Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I'll Take a Vowel for Global Domination!

I was listening to Kai Ryssdal on the radio yesterday...not your normal, everyday name...and started pondering the preponderance of one-syllable names among those in prominent positions. It would seem that lopping off a few letters is a great way to thrust one's self to the head of the crowd. Fourteen of our U.S. presidents have been one-syllable guys--with six Jameses, three Johns, and three Georges claiming the bulk of that territory. Sixteen others had monikers with a diminutive option, such as Abe, Bill, Ben, etc. Amazing.

So what's the appeal of a one-syllable name? Does that short, sharp bark represent quick thinking? Immediate action? Do we need an easy out for those whose names roll constantly off our tongues? Does short on syllables mean long on dependability? Romance novel protaganists invariably have short names: Luke, Lance, Chase, Chad, Blaine, Brock, etc. Are one-syllable suitors sexier?

I read that, historically, parents have given their sons one syllable names because that was indeed believed to be a precursor to power and success. Daughters, on the other hand, were given voluptuous, multi-syllabic names because they sound more feminine and flowing. Apparently, we're still following that tradition,because, aside from Cher (who began life as Cherilyn), two- and three-syllable names are the norm for gals in both the entertainment and political spotlight. Of course, Oprah has "O" Magazine; I'm wondering...will she have to fight for her vowel once Obama takes up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue and needs a power-packing, headline-grabbing single syllable name? We'll see.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Random Rants

  • As discussed in depth in my last post, I love Christmas music. And I think it's nifty that Baby Jesus gets so much air time during the month of December. But could some program director, somewhere, PUH-LEEZE!, explain why, when every recording artist who's ever held a microphone has recorded a Christmas album, radio stations play the same twenty songs over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over? One of the two Greenville stations playing 24/7 Christmas gets points for adding "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" this year, but I'm still waiting for the Andrews Sisters' "Angie the Christmas Tree Angel," "Pretty Little Dolly" by Mona Abboud, Harvey Danger's "Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas," or Barenaked Ladies " Elf's Lament." Come on, deejays; how many times can we listen to Amy Grant sing "Sleigh Ride"and stay sane??!!
  • So Oprah weighs 200 pounds. WHO CARES?! Is she still smart? Yes. Still beautiful? Yes. Still generous, and funny, and a great role model? Yes. NONE of those qualities is even remotely related to weight and to denigrate her because she's not a size 10 is demeaning to women everywhere. I don't like Oprah's taste in books and I liked her better when she wasn't a gazillionaire, but she's an amazing woman and a stunning example of overcoming adversity. To measure her worth by her girth is prejudice at its ugliest.

  • WHAT IN THE WORLD WILL WE DO WITHOUT ALAN AND DENNY? The only show I have watched on television for the past three years is "Boston Legal." It wasn't for the meek or the innocent, to be sure, but the razor-sharp dialogue, in-your-face challenges to bad behavior by pharmaceutical companies, credit card companies, and others who prey on the vulnerable, beautiful friendship between two male, wholly heterosexual (to a fault!) friends, and sheer outrageousness of Denny Crain's take-no-prisoners approach to life made this show a joy to watch. I respect the needs of those involved to move on, but I mourn...oh, how I mourn...the demise of Crain, Poole, and Schmidt. Amid the brainless blather on television these days, Shirley and her boys were a fresh breath of brilliance.

  • Are there people really dumb enough to waste time opening e-mails dated 12/20/38???? Is postdating an e-mail by thirty years actually an effective marketing ploy for spammers? Perhaps it preys on the all-too-often-proven theory that people don't read, which is apparently how ice cream and sugar manufacturers decided they could weasel a pound out of their product without anyone noticing. (Note to manufacturers: we noticed.) All I know is, if you've put something in my mailbox that could only have been sent by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I have one word for you: DELETE!!

Well, gee, it feels good to get all that off my chest. But I can't stand to leave things on a negative note right here on the fringe of the first noel. So here's a list of good things to think about this week as we make our way toward Christmas Day. Write and tell me your favorite holiday things!
  • Reading (or sending) a Christmas card and thinking about how much that person means to you
  • Sitting by a fire, sipping hot cider and watching snow fall
  • Singing carols, in harmony, on the front lawn of someone who doesn't expect it
  • Having a houseful of guests you adore but don't get to be with very often
  • Having the day off and getting to stay in your jammies all morning
  • Walking through a mall or down a busy downtown street not to shop, but just to enjoy the sights and sounds
  • Watching a children's Nativity pageant--the bathrobes and "Psst! Hi, Mom!" kind
  • Sitting in the glow of the Christmas tree lights after everyone has gone to bed
  • Seeing families on front lawns Christmas afternoon, testing out new bikes and skates and riding toys
  • Playing pick-up football after Christmas dinner

Aren't you in a great mood now? :-)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Terminal Frustration

Okay, "automatic" is a grand concept, but I'm here to tell you there's work to be done before whoever invented automatic bathroom equipment gets to claim success. Not until you deal with automatic toilets, automatic soap dispensers, automatic faucets, and automatic paper towel dispensers in multiple airports in multiple cities in for multiple days do you realize that "automatic" is a relative term!

In Asheville, the toilets worked but the towels didn't. In Minneapolis, the towels worked, but the soap didn't. In Phoenix, the soap worked, but the faucets didn't. In San Diego, the faucets worked, but the toilets didn't. And who is the idiot who designed 99% of airport bathroom stall doors to open IN instead of out? Hello? Increasingly bigger carry-on luggage to haul in the stall with you? (See previous blog rant about that.) Add a toddler, a winter coat, or pantyhose to that mix and you have the kind of frustration that leads women to commit random acts of violence--like ripping the door off the hinges or--horrors!--boycotting all but the handicapped stalls. One of the many airports I've visited in recent weeks actually had stall doors that opened OUT, and what a happy surprise that was. I wish I could remember which one, so I could give due praise.

I do recall which airports had great art, however (yes, I realize that "great," when applied to art, is also a relative term), and given the fact that we are now obliged to spend many aimless hours wandering terminals in order to accommodate the "arrive 2 hours before your flight" command, a good art exhibit can make a big difference in being bored to death or reasonably entertained. Oakland currently has a fun display called "Artists as Collectors," which features everything from wedding photographs and magazines to blenders and dryer lint. Memphis has a series of close-up photographs of people that had me grinning all the way down the corrider (grinning + airport= really rare phenomenon these days). Would that Buffalo International had had something entertaining last spring when I got stuck there for six hours...but that's a whole other story.

Here's my last observation on airports: security staff on the West Coast is a lot nicer than security staff on the East Coast. Now, I have no problem taking off my shoes, peeling off my jacket, or having someone sort through all my worldly possessions (although I was a tad miffed about the seizure of my homemade peach jam), but you don't have to be rude about it. There's a man in the Buffalo airport who ought never to be allowed to work with the public, and there are a few in Tampa who could use a Dale Carnegie course as well. But the folks guarding the airways in Arizona and California are doing it with a smile, and that does not go unnoticed by those of us who remember when flying used to be fun. Let's face it: if someone's gonna pat you down, they should at least be courteous about it!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Have Luggage, Will Pay

Have you been on a plane lately? If not, you may not know that it now costs you a minimum of $15 to take a suitcase with you! I don't know about you, but I find that preposterous. Add it to the ticket price or call it a "service charge" and lop it in there with all those other mysterious charges that add an extra fifty bucks to the bottom line, but do not penalize me for taking clothes along to my destination! For Pete's sake, what's next? Surcharges for bodies over 100 pounds?

People already abuse the carry-on baggage restrictions to an unbelievable degree; I can only imagine the new levels of creativity this will bring. ("Sir, I don't believe that 300 pound garbage bag will fit in the overhead compartment.".... "It will or I'll die tryin,' girlie!") As it stands, virtually all airlines except Southwest (more on that later) are charging $15 for the first suitcase, $25 for the second, and $100 for the third. Wouldn't it make more sense to make the first one free then charge up the yin-yang for subsequent ones? I would think the idea is to reward frugal, organized travelers and sock it to those who pack everything but the kitchen sink.

So I'm already annoyed about this suitcase charge thing when I arrive at the Northwest counter, right? But I'm trying to keep my mouth shut; it's not the ticket clerk's fault. I hand him twenty dollars cash and he says, "We don't take cash. Credit card only," at which point my resolve to keep my mouth shut disintegrates and I offer up a steely smile and say, "I don't have a credit card, I have cash. You're the ones who levied the charge; do you want my money or not?" (I did have a credit card, of course, but that was so totally not the point.) Thus ensued several minutes of inane remarks regarding the lack of cash at the gate, whether anyone had change, how they would write this up, yada yada yada, before one of the baggage handlers finally said, "Gimme that twenty; I got a five dollar bill and I'll get it back from somebody later."
On the next leg of my travels, it was interesting to note that that airline (there've been so many, I don't remember which it was) accepted only cash. Hello??? Does the word "consistency" mean anything to airline industry? Based on my observations of blank, then annoyed, expressions at the check-in counter, most people don't even know there is a charge for baggage, so it's highly unlikely they'll show up with whatever configuration of cash or plastic is needed to meet every airline's specific protocol.

It's traumatic enough to fly these days without adding convoluted baggage fees to the equation. I'm sure it's no picnic for airline employees, either, but airline executives need to get their act together and take a page from the Southwest manual. I rarely get to fly Southwest (more's the pity) since I'm in the Southeast, but they put other airlines to shame in all categories. Maybe it's just because they get to wear shorts, but Southwest employees are always warm and friendly, they're always having a good time, they make check-in easy, they make problems disappear, and they don't charge for a suitcase. Their attendants even--gasp!--crack jokes inflight. Anyone remember the days when flying used to be fun? It still is, on Southwest.

So here's my travel advisory for any of you unlucky enough to be flying soon: pack light, keep cash and credit cards at the ready, fly Southwest if you can, avoid Northwest at all costs, and beware of overhead baggage that may now kill you if it falls on your head because it's carrying two weeks' worth of clothing, accessories, toiletries, grooming appliances, and souvenirs in its overstuffed little pockets.

Oh, Wright brothers, ye hardly knew we.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Diva Update

A few months back, I reviewed a performance by 3 Mo' Divas, an amazing musical tribute show produced by Marion J. Caffey. By pure coincidence, Mr. Caffey happened across my blog and wrote to thank me for my comments and to share my lament that this show is not getting the attention it deserves. So I bring the divas--Laurice Lanier, Nova Payton, and Jamet Pittman--to your attention again: their first CD has just been produced and will be released in March. For those of you who missed my earlier blog (and, of course, you can scroll down and read it still), check out their YouTube footage or visit their website to hear these women sing and see if the show is coming to your area. If it is, buy a ticket! I promise you, you will never hear a more powerful concert.

The CD, by the way, is called "Smashing Musical Barriers" and if you'd like more information, send an e-mail to info@3modivas.com and tell 'em the Comma Goddess sent you! (I'm not on the payroll, by the way; I just think the Divas are that good!)

Have you had the pleasure of seeing 3 Mo' Divas perform? Share your thoughts!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Not-So-Gentle Reminders

I've been brought up short twice this week: first, when I received an e-mail from a friend about suffragettes, and last night, when I got pulled over by one of Greenville's Finest.

The e-mail contained stark photos and details about women at the forefront of the suffragette movement; specifically, about how they were treated at a workhouse in Virginia on November 15, 1917, now known as the 'Night of Terror.' Today, we women stroll into voting booths as nonchalantly as if we were sauntering up the cereal aisle at the grocery store; it's far too easy to forget that a lot of women spent a lot of years--seventy of them, to be exact--to win that opportunity for us. (Wyoming proved itself more progressive, fair, and intelligent than the other states; it granted women the right to vote in 1869. Pause here for a round of applause for the great state of Wyoming!) I'm not here to argue the idiocy of why we had to fight to have that right; I just want to remind my fellow females that we did--and failing to show up at the polls any time we have an opportunity to exercise that right is like slapping those women in the face all over again. I don't care who you vote for--you can write in "Minnie Mouse" for president if you're not happy with the other choices--but don't you DARE fail to vote on November 4th because you're too busy, or too undecided, or too sick, or too anything. That privilege is precious in any election, but we're making history this year, one way or another, and you owe it to your suffragette sisters to be a part of it.

Here's a tidbit for you that I never knew till today: there are suffragettes and suffragists! The former were more militant (read: not afraid to break laws, windows, or anything else that got in their way!); the latter practiced only non-violent methods of persuasion, such as protest marches and handing out pamphlets for the cause. "Suffrage," by the way, means "the right to vote." And here, all these years, I thought we called them "suffragettes" because of all the abuse and resistance they suffered through! Isn't language a wondrous thing?

My other wake-up call this week was getting a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. I can't tell you how humiliated I am to have to admit that. The only thing more hypocritical would be if I got caught driving an SUV, because next to harping on those, the other rant my children hear most from me is "Wear your seat belt!" I wouldn't even let them go for their driving test until I saw that putting on a seat belt was standard, routine procedure when they got in a car. People, I have always, always worn my seat belt when driving. But in recent weeks, I confess that I have gotten lax on quick, short runs, like the mile from my house to my church, or the half mile from my house to the post office. I acknowledge that I should put it on, then think, "Oh, pooh, it's only a couple of blocks."

Yesterday, I was running late, distracted, rummaging in my purse for lip gloss to soothe my chapped lips. I got in my car and took off, aware that I had not fastened my seat belt but reasoning, "I'll put it on at the red light," which was just a couple of blocks away. But as I approached that light and was reaching for said seat belt, blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror. "I noticed you weren't wearing your seat belt, ma'am," the somber young officer said when he approached my open window. His eyes widened as I readily admitted my guilt, professed my acute embarrassment, and thanked him for doing his job. He even apologized as he handed over the ticket, saying "I can't give you a warning, ma'am; I have to give you a ticket because Greenville has a zero tolerance policy." I assured him my contrition was not an effort to get off lightly and thanked him again for a reminder that might very well save my life.

You see, in a scary and ironic coincidence, I just found out my cousin ran off the road and flipped her car three times a couple of weeks ago--as she was trying to put on the seatbelt she suddenly realized she wasn't wearing. She was injured, but she's alive--and vehemently admonishing the rest of us to buckle up before we start driving.

No matter how dedicated or zealous we are (or think we are), we all need to be reminded sometimes of the things that matter. And few things matter more than your life and your democracy. So consider yourself reminded--and don't take either one for granted!

  • Info about McCain (this is not preference, it's alphabetization: M comes before O, folks)

  • National Highway Traffic Safety Association - interesting statistics,advice on child safety and teen drivers, and sobering facts about cell phones, drowsy driving, and motorcycles
  • Info about Obama

Anyone out there old enough to have witnessed firsthand some of that suffragette activity or remember stories your mother or grandmother told? I'd love to hear your comments!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Holy cats! It's a girl!

Well, dang! I don't do politics, but I have to say that John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his VP is the most brilliant strategic move I've seen in a very long time. I'll concede her lack of experience --not that that's a bad thing, given what "experienced" politicians tend to give us-- but I think it's pretty exciting that a woman who's not afraid to speak her mind, not afraid to stand up for her values, appears to have no hidden agendas, and is willing to go on record as saying polar bears aren't the cute, cuddly things Coca-Cola has led us to believe, may end up as our vice-president. And let's not overlook the fact that she gave all five of her children very cool names--a sure sign of great creativity!

Which brings us to the reason that Gov. Palin is such an intriguing choice: her primary accomplishment thus far is being the mother of five children--one of them with Down's syndrome. Parenting one child is a challenge; parenting five deserves a medal (or maybe a vice-presidency?) and requires a massive amount of brains, energy, discipline, compassion, diplomacy, patience, strategic planning, guts, and humor. How hard could it be to run a country after raising five children to be productive members of society?

Frankly, the American family may be the biggest beneficiary of this year's political pandering. Obama, McCain, and Biden are excellent role models for fatherhood (if not husbandhood); they're loving, devoted parents and their affection for their children is obvious, genuine, and brought some welcome moments of truth in the carefully scripted events of this year's conventions. Gov. Palin's commitment to motherhood is apparent in every interview she does. Now, none of us really believe our taxes or insurance premiums or cost of living are going down come January, do we? Surely, you jest. But if all this rhetoric and grandstanding results in a few more moms or dads deciding time with their children is time well spent, then all parties can claim a victory and the whole world will be a better place. Now that's something worth cheering for!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Isn't 50 the New 30?

Okay, I have really, really depressing news from my literary agent. According to her (and she is definitely a woman in the know), it is now virtually impossible to sell a novel with a protagonist over the age of 40 because all the publishing house editors are under 30 and cannot even begin to relate to--or care about--characters of such an advanced age. Hello? We've been hearing "Fifty is the new Thirty" for quite a while now; did Publishers Weekly not get the memo?

Alarmed--and outraged!--I fired up my trusty search engine, determined to prove my agent wrong. To my utter astonishment and consternation, all the mentions of "hen lit" and "matron lit" (gee, why not "fiction about intelligent, interesting women of a certain age"?) that were there just a few months ago, are indeed now missing. And imprints created expressly for the purpose of publishing novels with more mature heroines have closed up shop. It's like someone flipped a switch and said, "Old girls ba-a-a-a-a-d; young girls goo-oo-oo-d!" (If you've read Animal Farm, that comment will be a lot funnier. And if you haven't, you must. Find it/order it/buy it today!)

Not that it'll do any good, but I must protest! Since when did Youth corner the market on compelling fiction? Who decided tramp stamps and college loans trump carpools and midlife crises? We should have seen this coming when Disney announced their plans to publish Miley Cyrus' memoir. Am I the only one who thinks a 15-year-old writing about her life experience is high comedy? The child's barely been on the planet long enough to make a carbon footprint, much less acquire sufficient material for a memoir! Why don't we just go ahead and lower the age requirement for president while we're at it? Maybe young Chelsea could do what old Hillary couldn't!

We've come to expect short-sightedness from television (witness the current glut of reality shows--a phenomenon that started long before the writers' strike), but to think the literary world would succumb to a lack of vision--not to mention abject discrimination--is truly disturbing. I liked Bridget Jones Diary as much as the next person, but please don't make that the watermark for all my reading yet to come! What loss to have never known Clyde Edgerton's Mattie Rigsbee, Louisa May Alcott's Marmee, Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, Muriel Sparks' Jean Brodie, or Janet Evanovich's Grandma Mazur! What deprivation to think that, from this point forward, our fictional viewpoints might be restricted to that of people whose formative years never knew Herman's Hermits, Chatty Kathy, Whip 'n' Chill, cheap gas, or life without cell phones!

Hopefully, my agent is wrong. Hopefully, this post will pull comments from editors claiming "Au contraire! We'd love to see novels featuring 'seasoned' women!" Hopefully, I'll hear from book-buying readers clamoring, "Give us your tried, your true! Your middle-aged mamas living life to the fullest!" Because, frankly, the fifty-year-olds I know are a lot more interesting than the thirty-year-olds I know, the eighty-year-olds are downright darling, and how many times do you really want to read another account of Gen X angst?

Please, somebody send me proof that the stars of my novel-in-progress don't have to give up their senior discount to stay in the literary game!

P.S. Diane Lawrence has a funny blog here that explores this same subject from a slightly different perspective, and Mary Hirsch's assertion that Size 18 is the new Size 6 deserves a whole blog entry to itself!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who knew a squirrel could be cuddly?

Last week was Vacation Bible School at my church and, to inspire everyone to dig deep into their piggy banks and support our designated mission project, I invited Foothills Animal Rescue to bring some of their critters and talk about their work.

To say that Tresa and Nancy and their wards made an impression would be an understatement. The children were mesmerized by the chance to see and touch a sugar glider, raccoon, and squirrel up close, and we adults turned into big puddles of mush--begging to hold and cuddle these wild things that fate has domesticated. (Okay, calling Buddha the Raccoon "domesticated" would be a stretch, but he was amiable and accommodating, if not docile!) Hazel the Squirrel, brain damaged at an early age due to a fall from her nest, was an angel, happily nibbling nuts from our palms and snoozing contentedly on our shoulders. Splenda the Sugar Glider was cordial and curious but, being nocturnal, fell asleep and pretty much missed the party.

While we ogled and petted and cuddled these animals that were fortunate enough to be rescued from their sundry disasters, Tresa and Nancy shared staggering statistics and sobering stories: the fifteen volunteers of Foothills Animal Rescue took in 11,500 injured, abandoned, abused, or endangered animals from nine North and South Carolina counties last year. (Do the math: that's almost 770 animals A PIECE--2 a day, every day for a year!) So where do these animals come from? Sometimes they're exotic pets that people get bored with or tired of. Sometimes they wander into dangerous or inappropriate places and someone calls for help. Sometimes a neighbor reports another neighbor who's tried to turn a wild thing into a pet. Sometimes someone sees an animal being abused and asks Foothills to intervene. Sometimes a park ranger calls to say "the mama's dead and we have no way to take care of the babies." So off goes the FAR team, superhero saviours of the furry and the four-footed. Of course, these volunteers don't just show up, save the day, and drive away; many times they take these animals into their homes and nurse them back to health, give them a home until one can be found, or care for the animal until it can be released back into the wild.

Did I mention that these are volunteers? As in, they offer up their time, gas, resources, and homes for FREE, with no compensation whatsoever, purely because they have hearts made of solid gold? We were happy to bestow a week's worth of Bible school donations on them, but what we gave doesn't even begin to make a dent in what they need. So if you'd like your hard-earned money to go to something besides the gas pump for a change, toward something that is human kindness of the purest kind, consider sending a few dollars to support this animal rescue effort. (And, yes, even a few dollars really helps!) You can make a donation via PayPal or credit card through FAR's website, or if you prefer, look online for an animal rescue organization in your own town. If you can't spare cash, consider giving some time or supplies; these organizations are always in need of runners, clerical help, vet services, food, etc.

It's getting harder and harder to make a difference in today's world; here's an opportunity that's guaranteed. Buddha and Hazel thank you!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

C'mon, get happy!

Now hear this: the world is a happier place than it used to be, according to a study just completed by the University of Michigan. Yep, over the past fifteen years or so, in spite of droughts and wars and dollar cucumbers and five dollar gas, we humans are happier than we've ever been. Surprised?

Humans who live in Denmark are the happiest; that stands to reason: after all, this is the country that gave us "Babette's Feast," (one of the most glorious movies of all times), Hans Christian Anderson, Tivoli Gardens, and Legos. Obviously, these people understand the meaning of fun! Conversely, the unhappiest people on earth are in Zimbabwe; that stands to reason as well. (Stop right now and put those poor people at the top of your prayer list.)

The U.S. comes in at #16 on the Happiness List--not too shabby, given that most of us in this country go to bed with a full stomach and a roof over our heads every night. But get this: while most Americans are out there feeling pretty good, we Baby Boomers--that would be those of us between the ages of 44 and 62-- are apparently miserable. According to a survey by LiveScience.com, "Boomers are tired, overworked, strapped, bummed out and don't expect to get a break." How can this be? We have the best music of any generation, we practically invented the Internet, and we survived leisure suits; where is your pride, people?! Who needs a full night's sleep and a well-endowed bank account when we have David Letterman and eBay? (The latter not a Boomer invention but, hey, we're fast learners) Yes, we're tired. Yes, we are woefully short on our retirement savings. And, yes, we may all end up in Alzheimer's units together (the communes of the 60s, gone geezer!) But life is still a great ride, and Pollyanna is a much better role model than Eeyore. I say turn off Fox and CNN, quit reading the stock market report, and, as the Partridge Family so harmoniously suggested, c'mon, get happy!

If we tolerated Pam Ewing's dream, we can put up with anything. Live long and prosper!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

At War with My Inner GRITS

Here lately, I am feeling overwhelmed. Given that I have worked 12+ hour days for most of the month of June, I suspect what I'm actually feeling is exhaustion, but that's a whole other issue. Granted, I am my own worst enemy: when asked about heading up a school event, writing a play for the children's sermon, or hosting a dinner party for six, I do know the word "no," I just have a hard time using it. I am, after all a Girl Raised in the South--which means I have a permanent responsibility to my mother and all who came before her to serve God, family, friends, and country with a smile on my face and a spatula in my hand.

The Good Southern Girl Code says nothing about a pen, much less a keyboard, so I have no one but myself to blame for overloading the straw on that proverbial camel's back with my literary aspirations. I mean, it's not like someone's holding a gun to my head, saying, "You'd better get that next book finished, girl!" (Well, my sister's pretty insistent, but that's just because she wants to go on tour with me again.) So I am the only person I can blame for those feelings of guilt, inadequacy, incompetence, and failure that attack when I collapse on my pillow at 1 AM and acknowledge that another day has gone by without me even opening the file for my novel, much less contributing to it.

Meanwhile, as I lay there beating myself up for not writing, I'm also apologizing to my Inner GRITS for the hot breakfast I failed to cook (my children are perfectly happy with cold cereal, but The Code demands homemade waffles with fresh fruit compote--or at least eggs and toast), the get well cards I failed to send my ailing friends and relations, the foot massage I failed to give my husband, the load of towels I failed to fold, the dire condition of my cuticles, and the feeble pat I offered my dog while ignoring the ball he held hopefully in his mouth. By the time I fall asleep, I am mired in a pool of shame deep enough to fry magnolia blossoms.

Such is the burden of being a Girl Raised in the South. We are kind to strangers, but we are brutal on ourselves. My generation of women is trying to hold up standards our great-grandmothers set and that's just dandy--except they did it without full-time jobs and with a maid and a gardener! True, they didn't have air conditioning, microwaves, or clothes dryers--things I consider pretty much essential at this point--but I suspect I would give up my microwave for a COOK in a heartbeat. My poor family has eaten so much pizza this month, they should have enough lycopene in their bodies to guarantee immortality.

You can say "So lower your standards!" to an overworked, overwhelmed Southern girl, but we interpret that as, "Sugar, you are obviously nothing but white trash and are not worthy of having inherited your Great-Aunt Fannie's crystal lemonade set," so those standards must remain firmly in place even if our sanity slips while trying to meet them. In my own household of all men--all of whom were born in the South but only one of whom seems to celebrate that fact--absolutely NO ONE but me understands why it is tacky to put the mayonnaise jar on the table. I do it frequently, Lord forgive me, but the scolding voice of my mother in my head is loud enough to make me cower. Condiment containers on the table is right up there with not wearing a slip or having a dirty car: certain proof that you are just this side of common--and to true GRITS, there is nothing worse than being common.

Oh, the shame of being a Common Goddess instead of a Comma Goddess! That's enough to give me the vapors. So I promise I'll do better this week, Mother! I'll get a manicure, make the boys cookies from scratch, and I'll mail every one of those get-well cards--right after I finish this next chapter.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Edith Needs You

As the end of the school year draws near, my thoughts turn to reading. Well, my thoughts are never far from reading, but summer brings the opportunity to read more than usual, so I'm on the prowl for great books to devour in the weeks ahead. For some reason, I'm drawn to classics in the summer months. Yes, while the rest of the world is scouting for "beach reads," I'm dusting off War and Peace, pulling out Eudora Welty, and gearing up for The Innocents Abroad. (So I'm different. What can I say?)

For some reason, summer makes me think of Edith Wharton. Not sure why, given all those frozen pages of Ethan Frome, but it does. Maybe it's those voluminous pale dresses in which she always seems to be pictured (Edith, Emily, Louisa May...ya think if I traded in my jeans for long white dresses I could have better luck selling my novel?). Whatever, when I think of summer, I always think of Edith, and now you need to think about her, too. It seems the home of this wonderful writer, delared a National Historic Landmark years ago, is about to be foreclosed upon. I can only imagine how much it costs to maintain "The Mount," as Edith's mansion is called, but it does seem horrid to let America's only monument to Ms. Wharton--and one of the few protected landmarks honoring a woman--fall into the hands of heaven-knows-whom. Given that many of Edith's books were nonfiction works about architecture and gardening, this estate offers definitive examples of what she wrote about. And it's impossible to put a price on the effect walking in the haunts of a beloved writer can have on an aspiring one. Having wept from pure bliss when I visited the homes of Helen Keller, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Carl Sandburg, and Louisa May Alcott, I know that impact first hand.

So if you haven't yet spent all your tax refund and are feeling just the teeniest bit philanthropic, visit http://www.edithwharton.org/ and consider making a donation to Save The Mount. They've been given till Halloween to raise a couple of million dollars; a couple of yours will help. Go read one of Edith's books to put you in the mood or, better yet, make a pilgrimage to Lenox, Massachusetts, this summer and visit the estate for yourself.

If you've watched TV recently, you know it's more critical than ever to preserve whatever shreds of intelligence, creativity, and dignity that are left on this planet. Here's your chance!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Nothing Sleepy About The Drowsy Chaperone

"The Drowsy Chaperone" is a Broadway play currently making its way across the country. It was in Greenville this week and, take my word for it, you should make every effort to see it if it comes to a city near you. (See the tour schedule here.) Unfortunately, many seats sat empty during the Greenville run because the play is fairly new and still largely unfamiliar. That's a real shame, because the plot is inventive, the music and dancing topnotch, and the voices among the best I've ever heard. Even the bit players are excellent. Georgia Engle, whom we know and love from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, is the biggest name in the cast; she isn't onstage often, but when she is, she's her sweet, softspoken, slightly ditzy self. The entire ensemble does a masterful job bringing to life this tuneful tribute to classic musicals; Cliff Bemis as frustrated impresario Mr. Feldzieg and James Moye as on-call lothario Aldolpho are particularly enjoyable, and a tap dance by bridegroom Mark Ledbetter and best man Richard Vida is pure fun. I just wish Fran Jaye ("Trix the Aviatrix") had been given more of an opportunity to cut loose; her voice promised way more than she had a chance to deliver.

The "Man in a Chair," who serves as narrator in this clever tale, gets it right when he talks about the ability of a darkened theatre to whisk us away from reality; heaven knows, a little escape from reality these days goes a long way toward maintaining sanity. That's why I hate that theatre tickets--especially top quality productions such as touring Broadway shows--are so prohibitively expensive. I don't know many families that can comfortably whip out $70+ a piece for a couple hours' diversion. Given the choice of playing to a half empty house or offering up a too-good-to-miss-out-on deal, seems to me the producers of these shows--any show, for that matter--would try to cut their losses. I know the argument: they don't want to offer last-minute discounts because then people will wait and not buy tickets at full price. The truth is, devoted theatre-goers, people who can afford it, and people who want to see the show from a particular seat will buy the same tickets they always have. But students, and families for whom cultural activities are too often a luxury, and people who would NEVER pay $70 for a ticket might just decide to buy a $35 one--and they probably wouldn't care if it was on the last row of the top balcony. They'd just like a chance to get in on the magic.

These days, with bell peppers a buck a piece and gas at four dollars a gallon, seems like we ought to at least catch a break on magic, doncha think?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

More Family Fun

Okay, folks, word is that "A Plumm Summer" did well in Minnesota, Montana, and Alabama last week, but not so well in California. It's showing again this weekend, so if you're in one of those states or have friends there, hunt up this film and vote for family values with the price of a movie ticket. If you see it, let me know what you think.

And while you've got the fam gathered 'round, when's the last time you played board games together? Scrabble, naturally, is my all-time favorite, and I have devoted many hours of my life to Monopoly, but my newest favorite is a game called "Carcasonne." I would play it daily if I could find a partner. (I've worn out everyone in my household!) I don't even care about winning; just the act of claiming and building up kingdoms and roads, or planting myself as a farmer in a lucrative area, is enough. Carcasonne takes a bit of effort to learn, but I promise you it's worth it.

The all-around favorite in our house, though is the card game of Spades. Having grown up in a good Baptist household where cards where frowned upon, I didn't learn the joy of Spades till I went off to my good Baptist college, Mars Hill. (Go, Lions!) Before I die, I have to learn to play bridge, else I can't call myself a good Southern girl, but in the meantime, I've learned to play a mean game of Spades. Every summer since they were old enough to safely reach the stovetop, I've taught my sons how to cook one new thing, figuring that by the time they left home, they'd be adept enough in a kitchen to keep from starving or living off fast food. (I realize the latter is a matter of choice, rather than culinary capability!) But the year the youngest was finally old enough to hang on to a splay of thirteen cards in a reasonably discreet manner, I cast aside tradition for ready Spades partners, and many are the fine summer nights our tribe has enjoyed at the kitchen table since.

It's May, my middle son has just completed his first year of college, my youngest is on the home stretch, and the scent of summer is just around the corner. Seems like a good weekend to go to the movies and get out the games.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More Family Films to Enjoy

Several years ago, I was invited to be a "MomExpert" for ClubMom.com, and contribute columns on a regular basis. They've since revised that program, but I still get to participate in nifty projects with Stacy DeBroff, the Chief Mom Expert who invited me onboard. Recently, Stacy's new organization, MomCentral.com, asked me to review a new movie called "A Plumm Summer," starring Henry Winkler, William Baldwin, and Peter Scolari, plus a little guy named Owen Pearce who will steal your heart away, and 16-year-old Chris Kelly, who will have your daughters swooning. I tend to be rough on movies, so I invited my husband, sons, and their friends to join me in watching this new production from director Caroline Zelder. Because it's billed as a "family film," my 17-year-old's eyes were rolling right along with the opening credits. And because my 24-year-old is a film director whose tastes lean toward the Coen brothers and Alfred Hitchcock, he was skeptical, as well (although the cast definitely caught his attention right off).

Let me just say that, these days, it's a pretty significant accomplishment for a film to hold the attention of viewers aged 15 to 50, but "A Plumm Summer" did just that. The story is based on a true incident: the kidnapping of "Froggy Doo," a children's TV celebrity puppet that was wildly popular in the midwest back in the 60s. Having been a huge fan of my own town's "Uncle Bruce Show," and the nationally televised "Mary Ellen Show," I had no trouble relating to the outrage this "crime" generated. Interwoven into the main plot are issues of coming of age, sibling support, alcohol abuse, and the boundaries of love. "A Plumm Summer" is funny, it's tender, there's a touch of romance plus a few tense moments and, even though nobody was willing to proclaim it their favorite movie of the year thus far, everybody agreed it was worth their time and they'd be willing to recommend it to others. The film goes out in limited release in Alabama, California, and one of the "M" states this coming weekend (Minnesota? Maine?); wider release will depend on how well it does on its debut. So, for heaven's sake, if it's playing somewhere near you, go see it. Lord knows we need all the family films we can muster! I don't know about you, but I really appreciate it when a well-known actor lends his or her name (and talent) to a film whose primary purpose is to uplift, rather than titillate or gross out, audiences. For that same reason, you should go see Jodie Foster in "Nim's Island." I love her work, but most of her recent films are so violent that I don't even put them on my consideration list. Perhaps if her family-targeted film is successful, Foster will focus her considerable talent in that genre instead.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Southern Girl Goes North

To celebrate our anniversary, my husband and I recently flew into Buffalo, New York, then spent almost a week visiting Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Stoney Creek, Rockton, St. Jacobs, and just driving around in the beautiful Ontario countryside. Despite there being many feet of snow on the ground (which, Florida native that I am, I absolutely LOVED!), we had no problems at all getting around. Roads and sidewalks were clear and ice-free.

You can't comprehend the sheer power of those waterfalls (and there are two, for those of you who may not realize that) until you are standing directly in front of them. Even half-frozen, the force is phenomenal--although the seagulls seemed completely nonplussed. Lake Erie and Lake Ontario were equally impressive--in both their endless expanse and the four-foot layer of ice that covered whole sections of them!

One of the best days of our trip was spent at the Maple Syrup Festival at Rockton's Westfield Heritage Village, where we learned how maple syrup has been made down through the centuries and visited early Ontario homes, churches, and businesses. Unlike most American historic villages, Westfield encourages visitors to touch and taste as well as view what life was like in the good old days. The proprietor of the general store was selling candy as fast as he could wrap it in its brown paper cones, and storyteller Pauline Grondin and costumed interpreter (and elementary school teacher) Norma Bingham shared fresh-from-the-cookstove maple delights as eagerly as tales of the family who once called that kitchen their own.

Also fascinating was learning about ice wine, the specialty dessert wine made from grapes frozen while still on the vine. Southern Ontario is the world's largest producer of this distinctive winter harvest, and wineries abound on the well-marked "Wine Route." Even bare-branched and blanketed with snow, the acres after acres of grapes, peaches, and apricots were stunning.
Even Buffalo, NY, was charming in its white winter coat. We found the downtown architecture fascinating, the residents cordial, and the sidewalk stroll (mere feet from Lake Erie!) pure joy. Not so joyful was Northwest Airlines' failure to notify us--until after we had turned in our rental car and arrived at the airport--that they cancelled our flight home and assigned us to another one--six hours later! Nice as it is, the Buffalo-Niagara Airport is a hard place to stay entertained for that long; I'm just grateful we had good books and no small children!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Here's to Girl Power!

March is Women's History Month, a great time to think about all the amazing women you've known. When I began work on my last book, She of the Rib, my original idea was to create a collection of tribute poems written to specific women who have impacted my life. I ended up taking the book in a different direction, but I'd still like to write those tribute poems at some point--if I could manage to distill into 30 or 40 lines the impact that Ruby Miller, Reta Barnes, Eula Tillis, and others like them have had (and continue to have) on me.

I'm a big believer in celebrating, so here's how I want you to honor Women's History Month: find a quiet place and a quiet time (yeah, I know, that's the toughest part of this assignment) and make a list of twenty women who have made a difference in your life. Teachers, family members, friends, perhaps even women you've never actually met. (Author Louisa May Alcott is high on my own list, for example; she was a huge influence on my becoming a writer.) Anyway, after you make your list, pick one person who is alive and well and write a note telling her what she's meant to you. A note, mind you--and handwritten, no less! Not a signed Hallmark card, not an e-mail. Everybody deserves to receive a note worth keeping forever, and for all you know, this might be the one. Make it worthy! Put that little piece of your heart in the mail, then find a special place to keep your List of Amazing Women so you can bring it out again next March to add another name, write another note, or just reflect again on the many wonderful women who've made you who you are today.

In the meantime, here's a list of women who, through either their intellect, ability, compassion, conviction, or courage, have made a difference for all of us. If there's a name you don't recognize, please take a moment to click on it and see what that woman's contribution was. And if you'd like post a comment about these or other amazing women to whom we need to pay tribute this month, please do!

Friday, February 29, 2008

3 Mo' Divas: Worth Crawling Outside Your Comfort Zone

Recently I had the privilege of hearing "3 Mo' Divas" perform when they visited my city's exquisite performing arts venue, the Peace Center. I knew little about the act, other than it was an outgrowth of "3 Mo' Tenors," which grew out of "The Three Tenors." The website, http://www.3modivas.com/, attested to the talent of the six women who perform alternately in this musical celebration conceived by Broadway writer/director Marion Caffey. But it was when I got a sneak peak of the evening's repertoire that I knew I couldn't miss it: everything from Puccini's "Vissi D'Arte" to the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back."

To say that I got my money's worth is an understatement. Laurice Lanier's rendition of "Strange Fruit," complemented by Jamet Pittman's haunting harmonies, had me in tears, while the gospel numbers that wrapped up the show had the entire audience ready to be baptized all over again. Unfortunately, that entire audience amounted to a mere few hundred souls. We were lost in a 2100-seat auditorium that was filled to capacity for Tony Bennett, James Taylor, and Anne Murray. So why didn't the Divas have a full house? Because we are creatures of habit, and we are loathe to wander outside our comfort zones. Like "poetry," the word "opera" makes most people shudder and take two steps back. Apparently, as soon as Upstate residents started reading French and Italian song titles, the words "Boring! High brow!" flashed in their brains and they moved on to the movie listings. What a tragedy for both sides! Those amazing ladies sang to too many empty seats, and anyone who wasn't in one of those seats missed the best concert I've heard in that venue.

"3 Mo' Divas" is currently touring the country. If they come anywhere near you, see them or you'll regret it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Books: What Lies Within

I should be doing laundry today. Or putting away the last of the Christmas things. (You know those things...the garland above the china cabinet, the Santa candle in the bathroom, the roll of wrapping paper in the corner...orphaned items that got overlooked in the mad rush to get those boxes packed up and out of the way for another year.) Or ironing. (Perish the thought! But I have perished the thought for so many consecutive weekends that my clothing selection has dwindled to the point where it is embarrassingly repetitive so it's either get out that $%*!# iron or go buy more clothes!) Or--now here's a fine thought--working on my novel (which certainly can't get sold till it gets written). But what am I doing on this fine, cold, blissfully unspoken for Sunday afternoon? Reading a novel. Reveling in its ability to take me away from my living room and into someone else's. Just like that--in just a few well-crafted sentences.

I have loved reading for as long as I can remember--longer, actually; I can't ever remember not reading. My earliest memories are of books--sitting with them at my mother's feet, or pondering what to select as I searched through shelves in the library my childhood church was blessed to have. I read at home, in my car, on vacation, at meals if I have no companions, at night till I can hold my eyes open no longer. It fascinates and, perhaps, annoys, my husband; "Don't you ever just want to sit?" he asked one time, coming back to the car from a quick trip into the post office to find me with my head in a book.

I do other things, of course. I can watch old movies for hours, can spend all day in the kitchen conjuring up creative foodstuffs, can get happily messy planting a garden or attempting some craft. But books are the passion I return to day after day: when I finish one, if there isn't another waiting, I feel bereft, at loose ends. As with my choice of music, my taste in books is broad--although I have an admitted preference for happy endings and a strong aversion to gore. I choose books based on what I've heard or read about them, because I like the author's previous work, because the cover or title catches my eye, because the overview intrigues me, sometimes simply because the book is the "right" size (an inch to an inch-and-a-half thick, which means I can read it within a week) and the pages have lots of white space with appealing, easy to read type (though those selections must also have one of the previous attributes, as well!).

One of my greatest joys as a mother is that all three of my children love reading. I suppose I took that for granted until I realized at some point during my early carpool days that all children don't. What a sad discovery! I can understand how a child who struggles with language skills would find the act of reading a chore, but why on earth would a child who can read choose not to? Who would want to miss out on those glorious excursions of the mind? Just as I find people who think they hate poetry have simply never been exposed to enough of it, or had an unpleasant encounter with it, I suspect people who don't read--especially children--have suffered the same fate. What a tragedy to miss out on one of life's greatest pleasures--one that requires no work, no expense, no equipment, and no payback!

Okay, maybe some payback: as the new year starts, I encourage you to join me in taking every opportunity to celebrate and share the joy of reading. We've all heard stories about people whose lives have been changed because of reading a book; who knows what impact you could have on a child's life by introducing him/her to Charlotte's Web or The Little Engine That Could? And if reading doesn't bring you joy, I urge you to make an all-out effort to find it--in the pages of a novel, a memoir, a biography, a poetry book, or even a magazine. Join a book club, befriend a librarian, meet an author, do a search for "best books ever written," track down your high school English teacher, whatever it takes, because I promise you, it's worth it. Reading can take you places nothing else can and leave you with a feeling of satisfaction that nothing can take away...not even an election year.