Sunday, January 30, 2005

After the rain

What's missing is the smell of worms, after the rain.

Even on a cool midwest day of rain, the worms are there on the driveways and roads, plump, salmon-colored, belted 'round the waist--perhaps at the site of regeneration, a knuckled war wound signifying triumph at having bested the grim reaper. And the thin brown sticks that wriggle in puddles, all of them not drowning but more alive than ever, unaware of inevitable car tires and shoes, which, if they had their druthers, would not choose to have the gritty squish carried about in their treads all day.

I don't think there are worms here. I haven't seen one. Snakes, yes. Perhaps the daunting clay is not conducive to worm survival; add the unreliable rain factor with months of arid conditions, and that is enough for worms to say no thanks, we'll take the winters.

Yesterday we had a hail storm, with thunder. Great gumballs of ice pelted the pumpkin tile rooftops and created such a din, it was as if the roofs were made of tin. We watched from the slider door. The swimming pool resembled a bubbling cauldron; the charcoal grill, assaulted, spit back black bits of coal in defense. The minivan held its own and did not buckle in the driveway. Afterward, the neighborhood came alive--this was to them a glorious first snowfall after ten dry years, and indeed the hail lay an inch deep on the yards, with 'drifts' at the bases of walls. The hailstones covered the desert with an eerie blue-white cast.

Adults and children alike descended on it like manna and began collecting it in piles. Ice balls were thrown at palm trees; little ice men constructed next to cacti. The ice cream man, perhaps disgusted by this blatant mockery, failed to appear for his daily visit.

Within an hour it had melted. The streets quieted again, and when I went out to inspect the van for dimples, I realized something was different. It smelled fresh outside, like an icy clean river or a glass of spring water. A non-pourous freshness--rain beads on a glass table, an iron statue, a mirror. So fresh, it almost had no odor at all. It was the absence of smell that told me what was missing: the flavor of sodden, black-barked oak; the musk of cattails and wild mushrooms in a bog; steaming piles of freshcut grass; the humid, earthy scent of worms coming out to play.

Lisa McMann -- Everything In Between

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I found her, and then we had lunch

I found her. After thirteen years, she is practically my neighbor, my wallmate again. She is known by many names: Taffy... That Girl who Always Tripped in the Library... my yellow sweatshirt...

The flowers are blooming along the freeway, suddenly. It's January. I wonder if winter is over. Everything is new to me here. I notice the flowers as I drive to meet her. When my cigarette is finished, I hesitate before tossing the butt. I don't want to mess up the flowers. But behind them it is brown and usual, desert and scrub and saguaro cactus, the kind with arms. I toss the butt to a giant saguaro with two arms and a nose bump. He doesn't move to catch it. He would look funny with a cowboy hat, I think.

I am going to Casa Grande. She says it 'Grand', like Grand Rapids, or the Grand Roller Rink. She also says fajitas so that it sounds like vaginas. She does it on purpose, and people laugh. When my new sweatshirt Chris came into my life, he said the same thing--that he ordered vaginas through the drive-thru at Taco Bell. That's when I knew I should keep him. He is a lot like Taffy, and very different too. I think they would get along with each other, because that's what they do--they get along with people.

One more cigarette. The speed limit's gone up to 75 here, and I remember when May came in Michigan and college was out for the year. It's that kind of sunny day, seventy degrees. I open my windows wide and feel the air, and it feels like vacation. I try to forget I'm driving a minivan, and instead I'm in a blue, 1989 Tercel, the one that parked next to her Cavalier in the driveway on Estelle, next door to Monica's house. I haven't gone anywhere alone in over a month, I think. I am glad I didn't cancel this morning, like I had thought about doing. My foot shakes a little on the gas pedal. I have never been to Casa Grande, I have never been anywhere around here, so I don't know if I'm almost there. But I should be. I take exit 194.

I feel like crying for happy. I cry a lot more now, for happy things, like when someone sings something beautiful. I remember Christie and when she sang "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" by the Calder. I want to call someone. I want to say "Guess who I am going to have lunch with!" and know they will never guess. Mentally I go through the list of people in my cell phone address book, but there is no one. No one I know now, knows Taffy. So I look at my hands instead, on the wheel. She doesn't know any of these three rings I wear: An anniversary, a celebration, a memory of Chicago.

At the restaurant I pull into a parking space and hope she is already here. I wonder briefly if I look fatter now than in college, but that thought passes, because this is Taffy, and I am comfortable with her knowing all my flaws. She is one of few. I think I might cry when I see her.

When I walk to the door and open it, she is there, jumping and smiling, and we hug so hard. It is surreal. She's thinner now, her hair is long and flyaway wavy; she still wears glasses and she looks wonderful. I think she will look like Scout when she is fifty-five, all confident and satirical and earthy, and I am so happy, so incredibly happy to know this woman.

Regretfully, lunch has to end. We would get low marks for segueing, she says. She is a memory, alive again. And something floods in me that has been dry for thirteen years.

Lisa McMann -- Everything In Between

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Myrna down the street

I imagine what my neighbors two houses down look like. I've never seen them. I don't know much about them at all.

In the afternoons here, on warmer days, the black birds with the orange beaks begin their screeching songs. I don't know what kind of birds these are--I intend to someday look this up, but haven't yet. I've only ever seen them in warm climates like Florida, the Caribbean, and here in Arizona. They're definitely not the 'cawing' crows or blackbirds I've seen in Michigan. These birds are raucus celebrators of the sun. I can relate to their love of the weather. I've been tempted myself to scream for joy when it's 75 degrees in the middle of January. Remind me of this in July, won't you?

But the neighbors...they have their own response to the birds. I imagine the woman. Perhaps she lives alone, I don't know. I picture her sitting on her couch in a bathrobe with a cigarette watching soaps, the window open. Her gray-blonde hair in curlers, or perhaps needing a good scrub. Her cheeks sag a bit. I think she's heavier than she wants to be.

And just about 3:50 in the afternoon, just when the soap story advances after fifty minutes of recap from the day before, she leans forward so not to miss anything. The birds have begun to warble, growing steadily louder, and my neighbor--lets call her Myrna--doesn't notice them right away. It's a common noise, like a garbage truck. A noise you don't notice until it's right there in front of you. But the birds--I think they must live under the clay tile shingles of her roof--get so loud after a few minutes that Myrna goes from being totally intent on her show to suddenly irratated beyond imagination, because she's surely going to miss something now.

This is the part I know to be true: She slams down her window--I can hear that. Then opens it up again--it needs a shot of WD-40. And she yells 'KNOCK IT OFF!!!' to the birds.

But it never works. Day after day she screams at those birds, and the birds ignore her. They are oblivious and, if she steps outside to her patio, fearless. They continue in their praise of the desert heat, undeterred by a cranky woman whose most important moment of the afternoon was interrupted again. And it makes me laugh. I think, if Myrna ever stops yelling at the birds, I would miss it. She's become part of my routine.

Lisa McMann -- Everything In Between

Sunday, January 09, 2005

In the morning

It's been a while since I've been roused by a sentence going through my head in the middle of the night. I'm taking it as a good sign, though I wonder why I don't ever have these impulses when I'm already awake.

So, at 3:39 a.m., after tossing and turning on a new pillow for four hours, I hauled my bod out of bed and grabbed the laptop just like old times. I typed the sentence in Word. It made no sense at all. "There was a certain something in the air, when she walked through the ghetto, like all the blood of the world pumping an extra beat." So for a half hour I drank a Diet Coke and tried to figure out why I got out of bed for this.

But eventually I realized I had a beginning, and a scene formed in my head of Julia, a character in a novel I'm co-writing. I've been contemplating her for weeks now, unable to write anything recently because I couldn't figure out exactly who she was at the beginning of the novel. For a long time I've had a good idea of who she becomes as the novel progresses, but I didn't know enough of her history to get her started, if that makes any sense.

And what a relief to whip out a quick 1000 words, all before the crack of dawn. I'm itching to start then next thousand as well, but other duties call. Perhaps later or tomorrow. Or, perhaps I'll read over this morning's work and laugh. Which would be all right too, I suppose. Because now I know where Julia came from.

Lisa McMann -- Everything In Between

Friday, January 07, 2005

Rain in the desert

Here in Phoenix, the locals smile when they talk about rain.

I'm not quite there yet.

They keep telling me how odd it is to have such rainy weather. All totalled, it's rained 9 or 10 days of the past 30 or so. That's a lot even by Michigan standards, which is where we lived previously. And though we try to nod and understand how thirsty the ground is here, and how welcome the rain is, we still can't wait for a good solid month of sunny skies.

And I suppose I'll be eating my words in July, praying for a cloud, just one cloud.

Arizona is amazing, really. Just a few hours north in the mountains they are getting inches upon inches of snow. There's one mountain--I think it's called Four Peaks--that we can see from our house, which today has a light dusting of snow on its peaks (four of them, that would be). And though I do not miss snow at all, being in it that is, I was really tickled today to see it again. As long as it stays over there.

Lisa McMann -- Everything In Between

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

re: {possible spam} lunch

Got this subject line in my email box today....sounds pretty gross. Sounds actually like the kind of book title my son might pick up--he's into gross. Which brings me to to the reason why I read things like "Goodnight, Mr. Tom" to him.

It's because, no matter how hard I try to 'sell' the book to his mind, no matter how much I assure him he will love the story--I can tell him that Will loves to draw, just like him, or heck, I'll even give him a buck if he indulges me and my whim for him to love a story I loved when I was a teen--he just won't read it. And if I manage to get him to start reading it, he does it to please me, and thirty minutes later he comes out of his room, his index finger parked between pages 2 and 3, with teary glistens in his eyes and his mouth all screwed up to keep from quivering, and says in a breaking voice, "I just don't like it, mom." And I am a heel, for forcing my own loves on him. I should know from experience that this is a faulty premise.

And so it happens that, upon going through boxes and boxes of books after a recent move, I came across a treasure chest--so many intermediate fiction and young adult fiction books--filled with some worn, and some new stories I had gathered since I was a teenager and kept for 'someday'. From the age of 17 I worked in a children's bookstore. By the time I graduated from college, I probably could have been called a leading expert on intermediate literature, though I didn't realize it at the time. I knew the Newbery Awards (through "True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle," which came out my last year in the children's book business). I knew publishers' and imprints' ISBN prefixes. Just as you know that all MasterCard numbers begin with a 5, and all VisaCards begin with a 4, I knew that 0-385- was Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) and 0-394 was Random House. I knew that Julie Edwards, author of "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles" and "Mandy", was really Julie Andrews the actor. I knew, when I first saw a marketing copy of the book "Redwall", that it would be a wonderful series, and when Brian Jacques the author graced our doors direct from London, he was the kind of man who seemed like he'd stay humble for a good long time.

And when a frustrated mom would come in the store, one who couldn't get her son to read anything, we'd talk about his interests and I'd have a suggestion of "Hatchet" or "Choose Your Own Adventure" or "Maniac Magee" or "A Wrinkle in Time" or "My Side of the Mountain" or even "Goosebumps," and often, a few weeks later the mom would be back with a smile and a request for more. It was one of the most satisfying parts of that job.

So when the tables turned and I became that mom, I was frustrated that it wasn't working for me. Or, rather, he was reading lots--Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc, but those weren't MY favorite books. Silly me. Thus began the nightly reading of 'Mommy's choice.' And it's just plain wizzo! Much better than a possible spam lunch.

Lisa McMann -- Everything In Between

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Learning English the old-fashioned way

I say! I've been reading a book to my kids. It was (and remains) one of my favorite books since it was first published in the early 1980s. It's called Goodnight, Mr. Tom, by Michelle Magorian, and it's about a London boy who is sent to the country to live with a gruff old man named Thomas Oakley during WWII.

I hesitated to read this to my kids, ages 11 and 8, because there are some strong scenes in the book which include child abuse and war, but recently I read something by Madeleine L'Engle which convinced me that the kids could handle it, and indeed they are doing fine with it. In Ms. L'Engle's book, Herself, she writes:

What the storyteller does is to look at the world with all of its brokenness and all of its problems and write a story. The story is where we look for the truth of a matter. I do not believe that we need to protect our children from language which they already know, from the horrors of the world which they already know. I think we owe it to be honest with them. (ISBN 0-87788-157-X, Shaw Books, 2001)

One of the most wonderful and fun things about this book is that most of the characters are English, and a few Irish. So not only is the vocabulary a bit different from what we Americans are accustomed to, but providing the accent has been purely delightful for me. I've read the book silently many times; reading it aloud has given depth to the characters that I've never experienced before. One character in particular, a boy named Zacharias, has come completely alive and off the page for our whole family. He's got a loud voice (via my interpretation) and is never afraid to speak up, even to the gruff Mr. Tom. He is a delightful character who is quite dramatic and has the most wonderfully peculiar things to say.

We walk around the house now, shouting things like "I say! That's wizzo!" in our English accents. The kids are growing to love these characters as if they are family.

Lisa McMann

My parents...

...bought a cell phone.


Lisa McMann

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A Magic Place

Last Sunday's tsunami death toll continues to rise as more survival stories surface. One vacationer tells his horrific tale of how he was lucky to be alive, then shared something that he said shocked him even more--the generosity of the Thai people who took him in, fed him, gave him water and a place to stay. All this they did for the vacationer while they mourned the family they themselves had just lost. This foreigner called Thailand a magic place. Indeed it must be.

Lisa McMann