Sarah R. Callender

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

Bullshoot

In Parenting on July 31, 2010 at 7:40 am

One of the cool things about being a parent (in addition to driving a minivan and having postpartum incontinence issues during jumping jacks) is that, should your child ever ask a question to which you don’t know the answer, you have the right and responsibility to simply make something up.

Last night for example, the four of us were walking to the neighborhood pub for burgers and beer (Husbandio), Riesling (me) and chocolate milk (Buddy and Sweetie). Buddy, observer of all things fascinating, noted how very many manholes there were in one particular intersection. “Why, mama?”  he asked, “Why are there so many manholes only in this intersection?”

I glanced around, noting that the intersection happened to be at the lowest part, like in a valley, between two hills. So I called upon my background as an English teacher, as well as my ability to create fiction.

“Well,” I said, speaking with teacherly confidence and authority, “You see how this particular intersection is at the lowest part of two hills? During a rainstorm, all the water drains down here. So they need a lot of manholes. Otherwise, this intersection would undoubtedly flood.”

“Hm,” said Buddy, pleased with his new knowledge. “OK.”

But then, el Husbandio gave me one of those raised-eyebrow looks.

“That’s right, dear,” I said. “And if you paid more attention to the monthly Seattle Public Utilities brochure, you too would be privy to such wisdom.”

And this, friends, is precisely why my children think I am smarter than their Dad. I make stuff up. Pretty much all the time. Being a fiction writer is a slippery slope, let me tell you.

Of course, for all the important things, I teach only the truth. They know about vaginas and penises and what happens whenever the twain shall meet. Ask them what happens if they smoke cigarettes, and they’ll reply, “Your lungs will turn black, your teeth will turn yellow and you’ll smell bad.” Ask what they should do if someone approaches them with candy or a photo of a lost puppy or tells them that their Dad and I are hurt and they should get in the car and go to the hospital with them, and my kids will say (in a totally unpanicked voice), “We don’t go near their car or take their candy or look at their pictures and if they try to get near us we scream like this: “help. help me. someone, help me.”

Yep, I have taught them truth about the things I find most important. But should they ask about sewers or how poop becomes poop or how birds can tell one another apart, I tend to just make stuff up. It’s easier on them because they leave the conversation feeling satisfied that an answer exists. Kids, in case you haven’t noticed, are not comfortable with a parent’s admission of “I don’t know.” It frightens them. And of course, when I can explain how a flock of jays or seagulls can recognize one another, it’s better for me because they think I am really smart.

I will also admit that I might have employed a similar technique once or twice when I was teaching Hamlet or Othello and, just like my students complained, Shakespearean English was a little confusing, what with the beautiful-but-goofy syntax and outdated insults and hie ye hithers. And please, I was 22 when I started teaching high school: very, very green. How could I be expected to know every single word of every single play? Plus, I had one senior who, I am NOT making this up, turned 21 when I was teaching him. (That was Martin . . . raise your hand if you remember Martin. The kid who asked if he could sell Ginsu knives in the English department office?)  My students, all of them, even the sweet honors kids, would have eaten me alive had I shown any sign of ineptitude.

Of course, I know the time is drawing near when I won’t actually be able to make stuff up, when I can’t fake the truth. I already practically can’t do Buddy’s math homework . . . Everyday Math, my arse! But I guess that’s just it: right now, I can make Buddy rest assured that even during Seattle’s record-breaking rains, one particular intersection with all its many manholes, will not flood. Right now I can give them a funny explanation of how a flock of identical-looking birds can call out to one of its buddies, “Hey Wally! Fly over here for a second!” And Wallace Johnson Bird, Jr. will. That’s how birds know one from another: they have names. The names their bird-parents gave them when they hatched. Surnames too, just to make sure that there’s no confusion between all the Maddie jays and the Jaden gulls.

Because, let’s be honest, birds really do look alike. How else could they tell one another apart without first and last names?

It’s true. I swear! Just try to prove me wrong on the topic of bird names. Really, I dare you.

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Intervention

In Writing on July 29, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Sometimes, my ability to see myself accurately is akin to standing too close to a Seurat. You know, the guy who painted works like this:

Yep, there am I, standing with my nose nearly pressed against that lady’s pretty pink skirt. Only, instead of seeing a pretty pink skirt on a woman who holds an umbrella in one hand and a little girl in the other, I only see a smudge of pretty pinkness. I am too close to the work.

The irony is I like to think I know myself pretty well, yet it’s times like today that I realize I know myself about as well as I know  how to calculate the cosine of a perpendicular hyperbola. Or the mating call of the roofus-sided towhee.

Yet it’s one thing when you can’t see someone or something else clearly; you just take a few steps back. When it is ourselves we can’t see clearly, we’re screwed. As the art and the viewer of the art, we can’t get enough distance from ourselves to see anything that’s more clear than a blur of dots. So, as it turns out, sometimes I need a museum guide to explain myself to me.

This morning, that museum guide appeared, thank goodness, in the guise of a literary agent.

After reading a few chapters of my manuscript, Lovely Agent arranged an 8:30 a.m. phone call (before which I locked my children in the garage, threatening scary punishments if they made a peep or got in a spitting fight or started screaming, “Nipple!” in unison.)

During this phone call, Lovely Agent proceeded to make a few hefty recommendations about my novel, specifically how to make it appealing to a single audience. As soon as she started talking, I realized they weren’t careless suggestions, but BRILLIANT recommendations, recommendations that would not simply stick a new set of Mr. Potato Head features into my existing spud. No, they were recommendations that would simply make my novel better. For all readers.

Yet, I hawed and hemmed, explaining that I still wasn’t sure it was YA, until finally, she startled me with her lovely laughter. “Sarah!” she said. “My God, why are you fighting it? Why not be a YA writer, at least for now, when you so clearly have a YA book? Why not embrace it?!?”

In the silence that followed, I felt my cheeks blush. “I do love teenagers,” I admitted, my voice small. But then I heard my words get louder, more brave. “You know I used to teach high school English? I mean, it’s weird. I miss the teenagers. I really do love teenagers.”

“Yes, and so why don’t you want to write YA?”

At that moment, I realized this was an intervention of sorts. One where I had to accept that although I grew up ten minutes from Berkeley, CA, mecca of liberal thought, even though I did know several YA writers and thought them to be fantastic people, even though some of my very best friends were YA novels, I had to accept the fact that I, Sarah Callender, was a flaming, bigoted YAist. And yes, this was an intervention. At 8:30 on a July morning while my kids were locked in the garage with one Capri Sun and one bag of Teddy Grahams each, screaming, “Nipple!”

I took a deep breath and really went for it. “And . . . oh, gosh. You know what? My next novel, the one I’ve started writing in my head, that one also has a teenage narrator. This time, a boy. Who loves taking Polaroids. To document his mother’s decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s.”

“Yes, Sarah,” Lovely Agent said in that knowing-but-sympathetic voice. “You can keep denying it, or you can accept the truth.”

I’ve never, to my knowledge, been an addict, at least not in any way that requires one of those whole-family reality TV interventions. But if you happen to be some sort of an addict, let me state for the record, interventions are surprisingly awesome. There’s finally truth! There’s relief in the admission! There’s peace that finally, an honest conversation has taken place!

Lovely Agent and I went on to discuss how YA books win Newberry Awards. That YA books have the power to hook young readers and turn them into life-long readers. That YA novels aren’t just about teen pregnancies and meth addiction and vampires. Rather, YA can be timeless literature that never goes out of style.

After we hung up, I sat staring at the notes I had taken during our conversation, barely thinking. And perhaps that’s how one always feels after she is the target of an intervention: stunned. But also oddly peaceful. As I went down to the garage to unlock the children from the garage I remembered Mrs. Christopherson, librarian at Sleepy Hollow Elementary, ca. 1979. Mrs. Christophersen, who faithfully set aside special books she knew I would love, who, whenever I popped in the library at recess and gave her that raised eyebrow look, would beckon me over. “Here,” she would say, pulling a book from what appeared to me a top secret drawer that no other kids knew existed. “This book just came in. I hid it because I knew you had to read it first.”

She knew I had to read it first? Holy shoot ! How freaking cool was Mrs. Christopherson?

With that image, (and with my hand still on the doorknob to the garage) I got all weepy with the realization, finally,that I want to have books that school librarians keep hidden in their top secret drawers, for just the perfect kid.

Many of you wrote in (thank you!) to share your favorite novels from your childhood, everything from Charlotte’s Web to the Narnia Chronicles to The Hunger Games to Roald Dahl, and of course the Twilight series. Those too, are my favorites. Except for the Twilight series. The Twilight series is like baseball trophies for tee-ballers, but worse . . . but I digress. Anything by Judy Blume, Beverly Clearly’s Fifteen, even a book called A Summer to Die about two sisters, a pretty one and a not-pretty one, and the pretty one starts getting all these crazy nosebleeds and eventually dies . . . there is nothing like those favorite books you read as a kid. Sometimes over and over and over.

So tonight at dinner (in between Sweetie knocking over the bottle of Riesling and Buddy doing show and tell with his just-lost, bloody tooth) I relayed my morning conversation to Husbandio, telling him how Lovely Agent, this woman who hardly knows me, showed me what I couldn’t see about myself.

Husbandio chuckled.

“What,” I said. “Why are you laughing?”

Husbandio gave a gentle shrug. “It’s kind of like how you couldn’t understand why Buddy was such a crybaby. You’d get so frustrated with him. But then, when I pointed out that you have been known to cry, you know, on occasion . . . on many occasions, and that maybe Buddy was just like you.”

And mi Husbandio was right about that too. So right that as soon as the words were out of his mouth, I burst into tears. After all, I spent a whole lot of years feeling irritated that I had such a crybaby for a son, a SON of all things, when really, his teary tendencies were traceable directly back to my DNA.

Yet I was just too close to Buddy to see it. Just as I am always too close to myself to see me clearly. I guess we’re all, at times, just too darn close to the Seurat.

Thank goodness for museum guides who moonlight as interventionists who dabble in literary agenting. Really, thank goodness.

Labels

In Writing on July 28, 2010 at 7:31 am

When I was eight months pregnant with our son, Buddy, I dreamed I was going to give birth NOT to a baby boy or a baby girl, but to a baby dragon. One with a huge wingspan and one of those pointy arrow-shaped dragon tails that, much like its large wings, would do some serious damage on the way out. If you know what I mean.

Yet because I was entering motherhood with a fairly hefty dose of undiagnosed depression, dreams that were totally nutters became totally realistic. This particular dream rooted itself into my list of things to worry about, a lengthy list that already included things like Spina Bifida and The Baby Might Hate Me and What If the Epidural Guy Doesn’t Arrive on Time. Indeed, add Major Vaginal Laceration by Pointy Dragon Tail to that list.

On some level of course, I knew it was highly unlikely that I would be giving birth to a dragon. But could I really be 100% sure? At 20 weeks along, we had opted to be surprised, genderly-speaking, and frankly at that point, I hadn’t thought to ask the ultrasound technician if there had been anything to suggest my baby was unusual in any way . . . if there was any sign of, say, scales. Or perhaps fire-breath. Who asks questions like that? I’ll tell you who: people who are nutters.

So instead of confiding in a medical professional, I told my Sister, of my fears: that deep deep down, I was worried something had gone terribly wrong during the whole meiosis thing and, as a result, I would be giving birth to a dragon. I had it all worked out: there I’d be at the hospital, in labor, surrounded by a few nurses and my OB and of course, el husbandio. Except on that final push, instead of happy cries of, “It’s a boy/girl!” the entire room would fall silent. And then there would be some sort of snurfle sound, an odd snorting, fire-breathing sound. And in that shocked silence as everyone stared at the dragon that lay, blinking and snurfling in one of those flannel swaddling blankets I like to steal from the hospital after having a baby, I would know that I had given birth to a dragon. One with a pointy tail and huge wings, just like in my dreams.

Sister listened to all this, and then, instead of telling me I was being silly, instead of making jokes or calling medical professionals, she asked, “Well, Sari . . . are the dragon’s wings beautiful?”

Ah, sweet Sister. My sister is a musician, an artist, a poet and a gardener. Oh yes, and a maker of homemade sourdough. She creates for the sake of creating, and often what she creates does not fit into tidy categories. Her music is hard to describe, even harder to label. Her art and poetry, equally tricky to define. But are her art and her music beautiful? Without a doubt. She allows whatever is inside her to pour right out, not worrying about whether it will appeal to a mass audience, whether it can be labeled, for marketing purposes, as “My art is Lada Gaga meets MC Escher.” I love that about her. She is true to her art.

As it turns out, I did not give birth to a dragon. I gave birth to a human boy, then twenty months later, a human girl. Yet, as I learned this weekend at a writers’ conference, my book-baby, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES, does not fit into a tidy, “It’s a boy! It’s a girl!” package. It seems there is no clean, clear way to label my book.

When a human mother learns she has given birth to a dragon, I imagine it’s a little hard at first, scary even, to readjust to a different future than the one she had imagined. But as she readjusts, she comes to accept her child. She finds a good playgroup for dragons. Then she settles on a school with a dragon-friendly inclusion program. She spends the next few decades teaching her child that just because he’s a dragon, doesn’t mean he can’t play baseball or be on the debate team or go to college and join a fraternity.

But. When an author gives birth to a book that, like a dragon-baby, doesn’t fit into a defined market, well, my friends, that’s a publishing nightmare. And with this economy, agents and publishers are nightmare-adverse. Understandably, they want to know target audience, and it has to hit that target audience squarely on the head. Otherwise, it’s no-go. Oh no!

So here I am. I have a novel with a teenage narrator. Yet it’s not as hot and edgy as much of the current Young Adult that’s flying off the shelves. Where’s the teen pregnancy? Where’s the anorexia? Where, in God’s name, are the vampires/zombies/shape-shifters? To make matters worse, my novel is set in 1984, which, as I learned this weekend from a lovely and talented agent, makes my book historical fiction. And teenagers do not want historical fiction. Teenagers like to live in the moment; they like to read about the moment too.

But, many agents and publishers are equally reluctant to publish a teenage narrator as adult literary fiction. So what is my book? And what is my goal? If I make it a bit more friendly to a YA audience, can I do so without cramming the story into an ill-fitting box? Or, if I tailor it to fit into Hot Contemporary YA, will it still be the same story? Isn’t there a small but important group of teenagers who wants to read about a quirky 14-year-old trying to create a mathematical equation that will help her understand Love? Even if she’s living in 1984 and believes the word, “text” is only a noun? Gosh, I hope so.

On the other hand, there is a large group of adults who is enjoying the treat of YA. Take The Hunger Games, for example, (thank you, Audrey R.). Might there be a group of adults who wants to read a novel about a quirky kid set in 1984? Gosh, I hope so.

So. I have decided that what is most important, at least right now, rather than labeling my book, is that I find an agent who adores my narrator and my story as much as I do, one who believes a book can be sold and aimed at more than one audience. And then? We go for it, marketing the heck out of the novel, publicizing to what might end up being groups of quirky teens and groups of quirky adults. That agent is out there . . . looking to take my untraditional dragon-baby out into the world and set it gently into the hands of readers. Right? Gosh, I hope so.

Underpants

In General, Uncategorized on July 26, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Welcome to Inside-out Underpants. As this is my very first venture into blogdom, I think it’s prudent to start with a disclaimer:

This blog, despite its title, will not focus solely on underpants. That said, as underpants are an integral part of my life (and likely yours), I welcome any underpants-related topic ideas. Just keep it clean, people. This blog, on most days, is a family show.

In addition to sharing my POV on underwear, you might stumble across a post or two about bacon or bedwetting or baseball trophies. There might be a post about Pablo Neruda or publishing or pantomime. Oh yes, and there will be book recommendations and recipes and a few posts on why it makes me sad when people go on diets.

But I don’t intend to be an angry, whiney or venting type of blogger, nor will you ever catch me using creepy phrases such as “my adorable angels” or “my reason for living” to describe my children. They are the reason I play Yahtzee and eat sandwich crusts for lunch. They are the reason I haven’t finished my novel and the reason I know anything about Pokemon. They are the reason I bought a Yoda mask and wore that, along with my Barefoot Dreams bathrobe, to do Jedi training at my son’s birthday. They are the reason I lock the bedroom windows tight each night, even on 90 degree evenings. They are the reason I require chocolate for breakfast. They are the reason my shoe collection has gotten so lame. They are the reason I hate child molesters with a deep and fervent rage. But my reason to live? Gosh, I found reason to live before they arrived, and while they have enriched my life exponentially, my husbandio and my girlfriends and my writing and my chocolate are equally enriching.

So yes, I am honest. Sometimes too honest. I am honest about how I feel about my children and my chronic depression and my sorry shoe collection and my marriage and myself as a writer. And that pesky whisker on my chin. I hope my honesty will be enough to get and keep you reading. But of course, I’m not a blog expert. Therefore, please note that the information, opinions and recommendations contained in this blog are for entertainment only. Such information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. And yes, there will be type-os so don’t tell me about them.

OK? So off we go . . .