Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a funny thing happened on the way to the wedding

Nice dress, right? And that guy benext to me, he's my fiancé, aka, the father of the groom. Guess who else was wearing my same dress at this wedding?

No, not the mother of the groom. Close. Yup, the mother of the bride. Big fat faux pas, eh?

Oh well. The wedding was terrific, and the bride and groom were adorable, elated and completely present during the whole shindig. I should take a page from their book. We all should, actually. How to be calm in the face of a life-altering event.

Aside from the look/feel/spirit of a particular nuptial celebration, every wedding has its own chemistry. You know what I'm talking about, right? There are the rancor and hard feelings weddings where you can taste bitterness in the air. Then there are the "let's get it on in the coat closet weddings" of lust and bad behavior. Not to be outdone by the "we're untouchable, keep your distance" society weddings where the bride and groom float about as if just sheared from the top of the cake itself, all consumed with the appearance of being the perfect newlyweds.

My favorite weddings are the ones that are clearly executed to reflect the choices of the couple itself. Where convention takes a back seat to personality, belief and a shared vision. Weddings that foretell the collaboration necessary in order to navigate a successful marriage. Brendan and Katie's wedding was one of those. From the bride's choice to forego a veil, but include a ceremony where their mothers bound them together with green ribbon, to the setting itself: a farm on the outskirts of Portland, under towering English oaks with the trickle of a creek as backdrop. There was no wedding march. Instead, a solo classical guitarist strummed a pleasant musical prelude. There were 12 bridesmaids and half as many groomsmen. Who says those numbers should line up, anyway?

As far as the reception, it took place in a fancied-up polebarn. Kirk provided homemade brew (which had been fermenting in my kitchen the last couple of weeks), the best man spun tunes from his computer (mostly 80's songs…go figger). We set up a slide show, too: highlights of the bride and groom as children as well as their nine-year romance (they met as young teens and have been together ever since, even during four years of college attendance in separate states).

The couple departed in their Honda Element, festooned with the usual signage and imperatives to honk for love and so on. They are in Mexico now, on a honeymoon that I hope isn't being spoiled by bad weather. And the couple pictured above? They're gonna be tying the knot too. But don't tell anyone, it's a secret! (And when it happens, nobody within a hundred miles better be wearing my outfit!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

it’s not easy being green

First, let me admit that I'm not a biking activist. I haven't pored over the controversy or ingested the bike maps or written my congressperson about bike lanes for all. Like almost every motorist I know, I too get pissed off when I'm in a hurry and I have to go slow due to bikes riding three abreast down a major boulevard. But. I live in a city known for its progressive bike laws and bike culture. And—I have a great bike: one of those K2 women's bikes that let you ride more upright and so forth. Plus, it's been record-breaking wonderful weather all September, and I've moved into a new, spacious office on the fringe of the NW Industrial area which is proximal to all kinds of bikeable thoroughfares. And—the streets of NW Portland and downtown are a mess with construction and repair, so driving around down here and finding parking is more of a hassle than ever.

Today was the second time I ventured out midday for some exercise. My endpoint destination was my Pilates class, a studio nestled on the third floor of a building in the heart of downtown Portland. Typically, the drive takes 12 minutes. The Smart Park garage where I stow my vehicle for $2.50 is usually crammed full of cars at that hour, and finding a space takes another 6 minutes or so. Add to that another 6 minutes of walking, and you have a wheels up to gate time of 25 minutes, give or take. On my bike today it took 18. I saved money, gas and time. I got exercise and a pleasant ride through Portland in its finest season. But all was not roses in the city of the roses.

The first expletive launched my way came from a crazy person. An elderly pedestrian who admonished me from a street corner for not having a Vespa. "At least it's got a motor!" she howled. That made me feel bad. Like, maybe I was visibly huffing and puffing up the gentle slope of 18th—one of the major bike friendly one-ways in Portland. I shrugged it off, and pedaled on.

At the intersection of NW 16th and Everett, I got to experience the business end of one of Portland's clever new bike boxes, and, sure enough, the motorists all kept their legal distances until I was safely across the street. A block later, however, the generous bike lane abruptly ended, providing the usual amputation-inviting space between the parked cars and the lane. I took the sidewalk. And I didn't leave it for several blocks. Turns out that the Pearl district, with its all its green building and sushi establishments and zipcars and pedestrian friendly streetcar loving claims is a biker's nightmare. The Utopian who drafted this urban bailiwick was not a proponent of the two-wheeler. The streets are narrow—yet this does not deter the SUVs and trucks that stream along them. And then there's the streetcar tracks and stations that provide video game-like peril to bicyclists who must duck and dodge them lest their tires slip into the gaps that seem almost tailor-made to cause fatal injury.

watch the bike box video

The next insult hurled my way came from an individual who expressed vexation over my choice of public property in front of which I was clasping closed my helmet strap. It was a mailbox, and clearly, the posting of his letter couldn't wait ten seconds. His fists were clenched and he seethed, "Do you mind?" as though I'd chosen to sit on top of the mailbox and eat a sandwich.

Oddly, the cars with whom I shared the road were very courteous. They went out of their way to offer wide berth or, when we squeezed into shoulerless lanes, they kept their distance behind me. It was the pedestrians that time after time felt challenged and inconvenienced with sharing the commute. I suppose it boils down to the old pecking order, the transportation food chain: big rigs, small cars, bikes and feet.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

appropriating the real world

Yesterday my pal (let's call him Bob) took me on a tour of OHSU. It was the second OHSU-related tour I've been on in service to research for STL. "Bob" works in media up there, so I've decided to obfuscate his identity lest he get in trouble for what I'm going to cull from the tour. My narrator's husband is modeled after the VP of finance up there on the hill, and I wanted a feel for what it's like to work in a job whose stresses include keeping a multi-million dollar government-connected medical facility in the black. I also wanted to know what his daily walking commute from triple diamond parking to his executive office in Baird Hall would be like.

I have six pages of notes—lots of minutiae that comes in handy when building the iceberg of authority. For instance, there's these vending machines peppered throughout the OHSU tunnels. They look like Coke machines, but what they dispense instead of soda are packets of things like Mammalian Cell Lysis Reagents and so forth. The hill has lots of cutting edge research going on. You've heard of Druker, right? The dude behind the leukemia pill gleevec? These guys are the golden boys of the hill. The research scientists and the neurosurgeons who bring in the big bucks. And my character, the fictive Arthur Collier, is charged with balancing the beans that come in from these hot shots with stuff like health insurance for the multitudes of support staff who keep the furnaces blasting.

I'm quite tickled at the prospect of orchestrating what will happen between Artie and Frances when he has to shut down her division of stem cell research at the primate center because damage control and PETA PR is costing the organization too much money. And when he does this, you better believe that he's going to get a big fat bonus.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

more backwards writing

I've been marginally successful with my grand plan to work on STL before engaging in hired pen work. Or laundry. Or hanging bookshelves. Or watering the zucchini. Okay, maybe a little less than marginally successful. Would you believe less unsuccessful than typically?

One thing I did realize, a lovely epiphany in the early morning sun of my front porch, is that I need to add another narrative element to the second part of my book. As with the first part, I need to alternate between backstory and present day, mostly because there is too much unexperienced inference between Frances and her siblings without it. I realized during the writing of the tree-cutting scene that there is no context for Frances's relationships with her various brothers and sisters, so the reader can't sink into the scene with a sense of alarm, nostalgia, pathos, etc… Also, with so many characters and not much previous purchase on their characterizations, it's easy to get lost in this raucous tree-cutting scene—easy to forget who's who.

Also, Frances's vulnerability is not quite on the page yet, and there's nothing like a few humiliating scenes from adolescence to sew that up.

I've decided to pepper this backstory stuff in, presenting small scenes that feature some significant interactions between Frances and Collin, Frances and Cherry, Frances and Tess, Frances and Morgan and Frances and the grand fuck up, Sheldon.

The Collin chapter is proving an invigorating engagement—there are some secrets being revealed—to me—as I write it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

happy back-to-page day

This is my 17th year as a back-to-school mom. I've placed children in kindergarten seats, walked them up bus stairs, pushed them through the doors of elementary, middle and high schools, deposited them in dorm rooms and scary University area hovels. I've run through the rainbow of emotions, too. Everything from having to pull over to the side of the road for uncontrollable sobbing to executing the I've-kicked-the-habit heel clicking jig.

My youngest began 4th grade today. He's sporting skater clothes and carefully plastered bangs. He spent 10 minutes brushing his teeth, and he was shivering with nervousness, like a Chihuahua, as we walked up to the bus stop. Last year's eager wave good-bye has turned into a self-conscious two-finger assignation. As for me, I just spent a half hour on my pages, got to the proverbial white space, and I'm reflecting on how lucky I am.

Having a school age brood is a milestone for any writer who has had to beg, trade and pay for childcare for her preschoolers. State-mandated public school is perhaps the single biggest perk of being a citizen of the United States of America. Ask any writer mom, during the summer months, what her daily average time with the page is. It'll hover between zero and five minutes. All that turns around on the Wednesday following Labor Day—which should be renamed I think. Given a Hallmark designate, even. National Back-to-Page Day. We parent-writers should be sending one another cards festooned with smiley faces. But then, that would just be another distraction, wouldn't it?

Okay, back to Dorothy's kitchen and the seven people therein.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

dialog as connective tissue

Many a writing paradigm decrees that revealing plot via dialog is a cardinal sin. Nothing makes your characters sound more contrived than leading questions and answers obviously positioned to reveal stuff to the reader. And yet, you can't fill a book with characters speaking in a rhetorical fog. Something has to happen within discourse, right?

Yes and no.

Voice, personality, cadence, narrative texture: these are the take-aways when your characters chat it up on the page. It's about connective tissue. The substance that makes it possible for the reader to align with--to move with--the story.

Right now I've got seven characters in a kitchen. They have to talk, or not talk. They need to gesture, to fill the voids with physical business. The chasms between what they do and what they say can provide irony that moves the storyline forward. In these moments of irony, we can find out some things.

Dialog can be used the way emjambment is used in poetry: to subvert or heighten expectation, and thus create tension, or interest. You want to use dialog to open doors, rather than close them. You want the reader to glimpse a room she didn't know existed in the house she's exploring rather than providing the entire floorplan.

So. My seven odd characters are in a room, and within the course of this association, there needs to be a reveal. But it can't come from an answered question. Instead, it has to arrive via an unanswered question. That's today's challenge.