Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hard Laughter - Anne Lamott

I was delighted to rediscover this novel by Anne Lamott. I'd read it long enough ago to forget the details. But I remember the style and it was as engaging to read this time as it was the first time.

HARD LAUGHTER tells the story of 23-year-old writer Jennifer whose father Wallace is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Jennifer and her brothers - along with friends and family - experience a roller coaster of emotions that ultimately draw this quirky family ever closer together. With a great eye for detail and a deft sense of humor, Lamott brings every character, including the town they live in, to life, making the reader care about them all.

I had the pleasure of hearing Lamott speak at a Des Moines Public Library event almost a year ago. Her 'voice' is as clear and engaging in person as it is in her writing.

It is a pleasure to read - and learn from - really good writing like this. Hard Laughter is worth reading twice. Worth reading three times.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Good fences make good neighbors

We have new neighbors and we're delighted. Like the previous folks, the new owners are horse people. Watching the horses out my kitchen window is one of my great pleasures.

One morning, one of the horses took to vigorously scratching its neck against a fence posts. The fence was none too sturdy in the first place and I wasn't at all certain it would stand up against this assault. When I mentioned it, my husband commented, "I hope their fence doesn't become our problem."

Growing up on a farm, I can remember my dad talking with neighbors about repairing boundary line fences. As was the custom, the farmers faced each other across the fence. Each farmer took responsibility for the half of the fence to his right. I viewed this as quite a neighborly custom. 'Good fences make good neighbors,' everyone said. Robert Frost included that famous line in his poem "Mending Wall."

It wasn't until this past week, because of a dispute that made the Des Moines Register, that I learned my dad and our neighbors were following the law. In 1851, shortly after Iowa became a state, when the enterprise of the vast majority of the state was agriculture involving both livestock and crops, the Iowa legislature passed a law that made those on both sides of a fence responsible for installing and maintaining the fence line.

As more farmers turn solely to crops and as more town people acquire acreages that abut livestock farms, the attitudes toward fences and who should pay for their upkeep changes.

We love to see the horses in their pasture, but not on our lawn or in our garden. We understand that good fences make good neighbors. And we certainly benefit when our neighbors keep their horses contained, but would we be willing to help pay to make that happen?  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Only the best

Winter has given us only the best this year. Many of the warmest days on record to enjoy shirtsleeve walks where we stepped carefully to avoid goose gifts along the path.

A sunset that flamed and boiled and looked like molten lava on the last day of 2011.

The clearest mornings to be surprised and delighted and sent scurrying for my camera to capture something I'd never seen before - a hot air balloon floating right over our deck on a January morning.

And this morning, the most beautiful winter wonderland snow clinging to the trees and glinting like diamonds as the first rays of sun hit.

Yes, this year winter has given Iowa the best.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tied to apron string memories

A friend gave me an apron for Christmas. It's a beauty - with ruffled layers of lime green, cherry red, and royal blue. It makes me happy to look at it, and I feel cheerful when I wear it. Which is on special occasions.

Aprons are not the staple of kitchen wear today that they once were. My mother wore an apron - most often to protect her Sunday dress from spatter as she fried the chicken we'd have when we came home from church. She didn't wear an apron everyday. Not like my grandmothers.

My grandmothers donned their aprons each morning as they dressed. They'd no more have gone to the kitchen without an apron then they would have stepped out without their shoes. They used their aprons for far more than protecting their clothes. Aprons were potholders, they were for drying hands and tears and wiping away sweat, they were slings for carrying apples and eggs and vegetables. Far easier to wash an apron than the dress it covered. On a visit to the Living History Farm in Des Moines, I learned that aprons were the first line of defense from sparks flying out of the wood cookstove.

Aprons figure prominently in the novel I'm writing about farm life in the early 1900s. Tying on an apron puts me in the mood and the mindset of that time. Wearing an apron, I feel more capable. In an apron, I join the ranks of farm women who went into the kitchen every day and worked the magic that brought meals to the table and contributed to the stability of farm living. Women in aprons got things done.

Do you have a favorite apron or apron memory? If you do, I'd like to hear about it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Playing with paper dolls

Paper dolls. My sisters and I played with them when we were little. I don't remember who the characters were, but it was great fun to change the clothes over and over, imagining the dolls in different settings. Paper dolls. A great way to spend hours as a child.

Fast forward to today. One of my favorite shows this year is Downton Abbey.  This terrific Masterpiece Classic series on PBS has held me spellbound, fueling my passion of the moment for all things WWI.  Sadly, the season finale was on Sunday.

What would I do until season 3 airs? As it turns out, someone has answered the question. Play with paper dolls! The enterprising folks at Vulture have created paper dolls for the key Downton Abbey characters.

These paper dolls are a hoot. The Dowager Countess, for instance, includes six changeable faces to convey her different expressions. But they are all the same! Likely funny only to those who watch the series.

The idea of paper dolls is perfect. The timing is perfect.  A childhood pleasure meets an adult pleasure. I love it when the stars come into alignment!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Learning from others' crises

When I was in college, I took a self defense class during which I learned to ward off an attacker, break a fall, and use common objects to defend myself. Over and over again, the instructor threw me to the ground, attacked me from the front, back, side. We practiced until my reactions were second nature. The point was to be prepared, to learn the moves before an attack occurred. What I did in that class is no different than a company preparing for a crisis.

When a crisis happens to someone else, businesses have many reactions. The first is generally relief - Thank god that didn't happen to us! Some also express naive denial - Thank god that could never happen to us! What they would be wise to think is - What if something like that did happen to us?

Whenever a crisis happens, I find myself thinking, "What would I have done? How would I have advised that client had I been their public relations counselor?" The media are full of opportunities to exercise this thinking. The mental equivalent of my self defense class.

I guest blogged this week on - discussing what went wrong from a public relations standpoint in the Susan G. Komen For the Cure - Planned Parenthood blow up.

The rules of crisis communication include: Telling it all. Telling it fast. Keep on telling it. A fourth is to Tell your own story. You can't always control whether a crisis happens to you, but you can always control how you communicate about it.

It's easier, I admit, to be on the sidelines for one of these exercises than in the frying pan. On the outside, I don't have the pressure of media breathing down my neck, the public banging on the social media door, or the CEO and board demanding, what do we do? Being on the outside also means I don't have all the insider info.

But there are guidelines to successfully navigating a crisis. It's best if you don't have to figure out what those moves are after a crisis hits.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A confab of rabbits

A light snow blanketed the lawn this morning. Enough to freshen the landscape. As I made my way down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper, I noticed there had been a confab of rabbits at play in the early hours.

Their tracks came from all directions, crisscrossed the driveway, met two or three in a group, then took off again. I wondered what business of the warren brought them all out. Hitting the road for the work day? Planning a potluck before the hawks take wing? An early morning exercise class?

A little bit of silliness on my part, I know, but fun to imagine. We've had so little snow this winter, I realized I hadn't had the pleasure of spotting animal tracks on a fresh canvas and wondering what the animal kingdom has been up to.

In an open winter like we've had, food is easy to find. Water has been free flowing. Life has been comparatively easy in the wild world. Good for them. Not so many aimless musings for me. And I miss that. Seeing the world in a different way is just one of the reasons I enjoy winters with snow.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What's in a name?

Negro. Black. Colored. People of Color. African-American.

Having spent my career in the public relations world, and considering myself reasonably sensitive in any case, I've always tried to be mindful of using the terminology groups of people prefer to describe themselves. Because the terminology changes regularly within the black community - and because it's all so politically charged - I've often felt as though I'm walking on eggshells, uncertain whether I'm using the right term of the moment.   

A recent article written by Jesse Washington for the Associated Press addressed the changing attitudes among young black people on this topic. According to the article, increasingly, young black people are shunning the term African-American. Census figures show that 1 in 10 black people in America is born abroad. So the slave ancestry connotation of African-American is at the least inaccurate and possibly even offensive.

I was dismayed to learn from a prominent black educator that some in the black community are offended when any black person who cannot prove slave ancestry adopts the term African-American to describe themselves.  Rather than bring people together, the labeling is used as a wedge to drive apart. But then, maybe for some, that's the point.

We have seen that in the political arena. Both Alan Keyes and Herman Cain used slave ancestry as a mark of differentiation against President Obama. The not-so-subtle implication that the President isn't black enough or American enough.

But then such tactics are used often, regardless of race, to declare oneself 'in' and someone else 'out.'  

The more generations that pass since their ancestors left Africa, the more tenuous the connection some may feel.  One young man, Gibr George of Miami, interviewed for the AP article said, "Are we always going to be tethered to Africa? Spiritually I'm American. When the war starts, I'm fighting for America."

All the terms, all the labels, had a purpose. They meant something in our society at the time. Perhaps moving us all along, maybe to greater awareness, pride, sensitivity, hopefully to greater cohesiveness but perhaps to greater separateness.

I know words matter. I know names matter. But I'm with Gibr George - Couldn't we all just be Americans? I hope I live to see that day.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Amazing Giveaway: A Free Pass to the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference

Willy Wonka can't beat this. Writer's Digest is giving away a free ticket to the San Francisco Writer's Conference - Feb. 16-19, 2012.

This full-registration pass includes all sessions and keynotes in the main conference, plus participation at the Agent Speed Dating portion. Total worth $745!

The opportunity to meet other authors, hear incredible speakers, pitch my novel to agents - all in San Francisco - well, of course, I hope I win! But you might want to enter, too. Follow the entry rules at Chuck Sambuchino's blog. 

And good luck. Someone will win. And soon.

Friday, February 3, 2012

There's still time

Back in December, I wrote about the World Book Night - a worldwide effort to give away 1 million books. I'm pleased to report I've been chosen to be one of those giving books away. Hurrah!

I'm re-posting that blog because event organizers have extended the application deadline for joining the effort to February 6. There's still time. Check below for info and links. Then, act fast.

Beaverdale Books is one of the distribution sites for Des Moines. There may be others. So come along. Have some fun. Give some books away!

Re-Post from Dec. 16, 2011

Giving Away 1 Million Books

Want to help give help away a million books? The organizers of World Book Night are looking for 50,000 passionate readers to do just that on April 23, 2012.

Anna Quindlen, novelist and honorary chairwoman of World Book Night in the USA, says "It will be like Halloween on an intellectual level." 

Volunteers choose one of 30 titles - mostly current novels and memoirs - to give out. The costs of the million paperback books have been underwritten by publishers, printers and paper companies. Authors have waived their royalties.

You make your application on the World Book Night website. If you're chosen to be one of the book givers, they'll let you know by the end of February.

I've signed up and am keeping my fingers crossed. If I am chosen, I'll be giving out books to residents of Oakridge Neighborhood, a community providing housing and services to low-income people in Des Moines.

My book choices include:

If I'm not chosen, I may go buy the books and give them out at Oakridge anyway. I just think the whole deal is really cool.

Taking to the water

I am not a water person. I love looking at the ocean and listening to the surf on beach vacations, but I enjoy all this with both feet on terra firma. So no one is more surprised than I that I've become a fan of sea kayaking.

The idea of white water kayaking has always scared me - what if I tipped over and couldn't get free of the craft? Not a problem with a sea kayak since I sit perched atop a plastic craft similar to a surf board. If it capsizes, which seems highly unlikely, I'm in the drink - and bobbing free and upright like a cork in my personal flotation device.

After the first time on the water, I was hooked. The craft is stable, even in the wake of large, fast-moving motor craft. (Yachts and speedboats gave no quarter, I might add.) Maneuvering is easy. 

The first time out, I was worried about a lot of things - falling off because of my own ineptitude, being swamped by another craft, getting tipped over by a whale or porpoise.

The reality was so different. Seeing the bay at eye level, the water shimmering like blue silk. Swarms of fish bubbling just below the surface, the targets of hungry gulls. Passing party boats filled with cheering, waving revelers. Feeling the strength of paddling. Hearing the quiet when I stopped and let my kayak move at the whim of the current.

By the time I surfed a wave back to shore, I was ready to go again. And I did. Kayaking became part of my every day beach routine in Puerto Vallarta.

By the end of the week, I paddled out each morning, hoping to see a whale.  Ah, I wish. Wouldn't that be cool!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Just another day in paradise

I can't say anything that this picture doesn't already.

Puerto Vallarta - January 2012