Saturday, July 28, 2007

a movie review

Since yesterday was cloudy and muggy, it seemed like a good afternoon to go to the movies. Julie and I decided to head to a matinee showing of Hairspray. (Well, I decided. She nicely went along with me.) I'm not much of a moviegoer, but I do like to be entertained once in a while, and from the reviews I had read, this seemed like a movie that, at the very least, would entertain us for a couple of hours. It was about 50% successful at that. Julie was entertained; I was mostly disappointed.

That difference may be due to the fact that Julie has never seen John Waters' Hairspray, starring Divine and Ricki Lake. I liked that movie alot, and I loved Divine as Edna Turnblad. I thought he was an understanding, sympathetic, and strangely believable mom. He brought a certain world-weariness, but never pessimism, to the role that rang very true to me. Ricki Lake was an absolute revelation as Tracy. She was adorable and irrepressible and carried the day (as well as the movie) with her non-stop energy and enthusiasm. Of course Link fell for her. Who wouldn't?

I have to grudgingly admit, I do like John Travolta, and I do love to watch him dance. The reviews had mentioned he was re-interpreting the Edna character, and I was interested to see if he could pull that off. Several reviewers did warn, however, about a strange and uneven Baltimore accent he adopted. I could deal with that, I thought. I was intrigued, as well, by the idea of Christopher Walken dancing. (Although Jules told me she already knew he was an excellent dancer, and to check out the video on YouTube of him dancing. I did. He is awesome.)

What the heck - it sounded like fun. It wasn't that much fun. I will say, however, that Christopher Walken did not disappoint. The scene on the rooftop where he dances with (and romances!) Travolta's character is worth the price of admission. He moves like a tall, derelict, slightly deranged Fred Astaire. Unfortunately, however, I never forgot for a second that Edna Turnblad was John Travolta with bad makeup and a fat suit. The accent, which seemed more like a speech impediment to me, was inconsistent and distracting. I couldn't understand where Edna's fears and phobias were coming from - I couldn't understand her at all, in fact, and can only think that Travolta didn't understand her either. That was the biggest disappointment of the movie for me: his failure to make his character come alive at any point during the film.

The supporting characters were fine; some better than others, certainly. Elijah Kelley is already being touted as the breakout star of this movie, and he should be. I couldn't take my eyes off him when he was on the screen. I certainly wasn't humming the music as I left the theater, and, in fact, it is gone from my mind already. The dance numbers might have been beautifully choreographed, but since the camera angle switched roughly every ten seconds, I never had a chance to focus on any of the dancers. That is how excitement is manufactured in movies today, however, and not the fault of this film alone.

Hairspray delivers its very ham-fisted message (segregation is bad, m'kay?) in a saccharine-sweet style with none of the sly, edgy humor of the original film. It makes me want to see the John Waters version again as soon as possible. Anyone have a copy?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

program of study

I have always felt that the answer to every question I have ever had lies within the pages of a book somewhere, and that it is just a matter of finding the right book to have all my questions answered. With that thought in mind, I headed to my local public library to learn "how to write good". Here is the first armload of books I brought home:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead by Ariel Gore

An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise De Salvo

Writing to Change to World by Mary Pipher

If you have any recommendations of books that have helped/inspired you to become a better writer, please pass them along to me. I thank you.

(I should perhaps mention that I already own copies of On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

what did you just call me?

I was thinking about nicknames and how some people have them and some people don't, and how some people are more prone than others to give nicknames to their friends and family. My dad has always been a 'nicknamer'. I think that must go back to the days right after WWII when he and all his fraternity brothers had nicknames for each other. He was "Fish", of course, (with a last name like "Fischer" that was an easy one) and they had an assortment of strange and colorful names that he referred to them by.

Both my brothers and I had nicknames our dad gave us when we were kids, and in fact, I had several. I hated them all. I was "Wee-cee" or "Sissy" or, worst, and most enigmatic, "Mabel Bollinger Krause". Wee-cee was for my middle name, Louise. Louise is a family name in my dad's family, and there is at least one in every generation. My dad's eldest sister was Louise, although her nickname was "Weezy". Sissy was what my younger brothers were encouraged to call me. I don't really know why my dad started calling me "Mabel Bollinger Krause", but I am sure he only continued it because I hated it so much. It always sounded like teasing when he called us by the nicknames he gave us, and, boy, I hated to be teased.

Our son Tom was called "Tommy", of course, until he was in the 6th grade, and he asked us to please call him "Tom" from then on, and we always have. We sometimes called him "T.J." when he was little, but that never really stuck. We sometimes address him as "Mr. T" or just plain "T", and for a while we all called him "Big Brother", which we picked up from Julie. I am pretty sure she got that from the way Sally addresses Charlie Brown in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Julie, who is mostly just called "Jules" now or sometimes "Sister", had a plethora of nicknames as a child. She had so many that at one point when she was nine or ten, we sat down and made a list of them all, and I am sure there were more than twenty. Zowels was among the first, and I think perhaps came from Tom's inability to say "Jules" when he was very young. Fazouls and Fazouli sprang from that root, I believe. I will have to ask her; I am sure she remembers most of them.

Our newest dog, Rufus, has not yet had time to collect many nicknames. He is called Sir Rufus or Mr. Rufus or Roof-a-lator or sometimes Muffin, since he is a little black dog just like Muffin in the Country. When we are feeling Irish, he is Boy-o. Lucie is sometimes Lucie Lou or Lucie Luebner, or we call her Girlie or Girlie-pie or Girlie-pop because she is just such a little girlie, and both dogs answer to a host of miscellaneous terms of endearment sort of interchangeably.

Now, Dominic was a dog who collected nicknames. The most frequently used and best beloved was Bobo, and that is how we all really think of him. We gave him that nickname maybe the first summer after he came to live with us. Ben and I had gone to a large antique show at a fairground in central Ohio. There were lots of dogs there, but the one that caught our eye was an old bichon frise one of the dealers had brought to the show with her. We stopped to chat with her about her dog, and she told us his name was "Bobo". "How nice," we said, but "How silly!" we thought. But, don't you know, we came home and started calling Dominic that, and Bobo he was until his dying day. He was also Sir Bobo, though, and Mr. Bobo and Bobo-san and Bobo-sani. Sometimes he was Bobo-lator or Bo-bin-ator. Tom always insisted that it was inappropriate to call a dog by a term of such respect as "Bobo-san", but I always thought it suited him. He was also known as "St. Bobo the Long-suffering", which I felt was particularly apt when the kids dressed him up or carried him around in their backpacks.

When we hired a new receptionist recently, although she was younger than both my kids, she had the unpleasant habit of nicknaming people in the office, then persistently calling them by the nicknames she had created for them. I will not miss being called "Miss Mancine" all day long.

Oh, and I don't answer to "Annie" either.

Note: I know that I have not been at all consistent with the use of quotation marks in this post, and I do apologize for that. It is just too exhausting.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

tending my garden

I am very much a novice gardener, and as such, I make a novice's mistakes. But I am learning. I am learning. For example, next year, I will not break the tall young fern fronds by whipping the hose across them as I pull it along to water my flower beds. Some of the fronds were almost four feet tall when they had finished unfurling and had just begun to lean gracefully away from their centers. As they lay broken, I thought to myself, well, better luck next year, I guess. The ferns are less forgiving than some of the other plants growing in my garden. As I deadhead the petunias in the hanging baskets, for example, I sometimes snip a blooming, growing shoot away by mistake, but no one notices the difference. I have learned to water the myrtle around the maple tree regularly since the summer that only the myrtle near the portulaca (which I watered every day) thrived, and the rest of it turned brown and died.

I derive a strange sort of peace from weeding and edging my flower beds. This past spring, when things were worse than usual at work, I hurried home every day during my lunch hour. The dogs welcomed me with flying leaps and many licks, and after a quick sandwich, I headed for the back yard, where I wandered around with my clippers for ten minutes or so, imposing order, however temporary, as I went. I returned to work calmed and relaxed. My evenings are often spent out back, as well, and it is more satisfying than I can say to look out the big kitchen windows at the stones ringing the maple tree after they have been freshly edged.

This passion for gardening at this point in my life has taken me by surprise. I have always loved spending time outside on a beautiful spring or summer day, but for years, that time was spend lying on a chaise lounge in the sun, working on my tan. I spent many peaceful hours reading and soaking up the sun, and I don't regret them. In the last few years, though, sunbathing has lost its appeal for me, and I am glad of it. I find it interesting that my brother has also become increasingly interested in gardening in recent years. Although we had nothing resembling a garden when we were children, I think it may be in our blood, all the same. Our maternal grandfather was a professional landscape gardener. The flowers in his borders were always neat and orderly, and his lawn was the bright emerald green of lawns in our reading books. Thinking back on it now, our grandparents' little pink bungalow, surrounded by blooming flowers and green grass, looked like a page torn from a child's story book. People really did live that way.

We are nearing the end of July now, and my favorite part of the summer, the fresh clear days of May and early June, is past. This is the time I have, however, and I plan to make good use of it. Routine is important to me, and so I am sure I will have one before too long. Right now, however, the tantalizing prospect of un-structured weeks spreads out before me. I expect I will make some mistakes. I hope I will learn from them. I will continue to tend my garden.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

the sick fishy syndrome

Perhaps I need to begin by clarifying that the "sick fishy syndrome" is distinctly different from being a sick fishy. Oh, you don't know what that is either? I will explain.

When my kids were little, they had goldfish, of course, in small glass goldfish bowls. Before too many days had passed, one of the goldfish would develop a definite list. The listing fish no longer swam quickly around the bowl, tail flashing as it dove deeper. Its scales lost their iridescence. It looked like a sick fishy. And although neither Tom nor Julie ever lost their iridescence, and almost never tilted to one side, still, there was a definite look about them when they began to feel sick. It was most noticeable around their eyes, I think, and in the way it seemed to take so much effort to hold their heads up straight. That was when we knew that we had a sick fishy on our hands.

The "sick fishy syndrome" is more about the reaction of the other fish in the bowl to their ailing companion. They know he is sick, indeed, they know he is dying. And they don't want anything to do with that. As the sick fishy swims listlessly around the top of the bowl, they all keep their distance from him. Maybe what he has is contagious.

Some years ago, Ben identified this tendency in the people he worked with when a co-worker had given notice. And we have both observed it many times since then. The soon-to-be-departed is given a wide berth by her co-workers. When she is spoken to, it is in hushed tones about general topics, designed to not upset. Although there are future projects to be discussed and deadlines to be met, she will not be there to meet them. Everyone is sad she is leaving, to be sure, but why delay the inevitable? Just get it over with!

I have often felt sorry for the"sick fishy" in the office as it swims through its final days. But, you know, its not so bad.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

the rhythm of the falling rain

It has been a dry summer. The grass is crisp and brown. The only green in the lawn comes from the indestructible clover, with only its small, untidy heads standing tall enough to need mowed. The few times it has rained, I have been at work. Since I work in a cubicle, sometimes I don't even know that it is raining. I hate that. I hate it because I love to watch and smell and listen to the summer rain.

When I was a child, in those pre-air conditioned days, a drenching, cooling, summer rain was an event we all looked forward to. As the wind began to blow, my family gathered on the front porch, the lucky ones snagging seats on the porch swing. We loved it when the wind blew hard enough to rattle and toss the leaves on the maple trees, showing us their pale undersides. Not too hard, though, or we would be driven indoors when the rain finally began to fall. The first few drops hit the broad sandstone sidewalks with loud, fat splats. Then faster and faster and harder and harder the rain came, as we watched and listened. The air smells a certain way during the first moments of a summer rain. I think it is the smell of water soaking into sun-warmed dirt that has been dry for a long time. That smell doesn't linger long as it is replaced by the fresh, green smell of wet leaves and bark. The smell of rain, I guess I would call it.

We never knew the crescendo had been reached until the rain started, imperceptibly at first, to lessen. Too soon, I always thought, maybe it will rain harder again. And sometimes it did. But gradually, gradually, the rain grew slower and quieter as the storm moved on. The only sound we heard then was water dripping from every branch and leaf, every eave and overhang, up and down our street. The spell was broken and we all went back inside to tasks that had been laid aside at the promise of rain.

When we moved into this house seven years ago, the skies threatened rain all day long. I think a few lazy drops fell as the movers loaded everything we owned onto the van. But it didn't rain all that long, long day. Every box, every piece of furniture, made it safely inside our new home. And that night, as we lay in our familiar beds in unfamiliar rooms, the rain began to fall. We heard it on the awnings outside our bedroom windows, tentative, soft, at first, then faster and louder. The sound filled me with joy. It felt like a blessing.

cast of characters

It occurred to me that it might be helpful to list the important people in my life who will have recurring roles here. This will avoid clunky sentence structure like: "my husband, Ben" or "Lucie, our toy poodle" all the time. I expect I may have to make additions as we go along, but I hope to make no deletions. Refer to this as needed.

Ben - my husband of more than 30 years

Tom - my son, who lives and works in Chicago

Kristy - my daughter-in-law, who also lives and works in Chicago

Julie/Jules - my daughter, who lives in Maryland, and is pursuing her PhD at the University of Delaware in Newark

Andrew - her fiance, who also lives in Maryland, and is pursuing his PhD at the University of Maryland in College Park

Lucie - our apricot toy poodle, who technically belongs to Julie, but will always live with us

Rufus - our black cockapoo, and the newest member of the family

Dominic/Bobo - our bichon frise, who died in November of 2005, but it just seems wrong to leave him out, as he is always in my heart

Monday, July 16, 2007

the nice part

In A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut wrote of his Uncle Alex, who frequently remarked, "if this isn't nice, I don't know what is". Vonnegut encouraged us to make this same observation ourselves, as often as possible.

So, at the prospect of waking up a little later each morning, tending my garden, walking my dogs, reading those books I can never quite get to, and even *gulp* trying to write a little bit myself, I say, "if this isn't nice, I don't know what is".

And I most sincerely hope it will be nice. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


So I quit my job.

Hm-m-m... maybe a little farther back than that.

When I started this job at a large state university five years ago, I loved it. I had been trying for a year and a half to find work here, and I was so proud and happy to finally be part of the university community. And, you know, that good feeling lasted for a while - maybe three, three and a half years. I loved what I was doing, I loved the people I worked with, and I actually felt like I was helping kids learn to successfully navigate the university system.

I was good at my job. Everyone said so. I was eager to learn more. I wanted to know how the processes in our office hooked up to the processes in other offices. I took on more and more tasks that would have never even been offered to my scatter-brained predecessor. And, looking back, I don't quite know when the tipping point was, but I began to realize that not only was my plate full, it was more than full, and really, I just couldn't do any more. I had somehow ended up with all the tasks that my higher-ups hated to do, and had less and less time to do the things that made me feel fulfilled. Having never been the shy, retiring type, I relayed this to my supervisor: "hey, I would like to take that on for you, but, really, I just don't have the time for it". To my absolute surprise, not only did she disregard my repeated efforts to get this message across to her, but she began to view me as a malcontent, someone whose concerns need not be taken seriously.

My concerns were not just for my own position, but for the office as a whole, which had once been a happy, productive place to work, but increasingly was not. People left, and when they were replaced, the replacements left too. We began to have too many chiefs and not enough Indians, as the saying goes, and the work load fell unfairly on too few shoulders. After many attempts to point this out, I screwed up my courage and went across the hall to take my concerns to upper management. How kindly I was treated there! The Big Man seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying, took notes as we spoke, thanked me for letting him know how things really were. Do you think anything changed after that? It did not. And how silly and and naive I was to think that it might.

Lest you think otherwise, let me tell you that everyone likes me here. My desk used to be where everyone hung out when they had a spare minute. I downloaded a photo of a water cooler and taped it there: our "virtual water cooler". One of my student workers has become like a daughter to me, and she and I vacationed together earlier this year. Another co-worker has consistently referred to me as "the crazy glue that holds this office together". These people are my office family in the truest sense. We have gone through baby showers and funerals, weddings and divorces together. And it is hard to leave them now.

But I find that, without exaggeration, for the sake of my own mental and physical well-being, it is time for me to go.

So I quit my job.