Friday, November 30, 2007

Growing old with dignity

The other other day I passed an elderly man--I'd put him in his 80s--wearing a luxurious, jet-black toupee. Not only was it an outrageous rug, but it seemed to mock the worn, frail man underneath. I had a couple of condescending thoughts about an old man's vanity and pathetic attempts at holding on to youth. It can't be easy to grow old, I thought--and let it go.

Today, I'm afraid I contributed to another old man's sense of the indignity of growing old. The father of one of our neighbors has been living with them for the past few years now. He's one of those old guys who is constantly doing something--from my perspective, it's always yard work. You can tell that he enjoys it, even though every move is slow and deliberate. Last summer, I mentioned to John that his father-in-law was amazing--I'd even seen him up on their roof.

John sighed. "He's not supposed to be up there," he said. "He really worries us sometimes."

Today, I looked out of my window and saw the old man up on the roof, clearing it of leaves with a leaf blower. I watched in horror as the old man slowly advanced from the flat part of the roof to the slope. He paused often, calculating his movements. I couldn't say anything to him; we'd never exchanged more than hello and goodbye pleasantries. I kept my eye on him, already planning on what I'd say if I had to call 911. I called John on his cell phone instead.

"John," I said. "I hate to be a meddling neighbor, but your father-in-law is on the roof again. And I know you don't want him up there."

"I just blew the leaves off the roof yesterday!" John replied, obviously exasperated. "I'll be right over."

I continued to watch until John arrived a few minutes later to get his father-in-law off the roof. John put the ladder away--probably hid it--and the old man set to work blowing the few leaves left on the ground.

I know I did the right thing, but I can't help but feel that I laid yet another brick on an old man's load of indignities.

Now playing: Juillard String Quartet - IV. Allegretto con variazioni
via FoxyTunes

Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving thanks, part 2

I just found out that The Good, the Bad, the Slimy: The Secret Life of Microbes will appear on the Science Books & Films 2008 "Best Books List." SB&F is a critical review journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and according to the email they sent my editor, this is their most popular issue.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Giving thanks

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It's not because I love turkey so much (I like it well enough), or because I'm a big fan of the pilgrim story. No, it's because this is a holiday that's all about spending time with family and friends. Nearly every year for well over a decade now, we have spent Thanksgiving weekend with our friends Patty and Chris and their kids. For years, we rented a house big enough to hold the two families in Galena or some other town between our home and theirs. For the past couple of years, we've made our way to their home in St. Peter, Minnesota, where Patty has a gallery that of course has to be open on "Black Friday."

We are all very well aware of how rare and wonderful this kind of friendship is. Patty reminded me that when we first met, I was younger than her oldest daughter Becca is now. (I was 29; Becca is 30 and a family practice doctor.) We've seen each other through the sadness of the death of a loved one, the happiness of graduations and a wedding, and many marathons. And through it all, we've remained friends, and I'm happy to report that my kids look forward to spending Thanksgiving with the Conlin-Gurney clan as much as I do.

Our Thanksgiving always features the battle of the cranberry sauces. Tony always makes his traditional family recipe (found on the back of the cranberry bag). Chris opens a can of cranberries. Patty usually makes some sort of elaboration on Tony's sauce. I generally make a cooked cranberry sauce, although one year I was foolish enough to make Susan Stamberg's "Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish" (in addition to fresh cranberries, it involves an onion, sour cream, sugar, and horseradish). And each year, we vie to win the battle of the cranberry sauces. Here was this year's lineup, plus a few pictures of our sweet kids with their sweet cat:

Monday, November 19, 2007

My blog's readability level

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Hmmm. My editors at Enslow always have to remind me to make my writing simpler because, you know, my books are for kids.

I'm a geek?! Oh.

It never occurs to me that I have geeky tastes until someone else points them out to me. So, for example, Alison and I were both happy to find that the SciFi Channel was running an X-files marathon on Friday while she was lying in a hospital bed and I was not getting any revision work on my Antarctic book done. And she said that her friends think she's incredibly geeky because she has the complete X-Files series on DVD. Well, that's a whole bunch of fun if you ask me.

And then I read that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, puts little labels on the spines of the books in his home library with Library of Congress numbers and he keeps them all in LOC order. Now, he acknowledges that's "unbelieveably geeky," and maybe it is, but if you ask me it's just brilliant and I may have to do that myself, because our shelving system has gone all to hell lately and Alison had to tell me where our copy of Moby Dick was.

Need I tell you I'm intrigued by Amazon's new electronic book reader, the Kindle? Toni Morrison loves it! So does Neil Gaiman!

Now playing: Ryan Adams - These Girls
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Travel writing

I'm writing this on the plane as I head home from the second of three Wednesday to Sunday (or Thursday to Monday) travel weekends in a row. And while it seems ungrateful and uncaring, to say the least, to complain about spending so much time on the road when the first long weekend was spent on a Roman Holiday with my newly 50-year old husband, this weekend with my daughter while she was in the hospital with pneumonia (she's better now, thanks for asking, and recovering at home), and the coming weekend eating turkey and hanging out with our Minnesota friends, I have to say that I'll be glad when I can stay home for, say, four days in a row. Because having turned in Volcano Scientists, I have this little thing called revisions for my Antarctic Scientists book to do.

(Picking up now at home, because obviously I couldn't post on the plane.)

That said, while it was difficult to do much real revision work past the first chapter, I did get a chance to catch up on some reading. I finally got around to reading The Book Thief, by Makus Zusak, which was a Michael A. Printz Honor book for 2007 (a young adult literature award, named for a Topeka, Kansas librarian, who knew?). One of those wonderful, moving books with three-dimensional people who love and and hate and transgress and sometimes forgive. Narrated by Death, who is really not as bad as we make him out to be ("Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me."), and he guides through a whole lot of bad stuff through the Holocaust. It was one of those books where I found myself trying to hide my tears in the hotel restaurant, on the plane, or in my room not at all. It was also one of those books where I found myself reading shorter and shorter increments as I neared the end; partly because I didn't want it to end and partly because I was afraid of what I'd read.

Just read it. At the risk of sounding like Death, trust me. I think it will be added to my top 25 books for our Latta/Liss top 100 fave list. Something will have to go in its stead.

Now playing: Joni Mitchell - Answer Me My Love
via FoxyTunes

And then, in completely different vein, I read Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, all in a day's trip. Here are some things I loved about the book: it gives a pretty good description of life on a small family farm. The narrator, D.J., is 15 and 16 in the book, and she knows how to milk cows and rake and bale hay. She takes over the farm, basically, when her dad develops problems with his hip. Why don't we get more books about kids who live on farms?

Well, why don't more people like me, who grew up on farms and know a thing or two about rural life, write about it?

That's a good question. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some of us, well, me, wanted to put that part of their lives behind them, no matter the cost. That life bears re-visiting, I think.

I love the fact that she decides to go out for football, bucking all traditions in her small town, if not in her football-start family of men.

I love the fact that she flunked English and doesn't read much. I think that too often YA writers find themselves writing about young misfits who loved to read...oh, wait, that would be us, the writers, huh.

And I loved the fact that a large part of the book deals with the fact that her family does not know to talk about their problems, keeping silent about their wants/needs/thoughts until it's too late. I think this is a large, and largely unadressed problem, especially in rural families. We just didn't talk about feelings or any of that crap much, it just wasn't done.

What I didn't love...well the writing was not especially spectacular, although it was fine. And I think that her mom and dad had some issues that were left too much up in the air, even leaving open the chance for a sequel (which there is). But these are minor things, and if you're looking for something to appeal to a rural readership, this is a good bet.

And I think I should know.

Now playing: Shawn Colvin - Twilight
via FoxyTunes

Thursday, November 15, 2007

One sick puppy

What do you do when a doctor calls you at 11:00 a.m. from hundreds of miles away to say that your 19 year-old daughter needs to be hospitalized because her pneumonia is not responding to oral antibiotics and her blood oxygen levels are low, her white blood counts high, and her pulse too fast? You gnash your teeth for not being there to hold her hand, and then you begin to make plans. By 5 p.m., you are at the airport, having booked a flight to Minneapolis, arranged to have someone take care of the dog, someone else to take care of the cats, and a third set of very kind someones to take care of your son. You cancel and reschedule appointments, you bring your work and hope that you can actually get something done.

She's fine.

She's responding to the antibiotics and improving; the doctor said she could probably go home tomorrow afternoon. I'm glad I came. News flash: you never stop worrying about your kids.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A tattoo tale

Oh, and there's a funny story about the tattoo...I wanted to surprise Tony when I came to visit him in Rome, so I told everyone who knew both of us that it was a BIG SECRET so please don't email him and say something like, hey, what do you think of Sara's ink? So a week and a half before I leave for Rome, I went to a party, someone took pictures and posted them on a photo-sharing website. I was in a couple of them, no big deal. I forwarded the link to Tony to show him what he'd missed.

I get email back from him: "I can pick out 'said' and 'will' on your left arm, which sounds a bit like Molly Bloom. Care to explain??"

Busted! But you know, this is why I love the man. Well, among other reasons.

Now playing: Thelonious Monk - Crepuscule with Nellie (Take 2)
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I'm back!

OK, as promised, I've returned to my blog. I sent Ben, my editor at Enslow, the completed volcano scientists Manuscript on Monday, November 5, and on Thursday left for a whirlwind weekend in Rome to celebrate Tony's 50th birthday (a few days late). It was a wonderful, romantic weekend. Our only obligations were to eat, drink, enjoy each other's company, and walk around Rome. A little bit of heaven. Here we are at the Forum (a funny thing happened on the way there...we got lost).

I think I also mentioned some sort of surprise that I'd announce after Rome...some of you already know about this. I got the tattoo I'd been thinking/talking about getting for years now. I knew I wanted to get something literary, but I didn't know what I wanted. I had originally thought I'd like to get an anklet with some sort of literary quote. After a lot of research, I settled on Molly Bloom's closing words to James Joyce's Ulysses: "and yes I said yes I will Yes." I've always thought of that as a affirming, life-embracing quote. Excellent! But what typeface? That led me to literary tattoos and typographic tattoos. But when I happened upon Ina Saltz's book, Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched on Flesh, I saw my quote in a lovely typeface (Vivaldi) and a triangular configuration that I fell in love with. Just in case you're having a hard time figuring out the body part, it's the upper part of my inner forearm.

All of this research eventually led me to an online article from The Believer. Oh, man, I see an obsession coming! Or at least a theme for a book!

I'm already planning my next tattoo. After all, I have yet to get that anklet I'd been talking about, and I know what I want now....

Now playing: Mariza - Primavera
via FoxyTunes