Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sister Day

Lo these many years ago, two little girls in Westfield, Massachusetts decided that if there was a Mother's Day, Father's Day and Grandparents' Day, there should be a Sister Day.

Well, it's sort of backwards. The first Sister Day was a day in which my bratty little sister strangely decided to be nice to me all day. She was sweet and nice and hugged me and even did my chores, which had me checking under my bed that night, let me tell you. I'm not saying we fought a lot as kids, but I will say we had very different personalities as children. I was the quiet one. (Hush you, in the back. I heard that.)

Things were back to normal the next day, of course, but I didn't forget. I wrote about it in my diary. And a year later, on that same day, I did the same for her. And we decided from then on that March 31 would be Sister Day. Being that this was waaaaay before the internet, we had no way of knowing there is an "official" Sister Day on Aug. 3. By the time we did know, it was too late: March 31 was our day.

Time and lives being what they are, the number of Sister Days we've been able to spend in the same time zone, much less the same ZIP code, have been regrettably rare. And this year I cannot even call her, as my voice is pretty well shot from this evil awful cold that wants to kill me, and being the last day of the month she is running madly about doing.... all that mortgage-y stuff that mortgage people do on the last day of the month. I don't know - she has explained to me exactly what she does for a living about eight times and I still don't get it. She is also the smart one, folks.

I've written before that my sister is my personal hero, and so I won't gush all over her again and embarrass her. If I want to embarrass her, I'll pull out The Stories. (Muahahahaha.) But this year it's a bit different, because she's one of the ladies who was willing to stand up beside me in overpriced satin after a long night tying favor bags under the influence of margaritas. Or that's kind of how I think it's going to go.

The 'Maids have had their own private chat going on for a while now, and that's been one of the most fun parts of this whole wedding nonsense: bringing together my dearest friends from the far-flung parts of my life to get to know each other and share the snark and the silliness. In a way, they're all my sisters. I just might tell them so, if you don't think they'll get a big head.

But today... this one's for me and Melanie. Happy Sister Day, squirt. You're still my hero.

Whatever I said, she thought it was hilarious.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Voices in River City

Greetings from Madison, Ind. Well, actually... Carrollton, Ky. It's kinda the same place. But not really.

I was invited to be a guest author at the Madison Author Fair, hosted by the lovely folks at That Book Place in Madison, Ind. I was happy to accept, especially since my good friend Stephen Zimmer was to attend with his crew from Seventh Star Press, and I always prefer events where I know someone. I'm shy.

Right up to departure, however, I was having the biggest trouble finding a place to stay. Madison has a number of chain hotels, all of which were $100 a night or more and I am seriously lacking in hotel points at the moment. There were a couple of independents, which had some fairly negative reviews... and while I am not picky, I do have minimum standards. Safe, clean and no bugs. I've stayed in too many fleatraps where critters rode home with me in my luggage, unsavory gentlemen watched too closely as I entered my outdoor-corridor motel door, and - best of all - that place where the door didn't lock. Yay!

But right across the state line lay Kentucky, which is having an awesome special in its state park lodges: two nights for $90! Can't beat that with a stick. And it was only twenty minutes away! I like state park lodges. The rooms are generally decent, prices are either very good or ridiculous, natural surroundings and usually quite secure.

Um. Except the good folks of Inditucky decided this was a good weekend to tear down the only bridge across the Ohio River.

This had two effects: my drive from Madison to the state park was approximately 55 minutes instead of 20, and the crowds at the book fair were less than half their usual level, according to my compatriots.

No matter. I still had a great time. The volunteers were, I kid you not, the most attentive I've ever seen. I don't think an hour passed without one of them coming by to offer me hot coffee, a bottle of water, snacks from the break room. Sure, most book fairs have volunteers. But this is the first one where I pulled up, opened my trunk to unload the books, and magically FIVE YOUNG PEOPLE appeared as if popping out of a Warner Bros. cartoon to help me unload. They were cheerful, helpful, friendly and honestly seemed interested in books. It's enough to renew your faith.

Sales were... well, let me explain my philosophy. I don't measure the success of an event by the number of books sold. Instead, I measure it by a vague mental ratio of books sold vs. the number of feet past the booth. If only fifty people pass me and I sell 10 books, that means one in five bought. That's pretty good. If 16,000 people pass me and I sell 10 books, that's Dragoncon. (Just kidding, you know I love ya, Atlanta... but please buy books. :))

So in terms of my philosophy, I did just fine. The ratio of books sold vs. feet past the booth started slow, but really picked up toward the end. And I've heard from several other authors at the fair that last year, the weather was awful and you still had to jostle people out of your way. It's the bridge, they said: without that bridge, it's just too hard for Kentucky folk to make it up into Madison and vice versa.

Still, conversation was pleasant and the company was marvelous. The bookstore was more than hospitable (they gave us cake!) and only one customer ran away from my booth declaring I was a "scary lady." (I'm harmless!) Sadly, I had to turn away a customer: a boy no older than ten wanted to buy Nocturne. I told him it was unfortunately an adults-only book. He was quite disappointed.

(Side note: I don't sell my rougher stuff to kids unless there is a parent present and that parent has been apprised of the content of my work. Some of the vampire and zombie shit is not the kind of thing I'd like the Boy to read until maybe last year, and there's one or two things I've written I still wouldn't let him read. Each parent has the right to decide for his or her own kid, but some kids hear "vampires" and think Twilight. Uh, not exactly, kiddos.)

And now I am happily ensconced in my lodge room again. Last night it was a pleasant surprise: while it is unfortunately in the outdoor wing (and of course in the creepy dark unlit far end, thanksalot), it's a lovely oak-paneled room with vaulted ceiling, comfy bed and a balcony. Couldn't ask for more, especially at this price. It was blissfully silent and peaceful.... last night.

Tonight, there's a wedding. The musicians were packing up when I came back after the post-fair dinner with... just about everyone who worked the show. There were guys in disheveled tuxedos and older couples in churchy clothes wandering about. And that's fine... except now I have neighbors in my creepy unlit wing.

They're not yelling or fighting. They're not playing music. I don't even think they're raising their voices. But I can hear. every. word. they. say. Not clearly, not enough to follow the conversation beyond every fifth word. But enough.

It's all right. After last night's marathon drive, four hours of sleep, all day being Author Woman and dinner with the gang, I'm beat. There is no brain for writing. Well, except for long, rambling blog posts. Tomorrow I'll sleep in, and maybe get a little writing time before hitting the road back home.

I hear they've been cleaning.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Lenten Ramblings

Ash Wednesday is upon us, and that means it's time for the joyous celebration of Lent.

Yeah, there's not often a lot of "joy" or "celebration" in Lent. Just check out the hymns... whenever we start chanting in Lent, I hear Monty Python's papier-mache God complaining, "It's like those psalms, they're soooo depressing." In years past (and often today) many Christians have chosen to interpret Lent as a season of scourging, of punishing yourself, carrying the woe of humanity's murder of the Christ, etc.

Not me. Ashes notwithstanding.

To me, Lent is a season of reflection, a forty-day period of meditation and self-improvement. I don't think it helps God or anyone for me to wear the (metaphorical) hair shirt for seven weeks. But if you give up something for Lent, there should be an actual reason for it beyond "I'm giving up something for Lent." Otherwise it is a hollow exercise, a public self-flagellation that serves no real purpose.

In fact, in the traditional Ash Wednesday readings, Jesus tells us not to engage in public displays of religious faith, that is only the hypocrites who give alms before an audience and expect applause for their great sacrifices. For that reason alone, Ash Wednesday used to make me a little uncomfortable. It felt like the physical sign of our faith, literally stamped on our foreheads, was an attention grab for our devotion.

In St. Louis, Catholicism is the dominant faith, so no one wonders about the ashes. When I lived in Tennessee, where Baptist churches dominate, I tended to stand out on Ash Wednesday. And frequently someone would say, "You've got something on your forehead, you know."

(My father used to call it "getting your ashes hauled," which makes me snicker inappropriately at the service every year. Thanks, Dad.)

Lent is supposed to be about inner reflection, to make yourself better able to do what it is that you're meant to do in this world. It's not really about punishing yourself. If you choose to deny yourself something, it should be because you believe this thing interferes with your life, holds you back from your calling or is somehow detrimental to your relationships.

For example, if you give up chocolate, it should be because your fondness for chocolate has taken on a disproportionate weight in your life. Sounds silly when you put it on chocolate, doesn't it? Now replace chocolate with too many beers in front of the television at night, huddling on the back porch with a cigarette in your mouth, endlessly ranting and fuming about stupidity on the internet, or any habit/obsession/addiction that draws you away from health, away from your loved ones and denies you the peace that I truly believe God wants for us.

What is it that weighs on your life? I don't mean money problems or work issues, unless you can identify something in you that is causing them. What problems do you have that you know, in your heart of hearts, you are creating for yourself? This is not about condemning or punishing yourself for your natural humanity. It is about finding the crazyman running around in your head screwing up your life and putting him in harness, to paraphrase Stephen King totally out of context.

It can be something simple, like my family's habit of eating fast food too often. It's expensive. It's unhealthy. It happens because we get busy, we are all on staggered schedules and sometimes I fall behind in the planning. But if we can stop for forty days, we might find that we feel healthier and our bank accounts will be better off. It is not denial simply to punish ourselves; it's identifying the source of a physical and financial problem and attempting to solve it.

It would be easy to say I'll give up Facebook for Lent, because I recognize it has a disproportionate weight in my life and it is too easy to get drawn into stupid, nasty discussions that eat up time and emotional energy. But it would be impossible to actually do it, as my presence there is required for my job, necessary for my writing and important to maintain contact with family and friends who are far away. But does it have to have that disproportionate weight? Does everything have to be about Facebook and what this is going to sound like online? Is there not a balance to be found between the positive aspects it brings and the negative weights?

(As a friend of mine once said: "The hardest thing about explaining the future to someone from the past would be, 'In my hand I hold a device that allows me to access the sum total of human knowledge. I use it to start arguments with strangers and look at pictures of cats.'")

I follow the rituals and customs of my faith because in all their traditional and sometimes strange ways, they remind me on a daily or weekly basis of the kind of person I strive to be. A person who leaves the world a better place than she found it. Of course I often fail, because I am human. But the key is not perfection; the key is constantly striving to do better. Lent is part of that.

On Ash Wednesday, I aim to take a look at myself and see a way to improve myself, mentally or physically. A way to improve my life and my family's life, something practical with measurable results, to make me into a better, healthier and happier person - and therefore better able to go about doing the things I'm meant to do in this life. Not an arbitrary self-denial that merely punishes me without actually improving me; something that makes my life or someone else's life better in the end.

The idea, I guess, is that if you can do this one thing for forty days, it should be that much easier to keep doing it.


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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Literal Letters

Today we were shocked, shocked I say, to find a small card in the mail.

Not a come-on from a dentist or politician. Not another (eternal) medical bill. Not ad No. 531531593 from wedding vendors seeking our business. Not that thick bundle of grocery store stuffers we get each week (it would kill you nerds to put them in the newspaper where they belong?)

A hand-addressed card, sent to both of us and sealed in an actual paper envelope that did not involve a cellophane window. I got all excited for a moment.

Then it turned out to be a gracious card from the jeweler where we bought our rings. He thanked us for our business and said he was very excited to see our final choice on my wedding band. Yeah, me too.

It occurred to me that we very rarely get actual letters. I send them from time to time, to my grandmother who does not partake of the internet. Everyone else is on Facebook. What would you say in a letter that won't reach your friend for days or even a week, when you will talk to them three or four times by 'net beforehand?

And yet there's something lovely about actual mail. Something tangible and real.

Jimmy knows my antipathy toward the mailbox: it's a box full of stress, of bills and statements and pending headaches and really, the water bill is up AGAIN? I can only deal with the mail at certain times, when I am well-caffeinated and at my desk. Bringing in the mail and dumping it on the dining room table is sure to send me from zero to bitch in 2.5 seconds. I do NOT want to deal with it right now, and now you've made a mess. Poor Jimmy.

Why? Because that's all that ever comes in the mail. It's always give me money, give me money, give me money. It's a pile of recyclable stress and annoyance. Once I got a fortune cookie that said "Good things will come to you by mail." I taped it to the inside lid of our mailbox, in hopes of creating positive energy around the mail. It didn't work.

The nice little card from the jeweler reminded me that there was some kind of month-long schtick wherein the participants would send letters, postcards or some kind of written something to people every day for a month. It was a bad month for me, so I didn't participate. However, I thought the idea was lovely, and eagerly watched its progress. Alas, nobody sent me anything. Sniff.

Now I'm thinking about doing it myself. Maybe not every day - after all, March is insane for us and I can't even tell you how the Desk of Endless Tasks (tm Allan Gilbreath) has taken over my life lately. But if I sent a letter once a week, and not just to my grandmother... wouldn't that be lovely for others? And then might they be spurred to send a letter a week to other people? Or even to me?

I'm sure I can come up with something more interesting to say than the stuff on Facebook. I mean, how much FB can we really take before the headdesk gets to be too much? A little sanity, a little old-fashioned "hello, how are you?" can't kill us.

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