please mum can we play the metaphor game?

Here’s a “who-woulda-thunk?” idea to add to your Minor But Magical Adjustments list for enticing your Reluctant Reader:

My 11-yr-old gets a quarter for every metaphor or simile he finds in the novel we’re reading together. He also has to explain what is being compared to what. If he guesses wrong, he loses a dime.

So far he’s earned $4.55 and he can’t get enough of it (if your kid isn’t as fiscally motivated as mine, you could clock 5 extra minutes of reading for every score). He reads over my shoulder to make sure he misses nothing. Debates over “the fire died down” and “his spirits rose” led us to a discussion of dead metaphors and whether they count. He’s also started observing prose style in general: he pointed out that people’s gazes are too often “deep” and “dark” in The Dark is Rising.

Praise be, the child has no idea yet how fundamentally nerdy a game this is! This is probably something he’ll describe someday to his friends at the pub as an example of his parents’ cruel eccentricities. Or if poetic justice prevails, someday he’ll lampoon me in a novel.

Next up: a simpler version for little brother, who is envious and resents being bragged to.

true names

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, young Will Stanton is warned against revealing his true name, as it can be used to conjure against him by the enemy.

Sound familiar? The Eragon and Earthsea series get a lot of mileage from the discovery and use of true names. In the Harry Potter books they call Voldemort “You-Know-Who” to avoid inadvertently attracting his attention. Without any research we can trace this well-worn fantasy trope back at least as far as Rumpelstiltskin, wherein the gold-spinning troll will relinquish the Queen’s firstborn child only if she can guess his name.

Christenings and other infant naming ceremonies still radiate the aura of our old beliefs in the sacred power of names. Now that I’m realizing how important names are in my sons’ favorite books, I sort of wish we’d bestowed them with secret names, as well as their legal ones. Maybe carved a rune-tablet or medallion to present to each of them at puberty’s onset, some solemn avowal of their special destiny in the world.

I suppose we could always invent such things retrospectively. Solicit their creative input, or–oooh!–have them keep their true name even from their parents, and show only the symbols they choose to represent it.  How romantic is that??

I smell another rainy-Saturday craft session in the works…

thanks, Dad

In honor of Father’s Day, five handy-dandy writerly tools bequeathed me by my Dad:

1. A yen for research. Mine was the only dad I knew with a brochure collection. The bottom drawer of his dresser was dedicated to neatly stacked brochures: travel brochures, car/boat/motorcycle brochures, commodity-profile brochures–you name it. Surrounded by these he would sort and browse away many a weekend afternoon. One birthday we bought him a man purse, for collection purposes. There are related habits–getting lost in libraries, historical plaque-reading, more recently a serious Google addiction–but the brochure collection, to me, captures the instinctual pleasures of a true archivist.

2. The art of listening. Dad can find out everything about a person in less than thirty minutes of conversation. He asks the right questions: gentle, leading. He exhibits authentic fascination with the topic, which encourages disclosure. The corollary of such attentiveness is that he reveals very little of himself and (for this reason?) finds social activities exhausting.  Sounds like every writer you know, right?

3. An appreciation of the ridiculous. The other day on the phone, Dad could barely choke out the topic of the conference my brother was attending. “Peat Restoration!” he finally chortled. “The International Peat Society!”  Sure, he probably browsed the entire program later that evening. But Dad’s academic children (and there are several) have him to thank if, while being absorbed in our projects, we manage not to lose sight of the big picture.

4. Voices. My best friend (who knows I’ll take a parenting compliment wherever I can get it!) recently informed me that my son declined being read to by her because, as he put it, she “can’t do the voices.” Well, I learned to dramatize a reading because my father used to read aloud that way. He could do accents. He had remarkable range and could always remember, from one bedtime to the next, who got a falsetto and who dropped his “h”s. Dialogue comes to life in the delivery; I learned that before I learned to read by myself.

5. Manners. I don’t mean pleases and thank-yous; this is a subtler and more vital kind of politeness. Dad models a suspension of judgment in relation to others that I’m still trying to emulate.  It’s not that he’s uncritical or lacks strong opinions. It’s that he is incredibly slow to level criticism at other people, and, with new knowledge, will readily revise his opinion. This basic openness, it seems to me, is a writer’s most basic requirement, the Beginner’s Mind of any creative practice. Without it how can we properly see?

Thanks, Dad (and apologies, Steve, for the peat-moss giggle)!

vampire dreams

I can’t remember if I had frequent vampire dreams before vampires glamored the YA fiction market within an inch of its life. Sure, my Jungian upbringing taught me the vampire is a variant on the Demon Lover archetype that populates every girl’s psyche from puberty. But the teeth-in-the-neck thing seems more pop-culturally specific.

that's not SUNLIGHT is it???

Although it’s not always my neck. Last night my vampire paramour (who I must say looked a lot more like Johnny Depp than Robert Pattinson), after losing the struggle to control his (blood)lust, bit me in the armpit.

It was totally hot.

Probably my vampire dreams are a result of the six months during which I read Twilight, cover to cover, a total of thirteen times. In a turbulent work year it was a highly effective self-soothing technique. I would go to bed with a pounding stress-headache, my thoughts a flywheel of anxiety. But four or five pages later I’d drift blissfully off with a nothing in my head but a muzzy cloud of cliches and threatened chastity. Ovaltine in print.

I never seriously scrutinized my attraction to this book–we literary types need our junk food, too–until I recently read Gloria Feldt’s searing feminist critique of the Twilight phenomenon.

Seal Press, Hardcover, 9781580053280, 384pp.

In her excellent book No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America argues that Twilight‘s popularity (among adult women as well as teens) exemplifies women’s co-optation by oppressive discourses. Sure, there’s pleasure in the fantasy: like the series’ heroine, Bella Swan, I need develop no meaningful sense of myself, no aspirations or goals, no coherent views on the world or my place within it. Instead I can simply wait until He comes along–the Man who will pursue me, overwhelm me, mark me, transform me, possess me, complete me. Then I will have His baby, even–or maybe especially–if it kills me.

This is the ultimate opt-out solution to the latter-day feminist struggles over workplace equality, career/kids balance and the leadership gap. It’s what Feldt calls the “psychological glass ceiling.” No matter what advances we’ve gained, so long as women allow the Bella Swan fantasy to flourish, we remain barefoot and pregnant in our minds.

Where do you go for your escape, and why?  I guess that’s what Feldt is asking us.  Of course, Jung would say that my dream-vampire is myself: a predatory, potentially self-defeating part of my own unconscious self that I need to see, to embrace, but also to question and eventually to banish.

My 11-yr old son is reading book two of Stephenie Meyers’ series, New Moon.  Here is the kind of questions he asks: “Can Jacob turn into a werewolf on purpose, too, or just by accident?” “What’s he waiting for; why doesn’t he just make Bella a werewolf?”

Different gender of reader, totally different fantasies.

joy of return

We were glad when Frodo finally got chased across the Ford of Rivendell.  We’d been getting pretty Bored of the Rings, actually, what with all the walking, waiting and worrying the hobbits had been doing since Bree.  In fact I’d been forced to read two Hardy Boys and a Bone before we–and by “we” I mean my 11-yr-old, whose recent panoply of psychological tests is pointing to the possibility of ADHD and making me desperate to keep the bedtime ritual alive–were ready to commit to Tolkien again.

But then, at last, Gandalf came back!  And I could see it all over the kid: the pleasure of reunion.  His face tilted towards me a little, his eyes slid closed for a moment, and then he gazed up at the ceiling with lashes aflutter and the hint of a smile.  Where have you been, Frodo demands, and boy did we ever want to know the answer to that one.

And then, gift upon gifts, Glóin appears at the feast.  “He’s the one from The Hobbit!”  Yup, and he’s here for a hug, basically.  Catching us up, filling us in.  Reuniting us with the characters we’d left behind.

This son of mine has always preferred things he knows well to new things.  Mastery over novelty has been his mode since he was old enough to beeline for the marble-tumble maze in the children’s museum and elbow the other toddlers out of the way.  I knew better than to plan a playdate at that venue: the other mom and her charge would invariably move on to another display, as you’re meant to do in a museum, while I was left to the paperback and travel-mug cappuccino I’d laid by in my purse (not a bad timekiller, pre-smartphone).

Dr. Tolkien knows these joys of repetition.  He knows the boy-reader’s desire not just to chart new territory but to visit old haunts.  It’s closure, I suppose.  When I teach closure I remind my students that it’s not just the tying up of loose plot threads but an emotional thing–the reader’s sense of satisfaction, of the story having paid off (and too much tidiness can be as dissatisfying as ragged ends, can provoke a feeling of cheapness or having been patronized).

There was lots of closure in The Hobbit already but we get more denouement still in Fellowship, not just in the plodding catchup with Bilbo at the start but each time a forgotten character like Glóin pops in to share his news, or Gandalf returns with more gossip.  Hearing from old friends offers respite from the relentless quest.  The reunion scene promises that no disaster will befall Frodo in the next few pages, at least (maybe an important assurance, at bedtime?).  And it plumps up the fictional world most deliciously, suggesting that each group in the hero’s past has continued to live an evolving and three-dimensional existence, whether narrated or not.

Post-closure?  Meta-closure?  Whatever it is, it’s working for us.  Thanks again, J. R. R.!

and now for a bit of poetry

I’m no poet, but it is springtime, so what the hey:

Cherry Blossoms, High Park
The dog won’t run faster
Beside my bicycle.
Her halter twists the skin
At her jaw, and she shakes,
Wrenching me off course.
You ride on ahead
Too young for the bike lane, really,
Little white helmet a poor shell
For your greenling ribs,
The budding front teeth
In your still-soft skull.
We lie on root-heaved grass
And look up.
“The clouds came right down,”
You say, “and got stuck on the branches.”
Over the din of picnickers,
Japanese shutters, ice-cream truck engine,
I tell you each flower means a cherry.
You reach up a downy arm beside mine,
Point a haphazard circle:
“But first all these flowers will fall.”


My mom was a Kindergarten teacher, so at least I come by it honestly.  There’s nothing I like better on a drizzly Saturday afternoon than taking out the yarn box (yes I have a yarn box!) and engaging in some instant creative gratification.

Fun fact: did you know that “pom-pom” is a powerfully taboo word in certain after-school programs?  As I understand it, every time someone says the p-word, an innocent fuzzy dies a horrible death.  After thirty minutes of giving accidental but near-continuous offense, I tied my purple specimen (above, far right) to the chandelier and retired.

But by then the pleasures of the pom-pom (if not of its name) had rubbed off on both kids: repetition (wrapping the frame) + violence (cutting the threads) + surprise (pulling off the frame) = new toy!






As chandelier ornaments they were a bit of a bust.  Try getting a 7 yr old to eat his spaghetti when there’s a ball on a string dangling within easy batting reach.