Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Storm at the Shore

I took a walk around my neighborhood. Here's what the storm looks like at the Jersey shore.

Yes. I almost did go for a swim..accidentally.

Waiting tables...
The Barnegat Bay.
Note to self: Next time, get the shovel from the shed before the storm starts

I bet you were expecting Santa Claus. This scarecrow should have been put away weeks ago. But I like him so I couldn't do it. I'm going to find him a red hat and let him stay out for the season.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Charlotte Observer lists Neil Armstrong is My Uncle on their "Best Book for Youths" list!

Yesterday, Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me was mentioned in The Charlotte Observer in Susie Wilde's article on "Best Books For Youths"!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Near-Death Experience (Not mine -- but still traumatic)

I will never understand how my husband can sleep through our dog's pre-dawn I-have-to-go-out barks. It's not like I jump up right away. I pretend I'm asleep, but those barks seem urgent. At 6am on Sunday morning, either the love of my life is still in dreamland or he is giving an award-winning performance.

It's still dark outside when I let out the dog. I'm grumbling as I search for coffee. We are completely out. If I'm going to salvage a moment of this day, there must be caffeine involved.

I throw on a sweatshirt, sweat pants, winter boots, no socks. (Apparently my limited fashion sensibilities don't wake up until there's caffeine either). I weigh my coffee options.

Like any town here, we have a WaWa. For those of you unfamiliar with this mainstay of the Jersey shore, it's a local convenience store known for its coffee and sandwiches. There are more WaWas in these parts than there are mosquitoes on a summer evening. But even in the early hours, it's a busy place, and I am not in the mood for throngs of humanity.

Instead I head to Dunkin Donuts. I buy my ground coffee and of course, I get a cup for the road. After a few sips of caffeine and a conversation with the Dunkin Donuts man (who is completely sympathetic about my sleeping husband/barking dog/no coffee in the house situation) I'm feeling better. I get into the car to drive to a different part of town to watch the sun come up.

So the morning seems to be savable. The coffee is good. I feel completely validated by the understanding Dunkin Donut's man. I decide it's pretty cool that in a town of only 1500 people, there are two places where you can buy coffee at 6am.

I begin to count all the wonderful things that we have doubles of in this town. True, there are no bookstores, which is my personal cultural barometer, but there are three pizza parlors, two places to get a Tarot card reading, and a zillion places to get a tattoo. I'm still counting when I turn down a wooded road.

A rabbit races out in front of me. I hit the brakes.

A lot goes through your head during moments of crisis. First, I am struck by the unfairness of the situation. I can't be a rabbit killer. I'm a vegetarian (okay, well, I eat fish, dairy, eggs and on nights when the stars are not properly aligned, I will nibble on a piece of chicken. But never rabbit. I mean..that's like red meat).

And why this particular little guy? This is no scrawny half-starved creature. This is a furry, round, adorable animal. If they were casting parts for the Easter follies, the rabbit who is now a mere six inches from my front tire would be a shoe in for the starring role. There is no getting around this. I'm about to run over the Easter Bunny. I wonder if I already had.

The Easter Bunny must have made a 90-degree turn under the car. I see him hopping about two feet in front of me. I know it's only a matter of moments before his little round rabbit legs give out and those tires catch up with him.

Finally the car stops. The rabbit makes a run toward the other side of the street. For a moment, human and rabbit stare at each other. I can see his little bunny heart pounding. And mine seems to share the same quick rhythm.

I wait until the bunny is out of sight, far from the road. And I continue on my way. As I'm sipping my coffee watching the sun come up over the bay, I think about the rabbit hiding in the brambles and wonder if he is watching the sunrise too.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Other Side of The Reference Desk: A Writer Puts on Her Librarian Hat to Learn the Value of a Dollar

Like all librarians, I have my favorite reference resources. And I'm thrilled when I get a chance to use them.

It's not like I wake up in the mornings wondering if I'll be able to use the Encyclopedia of Associations at work that day, but if someone wants a little info on the Society of Coffee Mill Enthusiasts, you bet I'm hopping to that book with a spring in my step.

Here's another one that sends me to the shelves humming.

The Value of A Dollar:Prices and Incomes in the United States

What is it: The editors of this book say it's about "practical economy: what things cost and how much money people have to buy them". It lists the actual prices of things consumers purchased from the 1700's to the present. It also has info on salaries. But it's so much more than that.

Why writers need to know about this book: It's a wonderful way to see what society was like at different periods in history. If you're not writing historical fiction, take a look at it anyway. This book goes up to present times and will help you find interesting details for your w.i.p.

Here are some samples of what's inside: (source:
Value of a Dollar: Prices and Incomes in the United States. Millerton, NY : Grey House Pub., 2004.)

In 1900 the Chicago Tribune advertised for a Sales Agent "we want a few active hustlers in city to sell our new patent reflectors for Welsbach lights; evenings 6 to 9 pm; exclusive terrritory $1.50 to $3.00 a night"

In 1890 "Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People: Miraculous cure" 50 cents

In 1932, you could buy a box of 200 "Kraft; fresh, soft, fluffy, vanilla-flavored marshmallows" for 65 cents

A frying pan in Prince George County Maryland cost 4 shillings in 1797.

And if you want to get an idea of how much an author made in 1834: William McGruffey made $1,000 in royalties for the various McGuffrey texts.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Other Side of the Reference Desk: A Writer Puts on Her Librarian Hat: Talking about Databases

I'm wearing both hats this week. In this post, I talk to myself (which happens frequently).

LibrarianNAN: Here's one of my favorite resources. Let's talk about databases...

WriterNAN: YAWN. I hate that word. It's dull...uninspiring. Who wants to search a database when they can search something fun like Yahoo and Google?

LibrarianNAN: It is a boring name. Sometimes, that makes it a hard sell to library customers. I've lobbied for a name change. I think a database should be called "an amazing collection of in-depth information that you can't find through search engines like Yahoo and Google -- and even if you could, it would probably be at those websites where they charge you for info and it would cost you a ton of money -- but you can get this info through your library for free." That's more descriptive, but it's a little hard to fit in the brochures.

WriterNAN: Er..yeah..right. So why do I need to know about these things?

LibrarianNAN: Not everything is available for free on the Internet. There are wonderful gems of info that...

WriterNAN: Wait. I thought you said it was free.

LibrarianNAN: For library users, it's free. Libraries pay major money for these databases. We buy them and make them available for our library customers.
But the information isn't free. It's often a collection of books, articles, issues of magazines and journals (in electronic form). That's why you can't find this stuff through regular search engines.

WriterNAN: Free is good. What can I find on a database?

LibrarianNAN: Let's say you're writing a story and you need information about the mating habits of butterflies...

WriterNAN: Ha! I know why you came up with that example. We just finished reading the incredible first story in Laini Taylor's Lips Touch: Three Times. It was wonderful and you're still haunted by it.

LibrarianNAN: If Laini Talylor came into the library and asked about the mating habits of butterflies, I'd suggest the databases Academic Search Premier (for some great scholarly journals on that subject) and also Science Reference Center.

WriterNAN: Hope you'd ask her to sign her book too. Alright. So databases have good info on butterflies, but let's say my main character is an 11 year-old who fixes lawn mowers.

LibrarianNAN: Try the Small Engine Repair Reference Center

WriterNAN: And what if my main character broke an antique flower pot and needs to know how much it would cost to replace it.

LibrarianNAN: The Antique Reference Database has prices for all kinds of antiques. You're still stressed out about the broken coffee cup this morning. Aren't you?

WriterNAN: It was early. I was pre-caffeine.

LibrarianNAN: From language learning to medicine to art to history --there's a database for almost anything. Our library has about 90 different ones. Take a look at our library's website to see the huge variety.

WriterNAN: But only cardholders for your library can use your databases. What if I want to tell my writing buddies about this. They live all over the country.

LibrarianNAN: Because of agreements with database producers, the databases are generally only available to cardholders of the library system. But so many libraries have them. Your writing buddies can check their own library's website to see what databases are available to them or they can ask their librarian.

WriterNAN: And if it's 2am, they can use one of those "Ask a Librarian" services that you talked about.

LibrarianNAN: I like your thinking. It's good to know we're on the same wavelength. The librarians at the 24/7 library services would be happy to help them.

WriterNAN: So are there any secret search strategies that you use when you search databases or is it similar to searching Google.

LibrarianNAN: You can pretty much search them the same way, but we librarians know a few secret tricks.

WriterNAN: Will you show them to me?

LibrarianNAN: Any librarian will show them to you. If you're ever stuck, ask them. But I'll talk about my search strategies in another post.

WriterNAN: Great. And maybe by then, we'll have pulled ourselves together.

(sorry for posting the wednesday post on problems)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering the Present

I have this odd holiday ritual. At some point during the day, I slip away from the festivities, find a quiet place, then close my eyes and try to take in every single detail of the celebration: The people. The voices. The laughter. The music. The food (I pay special attention to the food). Who and where my friends are. The clothes I’m wearing. What my hair looks like (even if it’s a bad hair day). The weather. The conversations. Everything.

Of course, I take in all those joyful moments, but if there are times of stress, I think about that too. Good or bad. Ordinary or remarkable. Whatever is happening during the day, I let it sink inside me.

This year, I noted that seemingly arbitrary sentences caused my older brother to break out in song, that my sister’s homemade gluten-free pizza is getting better and better, that my niece seems like she’s at a great place in her life and that those super cute shoes I found in the back of my closet were way too tight (btw, there’s always a very good reason why you stopped wearing shoes stored in the back of your closet. It’s best not to put them on ever again.)

I’m not sure how this started, but I’ve been doing it ever since I was a child. I wonder if it came from a book I read. Some of my best ideas came from those middle grade books.

After I’m convinced that I’ve taken in every detail, I tell myself to remember. Then I imagine all those holiday images wrapped up and stored somewhere in my mind. I hope I’ll be able to retrieve them in the future. After all, you never know when you’ll need a memory.

(The shrimp in the picture was cooked by my younger brother for one of our holiday celebrations and is definitely worth remembering)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Other Side of the Reference Desk: A 24/7 Librarian

It’s 2 am. The house is quiet. You’re busy writing. It’s all good. But by 2:01, you've hit a roadblock. You can’t write another thing because you need a piece of information that will change the course of your w.i.p. Your entire novel rests on your finding this wonderful and interesting little bit of info. (Okay. I know there’s a lot of good NaNoWriMo-type advice which says you should keep writing and deal with the information crisis later. But stay with me on this one).

Suddenly, you need to do a little research. You could hop on Google and wade through tons of sites or ignore all those caveats about wikis and head straight to Wikipedia (if you don’t know about the pros and cons of wiki-info, stay tuned for a future post). Or you can ask a librarian.

That’s right. At 2:01am you can chat with a real live librarian. Many libraries or state library systems have a 24/7 library service that allow you to ask your question and get some help.

I’m one of the hundreds of librarians who participate in a program called QandA NJ, New Jersey’s 24 hour library service. Here’s the inside scoop of how it works. We all have different shifts where we log onto a site and wait for questions. Customers hop onto the site and ask us what they need to know. Then we find answers. We also give quick lessons on how we found the info or offer suggestions for how to find resources if you've got a major research project.

Think about it. Right now as you’re reading this blog post, there’s an army of librarians waiting for your questions.

To find out if your area has a 24/7 library service, go to your library’s webpage or give your local library a call. Below are only some of the 24/7 virtual library services. I'll post more links as I find them.

New Jersey

Next time you have a pressing information need, try asking a 24/7 librarian. (btw, notice my dog, Chi, is sporting a baseball cap that says QandANJ)

Added info: Here's a list of "Ask a Librarian" services in the United States.
(Thanks Beth Cackowski of QandANJ for this great list)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Other Side of the Reference Desk: A Writer Puts on Her Librarian Hat

So let’s say your main character’s parents own a funeral home and a single engine prop Cessna airplane. They just learned that the body of dearly departed Great Aunt Wilma is 500 miles away. Poor Wilma died while dancing the tango at the Professional Elvis Impersonator’s Convention. Even though the weather looks grim, Mom is going to hop in the plane to bring Aunt Wilma home. (Of course she promises to be back in time for your main character’s big soccer game).

Sound plausible? Well, I have a few questions. First does a body fit into a single prop engine Cessna? Would a mortician fly a plane with an impending storm? Would Aunt Wilma really get one last airplane ride? And would she still be dressed as Elvis?

If someone came into my library with these questions, I’d tell them to contact the Flying Funeral Directors of America. This is an association for licensed airplane pilots who are also in the funeral industry. According to their blurb, the organization enables members “to participate in two activities which are very much a part of their lives: funeral services and aviation.” I suspect that one of the 100 members of this group would have some answers.

I’ve found answers to some of my most challenging reference questions by contacting associations, like the Flying Funeral Directors of America. I’m amazed at how generous people are with their time and knowledge.

There’s an association for everything. They exist for professions, hobbies, fan clubs, medical problems, trades, sports, unions, governments, religious affiliations, ethnic groups, patriotic groups, veteran’s organizations, cultural groups..the list goes on. You can find over 150,000 of them in The Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Publishing Group, Detroit). This multi-volume treasure is available in many libraries and is a favorite of librarians.

As a writer, I use the Encyclopedia of Associations as a starting point for my research. When I needed to know what jails were like in the Mississippi Delta in 1926, I made a phone call to American Jails Association. In one twenty-minute conversation, I learned about jails in the twenties, about the current size of the jail in my own county and about a sheriff in the 1800’s who believed that his prisoners could exist solely on a diet of tomato juice. I also received a few complementary issues of American Jails magazine. For another story, I needed to know what could make a pet squid sick. A quick email to the American Malacological Society and I had an answer.

Here are a few hints when contacting associations:

*Be respectful of the person’s time. I write down my questions beforehand to try to keep them brief.

*When you call an association, try to get past the receptionist. Introduce yourself, tell him what you’re looking for and ask if there’s someone who can answer a few quick questions.

*If the association specialist doesn’t have the answers, ask for suggestions about where else you can look. A knowledgeable person in an association can often point you in the right direction.

Next time you’re in your library, take a look at the Encyclopedia of Associations. It's a great resource for writers.

Oh and regarding Aunt Wilma, I have one more question. Do they really dance the tango at Elvis Conventions? Let's check with the Association of Elvis Impersonators.

This is the first of a series. Every Wednesday, there will be a post about fun, quirky, useful resources for writers. Look for future posts on databases vs Google (trust me, it's more interesting than it sounds), the invisible web and very cool reference books. Hope you'll check back.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's In My Writing Space: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I have visions of writing in a beautiful, tranquil space. I can see it now. A giant desk.. no wait.. a table, with nothing on it but wisp of a computer (which despite its tiny size has an exceptionally large screen and a perfect keyboard). I'd be surrounded by books I love and all my favorite objects would be perfectly arranged on bookshelves (ones that were lovingly made to fit contours of the room as opposed to the ones made from medium density fiberboard that you put together yourself). The look would be uncluttered, yet comfortable. Calming yet inspiring. And there would be giant windows overlooking... (okay here's where I'm stuck. I can't decided between a view of the ocean, a mountain lake or the Eiffel Tower) but you get the idea...

In real life, my writing space leaves a lot to be desired. True, it does have a certain charm, if you define charm as tiny, cluttered, and completely devoid of any natural light.

Here's what I like and don't like about my current writing space:

THE GOOD: (where I make an attempt at a serene, orderly, inspirational space)

That's my rock collection, which is filled with thoughtful words like "create" "imagine" "believe". The sparkly "Hope" was a gift from a friend. Right by the door, there's a handmade switch plate with more inspirational words on it. (Do boring generic switch plates bother anyone else? There was a time where I'd proselytize about having creative switch plates. I even made my own out of polymer clay. It's a weird quirk but it makes such a difference in the tone of the room.) Other favorite things include two bulletin boards filled with quotes (more words), a bookshelf (made of medium density fiberboard) filled with my favorite books, some bamboo plants, framed song lyrics and a collection of good luck tokens from various cultures. Oh and chocolate.

THE BAD: Disclaimer: There is nothing in my "bad" category that I want to go away. I'm terribly fond of everything here. But that's the problem. I'm too fond of them.

This is a category of writing distractions (albeit beloved writing distractions). They include family members and friends (sometimes I let them into my space), my dog (who lives underneath my chair), the telephone (even now, it's right next to me), the tbr pile (it should never be this close to your desk). Oh sure, I know that everything here is necessary for a healthy balanced life, but sometimes all that health and balance can take a toll on your writing. That's my dog, Chi, and part of the tbr pile. The book on the bottom is Libba Bray's Going Bovine and Chi can't take her eyes off the cow on the spine.

THE UGLY: Also known as clutter and time zappers

We live in cramped quarters so my writing space also doubles as the room where we put things that we don't know what to do with --like an old footstool and various electronic equipment. It also serves as a pc graveyard. All the formerly used pcs are piled (neatly) in the corner ( I don't know why we keep them, but I digress..). It's also where we toss our unread mail, pay bills, store bills, and do laundry.
Plus these time-zapping items seem to find their way into my space --things like slinkies and bubbles and formadehyde free nail polish (current favorite color is walluka watermelon). Oh and don't get me started on spider solitiare.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Things That Scare Me

Halloween has me thinking about all the things that make me anxious or just sort of creep me out. Once you get going on a list like this, it’s hard to stop.

Here are only a few of the things that scare me:

  • The ghost story my husband tells about a basement apartment, a neighbor and a dead relative.

  • Snuggies (especially the new designer leopard prints)

  • The fact that at 3:00am almost everything on an infomercial seems like a reasonable and practical purchase (including the cellulite remover, the get-rich-through-buying-real-estate-course, and the automatic reloading paint roller when I lived in a rental apartment that I wasn’t allowed to paint.)

  • The long gasp a baby takes just before he’s about to let out one of those really loud wails.

  • Melted plastic

  • The recurring dream that starts out where I’m having lots of fun at a party/ beach/coffee shop/karate dojo and I run into an old college buddy. When he asks me what I’ve done with my life since graduation, all I do is stutter and stammer because I can’t think of a single thing.

  • The blue computer screen of death (that’s the blue screen that shows up instead of all your icons when your computer is never going to start again)

  • Another season of reality shows

  • An empty page. I love to revise. It’s those first drafts that get me.

  • Lines of people waiting for printouts two minutes before the library closes.

  • Another really innovative social networking tool that everyone in the world is using that you MUST be on because it is so important that it is going to change the political, social and cultural fabric of our society (of all societies) and perhaps even alter the course of the human evolutionary path. And if you’re not using it, then you will be viewed as a washed-up has been, a cultural anachronism clinging to an obsolete way of life, the same way a broken clamshell clings to the shore just before a wave comes crashing over it and washes it out to sea. And people will make fun of you and mock your luddite values.

  • Floods

  • Medical tests

  • Essays that predict the end of books and libraries (especially when the essayist decides to wax poetic about the above mentioned social networking tool)

  • Snakes. Oh heck, throw in most creepy crawly things and scampering things too. Small rodents, bugs, reptiles, etc.

  • Watching the dog go crazy when she hears a scratchy sound in the walls. This is another manifestation of fear of creepy crawling/scampering things. Oh and just so you don’t think I live in rodent-infested squalor, this happened only once and not in the current house. And it was only one mouse.

  • Traffic

  • Not having a pile of books on my nightstand to look forward to.

  • Nature documentaries: They’re either about global demise (pollution, natural disasters etc) or they’re giving you an up close and personal view of the cycle of life. The second I see a tiger eyeing an antelope who has strayed from the herd, I reach for the remote.

  • That there’s a Miley Cyrus song on the radio right now and I kind of like it.

  • The enormous amount of fur that my dog leaves all. over. the. place. This fear increases exponentially when I learn that someone is stopping by for a visit.

  • The dentist’s drill (and I feel bad about this one since I have a really nice dentist).

  • How really clueless I am about fashion trends. Big shoulder pads in or out? What about tie dye? And at what age should you stop wearing sneakers with sparkles on them?

  • That I don’t know the name for those metal things that people wear in their stretched out earlobes.

My list could go on and on…Happy Halloween

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I Love Lucy...the Elephant

I went to a trade show in Atlantic City this week so of course I stopped by to visit Lucy the Elephant on my way home. I didn’t know she existed until a few years ago. My husband and I found her on a day we decided to do some sightseeing in our new state. We were driving through Margate, New Jersey about 2 miles south of Atlantic City when we saw her nestled among the houses in this quiet beach town. Six story elephant buildings are hard to miss.

Built in 1881 by 25 year-old Philadelphia real estate developer James Lafferty, Lucy is the nation’s only National Historic Elephant Landmark. It took a million pieces of wood, 12,000 square feet of tin, 200 kegs of nails, and 20 windows to make the 64-foot high structure. Originally this little pachyderm was built to try to get the good people of Atlantic City buy land at the Jersey shore. Today, visitors can climb through her spiral staircase, look through her porthole eyes and enjoy incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Lucy is a survivor. She’s been a real estate office, a restaurant, a summer home and a tavern (which was closed due to prohibition). She was almost burned down by some drunks during her tavern days, came dangerously close to being torn down in the 1970s and has survived countless storms and hurricanes (oh sure a few of them battered her but a little bit of fixing up by the people who love her and she was as good as new). Lucy may also be the only female elephant in the world to have tusks. In nature, tusks are reserved for the boys.

Lucy was built in the Victorian era when over-the-top architecture was fairly common. Still, I wonder how real estate developer James Lafferty made the leap from “what can I do to get visitors from Atlantic City to come a few miles south to buy some land filled with sand dunes and eel grass and only accessible during low tide because of the deep tidal pool” to “I know, I’ll create an elephant structure that is so large that it can be seen from 8 miles out at sea.”

I can’t imagine that everyone was on board with this plan. There had to be a lot of raised eyebrows and funny looks. Maybe even someone like a stuffed-shirt banker, his second cousin (the one he only sees at weddings and funerals) or his old high school chum told him to his face that his idea was crazy. Yet nothing stopped Mr. Lafferty from turning his vision into a reality. He had such faith in his plans that he even applied for a patent—which he was granted in 1882.

I am not normally impressed with zoomorphic wooden sculptures, but I love Lucy. She defies everything that is practical and sensible in this world. I dare you to drive by her and not smile. She is a constant reminder to all of us that even the most outrageous ideas can be turned into something spectacular. Think of Lucy and dream big!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Holly Trees and Letting Go

Every summer when I was a kid, my family would take the long drive from my New York home to my Great Aunt Lil’s place on the Jersey shore. She lived with my other aunts and uncles in a cottage-style house filled with surprising rooms and quirky spaces. The major attractions were the built-in pool and the pool house where my aunt cooked up amazing summer treats. No one made buttered carrots like Aunt Lil.

In her basement there were shelves filled with books left over from her teaching days. I read them all. Ballet Shoes. The Bobbsey Twins. Anne of Green Gables. On those summer days, I wolfed down stories like I wolfed down her buttered carrots.

Not sure if it’s fate or coincidence, but I now live at the Jersey shore and happen to work about a mile from Aunt Lil’s former house. Sometimes on my lunch hour I drive by.

The land is divided up. The pool is filled in. There’s a garage where Uncle Vinnie’s garden used to be. The pool house is now a rundown all-season home. But the cottage is there. If you look close, there are hints of the old days. A few trees still stand, including the big holly tree that guarded the pool gate.

I’m driving by and I see the new homeowner. Despite my shy nature, I hop out of the car and introduce myself to the woman standing outside. I tell her all about Aunt Lil and the pool and the summers. I try to remember everything I can about the cottage. “They had plastic slipcovers. And the house was immaculate.”

“Well, the house is immaculate now too” she says. “My house is always clean”

“Oh, I’m sure it is. I didn’t mean to imply… I just meant…” After a few more attempts to fix things, I give up. There’s a long pause. Since I am one of those people who feels compelled to say things during moments of uncomfortable silence, I add, “I’m a librarian here in town.”

The woman pulls out her cell phone and dials a number. “My daughter is upstairs,” she tells me. Then she talks into the phone “Remember that overdue book that I told you to return? There’s someone from the library outside who wants to speak to you. You’d better get down here.”

As soon as I see a girl look out from the second story window, I’m flooded with memories. I wonder if she ever spent some quiet time in that tiny walkway on the top floor behind the stairs.

“Been telling her for days that should return the book,” says her mom.

The girl, about 15, comes bounding outside spilling out apologies. “It’s at school. But I’ll return it. I promise.”

I start to explain that I’m not here for that, but her mother cuts me off with one of those looks. So I’m quiet. And I retain my role as the book police. A new career low.

“Would it be okay if I walked over to your holly tree? It was here when there was a pool.”

The woman nods.

As I enter into the yard I hear them behind me.

“What is she looking at the tree for?” asks the girl

“I have no idea,” says her mom.

I block out their conversation and spend a moment with my tree. I touch a leaf, and I expect there to be magic. I thought it would whisper to me of summer days and moonlight swims and buttered carrots. Instead, it gives off the same what-are-you-doing-here feeling as the teen who now believes that librarians come to your door if you have an overdue book.

I have closure now. It’s not the same type of closure I expected when I hopped out of my car and said hello. But I can drive on that road and forget to look at the house. Sometimes you have to move on.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Things I'd Never Thought I'd Say

There are times when you end up saying things that you never expected to say. I'm not talking about serious moments, philosophical revelations or even those embarrassing gaffes,
like when you tell a real estate agent that you're tired of looking at houses with orange shag rugs only to discover that she'd just carpeted her entire first floor in a lovely shaggy tangerine. I mean every day things -- explanations you never thought you'd have to give and words you never expected to come out of you mouth.

Here are a few examples:

Oh look honey, they're finally opening up a supermarket in town. There's going to be a band at the grand opening. Wanna go?

Sorry Chi, we don't have time for any more stories tonight. (Chi is my dog)

Sir, you're not allowed to have open fires of any kind in the business library.

I will not make an illegal U turn. It's not who I am. It's not what I do.

I'm not a suspect. I'm a librarian (said to a policeman who thought I was robbing my own apartment. It's a long story.)

My favorite present this year is my gift card to Home Depot.

Hurray! Congratulations on your new driveway!

This list could go on, but I have to go. There's a conversation in the next room that I want to get in on. They're talking about the 80's group Blondie and wondering if their musical contributions would be different if the lead singer was a brunette.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

How Unplanned Vacations Can Send You in the Right Direction

My favorite vacations are the ones that start with the words “North? South? East? Or West?”

My husband and I used to do this all the time. We’d get into the car, decide on a direction and head toward the open road.

With no plans and no destination, if we wanted to spend the day watching the tides come in on the Bay of Fundy or wandering through the streets of Annapolis or driving for the entire day just to see how far we could go, there was nothing stopping us.

Unplanned vacations are filled with surprises, but they are not for the faint-hearted.

  • You have to stay flexible. A grouse hunting festival in the middle of the Canadian woods could make it impossible to find a place to sleep. You may have to decide that instead of the spending the weekend communing with nature, it’s time to see the sights and sounds of the city of Moncton, Canada’s “most polite and honest city”.
  • You have to accept the fact that the planners in the world get the great deals, nicer hotel rooms and often get to stay closer to the place where everyone wants to be. This is especially true if you wander into a tourist area at peak season. It’s best to stay off the beaten path. But that’s where the adventures are anyway.
  • You have to have faith in the direction you’re going. That means if you’re driving along the Maine coast and you pass your 87th “no vacancy” sign, you must never say the words, “I told you we should have gone south this time.” At 2:00am on a foggy night, even if you say it in your softest, sweetest voice, it will not be met with good results.

But something happens on these road trips. At some point we know exactly where we want to go. Our destination becomes clear.

My husband, who is a major history buff, says that his favorite days are the ones where we visit museums, old forts or historical towns. And my one of my best vacations was when we went to Prince Edward Island. I remember standing in a souvenir shop, surrounded by Anne Shirley dolls, wondering how we accidentally ended up in a place that I dreamed of visiting ever since someone put that first Anne of Green Gables book into my hands.

I was taking a break from my W.I.P. and going through some scrapbooks today, when I realized that I write like I vacation. I can't do chapter by chapter outlines. I'm in it for the adventure. If I'm not flexible I get in trouble. And with a little luck, eventually, I'll know where I'm going.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Banned Book Week: Quotes from Challenged and Banned Books

A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone. ~Jo Godwin

I seem to be collecting quotes from everywhere these days. Here are a few from some of my favorite banned/challenged books:

"Our people made that choice, the choice to go to Sameness. Before my time, before the previous time, back and back and back. We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with difference. We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others." Lois Lowry,
The Giver

"It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

"I am not nice. I am brilliant. I am famous across this entire country. Nobody wants to tangle with the great Galadriel Hopkins. I am too clever and too hard to manage." Katherine Patterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins.

"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." Dr Seuss, The Lorax

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Looking Back at a Book of Quotes

Like a lot of writers, I keep a 'quote book' where I scribble down anything that interests me. Inspirational quotes. Lines from books. A silly comment from a friend. Great advice. Something overheard. A part of a poem. etc. A few days ago, I found a quote book I started when I was 17!

When I read it, I looked for patterns. I wondered if my 17 yr-old self and the person I am now have anything in common. Was I drawn to themes that I now write about? I also looked for change and growth. I mean, it would be nice to think that I've learned something over the past few decades.

So here are some quotes that I gathered when I was a senior in high school and my first few years of college (with some commentary):

"It was in the middle of winter, I realized there was in me an invincible summer." A Camus. (Still a favorite! True confession here: I didn't find it by reading Camus. It was in the front of Paula Danzinger's amazing book The Pistachio Prescription.)

"There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened." Willa Cather

"After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns." I Ching

"My dear, you must try Gestalt therapy" Overheard at a party.

"The more absolute death seems, the more authentic life becomes..." John Fowles (So much for saying I ever had a happy carefree nature)

"The human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it." PB Medawar. (I love this quote. Any time I find that I'm resistant to change, I still think about this.)

"This is what happens when you stay friends with people you went to high school with." A high school friend -- it was probably said about 6 months after we graduated. (I'm still friends with many high school pals, including the one who said this.)

"Do I dare disturb the universe" TS Eliot

"We take our favorite mistake and make it over and over again." Favorite philosophy prof (Yep. This one might be true)

"A stone gathers no moss while rolling. It gains a high polish" Fortune cookie.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I Like to Pretend...(What some forty-somethings, an 11 year-old and a youthful 83 year -old have to say about the subject)

Pretending is different than wishing. It allows you to visit an imaginary place, sample what's there and then head back to your real life.
This weekend I was talking with one of my favorite 11-year-olds about it. Soon, her mom joined in the conversation and then my mom joined in. Then another friend joined in too.
Here's our list of things we like to pretend. See if you can tell which ones are from the 11-year-old, which ones are from my 83-year-old mother and which ones came from the forty-somethings. It's harder than you think.

I like to pretend that...

* I know how to play the piano

* the crumpled-up lottery ticket I found on the bottom of my book bag is a winner

*I'm an exchange student from Spain

* worries are carried off on dandelion seeds

* I'm a professional fashion designer/organic cosmetics maker/perfume maker

* I'm actually a wizard but my parents are anti-magic muggles who denied me my rightful education at Hogwarts, but I discover my true heritage and land a job working at Hogwarts as a groundskeeper with Hagrid and take night classes where I master the most difficult potions and spells and win the undying devotion of Severus Snape.

* there's a famous Hollywood producer reading a certain book right now and thinking "this would be a great movie"

* I'm at a Frank Sinatra concert

* candy really is health food, especially the "Hot Tamales"

*I'm having a cup of tea with my grandmother

* I'm a famous dancer

* I always know which direction I'm going

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Long Way Home

While Neil Armstrong is My Uncle.. takes place in Massapequa, New York, it was written in New Jersey. That's where I live. One of the best things about the Jersey shore is the sea, of course. I took these pics during the 20 mile drive from work to home. Normally, I travel up and down the Garden State, but when I slow down and take the back roads, here's what I see.

This is Huddy Park, across the street from the library in Toms River. On Wednesdays in the summer they have a farmers market. They also have events like the annual "Wooden Boat Fesitval" and the "Art and Music Festival". Btw, I was standing on this bridge, when I got "the call".

I'm heading south now near Beachwood.

Here's the town of Ocean Gate.The population is about 2000, but I bet it swells to more than that in the summer. For a quiet walk, nothing beats the boardwalk in this town.

I love the eerie feeling of this place. Driving by, all you see are hundreds of these skeletons of electric poles in a marshland. It's a wildlife refuge, but obviously it was something else at one time.

Still moving south, I found a new store called the Hippie House. Wish they were there when I was researching 1969. I'll be searching the place for something to bring to my school visits.

This is the main street in my home town. You know you live in a small town when the local supermarket is described as "the keystone store". But there are lots of cool places here, such as Hope Hypnosis. Hypnotherapist Mary Silvernail has done seminars at our library.

I'm home! If I walk 100 yards from my front door, here's what I see.

Most days, I take the Parkway and hardly notice. But I think I'm gonna take the long way home more often.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Neil Armstrong Is His Uncle. Really.

I am thrilled and delighted to interview Mike Trude. Mike's mom's sister, Janet Shearon, was Neil Armstrong's wife at the time of the Apollo mission. That makes Mike Neil Armstrong's nephew.

Mike is an accomplished guy. For the past twenty years, he's worked as a marketing specialist at a large university in the midwest. Prior to that, he spent twelve years as a television sports anchor. Mike is happily married and has three children ranging in ages from 8 to 22.

Welcome to Ramble Street, Mike. Glad you could stop by for an interview. Let's start.

Where were you and who were you with on July 20th 1969?

I grew up in Barrington, Illinois, a northwestern suburb of Chicago, and was at home during the Apollo mission. My sister's Sherry and Patty and my brother Jack were all at home. My mom and dad were in Houston and then Florida for the launch. I was 12 years old at the time, enjoying the summer and getting ready to go into eighth grade.

Did you know how dangerous the mission was? What about the rest of your family? Were they excited? Nervous?

We all knew the dangers of the mission and that while the crew might land on the moon, there was no guarantee they would get back to earth. We were all extremely excited about the mission, but also really anxious for Neil and the rest of the crew. No one truly knew if the mission would be successful, and I remember my sisters and me talking the entire week about the dangers.

Were there a lot of reporters at your house that day? Can you tell the story about your brother telling the reporters about his home run?

There is a saying that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame and the week of the Apollo 11 mission was probably the Trude kids' time. There were Chicago newspaper reporters and photographers at our house every day and television crews and it was really kind of special. After all, we didn't do anything; it was our uncle that was doing the hard work while we were basking in the glory. My brother told one of the reporters that while Neil was landing on the moon, he was playing a little league baseball game and hit a home run to celebrate the landing. While the story makes for good copy, my brother could not hit a home run if you moved the fences in 50 feet. He just wanted to get the attention of the reporters and it worked. To this day, he denies ever saying that to the reporters, but we remember reading it.

So your brother bragged about something that might not have happened. I heard there was a lot of that going around that summer.

Did you ever want to be an astronaut?

I did at one time want to be an astronaut, but when I got into high school and the Apollo Space Mission was dwindling, it did not appear that being an astronaut was going to get you into space any time soon. So that quickly went away to another interest.

Those cuts they made to the space program are frequent topics of conversation here at the Marino house.

Did Neil Armstrong ever talk about the mission?

Neil did talk about the mission when asked questions. It was fascinating to talk to him about it. I remember asking him about the dangers and he said he was prepared for any type of emergency and never felt like things would go wrong at all.

What was Uncle Neil like when you were a kid?

Neil has two boys, Rick and Mark. Rick is my age and Mark is probably three or four years younger so when we got together, it was all baseball and football and anything having to do with sports. Neil would play anything and everything with us. He was a lot of fun and would take the time to play. We did not see him often, probably once or twice a year, but he always managed to take time to do things with the kids.

Playing sports with Neil Armstrong. That is so very cool.

How did you handle having a famous uncle? Did you tell the world or did you keep it quiet?

Having Neil as my uncle was neat. I did not go out of my way to tell people, but if it happened to come up in a conversation, I would mention it. When I married my first wife, I was working at a radio station and getting ready to move into television. My co-workers all knew that Neil was my uncle, and they all wanted to know if he was coming to the wedding. I made the fatal mistake of saying that he was indeed coming, but I didn't want there to be any fuss because it was supposed to be my wedding day. They all said they would behave and foolishly I believed them. At the wedding itself things were fine. There was definite buzz when Neil and his family walked into the church, but everyone behaved.
The reception was a different story. I arrived a little late because of pictures and when I got there, Neil was cornered by one of the DJ's at the radio station. He had a life-sized poster of Neil that he wanted an autograph on. And there were four or five more people behind him with cameras or something for Neil to sign. Neil was very polite and as I walked by I gave an evil glance at the people, but they acted like I did not exist... NEIL ARMSTRONG was right in front of them. Neil was very polite about signing and posing and anything people asked of him. He then came by our head table and whispered to me that he was going to go back to the hotel because he did not want to detract anymore from the reception and our day. I was able to catch up with him later and we had a nice talk.

Please tell us something about your uncle that only his nephew would know.

Neil did not smoke...but he enjoyed an occasional cigar, especially when he was fishing in Eagle River Wisconsin. And there was a time when my mom and Neil went to the grocery store at Barrington. Neil did not go into the store, but he went off on his own. When we finished we met him back at the car and he said he helped a woman with her car. It didn't start and he went under the hood and helped her get her car started.
After they were done, the woman thanked him and said, "You know you look a lot like Neil Armstrong." Neil said to the lady, "I have been told that a lot!" That's the kind of guy he is, very humble and never seeking out attention.

If that woman only knew...

Thanks Mike for taking the time to answer my questions and for giving us the inside scoop on what it's really like to be Neil Armstrong's nephew. Hope you'll stop by Ramble Street again soon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Existential Crisis

Existential crisis number 857 happened a few days ago when I picked up a book in our living room and found this quote from the 14th century poet Hafiz.

If you think that the Truth can be known
from words.
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
can pass through the tiny opening called the mouth.
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing --

My first thought was "No words? Where does that put writers?"
Later that day while we were staring out at the Barnegat Bay, I told my husband about the poem. He told me about a book he was reading by Eckert Tolle and how he talked about something similar. By putting labels on things, you're creating an artificial barrier between the experience of the moment and your inner being. He gestured toward the Barnegat Bay. "Just be. Try taking it in."
I watched my husband stare out at the bay, presumably enjoying the sun, sea and sky in a non-definable way. I decided to give it a shot.
After about three seconds, I found myself searching for a word to describe the deep purple color that only happened with the light of the sun and the darkness of a cloud hit a wave at the exact same time. Suddenly I was flooded with words as I wrestled to define the sea before me. "I can't do it," I confessed. "I'm a writer."
That's what writers do. We define and describe. Until now, I never thought of that as a bad thing. But is it detrimental when it comes to finding your higher self? Is enlightenment wordless?
If it is, I'll pass. I like words too much for that. And I like reading books that define a feeling/thought/place so precisely and so perfectly that it hits you on a gut level. Those are the ones that bring us together by reminding us of the universality of our feelings. Okay, maybe it's not Truth (with a capital T) but stories that find those little truths are the ones that sink deep into our souls.
I've pondered this for a few days now. This morning I had a small epiphany.
The thing that started all of this was a book and the written words of Hafiz. Oh and I did mention that he was, among other things, a poet.
I've started reading more of his poems. They're beautiful, filled with poignant truths.
My favorite line so far. "Good poetry makes the universe reveal a secret."
I have no answers to any of this. And I've decided not to think about it this morning. Instead, I'm going outside to see if I can find that color purple on the bay and if I can give it a name, I'll let you know.