Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Perfect Heroine


If I could be any fictional character on a televisions series, it would be Amy Abbott (Emily VanCamp) from the canceled family drama, Everwood.

To anyone who has ever watched the show, pointing out that Amy has Ephram Brown's (Gregory Smith) undying love and devotion would probably be enough explanation of why I'd love to be her.

But Amy Abbott is a great character in her own right. She's extremely smart but does stupid things. She's pretty and popular but still insecure and grounded. She's from a privileged background (father is a doctor, mother is the town's mayor) but isn't a spoiled, entitled shop-a-holic. She loves her older brother, Bright (Chris Pratt) but fights with him like real siblings do. She's a great friend without being too saintly. The girl makes mistakes, but she can admit when she was wrong and apologize sincerely.

For the four seasons that Everwood ran, Amy endured a lot of pain and drama - her first boyfriend languished in a coma for months after a car crash left him with a severe brain injury, she suffered from a bout of depression, skirted on the edge of the drug scene while dating a bad-boy, discovered that the love of her life had fathered a child with another woman, watched her mother battle cancer - yet Amy never came off as pitiful or martyr-like. And when the show ended and Amy earned her (presumably) happy-ever-after, the satisfaction of a story well told was profound.

The writers of Everwood did a great job creating a well-rounded heroine in Amy Abbott. She's a great model for how to create a flawed character who is likable and realistic.

And I'd kill for her wardrobe.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Song of Ice and Fire


I didn't watch Game of Thrones when it aired on HBO. To be honest, I'd never heard of this book, nor of the uber-successful fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. On the whole, I'm not a huge fantasy reader. Other than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I can't think of any other fantasy series I've ever read in its entirety. Well, except Harry Potter. Does that count as fantasy?

Anyway, it came to pass in mid July that my children were going to the movies, specifically to see a show that I had no desire whatsoever to watch, and I found myself needing to kill two hours before I had to pick them up at the theater at the mall. I took a tour of Target where I spontaneously picked up a copy of Game of Thrones. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I headed to Portillo's and treated myself to a chocolate cake shake (okay, it was my birthday, so I felt justified) and cracked open the giant brick of a book.

And now I'm totally hooked. What a fantastic story.

Mostly, I'm in awe of what an amazing writer George R.R. Martin is. His ability to pace such an astoundingly long and epic story with a cast of hundreds is an inspiration. Every single chapter - which is told from the point of view of a different, key character - moves the story forward by leaps but never feels rushed. Specifically, Martin has some preternatural gift of knowing which POV character to use to make the narrative edge-of-your-seat fascinating, and at the end of each chapter, I'm turning pages like crazy wanting to know what happens to that particular person next. But by then, he's already turned my attention to someone else and the process is repeated.

Oddly, as well paced as this series is and as much as I'm always wanting to read more, even into the wee hours, it is taking me FOREVER to get through these books. Seriously, it took me a full month to read Game of Thrones. And that was with reading at least some of the book every single day and buying a smaller, mass paperback copy to take with me on my beach vacation. I picked up the next title, Clash of Kings, immediately upon finishing GoT and have been working on it diligently, yet I'm only about half way through the book.

Part of this slow reading is because the books are long. I'm talking close to 1,000 pages each. And they are dense, with so much information you can't afford to skim. Too much happens in too short of a span of pages. Not that I'm even tempted to skim - the story is great and completely engrossing. Perhaps Martin's descriptions of castles and dark forests get a bit windy, but there aren't too many paragraphs I haven't read every word of.

I'm now wanting very much to see the HBO interpretation. We don't have HBO, and I have no desire to pay for HBO just so I can have access to 10 hours of its programming. It doesn't appear HBO has any intention of putting GoT on DVD any time soon, so I guess I'm out of luck. I'm just going to have to wait.

Then again, it's going to take me a year to read all the books, so it's not like I don't have a way to kill the time until then.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

In The Dark


We've just spent the past 48 hours without electricity after a powerful storm rolled through our area on Tuesday evening and knocked down trees, branches and power lines.

The first 24 hours in the dark are always kind of fun. We dig out our No Electricity Box that contains candles, flashlights, oil for our old oil lamp and a Coleman camping lantern. The kids light candles all over the house and my husband and I fret about someone starting a fire. It's like camping out, and we joke about how hard it would have been to live 150 years ago. We wonder how we would have spent the time and marvel that people functioned as well as they did. I always marvel at the fact that it's only around 150 years we've been living with better lighting in our homes.

The kids wonder what to do and think it's a great boon to dig out the board games for entertainment. They actually read real dead tree books and interact with each other face to face instead of via text. And when things get really boring, they - gasp! - head outside to take a walk or play a game of basketball. Both my husband and I think perhaps it would be a good thing for the electricity to go down a few times a month.

The second 24 hours aren't so much fun. The storm hit just as I was in the middle of cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, so I had a dishwasher full of dirty dishes. I also hadn't yet run the garbage disposal which meant one of my sinks wouldn't drain well and I worried about odor.

Also, after two days, the laundry had begun to pile up. My daughter and I headed to the laundro-mat this morning. I have to say, there is something nice about investing two solid hours to get ALL of the laundry clean, dried, folded and sorted rather than the days-long process of doing one load at a time. Maybe not as convenient, but now I don't have to worry if we'll run out of clean towels until at least the end of the weekend.

Then there is the problem with charging. Cell phones. iPods. iPads. We have charging units that work off a running car engine, but you can only drive around so much. For years now my husband has been saying we need to get rid of our land line phone since we all have cells. But it's times like this when I feel vindicated for pushing back - once all the cell phone batteries run out, we're completely incommunicado. 

Not so cool was emptying out my fridge and freezer. I didn't bother trying to salvage any of it save some condiments, potatoes, onions and a bit of chicken that had remained frozen. I hauled six full garbage bags to the bin and felt tremendous levels of guilt for all of the bottles and plastics I failed to recycle. Without a working garbage disposal, there was no way to properly empty and rinse out the bottles to save them, so I threw things out whole. I hope future generations will forgive me.

As time consuming (and expensive!) as it was to purge the fridge, it's amazing how nice it is to start from scratch with an empty and clean unit. I've made my husband vow that we will not buy anything to put into it that we don't plan to use within a day or two because I'm not going to clutter it up again with half a dozen half-empty bottles of BBQ sauce or 13 varieties of salad dressing and ice cream sundae toppings. Gone, also, are those "experiments" we always manage to pick up at Trader Joe's or other high-end grocery stores, things that sound good on the label but either aren't a big hit or don't get used often enough such that three years later we still have a 3/4-full jar of roasted red pepper and artichoke tapinade buried in the darkest corners. Either we love it, we eat it all up or we hated it and out it goes immediately.

While I was the first one doing the happy dance when ComEd finally managed to give us back the power, I have to say that living in the dark has some real benefits. Last night, after eating dinner out (couldn't cook!), the entire family sat down and played a game together. We had a lot of fun, and my husband and I remembered how we'd always planned to have a family game night once or twice a month. Usually, we all go our own ways to plug ourselves into whatever electronic entertainment we've chosen for the evening, and no one wants to be bothered to spend time laughing and talking together.

Makes me wonder if the decline in western culture and the bonds of family might not be the fault of the light bulb. Way to go, Mr. Edison.

BTW, if you are looking for a fun, family game, I recommend Apples to Apples. While the Family Edition is great for older kids (and my kids do fall in the right age group), I actually thought the Junior Edition was more fun. But it's a great game that provokes lots of laughs.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fledgling Writer

My daughter likes to write. She's got a dozen or so notebooks with the beginnings and bits of stories. She reads like a fiend, and her work reflects her reading passions.

She's run into the same problems all writers do, that dreaded "what now?" wall. A general idea will come to her, she'll spend some time on character names and know the bare bones premise of what she wants to happen. But the details will elude her. She manages a scene or two and then finds herself at a complete standstill, story-wise. She's not at the no plot, no problem level, she's more at the no plot, no idea stage.

I've suggested some of my favorite strategies for getting un-stuck. Things like playing the what-if game, or pulling out a blank piece of paper and creating a brainstorming web. I explained to her the difference between pantsers and outliners and that while I have no doubt many amazing stories come out of the I don't know what happens until it happens approach, I personally need at least a rudimentary road map of where I want my story to go. She agreed and created note pages for "Beginning", "Middle" and "End". Problem is, she has no idea what to put on any of these pristine pages. She's stumped. Beyond knowing that she wants to introduce her characters and have them end up happily ever after in some fashion, there is a vast, empty void between those two points. Welcome to the wonderful world of writing.

I've also described to her my idea-generating process. How I usually start with a character that pops up uninvited into my head and maybe a vague idea for a story that would fit that particular person's state in life. Or how the germ of a story idea will come out of a news article I've recently read. Or how I'll hear a song on the radio and it will evoke some specific emotion that I feel compelled to try to capture in story-form. I never have problems with ideas. In fact, my problem lies in too many idea.

But I do get what it's like to struggle with plot. And unfortunately, I don't have any magic bullet solutions to give her. She's got to work her way through the process. Figure out what method does it for her. I told her to go back to some of her most favorite stories and study them, break them down and find the bone structure beneath the prose. What caused character A to do this or character B to do that? Who wants what and why can't he/she get it/have it? So what do they do about it? And what happens then? Plotting is both so very simple and incredibly difficult at the same time. Easy to recognize, hard to replicate.

At the very least, my daughter has a giant leg up on me writing-wise - she's only 13 and can spend the next few years burning away the schlock so that by the time she's ready to select a career and perhaps choose to follow writing, she'll be that much farther down the path. I didn't take this crazy hobby seriously until I was well past 30, and I still have plenty of schlock on the woodpile. I hope she sticks with it. I think she has talent.

And I can't wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Heartbroken

I never planned to use this place as a therapy session, but I'm hoping if I put my current frustrations down in print, some day I'll be at a place where I can look back and realize that things did get better. At the moment, I feel like I'm standing at the entrance of a very long, very dark tunnel with not even a pinpoint of light at the far end.

My daughter is experiencing a very painful "mean girls" time in her life. As much as you are apart from your child, it's amazing how much their pain becomes your own. My blood is boiling and I really do want to beat some particular people into a mushy pulp. Add in my adult perspective and I feel a level of impotence that is pretty hard to handle. I can't help her. I can't do anything to make things better. I can only offer her my support and the knowledge that she's a great kid who is the better person, and that this, too, shall pass. But it isn't enough. When your baby is hurting, you would move mountains to stop the pain. Except that I can't do that in this particular case. She just has to get through the hurt on her own.

What's doubly frustrating is that I understand the dynamics at work. I stand outside of the situation and see exactly what is going on. I see why she chooses to handle things the way she does, why she believes she has to put up with the crap she's being dealt even though what she should do is tell her supposed friends to go take a flying f@$!. I also know that telling her that things will get better doesn't help her deal with right.this.very.minute. Who cares what things will be like in a couple of years, or in a month or even next week? Right now sucks and that's all there is.

And as angry as I am right now, I can only imagine the bile I'm going to have to swallow when this episode is over and things go back to being the way they were and I have to interact with these girls without indicating in any way that I'd be quite fine if they all got eaten by alligators, slowly and painfully. My adult way of handling people who don't deserve respect or decent treatment doesn't work in this scenario, so I have to keep my mouth shut, smile and try not to scream while I haul their asses around in the minivan. Moms deserve combat pay.

No one tells you when you have kids that you will have to relive all of the crap you thought you put behind you once you grew up and left high school. They should write a book for that. "What to Expect When Your Kid's Life Sucks."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Not Quite On the Same Page

I've discovered a new blog - The Book Lantern - that I love, however the post that appeared today is really causing me to scratch my head. I know how I feel about what this person is saying, but I'm struggling to put those thoughts to words.

What I get out of the post is that Ceilidh is frustrated with an industry - society in general, actually - which defaults to the proto-typical heterosexual white male/female as the standard character type with all variations of ethnicity and/or sexual orientation falling outside the spectrum of "normal". Additionally, when gay characters (or characters of ethnicity) are portrayed, they take the form of the most simplistic stereotypes (gay boys who giggle a lot), or the reader is constantly reminded that this person is capital-G Gay (or capital B-Black/capital A-Asian, etc.). Characters who fall outside of the narrow white-and-straight are under-represented, and stories that do feature someone who doesn't fit that description are classified as "issue" books rather than just stories.

While I agree with the overall sentiment - that society needs to move in the direction where every variation of human being is just as normal and accepted as another - I'm not sure if I can wrap my brain around Ceilidh's argument that the publishing industry, writers included, are perpetuating a form of reinforcement of bad attitudes in their assume standard=white-and-straight approach.

First, to state my fundamental opinion on homosexuality. I believe you love whom you love. Being a homosexual is not a choice or an alternative lifestyle or something that you can turn off or turn on or dabble in or, heaven help us, "fix". God makes no mistakes, and, to quote Lady GaGa (god!), everyone is born that way. And those who insist that homosexuals don't deserve the same respect and rights as heterosexuals are practicing a form of bigotry and racism that is intolerable and ignorant.

As for homosexuality portrayed in fiction, some of the most romantic couples I have ever encountered have been gay couples. I've stated before that the Brian and Justin love story depicted on the US Queer As Folk was one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching of any ever. I wept over Brokeback Mountain and felt sorry for anyone who refused to experience such a heartbreaking story because of their homophobia. Gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy is one of my favorite characters in contemporary romance, and until his relationship with Robin devolved into something too cutesy for even my thirteen year old daughter, it was one of Suzanne Brockmann's best depicted in all of her Troubleshooters series.

If the romance is done well, I don't give two hoots if the couple is male/male, male/female, or female/female.

So here's my problem with Ceilidh's problem. If a character's sexual orientation doesn't matter to the story, why bring it up? Ever? Why tell the reader this person is gay? Ever?

If you insist on labeling a person as gay, you inherently imply that this aspect of their person is important to the story. That this person's sexual orientation makes a difference in some way. Because if being gay doesn't affect the story in any way, then why mention it at all?

Best analogy I can think of is hair color. Hair color is a trait that has little bearing on the bigger picture of a character's story. Unless a particular character is persecuted, lauded or otherwise treated differently because of his or her hair color, other than a mild curiosity on the part of the reader, specifying a character's hair color is unnecessary.

If, on the other hand, the author reminds the reader every chapter or so that the main character is blonde, hair color starts to mean something. By calling it out, the writer has given hair color importance. For some reason, the hair color of this particular person makes him/her different. Not better, not worse, not wrong, not anything. But being blonde affects how this person deals with the world or how the world deals with them.

Same thing with being gay. If a person's sexual orientation has no bearing on the story, then why bring it up? Why does a writer have to "state for the record" that any one character is gay or not gay?

Who cares if people assume that the character is straight if sexual orientation doesn't matter? Back to my hair analogy, it's like saying that there is something wrong with imagining a character to be blonde all through the book only to find out at the end that she was actually brunette. Why is it important for me to know all the way through that she was brunette if it doesn't make her any different?

Absolutely shining example is Headmaster Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. Never once in seven books and some 4,000 plus pages of the series is Albus Dumbledore's sexual orientation mentioned. Because it didn't matter to the story. After the fact, writer J.K. Rowling stated that Dumbledore was gay, that he'd always been gay, that this was how she had imagined him from the very beginning, and she offered zero apology for that because none was needed.

And now, readers have spent seven books and some 4,000 plus pages liking and empathizing with a character who, it turns out, is just like them even though he's gay. Well, most of us readers aren't magical wizards, but you get the point.

If being gay/ethnic/blonde changes the way the main character(s) deal with the world or how the world treats them, then you can't ignore it as a trait. And then I would argue that stories that deal with how a  character is treated differently because of some specific trait are issue books.

Net, net, what I think I'm trying to say is that by insisting that gay people (or people of non-white races) have increased representation, you are saying that their gayness matters in some way. Otherwise, who cares if the main character is gay or not?

Really, in this case I feel words are failing me.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Okay, So They Were Right


A good 24 inches with 4 foot drifts. Yep, it really was a blizzard.

School is closed. It took us 2 hours to dig out enough to get the car out of the garage to find that only the largest streets have been plowed. We're officially snowed in, and it's bliss.

Last night, however, had to be one of the scariest experiences in my life.

The husband, making a smart call, took the train into the city to avoid the rush hour home. He decided to wait, however, even though his office officially closed at 4:00, to take a later train home in order to avoid the mass exodus from the city. Thus, I get a call from him at 9:00 pm, during the worst part of the storm, informing me that his car is stuck outside the train station and he needs for me to pick him up.

?

!

So, the decision becomes, do I take the kids with me and risk us all getting stuck out in this mess? Or do I leave them at home and risk my husband and I getting stuck away from them. They didn't really give me any choice, insisting that they come along. I made them put on every piece of snow gear they owned, shoved a bag full of extra scarves, and had a smile when my son loaded up his pockets with granola bars, "just in case".

We barely made it out of the driveway. Then we barely made it off of our street. The wind was blowing so hard you couldn't see the next street light. Although I stuck to the most heavily traveled roads, I was terrified I'd get stuck in a snow drift. Our little downtown area is about a mile and half a way, but it seemed like 200.

My husband was glad to see us. And him being from Buffalo where this level of snow is just another Tuesday, he was like a kid in a candy store driving home, barely concerned at all that we'd get stuck out in the middle of a freakin' blizzard.

Like he said this morning when we were all nice and safe and warm, this experience was great one for the kids to remember. Remember how we had to pick Dad up in a blizzard! Woohoo. Great memories.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Battening Down the Hatches



So, they are predicting a "storm for the records" complete with blizzard warning and predictions of anywhere from 12-24" of snow here in the Chicagoland area. While the heaviest snowfall isn't supposed to really get started until later this afternoon, people have already lost their collective minds. I stopped by the grocery store this morning just to get some milk (can't run out of that or we'd risk being latte-free, an unacceptable state of affairs in our house) and the shelves were nearly empty. I ran into a neighbor who told me that, apparently, yesterday was so bad that people couldn't park their cars to even go into the Dominick's.

Now, call me a cynic, but is this really necessary? I don't know about most people but I have a pantry stocked far too full to ever give any concern that my family might starve unless we're forced to remain completely housebound for at least, like, a solid month. Sure, we'd be eating the canned salmon and stale Ritz crackers, but we're not about to risk empty bellies for quite some time. Do people really live so close to the edge that being unable to get out of the house for two or three days means they'd start eying the family pets like a cartoon pork chop?

Too, this storm might put a full stop to things for a few days, but I'm guessing by Friday the roads will be passable enough to make a grocery store run if absolutely necessary. We're not talking about Castaway levels of isolation, here. I get that the inability of delivery trucks to transport the goods necessary to restock empty shelves is a real possibility, meaning no milk or bread for a bit longer. Again, however, I doubt the stores will run completely out of food such that you wouldn't be able to find something to get you by if necessary. Take a cruise down the ethnic aisles and give couscous a try - it's fantastic.

The one pre-emptive effort I did make was to fill up the gasoline container for the snowblower, thinking we'd need the extra gas and wouldn't want to/have the ability to get to the gas stations. Unfortunately, I didn't know that you have to mix oil with the gas before using and now my husband is in a snit because he doesn't know what ratio we now have gas to oil-wise. I have to fix that before the snow starts flying. No good deed goes unpunished.

My kids are already planning for their almost-guaranteed snow day tomorrow. Hubby has cleared his schedule so he can work at home. I'm planning on doing nothing constructive since snow days are like surprise holidays and therefore should be treated as precious.

It will be interesting to look at this from the other side. I can't count how many times the media gears us up for some monster storm only to have it fizzle out. They shake their heads and tell us we were very lucky that this storm "took a turn south/north and we just barely missed it." If we end up with only three inches on the ground, I have some kids who will be mightily disappointed.

(Photo credit: Chicago Tribune archive photo, 1967)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Happy New Year and I am Still Here

Just a quick post to keep things active. The end of 2010 was unfortunately not so great, with my father and grandmother passing away within seven hours of each other. Thus my lack of posts.

But I'm back up and running. Happy New Year!