Monday, January 30, 2012

Julia's Sassy Guts Part Deux

   Welcome back bookish people! in Case you missed yesterday's post, it was the first half of a pretty spectacular interview with literary publicist Julia Callahan. Here it is.  The rest of the interview is little more personal, even a bit more controversial, and I think you'll love it. When I first read over her emailed responses, I found myself gradually curling up into a cozy self hug, nodding my head, grinning in an alternating pattern of agreement and amusement. Without further ado...

What is your opinion of electronic readers? Do you own one? How does it affect the economics of a publishing company and the author?
   Oh yes.   The Hot-Button issue in publishing.  I do not own an electronic reader myself, though I don’t have a problem with them.  In fact, I think they’re great.  Anything that gets people reading is wonderful in my book.  Here’s the thing about them though, I’m not a big fan of the Kindle because of my distaste for Amazon.  I don’t like that you can’t buy books from anywhere but Amazon on the Kindle.  Every other e-Reading device allows you to buy from whatever platform you want (even the Nook).  Insert rant about Amazon’s unwillingness to pay taxes in most states here…but seriously, look it up, it’s not okay.  People should be able to buy from indie bookstores, B&N and Amazon.  Also, Amazon sells you the Kindle at a loss because they know they’ll make up the margin in your book buying purchases….it makes the playing field extraordinarily uneven.

   All the research shows that people who read from eReaders read both regular and eBooks, and they read a lot more than they did before the eReader, so I can’t hate that. 

   For me personally, however, I like the feel of a book, I like to turn the pages and smell the book.  I just like books.  I guess I’m weird.

Tell us exactly why you so strongly support independent bookstores? Is it as simple as Walmart economics?
   That’s definitely part of it. Small businesses drive the economy and Independent bookstores are small businesses.  But really, the strength of the Independent bookstore is its employees.  You’re talking about highly educated, ridiculously well read people, who are there to help impart their knowledge onto you.  They can take what you've read and liked and point you in the direction of any number of books in a way that Amazon’s algorithm cannot.  Independent bookstores are a place where books like The Help become bestsellers.  Without those people reading that book and recommending it to you, the reader, no one would know that that book had even been released.  Indie booksellers got behind that book, and look at it now.  Hit movie, Oscar nominations, HUGE bestseller.  You can thank your local indie for that.  Walmart would never have known.

What titles are on your coffee table right now? How do you decide what to read, or is it an assignment situation? I know you have a book club with your roller derby girls. What are you reading there now?
   There are a million titles next to my bed right now, but there’s a pecking order.  I kind of go through cycles.  Right now I’m reading a lot of newer fiction, so I have Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hector Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 next to my bed, just itching to be read.  I also keep a copy of John Cheever’s short stories next to my bed, just in case I need some stark reality.

   That being said, I have to read A LOT for my job, so those titles often get pushed back.  Work reading always comes first for me.  I read every book that I represent (right now we are working on 19 books) and I am the fiction editor of a literary journal called The Rattling Wall so multiple times a year everything gets put on hold to read slush. 

   Right now for derby, I’m actually racing through Boomsday by Christopher Buckley so I can lead the discussion tonight.

   All of this leads to a very large back up of my magazine subscriptions.  I have about two years worth of unread New Yorkers and Vanity Fairs so I’m always behind on reading.  I have shelves of unread books that taunt me on a daily basis.

You once talked to me about growing up in a quiet house with a fire blazing during rainy season, reading the afternoons away. That has stuck with me beautifully. Describe for me your ideal reading environment present day.
   I grew up in Northern California, which isn't exactly Oklahoma when it comes to weather, but we've got some pretty great storms.  My parents are both big readers and valued reading time, so every night there was a certain time when the TV would go off and it was reading time. That, more than anything else, made me a reader. 

   Also, power went out a lot.  At least once a year, more during El NiƱo years, the power would go out and my mom would light candles and a fire, and we’d read.  Even if the power wasn’t out, there were countless Saturday mornings where my mom would light a fire, make hot chocolate and we’d read for hours.  It’s hard not to have an innate love of literature and the pure pleasure of reading when you grow up like that.

   Nowadays, my ideal reading environment is close to the same.  Rain always makes me want to read, cold makes me want to read.  I also love reading in coffee shops.  I love just losing myself and looking up and having a moment of not recognizing the world around me before I adjust back.  Trains too, man, I love reading on trains.

You toil in a word-rich profession and live in a culturally diverse part of the world, for sure. What do you think of Ebonics? What do you think of multi-lingual living (or the widespread lack thereof)? Do you have an opinion on our country having an “official” language? Feel free to quote Sarah Palin if you need to.
   I love language, all language.  I love diversity.  I’m a native Californian and think that it’s tragic for us not to be accommodating to groups of people who live in utter and dire poverty, who live in constant fear.  I’m also from a recently immigrated family.  My grandparents were both born in Italy, and yes, they know English (they came here when they were kids), but I have been in countless family functions where no one was speaking English.  I was told bedtime stories in Italian, and sung songs in Italian.  I loved them as much as I loved listening to my mom read me Shel Silverstein. 

   I don’t mean to sound like a complete hippie, but we all just need to embrace each other.  We’re all people.  I think education on all sides will help.  Personally, I speak enough Spanish to get by, but I’d love to be fluent.  I’ve heard the stories about how awful it was to move to the U.S. from Italy in 1934, to be called Mussolini by other children, to not understand anything that was going on in school, in the news, anywhere.  I understand the fear, and I think when we make these broad assumptions that all immigrants just need to learn English because we’re America and we speak English, I think we’re being unbelievably ignorant, and unbelievably uncaring. We’re all human.  As Americans, we’re lucky enough to have been born into a truly great country.  A country I don’t always agree with, but a country where that is okay, a country where we’re not constantly worried about civil war, a country where we don’t worry about the military coming to our house and killing our children.  And by shutting down borders and employing xenophobic legislation and ideals, I think we are doing a disservice to ourselves as well as others. 

   I think language is important, no matter what language it is.  Without Spanish, there would be no Gabriel Garcia Marquez, no Don Quixote, no Mario Vargas Llosa.  That would be a true tragedy.

What is your take on the use of vulgarity in literature?
   Well, one of my favorite words to say is f%#k. I love a great string of curse words more than just about anything else.  I am also a firm believer in the first amendment.  So I think that if you want to be vulgar in literature, more power to you.

   Personally, though, I’m not a huge fan of reading overly sexual literature.  I think that the experience of sex is the most difficult thing to write well, and for the most part, the way sex is written just grosses me out.  Because, when you think about it, as wonderful as it is, sex itself is kind of gross.   There’s lots of fluid and people make weird noises.  It’s not all that flattering when you actually describe it, because it’s about pure animal feeling. 

   That being said, I love to see writers try.  My favorite literary award every year is The Guardian’s Bad Sex award.  I say be vulgar, keep trying.  I love to see potential in writing, even if the goal isn’t fully achieved.

I recently read an interesting article on the use of “expensive” words versus common words, and an old debate between Faulkner and Hemingway was cited. Do you have a baseline opinion on this?
   Well, I love both Faulkner and Hemingway.  Using the metaphor of Faulkner as expensive wordsmith and Hemingway as common wordsmith, I will say that both of them are equally deep, equally difficult to truly grasp (though it’s hard and maybe impossible to truly grasp either author’s work).

   But here’s my real opinion.  I think that there’s a time and a place for both.  I’m not always in the mood for Faulkner.  I don’t always want to read Infinite Jest.  Sometimes I want to not have to work for meaning; sometimes I just want to be entertained.  Reading is entertaining as well as enlightening. Sometimes you have to work, sometimes you have to play.  That’s the best thing about literature, it’s like life in that way.

I will also say, I hate it when people complain about ‘big’ or ‘expensive’ words.  If you don’t know the meaning of the word, look it up.  I underline words I don’t know and look them up in the dictionary.  That’s how people learn language.  Do I find some words pretentious when people use them in a certain way? Of course!  But I also appreciate a great use of words, no matter how big or small. 

Dean Koontz or Stephen King?
   Old school King.  My dad is a big Dean Koontz fan, and I appreciate how popular he is, but man, The ShiningItThe StandDolores ClaiborneDifferent Seasons, etc. There is nothing better than that.  I read the first chapter of Cujo when I was 16 and didn’t sleep for a week.

William Shakespeare or Mark Twain?
   Now here’s a real battle.  In my mind it’s apples and oranges.  However, I’m a British Literature nut, so I’ll say Shakespeare.  The way that Shakespeare manipulated language is an absolute triumph of artistry.  The stories he told are still relevant 400 years later. 

   However, as far as being an American goes, Twain captured the meat of being truly American in one book.  Huckleberry Finn, which is often hotly contested because of the N-Word (please ask me about my opinion of the censoring of Huck Finn sometime because I could write about 900 pages about it), is THE American novel.  Adventure, self-sufficiency, freedom from oppression, and a buddy comedy all rolled into one book. 

Apples and oranges. 

Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer? (That is a trick question.)
   Team Meyer.  No, I’m totally joking.  Team Rice all the way.  I’m not the hugest fan of vampire fiction, which you would never know because I've read a lot of it, but I’ll tell you, Forks, Washington may be having a tourism surge now, but I’d be impressed if thirty-three years later, there are vampire tours of Forks.  The Anne Rice Vampire tour is still one of the most popular in New Orleans.  All of that aside, Anne Rice creates a world that is so vivid, so interesting, so truly tragic, that it lingers in our imagination even if we haven’t read the book.  You know who Lestat is even if you've never read an Anne Rice book, but if you haven’t read Twilight, you know who Edward Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are, Edward and Jacob are just shorthand for good-looking young actors.  I don’t see Tom Cruise when I think of Lestat, I do see Rob Pattinson when I think of Edward.  And that’s the fault of the writer.

   It makes me insane when people don’t take historical context into account when they’re reading a novel.  Huck Finn uses the N-Word over 200 times, but was published in 1885, when that was the term used at the time.  I think it’s important that we don’t forget where we came from, especially in the ways we used to think.  Perhaps we can learn something from the way we used to treat people and stop that kind of thinking in the future.


"I love just losing myself and looking up 
and having a moment of not recognizing 
the world around me before I adjust back."
~Julia Callahan

   Don't you wish that we were all sitting in a room with a fireplace, cold rain streaming down the windows, hot mugs in our hands, while we chat this smart lady down to her last nerve? I personally am so happy to know that bibliophiles still run things in the world. History is not only being written as we speak, you guys, it is being shaped by writers, and readers fuel it. So keep reading. 
   If you are a young person looking for inspiration, understanding, or connection, you can absolutely find it in books. If you are looking for a career in books, take Julia's lead and follow your passion. There are opportunities out there most people don't even know about!
   Thank you again, Julia! Thanks for entertaining us, enlightening us, and prodding some good questions. Your token of thanks, an Amazon gift card, is in the mail.

Much love from the Lazy W!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Certified Bibliophile Spills Her Sassy Guts (1/2)

   Perhaps you remember me prattling on from time to time about my very happy acquaintance with Julia Callahan. She is a close friend of my sister Guinevere and has become my friend too. Julia is a literary publicist out in Los Angeles. She has been overly generous with her time and expertise this past year, guiding our famous little  book club through some voracious adventures, sharing ideas, listening, and encouraging us to flex our eyeballs more. Now this sweet derby girl has foolishly agreed to suffer an interview with yours truly.

   You guys, Julia was even more forthcoming and interesting than I knew she would be. I have divided this beefy endeavor into two parts for safer, slower consumption. I dare you to read both parts and NOT find something to discuss with a good bookish friend. Enjoy!

You must know that I want your job in the worst way, as do many of my friends. Please dispel the romantic images I have of being paid to read books and communicate with people. Please tell us a typical day in the life and what your job is really like.

   Haha. Well, it is a pretty awesome job, and I do get paid to read books, but really, reading books is just part of what I do. In fact, I get paid to do everything else, I just have to read books if I'm going to promote them. I know it sounds hard. Basically, the thing that's great about my job is it's different every day. Some days I'm editing all day, some days I'm emailing people all day (usually media contacts), some days I'm just answering emails, and some days I'm booking author tours. Usually it's a combination of all of those things. I'm lucky to have a flexible job so I come in between 8 and 11 and I go home between 6 and 9 pm. Depending on the day, I might have to go to an event in the evening, or maybe not. It's different all the time. You can continue being jealous. It's a pretty great job.

How did you prepare for this career, both academically and personally?
   I’m a reader.  I always have been (except for a brief period between sixth and ninth grade).  I had a wonderful eighth grade history teacher named Mr. Sullivan who, among other things, taught me that history wasn't just boring names and dates, that Elvis and The Beatles were history, that To Kill a Mockingbird was history, that James Dean was history.  I came to the realization that what I loved most was the intersection between history and literature.  I loved that when I read Dickens I got a picture of Victorian England, but also the fact that Dickens and the serial novels changed the way Victorian England looked; it changed the way people thought and acted.  That intersection of life and art in the context of history was and still is just endlessly fascinating to me.  So, when I went to UC Santa Cruz, I majored in history and literature. 
   After college I aimlessly worked in places that had nothing to do with anything I studied until I needed a second job and ended up working at a bookstore in West Hollywood called Book Soup on weekends.  I was part time for a year or so and then the events coordinator, Tyson Cornell, took me on as his assistant.  I was his assistant for four years.  He left and started his own company called Rare Bird Lit and then hired me soon after. 

   I’m good with people and I’m an enthusiastic reader.  The rest I learned on the fly.  But luckily that came quickly. 

You are exposed to a large number and a wide variety of people all the time. Can you identify an innate personal quality that tends to distinguish the published authors among the world’s numerous writers? Is there something they “have” that gets them printed?
   I don’t know if there’s a certain personality trait.  I find that the best authors are the best readers.  I don’t believe someone can write without reading.  I also think that the best authors are the hardest on themselves.  If you’re a reader you know what good writing is and thus, you know when you have or have not achieved it. 

You keep numerous and long lists of books for different audiences and purposes. Thank you for sharing those with me, by the way! Now. Let’s pretend Earth is planning to colonize another planet and you are in charge of filling a time capsule with literature. What ten books would you include?

Oh man! How long is this blog post? Okay, in no particular order, and excluding A LOT: 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Shakespeare
  • Catch-22
  • On The Road
  • Infinite Jest
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Vanity Fair
  • Jane Eyre
  • East of Eden
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • The Sun Also Rises
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • The God of Small Thing
  • Maus.  
   Also, like 1 million others, but this is off the top of my head and I figured you didn't want a list of 250 books.

What different authors would you like to represent and why?
   Michael Chabon is my favorite living author (his book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is my all-time favorite book), so working with him would be amazing.  Every literary nerd’s wet dream is Thomas Pynchon.  As far as more realistic, and this is kind of a cop out answer, but I’m a big fan of working with promising first time authors.  It’s challenging for me as the publicist, but also very rewarding.  When a first time author gets recognition for a great book and I've worked on it, it’s a source of immense pride, and I love to see what they go onto next. 

Do your authors keep other jobs, too?
   Some do, some don’t.  It depends on how long they've been around and what job they had before they started writing.  It’s extraordinarily hard to make a living as a writer, especially a novelist, so many of them have other things going on.  A lot of them teach writing. 

Do you write as well as read? We’d love to hear about that.
   Yes and no.  I used to write a lot, but I've realized that I really love editing more than writing.  I like shaping narratives and giving feedback about what a piece of writing needs to make it soar.  That being said, I do write a little bit.  Mostly I write a blog-like email that goes to my family.   It makes them feel like I see them more than I actually do.  I write a lot of press releases, too. 

In the scheme of things, what deficiency do you see in modern literature? What do we need more of, probably vampire romances?
   There is such a dearth of vampire romances!  We need more!  I actually think that modern literature is in a really exciting time.  There’s kind of a changing of the guard happening right now.  The older male-dominated regime is fading out (people like Mailer, Vonnegut, Vidal, Roth, Updike, etc.).  Roth and DeLillo are really the only guys left from that class.  Now we’re getting this new class coming in, who were influenced by these great writers.  People like Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen are doing such exciting stuff.  And the women!  Zadie Smith, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom….I could go on.  I just can’t wait to see where this all goes.
   As for deficiency, because I’m so good at answering the questions being asked, I think that more people need to discover these great authors.  The biggest deficiency I see is book coverage in media.  How can people know how wonderful White Teeth by Zadie Smith is when only a few media outlets are reviewing books?  Books are covering such a wide variety of cultures and times and places that the only deficiency is there’s not enough time in the day. 

You were so great to connect me with two brilliant authors, first Aimee Bender and now Adrienne Sharp. When I am rich and famous because of your talented publicizing, will you make me do unpaid interviews with dorky bloggers?
   Yes.  Absolutely. 

   In all seriousness, I believe that the more an author connects with their audience the better.  Those are two wonderful and amazing women that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with, but they also both are people who appreciate and understand how important their audience and their fans are.  And that makes them the smartest kind of author. 

That begs a question, actually. Your firm is called “Rare Bird Lit.” Do you seek out unusual material; does it find you or what? And what makes a book “rare” by your standards?

    Interesting question.  Also, you’re reminding me that I need to ask my boss where that name comes from. 

   We like material that challenges us professionally.  We’re independent booksellers at heart and we’re pretty snobby when it comes to literature, so it’s nice when we’re working with authors and books out of that wheelhouse.  It presents challenges and we have to figure out who to connect with and how best to market those books to the right people. 

   Also, we like doing things that other people are scared to do.  We throw crazy parties, we find interesting and original ways of marketing, and we’ll take on books that other people turn down, if we like the book and believe in it.  So yeah, we’re a bit rare in that way.  We’re also just kind of weird people.  It makes life more fun. 

   As for what makes a book rare, I guess all books are rare in a way, but I like a book that surprises me.  I like a book that doesn’t follow a trajectory that I can see coming from a mile away.  It’s rare that a book catches me entirely off guard. Actually, lately, when I was reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, I was just thinking that there was no way he was going to end the book that I would like.  And somehow, he pulled it off. The ending was perfect and caught me off guard.  I love that.

"That intersection of life and art 
in the context of history was and still is 
just endlessly fascinating to me."
~Julia Callahan

      Whew! Is your mind racing a bit with questions and answers of your own? Please leave comments. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Julia's answers or your own answers to some of these questions. Lots of my friends are bookish, so spill it ladies. Spill it messy. And remember to come back tomorrow for part two. 

Thank you for indulging us Julia!!
People are the Interesting.
Books are Necessary.

Warmth & Faith (Small Stone January 29th)

   Another unseasonably warm January afternoon. The sun sits confidently on my bare arms and neck, pressing into my skin his secret plans for growth and new life. The breeze kicks up sometimes, sending that cold slice of winter back through my hair, but the sunshine persists. Smiling at the calendar, telling the early budded trees not to worry, everything is as it should be, even if you don't understand. 
   I take silent count of the incredible moves of God in our life, both over the years and just this past week. I feel the weight and comfort of His steady presence despite the cold of those yet unanswered longings. His Love and mercy wrap around me and press into my heart His secret plans for growth.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Afternoon Potential (Small Stone January 27th)

   It's been a full day here of laundry, ironing, organizing, filling water troughs, feeding animals, and cleaning the chicken coop. I managed to write a little bit then stumble through a p90x video, which makes me happy. At 4:50 I am freshly showered. Waiting for Friday to truly arrive with my husband's homecoming. The house is clean and quiet, my mind is mercifully calm, and the biggest questions in my heart are faced down for now. I do not feel one tiny bit guilty for an afternoon cup of coffee and a piece of toast slathered in Nutella. Well, maybe a tiny bit. But that feeling pales against the blank canvas of possibility that keeps stretching out in front of me everywhere I look.

   Happy weekend everyone! No, happy life. Happy life to you no matter what difficulty comes your way, no matter what pain you feel or what regret you harbor. Happy life to you in every sense of the word. Find that long view again, then live in the moment. Accept your blessings and use them to be a blessing to others. Savor your adventures and surprises. Enjoy your life in small, simple ways. Love slowly and deeply. Protect your peacefulness when it is threatened, and let it grow. Trust that Love conquers all.  xoxoxo

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gardening by the Moon

   Have you ever explored this? It is certainly not a new idea, but we don't hear much about when to plant compared to the suggestions we get on what to plant. I think that's basic marketing. In fact, I think that the nursery producers don't care so much whether our first plants even survive, because we will just buy more. But don't listen to me; I'm a bit cynical. 

   Okay, back to topic. Observing the phases of the moon to plan a garden and all of its attached jobs is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years and in many varied cultures. This year at the Lazy W, we're joining the party. The moon party. There could be howling.

   Here is what I know about lunar agri-lore so far. I made that last word up.

   Basically, the idea is to simply cooperate with the energy of the moon, to follow the swells and swoops of whatever hold she has over our blue little rock and maximize that power. The full lunar cycle is 28 days (sound familiar, ladies?) but those days are not all equal. 

  • The waxing moon is increasing in fullness and brilliance, starting after the New Moon (when it looks darkest) and climbing up to the Full Moon. Remember this by thinking of the expression "She waxes poetic," which suggests that her poetry is increasing.
  • The waning moon is gradually diminishing, starting the day after the Full Moon (when it is brightest) and turning over again at the next New Moon. Pretty simple. 
   If you don't know the exact dates of the moon phases in your part of the world, it's super easy to find. I always look up the details at the Farmers' Almanac website. This is good information to scribble down on your planners, you guys. Check it out.

Hey, incidentally, the site where this chart originates
is all about telling time by the moon! Crazy.

   Okay, once you have a grip on when the moon is brightest (strongest pull on Earth) and when it is weakest,  you just need to know how to apply that knowledge in your garden. Most of the folklore I've read says that the waxing moon is fertile, alive, creative, life giving. Makes sense to me. The waning moon is barren, dormant, even dead. So the plainest possible approach is to divide your garden chores accordingly. Which of your tasks are related to growth and which are related to dormancy or collection. This also applies to above ground and below ground. Examples, anyone?

  • Plant above ground crops during the light of the moon.
  • Plant below ground crops during the dark of the moon.
  • Make transplants and graft tree branches during the waxing moon, when it is vital and life giving.
  • Perform soil cultivation and remove weeds during the dark of the moon, when the moon is barren, so the unwanted seeds don't take purchase again.
   There is so much more information out there, gardening friends. I urge you to spend some of your catalog-browsing time this winter learning more about when to do things in cooperation with the moon. 
   Do you know what else this reinforces? The lovely idea that we don't need to do it all on one day. We can take our time a little bit, divide and conquer, focus and soothe ourselves into the gradual evolution of a really beautiful garden.

Pinned Image

This perfectly dreamy vegetable garden in Connecticut
was in one of my Country Living magazines a few years ago.
Now it all the heck over Pinterest.
Behold its lush mellowness and majesty.
What do you bet the gardener cooperated with the moon?

   So... happy catalogging, friends. Happy dreaming. Happy planning. Happy learning. There is much to learn, after all, and many dreams that are ready to come true.

Waxing Green & Sadness Waning,


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wheel of Friendly (Small Stone January 25th)

   If I were a game show, I would want to be Wheel of Fortune. The hosts are never surly, always friendly. And apparently they don't age. The puzzles are workable, not reliant on bizarre trivia or statistical luck. And, most importantly, no contestant goes home empty handed. I just love that. Not because I believe every child needs a trophy for every effort made in life, but because it's just nice. Paying even the least winning contestant a $1,000 parting gift is the game show equivalent of a nice party favor. The best parties send people home with a little summin-summin.

The end.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Twenty Nine Years Ago Yesterday: Genevieve

   When I was not quite nine years old, Mom was El Preggo with the third of my four younger siblings. It had been a cold, happy winter of family gatherings and more than the normal amount of living room furniture rearranging. A person could reasonably attribute most of this to Mom's strong nesting instincts.

   As I recall, Mom had been displaying signs of labor for most of the Christmas season, and by this week in January 1983 the family's excitement level was not low. We were on happy little pins and needles. I was almost nine, so my sister Angela would have been four and a half and our little brother Joey not quite two. Philip would be born in another three years.

   For some wonderful reason my parents decided to invite me to be part of the birth when it finally happened. Grandma Stubbs, who lived nearby, was all set to watch over the little ones and my parents' friend Debbie and I were to be included in the hospital business. I was extremely happy about this plan, you guys. Anything to make me feel like one of the adults, you know?

   I was asleep when Dad came in to rouse me, whispering excitedly, "Reezie, let's go. Wake up. Your Mom's having the baby."
   I could barely hear my Mom's voice across the bare wood hallway and was listening acutely to my young parents shuffle quietly through the upstairs, not wanting to wake the little ones. I think Grandma had already made it to the house. I remember smelling her perfume when we walked downstairs. 

   Debbie was already there, too. She was a mid wife, but we were still headed to the hospital. We all found the bags that had been packed for a while. Dad helped Mom into the back seat of our cute little white Subaru wagon. She is petite and so she fit perfectly on the narrow bench seat. I sat on Debbie's lap in the front passenger seat. Dad drove. Dad drove like I had never seen him drive before, nor have I since.

   Now, listen. I know I am not the only person in the world
whose Dad is rarely nervous or emotional. but allow me to interject here 
that this particular January night was one of the few times in life 
when I have ever seen this man quite like this. Okay? Okay.

   We lived no more than ten minutes from Baptist hospital in Oklahoma City, and with the absence of traffic in the wee hours of the morning, one might think it would be a breeze to get there in time.

   One might think.

   We drove north west on the Expressway, zooming through nonexistent traffic and slicing the dark with our happy little emergency. I sat on Debbie's lap and did not say a word. In my mind I can remember her smell, too, and feel her long braid against my shoulder. Her lavender vinyl backpack was at our feet. Back then I thought Debbie was a wizened creature of the universe, older than I would ever be, but in truth she was just out of high school, not yet off to college in Vermont. She was wise then but very young. Perspective is a funny thing.

   We all sat stiffly in our seats because of the cold and trembled from the adrenaline. I remember giggling with Debbie and feeling so grown up and special to be allowed this chance to welcome our new family member into the world. Seeing a sibling born is something that just cannot be duplicated.

   "Joe, it's time! It's really, really time!" Mom was nearly shrieking. Now, in Dad's defense, there had already been a few false starts that holiday season. Hard contractions were a fact of daily life since Christmas, so he knew it could be another false alarm. And besides, we lived minutes away from the hospital and he was already driving like a Duke boy.

   Now, in Mom's defense, she had already given birth naturally three times in her young life. She knew what she was talking about. From my front seat perspective that night, my money was on Mom. 

   "I know, we're almost there! Hang on!" Dad was focused on the traffic lights, the stick shift, and his wife in the back seat. I cannot tell you with certainty that he was breathing.

   "No, I'm not kidding! It's really time, NOW!!!"

  "Almost there, honey!"

   "Joe, NOW! RIGHT NOW!! I mean it!"

   Dad pulled off to the center median just shy of north May avenue and hurriedly parked the Subaru. He raced around the front of the car and to the passenger side and pulled open the back door. He arrived just in time to catch his baby as Mom pushed. 

   Just in time.

   I will never for as long as I live forget the moment that Mom's guttural yelling changed over to laughter. Have you ever heard this split second syllable before? Whatever pain and panic she was feeling as we drove was instantly and permanently forgotten, as labor pain often is. Her voice was suddenly all joy and love and peace, elation and celebration in the cold cargo light of the Subaru back seat!

   Then we all started laughing, and Debbie and I hugged in the front seat. I remember staring at my beautiful Momma while twisted around, white chenille blanket slightly bloodied, tiny, messy screaming bundle on her hips. She was curling up to find her baby's face and offered the most beautiful, most consuming smile I had ever seen.

   "It's a girl!!!" Dad said shakily.

   Then I got a glimpse of the gross umbilical cord and turned back to face front.

   I remember very little after that except arriving at the emergency room drive up doors. Dad escorted Mom with the baby and nurses into the cavernous mouth of the hospital, and Debbie and I were on our own for a while.   I was only nine, after all, and very sleepy.

   Being one of the first people to see my beautiful little sister Genevieve Michelle sort of gave me the idea that she was partly mine. Helping to cuddle, change diapers, and entertain tiny siblings is one thing; witnessing that first moment of air-sucking emergence into the world is quite another. It doesn't hurt that she is perfectly adorable and loving in every way.

When I eventually returned to school 
to share the good news, 
I could not pronounce her name correctly.
So for a while my friends and teachers thought
she was named Guinevere.
Here's Guinevere a few years later
on our back yard play set. 

For many years the whole family 
called her Viva Michelle, and Mom still does.
Here's Viva Michelle holding my first born, 
Jocelyn Marie, circa 1996.
I've always thought they look a lot alike, especially as babies.
They are chatting with our great grandfather Papa Joe,
who was among other things a beekeeper.
His wife was a writer.
I should tell you their story sometime.

Gen this Christmas, all grown up and beautiful.
She is a Derby Doll in Los Angeles,
so how perfect that Mom & Dad gave her this fishnet leg lamp!!
The whole room was laughing so hard!!

   Yesterday was Viva Guinevere's first twenty-ninth birthday, and as fate would have it her lifelong best girlfriend Erin delivered a healthy little baby girl right on time, though not in the back seat of a car. What a birthday gift! What a lovely full circle life draws sometimes. Erin & Darryl, we wish you many healthy, happy years with your daughter! Gen, I love you. I always have and I always will.

   I believe deeply in the power of silent wishes and prayers, in specific blessings being honored because we speak them and ask them of the Right Source. Will you please join me in showering my little baby sister in whatever wonderful, specific little blessing you would like to see manifest in her life this year?

Sisters are Cute.
Umbilical Cords are Grody.
Happy Birthday Gen!!


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Eyewitness of His Majesty (Small Stone January 22)

   Sitting on a hard pew, sliding around on the polished wooden planks because of my polyester dress and winter tights, shivering from the cold air, I look forward and blink. I am listening to the scriptures passively at first, gliding thoughtlessly through our Sunday morning routine with little effort. 

   Until the speaker's eyes change. His brow furrows and his voice follows suit, revealing light that is about to break through. And then it does.

   Long wrestled questions are calmly and brightly put to bed in my heart with a great, silent swoop. 

"For we have not followed cunningly devised fables,
when we made known unto you 
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, 
but were eyewitnesses of his majesty."
~II Peter 1:16

   I have myself been an eyewitness to the physical healing of my own children and in this moment am recharged to believe again in the promise of new miracles.

   How could I have grown so comfortable in my lack of vision?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Most Serious Small Stone Ever

   I drop in the peeled chunks of orange, fibrous and glistening, along with the firm, fragrant pieces of banana. Spooning in a tub of plain Greek yogurt and then drizzling over that some local honey, I suddenly feel so thankful for these fresh ingredients. So ready for the burst of energy they'll provide. 
   After two months of over indulgence and relative inactivity, this moment at the kitchen blender is a turning point. I lay my hand on top and press a button at the base. The motor whirs to life, and reflexively my mind counts off the days to bikini season. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Espionage and the Ballerina*

   This afternoon, in the bright January sun and with that great emotional conflict I always feel at the end of a really special read,  I finished one of the richest and most view-widening books I have ever had the pleasure of opening. 

   The True Memoirs of Little K penned by Adrienne Sharp is a glimmering piece of historical fiction set during pre-Soviet Russia and told from the perspective of, as a narration by, in fact, a Prima ballerina named Mathilde Kschessinska.

Holy smokes, you guys, this was a wonderful book!
Read this book. Read it in a cold month,
when you can brew yourself many pots of tea.
And read it while wearing as much perfume
and as many strands of pearls as you wish.
Do you own a fur jacket?
Wear that too.

Okay, back to a proper review...

   I was gifted this novel again by our beloved Julia, and I have once again discovered an author worth following. Ms. Sharp can count on future purchases from me.

Isn't she beautiful? 
In addition to being a novelist of this and other books including 
White Swan, Black Swan, Adrienne Sharp  is also a ballerina herself.
And no, the Natalie Portman movie is not connected.

   The story is told as a first person narrative by an aged woman, a woman whose life is not only a fascinating story unto itself; but it runs parallel to a truly remarkable chapter in world history. Kschessinska was a native of Russia during the rule of the Romanov Empire, a child of the ballet, a product and purveyor of passion, and ultimately a victim of the greater picture, though I doubt she would ever use the word victim to describe herself. Her view of events from the most mundane to the vast and global is both maddening and enchanting. 

   Here, I have to admit a great deal of ignorance. Maybe it is my Americanized perspective. Maybe it is the fact that my childhood was back-lit by that unforgettable Reagan-Gorbachev feud. The Iron Curtain of the twentieth century was seemingly effective in closing off my knowledge that anything interesting happened on that continent before Ronald Reagan stopped acting. Yes. Let's just say that.

   Remarking on the reading experience itself, allow me to say that the first little section of the book establishes the speaker's voice which proves to be very natural if a bit long winded. Page after page of compound sentences and unfamiliar (Russian) names and cities was a little daunting, but that first impression quickly evaporates in the warmth of the woman's true voice. Mathilde has all the depth and elegance and color that young women crave but will never attain until their own old age, when they have amassed their own collections of stories and scandals. On a personal note, I imagined Mathilde wore my grandmother's perfume, Youth Dew by Este`e Lauder.

   Beyond style and implication, though, Sharp lays out almost Shakespearean patterns of love, lust, ambition, and politics. How she managed to excavate so much Russian and world history and then distill it into 400 pages of beautifully written prose is far beyond me. Between the love stories and the descriptions of families, wars, and ballets, the reader is teased with mention of names like Rasputin, Lenin, Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and of course Czar Nicholas. I think maybe a person's career could be based on the body of knowledge Sharp has managed to weave into the tapestry that became this novel.

   So which imitates which; art to life or life to art? Do we have this answer yet?

   This is a thorough pleasure to read. When Sharp spoke of Siberia, I was chilled to the bone. When she described the great imperial palaces I could hear imaginary echoes against clean marble. When she took me to the ballet, I could almost touch the velvet drapes. And the parental struggles of a mother giving birth to a child who was destined to leave her side, well... that hit so close to home that I read through tears and felt real compassion for this old woman I will never meet.

   The book's emotional scope is great, and its educating potential is impressive. By the way, I did notice some interesting common ground between the life of our ballerina and that of Nitta Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha. Both women were entertainers. Both were bound by custom but complicated by love. Both, with their beauty and charm, held unnerving power over important men and were hated by more proper women. To make that discovery even more intriguing, we learn in this memoir that these two great nations, Russia and Japan, were at war during the time frame in which both fictional women would have lived.

   How's that for exploring an alternate universe?? How I would love to be at the cafe table where Adrienne Sharp and Arthur Golden chat over a cup of coffee, comparing notes and dreaming up new stories.

   Okay, you guys, if I continue writing I will soon be describing and summarizing every single delicious chapter of this book. Please find time to read it for yourself. Borrow mine if you like, remembering that my only condition for sharing books is that you write your name and a brief review on the inside cover.

Record Your Own History.
Learn About Someone Else's.

* P.S.  I borrowed the title for this post from a line in Sharp's novel, which suggested the title for a scandalous book written then about our main character. I hope neither our ballerina nor our author mind. Imitation, after all, is at its root flattery.. xoxo

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Raised Beds: Foundation Day

   A scientist is in Heaven. He walks up to God and claims to have cracked the code for creating life, that he knows how to manipulate small amounts of common soil to become a living, breathing organism.

   The Lord smiled patiently and said, "Okay."

   "I'm serious."

   "I can see that, my child, so let's go to My Laboratory and you can show me what you can do." So God leads the scientist to His Laboratory and welcomes him inside.

   "Okay," says the scientist eagerly, "all I need is some dirt."

   "Uh-uh, sorry," the Lord replies laughingly, "get your own dirt."


   So I'm making my own dirt. Not to blasphemously create life, just to grow some delicious fruits and veggies. Today Mia the Gander helped me fill the first three beds. It was a luscious way to spend another unseasonably warm January afternoon, with photos to prove it this time. I am feeling really optimistic about the garden this year, you guys. 

First, we have some scrap cardboard cut to lay flat on the ground.
This is eventually decompose, but in the mean time 
it should block the worst weeds.
Yay for no plastic!!

The whole cardboard cutting event was highly fascinating to Mia.
Can you blame him?

Then I layered on a few inches of dried leaves.
Just for fun, take note of the X shaped shadow up on the wall.

Over the dried leaves went a lot of manure.
A little manure scooping advice:
Whenever possible, scoop uphill
Let gravity be your friend.
Oh, and speaking of fascinated animals, as I scooped manure
our two geldings could not be more enrapt.
At one point Dusty nosed my very full wheelbarrow
and I had to urge him NOT to eat it.
He asked me why, pointing out the obvious fact 
that his manure is little more than compressed grass, hay, and excess grain.
Which is exactly his daily diet.
He had a legitimate question: at what point does food cease to be food?
That raised questions of cannibalism, etc, for which I had precious few answers.
Things got very philosophical in the middle field today.

The last ingredient was slightly moist, matted together shred.
Hey, did you notice the X shadow move? 
The sun was receding as I worked.

But Mia never left my side.
He nibbled winter greens 
and supervised my activities tirelessly.
He is the world's most faithful, 
most affectionate, most curious gander.

Amend Your Soil!
Get a Head Start!


Happy First Anniversary, Book Club!!!

 In January of 2011, almost exactly a year ago as I write this, my friend Tina and I decided to start a book club. We each invited one woman to join us, making a group of four. I invited my cousin Emily, and Tina invited her coworker Desiree. It was awesome. Our initial goals were threefold: to get thinky more often, to expose ourselves to a greater variety of literature, and YES to socialize. Because we're girls. We really had no idea how things would go. I mean, January is famous for quickly abandoned though brilliant ideas, right?

   BOY HOWDY that is not how things went down
for our little Oklahoma Book Club.

   Since last January, our group of four has grown to twenty-two.  22. TWENTY-TWO. Veinte y dos. That is a 450% growth rate, you guys. And we didn't advertise or anything; it's all been just by word of mouth. In fact, in late October we made the rather uncomfortable decision to close enrollment due to a potentially unmanageable crowd. Seating and feeding people is one thing; but more importantly, in gigantic crowds we lose the intimacy needed for really satisfying book discussions.

  In our first year we devoured eight novels as a group and have shared many hours of great conversation with each other, exploring and debating the content of these selections. We've laughed, we've cried, we've made each other blush. We've challenged our belief systems. Thanks to a Los Angeles book industry hook up we have with one of our members (her name rhymes with Frulia) , we even conducted a telephone interview with Aimee Bender, the author of one of our books! DO YOU KNOW COOL THAT IS?? So cool it's almost awkward.

   As suggested by our club name, Dinner Club With a Reading Problem, we also eat.  We eat really well.  It goes without saying that every one of our gatherings has been a passionately convivial affair, sometimes themed to the book and other times a wild pot luck free-for-all. Even the self-proclaimed kitchen-challenged among us have participated happily, and we've traded fun recipes along the way. Again, because we're girls.

   Reading has never been so much fun.  We always set attainable deadlines depending on the time of year and most members' life groove at the time, so that no one seees book club as a burden or work.  We keep in touch with each other throughout the reading weeks. And we have grown to know each other in deeper ways than you normally do in a casual acquaintance.  Hearing a woman's thoughts on a hefty read can reveal incredible things about her life and heart.

   So anyway... If you do not yet have a book club, I double dog dare you to start one.  It will not cost you much time or money, and what it DOES cost you will return to you tenfold in a rich life experience.


   Curious about who we are or what we've read?  
Here are some vital stats:

The average age of our 22 members is 35.78 years. (Our most junior member turned 21 the same day as our most recent dinner, and our most seasoned lady is 55, though you would never guess it to look at her.)

Among the group we have 13 children and 4 grandchildren, ranging from infant to college aged.

Roughly one third of our members is married, one of them being half of a Derby Union. More on that another time.

Professions: By coincidence, a different one third of our members is in number-crunching professions. Accountants, analysts, IT whizzes, auditors, etc. Also in the group is a paralegal, a credit union manager, a college student/part time employee/ Mom of two teens, a literary publicist, a hair design student, a computer nerd, a social worker supervisor, a receptionist, a project manager for a major investment house, an oil & gas accounting/ payroll manager, a verification associate, and a dorky farmish blogger. We are a motley crew, and I love it.

These are the books we've read as a group so far, though we always find time to discuss our additional private reads along the way:

  1.    The Manhattan Hunt Club by John Saul
  2.    The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
  3.    Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
  4.    Catching Fire by Susanne Collins
  5.    Mockingjay by Susanne Collins
  6.    The Shack by William P. Young
  7.    The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  8.    Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

By the way, you can find my reviews for most of these books somewhere on this blog.

How Do We Choose Our Books? In the beginning we planned to take turns like nice, polite little ladies. I mean, there were four of us. It was easy. Then throughout the year, as membership grew, we started kind of stabbing in the dark, just sort of brainstorming over plates of food and deciding wildly what to read next.
   It was working out alright, but last week we decided to take a slightly more orderly approach in 2012 and draw names two months out, that person being the one to choose our next title. We meet every six weeks, more or less, and we recently started meeting at different places! All of our 2011 events were here at the farm, which I loved dearly, but I also love going to other people's homes, and fortunately our group is overflowing with willing hostesses.

How Big of a Deal is This, Really? Well, it's a really big deal. It just is, you guys. One member (her name rhymes with Flacie) expressed that of all the activities in her busy life, if she ever felt pressed to sacrifice something, the last thing she would sacrifice would be Book Club. That speaks VOLUMES. ha-ha-ha-ha...
   Another member (her name is definitely not Margaret) has been making six hour drives from Austin, Texas to join the fun. Still another member (her name rhymes with Blephanie) reluctantly picked up the burden joy of reading by joining the group for a book she had started three years prior but never finished. And guess what? She not only stuck with us; she hosted the next party!
   Personally, I am amazed to discover so much depth and stimulation at such an easy price. The events plan themselves, really, because we are all so eager to see each other and spill our guts about the books. We definitely have  found some kind of magic here, and I can see it lasting many years.


   So Happy First Anniversary, Ladies!! You have each found a very special place in my heart because of this uncommon adventure. I have thoroughly enjoy getting to know everybody and stretching my reading muscles beyond what I would read on my own. Please stick around... 2012 is going to be incredible!

Much Love, 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Self Sufficient (Small Stone January 18th)

   This morning was cold. Beautiful, yes, but definitely colder than the deliciously warm days we've enjoyed all month. The pond wore a thin skin of ice even where the sun could reach.  The grass was crunchy with frost. And all the animals were heaving out plumes of steamy breath as they patrolled the farm. One of my jobs this morning was to make sure everyone could find fresh water to drink throughout the day.

   I did that and some other things and was quietly distributing piles of hay for the four-leggeds and tearing off bits of stale bread for the birds when I heard it. A loud, crushing sound and then a splash behind me. Chunk-hi had hammered his great, square chin and then his massive horns against the ice in his trough, releasing the loose water beneath it.

   "Oh I'm sorry, little buddy, I totally forgot about your trough!"

   "That's okay, Mom. I got this." His long beard was dripping with water, his horns shiny and steaming. Long black eyelashes blinking calmly at me.

   He can't really talk, you guys. He's a buffalo. But we understand each other just fine.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Raised Beds From Reclaimed Wood

   A blogging friend and I are thinking alike quite a bit these days. Heather posted this weekend about making the most of your kitchen's leftover contents and coming up with fun, new recipes following a decadent, costly, and probably calorie-heavy holiday season. First of all, her recipe for yogurt banana bread looks as delicious as it seems to be healthy! 
   Secondly, I like her approach. So much. She suggests that we make the most of what we have. Take honest inventory of your resources and make the most of that stuff, right now.

"Do what you can,
with what you have,
where you are."
~Theodore Roosevelt

  These words convey to me such a sense of calm and resourcefulness, such encouraging satisfaction! Do they to you too? In a culture where consumption is key and having is often more important than doing, it's easy to get caught up in the various races we all know about. Today, let me echo Heather's mantra and offer you some additional encouragement to make the most of what you have.

   But not in the kitchen, in the garden. My favorite room in the house.

   Handsome and I spent a good part of the long weekend building garden structures. We built three raised vegetable beds and one fantastic arbor over the center aisle, all from reclaimed materials! I'm not even kidding. Seriously, with the exception of going to Home Depot (where spending temptation knows no bounds) to buy one replacement blade for his reciprocating saw and a box of long screws, we made zero purchases for these major farm improvements. 

   This kind of thing gives me happy chills, you guys. We used old stockade fencing peeled from the rubble of the kids' playhouse "fort" in the back field. It had been thrashed by the violent May 10 tornado almost two years ago, but I have not had the heart to let go of any of it. This doesn't count as letting go; this is re-purposing and keeping near all over again.

   We used limbs and trunks from already-fallen trees in the nearby Pine forest. We even plucked rusty nails out of old planks of porch wood and used those again, both the planks and the rusty nails. After an hour or two of collecting raw materials for free, I stood back and was fairly stunned by how much we had at our disposal.

    The sight was definitely motivating! We built and built and schemed and sort of measured and worked together like a well oiled machine, not stopping for lunch until the whole thing was done.

   What's fun about accomplishments like this, beyond the monetary savings, even beyond the intrinsic pleasure of having been resourceful citizens of the planet (she says as she snaps her suspenders), is that our new projects have been braided together with happy old memories.

   For the next several years, hopefully, I will be gardening within these lovingly constructed boxes. These boxes built from rough, painted wood that instantly brings to mind the sound of my children laughing and the smell of sunshine in their hair.

 I will be coaxing flowering vines up heavily barked tree trunks that remind me of the first walks my husband and I took together on this property, four and a half short but historic years ago.

My adorable, deeply loved nephew and my two precious, beautiful daughters.
This was taken in the spring of 2008, almost four years ago. 
I see the mud on their clothes and those easy smiles
and remember how much fun we all had, how much love flowed freely.
I hope they remember too.

   Okay, off we all go to the next great thing in life. Have a wonderful rest of the day or night, friends! Take a good look around and challenge yourself to make something new and beautiful out of what you already have, right now. Because you are blessed!

And please say a prayer for my girls and their cousin.


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