San Francisco moment: Alcatraz, Blue Angel and a tall ship.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Our Lake Michigan Circle Tour

Lake Michigan is a big lake. It covers 22,300 square miles and is the 5th-largest lake in the world. (If you count the Caspian Sea as the world's largest lake. Geologist say it's actually a tiny ocean.)

Two years ago Benny and I crossed the lake by ferry; this year the whole family drove around it, from Chicago to Milwaukee and then to Post Lake, Wisc. From there we entered Michigan through the back door: Tahquamenon Falls, Whitefish Point, Copemish and South Haven. Then we dashed south to Indianapolis and back, and Benny and I spent another week in Michigan before driving back to Chicago.

 Here's a map of the trip.

Thank you so much to the relatives who provided free room and board: Mike and Diane, Marlene and Ron, Mom and Paul, and especially Cindy and Scott, who hosted us for two weeks. Benny loves the Midwest ("It's so open here!")

I covered our trip extensively on Facebook (perhaps over-extensively) with phone pictures. Here are some shots from my camera, which I just downloaded to my laptop last night.

Our first tourist attraction was Tahquamenon Falls, mentioned in Longfellow's poem Hiawatha. I never could read that poem all the way through, but I do remember the part about the wind god falling in love with a dandelion* and who can forget the lovely Minnehaha?

We drove south over the Mackinac Bridge (pronounced Mack-in-aw) into Mackinac City, where we gorged on fudge, ice cream and popcorn. As we drove over the bridge, I couldn't help thinking of the poor Yugo driver who was blown off the bridge years ago in high winds. Weird. I drive over the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge all the time and never worry about that.

In South Haven we saw my college roommate Jackie, her husband Doug, and Caitlin, Josh, Kyle and Alyssa. Jackie hasn't changed a bit since college, which frankly, is hard to forgive.

Mom and Paul took us to the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, which had eight priceless Chinese terracotta warriors on display.

Oh no! A dinosaur is chasing Benny!

Back in South Haven, we attended Harbor Fest and watched the dragon boat races.

Then it was back to the beach with college roommates Kris and Jackie and their families at Oval Beach in Saugatuck.

After nearly a month away, it was strange to be in San Francisco again, but the city gave us a warm welcome with one more beach day.

Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach.

We plan to return to the Midwest next summer to celebrate three high school graduations. We can't wait!


* The word "dandelion," I happened to learn today, comes from late Middle English: from French dent-de-lion, translation of medieval Latin dens leonis‘lion's tooth’ (because of the jagged shape of the leaves). This factoid comes courtesy of my newspaper coworker who puts little quotes on the bottom of his emails.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Meet Mr. Economy

So when I was in Seattle pitching my memoir to agents, I made all kinds of blithe promises, including “I use the economy as a character in my story.” Now that I’m preparing materials for agents, I’m all “Holy crap, I have to use the economy as a character in my story. Who the hell does that?”

That meant I actually had to think about what kind of character the economy — specifically the economy of March 2007-March 2008) would be. Would Lord Economy be like Sauron, a dark, malevolent shadow over the landscape, occasionally sending out the Nazgul of Foreclosure or the Witch-King of Mortgage Derivatives? Or would we have Miss Economy, like the Queen in Narnia, who cast a spell over our happy land, forcing up oil prices and credit card rates? I was tempted to create an Economy God, a reckless, vengeful Poseidon whipping up economic storms to prevent our hero from reaching a safe harbor. But not even I was paranoid enough to consider myself an Odysseus, unjustly persecuted with hidden bank fees.

In the end, I settled on Mr. Economy, a mighty, well-meaning, but none-too-bright giant. In March 2007, our Mr. Economy was strong and confident, almost too confident. He was reckless, shrugging off any restraint, running faster and faster. He was a gambler, hopped up on easy money, greedily gobbling up debt instruments. The sun is warm, the grass is soft and it never enters his pea-brained mind that things could ever change.

He looked so strong then, but of course that strength was illusory. Real strength comes through discipline and training and experience. Truly strong characters develop sound judgment and act purposefully, willing to practice moderation and prepared for setbacks.

In March 2007, Mr. Economy was a happy camper, with corporate earnings growing big.  He notices a small pain in the housing market (foreclosures up, home sales down) but pays it no mind.

In June, he notices another pain, the investment banks, who suddenly are worried about their sketchy, risky investments.

But in July, he still feels great. Everything’s fine, the Dow hits 14,000 for the first time.

In August, Mr. Economy starts feeling sick to his stomach. He’s been gobbling up all this shifty debt and he’s having trouble digesting it. He behaves erratically, up one day and down the next.

In September, he’s getting some headaches from housing, retail and financial industries. But he won’t listen to the Federal Reserve asking him to pretty please be responsible with the foreclosures. He’s starting to bleed jobs.

October brings a high fever, and of course, hallucinations. Everything’s rosy! Dow hits record high of 14,087! The worst is over! But infection has set in.

In November, our Mr. Economy is feeling really bad. Banks are hammered, everyone says recession is coming.

By December, Mr. Economy is breaking down before our very eyes. One million U.S. homes are in foreclosure. Our giant falls to his knees — he’s tapped out and can’t run any more.

In January 2008 he’s crawling along. Oil is at $100 a barrel, the Dow is weakening. The Fed slashes interest rates, but even with mass transfusions of money, Mr. Economy hasn’t felt this bad since 1974.

By February the vultures are circling. Credit card lenders jack up rates and fees on consumers and inflation rises.

In March, Mr. Economy is hardly moving, crushing consumers beneath him. He now has a choice: will he take his nasty-tasting medicine and get stronger faster, or will be just lie there, still crushing consumers and hoping he’ll slowly get stronger?

The answer, of course, is that the Fed doesn’t administer strong medicine, like allowing big financial institutions to fail and imposing new regulation. Instead, the Fed and the government administered massive transfusions of taxpayer dollars and a few weak restraints and called it a day. 

Which is likely why, although officially this recession ended in 2009, the recovery has been weak and why a wounded Mr. Economy continues to limp along, no matter what the stock market says. 

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Better Living Through Dorkiness

So apparently Benny needs to know all the U.S. states and capitols by Sept. 13. Actually, the entire fourth grade needs to know their states and capitols. The school's really serious about this; we parents had to sign a little form saying we would help our children learn this lesson and not allow them to sink into state-and-capitol-less despair.

The form even had fine print, which I didn't really read but might say that if Benny fails, Social Services will turn up and place him with a new family that knows the capitol of Connecticut is Dover. I mean Frankfort. Hartford?

I realized tonight, as Benny and I were eating dinner, that I had a captive audience here and could address this topic in my own dorky way. So I started reading off states in alphabetical order: if Benny guessed the capitol, great. If not, then I would tell him not only the name of the capitol, but how the city got that name, on the theory that knowing the history behind the name would help him remember it. Well, I don't know if it works, but it was a fun way to learn new facts while listening to Benny moan every time I said, "Okay, let's look it up!"

After a while I didn't want to stop and that's how I learned about the following state capitols:

A piece of the Little Rock at the Arkansas capitol.
Little Rock, Arkansas
named after a little rock on the river that was a navigation aid for boats.

Hartford, Connecticut
named after Hertford, England, but pronounced Hartford.

Tallahassee, Florida
Indian name for "old fields" because earlier Indians had cleared a bunch of land already.

Atlanta, Georgia
I thought it was after the woman with the golden apples in Greek mythology. Actually, it was named by a railroad guy who called it Atlantica-Pacifica and it was shortened to Atlanta.

Des Moines, Iowa
Named after the Riviera Des Moines or "River of the Monks" in French, but I don't know what the monks had to do with anything.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana
French for red staff or stick, maybe after the big cypress tree on the site

I end with Lansing, Michigan, our home state.
Lansing was originally some lame little settlement named after some guys' hometown in New York State. But in 1847 the state leaders wanted to move the capital further into the interior away from hostile British Canada, which had taken Detroit in the War of 1812. Michigan's other big cities vied for the honor, but they chose some flyspeck village with 20 people.

Stay tuned for more dorkiness tomorrow!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How I Started Chapter Five by Freaking Out

I need to write Chapter 5: Recessions I Have Known, but I'm scared. I’ve done everything but write in the last 40 minutes. I’ve posted on Facebook, changed my Apple password, bought a Seal album, helped Benny create a birthday card. And now I'm at my desk again. It's scary.

Who does stuff like this? Who sets their lives against the economy, who strings together the major events of their lives using recessions like fat beads on a string that winds and knots? I’m going to tangle this up.

I’m feeling some pressure. I want to send this out in September. Chapter Five was supposed to be a light revision and now it's a whole new chapter, possibly one of the most important chapters in the book.

The god Pan.
 I’m trying to remember everything; the events, the memories, the history, the personalities. I’m having trouble focusing. I'm hyperventilating. It’s 10:52 and I’ve done nothing. I can’t stop thinking about the other things I need to do. I’m in a panic. How do I start a chapter about recessions? I'm in a panic. 

I'm in a panic.

Panic: a a sudden sensation of fear so strong as to dominate or prevent reason, replacing it with anxiety. A Greek word from the shepherd god Pan, who liked to frighten goats and sheep.
The frying Pan.

It’s also an old-fashioned word for a financial crisis, like the panics of 1857, 1873 and 1907. All triggered by worries over gold, silver or copper. Panic. All the goats and sheep scattered.

I'm trying to write about the 1973-75 recession. But it wasn't a recession, it was a Panic. 

Yay! I'm on my way! An hour later, I'm still typing madly.

There's got to be an easier way to do this.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Puzzle Pieces

We never really know anybody's life, do we? Even the nearest and dearest, we only know a piece of what's going on. We reveal little snippets here and there in conversation and on Facebook and in our blogs. We don't really know anybody's day but ours, the whole picture, the shape of the day, how we feel in the morning, how we feel about the day or the life.

We ask "How did you sleep?" "How was your commute?" "How was your weekend?"

Then later, "How was your day?"

What do we answer? We say what we think they want to hear, what we're willing to share, the highlights, but we don't truly answer. We all have secrets. Some of us have big secrets. Some of us have a secret so big that we carry it around all day, touching it lightly with our fingertips to remind ourselves that it's really there.

My own secrets are becoming a little problematic because I'm writing about my life. I'm writing a memoir about a year in my life and I'm skimming over some sticky parts. This is fundamentally dishonest. It may weaken the writing. So when I finish the first 75 pages and they are all polished and prettified and sent out and I can start writing rough again, I will tell all my secrets, get them out on the page. I don't have to show them to anybody.

Right now I'm telling myself that many personal details don't matter in this memoir, that this memoir is about the financial life and this might be true. Or it might be a cop out. The only way to find out is to let all the secrets out. Maybe I'll have to include some and hurt people. There's only one way to find out.

At any rate, I can't keep censoring myself. If I keep doing that, than the final picture of my life will be alike a puzzle with missing pieces, gaping holes where meaning is missing.

I am all the puzzle pieces. My life is all the puzzle pieces. Write every puzzle piece, no matter how ugly or awkward the shape. If you don't, then you won't have a prettier picture. You'll just have a picture with an awkward, ugly hole.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

PNWA: The risky businesses of journalism and publishing

Beaten and battered, but still fighting.

Journalism and publishing are two very different industries, and the differences go far beyond the whole double-spacing-after-a-period thing.

Journalists work in a fast-paced environment and our jargon reflects this: scoops, headlines, cutlines, pull quotes, banners, leads (or leads), deadlines ... see all those verbs? We scoop, we cut, we pull, we lead and then we drop dead.

If journalism’s time reference is quick and human, publishing’s time frame is more … geologic. An epoch can give way to an era between a book’s conception and publication. At last month’s Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s conference, we were “authors” not “reporters” who wrote “manuscripts” not “copy” to be “published” not “printed.” The jargon was more sedate: advance, slush, pitch, royalty, galley.

But despite these differences, the two industries face similar challenges these days, a clash between the old and the new, as traditional professionals fight to be heard above online newcomers. In journalism, these newcomers are called bloggers or “citizen journalists,” the latter embraced by online newspapers as a cheaper, faster way to get content.  In publishing, those new guys and gals are self-published authors.

In traditional journalism not so long ago, a story was pitched to an editor, the editor followed up on the story’s progress,  the story was submitted and edited, then copy edited, then proofed. Then and only then did the story go public. Errors and typos still slipped through, but the process worked to create the most professional result possible. Ideally, the finished result would be a professionally produced work, the product of a group collaboration, not one single mind, no matter how talented.

Similarly in publishing, for a book to hit the shelves, the writer pitches an agent who sells the project to a publisher. A whole table of people vet this acquisition: editors, marketers, production staff, publicists … they all have to sign off on it. Again, the final product, while not perfect, is professionally produced, the result of a group of talented minds.

Furthermore, both journalists and book writers have a formal apprenticeship, years of writing before you get the plum assignments or the book contracts.

The Internet has changed all this, of course. Now traditional newspaper writers compete with bloggers and “citizen journalists.” Traditional book authors compete with self-published authors. These nontraditional writers often display great creativity and talent and are formidable competitors not to be underestimated.

But with the barriers to entry in both industries partly dismantled, readers are flooded with books and articles in various stages of professional development. It can be difficult for readers to distinguish between a professionally sourced news story and an amateur blog post. Book readers surfing on Amazon’s wave of titles may lump together the professionally agented, edited, marketed and designed books and their self-published counterparts.

At the PNWA conference,  I repeatedly heard speakers say today’s books have to “break through the noise.” I hear this phrase in online journalism too. So the question for both journalists and book writers becomes, how do we uphold the traditional standards of  our industry while still innovating and accepting change?

One thing is for sure, looking down our noses at self-published authors and citizen journalists may make us feel better but won’t help anyone. My newspaper recently wrote about San Francisco International Airport’s crackdown on those newfangled ridesharing companies. In an effort to protect the taxi drivers who take passengers to and from the airport, SFO has conducted citizen’s arrests of Lyft and Uber drivers for trespassing.

Well, as a taxi passenger who has waited an hour for a taxi, endured baffling, circuitous routes to my destination or has had to scrape up cash because the taxi driver’s credit card reader was mysteriously broken, I say the traditional taxi industry in San Francisco has left a gaping customer service hole large enough to drive a gleaming, black Uber car through. Ridesharing companies are filling a need, or they wouldn’t be so successful, and taxi companies ignore this at their peril.

Traditional journalists and book writers can’t be like those taxi drivers. We can’t close ranks against the newcomers. They are now part of our culture and our dialogue. I believe in traditional publishing; I choose to prepare my memoir for agents. But I believe in self-publishing too, although it is not for me.

There is one word I don’t hear much of in either the journalism or publishing industries, probably because it was so self-evident. That word is “risk.” My newspaper is currently making enormous changes and taking huge risks. Publishers take big risks every time they acquire a book.

Bloggers, citizen journalists and self-published authors are considered the risk takers these days. But as bookstores and newspaper stands close every day while my own articles and book manuscript inch along the longer path to readers, today’s traditional journalists and book authors remain the biggest risk takers of all.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

PNWA Conference: Christine's tips

Well, I'm back from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle. I've been to exactly one writer's conference now in my adult life, so of course that makes me an expert.

So here are Christine's Top 10 Tips to a Successful Writing Conference:

1. Fly in the night before the event begins.
Everybody is boring the first two hours after they get off the plane. I could immediately spot the folks who flew in Thursday morning, staggering around all haggard in wrinkled clothes. I met a nice man that day with an undoubtedly fascinating novel, but he'll forever live in my mind as "The Guy Who Spent 40 Minutes on the Tarmac."

2. Want to make friends? Drop your registration packet while standing in line for pitch session registration. With any luck, you'll scatter the detritus at the feet of the host organization's president. It worked for me, although I lost two pens and an event ticket.

3. Don't wear a bright color or a vivid pattern on the first day. I met a woman who's writing a paranormal romance with pirates. Unfortunately, she was wearing a lurid orange shirt on the first day and I never caught her name or memorized her features. I never found her again.

4. For the love of God, figure out what to do with your business cards. First I had a special pocket, then I tried a special baggie, then I wrapped a rubber band around them. Finally I used my brain and stuffed a bunch into my name badge — problem solved. Then I could look on smugly while new friends ransacked their pockets and bags looking for cards to give me.

5. Linger after sessions. This is how I nabbed three of the four agents I pitched before my official pitching session. It's slightly more dignified than pouncing on agents on the elevator or in the bar. Plus you get to eavesdrop on the people in line in front of you.

6. This is a trick from my days covering board meetings as a reporter:
Draw a little map of panel participants first thing. That way, when the Question and Answer starts, you know who said what.

7. Never abandon a muffin to get to a session on time. You’ll end up surreptitiously crunching peanut M&Ms from the bottom of your purse at 8 in the morning just to survive the 90-minute session. Crinkly candy wrappers can be very loud in a hushed conference room.

8. Crash different genres at the Writer’s CafĂ©, where there’s a Memoir table, a Romance table, a Literary Fiction table, etc. I always like to know what’s going on in the galaxy at the Science Fiction table. Gene manipulation and artificial intelligence are apparently very hot this year.

9. The plot of your book should be a closely guarded secret. Plots take forever to spin out, and pretty soon people’s eyes start glazing over. If you start describing the climax of your book, and a certain person named Christine goes off to get another drink and look at the appetizer menu and she gets back and you’re still in the climax, it’s time to tighten up your book pitch.

10. If an agent you’ve pitched says “Fine, send me something” or better yet, gives you his or her card, this is your cue to disappear. I’d read this advice already from the fabulous Anne Mini, but that didn’t stop me from babbling some more to the first agent I pitched. Some people just can’t take yes for an answer!