Would You Rather . . . ?


This is not a post about the party game, Would You Rather. . . ?  which involves giving two horrible choices and having to choose between the two. I used the first part of the question in the title to save space. The question I was thinking about came as a result of watching on Amazon Prime episodes of Columbo, a show developed by William Link and Richard Levinson.

If you’re wondering what that is, it is a crime drama starring Peter Falk as a homicide detective in Los Angeles. It aired on NBC in 1971—1978 and then sporadically on ABC in 1989—2003. Many critics deem it to be one of the best shows ever produced, thanks to stellar acting (Peter Falk won four Emmy awards) and clever scripts by Richard Levinson, William Link, Peter S. Fischer, and soon-to-be showrunners Steven Bochco and Stephen J. Cannell (and others), and directed by soon-to-be Oscar-winning directors like Steven Spielberg.

If you’ve watched Columbo, you know the titular character is a bumbling, self-effacing police lieutenant faced with solving murders committed by erudite, bold, and usually arrogant people who treat Columbo as if he is a bothersome fly they can squash anytime. They’re condescending and rude, and generally wind up talking too much, because they feel secure and overconfident. Since they severely undestimate Columbo, they often offer to help him in his investigation. He dogs their steps, in all politeness of course, asking pointed questions that eventually make short work of their fake alibis and causes them to confess. Watching him take them down is very satisfying.

Which brings me to my question: Would you rather be underestimated or overestimated? I would rather be underestimated. People let down their guard more when they underestimate you. Of course, like Lieutenant. Columbo, you have to at times put up with condescension and unwanted explanations. Like when someone explains a term he or she assumes you don’t know, based on a snap judgment that person has made about you. This has happened to me several times.

“What I mean is . . .” the person begins, which is the vocal equivalent of patting me on the head, before launching into the definition.

I like to play dumb when it happens. “Really? Oh, okay. Thank you.” I try not to sound sarcastic.

On the other hand, being overestimated is an ego stroke at first. After all, expectations for what you can do are at a high. But when the letdown comes, as overestimation implies, are you any better off than being underestimated?

So, what is your preference? To be underestimated? Overestimated?

Peter Falk as Columbo photo found somewhere on Pinterest. Adele quote from quotefancy.

Happy 2023! It’s Up from Here!

So, this happened a couple days before the end of 2022.

Yeah. 😷

I’m feeling better. Finally stopped coughing. I’m grateful for the continued lack of a fever. And yes, I have had five vaccine shots.

Just one of those things, I guess. But while quarantining, I’m getting a lot of reading done (see below), including a manuscript where I’m fixing a chronology issue (not pictured 😄).

  

I’ve also watched some old murder mysteries like Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Appointment with Death (Hercule Poirot mysteries written by Agatha Christie and adapted for the screen by various writers) on YouTube and Amazon Prime (free with ads) and episodes of a really quirky show on Netflix (Wednesday).

So don’t cry for me, Argentina. (Click here if you’re wondering, “What does that mean?”) I’m getting some rest. Probably not as much as I should. But some.

Hope you’re doing well.

Photos by L. Marie.

The View from the ER


So, Thanksgiving was not the way I’d planned it. The signs of its unusualness started on Monday with sinus pain that worsened by Tuesday. The trip to my sister-in-law’s parents’ home that I had been looking forward to was starting to look like it wouldn’t happen. I made the call most of us dread—to get a doctor’s appointment, only to discover the only available one was 11 days away.

I can tough this out, I thought. Ha. A few nights with little sleep thanks to pain caused me to ditch that plan and head to the ER on Friday, after a turkey-less Thanksgiving spent at home. Now, one does not head to the emergency room lightly. You have to come prepared. I brought a book, my Nintendo Switch, and a writing pad. Hmm. Which one would I choose? If you answered none of the above, you would be right. I sat there instead, trying to sleep, just wanting the pain to stop.

Now picture in your mind the sound of a record scratch. If you were born after a certain year, you might not know what that sounds like. Go here to hear it. A record scratch, according to Merriam-Webster is “something that abruptly calls attention to surprise or change.”

There I was, feeling sorry for myself when a woman arrived with an infant carrier. When asked the baby’s age, the mom replied, “Four months. She tested positive.” And then I heard the most chilling sound I think I’ve ever heard in my life: an infant wheezing—a tiny, gut-wrenching sound.

More sick children were carried in. Sick adults came too, some in wheelchairs. I was surprised at the amount of lower back pain people were experiencing. Some had had a fall, which left one woman concussed.

All of us waited for hours to see a doctor. I heard a nurse tell someone that the estimated wait time was two hours. A low estimate, I later discovered. Another nurse announced a stroke alert after a man came in with numb fingers. A woman came in with chest pain. The patient shuffling began with high-risk patients like these.

After four hours I saw a doctor for probably less than five minutes. His pronouncement—dental abscess—was met with prescriptions for a high-powered antibiotic, a probiotic, a high-powered pain pill, and a lesser potent one.

   

But though I came for what I needed, I was left with something more: a remembrance of that baby wheezing, a tiny note of fear and helplessness that caused me to pray and think of someone besides myself.

   

Photos by L. Marie.

On a Snowy Day

Quite a contrast to the last post. The autumn-to-winter juxtaposition of the posts was not deliberate, however. I didn’t post last week because I couldn’t think of a topic. And I didn’t know about the snow until last Saturday when my younger brother announced its scheduled arrival on Tuesday (the day I wrote this). Sure enough, overnight, it came. The Grinch couldn’t stop it like he couldn’t stop Christmas from coming. I admit to feeling a tiny bit grinchy when I saw it though. So yes, Ally, I feel the pain expressed in this blog post.

Still, days like this, I’m reminded of the classic book by Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, which Amazon adapted for the screen. As I gaze at the snow-laden branches through my balcony window, I feel the fire of joy trying to melt my cold heart, encouraging me to appreciate the subtle beauty of winter as fall leaves are replaced by white lace.

A mug of hot chocolate is in order!

The Snowy Day cover from Goodreads. Other photos by L. Marie.

Autumn Beauty

On Halloween, as I accompanied the trick-or-treating kids of some friends, I couldn’t help noticing the beauty of autumn. The vivid colors of the leaves, late afternoon clouds, and vivacious shrubs seemed more sharply delineated.

 

The 60-degree Fahrenheit/15-degree Celsius temperature lured many outside to huddle near firepits, with bowls of candy on tables for trick-or-treaters. It was a lovely day to be outside, watching groups of eager children running from house to house. A change from years past when snow or cold rain made the experience less than fun.

   

I didn’t solicit candy, though I was given some regardless. Yet I received much more: the evidence of autumn beauty.

Though the temperature downshifted later in the evening, a lovely fog rolled in.

Photo by Ben Pyykkonen © 2022

A perfect ending to the day.

How was your day?

P.S. Here are two photos of pumpkins carved two days before Halloween. Exhibit A (left) was carved by my niece and I. Exhibit B was carved by my nephew, the subject of Exhibit A.

  

Fall photos by L. Marie. Photo of the fog by Ben Pyykkonen.

Back in the Day

I’m from an era where baseballs broke windows. Lest you wonder when baseballs stopped doing that, let me explain. I was born and raised in Chicago. When I was a kid playing baseball back in the dark ages, during one game, the batter made a line drive that would have been celebrated had it not broken a neighbor’s window. No, I was not the one who was at bat. And yes, I am not lying. I got into enough trouble on my own without having to borrow someone else’s trouble. But I thought about that incident when someone the other day mentioned being from an era where parents made you go outside and play.

My parents didn’t have to make my brothers and I do that. In the summer, we went outside as soon as breakfast was over and didn’t return inside until lunchtime. After lunch, back outside we’d go. In the fall, we went back outside as soon as we threw our book bags inside the house after school. We practically lived outside. Being kids, usually trouble found us in the form of broken windows; forbidden fences climbed (that was me); doorbells rung, followed by fleeing feet (again, me). Dennis the Menace (a character created by Hank Ketcham) has nothing on me.

Lest you think, “You hooligans,” we were just average kids. In elementary school, the neighborhood bullies beat you up at 3:15 (after school) or threatened to sic their dogs on you. That was about as dangerous as it got. If you had an older sibling like I did, you might get provoked into a fight once or twice by a bully in your grade who liked living dangerously. But when your older sibling got involved, the bully soon got the message to leave you alone, at least until your older sibling went to middle school or high school. You were on your own then. I got into more fights in middle school than any other grade.

I’m a product of my era and environment. This doesn’t mean I can’t change or that I want to remain in outmoded thought patterns. It just means that the years created a texture within my personality, adding layers that make up who I am. There is an authenticity to this shaping of years.

This is why I usually heave a troubled sigh when I read a book or see TV productions set in a specific historical era but the enlightened attitudes and mode of speech of the characters are purely twenty-first century. Ironically, I loved A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger, a movie with anachronistic dialogue and songs on purpose. It worked for me, because I understood that purpose.

I’ve heard some showrunners and editors say that people (teens in particular, since that’s the audience I think about the most) today can relate more to vernacular in use today.

Some words are built out of an era. It’s like the layers I mentioned earlier. When an author casually drops them into the dialogue of someone in an era that hasn’t yet produced the factors that would shape that language, I wince every time, despite the presumed accessibility to a modern audience. Take the word subtext, for example. It had a completely different meaning in the 1800s (see this post for why) to what its meaning became in 1950. (See the same post highlighted in the previous sentence.) Yet I have seen this word used in books with the 1950s meaning, but spoken in the dialogue of characters in the Regency period or even earlier. You might think, Oh my goodness, are you nitpicking. And you’re probably right. But I can’t suspend belief that I am in a specific time period and a character is using words and idioms that would only mean something to someone born two hundred years after this character is supposed to have existed, just because people today use them.

I’m just rambling today, sorry. Sometimes my mind goes in a direction and I just go with it. Feel free to put me in my place in the comments below.

Broken window from apexwindowwerks. A Knight’s Tale album image from Amazon.

Day Brightener

Not long ago, I did something I don’t usually do: I bought flowers for myself. They immediately brightened my day. Even the cashier complimented them.

A picture can’t adequately show dimension. The daisies are four inches in diameter. Every time I look at them, I feel a tiny spark of happiness. Gerbera daisies are my favorite flower—the one I go to on flower-giving occasions. And no matter how sad or ill the recipient feels, he or she usually mentions the beauty of these flowers.

They are a reminder to me today to give a ray of light, rather than darkness. The other day, a well-meaning person snail mailed to me a long, negative news article. I’m not exactly sure why, other than to ask me to comment on something that frightened her. I won’t say what the story was. I sent a note back saying I didn’t have a comment—that I could only provide an uninformed opinion that wouldn’t change the situation. Yet there was a noticeable contrast to how I felt in that moment and how I felt the moment I saw those daisies at the grocery store.

I didn’t mention the above to shame the person, nor am I soliciting comments that would do so. I couldn’t give her the assurance she seemed to want. After all, I’m not God. And I totally get it. Things are happening. Sometimes life feels like it’s out of control. In those moments I’m often tempted to share whatever bad mood I’m in or whatever horrible thing that has happened.

But the daisies remind me of the effect of sharing joy. As I mentioned, even the cashier complimented them. Her countenance noticeably brightened as she rang up the purchase.

How has someone brightened your countenance lately?

Photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Big Rig

With me on the blog today is the amazing and gracious Louise Hawes, author extraordinaire and member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts! She’s here to discuss her recently released middle grade novel, Big, Rig, published by Peachtree. I love this book, so I’m thrilled to have Louise here! Louise is represented by Ginger Knowlton.

El Space: Louise, what inspired this story? This might sound weird, but as I read your book, I thought of Route 66—the iconic route discussed in the first Cars movie, though that route is not a focal point of this book. Cars made me nostalgic. I had a strong sense of nostalgia as I read Big Rig, the trucking industry being so iconic. Back in the day, when my family traveled, we stopped at truck stops.
Louise: Honestly? What inspired Big Rig is the same thing that inspires all my books—a character. I never start with a story, you see, or even a premise or idea. It’s always a beating heart, a voice, that grabs me. Of course, Hazel, my 11-year old protagonist grabbed me harder than most and held on longer, too. She insisted on having her way as we hit the road together. She made it clear that she’s highly allergic to those two words, THE END. And even though my inner writing teacher tried to tell her about turning points and resolution, she just wasn’t buying it; she didn’t ever want to our story to end. She got her way, as folks will see when they read the book!

At Louise’s book launch—McIntyre’s Fine Books in Fearrington Village, Pittsboro, NC.

And that’s funny about Route 66. I wanted the book’s flyleaves to feature the major U.S. truck routes in a double spread. I never won that battle, but we did get road signs as chapter titles! Oh, and I wore a route 66 tie to the book launch!

Photo by Karen Pullen

El Space: How did you research this book?
Louise: Very unwillingly! At first, when Hazel popped into my mind and told me she and her dad had been traveling across the country for seven years in an eighteen-wheeler, I said to myself, and to her, “NO WAY! I know nothing about trucks, and I don’t want to know even the slightest thing about them.” But of course, after she popped into my mind, Hazel burrowed into my heart. And three years later? I know a LOT about trucks. I’ve researched trucks and the trucking industry. I’ve interviewed dozens of drivers, put plenty of miles in on big rigs. As a passenger. No, I’ve never driven one; at 100 pounds and 5 feet, I wouldn’t trust myself in the driver’s seat. I reached out to organizations like Trucker Buddy, who pair up individual drivers with classrooms; and Women in Trucking, who work with organizations like the Girl Scouts to publicize the fact that there are lots of women active in, and crucial to, the industry.

El Space: Hazel/Hazmat is a great character. She felt like an old soul—a marvelous blend of the past and the present. So confident and engaging. What was your process for finding her voice?
Louise: As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t find Hazel, she found me. But as with any character that inspires one of my books, I needed to trust her before I could begin an actual draft. I have a notebook of free writes (in the form of first-person letters from her to me); that notebook was full of her voice, cover to cover, before I ever wrote a single page of the novel.

   

Canine book reviewers: (Left) Jenn Bailey’s pooch, Ollie. Jenn is a VCFA grad and author. Photo by Jenn Bailey (Right) Bella, the canine co-author of “BEAGLES AND BOOKS,” a blog by Laura Mossa, an Elementary School Reading Specialist. Photo by Laura Mossa.

El Space: You have such wonderful characters. Even Hazel’s mother’s ashes (not much of a spoiler, since you learn that on the first page) is a character with weight in the book. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Louise: What a great question! I think the toughest moments to write were the ones where I needed to stay inside Hazel, and not give myself up to feeling sorry for her, which she never does for herself. The moments when she’s talking to her mom, or afraid of growing up, or angry at her dad—during all those times, she’s just right there in the moment, never feeling “poor me,” or “life sucks.” She’s just bringing her whole self to every experience, knowing better than most of us, that it will give way to a new one before we can truly catch hold.

The feline reviewer is an assistant to a Twitter follower and middle school teacher, Kate McCue-Day. Photo by Kate McCue-Day

El Space: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading Big Rig?
Louise: Besides the fact that a good story doesn’t need a beginning, middle, and end? I guess I’d like readers to undergo the same change-of-mind I did about truckers and trucking. Drivers and their rigs are crucial to all of us—to the economy, to the culture, to our whole way of life. And yet we pretty much forget about them, once we grow past the age of 6 or 7 and stop asking them to pump their air brakes when we drive by. We forget about automation and the driverless trucks that may well be destroying and brutalizing a whole way of life. That’s a thread that winds through the entire book, and I’d hope folks pay attention.

El Space: What inspires you these days?
Louise: Being outside, plain and simple. I need fresh air, and water in the form of the sea, or a lake, or a rainstorm. I need the bull frog in my pond with whom I engage in daily ten-minute dialogues. I need to see how relentlessly beautiful the world is, how it keeps going with or without us. I need something bigger than myself or my day. And nature gives me that.

El Space: What writing advice do you always share with your students and anyone else who’s asking?
Louise: The same advice I’ve been giving ever since I set myself free from slaving over every word via free writes. My first drafts are still like other folks’ second or third passes, and that’s because I can’t leave a word or a sentence alone until I hear it ring true. But with free writing, the loose, free times I spend with my characters, I can relax into them, get out of me. Which is why, behind every chapter I write, painstakingly, laboriously, there is a poem or a free write that came first. So, whenever myself or one of my students has a writing problem that’s stumping us, I advise taking it to our characters. To let it go, turn it over. That doesn’t mean I won’t edit or revise those free writes, or advise my students to do the same. But it does mean that what’s at the start, the heart of our work is something unhampered and flowing, something free.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Louise: I’m working on two things right now—one is a project I started a long time ago and am only finishing this year. It’s YA historical fiction, and the protagonist is Salomé, the biblical character who supposedly performed the dance of the seven veils and won the head of John the Baptist. The other project is a new novel for adults. The character who won me over there is a failed playwright who’s fallen in love with a dead poet. See? There’s just no telling with me, who’ll come out of nowhere and sweep me up and away!

Thank you, Louise, for being my guest!
Looking for Louise? Look here: Website, Twitter, VCFA, Facebook, Instagram
Looking for Big Rig? Look no further than Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Amazon.
Comment below to be entered into a drawing from which one of you will receive a copy of Big Rig! Winner to hopefully be announced next week!

Other books by Louise:

    

Book launch and author photos courtesy of Louise Hawes. Tree photo by L. Marie. Other book covers from Goodreads and Louise Hawes.

Reactions: A Tale of Three Adaptations

Ever have a polar opposite reaction to something someone shared with you? Perhaps a friend urged you to read a book he found life changing or watch a movie she truly resonated with, then having tried it, you discovered you disliked it immensely. Maybe like me you questioned yourself, wondering how you could dislike something your wonderful friend loves so much.

That has happened to me with books I won’t name here that friends loved and I didn’t finish because I didn’t like them. In case you’re wondering, if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it, unless my loathing for it is a late discovery, the book having taken an unexpected and unwelcome turn.

There have been many movies that reviewers loved and highly recommended that I loathed. I was prepared to loathe a recent Netflix adaptation, since the book adapted is my favorite of those written by the author. I didn’t like what the trailer showed, which told me the main character’s personality was markedly different from the book. (And yes, I know the book and the character well enough that a trailer would show that.) I told myself I would never watch the film because I didn’t want to see a dumpster fire made out of one of my favorite books. But I gave in after reading an article online on the subject of why viewers should see the film. Nevertheless, I didn’t have a good reaction to what the person said about the need to “freshen up” the story (hence the changes in the adaptation).

I was immediately reminded of Clueless, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, which changed the setting to the twentieth century. I loved the novel Emma and I loved Clueless. The issue for me about Clueless is that though the situation changed to fit our times, the main character’s personality did not change. Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) is a wealthy, likable young woman who thinks she knows all about matchmaking but is horribly . . . well . . . clueless. That is how she is in the book.

  

By now, you might guess the film that I have yet to name. And I still won’t. Even if you guess it, I will neither confirm nor deny. I watched it, and my immediate thought was, Can you dislike something and find it entertaining at the same time? I found that to be the case with this film. People who know nothing of the book but love adaptations of this era might be entertained, especially with the gorgeous scenery and well-known actors. People who know the book might also enjoy it. Or hate it.

For me the arch looks, smiles, and clever, sarcastic quips of the main character seemed antithetical to the character I sympathized with in the book. This is where I took umbrage to the remark to “freshen up” the story. You see, I went through what this character went through, which is what drew me to the story in the first place. I felt sad and broken and filled with regret. Therefore, I didn’t like the twenty-first century moralizing as the character archly judged other characters in ways people probably wouldn’t have done at that time. If “freshening up” a story means revamping the personality of the main character, you can keep your adaptation as far as I’m concerned.

The issue I have with some modern adaptations is the avoidance of deep emotion or weakness in a character. Characters must seem strong and clever most of the time, even while telling us how sad they are. (Insert laugh track here, since we gotta have humor.)

This is why I loved Dune 2021. I know I talk about that movie a lot. There are aspects I love about it way more than the first book. In interviews and books the director (Denis Villeneuve) and crew discuss their love for the source material, which inspired them to produce the film I instantly loved the moment I saw it.

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Okay. Enough of my opinion. I feel like Negative Nelly here. You might have a completely different opinion about this movie. But that’s where I am. And I know how easy it is to criticize something I haven’t done much myself (screenwriting). I just feel sad that I didn’t quite get what I had hoped to see—a great adaptation of a book I love.

Polar opposites Venn diagram from iSLCollective. Clueless and Dune 2021 movie posters found somewhere on the internet. Other photos by L. Marie.

Surprise!

Some surprises are more welcome than others. Years ago, when a friend and I took a trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica, every day we would wake up in our hotel rooms to this sight on our curtains.

This is the Jamaican turquoise anole. According to Wikipedia, it is indigenous to Jamaica.

Though I was surprised by them, I wasn’t bothered by them. Not as bothered as the people in this thread. I just shooed them out the nearest window.

When I was a kid, I got up to go to the bathroom one night in the early morning hours. I flicked on the lights and—surprise! I walked softly, so that was probably why the two mice on the rim of the bathtub didn’t immediately scatter. Instead, they stood there, looking as startled as I felt. This moment is what I can only describe as a pregnant pause. It was like the world stopped, waiting to see what would happen.

Well, my shout woke up my grandmother, who was visiting at the time and sharing my room. She ran into the bathroom, grabbed a tube of toothpaste, and gave chase. One mouse escaped, while the other foolishly ran into my room, which was directly across the hall. Grandma cornered it under the bed she had been sleeping in, and . . . Well, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say, we had to get another tube of toothpaste.

So, since I had suffered through mice and roaches at different points (the fruit of big city life—you just never knew what would surprise you when you flicked on the light), I wasn’t bothered by lizards. They were too chill to be a nuisance.

Now onto what I hope is a good surprise! Jennie and Charles—surprise! You are the winners of Coming Up Short by Laurie Morrison (Jennie) and She Persisted: Temple Grandin (Charles). (See interview posts here and here.)

 

Thank you to everyone who commented!

Lizard image from Wikipedia. Mouse from Clipart Panda.