Thursday, July 26, 2007

A love letter to the library

I am in love with the Seattle Public Library. I can go to their website, search for the books I want, place a hold, and indicate the neighborhood branch where I want to pick the book up. When the book arrives, I receive an e-mail and walk across the street to the branch. I find the book, shelved according to the first three letters of my last name. Then I scan in my barcode and the sensors on the counter read what books I'm checking out. I print out a reminder slip and leave.

I don't have to talk to a soul.

It's genius. But I have to confess I miss the Mrs. Ribeckis and Ms. Kadings of the world. Mrs. Ribecki was the librarian at the one-room Sodus Township Library. She was a kindly old woman in a floral housedress who checked out my picture books ten at a time (I think that was the limit). During the summer reading program at the library, my competitive spirit merged with my zeal for books and turned me into a reading machine. I'd beg my mom to drive me to the library every few days so I could give verbal reports to Mrs. Ribecki and get more stickers added to my contest sheet, each year a different theme. One year, it was a dinosaur and the stickers slowly filled in its green form. The first kids to complete the sheets got special prizes and I'll be damned if Julie Hartman was going to beat me.

I eventually exhausted the offerings at the Sodus library, so I ordered books from Troll and Scholastic book clubs and hit the school library. In high school, I'd be damned if I was going to work at a part-time job where I had to wear a hat and take orders for Whoppers or french fries, so I got a job in the children's department of the Benton Harbor Public Library, working with Ms. Kading and her assistant Rose. I sorted and shelved and sent out overdue notices. I laminated all my Monet and Matisse posters on my lunch break. I ran the projector and showed old movies and cartoons on Saturdays. And I quizzed kids about the books they read, helping them add stickers to their own sheets during the summer reading program. Sometimes I was suspicious so I read the book with them, assisting them with the tough words.

We had some regulars, good-hearted kids about to go wrong because their absent parents used the library as all-daycare. Maybe one book, one librarian helped a couple of those kids to believe in themselves and their ability to cover an entire sheet with stickers until they saw the big picture.

Mrs. Ribecki certainly helped me and set me on a lifelong love affair with books, both as a reader and now a writer. And when I scan my barcode in at my tiny branch here in Seattle (which is no bigger than that Sodus library), I have to confess I miss the kindly lady in the housedress.

What about you? Do you have fond memories of your library or librarian? Did you rock the summer reading contests?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Craft services

I was at a friend's house once, hanging out with a few pals and waiting for a potential love interest to show up. While I was waiting, I picked up a scarf Alison was knitting and worked a few rows. Both male friends in the room told me in no uncertain terms to put the needles down and out of sight. Jared told me, "Honey, knitting is so not sexy." Josh agreed.

Wha wha WHA?!

Knitting is not sexy? What could be more smokin' than showing off my nimble fingers, all the while crafting some cool scarf or hat or bikini top? Okay, I'm not usually knitting saucy undergarments or beachwear but the point is that I could. I can make all sorts of things, do all sorts of things with these hands, and I think that's hot.

What do you think? Knitting, embroidering, crocheting, and other rustic crafts: hot or not?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Nobody puts half-pint in a corner

Melissa Gilbert is going to start in a musical version of Little House on the Prairie, playing Caroline Ingalls this time round! Seriously. I know it's hard to believe, but it gets better. Playing Pa to her Ma is none other than Patrick "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" Swayze. He's no Michael Landon, but, um, where do we sign up? Well, the bad news is that the Rachel Portman-composed Prairie is currently a workshop that is closed to adoring fans.

Let's just pray that the musical is smokin' hot and sets the prairie (and theater world) on fire!

For more information, check out the story here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The birth father

Stuck at the border after a whirlwind trip to Vancouver, I read anything I could get my hands on. I had already exhausted my Us Weekly (dang, that Hilary Duff is a hottie) so I idly looked over my dad's birth certificate. A few things I knew: his name, his birthdate. I saw that he was born in "Sodus Township," so I asked if he was born at home. Yep. I asked if grandma had a midwife or any real assistance. Dad replied that it was just grandpa and a rusty knife. He was joking—I'm sure the knife was clean.

Anyway, that sort of gave me pause. The days of pushing out a baby from your home without monitors or meds seems to have gone by the wayside. (And that's a-ok with me.)

But more interesting were two other parts of the birth certificate. One was a column headed "white, black, mulatto, etc." Are you kidding me? I guess there wasn't a lot of diversity in rural Michigan in 1939. Thankfully, this sort of ethnicity classification has disappeared over time. Mulatto? I haven't heard that word since reading a Kathleen Woodiwiss bodice ripper set on a plantation in the West Indies.

And the last thing I saw that made me thankful to be living in this day and age was an area for "father's occupation." Nothing about the mother; her occupation was assumed. My dad's birth certificate is a quaint memento of another time, but as I looked it over, it seemed to me to be a benchmark of how far I—along with the world—have moved away from that place and time. At this point the line, mercifully, started to move.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Vacation, all I ever wanted

My parents are in town. My friends kept asking me if when I was picking them up at the airport. Yo, my parents do it up old school. They drove cross country, even stopping in Pepin, Wisconsin, birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, without any prompting from me (who just wrote my love letter to Laura in the form of The Prairie Girl's Guide to Life).

As much I get carsick sitting in the backseat of a car for hours on end, I miss the two-week epic vacations that involve bad road food, amazing scenery, and unexpected conversations with colorful but kind strangers. Working for myself, I haven't done a good job of clearing my schedule and my mind for a proper holiday. Instead, I take weekends here and there, crashing at friends' houses and apartments.

It was refreshing to take the keys from my dad (which guaranteed that the trainspotting would be kept to a minimum) and point their car for Whidbey Island yesterday. Without a map, we drove onto a ferry, poked around in shops, hunted for interesting rocks on the rugged waterfront, stuffed down fish and chips, tasted a few bad wines, took photos of stunning scenery, and gambled at two casinos on the way home.

I've done the trip before so it wasn't completely spontaneous but it was as close to a stress-free, work-free day as I've had in a long time. And there was no threat of an early-morning departure to yet another trainyard.

This weekend: Vancouver and, I suspect, another casino or two.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Beach blanket bingo

Going to the beach has always been a treat for me. Growing up near Lake Michigan, we'd go to Lion's Beach in the evening for a cookout. My dad would disappear up near the train tracks, lying in wait to get a good photo of an engine, usually of the Chessie System variety. My brothers skipped a lot of rocks. I liked to climb onto the pelican that was on a thick coil that I could ride like a hobby horse. (The pelican and his friends are still there, by the way—check out the photo of me and my best friend, Alison, from a couple of summers ago.) We'd fill our bellies with kielbasa and potato chips, dip our feet in the water, watch the sun fall into the lake, and call it a lovely night.

I've rarely enjoyed sunbathing, on the beach or anywhere else. It might have something to do with a bad experience involving a poor body image, a red-and-white one-piece, and a trip to the beach one summer in high school. Or maybe it was the iodine-laced baby oil incident on the lounge chair in the backyard (To complete the picture, I had Sun-In in my hair and Duran Duran in the tape deck). Decades later, my skin is still recovering from that burn. Whatever the case, I prefer to hide out under a hat and an umbrella, reading a good book, chatting with friends, or looking out at the water. My favorite time of day is around 5 or 6, when most sun-worshippers have vacated the beach for a shower and cocktail. I wrap a towel around me and breathe in the tangy wind. I love it.

I try to get back to Michigan so I can enjoy the beach but I also travel to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, every chance I get. Boardwalk fries, photo booths, refreshing ocean water, a slow pace, and dear friends combine to make this one of the few places I can call home and maybe the only place I can truly relax (admittedly, it takes around 36 hours for this to happen). This August, I can only really swing one trip so it's going to be to Rehoboth. I figure I'll enjoy the winter delights of Lake Michigan when I go home for the holidays. The lighthouse looks magical when the pier is frozen over.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Highbrow beach reads

I have always been transported by a good thriller and, of late, I have taken to reading strange little literary nonfiction books about cod, screws, professors, and madmen. When I find a gripping historical fiction book—the best of both worlds—I can't seem to do anything else until I reach the last page.

The latest book to keep me up all night is Rebecca Stott's Ghostwalk, which delves into the shadowy world of Isaac Newton, alchemy, and Cambridge. Much like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova or Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the narrators are literary sleuths, tracking down truth through books and historical records. If you like a good thriller that doesn't involve a wise-cracking female private eye with legs down to there, I'd highly recommend these three.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Blame it on the berries

During a Fourth of July barbeque, my friends and I stuffed ourselves on raspberries and I got to thinking about the days when I picked them for pocket money, rather than doling out $10 for a few pints at the grocery store.

Growing up in Michigan's fruit belt (our local radio station was even called WHFB, for Heart of the Fruit Belt), my brothers and I were able to supplement our allowances by picking berries at a local farm. Crouching down amongst migrant workers, I filled pints and crates until my fingers were pricked and stained and my hamstrings were shaky. But when I clutched my few dollars at the end of the day, it was all worth it.

Today, I told my friends what I did with that berry money. I sent it straight into Columbia Record & Tape Club. See, I had joined without my parents' knowledge and I was stuck paying full price for albums and cassettes after getting the initial ten records for one cent. I didn't mind forking over the cash for Shawn Cassidy but I wasn't keen on shelling out hard-earned coin for K-Tel records with artists like Peaches & Herb on it.

Today, both Camille and Kerry told me they did the exact same thing (although they probably got their money from another source). Kerry and her friend Jo Marie swapped last names and addresses so they could join more than once. All of us avoided telling our parents until we got threatening letters and had ask our mom to send a response, something along the lines of "My daughter was not of age and therefore cannot be held to this agreement."

I was relieved at this point, because, frankly, picking berries was hard work, and I was thinking I should rein in my expenses and try to live a more modest lifestyle on just my allowance.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The background music awards

Growing up, my dad would come home from working at the brake factory (it was Michigan, after all) around 4pm and need a nap straightaway. He'd stretch out on the green plaid couch, but only after putting on the sweet sounds of Johnny Cash or steam locomotives. Yep, a train nut, he'd put on a record of steam engines to drift off to.

These days, when I'm writing, I often like to block out the rest of the coffee shop by fishing out my iPod. When I'm home, I do it up old school and pop in a CD. Here's a sampling of the favorites I turn to for inspiration, relaxation, and, to be honest, a little white noise.

  • Joni Mitchell, Blue (I come back to her again and again. In fact, I could drink a case of her, and I did while writing The Prairie Girl's Guide to Life.)
  • Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby (Her voice is like no one else's.)
  • Various artists, Bossa 'n' Stones (Keep your Coldplay. I love this chick bossa nova take on Rolling Stones' classics. Beast of Burden, sung by Urban Love + Anika, may be the sexiest song ever recorded.)
  • Project Runway and Grey's Anatomy podcasts (am I a walking cliché or what?)
  • Sufjan Stevens, Come on Feel the Illinoise (Dreamy, although I skip the John Wayne Gacy Jr. song.)
  • Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55 (Even more dreamy.)
  • Indigo Girls, Rites of Passage and Indians, Nomads, Saints (When I need a dose of adrenaline, I reach for the Girls.)
  • Keb Mo, Just Like You
  • Patsy Cline, 12 Greatest Hits (Plaintive yet plucky, just like I feel on certain days.)
  • Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (I always thought it should be "cartwheels" on a gravel road. Ouch!)
  • Lucy Kaplansky, 10 Year Night and Beth Amsel, Kindling (As a result of a trip to a 3-day folk festival in Upstate New York, I have a penchant for folk music.)
  • Billie Holliday, Ultimate (Perfect for a working brunch!)
  • Beck, Sea Change (So quiet and melancholy, like me with writer's block.)
  • Django Reinhardt, Djangology 49 (I love the scratchy old record sound of these recordings.)
  • The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The songs are so beautiful, you almost forget what they are about. The perfect soundtrack when walking through O'Hare Airport. Try it!)
  • KT Tunstall, Eye to the Telescope (She's overplayed now, but I swear I got in on the ground floor!)
  • Lyle Lovett, The Road to Ensenada (When I'm stuck at the computer, this reminds me of a day trip when the weather was perfect and I got to stick my head out the window as we drove back from the Olympic Peninsula.)

Monday, July 2, 2007

The curse of the rummy

I spent a delightful evening last night playing progressive rummy with a few friends. I stink at cards—I've got no game, no poker face, nothing—but I love it. I started early on, playing high card, blackjack, and poker with my brothers (John, who later became a card dealer in Reno, was a natural from birth). I could never seem to amass any cheap plastic chips for any length of time but I loved to play.

Not much has changed.

Last night I was as unlucky as ever, at least at first. Everyone else was laying down wild cards and sticking me with a full hand of aces and face cards. But I choked back the competitive beast within and tried to stay in the game with a smile on my face. I knew things had to turn around.

And they did. In the last two hands, everything was coming up deuces (the wild card de jour). I didn't end up winning, but the important thing is that I stayed in the game. Now I just need to find another one.

A sampling of my books