Thursday, March 26, 2009

Your Nose Knows

A couple of weeks ago I walked into the backyard and thought, It smells like spring! It took me a few minutes to realize that what I was smelling were the blossoms on the macadamia tree. The aroma isn't flowery at all - it's more fresh and green and new. You know: spring.

Which started me thinking about all the smells that put us in mind of something else.

What's that smell we call 'snow?' It's unmistakable, even here in the southland. Whenever I smell it, it snows in the mountains looming over my town so I know it's real. It smells cold and a little wet and...snowy. And it comes in on the wind.

Then there's the scent of rain. That one has a different smell in the city than it does in the country. City-rain smells slightly acrid, like pavement and motor-oil; but it's mixed with a good dose of grass and leaves washed clean. Country-rain smells like wet dirt and chamomile.

Fresh-mown grass is the smell of summer afternoons; star-jasmine is a Southern California summer evening. Eucalyptus and dust are the scents of summer heat, an aroma that sends me to my computer to write feverishly. I've tried simulating that smell with candles to ward off writer's block, but it has to be the real thing.

Carnations: funerals. Chalk-dust: school starting in the fall. Coffee: Sunday mornings and the New York Times crossword puzzle. Pine: mountain roads.

Leaves mulching on a forest floor have a rich, damp, slightly spicy scent which also makes me think of mosquitos. The beach smells like coconut oil, kelp, and the damp salt-air that rolls in with the surf. Barns smell of hay and motor oil and manure. Hospitals - well, we all know about that hospital scent, and most of us find it creepy and unpleasant.

Smells are powerful memory aids, mood setters, data providers. Next time you find yourself sniffing the air, wondering if you need an umbrella, remember to heed what your nose is telling you. Because your nose knows.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Upate on the Writing Contest

Over at the Amazon contest, I made the first cut with my book The Raider's Wife. So that's nice. But frankly, I've been here before and I know it's either a crossroads or the first step into the cul de sac where the dead end is waiting for me.

So. Here are my thoughts on this business:

The first Amazon cut went from 10,000 entries to 500. It was based on a 300-word pitch, and a 5000-word excerpt from the novel. The evaluations began February 8th, and the first cut was announced at 10pm PST on March 16th. The excerpts are now posted at Amazon (link above) with the reviews they received from Amazon in the first round.

It was a long wait, both in days and in hours. On March 16th some contestants began refreshing their Amazon screens at 12:01am. For those who kept it up all night and all day only to learn that they hadn't made the cut, the disappointment must have been crushing. If I had been one of those eliminated in the first cut, I'd have posted one crabbed little message saying, 'Congrats to those of you who made the cut. Good luck.' And then I'd have disappeared off the boards for a while so I could lick my wounds and digest my sour grapes in private. I am blown away by those sunny souls who hang in there, offering their best wishes and their full support to those of us still in the contest, even while they're dealing with the disappointment of having been eliminated. I wish I'd been graced with that sort of disposition.

The Amazon contest is nice because all of the eliminations except the last one are done by industry professionals or very experienced amateurs. Even with the high quality of that input, looking at the reviews given the top 500 excerpts, you can't help but be struck by how subjective and even capricious this process is. On my excerpt, the reviews are diametrically opposed - one reviewer loved it and the other hated it. It makes you appreciate how big a factor luck is in this crazy publishing game.

The next cut will occur on April 15th when the 500 are winnowed down to 100 by reviewers for Publisher's Weekly, and sometime in May three of those 100 will be selected as finalists by the staff at Penguin. The winner will be the one novel out of those three which is able to generate the most excitement among Amazon customers.

Or, in other words, the contest at that point will become a literary American Idol. Those contestants will become shameless hussies, doing whatever (and I mean whatever) is necessary to drum up votes for their books. Beg, borrow, steal, kiss up, belt out show tunes, put on bunny costumes and prance around on street corners. It's not pretty.

But I'll cross that bridge if I ever get to it.

Finally, for anyone interested in looking at my excerpt linked above, here's a warning: Amazon makes you buy it for the price of $0.00. Yes, really, they make you give them a credit card number so they can charge nothing to it. It's how they verify that only customers have access. It's embarrassing, but there you have it...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unrequited love

That's what the relationship becomes between mothers and kids as the kids grow up. Mothers stay crazy about their kids no matter how old or independent those kids get. Kids, on the other hand, outgrow their mothers.

Sometime during adolescence, kids start tossing clues around that maybe spending Saturday afternoon at the mall with Mom isn't on their list of Top Ten Favorites anymore; and that taking a slow trip up the coast with the parents isn't as charming as it used to be; and that, actually, conversing with Mother over a leisurely dinner isn't especially engaging.

It takes a while for mothers to get it, and then it takes a while longer for mothers to accept it. But accept it we must. Because if we aren't raising our kids to be independent and self-sufficient, then what are we raising them for? Mothering them when they were small was important; letting them go when they're grown is equally important. In fact, it's the point.

There comes a time when spending the day shopping or exploring a museum or seeing a movie with you is fun again. They do crave your company sometimes, and not just when they need advice or a babysitter or a place to stay. But once they're grown you aren't the center of their universe anymore, while they stay at the center of yours forever.

And that's just life.

Friday, March 6, 2009


This is a big topic in California these days, and yes, it's another of those touchy subjects. Despite the knowledge that I will offend someone somewhere, I think I have to take a stand.

The basic economic unit of our civilization is the household, and the first defining feature of a household is the relationship of the people who reside together. Unmarried people have the benefit of pooled resources; married people also get tax, insurance, and inheritance benefits. Marriage, then, is basically an economic decision. We get married so we can improve our financial security and the security of our children.

The question of sex is secondary, and - all fantasy aside - is settled in a variety of ways depending on age, attraction, and compatibility. There is an expectation that marriage will entail a sexual relationship, particularly in the beginning, but in practice the sexual relationship may or may not endure. Every marriage, if it lasts long enough, will see the sexual aspects diminish in importance; the economics never do.

In general, who has sex with whom has been the province of religious institutions, guided by tradition. The state has no real stake in this except where sexual behavior may affect the physical or mental well-being of the community, as in incest, bestiality, or sexual violence. Clearly, where public safety is an issue, the state can and should set prohibitions. Public safety is not threatened, however, by consenting adults engaging in intimate relationships, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual.

I believe that states and governments should preside over civil unions alone, and that these can be defined as between any pair (or even group) of people who apply. Marriage, with its sexual dimensions, should be the province of churches, synagogues, and temples.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, March 2, 2009


I love trees, and I can tell tree stories from now until Christmas.

I imagine right about now you're typing a note to self into your Blackberry: don't have a beer with McMama. Settle down, now. It's not as bad as all that.

Tree story #1: (Yes, this one's pure nostalgia. Feel free to skip it if you're allergic.)

We had a maple tree in the front yard of our house in Cedar Rapids, and at some point my dad attached a platform to the lowest branches so we could sit in it. He didn't bother with those stairs you sometimes see screwed into the trunk, so we had to jump and catch the branch with our hands, and then sort of twist up onto the platform. I spent whole summer days sitting out there with my sisters, reading books. Really, that's what we did. No clubs, no playing house, no hiding and jumping on people. We sat in the tree and read. It was lovely, green, cooler than indoors, and (we liked to think) private. In the fall the tree turned gold, and it was lovely in a whole brighter way.

Sadly, the tree house came down when the neighbor decided that he didn't like kids sitting in the tree. He was elderly, cranky, and obsessed with our comings and goings. Mom and Dad, being peacemakers above all, removed the platform. After that we sat on the branches, but it wasn't as easy to read because you had to keep at least a bit of your attention reserved for not falling out. Sometimes I try to understand what it was about kids reading in a tree that might have set the old guy off, but I'll never know. The old guy, the kids, and the tree are long gone.

Tree story #2:

When we moved to the house where we live now, my husband spent quite a lot of time and effort thinning out the trees around the edge of our yard. The guy who lived here before us was enthusiastic about trees - too much so, in fact. Every Christmas he would buy a living tree and plant it randomly in the yard at the end of the season. There were also baby fruit trees which were struggling to survive, having been unceremoniously dumped into holes - again, at random. My husband liked to sit on the balcony and evaluate things on a Friday night, and then haul out a tree or two over the weekend. I remember one day when a friend of mine had stopped by for a chat. We were sitting on the balcony, and after a while she pointed to my husband and said, "Did you want that peach tree? Because he's looking at it."

I mention this because we have the opposite situation now. Starting in 2001, we've lost eleven mature trees from our yard: a bottle brush tree, a eucalyptus, a box elder, a Norfolk Island pine, six Italian cypress, and an Englemann oak. The box elder contracted a fungus, the oak appears to have died from old age and will be removed this summer, and the rest all died from insect pests which have become problems in this area due to drought. Just for the record, I was listening to an interview on NPR one day about climate change, and the climatologist being interviewed was asked what the first sign of climate change was likely to be. "Dead trees," she said.

They've removed over a million dead trees from the Lake Arrowhead area of the San Bernardino Mountains, and that's just a drop in the bucket. Dead trees coat the slopes in places, and burn like nobody's business during the fire season.

Tree story #3:

Back when Youngest Daughter was in elementary school, there was a vacant lot we passed each morning on our way to the school. It was a standard vacant lot - lots of weeds sprinkled with trash - except that at one end there was a grove of some kind of evergreen tree with wonderful spreading branches and gnarled trunks. YD would say, "Someday I'm going to climb those trees," and I would nod and agree that they certainly deserved climbing.

Eventually the lot was sold and a sign went up announcing the upcoming housing development. "Wow," YD and I would say. "How cool to have those great trees to shade your new house." One morning, as we drove past, we saw that there were a couple of backhoes in the lot, clearing the land at the far end away from the trees. We were mildly excited because we thought it would be fun to watch the houses go up. Coming home that afternoon, we looked forward to seeing how much work had been done.

When the lot came into view, we saw that the trees had been torn out of the ground and lay in twisted pieces on the ground, heartwood exposed, crowns drooping but still green. YD gave a strangled cry of pain, and I probably did too. It was so violent! They hadn't cut the trees down, they'd attached chains to them and simply wrenched them apart.

We never took that route again, and I've only seen the finished houses once. They're packed in like sardines, identical little houses painted in pastel colors with white trim. Seven years later, there are no mature trees anywhere in the development, so I'm sure the cooling costs in the summer are astronomical. And I'm still mad.