Fifty-something Shades of Gray

turning grayTrue confession: I’m a woman of a certain age and I don’t color my hair. For a few years back in my 40s, I did highlights, mainly because I felt so pampered at the salon. But I don’t do the all-over douse-it-out bit that so many women do when they see those kinky, silver strands springing up, deciding to color the gray into submission.

But several years ago I decided no more highlights. No low lights. No tempering or toning the gray. I don’t want to be that seventy-year-old blond or redhead or brunette. Because dyed–or should I use the more correct ‘color treated’?– hair just doesn’t compliment the certain softness and fan of wrinkles that come with passing years.

So what you see is what I am. Gray, to be sure. Growing older, of course.

But I am also far more real than I was when I was twenty. (Or thirty or forty, for that matter.) Real as in the Velveteen Rabbit Real. Just like velveteen rabbitthat fictional bunny who grew shabby from being loved, I’ve been worn a little around the edges, too. I’ve got patches from experiencing cancer and infertility and substance abuse and unemployment with my family. A few tatters from a divorce that sometimes turned nasty. I’m threadbare in spots from watching my children leave home and sometimes struggle. My tears have changed me, too, just like they did Velveteen Rabbit.

Those tatters also mean I’m resilient. No matter what, I’ll get back up after I’m knocked down. They mean I’m durable–throw a little life my way and I’ll still be there for you. Those worn edges mean I’m in it for the long haul. And while I might also have lost a bit of my shape, it doesn’t matter to the people who love me because “when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.” I’m comfortable in my own skin because it’s, well, comfy! Hug me and I’m Velveteen Rabbit soft.

Now that’s not to say that women who color their gray aren’t. I’m just baffled as to why anyone would want to cover up the traces that mark them as sharp and experienced, that highlight their quick-wit and insight.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t do au naturel, either. You’ll find no patchouli in my makeup drawer (it’s Dior, right now thank-you-very-much) and I love the close shave of a new razor. I’ve got a drawer full of jars and palettes, brushes and compacts, tonics and toners.

Embracing my gray doesn’t mean I don’t care, but rather that every day–week–year that’s passed has been precious. And I don’t want to lose sight of that.

So when I look in the mirror and see those silver streaks, I smile … because I have loved long and I becoming more Real every day.

Tag … you’re it!

I wrote about Not the Average Mama last month–Jessica’s blog is a must read, whether you’re a step or not. This week, Not the Average Mama is participating in a book tag via A Kinder Way. and I thought I’d join the fun. Consider yourself tagged and share the love!

What are you reading now?
I’m reading a digital reader’s copy titled A Hundred Thousand Worlds by by Bob Proehl, published just this week. It’s a romp through a Comic Con-like world, and it’s been fun to lose myself in a world that I know nothing about.

What’s the next one on your list?consequence
I’m torn–do I start another DRC for review or catch up on some hard copies I have on my shelf? I’ll probably start Eric Fair’s Consequence. I heard him on NPR this spring and his story is compelling.

Do you prefer a Real Book or a Reader?
It depends. Advanced reader copies are usually digital, so my Kindle has quite a queue. And then, of course, Amazon tempts me with Kindle deals. But a trade paperback book would probably always be my first choice–I’m just running out of places to put them.

Do you stop mid book if you don’t like it?
I used to never quit on a book. Now, I if get through about a quarter of the book and I’m not drawn to continue, I don’t. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Do you have to finish a chapter before setting the book down?
Nope!

What’s the best series you’ve read?
I’m not really a series reader–though I read the Harry Potter series, of course. Even as a young reader, I didn’t go for the Nancy Drews that all my other friends were hooked on. I must admit, though, that I have a current obsession with Flavia De Luce mysteries.
boxcar
What’s the first book you remember loving?
The Box Car Children–the first one. My second grade teacher Mrs. Zimmerman read it to us one chapter each afterno0n (unless we begged for one more and she gave in) and it was the first “chapter book” I had ever heard read aloud. I read it again myself a couple times as a child, and then to my own children twenty-some years later. I loved the chipped china cups Jessie found, and I can almost taste the potatoes she roasted in the fire. I’m still infatuated.

Ever been in a book club?
A few of my teaching colleagues and I had a book club for a couple years. I loved it because we talked about something other than school, and I got to see a different side of my co-workers. It kind of fizzled out, in part because of our busy lives, but I wonder. I think sometimes people start reading because it’s a good thing to do–kind of like taking vitamins–and that rubs off onto book clubs. I’m more of a I-must-talk-about-books-like-I-must-breathe type of gal.

Favorite book you read in school?
Now that I teach literature, it’s hard for me to remember what I loved as a student and what I love as a teacher! I didn’t like Fahrenheit 451 as a student, but I love teaching it. Same thing with Lord of the Flies. I think my favorite from high school is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Or maybe Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Or maybe …

Least favorite book you actually stuck with?

Recently, I’d have to say it was The Goldfinch. That book got so much press and I found nothing really redeeming about the main character. Same thing with Jonathon Franzen’s novels. I want to like them so that I, too, can be an oh-so-cool modern reader, but I find myself becoming frustrated by characters’ lack of moral insight. I’ll read a book with characters who are evil, but they’ve got to have some sort of realization, if not transformation. It’s the human story, after all.

ark
What is the best book gift you’ve received?
When my husband and I were dating, I coveted a coffee table book about Ethiopia titled African Ark. It was extraordinarily expensive in those 1990 prices: $75. He surprised me with a copy for Christmas (or my birthday?)–I knew it was an over-the-top gift for his bookstore staff/college student budget, but he always spoiled me. 

What author would you like to have a cup of coffee with?
Ray Bradbury was such an incredibly vibrant man, so engaged with life and the creative process. I’d like to start an I’d Like To Be Like Ray campaign; he’s such an example of how aging can be a time a generative period of life. Here’s a video I show my students each flameyear–what’s not to like about a man who wants to get his cat in the shot?!

If you could visit a place in any book, where would it be?
Kenya, for sure. I read Izak Dinesan, Beryl Markham, and Elsbeth Huxley and wanted to live in their world more than any other. Of course I realize that colonial Kenya was an oppressive place for the indigenous peoples and the wildlife. I don’t condone colonialism in any way–but those authors wrote about the land, lifestyle, and people in such a Romantic way, I was hooked. Still am.

What character from a book would you love to meet?
Interestingly, I find myself drawn to characters from the classics more than contemporary titles. (Except, maybe, for that little Flavia I mentioned earlier!) So it would be a toss up between Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett.

What is your favorite children’s book(s)?
I have so many, and most are favorites because I connect them to my own children–and since they now have children of their own, that means some of these titles are a bit dated. I hated the Berenstein Bears series (but my daughter loved them!). The kids also loved the Ruth Stiles Gannet’s Dragon books: My Father’s Dragon and Dragons of Blueland (Me, not so much.)
These are keepers:
Nicholas Bentley Stoningpot III
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge
Blueberries for Sal
(when we go blueberry picking I still say, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk”! and drive people crazy.)
any Tomie dePaola book
any Patricia Polacco book

Bookstore memories

bkstore
Eyes Like Stars@Flickr

In some ways, my life–the life I live now as a teacher and writer–began in a bookstore. When I turned thirty and my last babe was potty trained, I started working part time in an independent bookstore. It was the late eighties and I’d been a stay-at-home momma for several years. It was time to inch my way back into the real world. Claim at least a portion of my life again. Call something my own.

And while there were certainly challenges (pay, for one; retail hours for another), the memories I have of that time are bathed in a warm, lamp-lit glow. Here (in no particular order) are some of my favorite take-aways from those bookstore days.

  1. Working on Christmas Eve. I took a kind of sadistic glee in selling husbands (because, yes, the last minute shoppers were men) the heaviest, glossiest–and priciest!–book or tchotcke I could locate for his beloved. Because if she loved the British Isles, she was getting that $75 hardcover photo book of England. And if she loved to cook, the latest Martha Stewart was the thing for her. No paperbacks, no sale books. Nope. Buddy, if you waited until Christmas Eve to get her present, I’ll make sure she gets a good one.
  2. Sidewalk sale. Every summer the owners put on a book sale to end all book sales. Tables upon tables were set up in the mall, and pallets upon pallets of remaindered books were hi-lowed in, then stacked-cookbooks, children’s books, art books, history books, fiction. Set up made for a late night, but opening the cartons of books was like the best kind of Christmas morning.
  3. Shelving. I love physical books–their smell, the covers, blurbs on the back. There was no better way to get to know stock, authors, and titles that wouldn’t be my first pick than to take that cart out and shelve new stock. (Unpacking cartons and organizing the cart was pretty darn fun, too.) Our staff had total freedom to arrange shelves and face-out books we wanted to feature. So those three lonely copies of Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence? On my watch, I’d face them out.
  4. Hand selling  books. Our staff was small–eight to ten–and our customers were loyal and depended on our recommendations. One of the perks was being able to read ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copies) that publishing reps left with the managers. The new Clyde Edgerton would get passed from one staffer to the next, and when it was published go straight to the We Recommend shelves. Many were the customers who came in for one book and left with three–all because staff raved about the story or author and the customer couldn’t refuse.
  5. Janie’s coffee and strawberry shortcake cookies. The cookie shop down the mall baked seasonal favorites and their strawberry shortcake cookies couldn’t be duplicated. Think Walkers shortbread with a dollop of ooey gooey strawberry preserves in the middle. And the coffee was robust coffee house coffee before Starbuck’s even moved east of the Mississippi. And, yes, we were allowed to discretely snack during work hours.
  6. Putting together mass market dumps. Those cardboard displays of new paperbacks that are sectioned off in neat little compartments are called dumps. They often have an add-on feature of some sort: a cut-out character or scene or blurb to make the display pop. For some reason the ‘insert slot A into segment C’ was incredibly gratifying. If you put them together correctly, they were sturdy and strong. If not, they swayed on the base or tilted off-kilter like a drunken sailor.
  7. Customers. Book people are, well,  different. And I met a lot of characters. Like the Vietnam vet who was a voracious reader of poetry. Or the older gentleman who was as demanding and grumpy a man as I’ve ever met–who also founded a local accordion ensemble. The wealthy businessman who collected first edition hardcover mysteries. Or the woman who took out a purse flashlight and continued reading after the manager started flipping off banks of lights, our signal that we were closing soon.
  8. Staff. Book sellers are, well, interesting, to say the least. So conversations were satisfying. We talked about religion, relationships, recipes, authors, gardening, and the new Anne Tyler or Ken Follett. Readers and book sellers, I think, are people of infinite curiosity. There’s no better conversation to be had than with another person who is eager to know about something outside of themselves. I’ve run into a few of the staff (long since dispersed when the store closed) over the past twenty years and it’s easy to pick back up where we left off. One of my former co-workers is still my #1 Book Buddy (she’s also a blogger) and she, like the book sellers I’ve known and loved, is an incredibly interesting woman. And friend.
  9. Husband. I met my now-husband at the bookstore. See also #2, 4, 5, and 8.
  10. To Be Purchased Stacks. They were hidden under the counter, behind purses and bags, rubber banded together with our names written on a slip of paper. If our favorite author just published her latest, onto the pile it would go until we had the money. Let’s face it, a reader working in a bookstore is like the proverbial kid in the candy store. We needed to exercise some sort of self discipline or we’d never take home a cent of our paychecks.  We’d add books, compare our stacks with other staff, change our minds, re-shelve them in some crazy book buying ritual we repeated again and again.

I mourn the fact that in my Midwest city of 200,000 there is one independent bookstore. Yep–one. Now granted, we have a couple used bookstores, a New Age bookstore, and (this being the Midwest and all) a few religious bookstores. But if you want to pick up a travel book, a copy of the Box Car Children, an Agatha Christie mystery and the new Rachel Ray cookbook? One. The other choice is what I call a Big Box Bookstore and the character and ambiance is just not the same. And I understand. With the blessing (or curse) that is Amazon, that special order won’t take five days–you’ll get it in two. Bookstore margin is slim (40%) and so is profit.

I eventually left to teach high school; the store closed. Now even I buy books on Amazon and my ARCs come from digial galley services. My bookstore days might be out-of-print–but I still occasionally take a memory out and flip through for old time’s sake.


Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-june-2016

Destination: Homeward bound

Miles and miles and miles
Miles and miles and miles

After three driving days and 18 hours in the car, I was toast. I haven’t traveled alone in, like, ever. No college road trips because I was married and having babies. No divorcee road trips because I was scraping together a living and raising three kids. So this was a new adventure. But I have to admit–I liked it! Tiring as it was after five hours in the car. Frustrating as it was when I got ‘turned around’. (Notice how I got in touch with my testosterone there and didn’t say I got lost?!) I was large and in charge of when I ate and where I slept. I stopped when I wanted to and began the day at my leisure. No television. I blogged. I read.

I did come pretty close to muscling my way home in one day because I was so over the driving. But I knew I couldn’t do didn’t want to drive 11 straight hours. Over the trip I spent a lot of time talking myself through situations (“Just pull into the lot and look at the map.” “Take the next exit and get off 90–as long as you go west, you’ll get there.” That kind of thing.) So me-myself-and-I talked me down and decided that there was no way I should drive over 1600 miles without taking a couple side trips on the way home.

And so I did.

Stop #1 was Sioux Falls, South Dakota where I’d read about a gorgeous park right in the middle of the city. And beautiful it was. Falls Park sits along the Big Sioux river, the banks of which are Sioux quartzite, which, according to a handy green historical

Falls Park Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park–Sioux Falls, South Dakota

marker, is “silica-cemented quartz sandstone” which was formed by “wave action on the floor of a of an ancient continental sea” a billion years ago. The Big Sioux descends in a series of waterfalls which have in the past been harnessed: the ruins of a 19th century mill still stand, as well as a Sioux Falls Light and Power building that once housed a generator.

parkmeBut most surprising was the fact that visitors walked along the banks and out onto the rocks to the edge of the falls! I was hesitant at first, but when in Rome … The park was a beautiful place to stop and take a short hike to stretch my legs before I was on my way again.

[Funny side story: I’m following Google maps, skirting through a pork (1)slightly industrial area when I caught a distinct whiff of pork. Like smokey, spicy, roasting or grilled meat. I thought maybe I was channeling my husband who is fanatic about any meat product smoked and salted. Me talking again: “You can’t just imagine pork–maybe there’s a BBQ restaurant smoking meat nearby.” And then I saw the parking lot sign: Smithfield. Those workers must be perpetually hungry working in such deliciously hazardous conditions!]

Stop #2 was Austin, Minnesota, where my handy dandy Roadtrippers app told me I could find the new SPAM museum. Now I know foodies turn their nose up at the stuff (heck, nearly everyone I know finds SPAM revolting) but I grew up eating it. Maybe it’s an acquired taste–but I like it. My only reservation was that B (he of the smoked pork cravings) wasn’t with me to share the joy and I felt a little disloyal going without him. But only a little. I knew I’d find some great peace offerings souvenirs to bring him. And I did: a SPAM mug, a SPAM tee-shirt, and a few packaged SPAM samples. It’s difficult to describe a museum dedicated to a canned meat product, but link here to a short video clip I took that will give you a glimpse into this great SPAM emporium. And to top off my meat-o-ganza, I stopped across the street at Piggy Blues BBQ and dined on BBQ pork tacos. 

And then, finally, this little piggy went all the way home … and  I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. 

Lush and lavish: Amy Snow (review)

Amy Snow
Tracey Rees
Simon & Schuster

Life just seems to move at a slower pace in the summer. Afternoons are hot and humid, the evenings languid. We spend a lot of time on the deck and not so much time in front of the television. It’s a time when we try to break free from our daily routine.  Amy Snow, a novel published earlier this month, makes for a great escape. One of this novel’s blurbs reads: “An abandoned baby, a treasure hunt, a secret. As Amy sets forth on her quest, readers will be swept away …” Pretty accurate, I’d say.

Wealthy heiress Aurelia Venneway finds a newborn baby naked in the snow. Without a thought to propriety, she bundles the little girl under her cloak and rushes into the parlor.amy snow Lady Venneway is cold and distant; she’s just lost yet another pregnancy and the foundling is like a slap in the face. The orphan (named Amy Snow by Aurelia) is banished to the kitchen while the entire household staff tries to keep her out of Lady Venneway’s sight. For a time, Amy is Aurelia’s play thing–eight years younger, she adores the headstrong lady, and is game to join in any of Aurelia’s escapades. And then the two young women grow to be best friends. It’s harder now to stay invisible to Lady Venneway, but the consequences if Amy doesn’t are humiliating. When Aurelia becomes deathly ill–and the prognosis is dire–she demands that her parents permit Amy Snow to be her companion.

The real story begins after Aurelia’s death. Turned out of the house immediately after the funeral, Amy Snow is on her own. Or is she? A mysterious letter is secreted away in her skirt–and Amy soon begins the work of getting to know the real Aurelia Venneway. Before her death,  Aurelia arranged a scavenger hunt, of sorts, for Amy, each clue giving her specific directions: find Enwhistle’s bookshop; stay in Twickenham for three months; travel to Bath. At the end of her travels, Amy doesn’t simply adore her friend blindly but rather with eyes open to Aurelia’s charms … and her faults.

What adds even more fun to the novel is that it was an unsolicited manuscript, submitted by writer Tracey Rees to the Richard and Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ Competition–which makes the author’s story a bit of a fairy tale, just like Amy’s. Amy Snow kept me turning page after page–like the post title says, the novel is lavish. If you want to get lost in a world of nineteenth century manners, velvet dresses, carriages, stately horses, dashing young men, and strong-willed women, Amy Snow is perfect for your blanket or beach chair reading.