Sunday, October 26, 2008

Louise on Sunday Mornings

Every Sunday morning it’s decent outside, Steve and I take our dog, Louise, for a walk. She pulls on the leash for the first block or so on our way to the Monon Trail, then settles down into a nice trot—stopping occasionally, paw raised, at the sight of a distant squirrel or for some (usually) friendly butt-sniffing with other dogs we meet along the way. There are “bodily functions,” of course. Always in exactly the same places.

Our first stop is Einstein’s Bagels, but we have to leave the trail and navigate a wide parking lot to get there. “Navigate” because Broad Ripple Village is the scene of great revelry on Saturday nights, which means a plethora of residue on Sunday morning. Good residue (for Louise) being the occasional abandoned burrito or cheeseburger; bad being glass, aluminum foil and, well, vomit, which I am sorry to say Louise finds quite tasty, so we have to save her from herself. She also enjoys the occasional morsel of poop. Yuck! What’s that about?

Anyway. At Einstein’s we sit at a table outside and feed Louise the excess cream cheese from our bagels on coffee stirring sticks. So cute when she gets it on her whiskers.

Then, onward. More bodily functions, more squirrels, more butt-sniffing. The Monon Trail, a greenway made on the track bed of the old Monon Railway, is like a long vertical park that runs through Indianapolis. The part we like to walk goes north, past the Art Center, over the White River, and through a pretty wooded area. On a nice day there are walkers, runners, cyclists, roller-bladers, and babies in strollers. The mood is festive on an unseasonably warm October morning like this one, the last yellow leaves raining down through the dusty sunlight to land with a whisper on the pavement.

Louise trots on until we approach the second bridge over the winding river, at which point she slows down, glances back at us, and then makes a U-turn. It amazes us every time that she knows exactly the place where we always turn and head home. Every time we laugh. We never had a dog before Louise, and even though she’s nearly eleven it’s still a surprise to us what a creature of habit she is.

When we get back to the Village, she turns again—and picks up her pace because she knows that the dog bakery is next on our route. When we get there, she stops and waits. Or, if the door is open, she goes right on in, heads for the counter, and bellies up for her free treat. Sometimes River, the black Lab is there, and bellies up to meet her. Not today, though. Louise gets her cookie treat; then we buy her usual two “ribs” from the big glass case of fabulous bakery treats for dogs. After a drink of water from the big bowl just inside the door, it’s back to the street again.

Today she scores half a hot dog and a piece of pizza on the sidewalk. Once she found a half of a loaf of French bread, which she carried the better part of a mile—until, much to her distress, it dissolved from her saliva and she had to stop and eat what was left of it.

She is a very happy dog on Sunday mornings. At home, she curls up in a slant of sun on the sofa and sleeps the rest of the day away, dreaming whatever dogs dream. Squirrels? Cute guy dogs? Streets full of tacos and cheeseburgers just there for the taking?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Book Madness

Here was my schedule for today: Work, yoga, work, work, work, work, work.

Here’s what I actually did: Worked, went to yoga, read Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife while eating lunch, then responsibly put it aside to work, but instead…farted around on the internet, took my dog, Louise, to get her nails clipped, drove over to McDonald’s for an ice cream cone (only 150 calories), farted around on the internet some more…

Totally distracted because what I really wanted to do was drop everything and lose myself in American Wife. Honest to God, starting a novel when you’ve got other stuff to do is like having an open bag of potato chips nearby when you’re on a diet.

Full disclosure: I didn’t want to like this book. While no fan of anyone in the Bush family, I have very mixed feelings about appropriating someone’s life for fiction, especially when that person is still alive.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the book states, “American Wife is a work of fiction loosely inspired by the life of an American first lady. Her husband, his parents, and certain prominent members of his administration are recognizable. All other characters in the novel are products of the author’s imagination, as are the incidents concerning them.”

Which is not exactly true. We know, for example, that when Laura Bush was in high school she caused an automobile accident in which a classmate died. Alice Blackwell, the American Wife in the novel, does the same thing. So where, exactly, does the truth of this incident in the book end and Sittenfeld’s imagination begin? The reader can’t help but wonder, was Laura Bush in love with the boy who died, as Alice Blackwell was? Throughout the novel, other similar questions arise.

Nonetheless, it’s as if that damn book is a magnet and I am a person-sized hunk of lead. I am, after all, the person who was halfway through James Michener’s gargantuan novel, The Drifters, when my daughter Kate was born and spent my days in the hospital reading compulsively, Kate propped on my shoulder. My thought: I’d have her forever. I need to know what happened to these people now. I know. It’s terrible. But there it is.

All of which is to say, I give up. I’m going to take a shower, put on my cozy robe, curl up with American Wife, and read until it’s finished—no matter how f*!#Xing long it takes—so maybe I can get something done tomorrow.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Jake's First Grade Vocabulary Words

My grandson Jake had to write sentences with his first grade vocabulary words. Here are two of them:

1. My grandpa has a sweet RIDE.



2. I LIKE my grandpa.



Is that cute, or what?!?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Obama in Indiana

Barack Obama was in Indianapolis yesterday, and I was there. The weather was iffy, the sky heavy and gray, threatening rain. But, so what? My daughter Kate and I joined the stream of people (20,000 plus) entering the State Fairgrounds and ran the gauntlet of security—bags open, electronic devices turned on—then headed for the sea of mud that is usually used for car and motorcycle races.

This was a whole different mix of people than I saw registering voters in the 'hood on Monday. “Mix” being the operative word. There were, of course, thousands of African Americans—from babes-in-arms to toddlers to grade school kids to teenagers, young adults…you name it. There were thousands of white people, too. There were Asians and Mexicans. There were clusters of people wearing union tee-shirts—machinists, steel workers, painters. There were women who looked like suburban hockey moms (take that, Sarah Palin!); professional women, apparently oblivious to the fact that their nice shoes were getting wrecked in the mud; and women whose hairstyles made you think “Redneck.” There were men in suits, men in farm clothes, men in the kind of clothes homeless people wear.

There was a DJ from 96.3 wearing a “SMART IS THE NEXT GANGSTA” tee-shirt, interviewing people on his cell phone. One gawky hip-hop teenager talked about why Barack Obama was his hero. Concluding, he threw out his arms and looked up at the gray sky, grinning. “Man, this is a beautiful day!” he said.”

Obama was scheduled to speak at 12:15, and as the time got close a chant went up in the crowd. “O-bam-A! O-bam-A!” People up in the grandstands pounded their feet on the metal floor, making a wild thunder.

Then there he was!

Well, I couldn’t actually see him. I knew he’d arrived because of the deafening roar that went up all around me.

“I love you back!” were his first words—spoken to someone who’d called out to him.

Obama spoke specifically, intelligently, eloquently—about jobs, taxes, health care, education. About the current state of the economy, he said, “What this crisis has taught us is that at the end of the day, there is no real separation between Main Street and Wall Street. There is only the road we’re traveling on as Americans, and we will rise or fall on that journey as one nation, as one people.”

Looking around, I felt good about that. Why couldn’t we make a world where each of us would be valued equally, where each of us could depend having the most basic human needs—and more?

We were standing near Kate’s high school friend, Craig, and his son, Sam, who’d skipped school for the rally. When Obama began to speak, Craig hoisted Sam on his shoulders, where he sat with a clear view of the candidate, his expression rapt. He’ll never forget this day, I thought. And hoped so much that, years and years from now, when he tells his children and grandchildren that he was there on the day Barack Obama, the candidate, came to Indianapolis, they’ll know that it mattered so much to him because, as president, Obama had kept his word and made America the country it was always meant to be.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Registering Voters in the 'Hood

Monday was the last day to register to vote in Indiana, and I spent the day registering voters in the parking lot of a Marathon station across the street from our “headquarters” (a canopy tent, a card table, and some chairs) at Double 8 Foods, in the “Hood.” Obama volunteers have registered several thousand voters on this one corner since the May primary—and we registered more than three hundred on Monday. They arrived in battered pick-ups, jacked-up rides, and Lincoln Town Cars, on foot and on bicycles, wheeling babies in strollers. A policeman in a squad car stopped to get a form for his daughter, promising to return it, signed, before the end of the day. They came from the moment the first volunteer arrived around 7 a.m., and kept coming till the last volunteers had to leave at 6:15 to get last bunch of forms in the mail in time for a 7 p.m. postmark.

At one point two young guys wheeled into the parking lot in a big SUV, hip-hop blaring on the stereo, and stopped right in front of me.

Driver: “Yo, baby. This where you register?”
Me: It is, and you can do it right here in your car.
Driver: Cool.

I handed him my clipboard, and he filled out the form.

Another young man arrived on foot, clutching the registration form he’d already filled out. “Would you look at this?” he asked. “I just got out of prison and I want to be sure I can vote.”

I stood near the door of the gas station or ranged around the parking lot, headed for the bus stop if I saw someone waiting there.

“Registered?” I’d ask.
Most replied with a big grin and a thumbs-up.

Toward the end of the day, I ventured across 29th Street, where a bunch of men were gathered on a front porch, others leaning on the fence or sitting on crates and lawn chairs on the sidewalk.

Me: “Does anyone here need to register to vote?”
At first, silence. Then, one man turned to another.
Man #1: You register?
Man #2: Shrug.
Man #1: You need to register.

I offered the clipboard, he filled out the form. So did two others.

I asked if anyone would like information about early voting. “No, ma’am,” said Man #1. “I want to be there on the day and see it.” (A response I heard again and again.)

“Hey, thanks for coming over,” he called out as I walked back to the station.

And I thought, as I did countless times that day—

So this is what hope looks like.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

M+O 4EVR

I'm really excited about my new gig as reviewer for The Well-Read Child. This review of M+O 4EVR, by Tonya Cherie Hegamin was posted there today.

Known as “M” and “O” to their families, Opal and Marianne have been best friends as long as they can remember. Their mothers are not the most reliable in the world; Opal’s dad is a long-haul trucker, and Marianne’s dad disappeared before she was born. Opal’s Gran has been the glue in their lives, taking Marianne in when she was a little girl and raising the two girls together. By the time they reach their senior year in high school, Opal is a serious student with college scholarships within her reach; Marianne is on the road to trouble, unhappy and reckless in her yearning to be popular.

This recklessness is depicted beautifully by Hegamin in the first chapter of the book, when Marianne appears drunk, her homecoming queen crown askew, and lures Opal away from her responsibilities to take a wild ride out into the country, where an encounter with a group of football players quickly turns ugly. It’s the last time Opal sees her friend.

Narrated by Opal, M+O 4EVR covers just a few days, but Hegamin so deftly weaves in memories of the girls’ complicated past that at the end the reader fully understands all Opal has lost. My only quibble with the book is the undeveloped suggestion that Opal feels more than friendship for Marianne, which in my view confuses the story of their rich friendship.

The truth is, there aren’t enough good books about friendship, and M+O 4EVR’s insightful look at how childhood friendships evolve as young people enter their teen years was more than enough for me. Any girl who’s been left behind by a best friend will sympathize with Opal and learn something about how to move forward with her life.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Girls in Prison

Thursday evening, Lyn Jones and I delivered the print and oral anthologies of their writing to the girls we worked with this summer in a writing workshop at the Girls’ School, Indiana’s Correctional Facility for young women. Not all the girls attended this last meeting of the group. Five had been released; one was on suicide watch. But it was lovely to see the others gather outside of the visiting room where we waited for them, waving, grinning, just as they had done before each meeting in the summer.

It was even better to see the slow smiles dawn on their faces as they leafed through the book made of their words.

As we neared the end of our time together, Francine asked if she could read the dedication of the book aloud. Of course, we said, “Yes.”

She began, “Recording Memories; Girls in Prison Speak…”

“Prison,” Lauvette interrupted. “This ain’t…”

“We in prison,” Francine said, firmly. And read on.

Francine was right. These girls are in prison. All you have to do to be sure of that is to look out the window of the room where we’re sitting to see the tall fence, topped with razor wire that defines the sad reach of their adolescent lives.

I’m not na├»ve. I know that some of these girls have done terrible things, all of them were on track for disaster one way or another and needed some time away from the environments in which their lives had gone so off track. Nonetheless, it seems so wrong for them to be incarcerated as adult felons are. They’re girls, after all, many with futures still capable of being redeemed. And there’s the class issue. I’d bet that girls in families with financial resources are much more likely to end up hospitalized in mental health institutions where they can get real help.

But I don’t want to write about that here. At least not now. What I want write about is our time with the girls and to share their voices.

So I’ll start with Francine and Lauvette, beautiful African-American girls, sixteen years old, best friends—who have become so close since they met at the Girls’ School that they call each other “twin.”

I AM

I am a young lady with a
Heart.

I am an African-
American who is looking for
A good job.

I am that girl
Who was crying at night.

I am the young
Girl who’s wasting her
Live behind bars.

I am the young lady
Whose house you shot up and robbed
Last night.

I am the young girl
Who loves herself.

I am beautiful so why tell me something
Different.

Francine

DO THEY LISTEN…


Do they listen to what we say
No they don’t they just
Want it their way
Why don’t they listen
We got a voice just like
Them

We are all human beings
Just cause we locked up they don’t
Listen we understand that there
Are rules
But why treat us liked caged animals
When we speak we get wrote up
When we say something good
They don’t acknowledge us
But when we say some bad
We go to seg
Why don’t they listen to our voices?

Lauvette

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Banned Book

One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was finding my own book—Wish You Were Here—on the list of 100 Most Banned Books of 1995. I was leafing through the “Authors’ Guild Bulletin,” and there it was. In very good company, I might add. I could hardly believe it! I wasn’t like the book sold a gazillion copies or anything like that. Later, I figured out that my book probably made the list because it had been nominated for a number of state book prizes and, thus, came to the attention of people who have a problem with—
well, reality.

The funny thing is, I’d toned the book’s language down, removing “fuck” and replacing it with “screw” throughout because of my publishers’ concern, which I almost instantly regretted having done. All too often a kid would point out that this didn’t ring right, and I agreed. So I was really happy when Flux decided to reprint the book in paperback this year, especially because when I told my editor Andrew Karre that I was sorry I'd taken the “fucks” out of the book, he cheerfully replied, “Put them back in!”

So I am celebrating (the very end of) Banned Book Week with this passage from Wish You Were Here, one which I think is so much truer for its “bad” language. It takes place in a cemetery, where the main character, Jax, and his friend, Brady, are visiting the grave of a friend. Brady speaks first:

“I used to tell her, ‘You get too bent out of shape about this shit. You want an instant reaction. If you really want to make them crazy, you have to sustain fucking up. You have to fuck up over the long run.’ You know what I mean, Jax?”

It’s dark. I guess he can’t see me well enough to see I have no clue what he’s talking about.

“I have a theory about this,” he says, pompous as a teacher. “Take Jim Morrison, man. The ultimate fuckup, you think. I know this guy who went to his grave in Paris. It’s a mecca for fuckups, he said. Every fuckup in the world wants to go to Jim’s grave. But I say Morrison was an amateur. He got to twenty-seven. Big deal. My theory is that you haven’t really fucked up until there’s no possible way you can redeem yourself. You catch my drift?”

My face must be blank because Brady goes on as if he’s speaking to a retarded person.

“Morrison was twenty-seven, Jax. A baby. Joplin, Hendrix. Babies. Mama Cass, stoned, choking on a goddamn ham sandwich. Belushi, even. Babies, all of them. But let’s talk about Elvis! Elvis made it to forty-two, a fat, pill-popping slob. A spoiled brat. ‘Bring me girls! Bring me cheeseburgers!’ This guy made fucking up an art form. And the beauty of it is, he didn’t even know he was fucking up. He didn’t even try. It came natural to him. He was the king, all right! Of fucking up. Yeah, King Fuckup.”

I’ll stop there, to avoid giving away what happens next—except to say that it was fun just typing all those "fucks" and I’m really, really glad I put them back in the book.

Shifty

I had lunch with Lynn E. Hazen at last Saturday’s blogging conference, and later we traded novels. I just finished Shifty, her first book for young adults, and I am here to say that it is wonderful! The book is narrated by Soli, a fifteen-year-old kid who’s been in and out of foster care all his life. What I love about this book is how Hazen lets Soli make the bad choices he makes without commenting on them, creating the kind of worry in the reader’s mind that’s usually only felt for a real person. I kept thinking, don’t do that. Don’t you see—” The compulsion to keep turning the pages felt a lot like waiting up for a teenage son or daughter who’s out way after curfew.

The other thing I love is how so many of Soli’s bad decisions are the kind made by many "normal" adolescents: driving without a license, parking in no-parking zones, telling white lies that play out in unfortunate ways. It’s just that Soli’s bad decisions have much greater consequences because his life is in the hands of a social service system that doesn’t know or care about him.

Actually, there’s a whole lot I love about this book. I love Soli’s foster mother, Martha, who's like so many moms in dire financial straits—loving, but often overwhelmed,and sometimes even a little negligent. I love Soli’s foster sister, Sissy, whose childlike traits are already becoming corrupted by the fears and insecurities bred by foster care. I love how caring for Sissy makes Soli grow and how he talks to the crack-baby, Chance, when no one’s listening, telling him what he’ll need to know about life.

Shifty will ring true for any kid who’s lived through foster care and make him feel less alone. It should be required reading for the social workers who hold the lives of children in their hands.

So bravo, Lynn! I wish I’d read Shifty before we had lunch together so we could have talked about it.