Monday, June 25, 2012

The Fabric of Our Lives

One of a series of occasional essays by Elaine L. Orr

My father was the sewer in our family.  It was not a common role for a man in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, but he was a natural.  For one thing, he was a sales manager at the local Singer Sewing Machine store for many years following World War II, so he pretty much had to learn.  And my mother could not sew more than a button. 

She sent me to a sewing class the summer after seventh grade.  I was far from the star pupil.  Our first project was an apron, just the bottom half.  Mine looked fine on the front, but when you turned it over there were lots of extra folds and tucks.  The family's 1946 Singer machine won every battle.

Dad enjoyed making things, whether with fabric or wood.  He reupholstered several chairs--we won't talk about the fabric he chose--and built everything from a rabbit hutch to an outdoor shed to a basement family room. 

Two things held him back from being a good sewer.  First, he was color blind.  The combinations he chose might have delighted Andy Warhol, but they embarrassed his children.  Second, he was incurably thrifty, wanting to use every piece of fabric or inch of thread.  He never understood why his sons did not want to wear blue jeans that had been patched with old pieces of a worn flannel shirt.  He did know better than to even try to sew for his daughters.

His two daughters have very different takes on the issue.  I did learn, and can do a respectable job at simple curtains or a vest.  I have no intention of making clothes again.  My sister has gone mother's route.  I remember a pair of pants she tried to hem when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter.  The woman who can compute the interest on a 30-year versus 20 year-mortgage almost in her head had created an impossible mix of knotted threads and tangled lines.  But I miscalculate my check book at least once a year, and she never does.

I don't see any sewers in the next generation.  I hope that one of my nieces or nephews decides to learn more than what is taught in consumer economics (what my friends and I called Home Ec), but I'm not very hopeful. After all, it's the 21st century.  Why mend when some designers actually sell paper clothes?  I wonder how they would respond to that old Singer?


Thursday, June 21, 2012

It Really is in the Details


All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.  If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.  Ernest Hemingway

I reread this Hemingway quote when I'm  twiddling the keyboard thumbs asking the proverbial "what's next?" question.   

There are books that I treasure and periodically reread. A newer one on this list is Pompeii, by Robert Harris.  The title gives away the setting, but it cannot convey the visceral reaction of a young engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, as he witnesses the brutality of slavery, or the racking heat as he leads disgruntled workers up the mountain to vainly dig for an underground spring. Every emotion is raw and every setting clear, but there are no flowing thoughts about feelings or flowery descriptions of wealthy homes.  Just Attilius' clarity of purpose as he understands more of what booming noises and drought mean when you live in the shadow of a volcano.  Revelations about his complex past grow with his convictions about Vesuvius' danger.  His desire to save the people he's grown to care about is matched only by the evil of others around him.  You won't be able to take a lunch or potty break.

I want to writer keepers.  I don't think they have to be complex or even long.  They can be funny or quirky.  The characters "just" have to matter to the readers more than they matter to me.  And I don't think it has anything to do with "what's next?"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Electronic Books Outsell Paper Copies

As one who not only has an e-reader but sells books for them, I see reports of publishers getting more revenue from electronic books than paper copies and go "yippee."  At least I think I do.  Why is it that the book I read before bed is paper?  Because it's a wonderfully comfortable feeling.  Why do I carry a paperback in my purse?  Because it weighs a boatload less than my Kindle.  And why to I visit my library almost weekly?  Because a) I'm cheap, and b) I've moved enough times that there reaches a point when physical books are not my friend.  Or at least not a friend to my back.

But there is still the yippee factor. When I do want to buy a book I now look for an electronic copy first.  There is the "fewer boxes to pack if I have fewer books" factor and the "I'm cheap" factor.  There is also a sense of giddy anticipation to see all those books lined up on my Kindle.  So, yippee for electronic books, and keep that paper coming.  At least for now.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Eluding Contemplation

 First of a series of occasional essays by Elaine L. Orr
  
I'm looking for my creative voice.  It's around here somewhere.  Some days it's so loud I can't stifle it with a stuffed pillow.  And I never know what it's going to say. 

Perhaps I should be glad that it's missing today.  I can go out in public, certain that it will not pop up, as it did last week when we were riding the subway, to comment on a woman's pink and green hat.  Luckily, she had a sense of humor.

I do need that voice.  A writer does not live by white-out alone.  A search warrant is in order.  "Single white female in search of inventive perspective. Touch of humor and dash of whimsy essential."  Too dry.

"Brazen wench seeks bizarre attitude. Prefer voice that laughs so hard it bleats."  Better.

Perhaps the voice is simply distracted today, not sure when to show up or what to do when it gets here.  I can always tell when it's having an identity crisis.  Every speck of dust in the house stands out.  They insist on obliteration.  The dust distracters appear most often when I'm on deadline.  They are more likely the editor's nemeses than mine.  Perhaps the reincarnation of a story she killed earlier, determined to haunt my writing.

Wait.  The voice was thinking of meditating.  Damn.  I hate it when it hangs out with that crowd.  Comes back all mellow.  No bite at all.  Might as well stay in that darkened room with the silly paintings on the wall.  A woman with sprouts coming out of her head.  A man playing a lute as he rides a unicorn.  Should be a warning sign.  "Artist on meditation, hide the paint."

But, I don't think the voice is meditating today.  I'm too calm.  It usually only mediates after we've had a disagreement.  Like the time we debated whether "The Little Engine that Could" really exists, or if it was just the author's way of trying to brainwash a couple generations of kids.  I won, of course.  I often do.  Then the voice pouts.  Could be for just a few minutes.  Sometimes for as long as a couple of days.

It comes back.  I'm convinced it misses me as much as I miss its quirky incantations.  Where did I find it last time?  Ah yes. At the keyboard.  Actually, I think it was hiding in the computer screen.  I had finished DEP--dust elimination procedures--and tackled all the weeds in the flower garden.  Thought the voice might be in with the June bugs.  Couldn't think of anyplace else to look, so I just turned on that sucker, and there it was. 

"Where were you?" it asked.  "I've been waiting." 

I know its wiles.  Trying to make me forget I'm angry that it's been in hiding. 

Perhaps it's in there again today.  I approach the computer, sneaking up on its blind side, so the voice doesn't sense I'm coming.  Once you turn on the computer, the voice can't escape.  Can still hide, of course. 

Aha.  There it is.

There's always an excuse for being away.  "I've been collecting my thoughts," it says. 

"Collecting or concealing?" I ask.  And we're on our way.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jargon in Public Communication

I continue to merge my public administration and fiction personae by writing on a PA blog.  This month's post on jargon in public communication is a bit tongue in cheek.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Biding Time is free this weekend at Amazon.  It is a coming-of-age story of Frank Myers, a DC youth who is learning more about his late uncle (a Vietnam MIA) as he learns about himself.  Biding Time