Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Killer Assassin Robots Ride Off into Sunset

Well, I did it. For the third time I’ve typed the words “THE END” to my science fiction novel (current title: “Are You Still Working on That Thing?”)

This is the third complete draft of the blasted story. The first draft was 50,000 words, written in one month for National Novel Writing Month in 2002. The second draft, completed the following year, cut 10,000 words and added another 30,000, bringing the grand total to 70,000 words. Then I ignored the thing for three years.

Now I’ve finished the third draft, with a total of 87,000 words. It’s kind of frightening, really, to produce nearly 90,000 words of something that may never be useful to anyone. I’ve been plugging along since January, constantly grumbling, occasionally excited and generally discouraged. In August, when I realized that the 25,000-word chunk I’d written about Jupiter was gonna have to go (a science fiction novel, remember), I nearly gave up.

But I soldiered on, confining my outside reading to history books so I wouldn’t sound like Richard Russo or Jane Austen or Anne Tyler. I was, however, imprudent enough to watch the first season of “24” on DVD, so my new Jupiter chapters are really short with lots and lots of shooting.

So is it any good? Well, I’d be the last one to know. I can’t bear to look at the thing. I wrote the novel’s climax yesterday at some humdrum library next door to a senior rest home. (Writers always tell you to write in boring places; don’t distract yourself with a lovely view. In that respect, the Pittsfield Township Library was perfect.) Anyway, writing the final chapters took three hours. I finally left to pick Benny up from daycare, sporting a glazed expression and a splitting headache.

Today I wrote a tiny epilogue (320 words) to wrap everything up. I flirted with all kinds of fun little moments, then resorted to the old “guy wakes up in hospital bed” bit. And while there isn’t a wedding (the experts say a novel should end with a wedding, celebration or funeral), there is a proposal – of sorts.

So what have I learned in my year of revising? Well, I learned how to write fiction when I ‘d rather do anything else. I learned to write fiction while tired, while sick, while my kid is whining, while the guy next to me in the coffee shop yaks loudly on his cell phone (“Did you get my email? I sent it 10 minutes ago. Let me tell you what it said …”)

I’ve learned to write pages and pages of dreck, realize it’s dreck and cut it all, then decide it’s not dreck and put it back, then go back and change previous chapters to support the dreck … You get the idea.

I also learned that killer assassin robots can fill a multitude of plot holes. Think of them as literary spackle.

Meanwhile, I’m excited at the prospect of having a life again. Benny will be baptized on Sunday, with friends and family standing by. Christmas is coming, and my more conscientious relatives are demanding gift lists. And finally, in January comes the next season of “24.”

Friday, November 03, 2006

China Rising

Ron left Wednesday on a two-week trip to China. He's accompanying a trade mission organized by Automation Alley, a Detroit area business group.

He will fly into Beijing and see the Great Wall of China first. Then he'll attend the 2nd World Eminence Chinese Business Association Congress. Then he'll spend a few days in Shanghai and tour General Motors' plant there.

After that, he'll take a high-speed train and airplane to Chongqing and tour a motorcycle company there. He'll take a bus to Chengu, visit an Intel Corp. microprocessor plant and a giant panda breeding research base.

On Nov. 12, he'll tour the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The next day he'll tour a Procter & Gamble plant in Guangzhou. He'll fly home on Nov. 15.

I did speak to him briefly on Thursday, soon after he landed in Beijing. Mostly he was fretting over the condition of his only suit (a U.S. Embassy event was planned for the next morning) and oohing over the fluffy slippers in his hotel room.

Ron is filing stories from China and you can read his articles and his blog at China Rising

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Growl growl

Here's our little brown bear ready to go out on Halloween. He did an excellent job, tripping up to every house, knocking on the door, and calling "Trick or treat!" He even said "Thank you" and "Happy Halloween" most of the time.

Our street is on a hill, which meant three-quarters of the houses had four or five cement steps between the sidewalk and the walk leading to the front door. Very few of them were lit, which slowed us down considerably. After an hour Ron and I were exhausted from painstakingly helping Benny step by step. (Carrying him, of course was OUT of the question.) Next year I'm bringing a flashlight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I Really Hate Sewing

Hoo boy, things are a little wacky this week. Benny came down with some flippy virus over the weekend, involving a low-grade fever and some spectacular vomiting in the middle of the night (seriously, I was cleaning stuff out of his ear).

At the same time, I was cresting a major wave in my novel. For months I've been desperately sewing my plot together to fit the new climax I planned. Scenes between the heroine and villain were particularly tricky, since theirs is the big clash at the end of the book. So I cut and recut the pattern, sewed all those stupid little stitches, and now (to stretch this analogy to the utmost) I'm praying it will all hang together.

But for better or worse, the middle of this novel is done. I'm in the last quarter of the book, where the repercussions of people's actions will roll out in a steep, smooth path towards total disaster (I hope).

This means that for the last week, I've been a little novel-obsessed: scribbling on index cards, writing during Benny's naps, muttering to myself while I drive. The house has gone to hell and we have NO clean clothes. I spent Saturday afternoon frantically typing while poor Benny slept on my lap.

But I'm done writing for now, thank God, because this week is looking crazier by the minute. I have an interview today in Farmington Hills (in Metro Detroit) to write scripts for a small business cable channel. Wish me luck.

Tomorrow night I'm headed to semi-formal event in Warren (also in Metro Detroit) to celebrate a friend's award at a local film festival. John produced and directed "The Europa Society," and has scene great success with his short film "The Adventure Golf Guy." ("It's not miniature golf, it's adventure golf!")

Ron and I love Janelle, Benny's new babysitter, but we're a little nervous about leaving her with Benny while we go out of town. So Ron will stay home while I attend the event with a girlfriend from my playwriting group. It ought to be fun.

Then on Friday night I head to Metro Detroit AGAIN. Ron and I will attend an awards gala in Sterling Heights hosted by Automation Alley, a local business "consortium." It's a big business event and we can't miss it. Ron's got his tux and I have managed to pour myself into one of my size 8 gowns. (Amazing!)

Logistically, this will be a tricky few days, involving much driving around the construction-infested Detroit freeways while peering at MapQuest pages. I'm tired just thinking about it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Like Fathers, Like Sons

Here is Benny with his friends Harrison and Quinn at Gallup Park today. Harrison and Quinn's father Matt works with Ron, and it's striking how much these boys look and act like their fathers. Matt is a very serious, dignified guy and Ron is ... well, nuts.

(Click on the picture to see it better.)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Order the Chili-Cheese Dumbdog

This was a kick-ass writing day. Wrote two chapters and solved the problem of my unconscious heroine. Andie was out cold for three days, and wakes up in a hotel room.

Somehow I had to bring her up to speed on events over the last few days, so I had her wake up and squabble with her colleagues. ("You want me to attend a geology conference? And give a TALK? Are you nuts?") Then she heads out to find her missing friend.

She stops in at a diner. It's an odd place, really. You have to punch in a code to order. She thought she ordered waffles and ended up with a Chili-Cheese Dumbdog. Also, the chairs start rocking wildly when a diner exceeds his allotted eating time.

Anyway, CNN is on the diner's TV, so my heroine watched another main character (a powerful politician) being interviewed by a zany reporter. That brought her up to date and was more fun to write than my heroine reading a newspaper (yuk) or watching a regular newscast.

Now she has to dig up a legal case in the Hall of Records. I'm trying to remember my days as a circuit court reporter. Bureaucracies never change.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pagan Cross-Stitching and Other Thoughts

Well, I've hit another snag in my novel, and I'm not sure how to unravel it. My heroine was kidnapped, out cold for three days, and now she wakes up in Book Three in a nice safe hospital bed. Lots of stuff happened in those three days, but since this novel is primarily in her point of view, and it's important she gets up to speed quickly, I've got to review the last few days.

This is hard to do without it sounding like a soap opera summary. ("This week, Donna confessed to Paul, Fred hit Lana with his car, Myrna told Jeff the baby was Troy's, when it was really Walter's, Diane took up pagan cross-stitching and Brianna confronted her demon-possessed stepmother Janel, who stole her math homework to complete a sick Satanic ritual.)

All my attempts sound like that ridiculous bedside scene in "The Fellowship of the Ring," where a desperately wounded Frodo is running from the Ringwraiths, then wakes up in bed on a sunny morning. Gandalf the wizard then rambles on for pages and pages, getting Frodo up to date on everything. Yawn.

Back to my saga. My heroine's sister stole a fleet of ships during those three days and is on a rescue mission, with a little corpse hunting on the side (don't ask). It won't do any good to write chapters dramatizing this, from the sister's point of view, cuz my heroine will still need to wake up and learn all about it. And it seems like a copout to write: "Andie hobbled to the computer and did a Google search on her sister. She was shocked that Percy would behave so, etc., etc."

Another option is having Andie drag information out of a well-informed buddy, one who's reluctant to tell Andie anything because it might impede her recovery. But that still smacks of the whole Gandalf-Frodo scene.

Should Andie read a newspaper? Watch TV? Yawn.

Perhaps I'll have Percy write Andie a letter. A smug, patronizing, but cryptic letter from a bossy sister ought to make Andie plenty mad while getting basic information across. Andie will immediately stomp out of the hospital to go do the opposite of what Percy wants.

Or maybe Andie's nurses will act out recent events using finger puppets and funny voices. Who knows?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Great Hades! Pluto's Not a Planet!

New York Times article

Well, it's official. A bunch of astronomers in Prague have plucked Pluto out of the planet lineup and tossed it into an icy trash bin labeled "Trans-Neptunian Objects."

And I, for one, am pretty upset about it. Not just because Pluto’s one of my favorite planets – that small, icy changeling with the big moon and funky orbit. Like the other planets, it took its name from Roman mythology based on a specific characteristic. (Mercury is fast, Venus is pretty, Jupiter is big, Saturn is slow … you get the picture.)

Named after the God of the Underworld, Pluto’s name evokes more than an ancient god. It’s a place: dark, harsh, cold, remote, a true underworld. Its largest moon, Charon, is named after the ferryman who took dead souls across the River Styx into the Underworld. Its two smaller moons, Hydra and Nix, are named after a nine-headed monster and the Goddess of Night.

But now the International Astronomical Union, drunk with new data about the numerous icy bodies beyond Pluto, launched a thorough housecleaning of the whole classification system. Their central question: what is a planet?

It is, admittedly, a tricky question: if a planet is simply a round object that revolves around the sun, then astronomers would have to promote Ceres, the biggest asteroid in the asteroid belt and Xena, that new planet beyond Pluto. And then what if scientists find a zillion more little worlds? Are they all planets too?

The astronomers didn’t solve this problem like scientists; they solved it like bureaucrats. Determined to strip Pluto of its rank, they sought a clear way to separate it from the other planets beyond the basic criteria: “It’s really small and way the fuck out there.”

So they said a planet, in addition to being round and revolving around the sun, “must have cleared other things out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.” In other words, it had to be alone, except for objects orbiting around it, like moons or rings. That knocked out Ceres in the asteroid belt and Xena in the Kuiper Belt.

Sounds like Pluto’s safe, right? It’s got three moons. Well, Pluto was betrayed by its largest moon: Charon. Apparently Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto like most moons do, the center of gravity is between them. So boom! There goes Pluto on a technicality.

I suppose these astronomers know what they’re talking about when they discuss centers of gravities of objects 3.7 billion miles away. But they’ll look pretty stupid if the NASA's New Horizons spacecraft turns up at Pluto in 2015 and finds out they were wrong.

I think it’s kind of creepy that something so basic in our scientific culture can be changed like this, just because a planet is small and distant. Does this mean a bunch of cartographers will gather in Lisbon next month and decide that Australia isn’t a continent?

Or will Congress enact a law that Hawaii is no longer a state? (“Our new definition of a state includes 'must be connected to the North American landmass. And yeah, Hawaii is small and way the fuck out there.'”)

Scientist by their very nature like things all nice and tidy, but the universe will never cooperate. I’m rushing out today and buying Benny a Solar System mobile with NINE Styrofoam balls. Maybe I’ll have to add a little Xena, but they'll never take my Pluto away.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pursuit of Power III: The Cure is Worse than the Disease

When we last chatted with William H. McNeill, author of “Pursuit of Power,” old military patterns were busy withering and dying in the 17th century. You could almost hear him cackling and rubbing his hands, crying “Now I can prove my thesis! Hahahahaha!”

Maurice of Nassau and his buds had developed new methods of army organization, and their ideas spread through the world like a virus. McNeill triumphantly returned to his big medical analogy, reminding us how military changes resemble the genetic mutations of microorganisms; they break down old limits or explore new geography.

So now warmakers had the fancy weapons, the new drills, the bitty regiments. The developments kindled in Holland in the 16th century spread like wildfire. In the 17th century the new methods hit western Europe; in the 18th, they transformed Russia under Peter the Great. Then the methods spread to the New World and India during colonial expansion and infected even the Ottoman Empire.

Hoo boy. But these new methods weren’t all-powerful. Generals still had problems controlling armies of more than 50,000 men. They needed better ways to communicate. They needed some decent topographical maps. Supply was a big problem. (Isn’t it always?) Personnel administration was still all screwy, with meatheads with money and connections beating out professional officers for advancement. (That’s changed?) But most of all, war was still a sport of kings. Civilians were left alone.

But not for long. The French Revolution broke social barriers, and then the Industrial Revolution solved communication and supply problems and brought in more nifty new weapons. War became industrialized, Germany was united, everyone in Europe was squabbling, and the next thing you knew, you had World War I.

Talk about breaking old limits. As long as all military movement except for trains depended on horses or humans, the limit of muscles were the limits of armies. But the internal combustion engine changed all that, McNeill said, beginning with the taxicabs that carried French soldiers from Paris for the first Battle of the Marne in 1914.

Even a serious dude like McNeill admitted that World War I was bizarre. Germany, Britain and France were willing to fight despite massive deaths and military stalemate. McNeill tried to explain it, but gave up after a rambling page or two.

You could almost feel his relief as he turned to armaments, treating us to pages of tank photos. Tanks were first developed in 1916, and two years later they were all along the front line.

The British high command even came out with this amazing plan, called Plan 1919. I’d never heard of this plan. Apparently it laid out the blitzkrieg tactics the Germans used 20 years later in Poland. But the war ended a year early, and the Brits never used it.

But it’s still intriguing. Military eggheads before then tended to draw plans based on weapons that, um, actually existed. The British planners, on the other hand, tried to shape the future by deliberately altering the development of weapons to fit the needs of the plan. I can just see them sketching out Plan 1919 to their subordinates, airily saying, “Now if we can just put some big guns on treads, old boy …”

Except for this interesting aside, McNeill used the rest of this book to launch a broad, sociopolitical discussion of the two world wars. I plowed through some of it, but it made my head hurt. So I gave “Pursuit of Power” a respectful farewell salute and toddled off to watch “Supernanny.”

So did McNeill prove his thesis? I don’t feel qualified to judge. I mean, when you think about it, it’s a weird little thesis. So the advanced armies are the deadly viruses, and the backward natives are the once-healthy cells, falling by the millions to the scythe of progress. Does that make my new buddy Maurice a genetic mutation? Oooh, my head hurts.

I think McNeill successfully showed how technological advances in weapons break previous limits, allowing armies to run amok until they hit new limits. Seventeenth-century armies became unwieldy at 50,000 because communication broke down. Then came telegraphs and phones and armies grew larger.

Now we have the Internet and satellites, and the sizes of future armies seem almost infinite. Perhaps if we refrain from blowing ourselves up long enough to develop space travel, we’ll see history repeat itself over planets and systems instead of countries and continents.

And perhaps that’s one of the book’s points. In mankind’s pursuit of power, our ambition will always outstrip our capabilities. Yet while our reach exceeds our grasp, we struggle to handle the technology we hold now, today. We’re like greedy toddlers, unable to eat the candy in our hands, yet always crying for more.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pursuit of Power II: Christine Meets a New Guy

Despite my best intentions, I abandoned McNeill’s “Pursuit of Power” after the first chapter and spent two evenings watching TV instead.

But Monday night, which offered a choice between reruns of "Hell's Kitchen," "Project Runway" and "Wife Swap," drove me back to reading. So I gave Chapter Two a try.

McNeill was yakking about the years 1000-1500, when Chinese advancements in industry and armaments anticipated European achievements by several centuries.

So why didn’t a Chinese Columbus discover America? China had the iron and the coal industries and the powerful sailing ships. They had paper money and crossbows and guns and gunpowder and Confucious knew what else.

The book’s answer was that to exploit such advancements, a society had to support lots of merchants and manufacturers. But China didn't want to do this. Their society had different values. Chinese merchants and manufacturers couldn't flourish. Instead of passing their crafts to their sons, merchants and manufacturers put their limited profits into education and land for their boys. The Chinese government controlled everything through Confucianism, and Confucianism didn't like the marketplace.

Europe could have gone the same way in those years, McNeill said. Christianity didn't think much of the marketplace either. If the Popes Innocent III and Boniface VIII had succeeded in uniting western Europe under a papal government (a true Holy Roman Empire), Europe might’ve been like China.

But the popes couldn't pull it off. Apparently God wanted Europeans to buy light artillery on a large scale. So Europe remained a puzzle of states and markets could flourish in the cracks, building increasingly powerful weapons. Gee, what a relief. Cuz the world really needed those cannons and muskets.

Meanwhile, back to Chapter Four. Military history books often remind me of small-town newspapers: the same people keep popping up again and again. If you’re studying the 12th century, you get Ghengis Khan; if you’re in the 1500s, you find Elizabeth of England and Philip of Spain.

Now McNeill was discussing the Thirty Year’s War in the 1600s, and the Swedish king Gustav Adolf promptly floated up like Banquo’s ghost. Oh, hi there, Gustav, how ya doing – still fighting the Battle of Breitenfeld? Go get ‘em, man.

But then a new guy marched onto page 126: Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, captain-general of Holland and Zeeland in the 1500s. How come nobody told me about this dude? I thought Zeeland was a boring town in west Michigan. (1)

Maurice was a drill sergeant – literally. Confronted by the Spaniards and their weird little tercios (2), he dreamed up the idea of systematic drilling to make his soldiers more efficient. He analyzed the complicated motions needed to load and fire a matchlock rifle and came up with the number 42. (3) He taught his soldiers to make each movement in unison, responding to a shouted command.

That’s where the guy on the cover of this book, the soldier in the red poofy pants, came in. Drillmasters used pictures showing each of the 42 motions, all displaying the same funny guy: he fired his musket, took down the musket, uncocked the match, blew on the pan, charged the musket, etc. They’re lovely pictures, made from engravings, although stick figures probably would have done just as well.

But Maurice did more than hand out pictures. He introduced regular marching and smaller tactical units and made his guys dig entrenchments with spades.

“Powess and physical courage all but disappeared under an ironclad routine,” McNeill said. “The old heroic patterns of military behavior withered and died.”


(1) The real Zeeland is a province in the Netherlands. Dutch settlers brought the names to Michigan, so now we have the thrilling locales of Holland and Zeeland, 5 miles apart on the highway to Grand Rapids. Yippee.

(2) The tercios were a formidable force in the 1500s: a crowd of pikemen (guys carrying long wooden poles) protecting a fringe of musketeers posted around a central square of more pikemen. The Spaniards loved their tercios and insisted on sending them out long after their usefulness had ended.

(3) The answer to life, the universe and Everything.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pursuit of Power I: Deadly Germs in Poofy Pants

"The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since A.D. 1000" by William H. listing

I’ll admit, I picked up my library copy of William H. McNeill’s “Pursuit of Power” with some trepidation. The book was yellowed and waterstained and the cover showed some weird guy in a teeny feathered hat and poofy red pants.

As usual, I skipped the preface. I can’t stand prefaces, where an author describes the epiphany that led to the book (“… and so I wondered, why hasn’t a thorough discussion of nickel-iron octahedrites been attempted?”). Then the author spends two pages thanking everyone but their dry cleaner. (“… To my Uncle Mervin, who offered many helpful suggestions when he wasn’t drunk.”)

So I turned to chapter one: “Arms and Society of Antiquity.”

And stopped dead.

I didn’t understand a word of it. What’s all this about the “industrialization of war”? Why is he talking about bronze? Who cares where tin was mined? This is ridiculous, I thought, I could be watching “America’s Got Talent.”

I sighed. Perhaps I should read the preface after all. It was only two pages, not counting the acknowledgements (“Thank you Hugh, for piloting me through the intricacies of Chinese historiography.”)

Thank heavens I read it. This book had a point, and McNeill wasn’t afraid to clearly lay it out in the preface. He’d published a book a few years before called “Plagues and Peoples,” dealing with the interactions between people and microparasites. A creepy topic really. I dislike reading plague books, which leave me twitchy and prone to examining my tongue in the mirror.

In “Plagues and Peoples,” McNeill addressed the abrupt changes that occur in organisms due to a mutation or a change in environment, changes that briefly allow them to escape previous limits. The most important microparasites affecting people were disease germs, so he wrote about those.

In “Pursuit of Power,” McNeill turned his attention to macroparasites. The most important macroparasites affecting people were other people, violent conquerors who snatched all the good food, shelter and pretty girls without contributing anything.

Therefore, macroparasitism among people turns into a study of the armed forces, with special attention to war equipment. Changes in armaments resemble the genetic mutations of microorganisms; they break down old limits or explore new geography.

To take this analogy further (and McNeill stretched it to the limit), well-equipped and organized armies meeting a more backward society act like deadly germs attacking a patient. The advanced guy almost always wins.

And where does this leave us? In real trouble, according to McNeill. As war became more advanced, increasingly dependent on industrial might, muscles and courage became less important. But our “ancient, inherited psychic aptitudes” remain the same. We still want to beat our breastplates and rattle our spears, but now our spears are rockets and nuclear missiles.

Now, isn’t that just jolly. Aren’t you glad I read the preface? Well, it had to be done. I returned to that first paragraph in chapter one, “Arms and Society in Antiquity,” and it made a little better sense now. A little.

“The industrialization of war is almost as old as civilization,” McNeill said. Privileged fighting men used bronze weapons and armor made by specialists. This wasn’t really industrialization, though, because it was so small-scale. It took a ton of painstaking work to make a warrior’s full panopoly and the stuff lasted forever.

But things change. McNeill says. “One can detect in the historic record a series of important changes in weapons systems resulting from sporadic technical discoveries and inventions that sufficed to change preexisting conditions of warfare and army organization.”

In other words, as germs mutated to cause ever more dangerous diseases, new weapons were invented to cause more destructive wars. In both cases, the old limits no longer held, and wholesale craziness broke out for a while until an equilibrium was established.

And what were these changes? The first was our old buddy bronze, not because it made pretty armor, but because it led to improved designs for war chariots. The new designs meant lots of guys could have chariots now, not just the rich ones. Whole armies could roll around the battlefield, shooting arrows. That meant populations with lots of horses could kick some serious butt.

The next change was iron, which meant every guy could get his own armor and wreak a little havoc. Then came what McNeill called “the cavalry revolution.” Guys learned to ride and shoot their bows at the same time. The steppe nomads loved this, and the next thing you knew, you had Genghis Khan in your backyard.

For the last big change in antiquity, we can thank the Iranians, who bred bigger horses, horses big enough to carry a guy in full metal armor. Armored horsemen cared less about arrows and could wave their maces and swords around. With that discovery, the age of antiquity was over and we could get into all that fun medieval stuff.

By the end of chapter one, I was OK with the book. McNeill’s writing was a little involved (I mean, look at the quote about weapons, and that was one of the simpler sentences). But he had a nice, organized mind and could reduce an insanely complicated topic into something I could wrap my head around. I was prepared to read on. Maybe I’d learn something about the weird guy in the red poofy pants.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Christine's Military History Seminar Returns!

After a brief hiatus (ahem, nine months), I proudly announce the return of my own personal, private, slightly flaky military history seminar.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall how last fall's horrifying TV season drove me away from the tube and into the library. I've always been interested in military history, so I turned to the nice folks at Ohio State University. The history department posted a preliminary reading list on its web site. These folks are really hard-core; they actually consider a 100-book list comprised of six sections with authors like Clausewitz, Caesar and Thucydides a "preliminary list." I'd like to see the real list.

Here's the List

I began with Carl von Clausewitz's "On War," which nearly chased me from military history forever. Then I read Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." Clause was very impressive, Kennedy less so. I had great fun abusing Kennedy.

Read my blogs about Clause

Clause the Sequel

Kennedy: Rise and Fall of a Really Long Book

Next on the hit parade is "The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since A.D. 1000" by William H. McNeill. Gosh, reading the title alone makes me tired.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Long Live the Revolution!

Armed with basic media equipment and Internet access, the little people are fighting back!

Here is a poor schmuck just trying to cancel his AOL. His tragic story has now been featured in the New York Times and NBC's Today show.

Vinny Tries to Cancel AOL

And here is a clip called "A Comcast Technician is Sleeping on My Couch."


Let the masses rejoice!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

No-Benny Vacation, Part Two

Then the rains came.

They held off until afternoon, granting us a good morning at the beach. Ron splashed around in the chilly water while I lay on a towel and read "The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency." Hunger drove us back to the Harbor House Inn, where we changed before lunch.

I had only 40 minutes before my pedicure, so we scarfed hot dogs at a diner and watched the gray clouds darken through the plate-glass windows. Then I placed myself in the gifted hands of Studio 506 for a basic pedicure with sparkly metallic polish.

I left the salon and stepped into a typhoon. Ron stood at a nearby corner, holding our only umbrella and clutching a plastic shopping bag to his chest. "Ice cream!" he said decidedly, ignoring my squeaks as I hopped around in those weird flip-flops salons give you.

"My pedicure!" I groaned, splashing ankle-deep into a puddle.

"There's an ice cream place!" Ron said. He handed me the umbrella and started forward.

There was no inside seating at the first ice cream parlor, or the second. We could now barely see through the wall of water, so I whisked us inside a Greek gyro place and collapsed into a booth. Undaunted, Ron left the restaurant and returned with his ice cream. More sodden tourists arrived, wiping their faces and wringing out their shorts, until the place was full. I didn't know there were that many people in Grand Haven.

Resigned to waiting, I looked over the local paper, The Grand Haven Tribune. Typical stuff, until I hit the editorial page. The first letter to the editor was from a visitor from Greenville.


"To the Editor:

"My husband and I chose to spend our Fourth of July this year in 'beautiful' Grand Haven.... After dealing with the congestion of pedestrians and traffic, we were very much looking forward to a relaxing dinner. We selected a popular establishment on Washington Street with outside seating ...."

(I could almost hear the jungle drums beating. What was ahead? An injury? A mugging? An offensively loud car stereo?)

"I looked over my husband's shoulder to see a man walking toward us wearing a huge snake around his neck .... I am deathly afraid of snakes ... and quickly left our table."

(End of problem, you might say. But the lady's ordeal was not over. She returned to the table only to encounter the snake man again.)

"I didn't hesitate to flee again to the safety inside the restaurant ... trembling and sobbing."

(I felt kind of bad for the lady at this point. But she wrote on.)

"My appetite for dinner and my love for Grand Haven were both gone .... Are these the kinds of tourists that Grand Haven is trying to attract? People that walk down the streets with exotic -- and [possibly unsafe) animals that scare women and children?"


Well now. Perhaps it is best if this lady does not return to Grand Haven, especially if she seeks relaxation during one of the town's busiest weekends (my pedicure lady said it was wall-to-wall people over the Fourth). But I doubt the snake man was a tourist, and I'm not entirely convinced that the city should launch a campaign to reduce irresponsible reptile-walking.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

No-Benny Vacation, Part One

Well, we're all back home again.Ron and I spent a mind-bending four days without Benny, who was visiting my sister in South Haven, Mich.

It's embarrassing, really, how quickly we adjusted. Within 24 hours, Benny's little table in the living room, usually strewn with toy spaceships, matchbox cars and abandoned sippy cups, turned into a coffee table buried under newspapers, car keys, junk mail and half a Snickers bar.

Our old habits of 9 years B.B. (Before Benny) quickly returned: lazy weekend mornings, long bike rides, brunch downtown, movies, restaurants, the New York Times Sunday paper, big fat books, tiny little purses, complete sentences, wine with lunch ... the list goes on.

But I sometimes got the feeling that Ron wasn't totally with me. I'd be lapping up my ham-and-cheese crepe at an outdoor cafe, cheerfully babbling about Meryl Streep's performance in last night's movie, and Ron would just stare into space, lower lip protruding.

"This is great ham," I'd say.

Ron glances at my plate. "Benny likes ham."


It would be better in Grand Haven, I told myself. I'd booked us two nights at a bed-and-breakfast in this touristy beach town on Lake Michigan. My goal was relaxation verging on outright boredom and Grand Haven did not disappoint. The town was mostly empty that Monday and Tuesday, resting during the brief interval between Fourth of July celebrations and the Coast Guard Festival in August.

Monday was beautiful, bright and warm, with a cool breeze off the lake. I strolled around while Ron napped, then we went to dinner. Then we settled on the B-and-B's front porch with our books, waiting for the 10 p.m. performance of the World's Largest Musical Fountain. According to the tourist pamphlets, this water-and-light show, created in 1962, uses 32 600-watt subwoofers, 14 power amplifiers and 12 high-frequency horns.

A crowd gathered on the boardwalk below, boats circled in the harbor. Other guests joined us to await the spectacle. The show began, and frankly, it was a little weird. The lights flickered, the music swelled, the water sprayed (courtesy of a “huge” nozzle bed system).


Well, maybe the Fountain didn't say that, but that was the gist, if you know what I mean. Ron and I stared in stunned disbelief while the Fountain played a series of long-forgotten tunes, many old enough to collect Social Security. The Fountain would introduce each song, chuckling at the funny titles. The whole thing was a little strange.

What's more, this panopoly of water and light is not really the largest in the world. The city of Grand Haven's web site reluctantly admits that theirs is the "once largest musical fountain in the world."

"Only recently has the size been exceeded in a musical fountains," the website goes on. "The unique character of this fountain has not been duplicated."

So where's the real largest musical fountain in the world? The city sniffily admits that one is in Las Vegas, Nevada: "Where water conservation is critical and glitz is the byword."

Well, I hope they're ashamed of themselves over there.


Pictures! Pictures!

Here are some belated pictures from two family outings. The first batch is from a visit to Kensington Farms, a cute place about 30 miles from Ann Arbor. We visited all the animals and went on a hayride.

The second batch is from Greenfield Village, a big indoor/outdoor museum complex in the Detroit area founded by Henry Ford. We attended "Day Out with Thomas" featuring Thomas the Tank Engine steaming along the tracks. It was a great day, with treats and activities and a ride on the Thomas train. Benny was beside himself.

Friday, July 07, 2006

"Where's the Liquor!"

I'm battling a slight hangover today, subsisting on Snapple and buttered toast. Ron and I spent last night guzzling margaritas on our deck with friends Amy and Jason, visiting from out of town.

The drinks were my fault, of course, the result of a brainstorm in Target's summer clearance aisle Thursday morning. I picked up some $2 margarita glasses while Benny snagged a plastic martini shaker with a big blue parrot on it.

Then we headed to the supermarket for some tequila, where I cruised the beer aisle with mounting irritation.

"Where's your liquor?" I asked a grocery clerk. He looked at me warily, as well he might: a wild-eyed woman in a wrinkled shirt, followed by a tiny toddler clutching a martini shaker. They didn't have any liquor, of course, and I trudged over to the drugstore and bought my hooch there while the cherry cheesecake melted in the car.

But all was ready when Amy and Jason arrived (and Ron) and we headed out to eat. Benny was as naughty as naughty could be in the restaurant: whining, pouting, refusing to eat, demanding snacks and stickers and aspirin (wait, the last was for me).

Disgusted, I left the restaurant and marched Benny back to the car, where I stuffed my howling son into his carseat ("Benjamin Andrew, you are going home and to BED!") Then I slumped behind the steering wheel and glared resentfully at happy, childless couples strolling by.

Ron turned up with our friends and negotiated Benny's release so we could walk around downtown too. Then we returned to the house, where I rushed to the freezer and was pouring margaritas before Amy could take off her jacket. Benny received a glass of ice water with a plastic martini stirrer. (Yeah, I know.)

Benny went to bed at 8 p.m., shrieking with outrage. Then he was up at 5:17 a.m. ready for the day. I felt slightly nauseous; Ron had a headache from the tequila. I brought Benny to our bed, but that never works -- he just flops around and giggles.

Finally Benny slid off the bed and picked my socks off the floor. He held them up to me and asked "Mommy, wake up?" I admitted defeat.

Today I'm taking Benny to my sister's for five days. Halleluiah.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Enron's Kenneth Lay

Lay's obit in Wired

Good heavens, Kenneth Lay of Enron just died of a massive heart attack. I remember when I was living in San Francisco in 2000 and reading about Enron's spectacular success. The company was no. 7 on the Fortune 500, for crying out loud, with over $100 billion in annual revenue.

That seems like a lifetime ago, those days when I worked at, rented my movies from and ordered groceries from Now all three companies are extinct, reminding me of piezophilic bacteria, those weird little microbes living in impossible conditions.

(And yes, I had to look up the name. Now that I have, perhaps I can work the term “piezophilic” into casual conversations:

“Gee, Ron, you’re acting positively piezophilic today. Maybe you should go find your laptop and work some more.”

“That kid is totally piezophilic. If he doesn’t get his peanut butter crackers at precisely 2:30 p.m., he falls apart.”

Hmmm … maybe not.)

Anyway, piezophiles live in extreme, high-pressure environments like the bottom of the Marianas Trench. These guys love such absolutely insane conditions that some scientists think they’d survive on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

more on these weirdos

But bring a piezophile up to the surface, with all that nice air and light, and zap – it’s dead. Bring an exquisitely calibrated dot-com out of the 90’s high-pressure frenzy and it pops.

(Or in the case of Webvan, slumps with the soft hiss of leaking air. For years, only the green cupholders at Pacific Bell Park remained.)

So now we have Kenneth Lay, disgraced, convicted, unable to justify buying a $100,000 yacht while Enron was going under. And he’s gone, a victim of too much light and air. How piezophilic.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Video Game

Saturday was a great day. I spent it at Meadowbrook Theater at Oakland University near Detroit. My short play "The Video Game" was performed twice.

Ron stayed with me all afternoon and we watched about a dozen plays. The writing was excellent and the actors' performances just outstanding. There was a great play called "Writer's Block," about a guy who is terminally ill, just has one more night to live. Death is hovering around his apartment, drinking beer and doing pushups. Meanwhile, this guy wants to write one good poem before he dies. It was really funny. Really.

There was also a sweet play about a couple who meet at a pizza place. He goes there every day to buy lunch from her and they both try to be cool, but come off all kooky and weird.

I'm very pleased with how my play turned out. I was worried because I didn't agree with some of my director's choices. He comes from the directing school where they strike out all the stage directions and just work from dialogue. Which sounds just dumb to me.

But I kept my mouth shut, cuz hell, I'm not the director. I gave this guy the play, and now he gets to run off and interpret it. And I'm glad I did, because the director's changes actually worked out. He had a bomb exploding at the end, instead of Ed shooting Frank. I still like my way better, but his way did add some tension to the dialogue. I mean, the bomb's just there, ticking away in the medical bag.

***By the way, if you haven't read the play and are wondering what the hell I'm talking about, email me and I'll send you a copy. The play is a conversation between two characters in a video game loosely based on Metal Gear. They sit around while the gamer is fixing a snack and chat about their careers.

Anyway, the first performance was a little stilted and the sound booth messed up the bomb explosion. But the second performance just rocked. The audience seemed to enjoy it, laughing and everything.

I made the display poster for the play, which features chocolate-chip military camouflage and a big paper cookie. The camo pattern was easy to find at the local arts and crafts store. I don't know what these moms are putting in their scrapbooks these days.

So that's done, which is kind of a relief. I've been a little nervous. Time to work on my submission to next year's festival.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Christine the Hermit Crab

I'm getting fairly determined about this writing thing. I managed to write in Chicago during Memorial Day weekend, tapping away in the Swissotel lobby after Ron and Benny went to bed in the room. This past weekend, while Ron was in Tahoe and I stayed with Benny, I wrote every day but Saturday.

The main challenge is finding a suitable place. I start bouncing off walls if I'm home all day, so I've been researching cafes and libraries. Last week I tried the Saline District Library, tucking myself away in the tiny
Local History room.

Saline is a cute little town just south of Ann Arbor. Benny attends the Saline Early Childhood Center two days a week -- it's a cheerful place, and cheaper than Ann Arbor daycares. So I'm scouting Saline locations so I can drop Benny off and then work nearby until it's time to pick him up.

Saline does have a wonderful cafe: a bright space with brick walls and free wireless access. I can buy a toasted bagel and coke for two bucks and spread my stuff out on one of their tables. But the cafe's a busy
place: people tend to plunk down one table over and hold loud conversations.

Monday morning it was a sunburned, middle-aged lady with frizzy hair who held a 20-minute monologue that (I swear) went like this:

"So I told her I was tired of the commute and she said "Move here." And I said, "I can't move there," and she said, "Sure you can," and I said, "No I can't," and she said, "Why not?" and I said, "It's too far," and she said, "It's not too far," and I said, "Yes it is..."

Last week was worse. On Friday a big crowd of Saline matrons took over the cafe, yakking loudly for TWO HOURS. Then came the moms and rowdy children.

The Saline library also offers free Internet access and seemed a viable alternative. I spread all my stuff out in the research area. But then Sandy at the research desk started holding long, involved conversations with everyone in the damn town. So I retreated to a back room, surrounded by dusty binders and a microfilm machine. A giant bust of a dour old man guarded the door. (I first thought it was Abe Lincoln, but it's actually Orange Risdon, Saline's founder.) Orange and I were happy until some old guy turned up, unfolded every map in the room, and rustled them for 40 minutes.

Maybe it's my attitude, I told myself as I drove back to Ann Arbor, a total of 20 words written that day. I vowed to explore one more place, the Ann Arbor Public Library, then give it up and buy good earplugs. And there I found my home. The third floor is as silent as a tomb. I actually worry that I'm disturbing people with my keyboard tapping. And if a cleaning lady does turn up and loudly poke her dust mop into all 100 bookshelves (it does happen), I can retreat into a tiny room custom-made for people-haters like myself.

Ah, heaven.

Signor Ugarte is Dead

I've had a good writing streak – four chapters in three days. Any day I get to write is a successful day, and here I've written three days in a row.

On Monday I wrote a tricky scene between two politicians who are former lovers: a man (Zodiac) and a woman (Percy). They've bickered through the whole book about how to apprehend a dangerous criminal.

So it'’s Chapter 25 and they'’re at it again, squabbling about security measures and killer assassin robots. Looks like the criminal might actually be dead this time, which would solve all of Zodiac'’s problems.

Then suddenly Zodiac asks Percy why she left him so long ago. Percy blames Zodiac, saying he turned ruthless and obsessed with power. Zodiac doesn'’t buy it -- he doesn'’t think you can turn feelings on and off like a faucet whenever it'’s convenient. He says she never loved him, that there was somebody else first. "Where is that man?" Zodiac asks. "Is he dead?"”

Percy won'’t talk, but Zodiac has puzzled it out: that other man is the wanted criminal, and Percy has been trying to protect him for the whole book. So now Percy is traveling to identify the body of the man she once knew. And Zodiac is now her enemy and can cause all kinds of trouble.

Meanwhile, Percy'’s sister is still trapped on the space station. And since Humphrey Bogart probably won'’t turn up with letters of transit, she'll have to think of a way out. Maybe she'’ll get arrested.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

sunflower pix

here is me and benny

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

This Robot is Malfunctioning

Ron tried not to laugh at me this morning as I staggered into the dining room at 5:30 a.m. He's one of those early birds who contentedly munch cereal in the weak morning light.

I, on the other hand, lurch helplessly around the kitchen, toasting a Snapple and drinking a waffle. I glare at him before retreating to the home office.

"I hope this schedule is worth it," I say, "because it's shortening my life."

The scene inside the office wasn't any better. I'm at a tricky part in my novel, of course, and the hamster in my mind just wouldn't run on his wheel this morning. I've rewritten half my novel --45,300 words -- and now it's time to launch the second half.

So I sit there staring at two very scary words: BOOK THREE. The novel's first half was mostly rewriting; now I had to come up with all new stuff. My heroine is now trapped in a space station -- sort of a space-age Casablanca, crowded with people desperate to get out. She's lucky not to be dead, or at least trapped on Mercury. (My heroine would see little difference between the two.) The villain is following her, but she doesn't know it, and so is a newspaper reporter. Plus weird assassin robots are swarming everywhere, which is never a good thing, and many of the robots are malfunctioning, which makes it even worse.

Since I couldn't write the damn scene, I created lengthy treatises on my imaginary space station. Then I flipped through my writing books for a nice little pep talk. I found this lovely bit by Anne Lamott:

"So you sit down at, say, nine every morning or 10 every night. You turn on your computer and bring up the right file and you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child.

"Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and try to quiet your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. they are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria.

"There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun at your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis.

"Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working and you say yeah, because you are.

"Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for your writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story."


This passage reflects my experience, except for the part where she actually wrote something. I took Benny to daycare and went back to BOOK THREE. Dissatisfied, I went back to Book Two and started messing THAT up, until mercifully I had to stop for a phone call. I interviewed a very nice lady for a newspaper article -- you know, writing that actually earns money -- and now I'm wrtiing in my blog because I'm scared of my own novel. Wish me luck.

Monday, May 22, 2006

5 a.m. Swim Time

Look at the time on this post. It's not even 7 a.m. yet. I've been up since 5 a.m., surfing the web, reading email, reviewing notes for my novel. I should feel very virtuous, but instead I'm just crabby.

This is the first salvo in my campaign to write every day. Early morning is the only guaranteed time I can sit at my computer and wrestle with my fiction. Until 7:30 a.m., it's just me and the cat. After that, Ron leaves for work, Benny starts romping around and the weird guy next door starts power washing his driveway or something.

I used to write at night; that's how I wrote my first Europa Society play while holding down an editor position in San Francisco. For three months I worked until 6 p.m., napped until 8, then typed until midnight. But that's not practical now. Evenings mean dinner, bath and bedtime for my toddler, and are often my only time with Ron.

I've tried to write while Benny naps, but I just can't relax. I start at every little sound, whether it's the cat playing with a toy or our neighbor playing with his motorcycle. I'm sure Jack has a good reason to park his bike in the driveway, rev up the engine, and stand around staring at it for 30 minutes twice a day. But it doesn't do my nerves any good. When I manage to ignore the cat, the motorcycle, and somebody's noisy landscaping service and actually start typing, Benny wakes up an hour early.

So that leaves the appallingly early time of 5 a.m. for optimum writing -- after a shower and two bottles of Snapple, of course. This morning my brain wasn't fooled at all: "Why aren't we in bed?" it asks. "What is this thing called Light? I don't like it." So I coaxed my brain with Google News and four scenes from "Dr. Faustus," and it has graciously allowed me to post on my blog.

As in any crazy endeavor, I first look around for someone who's already done it. But none of my friends and family are insane enough to ponder sticky plot points at 5 a.m.

The best role model I could find was Lynne Cox, a long-distance swimmer who has kicked her way across the English Channel, the Bering Straits and the seas of Antarctica. Next to her, I'm nothing. This gal spends her life getting up at 5 a.m., diving into icy water and splashing around for a couple of hours.

I read Cox's memoir "Swimming to Antarctica" last year with bewildered astonishment. As a teenager, she'd meet her coach at dawn by some horrid bay, all ready to swim. "I can't believe you're doing this," her coach said once. "There is frost on my car windshield."

Cox knew she was a little obsessed. She underwent a series of tests at an underwater lab and scientist found that her body had exactly the same buoyancy as seawater. This should be a wakeup call.

Her response? "It's not easy to get out of a warm bed at 4:30 and do this. You have to really want it."

I guess that sums it up. If you're serious about a goal, you have to do whatever it takes. You have to really want it. So here I am at 7 a.m., trying to be a writer. I hope I want it as bad as I think I do.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

We Return Triumphant

Ron let me sleep in a bit this morning, so we got a late start. The RV was due in Ypsilanti on Friday, and we all felt tired and grimy. We hit the Ohio Turnpike that day, hoping to make it home by nightfall.

I'd woken with a slight head cold, but I couldn't take any medicine because I was also carsick. High-speed winds came roaring up out of the south, buffeting the RV. Ron fought for hours to stay in his lane, while the trucks ahead weaved and swerved and passed dangerously close the edge of bridges. Benny whined for raisins and I clutched my armrest and tried not to sick up.

Construction almost foiled us around U.S. 23, with crucial ramps connecting the highway to 475 and 94 closed, but we pulled into our own driveway before dinnertime. The neighbors came out to hear our adventures and Benny happily chased the kitty. It took an hour for Ron and I to unload the RV and pile everything in the living room and dinner was takeout pizza from Cottage Inn.

Still, we were pleased. Benny and I each took long baths and we happily fell asleep in our own home. I was just glad not to be moving.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Walls Are Closing In

This was the best morning of the trip - nice and warm. It was pleasant to lie in the bunk over the RV cab and listen to the jets take off from Dulles International Airport.

With Shenandoah and Manassas under our belts, we were ready to head back. We hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike and started gobbling up the miles.

High-mileage days like this are tough on Benny, who doesn't appreciate the single-minded rush of a 10-hour trip. We tried to stop for exercise - it was a beautiful day, after all - but turnpike service plazas aren't exactly toddler-friendly. Each plaza featured clusters of restaurants and stores surrounded by miles of asphalt. Since we were in the RV, we had to park with the trucks, which meant scurrying across the massive park lot, holding onto a squirming, protesting Benny, who hated to be carried.

So exercise for Benny meant racing around a deserted restaurant with Ron and I posted at each end of his makeshift track. Then we piled into the RV and tried to make another 100 miles before Benny went nuts.

Exhausted, we left the turnpike just west of Youngstown, Ohio, seeking some fabled campground in Leavittsburg. It had cable TV, a rec room, a volleyball court - sounded awful. But the lady at the toll booth had a better idea. She recommended the campground at West Branch State Park. The facilities had been recently expanded and renovated. Ron disliked crowded RV parks anyway, so we took her advice and drove 13 miles off the highway, the RV rocking and moaning all the way. I'd stuffed my computer's wrist rest through the handles of some particularly troublesome cupboards, but the window over the table still rattled and a haunted door near Benny's bed still creaked open at odd times.

West Branch's campground was beautiful, woodsy and sweet-smelling, with a lovely lake near our site. Ron built another fire in a faint, cool drizzle while Benny sat nearby in the dirt and provided a running commentary: “Fire, hot! Fire, hot! Daddy builds fire, hot!”

I served leftover spaghetti and corn for Benny and microwaved soup for Ron and myself, and we ate outside, lingering in the soft air until the rain picked up. Then we all bedded down for our last night in the RV.

I woke at about 4 a.m. in a state of panic. I'm not prone to claustrophobia, but suddenly the ceiling above me felt frighteningly low. I was in the bunk over the cab, against the wall, with the ceiling inches above me. Trying to fight my mounting panic, I herded Ron aside and climbed down. I stood beside the large, open window over the RV's table, panting.

It was a full 10 minutes before I could breathe calmly, with Ron almost beside himself with worry. I'd never been claustrophobic like that, just never. Finally I calmed myself (and Ron) and climbed into bed with Benny, whose ceiling was much higher. It still took a long time to fall asleep.


Never Call Retreat


I woke up with a splitting headache. My first thought was "Carbon Monoxide Poisoning!" since propane makes me nervous. A dozen things in this RV run on propane, including the furnace, the stovetop and the water heater. So I climbed down from my bunk with vague thoughts of looking in the mirror to see if my cheeks were rosy.

Ron looked at me curiously as I staggered past. He was pouring milk for Benny, whose cheeks were always rosy. No help there. I decide a more intelligent move would be to check the carbon monoxide detector, but I couldn't understand the thing. There were lots of green lights, so I decided we'd all live. So I gave up the idea and fished a Snapple out of the cooler.

We were in a bit of a pickle this morning because both our holding tanks were reading two-thirds full and our fresh water supply was low, which made showering a risky business. Ron used the bathhouse through the trees so we had enough water for myself and Benny. I'd given up on the idea of showering Benny - I'd never get him back into that stall -- so I gave him a sponge bath on the kitchen counter instead. Much less traumatic for both of us.

We pulled into the campground's empty dumping station about 10:30 a.m. to empty our tanks and replenish our fresh water. I went into the office to reserve our space for another night and buy a few groceries. When I returned, our small RV was dwarfed by giant road yachts. Ron was scuttling between the trailer and the station's water faucet, looking annoyed.

“I know,” he said. “I was going to wait for you, but then half the Fifth Naval Fleet showed up.”

We finally escaped to U.S. 29 and headed to the battlefield. Manassas, or Bull Run, was the site of two major Civil War battles. The first clash in 1861 was the very first battle of the war. Washington was so confident that the Union would lick those rebels that civilians followed the soldiers to watch the battle and enjoy a picnic lunch.

The Manassas Visitor Center featured an amazing map that laid out the events of that first battle. Tiny lights blinked on and off, revealing troop movements. Blue lights were Union, red lights were Confederate. Battles were indicated by flashing yellow and orange lights. The whole display was so dramatic and clear, Ron and I were captivated. Benny loved the lights too. “Red, blue, orange!” he yelled.

We walked the one-mile, circular trail behind the center, following the battle's movements. Things went badly for the Confederates at first, even with the Union commander's dinking around and wasting time. Then fresh Confederate troops arrived, and rebels rallied behind Stonewall Jackson in the battle that gave him his nickname. When the Union army finally retreated, they ran smack into a crowd of panicked picnickers racing back to Washington D.C.

The weather today was gorgeous, warm and sunny. Benny was tired after the walk and refused his lunch, so we put him in his carseat and hoped he'd nap while we took a driving tour of the second Manassas battle in 1862. It was a far-flung battle, so the tour required lurching up and down two-lane roads in our ungainly RV, covering the same ground repeatedly.

Benny was asleep by the first stop, so we sat in the tiny parking lot near Battery Heights, reading the battle guide and wondering how we would get out again. Then a small hatchback car turned up and parked close behind us. We watched in dismay as three people got out, walked over a cannon-ringed hill and disappeared in the tall grass. They never returned. I even climbed the hill to look for them, but they were gone. So we reluctantly executed an extremely tight 12-point turn and sped away.

We missed the second tour stop and had nearly left the county before we found a place to turn around.

“Only nine more stops,” I said cheerfully. “At this rate, we'll be finished by midnight.”

Benny slept until we foolishly took a shortcut on Featherbed Lane, which was narrow, unpaved and insanely bumpy. We nearly ripped off our mirror passing a tree-cutting machine, and a passing gravel truck scared us half to death. By the time we reached stop 5, Benny was complaining and I was counting my teeth.

We completed the tour by 4 p.m. and headed back to the campground for dinner: spaghetti and corn on the cob. Afterwards, Benny and I visited the laundry room. When we returned to the site, Ron had built a campfire, with our three lawn chairs arranged around it. We toasted marshmallows and made smores, then put Benny to bed.

With Benny asleep, Ron and I sat beside the dying campfire and talked about the coming weekend. The RV was due back Friday and we'd have two more days to adjust to reality again. This trip was a real chance for Ron, Benny and I to spend time together, and we didn't want it to end. Somehow, we'd have to work small escapes into our daily lives. We talked about buying a tent and camping throughout the summer, visiting relatives or just playing around. Benny was getting older and traveling was much less daunting.

The air was getting cooler, and we retreated into the RV, folded clean laundry, and went to bed. Tomorrow we would head home again.


Monday, May 08, 2006

The Perils of Irresponsible Geology


That forest ranger who said last night's temperatures could dip into the 40s was off by at least 10 degrees. When I woke up, I swear I could see my breath. Ron was pouring Benny's morning milk, looking a bit haggard after a night of keeping a restless toddler under the covers.

We had hot water though, and were able to shower. I took Benny to the women's bathhouse with me (it was blessedly heated) so I could blow dry my hair and powder my nose without my teeth chattering. Benny cavorted around the room, talking about the puppy we saw on the way. The rain had stopped and the sun occasionally peeked through thinning clouds.

We gobbled a hot breakfast at Big Meadow's restaurant and visited the souvenir shop. I bought a container of creepy rubber bugs for Benny and a pink Shenandoah baseball cap for myself. Then it was on to Dark Hollow Falls, where water cascaded over the volcanic metabasalts of the Catoctin Formation, according to my book.

All very wonderful, but reaching these falls required a steep, 1.5-mile roundtrip hike, so Ron and I tucked Benny into his Jeep stroller. Although its packaging claimed the stroller was “all-terrain,” we generally used it to push Benny through malls and Ann Arbor's downtown streets. It was about to get a workout.

The trail WAS steep, and rocky and winding. Benny bounced happily as I pushed him through gravel paths and over logs. Ron followed, his hood pulled around his unshaven face, looking a bit grim. I learned later that he'd seen evidence of bears on the trail, and was imagining violent scenarios where he offered himself for mauling while I escaped with Benny. Occasionally we were met by other hikers, who stared with undisguised wonder as we hauled Benny and stroller down yet another set of tree-root stairs. Our chosen technique meant that Benny was sometimes flat on his back, staring up at the trees, and he responded by yelling and squirming madly.

We heaved a sigh of relief as we approached the falls: silvery water splashing over greenstone steps. Each large step represented a separate lava flow. Benny cooed over the water, I cooed over the rocks, but Ron could only think of the ascent back to the parking lot, and perhaps of bears waiting to rip the Juicy Fruit gum out of his clenched jaw.

So back up we went, and it was awful. The going was very slow. Benny was on his back a lot. We met strolling hikers carrying nothing but pamphlets who asked, “Is it much farther?” as we staggered up the ravine. But we were too winded to give them the withering reply they deserved. We briefly rested at a gurgling stream, trudged up another mountain or two, and then I asked, “Where's the backpack?”

“I thought YOU had it,” Ron almost wailed. There was nothing else to do. I slid back down the trail while Ron toiled onward. The backpack was, of course, at the gurgling stream. I climbed back up the trail, panting worse than ever, half expecting to see Ron collapsed on a rock.

They were waiting for me at the parking lot and Ron snapped pictures of me flogging my butt up the last hill. We practically fell into the RV: Benny chugged milk, I chugged Snapple, and Ron chugged Coke and wished for bourbon.

We continued on. Fog wreathed the Blue Ridge Mountains, making driving treacherous. Benny fell asleep as we wound slowly down the mountains. The fog lifted a bit at 2000 feet and I started to plan my next crazy escapade.

My new goal was Little Devils Stairs Overlook, where several basaltic dikes “intrude” on the Pedlar granite. The wording made it sound like the black lava knocked on the granites' doors 570 million years ago, then rudely pushed their way in for a free dinner.

What actually happened was that black lava bubbling underground escaped to the surface through narrow passageways, or dikes, then spewed all over the landscape. Some lava hardened inside the dikes and turned in narrow strips of black rock surrounded by pale granite.

Unfortunately, to see these fabulous dikes, I'd have to leave the RV at a mountain overlook, cross the winding road, then walk beside the road for 500 feet. This I did, with Ron remaining behind with a sleeping Ben. I walked through the sopping wet grass, clinging to the rockface as an SUV or giant trailer roared past.

I found the designated milepost and began counting my steps, eyeing the sheer cliffs to my left. I saw the dark basalts glistening beside the granite, but the rain was too heavy and the rock too weathered to see anything well.

I'd almost given up when there it was, clear as crystal, a thick green-black line, about 2 feet across, shooting up from the ground through the pale gray granite. I touched the wet rock, trying to imagine it as black lava flowing upwards from the Earth's mantle to spread out over the ancient mountains.

The roar of traffic brought me back to my senses and I trudged back, soaked and triumphant. Ron listened politely to my description, clearly relieved to have me back in the RV. Benny woke up and we celebrated with peanut butter sandwiches.

The fog was back, but we were content, already plotting our route out of the Shenandoah and toward Manassas, or Bull Run. I bought some posters of Dark Hollow Falls at the park's last visitor center and we passed through Front Royal and onto Interstate 66.

Ron had found a likely campground at Bull Run Regional Park, 27 miles from Washington, D.C., and it was a lovely place. The weather was warmer at this altitude, but since we had an electrical hookup, we ran the furnace anyway. I made sweet-and-sour chicken for dinner and Benny demonstrated how one tiny bowl of rice can cover an RV's entire floorspace.

It's still a little rainy, but the forecast predicts it will be warmer and only mostly cloudy. We go to sleep and hope for a good day to tour the Civil War battlefield at Manassas.


Babies, Basalts and the Dreaded Black Tank


We woke early and quickly showered, anxious to see the Shenandoah Valley. But first we had to hose Benny down. He's such a game little kid, cheerfully sat naked on the shower floor, holding a small toy Weeble.

Then I turned the water on. Benny screeched as the water came out first icy cold, then scalding hot. I frantically adjusted the settings, pointing the shower head away from my panicked toddler. Benny lunged for the door. I held him down with one hand and sprinkled reasonably tepid water on him with the other. Somehow, I got him clean, but I don't dare repeat the experience.

We dressed Benny and took him outside to help him recover from his ordeal. Ron blew soap bubbles and taught him how to toss the surrounding trees' “whirly seeds” into the air. Benny was a bit hazy on the concept, preferring to tear each tree seed in half and toss both halves over his head.

It was now time to address the dreaded Black Tank. I strapped Benny into his carseat with a box of raisins and reluctantly met Ron outside. We emptied the gray tank with no difficulty, but the Black Tank was a real pill. It emptied fine, but then I was forced to fill empty gallon jugs from the city faucet and pour them down the RV toilet. Then Ron took the water hose and rinsed the Black Tank hose for about two hours. I think he would have doused the whole site in bleach with a side dose of nuclear radiation if he could.

We finally finished and left Walnut Hills, creeping down a steep hill. This wasn't by choice; it's not easy to creep downhill when you're driving a zillion-ton RV. We were forced to creep because we were following a very strange man. He was suited up in full biker regalia: the long hair, the leather coat, the chaps. But he was riding a moped, his long, silver-studded legs sticking out, bandanna flapping in the small breeze generated by his 24-mph speed. We loomed behind and tried not to crush him.

Our little friend turned down a dirt road, and we headed east on Interstate 64. People in passing cars turned and stared at the RV -- even Ron felt a bit self-conscious. There he was, after all, at age 40, driving a luridly painted rental RV and sipping a tiny Juicy Juice box. “I never dreamed I would be so cool,” he said.

I assume that the National Park Service WANTS people to visit the Shenandoah Valley, but you wouldn't know it from the signage around Waynesboro, Virginia. We nearly left the state by accident, with a side trip to a pitiful regional visitor's center that had nothing to do with the Valley. But we persevered and began the winding ascension of Skyline Drive, a sweet highway through the stunning Shendoah Valley.

The scenery was gorgeous and we stopped at overlooks for Calf Mountain and Turk Gap and Moormans River. But our hearts weren't in it. I tried to liven things up with my giant textbook “Geology of the National Parks.”

“Field investigations,” I read, “have shown that some Catoctin flows that exhibit columnar jointing erupted subaerially.”

It didn't exactly set the pulse racing.

Perhaps we were just hungry. We stopped at Loft's Mountain and bought Benny a stuffed animal - a large black bear - and ate surprisingly good hamburgers at their restaurant. We set off once more, but the weather turned cool and rainy, ebbing away our enthusiasm. We decided to stop at Big Meadow campground and tackle the mountain another day.

It was damn cold at Big Meadow and there were no hookups for the RV. Without an electricity hookup, we couldn't run the furnace for more than an hour. The furnace itself runs on propane, but the blower needs electricity and will run down the RV's auxiliary battery. So we put on every piece of clothing we owned and shivered until we could decently go to bed at 7 p.m. Ron slept with Benny in the back of the RV and I buried myself in my sleeping bag over the cab.

Ron and Benny fell asleep instantly, but I stayed awake for almost two hours, reading my new book bought at Loft's Mountain, called “Geology Along Skyline Drive.” This guy was definitely writing for doofuses like me. He laid out the Valley geology in terms I could understand, beginning with the granites, Shenandoah's “basement rocks.” These were part of the ancient Grenville Mountains, which formed a billion years ago and stretched from Newfoundland to Texas. Once the Grenvilles were the size of the Himalayas; now only their roots remain.

After the Grenvilles were eroded away by wind and rain, leaving only bare hills (plants hadn't evolved on land yet), North America started to break up. A rift valley formed, spewing out black lava, which covered the landscape. After millions of years, the volcanism stopped and an ocean appeared, depositing mud and sand.

That history was why Shenandoah geologists found granite on the bottom, topped by a metabasaltic rock called greenstone, which was then covered by shale and sandstone. It all sounded great. I could hardly wait to see a few weathered amygdules and some six-side columnar jointing. Dreaming of Pedlar granites, I fell asleep.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Kerplonken Lake

This morning I peeked out of our curtained alcove over the truck cab to see Ron and Benny reading books. The RV was nice and warm, since Ron had turned on the furnace (without reading the renter's guide!).

Ron suggested we skip showers today, or use the bathhouse, but I sniffed at such cowardice. I would take a shower and if water backed up and flooded the RV, then the tank was full. Ron fled with Benny at the very idea, and I put my experiment in motion.

The tank was full, of course, and I spent a very gloomy 20 minutes mopping out the bathroom after my shower. Ron used the bathhouse like a sensible person and we loaded up the RV and drove it to the dumping station.

The station was blessedly clean and private, no frightening drain or scores of catcalling bystanders. Benny sensed something was up and sat chillingly silent in the RV as I read instructions from my trusty guide. Ron's face was set as he pulled off the sewer cap and attached the hose, then ran the hose down the drain. When he opened the gray tank valve and the hose wiggled like a snake, we cheered. The toilet holding tank, known as the “black tank,” didn't need emptying, thank God.

The task completed, Ron went off to wash his hands 20 times. “I'd like to amputate them,” he said.

Triumphant, we drove down the mountain to a pretty visitor's center at Sandstone, West Virginia. Sandstone is adjacent to New River Gorge National River, one of the oldest rivers in North America. That river was around before the Appalachian Mountains formed. We visited the waterfalls, then returned to the visitor center for a picnic lunch.

Since the rest of the day was a straight shot along Interstate 64 to Staunton, Virginia, I drove the motor home for the first time. It drives much like a U-Haul truck, so I had little trouble. I just set the cruise control for 55 mph and sat in the right lane to watch retirees in giant Winnebagos zoom past us.

I pulled off the highway for gas just beyond the state line into Virginia. They're very friendly in Virginia. I met a guy at the pump in front of us whose wife's cousin's landlady sews Civil War uniforms in Gettysburg. Then I went inside the station and learned all about the cashier's 2-year-old named Simon. He can read and write his name and count to 5 in French.

Ron, meanwhile, had to listen to some loud guy stare at the RV and yell loudly, “Now that there is funny!” three times to his girlfriend. We tried to pull forward out of the gas station, but a new car had parked in front of us and there was no way to back out.

So we waited. The elderly driver finished pumping gas and slowly walked to the station. He emerged an epoch later and got into the car and spoke to his wife. He'd forgotten something. He got out of the car and re-entered the station. We waited. He re-entered the car and checked the map. Ron was beside himself at his point. Finally the car backed away and left and we followed it to the highway.

At 6 p.m. we pulled into Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park just south of the Shenandoah Valley. Our Frommer's Guide lauded the campground's inviting sites on Kerplonken Lake. A quick inspection revealed that the Kerplonken was a small, mucky death trap for toddlers, surrounded by a crowded RV ghetto. So we opted for a site on a woody hill. It's nice up here, with hookups for electricity and running water.

Giddy with success, I made pancakes for dinner, only setting off the smoke detector twice. Tomorrow we'll travel up Shenandoah Valley National Park.


100 Boxes of Juice on the Wall

Moderation is not my strong suit. When presented with a sufficiently ridiculous goal -- like moving to a foreign country or taking an editor position or having a baby -- I respond with almost excessive caution, researching and organizing madly until my energy or Ron's patience gives out.

But such prudence never lasts for long, only until I overcome the tiniest of hurdles in my new endeavor. I board the right plane, find the right desk, put the diaper on the right end, and suddenly I'm euphorically confident.

Case in point: Our 1998 move to Prague in the Czech Republic. I spent two months reading books, poring over maps and packing half the apartment into two boxes and suitcase. Then two days after my arrival, I ran all over the city to view five Romanesque churches in chronological order. Some were very obscure and hard to find. But I did it, and returned to the Prague Post newsroom and told an astonished Ron and his reporters about my day. The next morning I came down with tonsillitis and was in bed for a week.

This odd scenario played itself out once more today, when Ron and I woke at 6 a.m. in a strange RV campground called Pleasant View. It was icy cold, since we were too craven to run the furnace. Benny ran around the tiny floorspace, shivering in his spaceman pajamas, so we bundled him quickly into jeans, shoes and sweatshirt. Ron also dressed hurriedly, then zipped Benny into a warm jacket and took him outside.

Left alone, I picked up the RV renter's guide and painstakingly walked through the steps necessary to take a shower.

1. Turn on water heater
2. Turn on water pump
3. Read that water pump isn't necessary, since the RV is hooked up to city water
4. Freak out
5. Turn off water pump
6. Nervously take shower

Ron and Benny returned soon after, Ron looking somewhat appalled. Pleasant View offers a restaurant, miniature golf course, horseshoe pit, volleyball court, swimming pool - most of which were closed, since it was early May, but scary nonetheless.

But Benny was thrilled. He saw a bird, a white cat and a long train traveling along nearby railroad tracks. He was ready to live there and watch retirees rearrange lawn furniture 10 times a day. But Ron wanted out, so he took a quick, impressed shower, and we hit the road.

Our goal: Charleston, West Virginia, 220 miles away. In a strong contrast to the nervous creeping of Day One, we barreled along U.S. 23 like a guided missile, stopping only for short exercise breaks for Benny.

By noon we were circling the bypass surrounding Columbus, Ohio, and heading south. We were all starving for lunch, but we had no milk or lunch meat, just a few tired leftovers swimming inside the cooler. We needed a grocery store, but apparently all the ugly, sprawling, useful development is north of Columbus. Benny woke from his nap and started whining again.

We finally encountered a store - Aldi's. This was a very strange place. I left Ron and Benny in the RV and bought three packets of deli meat, a gallon of milk and a 20-box pack of Juicy Juice. (The couple in front of me bought a carload of bathroom tissue and 25 pounds of sugar.) We ate in the Aldi parking lot.

Grimly we trekked on, crossing the Ohio River at Portsmouth into Kentucky. That's when I got a call from Steve, the very talented guy who's directing my 12-minute play, called “The Video Game.” This play will be performed next month, and while I'm very excited, I didn't really want to discuss cast changes with Steve right then. Steve wanted an electronic copy of the play, so I nervously agreed to send him one in the next few days.

“I can't promise anything,” I warned, envisioning our vacation deteriorating into a fruitless search for wireless access in the Kentucky foothills. Steve called me back soon after, saying he found his own copy and I breathed again.

We crossed into West Virginia and Benny shouted happily as we passed mile after mile of his favorite objects: trains. Miles of grimy diesels rattled along decrepit tracks, pulling flatbed cars piled with coal. We passed rusting refineries and expansive railyards as the RV steadily gained elevation.

By now we were approaching Charleston and I leafed through our camping directory, a handy tome the size of a telephone book. I found a charming, secluded campground with lovely scenery near a state park. Unfortunately, reaching this park meant driving the RV up miles of winding mountain roads at 8 percent grade. Ron looked a bit harried as the road narrowed and daylight weakened. It was nearly 9 p.m. when we reached Clifftop Campgrounds. We backed into our gravel slot in a woody glen, hooked up to the electricity, and put Benny to bed.

But we couldn't relax yet. A new problem had emerged. The monitor said our “gray tank,” the tank that holds the leftover water from the sink and shower, was full. This baffled us because we'd taken exactly two showers and rinsed out some sippy cups. The agent who reviewed the RV with us swore we had enough capacity to “shower five times a day” without having to dump the tanks. Even more worrisome, dumping the gray tanks required the ever-dreaded Sewer Hose, something the agent had sworn we'd never need to do until the day we brought the RV back.

“Maybe the monitor's wrong,” Ron said hopefully.

I checked the renter's guide. “If the water starts backing up in the shower, we'll know the tank is full.”

We were too exhausted after 10 hours of driving to discuss it further, so we went to bed and I dreamed of showers on wheels pulling coal cars.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Kit Carson Didn't Bring a Lawn Mower

I'm typing this by a dim cabin light in our Cruise America rental RV, catching a night breeze through the screen door. The intrepid explorers have sallied forth today and traveled … 76 miles.

Ron, Benny and I stopped at Pleasant View Campground, just outside Van Buren State Park south of Toledo, Ohio. Most of our fellow campers looked like they'd been here for years, decorating their tiny plots with fences, lawn furniture, wind chimes, sundials, ornamental ponds. Well, maybe not the last, but this certainly wasn't roughing it in the wilderness. One lady two trailers down was mowing her lawn.

Still, this was just the wimpy, cushy, 90-minutes-from-Ann-Arbor campground I wanted when I reserved this site the week before. I asked for a pull-through site with the works -- electricity, water, sewer. Thus you have my vacation philosophy: Lower your ambitions, and then lower them again and you might just pull it off.

After two days of stuffing half of our possessions into labeled grocery bags, I was ecstatic when D-Day finally arrived. We dropped Benny off at daycare and headed over to Ypsilanti to get our rig: a 25-foot Class C motor home with two double beds, a galley, a table, a bathroom, two closets and a small armchair. Our first apartment in San Francisco contained less than this.

The Cruise America agent zipped through the vehicle's complicated water, sewer, electrical and propane systems, then spent an equal amount of time speculating on the vehicle's height.

“Thirteen feet, six inches,” she said finally, peering at the RV's roof. “But there's that air conditioner up there, you know. I'd allow myself 14 feet. In fact, to be safe, I'd allow 15 feet.”

“Really,” I said. That seemed awfully high. Cruise America's web site put the RV's clearance at 12 feet.

“Yup,” she said. “You don't want to rip the air conditioner off. So no McDonald's drive-thrus.”

I meekly agreed and we went inside to watch a horror film starring two badly dressed people who loved handling RV hoses and valves and sewer caps. I shuddered and hoped Cabella's sold Haz-Mat suits.

Then we asked another agent about our little green toilet packets, since the video said to use them right away. He looked at me like I was three-quarters stupid and said, “Use them whenever you want.”

“But the video said 'before you depart.'”

“Why would you do that? Do it later, do it when it's convenient. Use them when you feel like it.”

And when would that be? Two days from never? What I felt like doing was burying the packets in the woods and wrapping the bathroom door in yellow police tape.

Feeling completely inadequate, we drove the RV home and parked it in our driveway. Our neighbor Jack was tickled by the whole idea and thrilled by his quick tour of the RV. Our other neighbor Scott tried not to snicker, but he obviously considered the whole enterprise hopelessly dorky.

As I eyed the brightly painted vehicle depicting purple mountains and happy families, complete with a huge “RENT ME” sign, I couldn't help but agree. But it was all worth it when Benny came home and got an eyeful of his home away from home.

“RV truck,” he said in an awestruck tone. Then he saw his little bed made up in the back of the RV with his racecar comforter and big pillow and stuffed sheep and squealed with joy.

We split town in high spirits, sailing down US-23, only to encounter a series of threatening overpasses, ranging from a graceful 15-foot clearance to an ominous 13 feet, 3 inches. After clearing the last glowering railroad bridge, we concluded that while our first Cruise America agent was quite nice, she had no head for heights. If we'd listened to her, we'd never leave the county.

Exhausted by our ordeal, we stopped for dinner 20 miles from Ann Arbor at McDonalds. I left Ron and Ben behind and trudged a quarter-mile or so along empty pavement to buy two No. 8s and a Happy Meal.

I have to be very specific about Benny's Happy Meals. I know we're eating too much fast food when I hear Benny playing with his trucks and yelling, “Nugget Happy Meal, white milk, apple slices, boy!” Well, sometimes I do get a little loud at those drive-throughs. And I gotta say boy, or Benny ends up with a little plastic hooker doll.

We ate in the RV and Benny was radiant. He's got chicken nuggets, Mom and Dad in an RV. Only a diesel train screaming through McDonald's parking lot could make life any better.

We hit the road again and the honeymoon was soon over. Benny's bedtime approached and he began a steady, low-pitched, wordless whine. Fortunately, he was almost drowned out by the pots clanging under the oven range. But it was still annoying, and we counted the miles to Pleasant View Campground.

And now we're here. Benny is happily asleep in his RV bed, surrounded by heavy privacy curtains. The traffic from nearby I-75 moans, the neighboring trailer's water line gurgles, and our microwave's small screen blinks “Sharp is Simply the Best.” All is right with the world. Good night from the lonely outback.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ladies' Home Urinal

Gross name, eh? Also a completely suitable one for a certain magazine of a similar name, published by Meredith Corp. I made the colossal error of buying a copy at the grocery store last night. Thus how famous smiles and cheerful pastels make fools of us all.

I was enticed, I'll admit, by the cover shot of Candice Bergen, one of my very favorite actresses. Of course, my devotion does not extend to watching "Boston Legal," a flashy lump of TV dreck also featuring William Shatner. When Shatner isn't playing a leering, smarmy lawyer, he's found on UPN, pushing legal advice for accident victims.

Obviously, I should have resisted temptation. But follow me, my little Dantes, to Ladies' Home Urinal's Mother's Day Issue, where you will hear desperate cries and see tormented shades. It's for your own good, really.

We roll through the dumb editor's letter and nice pictures of women relaxing in hammocks and babies holding kittens. But the party's over on page 23 (page 8 of actual editorial content). "CONFESSIONS OF A WORRYWART" blares the headline, followed by 2,000 words of insomniac angst, from elementary school fears of nuclear war to 9-11. "America suddenly grew frightened and I found myself for one brief period not alone."

I'm not a big proponent of mind-altering medication, but this writer should consider it.

We then enter six pages of complexion hell (pimply skin, dull skin, burned skin, red skin, pores you could drive a truck through) and emerge in kicky shorts heaven. Yes, it's spring, and you can wear shorts everywhere, even to the office. "Pair them with a matching jacket ... Just add smart accessories and you're ready to close the deal."

But lest we're having too much fun with our culottes and salicylic acid, it's time for the feature "My Life as a Mom." We plow through a four-page (single-spaced) personal essay by a mother who's daughter has a speech disability. Then we get three pages of mother-daughter vignettes about cooking and a piece about a heroic rescue by a labrador retriever, followed by a dog food ad featuring a baby lab.

We need the break, because then it's time to meet a couple where the wife nitpicks incessently and the man punches a wall and calls her a moron. Then we read a multipage personal essay by a mother who lost her little blonde daughter in a tragic accident.

And how does this last essay begin? With the mother driving the girl in the car, and the daughter trying on sunglasses and giggling because the world looks pink. She calls to her mother and what does Mom do? She's too cranky to look and insists on focusing on her driving.

How that scene pulls at the mother's heartsrings now, how she wishes she had shared her daughter's joy. And every mother reading it should be felled to the core, guiltily remembering a similar moment. (Hell, I did it yesterday.)

Is this what women want? Is this what women need? Do we need to buy publications that attack every facet of our lives? Do the cheery little features sprinkled on this bleak landscape make up for the anxiety, insecurity and near-neurosis that permeate this magazine?

I never made it to the Candice Bergen article, or the talk with Blythe Danner, another favorite of mine. According to the table of contents, Bergen just talked about her hair anyway. I also missed how to manage stress before it kills me and my hidden heart attack risk that even my doctor might not know about. I also missed the six fabulous dinner recipes, which is fine because I hate artichoke hearts.

I can't believe a magazine like this is so successful, that women fall for this alarmist crap served with hearty doses of pablum. I stare at the Candice cover with the cheery teases in blue ("A Mother's Day Tribute") and the ominous teases in red ("Dangerous Drinking: Have You Crossed the Liine?").

And I think again of Dante's sinners: "Those who rejoice while they are burning." To the publishers of the Ladies' Home Journal, those poor souls are mothers.