College Tours and Science Phobias (Phobiae?)

I feel a rant coming on...

Not, not quite a rant.  Just some observations.  That's all.  Really.

So Child #1 is a senior in high school this year.  You know what that means:  the hell-on-earth for parents known as college visit and application time.

Okay, I'm exaggerating a little.  It's been kind of fun to ship Children #2 and #3 off to Grammy's house for weekends (where they get spoiled beyond belief) while the Dear Husband and Child #1 and I trundle off on road trips around the northeast, fortified with numerous bottles of Snapple Peach Iced Tea and cranberry trail mix (for the DH) and beef jerky (for Child #1) and bags of popcorn (for me).  We peer thoughtfully at roadside geology and make horrendous puns at each other.  DH tends to wax fatherly about how Child #1 should conduct himself during interviews.  I try to insert levity so Child #1 doesn't say "Uh-huh" and totally tune out.  You know, family bonding stuff.

So we arrive at the colleges and the Child gets handed a fat folder of materials about the school and fills out forms, and then we get sent off on student-led tours of the campus.  If we're lucky, we get the tour guide to ourselves, which is kind of nice.  We feel less odd asking about the obscure sports and clubs and subjects (fencing, Dungeons & Dragons, ancient Greek) that the Child is actually interested in.  We have the tour, we attend the information sessions, the Child has his interview.  We get in the car and deconstruct the whole experience, then drive somewhere else and repeat it all.

Including, it seems having the same tour guides at every campus we go to.  I know, logically speaking, that this can't be true.  But it sure seems that way.  They've all been perky sociology majors, though come to think of it one of them had a minor in French (the rest were minoring in International Relations).  And when we get to one certain spot in the tour, the EXACT same things happens.

It's when we get to the Science Building.

Tour Guide:  "So this is the (insert name of major donor) Science Center.  It was built in (insert year) and houses the Biology, Chemistry, and Physics Departments.  (Insert college name) requires at least one year of a lab science to graduate."  Pause to make scrunchy unhappy face.  "But you can get around it by taking psychology--that's what I did--or geology.  That's not too bad."

Um, excuse me?

Child #1 wants to major in physics.  He wants to take lots of other stuff, too (like ancient Greek and maybe more Latin and history and philosophy and ceramics and literature), but he just loves physics.  So he and the DH and I roll our eyes at each other and go on with the tour.

But it really bothers me.  Okay, I was a history major in college, and yes, I took geology for my lab science.  I had plans to be an archaeologist and thought geology actually might be more useful down the road than biology.  But as a family we subscribe to Science News and to Science, and I read them.  We feel that we need to know what's going on in the science world if we're going to be useful human beings and informed voters.  

Doesn't that goes for sociologists, too?

Why the tunnel vision?  Why the phobia about hard science?   I may not spend idle moments thinking about black holes the way Child #1 does, but I'm drawn to the mystery and grandeur of what I read about the LHC, and fascinated and elated by breakthroughs in research on malaria and diabetes, and astounded by the creation of new materials like carbon nanotubes and what they can accomplish.   Reading about science makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, the world isn't totally going to hell in a hand-basket just yet.  It makes me see that there's so much out there that I can't even imagine...and makes me want to try.

What can we do differently as a society to make these lovely, fresh-faced sociology majors see this too?

Oh dear.  I lied.  I ranted after all.  My apologies.

One of the Pleasures of Life

Spring is dragging its heels about coming to New England this year, as if the ghost of all that snow we had in the winter is warding it off.  In some ways, that's a good thing--it prolongs the blooming time of the daffodils, which is just fine by me...but it means I can't get my basil and parsley going in the planters on the back patio because a too-chilly night could blast them.  Life is like that sometimes, so I'll enjoy my daffs and continue to buy Maple's parsley at the grocery store.

But the birds are all here on schedule, chilly May or not.  And last week I got to enjoy one of the deepest, but quietest, pleasures of my life:  hearing the hermit thrush sing for the first time this spring.

If you lived in the Boston area in the seventies and eighties (and into the nineties), you might have listened to WGBH radio, the premier public radio station in New England.  The early morning classical music show was hosted by a quirky announcer named Robert J. Lurtsema who looked like an avuncular toad and had a slow, mellow delivery that drove most type-A people nuts but which was enormously comforting at seven in the was his habit of editing the seven AM headlines so that nothing too dire or depressing got reported till later, when listeners would presumably be more awake and able to deal. 

Mr. Lurtsema opened his show every morning with a recording of birdsong made (as I recall) somewhere out in western would run for 20 or 30 or 40 seconds, however long he felt like it, and then segue into that morning's theme music (a gentle way of remembering what day of the week it was...I'm still enormously fond of Wednesday's theme, which was from Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances).  And the main bird song on his tape was that of a hermit thrush.

Have you ever heard a hermit thrush's song?  My Audubon's Field Guide to North American Birds describes it as a "series of clear, musical phrases, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo".  That's pretty accurate, as far as it goes...but it doesn't begin to describe the haunting, quiet beauty of its song.  I always think of Pan, propped against a tree in sleepy contentment, idly thinking aloud on his pipes about all that's right in the world.

So when I hear the hermit thrush's song in the spring, I hear the beauty of here and now as well as the memory of safe mornings in my childhood and young adulthood, when "Robert J." would make sure no one was too jarred by the news and Bach and Respighi told me what day it was.  A pleasure small, but deep indeed.

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Channeling my inner extrovert

I just got back from my first school visit as a writer.  This is something that those of us who write for kids seem to do a lot of, more than non-fiction or adult fiction writers do.  I guess that since we're writing for them, that makes us more able to talk to them.  Theoretically.  Or something.

Quite frankly, I've been terrified of this aspect of Being A Writer.  There's a reason I write: for me, it's easier than talking, at least to people I don't know.  I'm one of those 99.999999999999% of Americans whose number one fear is public speaking, well above such trivial matters as death or being audited.  I've gotten better...I've done workshops at a few writers' conferences and plan on doing more...but those have always been done with at least one other writer sitting up on the platform with me while we talked about something other than ourselves.  Whereas school visits are usually just you and twenty or twenty-five pair of eyes belonging to beings who may be shorter than you but actually know how to utilize all the functions on their cell phones, unlike (cough, cough) some of us in our mid-forties (cough cough).

But I have to say, I had a terrific time at the visit I did today.  I went in to talk to the creative writing club at my daughters' middle school.  Important point number one:  the kids who came didn't have to be there.  They came because they like to write and thought it would be interesting to hear what a (soon-to-be) published writer had to say about writing.  Important point number two:  they were middle schoolers--sixth through eighth graders. Kids that age are starting to really understand how powerful and influential books can be.  They're starting to read with a critical eye and think about what they read and how it plugs into their world of experience.  I always love to work at the annual book fair at this school because I get a huge kick out of watching the kids talk about books.   

So about twenty kids showed up, plus the club advisor and the yearbook advisor.  I talked for maybe five to seven minutes about how I started writing and where I got the idea for Bewitching Season...and then I invited them to ask me questions.  And boy, did they!  Not boring, generic questions, either, but serious, thoughtful, specific questions.  It was clear a lot of these kids took their writing seriously, because they were asking writer questions.  They asked about having a writing routine, and about character names and how hard it is sometimes to find just the right name, and about plotting, and revising...those thirty-five minutes whizzed right by.

And by the time it was done, I was jazzed by their energy and by the fact that they cared about writing.  I had survived my first solo speaking engagement talking about myself  and my books and not some distant subject, and I enjoyed doing it and learned oodles.  Am I going to do it again?  You bet I am.  Thank you, Mrs. Speevak's creative writing group.  You gave me a huge gift today,  all out of proportion to the brief time I gave you.  I hope you all keep on writing.
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Comfort Reads

A lot of people have them...a book or series or an author you turn to when your exterior life is feeling cold and prickly or worse, and you go inward looking for warmth and light and reassurance.  During the months after 9/11, I read Brian Jacques' Redwall series because they tell of a world where bad things happen but good persists and wins...and because I delight in homely details I adore the woodland creature vegetarian feasts Mr. Jacques creates for the denizens of the Abbey.

But my ultimate comfort reads have to be the Moosepath League books of Van Reid (published by Viking, btw).  There are five, and I heartily wish there were more.  In order, the titles are Cordelia Underwood, Mollie Peer, Daniel Plainway, Mrs. Roberto, and Fiddler's Green, but they have delicious subtitles...The Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League, The Underground Adventure of the Moosepath League, The Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League, The Widowy Worries of the Moosepath League, and A Wedding, a Ball, and the Singular Adventures of Sundry Moss.

The stories are set in late 1890's coastal Maine, and perhaps the best way I can describe them is Dickens in America, without quite the melodrama and bloated prose (pardon me, Dickens lovers.  But this is my blog and I'm allowed to be opinionated.)  The names are wonderfully Dickensian--Joseph Thump, Sundry Moss (who has a twin brother named Varius), Maven Flyce, Thaddeus Spark, Charleston Thistlecoat--as are the characters, good and bad.  The central figure of the series is Tobias Walton, always referred to as Mister Walton (a brilliant touch), a kindly, humorous gentleman just returning to Portland, Maine after many years away, his valet Sundry, and friends Mssrs. Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump, an often somewhat dim but also thoroughly kind and honorable trio.  They get into various scrapes, solve mysteries, rescue damsels and kidnapped children, and have a generally good time of it.  The historical detail is impeccable (well, you knew I'd care about that), the humor gentle but ever-present, the story-telling meandering through wonderful side-tracks and always plain enormous fun...but in the end it's the characters who always draw me back.  And again, like Redwall,  maybe that's why these books are my comfort reads...because while bad things happen, goodness and courage and humor and simple kindness (allied with cleverness) win.

I hope you'll check them out sometime.  They deserve a wider audience.

What's your favorite comfort read?

Harald Hardrada and Emma

My high-school-junior son is taking a year-long medieval history course.  Chip off the old block.  He's liking it a lot, and we have fun yakking about the fall of Rome and how Christianity took its final form and light, airy topics like that.  Lest you think we're totally weird, he also takes pleasure in irritating his teacher by referring to Charlemagne as "Big Chuck."

However, he came home with a wonderful bit of information that I've never seen before.  His class is discussing the Heimskringla, or the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway.  One of those kings was a guy named Harald Hardrada (or Hardrade) who spent a lot of time doing Viking stuff in Iceland and elsewhere before returning to Norway and becoming king in 1047.  Typical saga stuff, my son reports, except for this:  it seems that Harald (who was always breaking into verse at the drop of a battle-axe) named his armor.  Yep.  He had a coat of mail so long that it reached almost to the middle of his leg, and it was so strong that no weapon ever pierced it...and its name was Emma.

Imagine my delight.

Because of course, now all I can picture is John Cleese in a Monty Python sketch sporting Viking braids and a long blond beard and a horned hat...wearing a coat of mail named, oh...Clodagh, maybe.  Or Pansy.  

But isn't it wonderful?  This medieval warrior who went sailing around the Mediterranean in his galley, kidnapping princesses and writing songs about all the battles he fought in, called his armor by a girl's name.  Not  "Ironcloak" or  "Thor's Skin" or "+30 black dragon scale mail" (sorry--there've been a lot of my son's D&D manuals floating around the house recently)...but Emma.

Just wonderful.

Oh--if you'd like to see my cover for Bewitching Season, I've posted it over at my other blog

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Feeling Parental

I got to hold my new baby for the first time last week.  Four copies of the  bound galleys of Bewitching Season arrived via FedEx from my dear editor who made sure I got them before the holiday.

It's highly surreal, opening a book and seeing your words inside it on the pages.  You flip through it and read a sentence here and there, and sometimes you remember when you wrote those words (or revised them) and whether it was cloudy or sunny outside the window over your desk (sorry, Stephen King, but I have to have a window.  Can't write staring at a blank wall) or if you'd been having one of those effortless writing days when the words flow like hot maple syrup, sweet and fast over the page, or one of those days when each word feels like it was removed from your brain with a melon-baller.  You read other sentences and wonder what in heaven's name made you choose THAT grammatical structure or THAT adjective or THAT dialogue tag, and you wish you could go back and tweak it one more time...really, just this once, it'll be so much better...

But mostly you're doing what you do with any eagerly anticipated and longed-for child:  you marvel over its imperfect perfection, count its fingers and toes, smile into its vague milky-blue eyes and wonder how it will fare someday in the big cold world without you standing over it protectively.   It's a pretty emotional moment.

And in the not-too-distant future, a boxful of the actual book will arrive in all its hardcover dust-jacketed glory on my doorstep.  Will that feel like graduation day, sending a now-grown-up baby out into the world?

All right, I know I'm verging alarmingly on utter pancreas-destroying sentimentality here.  Humor me.  You're only a debut author once.
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Wow. Just wow.

Most of you who have websites or blogs have visitor counters on them, right?  Maybe even something fancier than just the "XYZ visits!" that appears in a little box at the bottom of a page?  Yes?

I have huge amounts of fun checking into the info-gathering pages from the site counter on my website (yeah, you don't have to say it, I need to get a life.)  It has all sorts of cool information about where visitors to my site come from, how long they're on, if they've been before, and best of all, how they got there.  So I can see if they've Googled my name or the name of my upcoming book, or if they found me through one of the organizations I belong to (RWA, SCBWI, Historical Novel Society, Class of 2k8) or through one of my blogs or my MySpace page, or whatever.  It's fun.  Really it is.

So this evening I logged into my site counter's info page to see who'd come visiting over the last couple of days.  Oh, cool!  Someone from India had visited my website!  How had they found me?  I peered down at the line listing the referring site.  Okay, Google...

The visitor had Googled "husband controlling spells".  I'm not joking.

Okay, I can see why my website would have popped up.  All those words appear in descriptions of Bewitching Season, my upcoming YA novel (Henry Holt, April 2008)--the heroine is a witch who's supposed to be husband-hunting during the 1837 London Season and ends up saving the soon-to-be Queen Victoria from a controlling spell.  Makes perfect sense.

What doesn't make perfect sense is this:  going on-line--using advanced technology--to research magic spells?

Out there in India somewhere a woman (I'm assuming it was a woman) sat down at a computer which was connected to the World Wide Web and navigated to Google...all in order to find information on how to control her erring husband with witchcraft.

I feel sorry for her--obviously something's not right in her life on the marital front-- but still...the mind boggles.
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Maybe they were tougher in those days

Pastrami and rye.  Hepburn and Tracy.  Writers and rejection.  They just go together, don't they?

But I'm not going to launch into the usual essay that writers usually rejection is a part of the writing every rejection is one step closer to rejection helps develop that elephant hide so necessary to preserving one's sanity in the publishing world...

No, I'm going back to those 19th century fashion prints again.

I've got several from a magazine called The Lady's Magazine (subtitled "Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex Appropriated Solely for their Use and Amusement")  published in London from 1770 to 1837.  Its chief claim to fame today is that it was the first magazine to publish teaser excerpts of upcoming novels.  And like any other magazine it got a lot of its material from its readership, so would-be writers sent in their poems and essays and stories in hopes of being published.

Sounds familiar, right?

But the editors of The Lady's Magazine did not send rejection or acceptance letters.  Oh, no.

They published them.

In every issue there's a section called "Answers to Correspondents" in which they would state the names of pieces submitted to them and sometimes the names (mercifully, just the first) of the authors, usually along with a pithy comment in praise or otherwise of the pieces in question...usually otherwise.

So we have, from the July 1825 edition:

"The lines on Happiness are neither happy in thought nor in expression."
"Brittannicus (for in this case we are obliged to follow the pseudography of our correspondent) has sent what he calls the 'War-Song of th Proto-Britons'...we beg leave to affirm that his attempt is not poetical, for there is scarcely a grain of poetry in it; and it is so far from claiming a remuneration, that even if it had been gratuitously offered, we should not have given it a place...."

In June 1825 there's:

"Cornelia's Stanzas on Weaning an Infant are ludicrous and vulgar."

And in December 1827 we have:

"Sylvia writes like one of those female correspondents whom Pope so happily ridicules by his imitation of their manner of writing."
"We wish well to Eugenia; we hope that she is a good needle-woman and an industrious housewife; but we would advise her to desist from writing for the public, because we do not think that she will ever excel in it."  Right there in print for everyone to see--stick to your day job, Eugenia, 'cause you ain't gonna ever be published.  Can you imagine if the New Yorker did this?  "Mr. Updike's recent submission does not appear to be up to his usual standards, being both sloppily executed and jejeune..."  You really had to be brave to submit a piece to The Lady's Magazine, because you had no way of knowing if you'd be accepted, or rejected AND publicly humiliated.

Honestly, it makes those "not right for us" rejections that we get these days seem like veritable love letters, doesn't it?


A History Geek Moment

I collect early nineteenth century fashion plates.  All the magazines of that time always included fashion news and a few hand-tinted engravings showing the latest fashions, and I just love them, especially the one from Ackermann's Repository (an English mag published from 1809-1828).  As items to collect, these are pretty harmless.  They don't take up vast amounts of space in my house, they're easy to care for, and they're fun.

I just got a new one yesterday, an Ackermann from April 1813, and to my delight I found it included a few pages of text.  There's nothing more fun than reading news items from 194 years ago.  There was part of an article about Napoleon's having given one of his generals the title of Prince of Moscow, and an article about the agricultural outlook for the spring.  And then there was this brief item, which I'll quote in full:


It is with feelings of more than the keenest grief, we have to pollute our pages with the record of another victory of the Americans over the proud, the hitherto invincible navy of Great Britain.  By American journals recently arrived , we learn, that, on the 29th Dec. last, at about ten leagues from the coast of the Brazils, our frigate the Java, Captain Lambert, in her way to the East Indies, was met by the American frigate Constitution, Commodore Bainbridge.  An action of nearly two hours duration ensued, in which the British frigate lost 60 killed and 101 wounded; had her bowsprit and every mast and spar shot away; was altogether reduced to an unmanageable wreck, and compelled to strike to the enemy, whose loss is stated not to have exceeded nine killed and twenty-five wounded.  The British commander, Captain Lambert, is reported mortally wounded, and among the prisoners who were released on parole, is Lieutenant-General Hislop and his staff, who were proceeding to Bombay in the Java."

The funky punctuation isn't mine.  That's how it was written.

Sounds pretty boring apart from the hyperbolic language in the first sentence.  But were you paying close attention?  The American ship mentioned in this one hundred and ninety-four-year-old article was the Constitution...which this very day is still in its berth in Boston Harbor, about twenty miles from where I'm sitting and typing this.  You might also know her by her nick-name "Old Ironsides".  She was one of the newly-independent United States' first naval vessels.  Think about that.

All right, I know I'm a total history geek.  I freely admit it.  But I also think the whole thing was pretty cool.

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Can I write like Connie Willis when I grow up?

I suppose the above sentiment says it all, but if I didn't write anything further this would be a pretty boring post.

There are a lot of authors I wish I could write like.  There's Mark Helprin, for one.  I read Winter's Tale after my last exam in college and barely ate or slept till I finished it.  It's still one of my favorite books, and my biblioholic 16-year-old son has flipped through it and put it regretfully aside because I suggested he would probably appreciate it more when he's older...but from the passages he's read he can see how incandescent the prose is.

But wanting to write like Mark Helprin is like wanting to play the organ like J.S. Bach--there will only be one Bach, and I suspect there will only be one Helprin.

Ms. Willis, though...  It's not that I don't think she's as celestial as Helprin.  But she does it on a more human level.  Her prose may not be the singing of angels that Helprin's is, but her stories are profoundly humane.  They depict people as they are, not with a jaundiced eye but with a deeply accepting one.

I started reading her when I ran across To Say Nothing of the Dog in Barnes & Noble and was amused by the title and the back cover text.   Then of course I read Doomsday Book, and Impossible Things ("Spice Pogrom" just tickles me.  When I'm depressed I re-read it.  Guaranteed mood-lifter.) and Passage (one of my son's favorites).  These have all been critically acclaimed and awarded and so on out the wazoo...but one of my favorite books of hers is Uncharted Territory.

I was chatting on-line with an acquaintance and we were talking about Ms. Willis's books.  I mentioned I hadn't read Uncharted Territory yet and my acquaintance wrote back, "Don't bother.  It's not very good.  Nothing happens in it.  It ends exactly the way it started."

Oh, I thought.  Okay.  But I read it anyway.  And had a reaction that was the polar opposite.

It's a very tight, self-contained story--more novella than novel.  And yes, technically, it ends exactly the way it starts and the characters' outward situation remains precisely the same.  But in the intervening hundred and fifty pages all of the characters' understanding of themselves and each other changes completely, and the reader gets pulled along in that journey perfectly.  It's also one of the most romantic stories I've ever read, even though the couple in it never utter the word 'love' or come within a gnat's whisker of even kissing.  To this day my husband and I ask each other what the hell the other of us did with the damned binoculars (an important symbol in the book) as a way of saying, "I love you."  It's a moving, perfect little gem of a story.

Mmm.  Maybe I'll re-read it this weekend.

Some day, I know, I'm going to go to a SF con or SFWA event and she's going to be there, and I will hide behind potted palms and stare at her.  But I'm not sure I want to meet her because I will turn into a disgusting little puddle of fan-girl goo all over the place and thoroughly bore her and embarrass myself.  I'll just stick to reading and rereading her books and being dazzled and delighted and smiley and teary-eyed all at once. case you wondered, Maplebunny finished his Baytril-stuffed raisins and is doing fine.


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