Morrison’s tomb has now become a quest, a true music fan’s pilgrimage. It also attracts its share of curiosity seekers and people like me, a fan of The Doors but not a devotee. A person who is seeking answers about life who believe that Morrison can help.
I thought I had the directions. My roommate’s boyfriend visited last summer. He wrote down the directions and kept them. To remember his pilgrimage. I dutifully copied down his directions and followed them when I got here (in addition to picking up a map from the visitor’s office). However, he had forgotten an important part of the directions. He had forgotten the “chemins”. Chemins are basically side streets and they’re tricky. The run parallel and perpendicular and round and round. Between the directions and the map I was getting nowhere.I am starting to second guess my decision to start here in Paris. I don’t know why I decided to start my musical pilgrimages with Jim Morrison. I like The Doors but I don’t love The Doors. I could have started with Graceland or any number of places in New Orleans; familiar and close places. But here I am in Paris getting lost in a cemetery.
I don’t know if it’s luck or Jim Morrison deciding to help me out but just as I am about to give up and leave, help arrives. A group of Irish lads (sadly not those Irish lads) appear out of nowhere (or around the corner). I was sitting on the curb, disheveled and annoyed, when they crossed my path. The tallest guy, the one I’ve decided is the lead singer because they’re obviously in a band, introduces himself as Danny (of course) and asks if I need help. I explain my dilemma; Danny and his friends laugh and invite me to join them. They know the way. They have been here before. We walk for exactly ten minutes, circle around the same chemins I had already walked down twice, and walk another ten minutes in the opposite direction. We do not speak.
And then we arrive.
There it was. The tomb I had been searching for. I don’t know what I was expecting. All that happens is that “Love Street” pops into my head at the exact moment I see the tomb. This is probably not the song that most people would think of when seeing Jim Morrison’s final resting place for the first time but it is my favorite and that’s all there is. There are barricades keeping visitors from getting too close. The tomb itself is a bit further back from the path. The bust is gone but the graffiti and offerings remain. Whiskey bottles and song lyrics and flowers. That is what the legion of the faithful have left behind.
The Irish lads make their offerings. They brought whiskey (a little for Jim, a little for them). They offer me the bottle. As much as I would like to imbibe, I decide it is not wise to drink whiskey with unknown persons in a cemetery. Sometimes I’m not very rock and roll. We are not alone; an older couple snap photos and reminisce about seeing The Doors live in Los Angeles in their youth. They sing along to “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)” when my Irish friends start to sing it and I can see the happiness/sadness in their eyes. They are lost in the music and the memories and their adoration of a flawed and talented man.
I think about why I have come here. I think it is because rock music makes us do crazy and bizarre things. It invades our souls and takes over our hearts. A friend once told me that all rock songs are about love. After observing these fans, I think I believe that statement more than ever.
I think I was in love once. I never actually met him; we wrote letters to one another. I was always myself in those letters I could tell him anything. We shared rock and roll and books and growing up. And then one day, he stopped writing to me. He’s the one that told me about The Doors. I listened because we traded music and I wanted to be a good music friend. I wanted to understand him through the music he loved. He told me that he thought I’d “dig” the music. And I did. I really did. Not because he liked it but because it was good. I could see Southern California and 1967 and the mythical Jim Morrison.
I am here because I want Jim Morrison to explain to me why people leave and why Love Street isn’t a real place. I need to be in this place at this moment so that I can put this person to rest in my heart.
There is no where to sit at the tomb of Jim Morrison so I sit on the curb across from it. I watch the Irish lads and the couple dance and sing and pay their respects. They being to move along. Not because it is too crowded but because their time with the Lizard King is over. They have had their moment and they can move on. Until next time.
I stare at the tomb. I take a few pictures (like the good tourist I am). I sketch some of the graffiti into my notebook. A few more pilgrims make their way to their moment with Jim - a couple of hippies, some students like me, an aging rocker in well-worn leather pants. They each have their moment, nod to one another, and move on. There are no orgies or wild parties. There are only fans paying their respects.
Morrison has not revealed anything to me. He has not led me to my lost boy or to some version of understanding. I’m okay with this. I feel more at ease, more aware of myself. I spend a few more minutes with Jim. I leave a small token of my admiration (a sunflower) and move along back to the busy streets of Paris.
All rock songs are about love and love is a crazy thing.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Let the writing begin...It's NaNoWriMo time!

It's November so that means it's time for me to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. You know, what everyone does with their November. I participated for the first time last year and successfully completed my first novel. You can read all about last year's entry here. NaNoWriMo is fun and challenging and awesome. I've been looking forward to getting this year's novel started. I hope that you'll enjoy what I have to share.

But before I preview this year's novel, Transient Suburbia, I want to take a moment to address something that happened here yesterday. I received for the first time ever a hate filled, misogynistic comment on my last post about Christmas decorations. I'd like to say that I'm surprised that I received such a comment but I'm not. The state of the Internet today is one of hate and ignorance. I've expected to receive some kind of negativity at some point. I was mostly shocked that it was that it was the post about Christmas decorations. Seriously? I'm angry and annoyed but mostly I'm sad that people can't just let others be who they are. Hate takes so much more energy; I don't know what anyone would want to spend so much time hating. Two things I would like to say and then I will let this go:
  1. I would like to apologize to any readers of the Island, regular or new that may have seen the comment. I removed the it as soon as I received notification of its existence. If you saw it before then, I'm truly sorry. No one needs to see that hatefulness. I hope it doesn't keep you from continuing to visit the Island.
  2. To the anonymous poster - if you're going to spew hate at least have the decency to use your name and stand behind your statements. Maybe you think it gives you power but it doesn't. I don't have time for your hate and I don't know anyone else who does either. You can believe whatever you want to believe; just stay on your side of the Internet and I'll stay on mine.
My blog isn't about politics or hate. I write to express myself and have a creative outlet. I want people to have fun while they visit and maybe even identify with some of my experiences. That's all.

With that said, here are the first two chapters from NaNoWriMo novel, Transient Suburbia. I hope you enjoy it. Please excuse any grammar or spelling errors; NaNoWriMo is not about editing!

 Part One: Pen Pals
Chapter One

Mrs. Henderson’s 4th Grade Class, September 19, 1988

    Harper was getting impatient. Today was the day. She had been waiting for this day since the first week of school. Fourth grade was serious business; they switched classes now for Math, French, and art. She was learning fractions and multiplication tables. Lockers replaced cubbies. Harper felt very grown-up. She felt more responsible and mature and wanted everyone to know it. Today would be a step in that direction. Today she was the project she had been looking forward to and she hoped it would connect her to the world outside of Dothan, Alabama. She knew there was more to life than peanut festivals and Azalea Trail Maids.
Harper Monroe was nine and had already lived in three states. Her dad worked for the government and they moved every few years. Harper had learned to be helpful and to cultivate a sense of adventure. Her father called every move “an adventure” and Harper loved that idea. Her siblings, Flannery and Walker, were five years older and less interested in adventure. Her sister just wanted to be popular and pretty and Walker went along with whatever Flannery said. Since they were twins, they often treated Harper like a pet rather than a sister. Her mother called her thoughtful; her sister called her a pest.
This was her second school; she had gone to kindergarten in Ohio and now she was in elementary school in Dothan, Alabama. She loved school and books and reading and music. To Harper books were the most important thing in the world. Once she learned to read, no one could stop her. She took weekly trips to the library with her dad (she would have liked it to be daily). The librarian knew her and always made recommendations and called her “Mathilda” after the character in the Roald Dahl book. She looked forward to the day that she would be able to read To Kill a Mockingbird since she was named after the author, Harper Lee. She wanted to be a writer someday.
Harper fidgeted at her desk. The morning was dragging on and on. Mrs. Henderson was her favorite teacher so far but the vocabulary review was killing her. Harper aced the quiz this week and was barely listening to her classmates use the words in sentences as a review. She didn’t hear Mrs. Henderson calling her name.
    “Harper! Harper, are you listening?” Mrs. Henderson knew the answer but asked anyway. She liked Harper a lot and knew the girl was very smart. Mrs. Henderson thought Harper was probably bored in class but there wasn’t currently an alternative. The gifted program had been cut so Harper had to stay in this class. Mrs. Henderson encouraged her reading and had recently started encouraging her to write more. She was also fond of Harper and let these little daydreaming moments slide.
“Sorry Mrs. Henderson.” Harper blushed and some of her classmates laughed. Her friend Janie made a face at her. Harper hated it when she got caught not paying attention.
“Stay with us, Harper. I asked you to use “captivate” in a sentence.” Mrs. Henderson smiled at Harper.
Harper thought a for a minute. Captive was both a noun and an adjective. Both forms had been on the quiz. Which one should she choose? She opted for adjective.
“Mrs. Henderson help the pen pal assignments captive all morning long making it hard to pay attention.” Harper smiled at her clever use of the word captive.
Mrs. Henderson laughed a little under her breath. “That’s an excellent use of the adjective form of captive. Can anyone use it as a noun?” She called on Peter to answer her question. As she turned to him, she looked at Harper and mouthed, “After lunch.”
Harper was disappointed. That was so far away. How would she make it through math (stupid long division), PE (stupid dodgeball), and lunch (adequate sandwich). Didn’t Mrs. Henderson know that pen-pal assignment day was the most important day of all time? Didn’t she understand how much this was torturing Harper. She was a captive (noun) of fourth grade vocab and long division. The afternoon could not come fast enough.

Chapter Two


Somehow, Harper survived the rest of the morning and lunch. She practiced being patient and focused on what was going on in class. She did okay on her math work; math was not her thing. She tried but it never made sense. At lunch, she gossiped with her friends and they started planning Janie’s birthday party. It was going to be a boy/girl skating party. It would be the first boy/girl party for all of them. They were all very excited and had been obsessing about about what to wear and who would skate with which boy in their class for couple skates. Harper volunteered to help decorate.
When they returned to class, they saw that Mrs. Henderson had set up the room differently. At the front of the room there was a large box that was covered in stamps. Harper couldn’t tell if they were stamps or stickers but she didn’t really care. It was finally time.
Harper had always wanted a pen pal. Her mom had first told her about pen pals. She had one when she was younger. She even showed Harper some of the letters she saved from her pen pal. They had fallen out of touch at some point. Her mother got that look she had when she talked about her childhood. Harper just let her talk.
Since that conversation, Harper had imagined what her pen-pal would be like. She would be nine and unlike Harper, live in a big city. She and Harper would have the same favorite books and tv shows but would also find things to introduce to one another. Harper would be able to tell her pen pal how much she didn’t like having twins as siblings. They would stay in touch forever and become lifelong friends. Maybe they’d be in each other’s weddings and vacation together (like her parents and their friends).
In her heart, Harper knew this was probably not how the whole pen-pal thing would work. She wasn’t that naive (she heard that word on tv and looked it up) enough to think this stranger from another state would like her or that she would like them. But she hoped. A girl could dream.
At the front of the classroom a new map had been hung on the bulletin board. Harper guessed that Mrs. Henderson had plans to turn the pen-pals into some sort of geography lesson. Where would her pen-pal live? Was it better than Dothan? As Harper made her way to her desk, she noticed new supplies waiting. Mrs. Henderson had placed two new pens on each person’s desk. Pens! Homework had to be done in pencil so the idea of pens was too exciting. Harper examined the pens as the rest of the class made their way to their seats. They were regular Bic ballpoint pens; one blue, one black. These were the same pens Harper’s mom used for her grocery lists and paying bills. Ballpoint pens signified adulthood and responsibility. Harper was ready for it. Now.
Mrs. Henderson finally closed the classroom door as the final end of lunch bell rang. She took what seemed like centuries to get the class settled. After lunch was always a challenge; there was too much energy and movement. Mrs. Henderson liked to give her class a quick active task after lunch to get them to settle down and burn off some of that lunchtime energy. Today would be no exception.
“Alright let’s get started. As Harper reminded us during our vocabulary review, today is the day we start our pen pal project. We are one of three schools in Alabama participating this year. Each of you has been assigned a pen pal from another state. You’ll get your assignment in a few minutes.”
Harper did all she could to focus her attention on what Mrs. Henderson was saying. What she really wanted to do was jump out of her seat and go through the box and find her pen pal. She showed tremendous restraint. She didn’t want her behavior to impact her match.
“Before I introduce you to your pen pals, let’s talk about a new map. Who can find Alabama on the map?” All hands shot up. “Good. Now, how many of you were born in Dothan?”
Six hands went up. “Each of you come up and grab a blue pin.”
The group went up to the map and grabbed their pins. Tony, the most popular boy in class, found Dothan and they planted their pins. Mrs. Henderson moved onto born in Alabama (twelve people) then to a Southern state (six people), and the Harper and James. Harper was born in Michigan and James in New York. Their pins were so far away from the rest.
“Once you “meet” your pen pal you’ll use a red pin to plot where they live. We’ll connect them to Dothan and to the other locations on our map so we can learn more about the different places we come from.” Mrs. Henderson looked at her students and just saw blank stares. She was hoping that this pen pal project would get them all excited about.
“Each of you will receive your starter pen pal kit. Remember when we filled out those biography sheets and wrote about ourselves? Well, those sheets were used to match each of you with a pen pal. Inside your kit, you’ll see a similar sheet about your pen pal.” Mrs. Henderson started passing out the kits.
Harper sat in the fourth row and the fifth seat. She was practically last and the wait was agony. As Mrs. Henderson passed out the kits, she explained that the kits also included stamps, stationery and envelopes, and some an assignment book they would use throughout the project. There were a few questions from the group about how pen pals were matched and how many letters they would have to write. Mrs. Henderson answered them all.
“Today we’ll start with some basic letter writing exercises to get you all started. We’ll practice our writing and using our new vocabulary words. You won’t have to to turn in all of your letters but we will go over letters in class throughout the next few weeks.” Mrs. Henderson was almost to Harper’s row.
“You’ll also have to share things about your pen pal one time per month. This will help us learn about new places and people.” The last packet made it back to the last student in class.
“Now that everyone has their kit, I’ll give you a few minutes to read about your pen pal. Then we’ll start our first lesson on greeting and salutations.” Mrs. Henderson dramatically pulled up the screen at the front of the room. Different greetings were all over the board.
Harper didn’t notice. She had tuned out her class as soon her kit arrived at her desk. The kit was a large envelope. Her name was across the top in bold orange lettering. Harper thought that was a good sign since orange is her favorite color. Postage stamps and other stamps made up the background. Harper carefully opened her envelope and removed each item, carefully inspecting each item.
The stationery was white and lined. There were geometric patterns along the bottom edge in different colors. The envelopes had the same design. Harper had never had her own stationery before. It was as amazing as the pens. Next was a book of twenty first class stamps. Flags. Not her favorite stamps (her dad let her pick the stamps at the post office) but they’d get her letters there. The assignment book was next. She put that to the side. She knew she’d be spending lots of time on the lessons. The only item left was her pen pal sheet. She would finally know her new friend. Weeks of waiting would finally be over. Harper would have a new friend.
She slowly pulled the sheet from the envelope. She said a final wish for the perfect pen pal. She slowly turned the paper over. She looked for a name and her jaw dropped.
Her pen pal was a boy.
How could this be? This wasn’t what she had imagined. What would she talk to a boy about? There had to be a mistake. A boy? It made no sense.
Benjamin Riggs, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Harper couldn’t focus her eyes enough to read the rest of the sheet. It all just blurred together. She was fighting tears. She would not cry in class. Mrs. Henderson would fix this. Ten minutes flew by and Harper tried to focus on the lesson on greetings and how to begin a letter.
“Your first letter is due this Friday. You’ll need to use what we learned today in your letter. Start short, ask a few questions, and tell your pen pal a little bit about yourself. Each letter will be easier to write.” Mrs. Henderson’s voice was encouraging.
She went on to explain that each student would be responsible for twenty letters. Mrs. Henderson would not read them but would mail the letters so everyone would get credit. They would receive their letters at home. She encouraged them to write more frequently if they wanted to. If they needed help there would be writing time during the week.
The final bell rang and Mrs. Henderson’s class gathered their books and pen pal kits. The mad rush to buses and the pickup line began in earnest. Harper was a walker; she waited for her brother or sister to pick her up and they walked home together. She took her time gathering her books and homework. She wanted her classmates gone before she talked to Mrs. Henderson.
“Do you need something Harper? Your brother is probably waiting for you.”
Harper hesitated. She wasn’t sure how to start so she just blurted it out. “Mrs. Henderson, I need a new pen pal. They gave me a boy. I can’t write to a boy.” Harper was beyond upset and on the verge of crying.
Mrs. Henderson sat down next to her and took her hands. “Harper, it’s going to be okay. You talk to boys all the time at school and you do just fine.”
“But what if he doesn’t like anything that I like? What if we don’t have anything to say? I don’t want to write to a boy.” Harper continued to protest.
Mrs. Henderson was not going to let Harper out of this. She knew that this was the kind of challenge the girl needed.“You need to think of this as a challenge. You know you like a challenge. I know you can do this.”
The word challenge hit Harper. She understood that word and knew in her heart that Mrs. Henderson was right. There was nothing wrong with having a boy for a pen pal. Maybe he would be nice and they’d like some of the same tv shows. She could do this.
“Okay Mrs. Henderson. I’ll try my best.”
“Just remember that letter writing is about being yourself. Just be you and you’ll be great.”
“Thanks Mrs. Henderson. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Harper gathered her bookbag and waved goodbye to her teacher. She had to figure out how to be herself and talked to a boy in a letter. Easiest thing in the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

An open letter to Christmas decorations in October

Dear Santa, Rudolph, Mrs. Claus, the Grinch and Max, Angel choir, tree skits, twinkle lights, and all other Christmas decorations,

I wasn't expecting to see you yet so you'll have to excuse my shock and awkwardness upon encountering you at Target earlier today. I was looking for a fall wreath and well, you startled me. I was expecting pretty fall colors and leaves and instead I was assaulted by red and green and silver. It's funny, you were right next to a creepy clown mask. Normally, the clown would bother me but I was more concerned with your presence in the seasonal section.

Do me a favor. Find a calendar and go to October 2014. Take a close look at today. Can you tell me what today is?


I'm sorry about the shouting but it's October 25th. That means that's it 6 days until Halloween, 32 days until Thanksgiving, and 60 days until Christmas. Sixty days!!! By my calculations you should not be out in stores yet. Or on people's houses. Or up at the mall. It's not your turn.

I don't want you to think that I'm not a fan. Christmas is a wonderful time of year to be with family and celebrate all the magic of the season. I love holiday baking, especially cookies since when baking cookies I spend the day with my family. We laugh at things that aren't probably all that funny and have found a way to turn a snowman cookie into John Belushi. We have skills. I'm trying to be better about enjoying decorating the tree and my parents' house; they have a lot of decorations so I find it overwhelming. Last year I even made my own tree out of books and twinkle lights and it was wonderful. So I'm not opposed to decorations or the holiday spirit.

But it's not your turn! My two favorite holidays of the year come before you and I feel like you are stealing their thunder. Halloween and Thanksgiving deserve their time in the spotlight. I think it's time that we discuss what happens when you creep your way in before it's time.

The holidays are an event-filled, stressful time of year for many people, myself included. There are so many expectations: Thanksgiving dinner has to be Martha Stewart picture perfect despite the fact that most attendees have been day drinking and may not even make it to dinner; every relative you haven't seen recently will ask you why you're still single or why you don't have babies and make you feel as if you have failed at a significant part of life; your shopping list gets longer every year but you have no idea what to get anyone and they certainly don't want to give you any ideas; baking gets out of control because you just have to make one more batch of snowballs for your mother's sister's cousin's neighbor. I think the feeling can best be summarized by the wonderful Anne Bancroft in the film Home for the Holidays:

"I'm giving thanks that we don't have to go through this for another year. Except we do, because those bastards went and put Christmas right in the middle, just to punish us."

You see, Christmas decorations, when you show up sixty full days early you make it worse. We don't have time to enjoy the two best holidays of the year, Halloween and Thanksgiving, because we're already worrying about all the things we have to get done and are already "behind" on because it's October 25th and I haven't made my card list (or maybe made my cards), bought a fake tree off the tv (saw an ad this week), or decided which overpriced electronic device I will buy for my dad this year that he will promptly not use despite telling me that he wanted it. It's too much pressure!

Let's just forget about the stress of the holidays for a moment and think about the joys of fall. I haven't had time to fully settle into pumpkin spice flavored things or to bring out all my sweaters yet (since it's still in the 70s on occasion). I haven't seen the beauty of leaves changing colors and making the world seem like a postcard. I've only made pumpkin cookies with brown sugar icing one time. ONE TIME! That's just not enough. Honey crisp apples have only recently appeared at the grocery. And apple cider is only now warming our souls. Don't even get me started on the number of scary movies I haven't watched yet. And A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is still weeks away.

Can't we all just enjoy the beauty and majesty of fall? Can't we just have one experience at a time?

I know it's not really your fault, Christmas decorations. I'm sure you'd rather spend October and November gearing up for the big show that is December. Or maybe you'd rather reflect on all the meanings that you as a season have for people. That could mean any number of things from religious celebrations and festivities to celebrating the solstice or even the secular side of the season. Whichever path you want to explore, I know you'd rather do it at the appropriate time. Not in October. Not in November.

I want to feel like Jack Skellington when he goes through the tree door and finds himself in Christmastown for the first time. I want to wonder "What is this?" when I see a snowflake or a candy cane and look on in wonder when people gather for carols and to decorate their trees. It's impossible to feel that way when you show up months early and make my Type A personality start spinning with the fear that I am somehow behind on things that I never knew I needed to deal with in the first place. I don't think it's too much to ask to celebrate the holidays during the corresponding month. This is how the world is supposed to work.

Thanks for listening. Maybe we can work together to solve this problem so future generations can bask in the wonder of the season while still enjoying all that October and November have to offer. Maybe we can figure out a way for everyone to get the equal time they deserve.

Love and candy corns,

Jack in Christmastown

Next week: It's National Novel Writing Month (well it will be next Saturday)! I'll preview this year's novel and what to expect on the Island while I write a 50K word novel in one month.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

DC Days: Rockin' the Suburbs, Part Two (Subtitle: I didn't want to stab anyone*)

Yesterday I posted about my plan to take the magical Silver Line Metro from Clarendon to Tysons Corner. I wanted to experience the good times ahead and the life-changing nature of this new Metro line. That is, after all, what Metro promised. Metro's ad campaign for the new line has implied that the extension of public transportation into this area would somehow liberate people from their boring suburban lives and they would all have more fun, dance down a Metro platform, and meet the person of their dreams (for the single people). You can go to the city! You can live the life you've always wanted to when you opted to sell out for the 'burbs! Metro hates everyone.

It's an incredibly effective campaign (go marketing team!) and one that I'm sure that they'll continue to use as more stations are completed and open. I have been obsessing over this ad campaign since I saw it over the summer. My obsessions stems from this oddly implied idea that the only way we can be fulfilled is by urban living. I grew up in the suburbs and have spent most of my adult life in either urban areas or areas that I would describe as suburban/urban hybrids. I feel like I can live my life the way I want to in any of the areas and so the Metro campaign felt very personal. Like Metro was somehow judging me. I may take things too personally.

Anyway, I asked my friend Anita to join me on an adventure not to the city but to the very place that Metro told us to leave. We traveled to Tysons Corner and we had a blast. We didn't have to drive or find parking so we were relaxed and calm upon arriving at the mall. Later, Anita would observe that we could deal with the massive crowds because we didn't have to deal with the normally annoying commute and parking. I think she has a point.

The Metro ride from Clarendon took about 15 minutes (we had to wait 10 minutes for a train). The only thing that we knew about arriving at Tysons Corner was that we would have to walk through a skyway of sorts to the Plaza. The walk was relatively short (our only complaint is that it's not enclosed - bad on a rainy day like today) and the Plaza looks exactly like you imagine an outdoor plaza area at a high end shopping center would look like.

Except for the birds.

Not real birds but inexplicable metal birds. There were crows, a hawk, pigeons, and cardinals. A friend mentioned them on Facebook when I was discussing this trip but I wasn't really prepared for them. We don't understand the birds. One grouping of a crow and a cardinal and it looked like the crow was going to attack. Anita also thinks it looks like the hawk is looking for a mouse or something similar. They also seem to be staring off into the distance in a way that makes you sad that they're not real. I can't decide if the birds are there to deter other birds or to support the outdoor experience.

 We didn't stay long on the Plaza since it was raining. The rain also impacted our brunch plans; the place we wanted to go was actually across the street from Tysons but not worth the walk so we opted for Panera instead. We also plotted out our day, declaring that Tysons Corner Center would be our oyster. Highlight of the Panera experience: seeing my first ever person using Google Glass. He looked exactly as you imagine a guy a shopping mall would look like with Google Glass. I'm not sure I get that particular technology but to each his own.

The only actual scheduled activity we had today was free facials at Aveda. Since we had to skip brunch we had time to wander around the lower level of the mall. We did a pass through L.L. Bean where we tried on a variety of hats and discussed the pros and cons of buying a camouflage jacket. This confirmed for me that I'm still very conflicted about hats and whether or not I should wear them. 

Our trip through L.L. Bean didn't kill enough time before our facials so we ended up visiting the American Girl store. Neither of us had ever been to one before but we both read the original books when we were younger. This is not our American Girl. Most of what you can buy in the American Girl store are things you didn't know an American Girl doll needed - egg chairs, horses, pets (a corgi, a cat), and all of the clothes you can dream. There's even an option to buy glasses and orthodontia. I guess that's designed to help make the awkward phases of growing up a little easier. Samantha's ice cream parlor costs $300 and the dress so you can match your doll is $58 (the doll version is $36). Crazy. We saw lots of little girls and their parents with very large American Girl bags (and very awkward bell bottom, ruffled pants) all day long. There's even a cafe just in case you need a snack.

Facials were next on the schedule. This particular Aveda is a salon or spa (like I'm used to) so our facials were basically being done in public. The woman who took care of us was lovely (this is her weekend gig; she teaches in Fairfax County). She and I discussed germ-y children and how sick we both got our first year teaching. My face still feels nice and soft and Aveda-y. My goal of leaving smelling like calmness and balance was achieved.

What Anita and I came to realize as we continued to wander around the mall was that we didn't really feel the need to have a plan to enjoy our day. It was exactly like high school; we just went to the mall to hang out, gossip, and eat bad for us mall food. Instead of our parents dropping us off and agreeing on a designated pick up spot later in the evening, Metro brought us. No stressful parking, no crazy drive (we saw the traffic on 66 in both directions on a Saturday). It was the ease of those high school mall hang outs with the awesomeness of having a job and being able to buy things if we were so inclined. It didn't really matter. We also enjoyed free samples (thanks William Sonoma and Teavana). We got things we needed (a journal for NaNoWriMo for me; John Waters's book Carsick for Anita) and things we probably didn't need (maple pecan waffle mix and these boots that I've been stalking on Project Runway).

So what did we learn? Are good times really ahead? As we enjoyed dinner at Gordon Biersch (ending our day like my dad or brother would), Anita and I discussed John Waters, Divine, and our suburban upbringing. What we decided was that we miss the suburbs of our childhood and that the contrived nature of places like Tysons Corner and its Plaza with inexplicable birds is why Metro's ad campaign is successful. Everyone wants to be cool and feel like they belong somewhere. Sometimes you look up at the high rises and Metro stations of your urban existence and yearn for the quiet of your suburban childhood. And sometimes you don't want to see another shopping center or fast food restaurant. It's all about balance and realizing that sometimes you just need a girls' day at the mall.

*How Anita described our trip. She felt it was a success because this is how she felt at the end of the day.