Friday, December 7, 2012

Real Life Dystopias

Imagine a world where a high school student expresses an opinion to a friend.  A few days later the student disappears.  Family and friends question and search, receive no answers.  The student has become one of the "disappeared" -- thousands of people, whose arrests as enemies of the state are never acknowledged, whose fates are never known.

Sounds likea dystopian novel, right?  But this actually happened, in the 1970s, in Argentina.  It happened in a lot of other places, too.  And it still happens today.  A large part of the world's population lives through its own variation on the theme -- omnipresent police, personality cults, corruption, weird rules, fear. 

YA dystopian fiction often tends toward the vague and the shadowy.  Evil omnipresent governments, brutal police, states based on scarcity or overly advanced technology.  But governments are composed of human beings and human beings are complicated.  They collaborate, but they also resist.  They love their country, they may fight for it and die for it, and yet believe the whole time that their government is wrong.  Reading about the lives of people in Poland, Nazi Germany, Argentina, Iran, China I am struck by the terrible choices they had to make.  It feels like there is a huge difference between their world and the comparatively safe, sane democratic world I grew up in. 

I think it's this gulf that drives YA dystopian fiction, this fear of "what if it happened here?" But I wish YA fiction derived more of its details from the real-life experiences of totalitarian societies, that it weren't so stuck on the single-freedom-fighter-leads-a-revolution theme.  Because in real life, that doesn't happen very often.  Go back to the example of Argentina for a minute.  The Argentine junta that ruled in the 1970s was replaced -- through not so much a revolution as a collapse -- by a democratic government in the 1980s.  Argentina has since struggled with corruption, economic problems and a disinclination to deal with the ugliness of the past.  But it's basically a free country.  In real life, totalitarian governments are often not quite as powerful as they appear to be.  People resist in thousands of little ways, people push towards freedom.  And that complexity, the gritty reality of daily life, is a great story.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I spent much of yesterday checking the live updates on The New York Times website, as well as Facebook, trying to keep up with friends and relatives in the city.  Two of the families I know there have small children and at first they were mainly just trying to keep everyone entertained.  Yesterday an evacuation took place, from Stuyvesant Town (a huge post-war Manhattan housing project), which had lost power, to somewhere in Long Island where they still had power.  Still wondering about a lot of places...Staten Island, Breezy Point (where some of my husband's relatives had a summer house.)

I'm really not here to go into mourning, or to offer doom and gloom, though.  I mean, look at the New Yorkers on tv, listen to them.  Three of the subway tunnels are already pumped out.  People are walking to work.  There will probably be partial subway service tomorrow.  I remember one year, when I was at NYU when it was suddenly discovered that the Williamsburg Bridge was in imminent danger of collapse, something everyone seemed to take in stride.  The bridge was closed for a year and subway service was rerouted.  For weeks after 9/11 there was no subway service to lower Manhattan.  Somehow lines were rerouted, bus service filled in.  At my first job in Mahattan one of the other employees reminisced one day about the great transit strike in the 1970s, and how everyone walked over the Brooklyn Bridge.  "You got the feeling," he said, "that if you could survive that, you could survive anything."

It's very fashionable, particularly in dystopian scenarios, to see huge cites as vulnerable.  No doubt, because of quirks of geography and history, they are.  But huge cities are also very flexible.  They have the will, the ability (and the financial incentives) to get things done, quickly.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The localest of my local libraries, the Henderson branches, which already were closed on Sundays, are now closed Mondays as well, due to budget constraints.  This makes me feel sort of like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, when he needs money for booze but he can't hock his typewriter because it's a Jewish holiday and all the pawnshops are closed and you see him dragging himself desperate, slowly, up Second Avenue in the gray light of dawn.  There's a measure on the ballot this year to support Henderson's libraries, offset by a tiny increase in property taxes ($7/year.)  I voted for it, but unfortunately there's another measure on the ballot to support schools, which asks for a much larger property tax increase, and I'm afraid people will just vote no on both.  My voter's guide, which came in the mail, included a "for" and "against" on the library issue, followed by a rebuttal and a rebuttal to the rebuttal.  The rebuttal to the rebuttal, I have to say, was a little ranty and broke out a couple of times into capital letters, including the phrase WHERE WILL IT END?  (Books, they want money for!  Books!)
I think anyone voting on this issue should first go to the Paseo Verde library on a Saturday morning.  The conference rooms are booked up, the computers are occupied, there are kids everywhere, teens in the teen section.  It's a place for study but it's also a public space.
I am ashamed, as a writer, that I take for granted my use of the library.  Of course they have the book.  Of course they'll get the book.  Of course I can get anything I want, right at my fingertips, never thinking where it comes from, never thinking who pays for it.
So I'll say it now:  my greatest thanks, to the Henderson and Las Vegas-Clark County libraries, and by extension to the voters and taxpayers who fund them.  We're all in this together.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Writer's Block, or not

I don't really like the term.  I often say I have Writer's Panic instead -- which is what I call the feeling that you're swamped and drowning and never going to get anywhere with your project.  And in fact, over the past few months, I have written some 20,000 words of a brand new project and made some huge but very freeing changes on my WIP, which has caused that to take off in a new direction.  So it's not that I don't have ideas.  The ideas are there, while I'm driving or sweeping or working.  The problem is putting the ideas down on paper.  The fear when I sat down to write was so strong, that even when I made myself do it, after a little while I would think, "well, maybe I better stop now, while things are still good.  After all [insert here anecdote about famous writer who only wrote two pages a day.]" 

This fear was something new.  I'd never really felt it before, writing.  And the odd thing was it kept coming back.  I could have a really good day writing and the next day, sitting down, the same old procrastination and hesitation.  In other words, success had no effect on the fear, which seemed to be contrary to the conventional wisdom that doing something you fear makes the fear go away.  I thought it was maybe more like stage fright.  I'd heard stories -- we all have -- of well-known actors who suffered from stage fright every night, at least until the curtain came up.  I looked for books on stage fright, but everything I found was aimed at children.  So I looked for more general books on fear.  These were, of course, self-help books.  Oy. Brain chemistry for dummies.  Vignettes about high-powered executives at Fortune 500 companies who were freed to follow their dreams of entrepreneurship.  (There are no creative types in self-help books; I believe the authors think that creative people float around with little wings on their backs, drawing rainbows and hearts in the air.)  However, I did learn some useful stuff from these books, in the end.  I had an insight, reading one in particular -- this was not something that actually appeared in the book, but a thought that came to me while reading it:
You will always feel anxiety when you are doing something important.
You will always feel it in proportion to what you are trying to do.

I don't know why, but this was comforting.  I suppose the self-help books would say I gave myself permission to have anxiety.  I'm working, I'm working hard, I will have anxiety, I'll be OK. 
I also began to set daily goals for writing, which is something I never felt the need to do before.  Not word count goals, but lists of scenes I need to work on.  I look at the goals, say, this is what I'm going to do today, and I focus on that. 

The upshot of this is that stuff gets done.  Do I still have the fear?  Yes.  This post?  Total procrastination. All I can say is that the fight goes on.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Two scenes...or how I spent my summer vacation

Hanksville, Utah, is in the middle of a country of reefs, buttes and sand dunes. We stopped at the store there for sodas.  Inside, eating pizza, were two teenage girls.  Makeup:  lots of blush, lots of eye makeup, like people used to wear to go clubbing in the 80s.  One of them had large sunglasses on, the other had perched a pair of rabbit ears on her head.  She wore a tank top over a shirt, then a kind of stomacher and under that a polka-dot skirt.  Mismatched stocking socks, one red, one blue.  The other one was more or less the same:  sort of a parody of high style, or fashion.  I nodded at them (in places like Hanksville, you say hi to everybody) and they looked up but didn't say anything.  It was the middle of the week, the end of the day, quarter to five, cloudy, in a place that doesn't get much rain.  The girl behind the counter was dressed in a Hollister t-shirt.  When we left the store we saw them walking along the main street.  One of them stuck out her thumb, as if she wanted to hitch a ride from the pickup truck behind us.

It had once been an roadside cafe, back in the 50s or 60s.  There was still a sign, Ben's Cafe * Steaks * Dining Room, and above the sign was a three-dimensional star, with some of the bulbs missing.  Now it was La Veracruzana.  It still had the long luncheonette counter and green vinyl stools, although the new owners had put up fake wooden shutters on the walls, to imply Mexico.  We were the only customers for a few minutes, and then another group came in, a man in a cowboy hat, some middle-aged women.  They began to talk to the waitress.  She was going back to college in a few weeks, right?  And was she still thinking about law school?  Did she still want to specialize in immigration?  A younger man and woman joined the group, and the topic shifted to cattle rustling.  Someone last spring had lost 26 calves.  Those calves would be worth $60,000 now.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

This business of making stuff up

It makes you think about how we have months named after Roman emperors and days named after out of date gods.  (Which is really cool actually, and if you abandon that, you're left with French Revolution-type names like "Fog," and "Heat," although apparently the Bulgarians, Romanians and other Eastern Europeans call their months that as well.) 

And the perfection of certain English words.

"Moonshine," for instance.  Perhaps only bettered by "hooch." Hooch.  (What in the world can I use...moon...stars...sun...oh, God, be original...
...maybe it'll come to me later.)

And to top it all off, you have to strive to make the stuff up, but you don't want to reader to think about it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Salome is up at Jersey Devil

The July issue of Jersey Devil has my story "Salome" in it.  (Link on the sidebar).  I've had too much caffeine and right now my mind is like Natalie Wood jumping around and singing "I Feel Pretty" in "West Side Story."  But it can't last and maybe later I'll be able to settle down and get some work done.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Happy July 4th

In most places July 4th is midsummer.   Here in Las Vegas we think of it more as the end of the beginning of summer.  We'll get some rain and then it will be hot and then school will start and then it will still be hot.  Not suprisingly, New Year's is more of a traditional Las Vegas fireworks holiday than July 4th.  Also, as many places do, we live under the even-more-traditional illegal fireworks hypocrisy.  In my county, you can't buy or use anything but sparklers and noisemakers.  In the next county over, you can buy anything you like but you can't set it off.*  I only ever buy sparklers but I'm quite happy to sit in a lawn chair and watch the neighbors' illegal fireworks.

When I was a kid the local paper printed a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence every year on July 4th.  (I suppose they still do it, I just don't read a physical paper anymore.)  Anyway, here is my version.  Turner Classic Movies will be showing "1776" tomorrow around 5 pm my time.  I haven't seen the movie, but I saw a stage production of it at Williamstown, MA one year.  This is from the 1997 Broadway revival.  Enjoy, and have a happy 4th:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Something for a lazy summer afternoon:

The Underground New York Public Library

I think my favorite is the 3 people reading My Family and Other Animals (a book my husband introduced me to years ago), Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard and Borrower of the Night.  The other thing is, obviously, just the sheer variety of the people of NYC, all classes, ethnicities and religions, and the even greater variety of book titles.

Also notice the Subway Look, which you can generally catch on the faces of those who are not reading.  "I'm here, but I'm not here."  The Subway Look is actually pretty close to a state of meditation, when done right.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Group

I've belonged to an SCBWI writer's group for almost two years now.  I joined eagerly, driven by a wish to talk to and know other writers.  I got more than I expected, in ways both good and bad.  Chit-chat with other writers over coffee? Delightful.  Listening to actual criticism of my sacred words?  Oh, yeah, that. 
It's been a learning curve.
For all the eagerness with which I joined, I had, and have, a dark secret -- deep-seated, competitive, seven-deadly-sin kind of envy of other writers.  Mean stuff.  Bad stuff.  Sitting still, listening to them, listening to their criticism (which was, I should point out, usually constructive) of my work, was and is an ordeal.  I'm a better person and a better writer for having done it, but I still sometimes have to force myself to bring work to the meetings. 
One of the saving graces of SCBWI is the fact that the groups include illustrators.  The artists in my group are fantanstic, and the fact that I didn't feel competitive towards them gave me some breathing room and just a tiny bit of a beginning in appreciating the other people in my group for who they were.  A lot of my more snobbish and childish beliefs have fallen by the wayside.
I'm a pretty faithful member, partly because I lead a fairly predictable life, and so in nearly two years I've witnessed some interesting aspects of the group dynamic.  There are, for instance, people who come regularly, for a month or two, bringing pieces of a novel with a good basic idea and multiple chapters planned, plotted and written.  Then one day they vanish and never return.  Months go by.  "Whatever happened to...?" "Do you ever hear from...?"  "Oh, she got busy and isn't doing much writing right now." Another member was always bringing in new projects and new ideas, and when we asked her about previous ones she would say, "oh, I'll get back to that eventually."  Eventually she left the group altogether and went into another genre.  (I later learned she had migrated over to us from another genre.)  A third, who had a really lovely Irish mythology story she was seeing through a first draft, got discouraged (I think) by an adverse critique at a conference.  Some encounters were even more fleeting, leaving me to wonder, did we do something wrong?  Were we not welcoming?  Or did it just come down to not being able to stand the scrutiny of outsiders?
The path to being a successful writer has many stages and maybe groups aren't for everyone.  I'm glad I have mine, though.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In Memoriam

A couple of years ago I came upon the blog Collecting Children's Books, by Peter Sieruta.  If you have never seen Collecting Children's Books, follow the link NOW -- you have hours and hours of enjoyment ahead if, like me, you have been reading children's books (including YA) all your life and can recall your first M.E. Kerr and Ursula K. LeGuin, plus you know your Newbery Winners back to Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon, and you just plain love the look and feel of books.

Peter published every Sunday and looking through my blogger reading lists for his posts on Monday was a highlight of the week.  His posts were long, well-illustrated and fascinating, a round-up of contemporary gossip, looks back at the past, and personal stories of books that had influenced him.  We were contemporaries and reading his blogs I frequently felt the thrill of similar memories. I know he must have worked very hard on his posts (I know how hard I work and mine don't come off half as well!)  because they were so elegant and funny, flowing so neatly from one subject to the next.  I commented on his posts...sometimes...very cautiously.  Once he quoted of my remarks in a subsequent post and I went through the virtual equivalent of blushing mightily. 

This morning on Facebook, late as usual because I tend to banish electronic communication over the weekend, I discovered that Peter had died.  Last week he had posted about breaking his ankle tripping on the stairs (I am so glad now that I wrote a response to that post) and, according to his brother John, he had difficulty breathing on Saturday night and collapsed before EMS arrived.  It may have been a blood clot.  It doesn't matter, really.  There's a strangeness about sudden death.  It makes me think of the German writer W.G. Sebald, who died in a car accident, in a scene not unlike something that might have happened in one of his own novels.  One minute here, the next minute gone.  As a Christian, the idea of death is not bleak to me, although for those left behind the loss is grievous.  I think of Peter as simply somewhere else, in another world.  But Lord, I will miss him in this one.

Other tributes to Peter at Fuse #8, Educating Alice and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Buried History

Living in Brooklyn, I taught myself to find history as I walked down the street, to judge the houses, large, set back from the street, dating from the 1910s, and the apartment buildings with masonry typical of the 1930s.  I won't deny Henderson history, but it's scattered and separate and doesn't have the layers of patchwork places, places that have long gone unnoticed.  Take the area where I work, for instance.  It's what they call "light industrial."  Nothing scary, nothing big -- in fact, it's rather pleasant to walk in, since there's not much foot traffic, the sidewalks are wide, everything is landscaped.  A block and a half away there are some train tracks, and going up there makes a nice walk, especially to survey the wild-grown shrubs along the line, and think about the backs of the buildings that the train goes by.

It so happens that there are traffic cones along the streets, and have been for several weeks, along with construction signs.  Some city officials came in and held a meeting to explain the purpose of the construction and how it would affect on-street parking.  I missed the meeting, as it happened, but a few weeks later someone filled me in.  "Oh, they're removing contaminated water -- from Pepcon.  It was just over there, you know." (Waves hand down the street)

Wait, what?  Over where?

I'd heard of the Pepcon Explosion.  Anyone living in the LV area at that time remembers it, as it shook windows all over the valley and caused a huge fireball, and since moving here I'd heard the occasional reminiscence.  Pepcon made rocket fuel for the space shuttle.  Following the Columbia accident, when the shuttle program was on hiatus, they stored a great deal of fuel on-site.  On May 4, 1988, a fire started and spread to the fuel, which blew up, completely leveling Pepcon, as well as another plant next door, which made marshmallows.  Because evacuation began when the fire first started, only two employees were killed -- one who stayed behind to call the fire department, and a disabled man who was unable to evacuate quickly enough  (both heartbreaking stories, for all the "only two people").  Some 300 people were injured, mostly by flying glass and debris.  For several hours the fire was so intense that the FD didn't even try to fight it and just concentrated on evacuating the area.

I went to the Henderson newspaper archive on line, back to May 1988, and looked up the exact location of the plant.  There were the train tracks, and there was Gibson, the street I take to work every morning, and just beyond it two Xs marked the locations of Pepcon and Kidd Marshmallows.  Today there's an electrical substation there (that's what it looks like, behind a grayed-out fence) and a modest business park, including a place that sells used hot tubs (apparently, there's money in that.)  Somewhere beyond that is the Kidd factory, which I'm told was rebuilt.  Of Pepcon, nothing left.

Except that water.  Three to four hundred feet down, according to my informant.  They're going to cut a trench in the street and pump it out.  Why now?  What else might be down there?  Where else might stuff have gone?  I really don't know.  I note from the Wikipedia article that everything in a 1.5 mile zone (which would definitely include where my office building is now) was subject to "severe" destruction.

It's a reminder that even the most innocuous-looking block has history, somewhere.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones reissues

On my desk calendar at work I have the words "Fire and Hemlock" written across this Thursday, April 12.  That's the day three of Diana Wynne-Jones' earlier novels -- Dogsbody, A Tale of Time City, Fire and Hemlock -- are going to be reissued by Firebird, in paperback and Kindle editions, with new introductions by Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman, among others. 

Jones wrote a lot of books and they're all worth reading, but I like seeing these particular examples of her early work made available.  Dogsbody is the story of a celestial object -- a star -- who falls from heaven to earth and is reborn as a mongrel dog with a task he must perform (but, being a dog, he can't ever concentrate on this task for very long.)  There's a quest in there, and a phantom hunt, and strong emotions -- jealousy and unhappy families.  It came out in 1975, when YA novels weren't expected to be quite so magical, and like many of her novels never got much recognition in the US.  A Tale of Time City starts with a girl being evacuated to the British countryside during World War II, and then pitches forward, dazzlingly, through the eons, to an era when humanity is very different, and still somewhat the same (at any rate, people still eat toffee), in a place called Time City, where time seems to be coming to an end.

As for Fire and Hemlock, which was originally published in 1985, it happens to be one of the few Jones novels I've never read -- out of print and the library didn't have it. I pre-ordered it back in January and I'm trusting that when I fire up the Kindle on Thursday it will be there. All I really know about it is that it's Jones' take on the Tam Lin ballad...which is quite enough for me. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter goes Organic

When I used to go with my husband to visit his grandmother for Easter she always had the traditional Greek bright red Easter eggs.  I never thought to ask how she made them and unfortunately she's no longer here to tell us.  Not long ago, however, I read that Greeks get that color by dying the eggs with onionskins.  My husband disputed that Yia-Yia ever did this.  "She took the bus to the Greek store and she got some kind of dye there," he said.  But I decided to try it, figuring I had some freedom to branch out as my son is now too old for dyeing eggs.  My first test run two weeks ago, with two eggs and some yellow onionskins, produced eggs that were a deep...well, kind of mahogany.  This past Saturday I tried again, with both purple and yellow onionskins.  On the stove, the colors of the liquids were different, with the yellow onionskins producing pale orange and the purple producing a stronger red.  On the eggs themselves the color was basically the same, reddish-brown.  I tried a couple of variations seen on Youtube, including boiling the egg wrapped in pantyhose, with a cilantro leaf against it to make a pattern on the shell.  I also tried wax designs on the egg from a candle...didn't work, most of the wax came off in the water.

If you want to do it yourself, you'll need skins from onions (I had 5 or 6 reds, probably around 10 yellows, obviously the more the stronger the dye), vinegar and eggs.  Boil the onionskins in enough water to cover them plus two tablespoons of vinegar for about 20 minutes.  Strain the onionskins out and let the dye cool.  Then boil the eggs in the dye.  I boiled them as you normally would hard-boiled eggs (15 minutes).  You can do them longer but eventually the eggs will become inedible.  If you don't like the color after 15 minutes just let them cool in the water and the dyeing process will continue.  You can even soak them overnight. 
If you want designs, take a cilantro or other edible leaf and place it against the eggshell, then wrap in pantyhose and tie it with a twisty. 

As for the bright red eggs Yia-Yia used to produce?  Research suggests she may have used Rit fabric dye.  Sometimes traditions are better left unrevived.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Salome" finds a home

My short story "Salome" has been accepted by the online magazine Jersey Devil for their June issue.  It's funny, I've been sitting on this news for about a week.  The first story I got published seemed a milestone, but I thought that maybe it wasn't "professional" to keep putting up notices about subsequent ones.  I don't consider myself a natural short-story writer but I do have another one rattling around out there which I hope to place soon.  I think it's the best I've written so far, but it could easily be a year before I write another one.

Jersey Devil is published in New Jersey, naturally, and they have a small press (Jersey Devil Press) as well.  They specialize in the offbeat, as you might guess.  The Jersey Devil itself is a Bigfoot-like creature that is supposed to haunt the pine barrens of Southern New Jersey.

I'll post a link once the story is up.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Anne books

A few nights ago I read the ending of Anne of Ingleside, the last book (written, not chronologically) in the Anne of Green Gables series to my son.  The final scene includes Anne, after a long day, looking in on her sleeping children.  Above the head of one of them is the shadow of a cross from a window pane, an omen, L.M. Montgomery writes, "of a cross-marked grave 'somewhere in France.' "  I remembered puzzling over that passage as a child, and I interrupted the reading to explain  that in a subsequent book (chronologically, but written before Anne of Ingleside), the character dies in World War I.  

The Anne of Green Gables books I checked out of the library when I was a child were hardbacks with little circular pictures in the center of a long-haired girl who managed to look very turn-of-the-century and very 70s at the same time. Reading the books today is remembering reading them as a child, puzzling over old-fashioned things I couldn't understand, being secretly enthralled by the darker episodes*, living entirely in the world Montgomery had created.  Oddly enough, there were two books in the series -- Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside -- which were not in the library and which were not even referred to by the publisher who had brought out those hardbacks.  I found out about these books on the visit to Green Gables mentioned in my recent post, and had the pleasure as an adult of reading them, and some other Montgomery titles I hadn't known about, for the first time. 

When I began reading them to my son I was a little doubtful.  I cut out a lot of the more flowery stuff, but other than remarking, "Anne talks too much," he took to them.  Because he is a child who doesn't take to change, I'm still reading them to him.  I wondered a little why he liked them, however, and it occured to me one day that that that, too, is related to his autism.  In the Anne books, emotions are writ large.  They're easy to understand.   I think it's something of a myth that autistic children don't read emotions at all; I'd say it's more accurate that they prefer emotions to be simple and straightfoward.  No guessing, no gray areas.

It illustrates that unpredictability of literature that Montgomery's books are still going strong 100 years later while so many of her contemporaries have fallen by the wayside.  But for all the comfort her books provide, they're never sentimental.  She had too much humor for that, humor that she uses to puncture any possible flights of fancy.  And then there was the dark side that so gripped me as a child:  underneath the message of love and reason, problems happily solved, is a near-continuous narrative of unhappy marriages, tyrannical families and poverty.  The tension between these two things gives an electrical charge to her books and is one of the reasons why, I think, people still read them.

*The Anne books are full of stuff that would never be put in a children's book today.  Example: on p. 50 of Anne's House of Dreams we are casually told about a man who is "slow in the uptake" because his father threw a stump at him when he was a child.  This is the same book where, a few chapters later, a character narrates how she saw her brother killed before her eyes in a farming accident and then walked into the parlor on her birthday and found her father had hanged himself.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The haircut

Sometimes you meet someone and it's a scene right out of a book.  When I write dialogue, I try to stay believable.  If I wrote a scene like what happened when I was getting my hair cut yesterday, it would not seem believable. 

One of the things I somewhat dislike about getting my hair cut is that the stylists always want to talk to you.  I feel for them; I'm sure that if I were in their position I'd be dying to talk to somebody, but I'm not a talkative person at the best of times and hair salons have a sedative effect on me.  (The place where I go is not one of those high-energy places, they were playing Roberta Flack when I was in there, and a couple of the stylists were singing along.)  I'm sorry I never caught her name, but this is what she said:  do I watch "Real Housewives of Atlanta?", you know, they were going to do a reality show about Las Vegas called Trailer Trash, isn't that awful?  I think they should do a show like they did in the 70s, did you ever see it, it was called "Vegas" and it had a guy driving his car into his garage below his house, he was a p.i.  They should show that again, like on TVLand.  I'm going to write a letter...another TVLand if I can find where I put the address and tell them to bring it back.  I'd never want to live in a trailer, though, would you?  Actually, you know, what I've always wanted is to live in a log house.  They cost a lot of money, though.

There was also something in there somewhere about bowling tournaments and the Showboat Casino being imploded.

My husband said later that he would have liked to have seen my expression while this was going on.  But when you are sitting in a chair and the person saying all this is holding scissors and the scissors are right next to your face what you say is:  "Yes, I've always wanted to live in a log house, too."

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Orange Moon

One of my recent reads is Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram.  Like his earlier Tamar, it's a multi-layered book, a story with tentacles that reach back to WWI and forward to 9/11.  The heart of the book -- and really the best part, as I thought a lot of the layering was unnecessary -- is the relationship between two small-town teens, deeply in love and lust, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This, and the current setting on my WIP, brought me to thinking how to convey the atmosphere of the Cold War to teens reading today.  The oddest part of it, for me, is the way we dealt the prospect of total nuclear war:  we just tried not to think about it.  I was well aware that in Europe there were massive protests against missile silos and sit-ins at Army bases, but for me it was just a reality that couldn't be looked at.  It had always been there, and it was insane, and it just didn't bear thinking about.

The thing about things that you don't want to think about, however, is that you do think about them, sometimes when you least expect it.  One summer when I was in college my mother and sister came up to New York and we took a long car trip up into Canada, through the Maritime Provinces, culminating in a stop in Prince Edward Island.  It was a beautiful place, still remote (we had to take the ferry over), green hills, red roads, stormy clouds coming in off the sea and the sun shining through them.  We stayed in Cavendish and went to the Green Gables house, walked Lovers Lane and the Haunted Wood.  That evening we decided to drive out to "lobster supper", a traditional event held in a basement of a local church.  Now, I don't eat lobster and my mother can't eat it, so why we decided this would be a desirable thing to do, and what we did end up eating, have been lost in the mists of time*, but what I do remember is driving back along a lonely, winding PEI road.  The moon had come up, and it was orange.  I had seen orange or red moons before and I vaguely knew that it was just some atmospheric-type phenomenon involving dust or something, but in the darkness, in that strange place, I began to wonder if maybe it wasn't something worse.  What if, while we were on vacation, the nuclear button had been pushed?  What if the moon was orange because it was reflecting distant fires burning in the lower parts of North America?  (It was easy to believe that the Russians might not bother to bomb PEI.)  We'd be trapped up here, forever, everything familiar gone, homeless, stateless, alone.  The world gone, the future gone.  I mused on and on and worked myself up in to a state of cold terror that not even our arrival back at our rooms in Cavendish  could dispel.  I don't remember anything else,but I suppose in the light of the next morning everything was normal again, and so we packed up and went on to Nova Scotia.

The strongest feeling from this memory is the feeling that there was no hope.  We were slowly, inexorably moving towards the day when everything would end.  If it wasn't today, it would nevertheless come.  (We always believed it would be very sudden too -- without warning, although the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis should have proved otherwise.)  For me, the end of the Cold War has been a modern miracle.  It's something I always try to keep in mind no matter who the enemy is made out to be, and no matter what we are supposed to believe about them.

*The mists of time have no power against my old diaries, which reveal that  the church was called St. Ann's and I had potato salad while Mom had filet of sole, and that my opinion of the cuisine was uncomplimentary.  Of my nighttime terror I simply wrote, "lonely drive home in the dark."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Las Vegas gets a Research Library

I've written here a little about how difficult it can be to find much about Las Vegas history. Well, I will whine no more.  Las Vegas now has a research library, part of the Nevada State Museum, which recently re-opened at the Springs Preserve.  (If anyone out there ever visits Vegas, I highly recommend going to the Springs Preserve, which is sort of a natural history museum and has extensive grounds and gardens.  It's easy to get to and gives you a glimpse of a different Vegas.)  I spent the last two Fridays there, looking at old photos and high school yearbooks, reading newspaper clippings and school guides for parents and historic preservation district applications. 

It's always interesting to me to see who else uses a research library, besides an eccentric novelist.  On my first visit a man was reading about a political scandal long ago in North Las Vegas.  Later there was a woman looking at obituaries, perhaps doing geneological research.  Then a man looking for the early history of Red Rock Canyon.  Finally a group of high school students came in, researching a project on Helen J. Stewart, who was one half of the first couple to settle here in the late 1800s.  The library is only open 3 days a week (Friday-Monday) so far, but it seems to be doing very well.  And I plan on making many return visits.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I love small town museums.  Years ago on my first trip out West I noted in my diary some of the artifacts we saw -- different types of barbed wire!  A dime once handled by Calamity Jane!  A gramophone which belonged to Susan B. Anthony's niece!  But I really became serious about small town museums in Roslyn, Washington, which was famous at the time for being the place where the tv show "Northern Exposure" was filmed.  We went into the museum thinking to kill 15 minutes and we came out 2 hours later.

Nevada is dotted with small towns and many of them, like Roslyn, are mining towns.  Mining towns are not your midwestern small town, settled by pioneers and immigrants looking for land.  Mining towns flare up and die out.  Some of them barely last a decade.  They were inspired by greed, particularly out here in Nevada, where the land looks so unpromising for any kind of life.  They were a deliberate effort by people to to pit themselves against nature, to take as much wealth as they could, no matter how, come what may.  The effort failed, of course.  Money was made, and spent, but it was spent elsewhere, and then the mines closed, and the towns were left behind, broken buildings on the sides of a mountain.

But while that effort at wealth went on, something else was happening, and that's what you see in museums like the one in Tonopah. High school graduation day, with everyone standing in front of the school.  Sunday school picnics, the priests long figures in black.  A open-air boxing match.  High school bands, Elks, Odd Fellows, Women's leagues.  Saturday night dances.

In towns like Tonopah, or Goldfield, or Austin, I try not to think, here is a place that failed.  I try to think, here, civilization was planted.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Early January always means upheaval in my life, and the name of that upheaval is basketball.  Middle-school basketball:  shoes squeaking on the floor, wild throws, the boys self-conscious in baggy shorts, the girls faster, taller, more aggressive.  Late dinners, homework not done, and driving across town to some brand-new middle school in an unfinished neighborhood.  UNLV games: sitting high in the upper balcony, watching the cheerleaders jump around, the lights dim, fireworks shoot up, the players run across a red carpet onto the floor and everyone shouts as if it isn't just another weeknight.

With me, basketball is definitely a childhood thing.  It's long dark winter nights, listening to Kentucky game on the radio, drawn into an unmapped, virtual world of reputation, gossip ("good squad this year") and rival schools ("after that the 'Cats'll be up in South Bend to face Notre Dame"), learning about working off the clock and drawing a charge and that'll be two from the charity strike.  (No one says "charity strike" -- a.k.a. free throw line -- anymore but it was a favorite of Cawood Ledford, the UK announcer.)

It's been said that baseball, because its not played on a clock, is a sport which stops time.  Basketball is nothing but clock.  It's a sport of the individual moment, the moment you're living in, the bobbing wave, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald's image, which always seems about to bring you forward, the moment when it seems everything can change.