Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Magical World of Writing

My best friend in high school took creative writing. I took physics and calculus. She is now a biology instructor, and I am a fledgling copy-editor and aspiring writer. We always comment on how weird that is when we talk.

After working on the same short story off and on for *cough* 2 years, I finally finished it. There was a beginning, a middle, and—most importantly, an end. I had pared it down, weighing the usefulness of each word, and was very pleased with the end result.

My lovely husband (L.H.) had read through it and made comments and suggestions until he was sick of it. Luckily for me, my dear friend (D.F.)—7 months pregnant and with an older child to take care of, and student-teaching to boot—graciously agreed to be a reader. Not only did she have her own creative writing experience (and formal instruction) to refer to, but she herself had been a fantasy fan back in the day. So she was familiar with the conventions of the genre I write in.

And, she's the most tactful and clear-spoken person I know. Must come from explaining the intricacies of the human body to numbskulls like me.

All wrapped up in a warm fuzzy about how she likes my writing—I tell you, she's the best!—she suggests that I flesh out the world in which the story is set. I set to work adding details. Then I see one bit that's kind of awkward and unnecessary. *snip* I prune it. Then I realize that some parts are repetitive. I analyze; I make notes; I tweak. Finally, I realize that if I'm going to do the story justice, I must write it again from scratch.

"What?!" you might say. "After 2+ years of work?"

Indeed. I realized that the story had so many parts I wanted to alter that it was almost a different story. Here's the way I've been thinking about it: it's like trying to put last year's dress on a 13-year-old girl. No matter what I do to it, the dress is not going to fit right. And even if I make a new dress, there's every chance that it won't fit next year, because she'll have continued to grow and develop. I think that's the point I'm at with my writing in general, and this story in particular.

So D.F.—it's all your fault! Just kidding. I may have needed someone to adjust my blinders so I could see what was missing from the story, but it's totally up to me to see if the story is everything I want it to be. And it isn't. Not yet, anyhow. But I feel like it's well on its way.

Weather 101

Before I could spew my vitriol against the weather onto these pages, it stopped raining, and the sun is even trying to come out, if ever-so feebly. From the window here next to the table, I can see dark clouds moving in to put a stop to that sunshine business, smoke rising from several neighboring chimneys, and some valley fog. It's at the far end of our valley, where it intersects with another one. When it's really thick and fills more of the valley, it makes me think of the arrival of the "fire worm" in the film Thirteen Warrior. Oh, Antonio Banderas—you are my sunshine.

It's still chilly in the house. Lovely husband (L.H.) is working on getting the wood delivered; it feels decadent (and expensive!) to turn on the heater when it's almost 21 C (70 F) inside, so we don't. I wonder if it's cheaper to pay for the gas to heat the water in the radiators, or to pay for the electricity to run all the incandescent lights and heat up the house? (Hoorah! The sun shooed away the clouds and is now searing into the skin on my face, intensified through the glass of the window. Aaaah!)

My normal cold-beating M.O. is to put on a pot of coffee, work in the unheated study until I can't feel my toes or my bladder threatens to burst, then take a break long enough to defrost, refill my coffee cup, and pee. Sometimes, I put on another pair of socks or a scarf or a second sweater. (In case you were wondering, I don't like the cold.) Then it's a cup of soup for lunch, and a pot of decaf in the afternoon. I'm all about hot drinks, you see.

When I get really, really cold, I vacuum or take a hot shower. Vacuuming actually does provide enough movement to warm up the old muscles, but unfortunately it also sets off the never-ending nosebleed. So I try to ignore the dirt for as long as possible, which is not easy when you have beige tile. The showers are less about cleanliness than about boiling myself until my bones start radiating residual heat to the rest of my body. Mmmmm... boiling.

The other remedy for cold weather is enjoying our plants (I knew I'd finally be able to work them in!), but that's more of a mental health thing. I have managed to keep a poinsettia and a xmas cactus alive and thriving since last winter. The cactus even has 8 or 9 new buds; they are white with fuchsia edges—very dramatic. I don't have it together enough to force the poinsettia (which entails moving it in and out of dark closets so it will flower), so it's green.

Then there's Pumpkin Head. I bought flowers (mums?) last fall in a pot that is covered with small orange and black tiles that create the effect that the pot is a jack-o-lantern. Very cute. So I put some hot-pink heather in it recently, and it looks like Don King, if he had hot-pink hair and a jack-o-lantern face. It could be a new look for him.

L.H. bought over 100 Euros worth of flowers last May, many of which promptly drowned during the horribly wet summer we had. The hanging geraniums seem to be the sturdiest of the lot; there are still plenty in the window boxes on the lower balcony (very Bavarian-looking). In a last-ditch attempt to keep them alive, L.H. moved the surviving standing geraniums inside, where they look cheerful on the windowsill. And they don't stink like the ones my mom had when I was a kid. Maybe those were the special stinky Texas kind.

After picking up my darling daughter (D.D.) from school (stabbing-free days: 1), I spent a large part of the afternoon sitting next to her in the sun, crocheting and offering moral support for her homework. What I really needed to be doing was proofreading (400 pages down, 400 to go); what I really wanted to be doing was updating my blog. Is that obsessive? Good, I didn't think so.

[Note to family members reading this: if you have a strong aversion to crochet, comment below or email me, or it's potholders for xmas. Bwa!ha!ha!]

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Joys of Parenting

My darling daughter (D.D.) is probably going to hell: she stabbed a boy in the hand with a pencil *during religion class* yesterday. It doesn't really matter that he asked her to do it, even suggesting that she sharpen the pencil first. I'm sure he meant to pull his hand away at the last minute, perhaps adding a taunting "ha! ha!" What he didn't count on was D.D.'s lightening-fast reflexes, honed by years of flopping and, more recently, ballet.

D.D. apologized, and the boy said he'd been hurt much worse by another boy in the class before, but... still. Where was the teacher in all this?
[Addendum: L.H. pointed out that most teachers wouldn't feel they'd need to keep an eye out for kids stabbing each other until at least junior high.]

Lovely husband (L.H.) is worried about getting a hospital bill or a lawsuit. Germans have insurance for everything, but we haven't gotten around to buying more than our health insurance. It's crazy—at a birthday party we attended a few months ago, every person we talked to brought up the need for extra insurance. If I didn't know better, I'd think they were all in training to be insurance salesmen. Maybe they get a kick-back for bringing in new customers, I don't know.

D.D. is home today with a tummy ache. Last year we sent her to school a couple of times with a tummy ache, and she barfed. So now we know that she's not just using it as an excuse to stay home. No barf so far.

Since D.D. is technically home sick, we've been doing quiet, lounging-about type activities like watching videos and playing on the computer. I had to excuse myself when she went to the Barbie My Scene site, though. Otherwise I'd be the one barfing.

In case you are not the parent of a girly-girl, let me introduce you to the horror that is My Scene. Imagine, if you will, animated versions of Barbie and Ken—hip young things that love shopping and dancing. The interactive games on this site include beauty makeover and clothes shopping. Then there are the video clips—shudder. "Let's roam around the mall, buying things and ogling at and being ogled at by the guys!" or "Let's have a canned food drive for the blind before we go to the ultra-glam high school dance!"

This is not believable as real youth culture as far as I'm concerned. There is no acne, no back-stabbing, no messy break-ups, no sex. Definitely not teenage reality. Fortunately, there's lots of time before high school for D.D. to figure that out.

New bitching topic: the never-ending nosebleed. Enough said.

Weather-bitching level: 1
Overcast. Yuck.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

MS Word sadness

I personally am fairly proficient with Word, so my sadness stems from the paper I am currently proofreading. This poor person managed to put together over *800* pages without knowing how to use the automatic numbered list setting or how to change the margins for long, indented sections.

I was checking for double spaces, so I turned on the feature that shows space and paragraph marks (our version of Word has everything labeled in German, and I can't think of what it was called in English). Oh. Dear. Lord. This person obviously does not know about the return key, because at the end of each item in the indented numbered list (all done manually), there is a string of 20 or more spaces to make the next item move down to the next line. Which means that I can't do a global find and replace, or it would move everything out of whack.

I am definitely not being paid enough to reformat *800* pages, and they look clean enough in regularly viewing mode, but the urge, she is there, let me tell you. That's what I get for being so anal retentive.

Tea Sickos

So, I'm proofreading a paper on tea, and I've come across the term "agony of the leaves". This describes the way loose leaf tea uncurls after the boiling water has been poured on it.

Perhaps tea lovers don't have a problem with this term, but I think I would be imagining the tea leaves to be writhing and shrieking in tiny, high voices, "Help me!"

Maybe that's just me.

In any case, I'll be sticking to tea bags, where the tea leaves are broken up and don't uncurl. [See how much you can learn while proofreading? It's one of the reasons while I like the work.]

School rules

I set off just before full dark yesterday (7:10 p.m.) for the first parent meeting of the school year. I actually like walking around in our village, and we live in a really beautiful area, lots of woods nearby, and a fantastic view of the valley. Last night reminded me of Halloween night as a kid—crisp, cold air, a clear sky, and the smell of wood smoke.

Of course, Germans don't really do Halloween, just the grown-ups and masquerade parties or special events in dance clubs. To make up for the lack of a fall decorating holiday, some of the shops have already started putting up xmas decorations, even outside. Bleah!

So, back to the parent meeting. One nice feature of the German school system is that kids stay with the same class and the same set of teachers for 2 years, so we already know the teacher and other parents from last year. It's hard enough for me and lovely husband (L.H.) to follow what's being said in German; at least the speakers are friendly.

After the Pisa results (the biggie in school performance testing here in Europe), the curriculum has been tweaked once again, so we got to hear about what that means for our kids. Really, the changes are fairly minor, but of course all the subject names got changed, and some of the subjects were merged into 1 (Humans, Nature, and Culture, which includes arts and crafts and music, etc.). So there weren't any big surprises.

It was after 9 by the time we wrapped up, and I just missed the bus up to our house, so I hauled ass home. By the time I got here, I felt sick, like in P.E. in elementary school where they made us run until my ribs hurt and I felt like I was going to puke. I think I may have overdone it with the exercise yesterday.

It's too early for a weather report, but so far it's clear and cold. If I can see the sun, I can handle the cold. L.H. turned on all the radiators yesterday evening while I was at the meeting so we'd wake up to a warm, cozy house—then forgot to switch the hot water heater over to the radiator setting. No hot water in the radiators = no warm, cozy house. Oh, well. It heated up quickly enough once we got everything turned on properly, but having to drag myself out of bed when it's 19C (about 65F) in the house is not fun.

Also, working in this room is not much fun—it was built on after the fact and has no heat except what leaks in through the doorway from the rest of the house. We're looking into an electric heater.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Walking in a not-so-wintery wonderland

Despite my oft-proclaimed aversion to physical exertion, I walked all the way into downtown this morning. It took me an hour and 25 minutes. Did I mention that we live at the northern end of the north-easternmost suburb of our town? Fortunately, it's downhill for the first 30 minutes since the suburb lies along a steep valley.

Lovely husband (L.H.) can make the same trip in about 30 minutes on his bike (which he does every day), so I was actually kind of proud that it only took me 3 times as long. Not too bad, considering he's got 10 inches in height and 70 pounds of muscle more than I do.

The reason for this trek was to look into plane tickets to Texas at xmas. The woman at STA was very helpful and friendly, but she couldn't get us any cheaper fares for the dates we wanted than we had already found on Travelocity. So I bring this info home to L.H., and we decide to try Travelocity again. And the prices had gone up $20 each since yesterday. Sigh. It wasn't a deal-breaker, though, and we now have tickets, with about $7 to spare in our savings. Well, that's what it was there for.

As much as I'd like to jabber away about my walk, and writing, and my plants, I'm going to postpone that until tomorrow (isn't that the best cliff-hanger you've heard? Tune in tomorrow!). L.H. and darling daughter (D.D.) are off at an after-school activity, and I need to have dinner on the table when they get home so I can then rush off to the first parent meeting of the school year. L.H. went to all of them last year, so he says I should take a turn. Fair's fair, I suppose.

Weather-bitching level: 0.5
It's been a lovely day, but chilly. D.D. actually wanted her scarf on the way to school this morning, and L.H. suggested we turn on the heater tonight. This from the man who has to be drugged, bound, and threatened before he'll consider putting a coat on, even if it's snowing outside. Considering that it took most of the day for the thermostat to register 20C (68F), I personally think it's time.

We have a fantastic tile oven, but no wood, and no car for hauling wood, so we're going to have to get creative on this one. Our landlord insists that we only use cured 3-year-old wood. Psh! Our friends down the street were using the leftover lumber from a house that was torn down so they could build their new house on the site. 3-year-old wood. Ha!

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Fall, glorious Fall

I am a real homebody, not to the point of phobia, but there's not a lot that can draw me out of the house once I'm properly warm and caffeinated. Food shopping is a necessary evil, but at least the lovely husband (L.H.) and I take turns going to the store.

But today the sweet voice of my darling daughter (D.D.) asking if I would accompany her and L.H. to the playground had the power to dislodge me from my warm cocoon of domesticity. So leaving the laundry to run by itself, we headed out into a lovely fall afternoon.

And immediately had to dash back inside for jackets. It's nippy!

As I sit on the swing watching, L.H. and D.D. are making a wolf-catching pit in the sandbox. I wasn't aware that there are many wolves left in central Germany, but I guess it pays to be prepared. (I worry about the two of them sometimes.)

Anyhow, the "pit" is dug, there's a lattice of twigs laid across the top, and they are busily denuding the nearby bushes so they can layer leaves over the sticks. I hope the SPCA doesn't get wind of this project.

Classes resume at the university in a week, so I'm rushing around the house doing all the little things I intended to do during the summer break. I am really ashamed to admit that I have been on summer break since the end of July. Here's but a portion of my check-list (I love lists):

* Sort through the paperwork beginning to compost in the study and file it.—check

* Look up all the German words I've been jotting in my Palm since the spring.—check

* Finish applique-ing the border of a quilt for my sister—well... that quilt's been more than 8 years in the making. You can't expect results overnight in a situation like that. But I *am* about 2/3 done with the last side, so then I just have to sew the last 2 borders on and quilt the damn thing. Check back in another 8 years to see if I'm almost done. The other sister will just have to be happy with a gift certificate or a fruit basket or something, because we'll probably all be dead or senile by the time I could get another quilt finished.

I have been trying very hard not to speak any German over the break, but my L.H., damn him, is insisting that I be the one to go to STA Travel to get the ball rolling on plane tickets to Texas for xmas. Can't we just buy our tickets from the anonymous, English-speaking safety of the Internet? [insert whiny voice here] I suppose that comparison shopping is all well and good....

Weather-bitching level: 0.5
It was only partially cloudy today, and the sun managed to shine around the clouds for a large part of the day. I didn't spot a drop of precipitation (although I heard it raining during the night), so that always cheers me up. My D.D. said the cutest thing walking into the playground: "The falling leaves look like confetti!" We had to agree.