Sunday, May 31, 2009

Slow down and look around…

As I was driving out of my neighborhood yesterday, I spotted a police car parked alongside the road a short distance ahead. I quickly pumped my brakes to meet the 20 mph speed limit. I was relieved to escape without sirens or flashing lights following me.

But it did seem like an odd location to monitor speeders. Maybe a second patrol car would be waiting when I turned onto the main roadway, hoping to catch those who believed they were in the clear and had resumed driving faster than they should. So I drove slowly (OK, the speed limit) down that road, too.

When I rounded the curve, I saw a large deer sprint across the road a few yards ahead. But I almost didn’t see the tiny fawn struggling to keep up with it. The baby was only a few feet tall and still had its camouflage spots. Had I been driving my usual speed, I might have killed that beautiful animal.

This realization was frightening -- and a gift. It was another reminder of how important it is to slow down and appreciate the world around us. Twice in the previous week I'd noticed new things along my regular routes – a tiny cemetery tucked between two houses along a busy thoroughfare one day and lovely gardens hugging a fence near another home a few days later.

Has this ever happened to you -- noticing something for the first time even though you've walked or driven past it many times before? Think about the routes you travel in a normal day or week. Do you see – I mean really see – the buildings and views along the way? Is it possible you’re missing things in your world? This week, try slowing down to take a closer look. You might be surprised at what you find.

PS: When I drove back into the neighborhood two hours later, the police car had not moved. Given the limited number of patrol cars in my community, it's unusual for a cruiser to be parked at one location so long. Suspecting that something major was going on, I pulled alongside the patrol car to ask. The officer didn't acknowledge me. I looked closer. Still no response. Imagine my surprise when I finally realized it was a mannequin behind the wheel.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Burning questions

Can a cake catch on fire and if so, does it emit deadly gases?

After this weekend’s Pistachio Cake mishap, I consider it important to know the answers to these questions. They could determine whether I almost killed my kid, I’m exhibiting Alzheimer’s symptoms and/or suffering from Baby Boomer Attention Deficit Disorder.

Husband No. 1 and I were driving back from a Saturday morning trip to the Library when my cell phone rang. No. 1 son, home for the holiday weekend, had walked into the house from an errand and was greeted by the oven timer buzzing at full blast (though not enough to awaken No. 2 son upstairs).

“Oh my God,” I gulped. “I forgot I’d put the Pistachio Cake in the oven. Is it on fire?”

Husband No. 1’s eyes were the size of saucers. He had that “do I need to call 911” expression (due no doubt to my history of “visits” from fire apparatus with sirens blaring).

After being assured no flames were coming from the oven and there was no need for a fourth visit from firefighters, I asked how the cake looked. Long pause. “Well-done,” No. 1 son finally replied.

I disconnected the call in a panic. Not about the cake, mind you, but that I’d spent time making it, put it in the oven and then, well, completely forgot about it. Could I blame my excitement over the news that the reportedly hilarious book “The Spellman Files” (Think Part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry) by Lisa Lutz was available for borrowing from the Library? Probably not.

“Ohmigod, I wonder if I should be tested for Alzheimer’s or ADD,” I moaned. “What if I’d burned down the house and killed our son?”

“I don’t think cakes can catch on fire,” Husband No. 1 replied.

“But what about deadly gases? I could have killed him.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone dying from cake fumes or pistachio gases,” he said, his eyes now back to normal size. “But maybe now you’ll stop complaining about me forgetting things.”

Unlikely. However, I am happy to report the cake was only slightly darker than usual and tasted as wonderful as always. I love this cake. It's easy to make and it can be used as a breakfast item or a dessert. It's the only Bundt cake I've ever made that doesn't stick to the pan. It freezes so well no one can tell you made it a week earlier. And now I know it doesn’t catch on fire easily. This could be important in the future.

PS: Before I could relate this tale to my friend, she announced she was very concerned about her own memory because just the other day she’d left the hot soapy water running to fill her laundry room sink, got distracted by a question and 30 minutes later discovered a river running through her house, into the basement and seeping into her carpeted closet. I thanked her very much for sharing her story.

Do you suppose getting distracted and forgetting so easily is contagious?

In the meantime, here's the recipe for the apparently indestructible Pistachio Cake:

1 pkg. butter cake mix (if unavailable, use yellow cake mix)

1 box instant pistachio pudding mix
1/2 c. oil
4 eggs
1/2 tsp. almond flavoring
½ tsp butter flavoring
1 cup sour cream (fat-free is OK)
(a few drops of green food coloring if darker color desired)

For topping:
½ c chopped nuts (sliced almonds, walnuts, whatever)
3 TB sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour (or spray) 10-inch Bundt pan. Blend all cake ingredients well. Mix 1 minute on low speed, scrape side, another 2 minutes on high. Make topping separately.
To assemble: Put half the topping in bottom of pan, then half the cake ingredients, rest of topping and rest of cake.
Bake at 350 for 45-60 minutes (toothpick test), cool on rack 10-15 minutes, check sides. If ready, flip out, or wait another 10 minutes.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Steal That Book?

When '60s activist Abbie Hoffman wrote the cult classic “Steal This Book,” his intent was to inspire people to challenge the status quo. I don't think he meant for people to go out and literally steal books – or their plots.

But I wonder if that's going on with authors today who use characters and plots from literature as foundations for their own work. Did they “Steal This Book” or are they merely "borrowing”?

Either way, it doesn't seem to bother some publishers. My local bookstore recently hosted an event featuring major publishing house representatives who offered reading recommendations. They not only talked about books with exotic locations and unusual characters, as you might expect, but also gushed over four novels based on literature created by someone else.

“Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!” apparently is a big hit. It's described as an expanded version of "Pride & Prejudice -- only with zombies -- that's supposedly written in classic Jane Austen style by a guy named Seth Grahame-Smith.

In “The Heroines," Eileen Favorite writes about what it would be like if fictional heroines like Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary attended a literary retreat in Illinois. According to the description, this “lively, fresh and enormously entertaining novel gives readers a chance to experience their favorite heroines all over again, or introduces these fictional women so beguilingly that further acquaintance will likely follow.”

Does this mean it's OK to “borrow” these characters for fun and profit if the reader then goes back to the original works? I’m not sure their creators -- the long-deceased authors like Margaret Mitchell and Gustav Flaubert -- will get much satisfaction from that.

In "Finn,” author John Clinch “re-imagines” Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn from the viewpoint of Huck’s degenerate father. And the lead novella in “Dictation: A Quartet” is about what might happen if female secretaries taking dictation from writers Henry James and Joseph Conrad meet and decide to make their own marks on those authors’ works.

"Fan fiction" is used to describe stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, but it generally isn't offered for sale by major publishers. These books seem to be more "metafiction” – a new term used for parallel novels "with the same period as a previous work, and many of the same characters, but told from a different perspective.”

Metafiction has been especially profitable for Gegory Maguire. He’s written three novels based on L. Frank Baum's “The Wizard of Oz” -- "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” on which the Broadway musical is based; “Son of a Witch,” and “A Lion Among Men.” From Cinderella, he created “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” while his “Mirror Mirror” is based on the story of Snow White.

This all has me wondering if I'm wasting my time creating a setting and original characters for my mystery novel-in-progress. It might be easier to just sprinkle a little imagination over someone else's creations.

First, I should pick an exotic location. Not many U.S. novels are based in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan so that might work and I like how the word sounds. But what classic literature should I "borrow" from? The Bible? What about “Cat in the Hat”? My mother thinks “Grapes of Wrath” might work. Maybe I could even add a character named John Steinbeck....

What do you think about the idea of "metafiction"? Is it stealing or borrowing --and does anyone care?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Welcome to the Land of Denial

At what age is a child too old to be ordered home by his mother?

That question has been nagging me since a recent conversation with No. 1 Son, now just a few months shy of Police Academy graduation. (Again, I blame myself for this. If I had let him have a toy gun as a child, we might not be having discussi0ns that make me incredibly grateful for my hairdresser and the miracles of hair dye.)

Intellectually, I know he is at the academy to learn how to become a big city police officer. But my stomach ache first began when he announced he couldn't train on the street until he got his bulletproof vest, which had to be custom made. I told myself: That’s good. They’re going to make sure he’s safe. In the meantime, no one is shooting at him and he’s getting paid.

The Kevlar vest arrived. He now wears it as part of his daily uniform so it will become as comfortable and routine as wearing underwear. It's also led to training opportunities outside the academy. One of the first calls he observed was a domestic incident and when someone smelled PCP, dozens of squad cars and a helicopter descended on the scene. Very exciting. And, no one was shooting at him.

Last week, he was issued his gun, a Glock, that’s “mine until I leave the force or shoot someone.”

Shoot someone? My days in the Land of Denial (LOD is a very happy place, by the way) did not include the possibility that he might actually have to shoot someone ELSE to “stop a threat” (they don't say "shoot to kill"). I had briefly considered that people might shoot at HIM, but then I thought about that specially made protective vest and all the money that's being spent on training to keep him safe. All was well in the LOD -- until the “shoot someone” comment.

I gulped. “Well, I hope that never happens.” It was time to change the subject. “So, what comes next in your training?” High-speed driving, he replied. Hmm. That shouldn’t be much of a problem given his driving record with the State of New Hampshire. OK, I can deal with that.

“But we still have to get hit with the asp, be tasered and go in the gas chamber.”

Asp and taser I'd heard before. But gas chamber? Double gulps. Big-time stomach pain. When I found my voice again, I said, “Get in the car and come home.” He laughed. Then I asked why he had to go into a gas chamber.

“We have to be pepper-sprayed.”

The barricades around the LOD were crumbling. “Why?”

“We have to be pepper-sprayed, tasered and hit with the asp so we know what it’s like and we’ll be less likely to use them unless we really have to.”

“Pack up your stuff. I’m coming to get you. I can be there by morning.”

He laughed again. But I wasn't joking. Then I thought about it. I suppose any policeman risking encounters with armed gang-bangers, psychotic criminals or trigger-happy idiots isn’t afraid of a little pepper spray.

It’ll be just a little, right?

Land of Denial, here I come – and this time, I think I’ll stay a while.

UPDATES ON PREVIOUS BLOGS: I'm happy to report Buddy the Dog seems to be recovering well and appreciated all the emails, calls, treats and get well cards. Also, No. 2 son agreed to take two anthropology courses first to see if he should change his major and we did eat Easter dinner on paper plates at No. 1 son's apartment in a really fun experience we'll laugh about for years.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Worst Fears

Like many people, I’ve spent more time than I'd like in emergency rooms. But until this past Saturday, I'd never spent time in one for animals.

It looked a little different from the ERs I’ve frequented. The sick and injured couldn’t tell the doctors where they hurt. The magazines had names like “Bark.” And instead of a soothing art featuring flowers or exotic places, there were portraits of animals on the walls. But the emotions of the people waiting were the same as in any ER: fear, dread, and concern.

As I write this, my sore and subdued dog sleeps near my feet. He has remained close by since he was attacked by two dogs during our Saturday afternoon stroll. The owner accidentally dropped the leashes and when I saw the dogs running toward us, I thought they wanted to play. No one expected what happened next.

I’m surprised my screams weren't heard a mile away as I tried to wrestle Buddy away from the jaws of his attackers and the owner attempted to pull the large dogs off my 18-pound Lhasa Apso. My dog's abundant long hair protected him from more severe injuries. Even so, he has a small wound in his ear, a nearly 5-inch, stitched-up gash with a drain poking out of his side following surgery, and dark bruises on his back.

I feel guilty that I was unable to protect him. But I am relieved that my dog will recover. As a fiction writer, someday I’ll be able to use these emotions and the sheer terror of the attack in my writing. As I always say, it's all novel material.

But this experience also provides a tiny glimpse into the staggering guilt that must overwhelm people unable to protect a child or other loved one from great harm or grave illness. I cannot imagine carrying such a burden every day. My heart breaks when I think of those who do.

Author Jodi Picoult says she writes about her worst fears, hoping that by doing so she will never have to face them in reality. I feel a little like that about this weekend’s experience. I hope nothing similar happens, or worse, to someone or something I love because I can’t stop it. And like Jodi Picoult, I pray that saying so means it never will.

Do you ever feel that way ~ that if you voice your fears, the bad things won't happen?

This is Buddy recuperating....