Search This Blog

Monday, January 28, 2013

Homeless Books

The guy in charge of book sales for our library agreed to let me load my car with books to give away at the homeless shelter.  He led me through secret underground passageways to the loading dock and pointed out the shelves, carts & boxes I was free to pick through.

real librarian probably would have stood before the scrambled collection of donated books and plucked with certainty, selecting just the right mix of mysteries, histories, memoirs, poetry, horror, humor, romance...

But the only book I felt confident skipping was the one on perfecting your golf swing. Although even then I was afraid the first question I’d be asked as I unpacked the books at the shelter would be, “Have you got anything on golf?” 

Our local shelter is at the National Guard Armory and is only open as a shelter from Dec 1 to March 1, minus the black out days when the National Guard needs the building for whatever the National Guard needs it for.  

I went last winter to help serve dinner to the homeless, which ended up feeling pointless and stupid, since they were perfectly capable of serving themselves. But now I knew where the armory was, and what the space was like so I was able to imagine myself there. I'd be Jolly Ms. Santa, surrounded by adults and eager children happily selecting books of their own, to carry off to read after they finished their homework. But it turned out the shelter isn’t open to families with kids this year, so my fantasy, and book selection required adjustment.  
People were standing around outside the closed door when I arrived, which meant the shelter had reached its eighty person capacity and was turning people away.

The outsiders told me they hoped some people would be kicked out, freeing up a few beds, enforcing the strict anti-stoned and drunk rules.  

It was a mild night, clear skies, with Jupiter right up next to the moon. But still, it had to be an enormous drag to be left outside, watching everyone else get their blankets, cots, and dinner, through the big glass doors.

The guy who let me in explained that the over-flow guests would be taken to Sylmar, where there were still beds. Sylmar was 20 or thirty minutes away. 

The folks inside were eating dinner so I unpacked my rolling suitcase of books and arranged them on a table. People trickled over and several books found homes before the guy in charge even made the announcement that I was there. Many people asked how much I was selling the books for, and when I assured them they were free, they seemed surprised which in turn surprised me. Who would try to sell things to the homeless? 

One woman took a whole arm full of books. With the opposite impulse, a man eyed a fat, hard-cover collection of Hemingway stories, but ultimately told me he was reluctant to take it because he was trying to travel light. (Note to self: bring more paperbacks.) One woman said she didn’t have reading glasses, which introduced  a whole new nightmare: Homeless and glasses-less? 

There was a book by S.E. Hinton on the table and it sparked a conversation with a woman whose favorite book as a kid was The Outsiders, which I’d loved, too. 

One guy picked a book that had been signed by the author. It was no one he or I had ever heard of, but he was jazzed by the thought that it could be valuable. I didn't tell him that I was an author, and that most of our signatures weren’t worth squat.

I had to keep telling people the books were from the library but I was not a real librarian. I felt like an impostor, but no one seemed to care. Everyone who came up to my table was sweet, every one thanked me, and no one asked for books about golf.

When we were down to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and a beautifully illustrated (but heavy) bird book, I told a few guests that I’d be back with more books next Tuesday. Some said, “Good.” Others said they hoped to be long gone by then. I hope they are, too. 

Meanwhile, it’s nice to think of those people lost in a book tonight, on their cots, instead of just staring up at the high, industrial-looking armory ceiling.

When I left, there were no more stragglers outside, so I guess they’d been shuttled off to Sylmar. I hope there was still some dinner left for them there.

xo Amy

P.S. Returned last night for my second Tuesday, brought reading glasses but the glassesless woman (along with most others from the first night) wasn't there. Will see over the remaining winter Tuesdays how much the faces change. People just as sweet and grateful this time. Sixty books gone in a blink!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Word to the Newbie

Welcome to the glorious and glamorous world of children’s books. We old-timers are speechless with joy at your arrival. By now you’ve probably noticed the astounding change in your life, most notably the flush of street-cred, peer-recognition and influx of cash. We are happy for you and wish you well, really.

We would just like to caution you about a few (6) things at this time, knowing full well that you will grasp them no better than we did when we stood in your shiny new shoes.

  1. This is a hard one so you may have to read it twice: Others enjoy hearing the minute plot details of your new book precisely as much as you enjoy hearing theirs.
  2. Similarly; Others relish being inundated with e-mail, tweets, & facebook messages about your book exactly as much as you do theirs.   
  3. Those school visits you are so giddy and willing to do for free are how many seasoned authors pay their bills. Think SCAB. 
  4. It takes time (unpaid) to read a novel and craft a blurb. And, if we think your book sucks, we will both be embarrassed.  Let your agent take care of requests off screen.
  5. It is not a compliment to be called The Next Joan Doe when the original Joan Doe is still alive and writing.
  6. Very few veterans in the biz enjoy hearing that you felt called to write for children because everything else published out there was crap.

That is all for now, but stay tuned for further helpful tips from the dinosaur. 
Wishing you all happiness and success,
Curmudgeon Koss 

P.S. One day, several books from now, you will think this post is funny. I promise. Meanwhile, here's a picture of my dogs.

Monday, January 14, 2013

9th Cancer-versary

My daughter Em just reminded me that nine years ago today she was diagnosed with cancer. She was 14 at the time. Wow, what a long/short time ago. Since that time how many thousands of mothers have gotten that news -- Have bundled their children off to the hospital trying to find the right words to explain it to them -- Have not let themselves think even a day ahead, refusing to entertain possible outcomes? 

Here's what I remember about that day: 

The odd look on our pediatrician's face when she felt Em's swollen glands. 
The Dr. on the phone saying it was Hodgkins Lymphoma, and telling me to take Em to Children's Hospital where they had a bed waiting.
I remember not being able to get off the kitchen floor, phone still in hand. The word "floored" thus defined. 

I strapped Diana into the van beside me. Diana is the sacred purple cow Em has slept with every night since she was two, and now has tattooed between her breasts.  I don't remember packing anything else. I got Em out of class and probably babbled some explanation, but it was the sight of Diana that told her it serious.

And then there's a blank.
Well, not a total blank, but a blankish thing that stands in for the memory/denial/confusion/terror/functioning/survival/panic that followed.
I must have called my friend Sue and told her to meet us at the hospital because she was there when Em, Diana and I walked in. She'd brought Em a Spirograph. 

Husband Mitch was out of town, far away and useless to me.
My father-in-law and his new wife were visiting and probably waiting for dinner.
My son needed to be picked up from school. Someone had to tell my parents and Mitch's mom in Michigan. I must have called my brother and told him to break the news.  

Em needed a biopsy immediately, but she was afraid of shots. 
They gave her la-la drugs and put a surgical gown on Diana. 
A nurse called me "Mom" and hugged me as they wheeled Em away. 
The morphine made Em heave.
But it was nothing compared to the heaves to come. She got her first chemo that very night from a tall nurse in a blue rubber gown who referred to herself as a Smurf. It took many stabs to find Em's veins.

My sister-in-law Susan flew in from Michigan and brought little airplane bottles of Baileys. She and Sue listened and talked to the doctors for us as a tag-team.

I slept on a slippery chair-bed beside Em's bed. The nurses shoes squeaked in the hall. We were led and wheeled down halls, up elevators, into waiting rooms for bizarre tests and sci-fy scans. We got the giggles.

Very sick children were everywhere. 

It was impossible to take a full breath.

Em's best friend Allison climbed into Em's hospital bed and refused to leave. Em's other best friend's father wouldn't let her visit because she was freaking out so badly.

Someone brought us a huge basket of trail-mix and snacks and I fed out of it like a horse at a trough.

Mitchell returned. He took our son Ben to the batting cage and told him to pretend the balls were his sister's tumors. 

People called and called and called and called. Some came and stood around the room. Some sent balloons. Many wore terrible faces. Emily and Diana held court from their bed-thrown. 

One roommate left and another took her place. We were embarrassed that neither had visitors. 

We were eventually released. Allison pushed Em and Diana in a wheel chair to the exit.  Em wore a striped paper surgical mask to keep germs out, her lap piled high with flowers and gifts. Mitch brought the car around to the curb in the parking lot. Our first breath outside the hospital in how long? Three nights, five? A week? Separating all life into Before Cancer and After Cancer forever more. 

Nine years is a long time. A wonderfully long time. It is lovely to forget. 


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Charity Conundrum

Back when money came in more easily, and we didn't yet suspect it wouldn't do so forever, I'd make out $20.00 checks for almost any charity who asked. Hungry people, hungry animals, myriad diseases, social political groups and causes, arts...

By so doing, I caused the requests to multiply wildly, letters bred and spawned.  Free unwanted address labels, calendars, notepads, book bags, blankets, key chains, and plush toys gushed in through the mailbox.  Strangers called.

Then my father-in-law's mail was forwarded here after his death. Apparently he'd  contributed to a whole slew of different charities and causes who missed him desperately and wrote often. The accumulating waste was obscene, forcing us to wonder if any donated monies went to anything besides the proliferation of glossy pictures of misery and heartbreaking pleas for help. 

The need was clearly real, but was the cure a scam?

I asked around. One friend said she shoved all her requests in a drawer and sorted through once a year.  Some people said they picked one charity each year and made as big a contribution as possible in hope of making some actual difference. Others, like me, were spotty and unfocused, not knowing if we'd donated six times to AIDS and never to ASPCA, or Doctors Without Borders, or Habitat for Humanity, or.... A friend in the fundraising business, turned me on to a link that evaluated charities on effectiveness and skim-levels...

Then our income-flow slowed to a trickle and the subject of sharing more than a few bucks here and there with the neighborhood homeless, became moot.

So, since we no longer had money to give, I decided to give time instead. I signed on for the next couple years for random volunteer work, working with kids, working with books, working with kids and books, serving soup, going to various meetings.

Some of it depressed the hell out of me, and left me limp on the couch, too dispirited to write.

Some of it was so boring it left me limp on the couch, too numb and brain-dead to write.

Some involved such long hours in hideous traffic that by the time I got home, I could do nothing but sprawl... you guessed it, limp on the couch.

Now it is a new year. Time to reevaluate and hatch the next plan. But I am stumped. What are we to do with the crushing need around us? How can we do some good to justify our existence, but not pay so dearly that we resent it and seethe?  What do other people do??????  What do you do?

P.S. If you read this far thinking I'd have answers, I apologize for leading you astray.