Sunday, May 21, 2006


I have recently read the latest entries in two multi-volume fiction series: Party Princess by Meg Cabot (from The Princess Diaries) and Miss Julia Takes a Stand by Ann B. Ross. They both arrived at the library in the same shipment and I did what I do only rarely and for only three or four series – snatched them up before anyone else got to them and spirited them home to read them. Thus, I felt strong pressure to get them read quickly and back to the library.

Reading those two books back-to-back was interesting. They are both written in first person. Mia, in The Princess Diaries, keeps a journal which then becomes the book. Time moves very slowly in these books, with each one covering little more than a week. (The girl must write at lightening speed to fill a book’s worth of journals in a week, writing down conversations as they occur and recording each day in detail along with her reflections on the events going on around her.) She is 15 and such a teenager, popping back and forth between major international social issues that are calling for her attention (being a princess and all) and minor personal social issues that manage to capture her full attention most of the time without effort.. I marvel at the ability of the author to portray Mia as so shallow and clueless and yet so earnest and likable. By book count, I probably read more children’s fiction than any other single genre of writing and these books stand out in my mind as exceptional writing. One thing I’ve enjoyed is how the author has woven the two movies based on her Princess Diary books into the story itself. (Mia was embarrassed by being dragged further into the spotlight and noted that the movies changed some of the details of her life.) The books are crammed so full of pop culture that they’ll require a dictionary of our time in order for future generations to appreciate them. They're unlikely to stay in print for any great length of time, but they’re a treat for today and I enjoy them.

Miss Julia is at the opposite end of life from Mia, in her “golden years” and newly widowed at the beginning of the series. In the books, she reports what’s happening in her life and shares her opinions and observations concerning those happenings. Again, I am impressed by how the author manages to portray her character as flawed yet attractive. In this most recent entry in the series, Miss Julia at one point worries that an action she might be forced to take would stir up the town gossips. She informs us that “gossip has been the bane of my existence”. As I read her words, I hear the exact tone of her voice because I’ve heard those words, or words like them, so many times. In the next paragraph she remembers that she has failed to update her husband (whom she married a couple of books ago) concerning marital trouble a couple they know is reportedly having and corrects that oversight. And again, I admire how the author leaves her character clueless while letting us in on the fact that Miss Julia enjoys gossip well enough when it concerns other people.

In both these series, everything the reader learns about the world being created by the author is seen through the eyes of the narrator/main character. Yet, we manage to learn things concerning these worlds to which the narrator remains oblivious; the narrator tells us things she herself does not know.

I presume that the words I write (and speak) sometimes say more than I intend them to say as people read between the lines and pick up on what I’m revealing but not saying. I presume that sometimes people get a chuckle at my expense when that happens because they find my cluelessness amusing. But I don’t know how someone can deliberately step into a personality whose foibles they recognize and intend to reveal to their readers and stay in character while revealing those foibles. If I were ever going to write fiction, I think this is the type of fiction I would want to write, but I can no more imagine being able to do it than I can imagine painting the Mona Lisa.

Writers of good fiction amaze me.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Blogging, Front Porches, and the Empty Nest

This blog is averaging 13 visitors per day. Most of those are people wanting to read about “front porches”. I typed those words into the URL line of Internet Explorer today (where you are supposed to type actual web addresses) and was thrown into an MSN search that gave me 68,426 results. This post was at the top of the list. I find that amazing. Even more amazing is that a search yields 1,150,000 hits with that same post listed second. I’m not sure what everyone is wanting to know about front porches but many choose to follow the link, even though this is clearly a blog (being on blogspot and all). They don’t say anything while they’re here. They simply parade by silently without names or faces – day after day after day.

I don’t know enough about search engines to know if success increases success. Is it because people follow the link here when it’s on their list of results that it has moved so high on the list? Is it because someone else linked to it in their blog? Out of 45 entries here (46 with this one), only one is specifically about the role of front porches in our cultural history. Why does it attract so many visitors?

What prompted the front porch post was some reading I was doing and the change in life brought on by our empty nest (another popular search term). I was looking for places to meet people and to be able to discuss serious or not-so-serious topics in a public setting. I’m still finding that I have to be purposeful in getting out into the community in order to keep my world from shrinking now that I no longer have children in the local school. There are some people who were part of those school years whom I seldom if ever see now. (Yes, I could call them and make a date, but I would still miss those times when our paths simply crossed without special effort.) However, my search for “front porches” is going fairly well.

Last week, I decided I was going to “Grand March” out at the high school. I can’t imagine that this event has the same pull in many places that it does here. The school is small enough that every couple (and single) attending prom can be introduced and promenade across the high school gym (which through much effort has been transformed for the evening) in well less than an hour. I can’t think of any other school event that draws more people out other than graduation. Parents are there taking pictures. And grandparents. And aunts and uncles. And friends. (That’s where I fit in). This is a huge event!

I had another commitment that night. My husband was out of town and I couldn’t think of anyone else who would want to attend both events, so I headed out by myself to the first for a while and then slipped out early to return to the high school, arriving ten minutes or so before the start time but far too late to dream of getting a good seat. In the huge crowd (filling one side of the gym from the floor to the top of the balcony), I couldn’t spot anyone I knew with an empty seat close to them. As I surveyed the crowd, I was conscious of being surveyed and gave up rather quickly, climbing to the balcony and choosing a place close to a couple of acquaintances but not too close. After the event, I spoke to less than a dozen people out of the entire mob – the crowd was too tight to allow for mingling and the focus was, of course, on the prom-goers. That’s a rather poor return for investing an hour sitting alone in a crowd. Still, it was more people than I would have interacted with if I had sat at home. And the bigger return has come in the fodder for conversation it has given me with the prom-goers, parents, and grandparents I’ve seen since then.

Yesterday morning brought another “front porch” opportunity. It was opening day for the summer ball league. I was asked to attend a ceremony after the parade when a flag would be presented to the library by the American Legion. I arrived early and walked from where I parked by the ballfields across the park and a little ways up the parade route until I met up with the beginning of the parade and a group of people I knew with whom to watch it pass. It’s an interesting parade. Kids in bright t-shirts are sorted out by color (or possibly by team) and arranged on trailers, in truck beds, even in a horse-drawn wagon. They throw candy out to the crowd. However, there are hardly any kids along the route to collect the candy. The kids are all in the parade! What few non-participating kids come out to watch the parade end up with huge bags of candy.

Ah... life in the slow lane. Taking time to watch a parade of other people’s kids. Standing in front of the library (last-minute change of venue) and smiling for the camera as the flag is presented. Looking for my picture in this week’s newspaper to see if I smiled at the right time and how much damage the wind did to my hair. And chatting with this person and that one as they cross my path. It’s almost like leisurely swinging in the porch swing on the front porch I don’t have.

Monday, May 01, 2006

On Loneliness

I should not live by myself. I don't live by myself...usually. However, my husband left on a business trip five days ago and I've been living alone for that long. That's how I know that a solitary life is not a good idea for me.

I've long enjoyed solitude. Right now the house is totally quiet except for the hum of the computer fan. I had music on earlier but tired of it and chose silence instead. I could turn the television on, but doing so has no appeal to me. I'm okay with silence. For a while. I don't need noise but I do need someone to talk to now and then.

Five days of solitary living. And coincidently, five evening trips to church events during that time - 32 miles each way. Every night. Just me and my minivan and the radio and my PDA/mp3 player and a set of "Adventures in Odyssey" tapes covering mostly the same roads five times for a total of 350 miles or so. (Various routes and a couple of detours to run errands added some extra miles.). I made half-hearted attempts to find traveling companions but didn't resort to begging. I figured there would be plenty of people to chat with once I got there. It turns out most everyone I knew had plenty of other people to chat with. If my goal was to find companionship, the results weren't wildly successful. Most of the event consisted of listening to sermons that left me full of unshared negative reactions and a certainty that pinning someone down long enough to share those reactions was not a good idea. Some of them burst out in my last post and follow-ups on a message board where patient people responded kindly. Listening to so many offensive words without responding in any way is difficult. I suppose I could have simply quit attending and stayed home alone instead but I was drawn back every evening by the hope of meaningful exchange.

I haven't sat alone in the house in between the evening events. I've been out. I have a part-time job that brings me into contact with people. But the loneliness is definitely getting to me. The house is quiet now but I heard the scratchings of a mouse one night. It showed up in the basement room where I was sitting at the computer. I talked to it, scolding it for coming into my house where I would be obliged to get a trap and some peanut butter and attempt to kill it. It didn't talk back, just disappeared behind some insulation. The outdoor dogs and cat aren't much good for conversation either. Nor the fish, although they do congregate in the part of the tank closest to me if I pause in their vicinity.

I have a telephone. I could call someone. But the people who are the most interesting partners for conversation aren't sitting at home waiting for me to call and fill their evening with chit-chat. Even when I'm lonely, I'm still no more inclined to make telephone calls than any other time. In fact, I find myself less and less inclined to do anything -- fix myself something to eat or tackle the many projects that I could undertake with all this uninterrupted time. So much opportunity and the best I can do is another boring blog entry about me, me, me.

I can survive living alone for a few days at a time, but the words I'm not speaking build up inside me and woe to anyone who offers me a listening ear. I tend to develop run-at-the-mouth tendencies when I have this much solitude.

My husband will be home tomorrow. That will be good. And in a few days the first college kid comes home for the summer. The empty nest will no longer be empty. Things are going to start happening around here. I may as well enjoy the silence tonight.