Monthly Archives: October 2011

Death of a tree

We had a freak storm this weekend. It dumped heavy snow on trees that had barely started to shed their leaves, much less settle in for the winter. Many of them couldn’t handle the strain and opted to drop entire branches rather than continue detaching their leaves the old fashion way. The big old oak on the back corner of our lot will be a shadow of its former self once the town removes its broken limbs, several of which are hanging on by a thread, draped over wires that control who-knows-what. I know the town will tend to the oak because they consider it their tree. They visit unannounced and lop off limbs when they do their peripatetic pruning.

One tree that most emphatically does not belong to the town is a pear tree Andrew planted about ten years ago. He had created the beautiful garden berm that occupies the front corner of our property, far enough back to avoid damage from snowplows, but close enough to the street to provide the suggestion of screening. He designed the area, affectionately known to us as Worm Island, to accommodate a tree. The one he chose, which was delivered in a pickup truck, was around eight feet tall and had a heavy root ball. I know nothing about gardening, but if root balls are anything like puppies’ paws, it was obvious that this tree would be growing for a long time. With his brother’s help, they managed to wrangle it into the hole he prepared for it, and there it proudly stood – until this weekend.

That pear tree had grown to around thirty feet tall, though I confess we never measured it so perhaps I’m off by a few feet in one direction or the other. But it was a mature tree. It gave us shade, beautified our property, and reminded me how fortunate I am to have a husband who likes to get his hands in the dirt.

It only took a couple of hours of snow to cause the fatal splits, which have left it in three sections, each leaning in a different direction, each draped over wires that control who-knows-what, and us mourning its fate.

Across the line in Belmont, my in-laws lost an oak tree that chose to fall over rather than face the continued abuse of New England weather gone wild. My own parents, in Lexington, spent the night listening to branches cracking and falling onto their home and into their yard. The snow was a nuisance, but until the branches were cleared off their driveway they weren’t going anywhere anyway. Other towns closed school for the day, and some even canceled trick-or-treating. In the great scheme of things, I know we should be grateful, but in our little patch of the American Dream, we are distraught.

I expect that eventually someone official will come along and remove the limbs that are leaning on the wires that do who-knows-what. Perhaps it will even be the town, and if so, I will be grateful. In the spring my husband will plant a new tree. He and his brother are ten years older, so they may need to press others into service. Fortunately, our children are also ten years older, and they have been growing like… trees. They are strong and healthy and for that we are truly grateful.

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Complaining about Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney has done his last bit of griping on 60 Minutes. A friend of mine suggested that his retirement creates a job opening for yours truly, the not-so-subtle implication being that I like to complain. I disagree. I don’t like to complain per se, but I don’t shy away from it. I merely speak my mind while others slavishly adhere to the old adage if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Some people take that a step further. I know a woman who doesn’t ask questions because she doesn’t want to risk saying something that might be considered rude or offensive. Since she never knows what that might be, she avoids questions altogether. Finding that out was a revelation. Until then, I assumed that she didn’t like me, because I take the opposite approach. I ask questions to express my interest. I do it to show that I care and want to know what you have to say, what you’ve been up to, and how the world is treating you. I also feel it earns me the right to tell you, in return, how I am, what I’ve been up to and how the world is treating me. I operate on the premise that if I ask you something you’re not comfortable discussing, you will politely decline to answer, or change the subject, either of which works for me.

In the interview 60 Minutes did with Andy Rooney on the occasion of his retirement I learned more about him than I wanted to know. I had always thought of him as a quirky, plainspoken guy, someone who could make being a curmudgeon charming. In real life it seems he was a little low on charm. You can watch the video if you’re interested; I mention it because there is a difference between speaking your mind, and being small-minded. I don’t think I would have liked him very much. And if I’d gotten to spend a few minutes with him, and I’d asked him a few questions, I’d have figured that out pretty quickly.

I will grant you that I am more inquisitive than most, but I’m never malevolently motivated. I’m just plain curious. Lots of people seem to equate curiosity with being rude. If I had a dime for every time I asked a question that someone else thought was inappropriate I’d be a wealthy woman. Ironically, the people I ask the questions of rarely seem discomfited. I have friends who wish they could be more like me, but having been raised to bottle things up inside, they can’t. Then there are the people who use me as their proxy to ask a question they can’t bring themselves to ask, but whose answer they are burning to know.

Do I sound like I’m complaining? I don’t mean to. I’m making an observation about the way people interact with each other socially. Sure it involves some carping, but I do hate it when… Hang on. Sorry about that. I’ll stop here. I don’t want to be the next Andy Rooney. I don’t want my legacy to be that I complained; I want it to be that I expressed interest. What do you think about that?

Writer Idol

I assume you’re familiar with the television juggernaut, American Idol. This is the show where aspiring rock stars sing a snippet of a song for a panel of been-there-done-that rock stars. If the majority of the judges give a thumbs up then the aspirant moves on to the next round. This show has been so successful that it has spawned a variety of other Idols. This past weekend I attended one as part of the Boston Book Festival: Writer Idol.

At Writer Idol, aspiring authors submit the first 250 words of their manuscript, anonymously. Pages are picked at random and read out loud for the judges, three literary agents this year. This was the third annual BBF, and the third time I’ve attended this session and submitted a first page. My fantasy is that my page will be chosen, the judges will all love it, and one of them will sign me to a contract on the spot. Not only has that not happened (yet), but it flies in the face of what the audience is advised to expect. The session description warns that it is “…not for the thin-skinned!”

The agents are not kind. They are not quite Simon Cowell, but neither are they Paula Abdul. They are all straight shooters and unapologetic. Since they would be the first to admonish you to avoid clichés, none of them would say, “Don’t give up your day job,” but it is clear that that is what they are thinking. Their comments can be amusing, particularly if it’s not your piece they are eviscerating. In fact, the draw of this session has parallels with Gladiator games of yore. The audience comes expecting metaphorical blood. At the very least, they embrace the opportunity to wallow in schadenfreude, other people’s misery, or in this case, humiliation.

Some attendees are there to learn how to write a tighter first page, or more accurately, how to write a first page that will compel an editor or agent to read the second page. The most important thing the new writer learns, however, is that they need to write a kick-ass first sentence that will grab the reader’s attention, for to hear the judges tell it, these readers have the patience of a three-year-old waiting for his turn with a new toy.

There are a set of rules that new writers can follow if they want to maximize their chances of having the first page read to completion. Some of the simpler ones are; don’t start with waking up from a dream; don’t mention any bodily fluids; and don’t have the protagonist describe themselves in a mirror. Unless the first sentence is so incredibly good that it doesn’t matter if your character is waking up, or peeing, or looking in the mirror. In which case, all bets are off.

Writer Idol is something every new writer should attend at least once. It could be just the push they need to give up this writing nonsense and get a real job. Or it could convince them that with all the drek agents and editors need to wade through, they are bound to appreciate yours when they finally pull it out of the slush pile. I give that three thumbs up.

Book clubs are for more than books

When was the last time your book club discussed a book? If it’s anything like mine, discussing the book takes a backseat to socializing. My book club comprises my oldest friends. It is older than my marriage. The original, core group of members were girlfriends who worked for the same company and knew everything there was to know about one another. When we convened for book club we didn’t need to spend any time catching up; we could focus on the book. And in the beginning we read serious literature like Of Human Bondage and Sons and Lovers. We were still relatively new when we decided to include our significant others, inviting them to join us for a discussion of Our Man in Havana, a book deemed light enough for them to enjoy. The men never left, and the book choices were wide and varied.

Over time we created an algorithm for who would choose the next book. The variables included who hosted last, who chose the last book, and whose house we were going to next. It ends up being rather complicated (I blame the math majors among us) and we spend a few minutes at each meeting reviewing how it works. We also created a mnemonic to help us remember whose house we would meet at next. It would work, too, if we could remember what the mnemonic meant.

We’ve read a lot of wonderful books. I’ve bought each one, filling several bookshelves. There were also some memorable disappointments. No one made it through Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, and we still laugh about how painful The Master of Ballantrae was. We used to work hard to find books that none of us had read. A few years ago we decided it might not be a bad idea if someone had read the book that was being suggested. That way we could assert some form of quality control.

If life had stayed the way it was in those early days, we’d probably still be diligently discussing books, but that’s not the way life works. The group has had marriages and children, a divorce and illnesses. The company we once worked for doesn’t exist anymore and none of us has worked with another of us for many years. We try to meet every two months, but it probably averages out to more like three or four. We use the time to catch up; a lot can happen in three months. We spend a weekend in the fall at my family’s house in Vermont. A lot of visiting gets done around the fireplace with a few bottles of wine, when no one has to drive anywhere. And there’s an annual pilgrimage to another family’s home on the beach in Gloucester. We talk about having book club in Tuscany, but haven’t yet. No one is ruling it out though. Maybe when all the kids are out of college.

When I suggest that my husband read the book for the next meeting, he scoffs that it’s not a book club; it’s a social club. But he’s wrong. There are always a few people who have actually read the book, and however anemic, there is time spent discussing it. A good book club is about more than books. It’s about the great stories we all have to tell.

Time to get a new battery? Maybe not…

I wear a set of silver bracelets on my left wrist. The first was given to me when I was thirteen. Then my mother went through a silver work phase that produced several more. When I was in high school, I worked at a bookstore next to a jewelry store. I became friendly with the husband and wife jewelers and spent my breaks there. That relationship begat a small silver pig ─ and several more bangles. I was sixteen and wearing ten bracelets when I stopped adding to the collection that I still wear every day.

But this piece is not about silver bracelets. It’s about watches, which for years I didn’t wear because my left wrist was otherwise occupied. I used a cheap pocket watch for a time, but after cracking the crystal on my second or third one, I decided to carry a wristwatch in my purse instead. That solution, however, was inconvenient and as a result I became one of those annoying people who asked everyone else what time it was.

In a moment of pure inspiration, my sister gave me a plain silver bangle, whose simple lines are interrupted, oh-so-briefly, by a small watch face. On my wrist it blends in and looks like one of my bracelets. I wear it, too, every day.

Periodically, the watch stops and I take it to Swanson Jewelers. While I wait, they pry off the back and replace the battery. This simple, inexpensive service has made me a loyal customer; I want their business to stay strong. I know watch sales are suffering because young people today use their cell phones to tell the time. I don’t remember where I first heard that, but I found an MSNBC article that says as much. And if that doesn’t do it for you, ask a stray teen what time it is and see what happens.

Recently, I came across a watch that had belonged to my husband’s grandmother. It’s a pretty little thing with a small face, and a thin, gold, flexible band. I thought it might be fun to wear as an accessory on my non-silvered wrist. I set the time, slipped it on and waited for the second hand to start moving. It didn’t. I took it off and made a note to take it to Swanson Jewelers to get the battery replaced.

A few days later, as I left the house with the watch, I had an epiphany: older watches don’t have batteries. I twisted the little button on the side, the same button I set the time with, back and forth, back and forth, in a motion driven by my sensory memory, and the second hand started its rounds.

I was going to rant about cell phones replacing watches and how technology undermines everything we hold dear. Now, I’m too embarrassed. Even I can’t argue that watch batteries are new technology. Instead I will point out that I own a variety of timepieces, and that there is a place, and yes, a time, for all of them.