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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Blog!

I wish someone would poll everyone in America re. whether holidays caused them more pleasure or pain.

Of course, for a true tally they'd have to finesse the data for the percentage of us who compulsively lie. And adjust for the myriad lack-of-free-will-in-decision-making influences, like whether we had a warm breakfast or fondled a bra before questioning. 

But once all that has been settled, I’d like to know the TRUE TRUTH about holidays in regards to the joy / misery spectrum.

The graph might break each holiday into four time-sensitive phases: 
1. Pre-holiday. (Eager anticipation / suicidal dread)  
2. Actual real-time holiday. (Enjoyment / anger / annoyance / paralytic boredom) 
3. Immediate post holiday. (after-glow / relief /  PTSD)
4. Distant holiday memories.  (Warm, fuzzy nostalgia / bitter guilt and regret  / homicidal rage.)

The X axis or Y would be number of living humans, and we'd keep total indifference as our base line.  OK?  Or am I just way too sophisticated and mathy here? Maybe I'm talking about a pie chart.

Anyway, let's start with the easiest and most obviously divisive holiday: Valentine's day. Factors may include age and male or femaleness. At one extreme would be, You don't have a sweet heart but wish you did. And at the other would be, You have a sweetheart who feels precisely as you do about Valentine’s day and how it should be celebrated.
In between would be gradations of,  You have a sweetheart who adores you but thinks your Valentine wishes are loony. Or you have a half-assed "sweetheart" who doesn't really give a hoot about you or your Valentine wishes. Or the person you want as your sweet heart hates your guts and wishes you'd die screaming in flames. 

Do you suppose our poll would show that Valentine's Day causes more happiness or unhappiness among the humans? 
Then there’s New Years Eve, packed with its high societal expectation of wacky, glamours fun among  attractive pals, with a big, sexy, smooch at midnight. Would our tally reveal more people feeling happy on New Years Eve? Or more people feeling like shit?

Similarly, Mother’s day.  You and your mom couldn't be closer. Or, your mother is dead, or you hate her, or she hates you. You aren’t a mother, or your kids are dead, or they hate you, or they like their step mother or mother-in-law way better.... On balance, more joy or pain?  

And now, 'tis time for ye olde winter holidays, and all their accompanying warm, fuzzy, community, historical, family, fireside, food, candy, candles, gifts, snow, and holy-glow stuff... 

Well, wherever you fall on the Ho!-Ho!-Ho! vs Boo-Hoo! Meter, I wish you the best. I really, really do.

Peace & Love

Monday, December 17, 2012

Candlelight Vigil

News of the Newtown massacre came in staggered, horrific bits. We discussed the incoming details as if some possible arrangement of these facts would eventually make sense. But there is no sense to be made, and after the initial tears and rants we felt no better.

Someone posted a link on facebook that said you could just type in your zip code to find where the closest Candlelight Vigil was being held. I hadn't been looking for such a thing but it turned out there were three or four within 30 miles of me. 

The website also offered the option of hosting your own candlelight vigil by simply clicking a box, and setting a place. Much to my own surprise, I did just that, and named our park as the venue. 

The vigils nationwide, were to be held from 5 to 6:PM Saturday night. So be it.

By the time I’d sent emails to a few neighbors, nine people had signed up on the event page, to attend my vigil in the park. The number quickly climbed to 14. I didn’t recognize any of the names on the list.

It seemed unreal that community could be created like that, by clicking boxes on an online form, but when I next checked, the number of attendees on the event page had leaped to 31. 

I grabbed a table cloth for the picnic table, candles, matches, and the fake peace lilies my son and his girlfriend and I had bought, and headed to the park, not knowing what to expect. 

It had been ten years since my first and last vigil. That  was for my husband’s co-corkers Euna and Laura when they were being held in N Korea. That one had loads of press and fancy, high profile speakers. This one, as far as I knew, would have me, and if they showed up in time, my family, my dogs, and 31 strangers who might expect me to have a plan.

A couple of young boys were shooting hoops at the park. A few toddlers and their parents or grandparents were in the play area. That was enough to choke me up. 

I’d raised my kids at this park. 

I spread the table cloth, and placed the peace lilies in a grocery bag, hoping that was enough to identify our table, since I’d failed to make signs of any sort. I used my car key to poke holes in the bottom of paper cups, and started jamming the candles into them. The cups were supposed to catch the dripping wax. 

The first woman approached, tentatively across the tidy park lawn, with a bag of candles. There was that moment where it seemed presumptuous of me to act as host since I was no closer to the deceased or the bereaved than any other stranger was. It felt unseemly, as if I was forcing myself into the center of someone else’s private heartache. But awkward or not, that too, was irrelevant. 

More women came, alone and in pairs. We all shook hands, exchanged first names, messed around with the candles. The talk was of sleeplessness. We'd all had trouble the night before, kept awake by thoughts of those poor children, of their parents, those teachers, those moments. 

We didn’t know how many candles and cups we’d need, but we kept at it, as women do, preparing, setting up. More people appeared from different directions as twilight took over. Men, women, old, young, couples, children, twin babies in a double stroller. A few dogs. There were about 40 people by 5:00, when we lit the candles. The sun disappeared entirely as a woman read the long, sad, list of the victims names and ages.

A man spoke next, at length, about gun control, until I (rudely, my husband says) cut him off to ask if anyone else wanted to speak. People did, mostly about gun control. There was anger regarding the easy access to firearms versus the difficult access to reasonable treatment options for mental illness. A photographer from the local paper shot pictures. 

People continued to arrive. More candles were lit and passed around. At some point my husband counted at least 70 people there. The newspaper reported 60. 

A former member of the state legislature spoke about gun laws, as did a member of city council. People discussed protesting the local gun show. I stopped listening to look around at the mix of strangers, brought together via the Internet, to meet this one time, in candle light. 

Eventually I thanked everyone for coming together, and expressed my hope that we'd never have another reason like this to do so again. We had a moment of silence and blew out our candles. Some people broke into smaller groups to talk, others wandered off into the darkness. I rolled up the table cloth and threw away the ripped, waxy cups. My family left and when the crowd had thinned to almost nothing, I followed them home. 

Had anything been accomplished? Did any one feel any less sad, any less alone? We do what we can, but it is so hard to see the point of things at times like this. 


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Favorite Thing-ing

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens are fine, but schnitzel? Seriously? Schnitzel up at the top of the list with chocolate and foot-rubs?  

Slicing onions for soup, and humming that ditty to the accompaniment of the rain, I had a nostalgic moment of favorite thing-ing.It was prompted in part, by the shattering of my favorite coffee cup, which, until its demise, I hadn't realized was my favorite.

It had been given to me by a friend, and had Lucy and Ethel on it. But what won my heart wasn’t its sentimentality, or what it represented, it was the cup itself, its heft and capacity. 

Without it I’m not exactly bereft, but there is something slightly less magnificent about my mornings. 

I don't think of myself as particularly materialistic although I admit I have worn favorite shirts over the years way past what's decent, and delayed ripping them up for cleaning rags much longer than was reasonable. And I know that the times of my life lived without a go-to shirt, were never completely comfortable. 

Similarly, having once found and owned the perfect purse, of precisely the correct size, depth, number of pockets, weight and length of strap, and carrying it to tatters, I never again achieved that degree of purse-contentment.

But I wonder what makes us love this or that thing? What makes the right things so right?

And now in the gift giving season, how can we possibly guess what might be that thing for another person? 

Did I even suspect that I was creating the standard when I first slipped into that cheap maroon jacket? Or that from that moment forth to the cursed day I left it on the back of a chair in a diner, that I was living in the golden-age of jackets?

Did the person who found it and wore it away, feel the same way about it?

At least, on this rainy winter day, I can say that in my life I have known the perfect jacket, the perfect coffee cup, the perfect purse and a few perfect shirts, and can consider myself well-thinged. 


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hostess Envy

Amy Goldman Koss 

In my childhood, Hostess snack foods loomed as the symbol of freedom. Freedom from the cruel health food regimen and ethnic dietary peculiarities of my keepers. Freedom to eat and dance and flirt and wear loafers and be cute and silly and utterly American.
While I trudged the three blocks to Zeman's bakery for a loaf of salted and seeded rye wrapped in brown paper, I knew that happy, free girls were out there digging into plastic polka-dotted bags of Wonder Bread, selecting two perfect slices as soft as clouds. They would then roll the bread into white balls, or spread peanut butter and jelly on them. Even a single slice of baloney looked lovely and pure on Wonder Bread. These lucky girls didn't even need teeth! They could eat using only their tongues against the roofs of their mouths.
Rye bread required not only teeth, and jaws, but determination. Rye bread was no laughing matter.
Sometimes the hair-netted lady at Zeman's let me pick a treat from the cookie counter. I'd chose between prune and poppy-seed filling, contained in dough so dry it screamed for milk. Or sometimes, I'd opt for the round cookies with a small dab of red jelly in the center, which my dad called "bloody sores."
These pastries did not giggle or float or bounce or look like happy coconut breasts. They had no cream filling or anything else soft and silly. The desserts of my childhood were level-headed and serious. The worldview of Hostess fun food hadn't entered my parents' consciousness, let alone their diet. Frozen peas, and a few other time-saving Sputnik foods, made it through our front door. But Twinkies? Never.
The girls at school who had Wonder Bread sandwiches and Hostess cupcakes in their lunches were the very same girls who didn't have to wear heavy, clunking oxfords for their arch support. The TVs were on in their houses while they ate dinner, and they were allowed soda pop, pizza, potato chips and store-bought cake at their birthday parties. Their moms wore makeup and heels and nail polish, and their dads joked with us. And many of them got their hair cut by actual beauticians.
I envied every single thing about them, including that they didn't seem to realize what amazing lives they had. They were entirely casual about having not just the occasional Twinkie as a super treat after hours of pleading, while facing brain surgery or because a dog had died. All they had to do was help themselves from boxes kept in their own kitchen cupboards and replenished every week!
So what happened to all those happy Hostess Twinkie and Ding Dong girls? Didn't they grow and multiply, ensuring that ever more boxes of Ho Hos made it to shopping carts and kitchen cabinets? It doesn't seem possible that in the battle of prune filling versus fluffy cream, the prune won. But why else would Hostess Brands be closing 36 plants and threatening to fire 18,500 bakery employees? Or be talking about chopping up the company and selling the treats piecemeal, the Twinkie recipe here, the Wonder Bread recipe there?
As a child, I assumed that the moment I was a free adult, doing my own grocery shopping, with my own money, I'd fill my cart and home with Hostess everything. But somewhere along the line I forgot to do so. And now, given the possible liquidation of the company, I realize I've probably missed my chance.
The news talks of unions and strikes and fiscal mismanagement, but perhaps the problem was that I wasn't the only girl whose head was turned by more sophisticated pastries and possibilities. The Pepperidge Farm Milano, say, or even Trader Joe's lemon tart.
Nonetheless, the potential loss of the Hostess Brand makes me melancholy for the kind of adulthood I'd intended to grow into, and for the little girl whose dreams of a Wonder Bread future never came true.
xo Amy

Link to this piece in the LA Times Opinion Section OP-ED,0,4509489.story

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I can’t even consider myself to be waiting for news yet, because the manuscript just went out. If this were a rational woman, writing rationally about a realistic reality, she would know that no editors have even opened the file yet, or read my agent's pitch letter.

FACT: It is way too soon for any human, constrained by Earth's space-time-continuum to have even skimmed my book!

Yes, a rational writer would know how foolish it would be at this way-early-fetal-baby-point, to start jumping when the phone rings, knocking the fresh coffee onto the lap. 

She’d know how pointless it would be to obsessively re-check her e-mail every six and a half seconds, and yet. Wait. I’ll be right back.

Nope. Nothing yet.

But I cannot attend to the many, many chores neglected & postponed during those last, lingering pre-submission weeks because that would require moving several feet from the keyboard. Perhaps moving entirely out of view of the screen...worse, out of earshot of my incoming e-mail ping!

So, here I sit, embarrassed in front of myself, impatiently wishing away hours that I’ll never have again in this lifetime. Eagerly waiting to be older, wrinklier, stiffer of joints, closer to death. 

Alas, so much for be-here-now. So much for mental health, or rational behavior, or mind over emotion, or being even the tiniest bit able to Serenity Prayer myself outta here.

Have I learned anything from the past? From an entire adult life and long publishing career of waits?  HA! NEVER!
xo Amy

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Endings torment me.
There's not much we can do about reality, but for the record, I do not approve of real people dying mid-life leaving their story arc dangling unfinished. Nor do I approve preventable deaths that infuse grief with outrage. Or that mix grief with regret for the undone. Or worse, those that mix sorrow with guilt and shame over the un-doable. A clean sad is almost okay, but that's it, death-wise. 
To a lesser degree, I hate when relationships end with no tidy narration or honest reviewing of facts... When expectations fizzle, and events fall short of their promise... when love just wanders off... And yet, movie endings almost always enrage me for doing exactly what I hate real life for not doing: ending neatly.
Film/shmilm, I don't expect truth in movies. Much more important and infuriating to me is when the end of a NOVEL feel tacked on, unearned, bull-shitty, false. A stupid ending destroys the book backwards, as if the story is being sucked back in through its asshole to puke itself inside out.
But obviously, the book endings that torment me most often are the ones I need to write.
I have had more angry letters from readers for allowing evil to prevail in Poison Ivy than I’ve even had for using poopy language in Side Effects! (that's a lot) People want a happy ending. We want to believe in justice. 
Me too, I wanna! But we can't MAKE ourselves believe things just because we want to. And we can’t write what we don’t feel to be true.  
Isn't it dishonest to misrepresent human nature as we understand it? Isn't it a lie to tell our readers that everything happens for a reason, if we don't really think life works that way?  Or that bad people get their comeuppance? Or learn from their mistakes? Or even recognize mistakes as mistakes? Or that life is fair? Or that anyone profoundly changes? 
Writers who believe that, can write it, I suppose.
But I have not yet, in my 58 years of life seen anyone change in any deep way. Not really. I look at my two kids, both essentially the people they were from their first breaths. My life-long friends... fundamentally unchanged by all that life has heaved their way.  Sure, we all learn tricks of presentation, learn to serve ourselves with a garnish... but change the inside squishy stuff? Nah.
We in the story biz have certain responsibilities though, right? Responsibilities that often translate to Happily ever after or at least, Ah ha! I now see the error of my ways cliche’s. To avoid them is to cut into our own profits. More importantly: To avoid them may be to disappoint our readers who are counting on us to get our heroine safely to shore... To piss off the very kids we seek to entertain.
Sigh. Endings torment me. Living them, watching them, reading them, writing them. Perhaps all my novels and life experiences should end mid-sentence with: And then a Giant Monster appeared on the horizon! Oh no! A giant HUNGRY Mons--! 
xo Amy  

Monday, October 29, 2012

Boo! Blog!

What I remember about childhood Halloweens in Detroit:  
1. We (and by 'we' I mean my best friend Birdy and I) could run around the neighborhood at night, in the dark. 
2. We could wear makeup and jewelry and long skirts and be gorgeous Gypsies. Or we wore lovely flowing veils and were beautiful brides.
Here we are in all our radiant splendor. I assure you, the way we appear to the jaded adult eye had no bearing on the way we felt. We knew we were beautiful, graceful, lovely beyond compare, in our kitchen curtains.
(I am the shorter one, Roberta is on the Right) 
Then there were the lost years, where Gypsies and brides turned to witches and real brides.
Fast forward to Los Angeles. Upstairs apartment, funky neighborhood. I don my witches’ hat and nose, paint the face a sickly green, add lines and creases. I wear the trailing black slip and boots. I fill a giant bowl with candy.
And there I sit, all witched up and no one to scare. Not one kid comes to our door. Trick-or-treaters: zero. I cried.
Move to a different part of town. Oh boy! Kiddies to scare and scar! Oh cackle oh joy! Three little girls come as princesses, lipstick, blue eyelids, lots of jewelry.... and BAM! I’m in tears again! Biological alarm clock blares without warning: MUST HAVE DAUGHTER TO COSTUME IMMEDIATELY!!!   
I obey. Children come, they grow, they go. 
Now: Time again to dress. I take my lovely, latex nose out in preparation. Shake out the hat and slip and boots. Each year it requires less time and effort to achieve the same warty, wrinkled effect. The candy is bought, the neighborhood ripe with kids. No tears this year. I'm old and safe. Happy Halloween my friends!
Boo!  Amy 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Viva la SKYPE!

Once upon a time, in an acting class at Lansing Community College a boy named Treadwell and I were assigned to a scene study. I don’t know what the play was, or what set us off, but for some cosmic or chemical reason, we couldn’t look at each other without busting into giggles. Even when we averted our eyes, the sound of one of us trying to breathe, or utter a line, reduced us both to sweaty, face-cramping, pants-peeing hysterics.
Not a bad way for a friendship to begin. 
Treadwell's Painting
The details are dim for a while after that. I know that when we were unpaid slave/apprentices at summer stock we got a gig house/pet sitting for some poor overly trusting couple. I remember finding and hooting over their sex toys. And although we'd promised to leave their huge dogs outside at all times, we ended up letting them in to have a pee party on the carpet and eat the couch and shred the curtains. 
Eventually I moved away and got married a couple of times. Treadwell moved to New York and fell in love with a Swede or Dane or something named Dougas. I never felt totally comfortable with the absence of an L in Dougas’s name. And when he carted my pal Treadwell across the world to live in Germany, I felt my suspicions of his L-less-ness were utterly justified. 
For a few years, like 12 or 20, Treadwell came to visit once a year or so.  His english got worse as his German improved. He started putting his words in the wrong order. By then he and Dougas had become hot-shot Psycho-Drama-Therapists holding workshops all over Europe and Scandinavia. Treadwell was too busy to come to California, and I had too many babies and other excuses to go to Germany, where everything they said sounded like, "Put the Jews in the oven!" to me.
All we had was the telephone and e-mail and we both got lazier  about even using those. Dougas died, Treadwell got sick. Months would pass. Many months. 
Not because either of us got off our asses, but thanks to the grand, glorious, miraculous, generous, brilliant invention of SKYPE!
It wasn't just his disembodied voice on the phone. But his beautiful face! In motion! With actual Treadwell-esque expressions! His cigarette smoke curling in real time! He held up his new dog for me to meet and I showed him mine. He showed me his most recent paintings, and I showed him I still had the one he painted for me ages ago. I saw his new mustache and the way he plays with it. And there was the tattoo I’d forgotten about on his wrist. His smile. His blue blue eyes. And, of course, his incomparable Treadwell laugh. 
So, whatever nasty things I may have said against technology in the past, I take it ALL back.
xo Amy

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writer's Madness

Sometimes I swagger through the house feeling tall and mighty and brave and brilliant.  Sometimes I hunch, scratching in the dirt, strangling the weeds, muttering defensively to myself.  Sometimes I hurl myself at the household chores with the tearful fervor of the newly saved, and sometimes I stare unblinkingly through the front window stuffing toast and jam and toast and jam and toast and jam into my face. 
And although none of these physical, mental, emotional states may take place in my office, at my desk, facing my computer, they are all about writing.
The book I'm working on now is all things to me from celebration to self loathing. 
Maybe it was like this with all my books. I don't know.  I can't remember writing any other books.  Like falling in love, and breaking up: it's always the first time.
Do dentists and data processors find themselves periodically dancing to the intestinal rumblings of an unknowable beast during their work day?  
Or, more to the point: Does a writer's emotional whiplash have anything at all to do with the work itself?  With how the writing is going?  With what is showing up on the page?  
I doubt it.
Here's what I suspect: Since we make up the story, and make up the people in it, and make up what these made up people do, and make up how they feel about what we've made up for them to do... We probably also make up how we feel about them and what we have them doing and why. 
Perhaps by spending all this time emeshed in so much making up we've simply driven ourselves mad.  Although maybe I'm just making that up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Doggish Intentions

There I was, innocently trolling facebook when I happened to notice a post by a friend who is forever putting up heartbreaking pictures of dogs who need rescuing. 

I knew I should have unfriended her the moment she started that, but I failed to do so in time to miss this photo.
He reminded me of the crazy dog who was dragged off to the gas chamber in the movie The Lady and The Tramp. Remember him? 
The facebook story was that this puppy needed a TEMPORARY foster home as he'd worn out his welcome with the dog, cats and chickens he was staying with.

A few days, maybe a week... 

Insert romantic montage of this puppy and my puppy, Wally, paw in paw on the beach at sunset, sharing a candlelit dinner of dirty underpants from our laundry bin, frolicking on our bed while we are trying to sleep...
The day approached when we were supposed to send him away. 

I balked. 

Negotiations began. Did we need another dog? NO! Did we need more vet bills while our finances are so precarious? NO! More shedding and dog poop? NO! 

Did I want to squash any chance of ever leaving town again at the same time as my husband? 
Was I looking for added unforeseen but inevitable drama and sorrow? A thousand times NO!

And what about the poor woman who was waiting with open arms? Who had already bought him new dog-toys and chews in eager anticipation of his arrival? 
Can you guess the rest of this story?


I'm sure there is a lesson to be learned here, but the real question is: What shall we name him?
xo Amy

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Workout For The Rest Of Us!

I know you’ve all been wondering how I managed to regain my girlish figure, so I’ve decided to come clean, so-to-speak.
But first, I shall tell you what didn’t work: My gym membership. Fact: Although I was in good standing at 24 Hour Fitness for nearly a decade, it became increasingly obvious (around the waist, butt, and thigh areas) that paying fat-dues was not actually the answer.  
What did pan out however as a marvelous weight loss boon, was becoming broke! And it was so easy! In fact, it required so little effort on my part that I hardly even noticed it was happening!
First it was farewell to all those high calorie meals out! Then, ta-ta to prepared food brought in. So-long to car insurance for my teens next. More walking equaled fitness benefits for the whole family! No need to drive to the market, all I can afford fits in one bag the perfect size for working those biceps! So, not paying for gas equals a firmer butt and smaller carbon footprint! A win-win-win-um, win!  
Good-bye to the gardener, and good riddance! I always suspected he was a brain surgeon in his old country because he sure was no gardener!  And since (unlike him) I can’t afford a leaf-blower, it’s all rake, shovel, sweep, saw and haul for me! Out in the Los Angeles sunshine the fat melts like magic! 
Meanwhile, the chores inside the house offer a fabulous, never ending work-out as well! Up and down that step stool building buns of steel! Wipe those mirrors and windows -- flabby arms be gone! Bend for towels off the bathroom floor, hoist the laundry basket! Push that vacuum, push, pull, eighty reps! Work it! Again!
And breathe.
Now, shake those rugs! R-e-a-c-h for those cobwebs! Flip that mattress! Then down on the floor to scrub, scrub, scrub! Feel the burn?  
And not only can this all be done without leaving home, I can do it EVERY SINGLE DAY! Switch it out to keep it fresh, laundry and leaf raking on alternate days with floor washing and lawn mowing! 
I think you’ll find that many of your friends and neighbors are discovering these perks of poverty! Look around. See all those empty shops? Where do you think all those workers have gone? Yes! They’ve gone HOME!
Why let the handy-man and plumber reap all the fitness benefits of repeated plunging and hammering? Or the house painter get all that great back and neck work? Why let the house-keeper walk away with your firm thighs and ripped abs? 
Chop that wood to heat and light the house -- unbelievable benefits for shoulders plus no need for costly electricity, you’re dead asleep, by dark! 
Disclaimer: When patching the roof and cleaning the gutters, do be careful on the ladder as the Poverty Fitness Regime does not come with medical.   

Monday, August 27, 2012

Fiction Happens

Whether it writes itself, or has to be scraped out of the inside of your skull with a serrated grapefruit spoon, whether squeezed from the very bottom of your tube, or lured with bribes and threats... stories do come out of people and fiction happens. 

The alchemy of 26 letters + time + effort + other mysterious, unidentifiable ingredients... eventually equals a story where nothing previously existed. 

Libraries, magazines, on-line journals, newspapers, bed side tables, drugstores, bookstores and bathrooms are so full of these stories that we don’t take their existence as surprising or improbable.  In fact, we’re so blaze’ that we’re not even tempted to burn their creators as witches for having called these fictions up from the nothingness.

As readers we either like or do not like these stories, similar to the casual way that dogs either eat or do not eat the dead. We’re perfectly comfortable praising and castigating, scorning, dissecting, recommending and reviling other people’s creations. 

But when you have finished writing a story, or even a draft of a story, and it looks up at you, arms outstretched to be lifted from its crib, you can’t help but feel amazed at the perfectly impossible and miraculous thing that has so mysteriously occurred.  


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Slug vs Crop

Naked Eggplant
When my tomatoes suddenly vanished along with every leaf off my eggplant and cucumber plants, I figured the same cheeky squirrel who polished off my peaches was to blame.

My husband faulted our new dog Wally for not taking his squirrel-chasing duties seriously enough, unlike  dearly-departed, dedicated-crop-defender, Sweetie-the-Dog, our old black lab.
Historical Bad Guy

But then a friend in the know, knowingly said, “I bet you’ve got slugs.”  

We peeked under a planter and discovered a globular, wad of gooey matter stuck to the bottom of the pot.  Yep, slugs. Lots. Ew. 

Realization #1. I am a furist, defined as: One who finds annoying but pardonable behavior at the paws of the furry, way less adorable when the perp is slimy. And maybe I’m also a boniest, in that I prefer those with at least a bit of skeleton.

I posted a confession of my newly discovered personal bias on facebook, but friends assumed I was looking for The Final (Slug) Solution.  One recommended I try sluggo. Another suggested fobbing them into the neighbor’s yard as she did her snails. A third suggested beer, saying the wee lushes were drawn to the smell, and drown drunk and happy.

I called a house meeting.  
  • Husband, himself a big fan of the beer-cure for most ailments and conundrums, reserved judgement. 
  • Non-red-meat eating daughter said, “No killing. Period. No discussion necessary. Slugs are sentient, cucumbers are not. The end." 
  • Her visiting friend said, "Slugs are not indigenous so we should feel free to kill them." I did not ask his stand on immigration but pointed out that neither our family nor our tomatoes were from around here, either.
  • Philosophy-major-son wanted to discuss the ethical, moral ramifications /justifications of any killing.
And someone pointed out that we can’t really know that drowning in beer is a painless death. Isn’t it entirely possible the alcohol would sting their weird slippery skin?

Other questions were raised: How badly did I need my tomatoes? asked the child who does not like tomatoes and wonders why I persist in growing things she hates, such as vegetables. 
And: How much protection do we owe the plants we plant? Aren’t they entirely dependent on us? 

Slug One
We decided to have a look at the culprit. We upended a planter and scooped a small, muddy, slug out on the tip of a leaf. It curled slowly away from our prying eyes. 

We brought out a bigger slug. Much easier to see the details, the gill hole, the blue feeler-things. It crawled around on the leaf, fat, and slow, like the sainted, Sweetie-the-Dog. Son pointed out that it had a Fu-Manchu mustache.

And it had a face.

Realization #2. Having a face (slug) trumps not having a face (tomato).  

And that was that, Faceists all. So much for my time and attention, my water, my fertilizer, my compost, my grubby fingernails and salad dreams. My gardening adventure comes to a sluggish end, and it's the produce section at Ralph’s here on in.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Character Crisis (in the wee hours)

The neurotic insomniac finds herself with so many tantalizing options. She can wile away the hours wondering if she took her slacks out of the dryer, or enumerating her snoring husband’s shortcomings. She can ponder the precariousness of her finances, contemplate the erosion of her physical abilities, or there’s the ever popular inevitability of death to keep her eyes wide open. If she’s working on a book, the possibilities for relentless inner debate are endless. 

But the theme of tonight's sleeplessness in Glendale is an upcoming workshop I'll be giving on Creating Credible Children's Book Characters. 

I’ve given this sort of talk many times and am not afraid to speak in front of strangers, not afraid they won’t like me or laugh at my jokes. Nor am I afraid I’ll forget to put on my pants. We all know the  drill of writing character is to build back story, and get to know your character’s world, what she wants, and fears, and needs, and thinks she needs, blah, blah.

But, in the nether-time betwixt night and morn, it hit me that The less we know someone, the easier it is to sum them up. The less we know them, the easier it is to hate them, or to be giddy in love with them, or even to be utterly indifferent. Example: We know only enough about political candidates to feel VERY STRONGLY about them. Ditto Celebrities.

We’re sure we know enough about the guy who cut us off in traffic to sum up his whole nature.  Add in the kind of car he’s driving (expensive or junker) to bring him into even sharper focus. Two little facts. 1. He cut us off.  2. He’s rich/poor.  Either way, we’ve got him nailed.

Likewise, we believe we have all the info we need on the mom smacking her kid in the market. Put her in a too tight tank top in Walmart, or dress her as an account exec shopping at Whole Foods and either way we're instantly sure we know everything about who she is, why she’s frazzled, what her life is like, and how her kids will turn out. 

Same with the old man walking his lumpy old dog.  And the boy on whom we have a debilitating crush. The less we know them, the clearer they are. Add in a few more details about any of them and they'll get muddied --- because the more you know about any person, the more confusing complications, contradictions and gray areas there are, right? 

A play writing teacher once told me that Romeo and Juliet, and early Disney princesses and princes, had to be bland and featureless. 


Creating a character with distinct characteristics gives your readers something not to like about him. Conversely, keeping him harmless and vague, pleasant and attractive, makes him universally likable and sympathetic -- unobjectionable. Readers automatically supply the missing parts drawing from their personal assumptions and experience, and the more blanks the better.  

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare saved all the interesting, specific, quirky traits for the character parts, Mercutio, the nurse, the priest... Comics, villains, side kicks.

What’s that got to do with my upcoming workshop for which aspiring writers are paying hard, cold cash? 

Well, am I to tell them that if they want readers to recognize and sympathize with their characters they should write caricatures? Choose two traits from column A, and two from column B?

He: Deep, brooding, tough on the outside  ---  Cream puff on the inside.
She: Free spirit, rebellious on the outside  ---  Scared, hurt little kitten on the inside.
He/She: Socially inept loner with obsessive interest in something arcane --- Loyal and loving on the inside.  
She: Pretty, peppy and popular on the outside --- evil on the inside.
He: Macho jock on the outside --- Sensitive scared puppy on the inside. 

Trite, predictable characters are easy for the reader to recognize. The iconic short hand of sit com characters as representatives of a type, require no effort for the reader/audience to grasp.  

But, isn’t that what perpetuates racist, sexist, ageist, stereotypes?  

We all want to sell our books and see strangers reading them on the bus. And as a speaker, I want to share whatever I think I know about how to achieve that. 

And maybe writing interesting, complex main characters that NOT EVERYONE WILL LIKE defeats the purpose of writing -- because it keeps readership and sales numbers low, and gets mixed reviews, if it gets published and reviewed at all...

But wait, we want to write good books, right? And the workshop is about creating credible characters...  See the problem?
xo Amy