Wednesday, January 31, 2007

we've got stoveage

Judging from the ice crystals attached to the whiskers of my husband's old gelding this morning, it's a good thing the WSIGs came out to install the wood stove that's been sitting on a pallet in our living room all month. Yes, we've been enjoying propane heat through the past few January storms here on the prairie, but have you checked the price of propane lately? Our bill for the latest tank fill-up came to $900. In the winter, a tank full of propane should last about 2-3 months, so you do the math.

We'll still use propane for the oven/stove and the water heater, but for keeping our little selves warm and toasty it's going to be wood heat all the way, Baby. Well, it will be as soon as the county inspector comes out and gives us the go-ahead to light the first fire. My tendency to follow the rule book to the letter in situations like these drives my poor husband nuts, he being more of a punch-a-hole-in-the-ceiling, throw-an-inherited-old-wood-stove-in-there-and-call-it-good kind of guy. I think this will be worth both the wait and the flaming hoop-jumping, however:

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the proximity of gold

When I've started a new novel but am not actively working on it, I quickly start to resemble a crotchety old miner living in the shadow of a massive mountain bursting with ore veins: He grumbles over his lack of riches, rather than simply taking up his pick and striking rock to find what he's looking for. (Okay, my analogy needs work, but hopefully you get my drift.)

Children accept this immediate proximity of gold without all the angst, which is why it's good for occasionally embittered adults to spend time with them. When was the last time you heard a child agonize over a new creation? "I could build that flying Lego fortress, but if it doesn't work out it's going to call into question the validity of every ambition I've ever had! I think I'll play it safe and go wallpaper the bathroom instead."

Of course, writing (like mining) can be hard, deliberate work, each strike of the pick or pen carrying with it the reminder that you might ultimately be proven a fool for even trying. Committing to an artistic endeavor is a gamble, and many of us who choose to use our lives this way are both humbled by the longs odds of victory and encouraged by the success of colleagues. When I have begun a new project that has not yet reached that tipping point where momentum takes over (and it's easier to simply finish the darn thing than to have it bouncing around in my head), I find that I have a real gift for coming up with endless excuses for living in the work's shadow, rather than picking away until I strike a vein. This is not to say that my prose is like gold (as if I had to clarify that), but it is to say that the act of creating (Something! Anything! Be it a flying Lego fortress, or the next Great American Novel, or a tap dance solo, or a model of the Statue of Liberty made out of those cardboard toilet paper roll cylinder thingies!) is the gold itself. One need only be as immersed as a child when actively working on a new project to understand this.

So, what's your mountain? Are you living in its shadow, or have you taken up your pick?

Friday, January 26, 2007

genius of love

My alternate title for this post was "I'm... in... heaaaaaaven... (with my camera, my laughing camera)." As you can see from this shot of our Aussie, I am no pro photographer (or even a talented amateur, for that matter), but bear in mind that this is one of my first attempts at shooting with this thing right out of box (in crappy light, with a moving target, etc.).

And I think I'm in love.

I won't bore you with all the details, but basically my research took me from deciding on the Canon EOS Rebel xTi (you know, the one that's all over the glossy mags), to the Pentax K10D (because, heck, it's a Pentax!), to the Sony A100 (because love it or hate it, it's a pretty screaming deal for the money), to the Nikon D80 (because, ultimately, the images I saw from this thing blew everything else in its price range out of the water (for me) when it came to the incredible detail and colors that pop right out at you).

This was a substantial (bordering on painful) investment for me, one that I've been saving up for and researching for several months now, so don't think I post my acquisition of this new toy in any kind of a "neener-neener, I got a cool new camera just 'cause I wanted one" kind of way. I've bought cameras for myself before - notably, my Canon EOS Rebel 35 mm that I got in the early 90's, when a deadhead in Santa Cruz walked up to me and said, "Hey, man, I need tickets to the Dead show. You want this camera for forty bucks?"

"Is it stolen?" I asked him.

"No way, man."

"Okay then. Good enough for me."

But I've never bought a camera quite like this, and I'm a little intimidated by the steep granite face of the learning curve looming before me. All I can say is it's a good thing the place where I bought it threw in a bunch of photography lessons. So, you know where to find me at 10 a.m. sharp tomorrow morning.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

danny's not here, mrs. torrance

If you know what movie that line's from, and if you've read yesterday's post, then you'll know the line has been in my head for over twenty-four hours. I'm not sure this is a good indication of my current mental state.

What movie lines have been in your heads lately?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

my own private NaNoWriMo

Great. Now I've got that B-52s song "Private Idaho" stuck in my head.

Anyway, the other day I got just the kick in the pants I needed when my agent asked about my next book (i.e. the one I'm currently working on, the one that's supposed to come AFTER the one for which she originally took me on as a client). To be fair to myself, I have been working on it for much of the past year (really, I have!), but I've been working on it the way a disorganized quilter works on a massive project; there are half-finished squares and half-threaded bobbins and mismatched fat quarters strewn about every room of the house. When I paw through what I have (which is a good chunk of the 100,000 words I'm shooting for), I'm generally pleased. I'm pretty sure it's going to make a kick-a** draft when it's done, and I'm looking forward to showing it to her.

But the key words here are "when it's done." It's a good thing that I work well under the threat of arbitrary deadlines, because I've set my early April birthday as the cutoff point for having a good draft in my agent's inbox. It's also a good thing that I'm gifted at inflating the importance of said deadlines until I'm convinced that they're roughly on par with national security, because otherwise I'd lose steam and never get much of anything written.

That said, I've put myself on a strict 1,000-words-per-day cleansing diet from now until the end of March. I even have a handy little chart taped to the wall right next to my desk, the sole purpose of which is to guilt me into filling my daily word quota even if it means typing "All work and no play makes Nicole a dull girl" (a la Jack Torrance) until the quota's met. I can't believe I blew off a friend's suggestion that I participate in last year's NaNoWriMo! (Yes I can, actually. I was teaching my butt off, gearing up for the big choir performance and getting ready for the big move. No way could I have been a NaNoWriMo winner. Still, the draft would be done now if I'd partaken in November's novel-writing blitzkrieg with the rest of 'em).

Needless to say, prayers are appreciated.

Monday, January 22, 2007

and then, of course, there's this

Be sure to keep your eye on the baby. (Thanks, Brandy!)

prairie fly

I'm glad to see that Rick Bass's fantastic essay, "Shy," is still available over at Narrative. That piece captures, more than most on the subject, the experience of writing from a remote locale. And while I don't share Bass' struggle with intense shyness, I do completely understand the gift of that that up-close-yet-a-million-miles-away skill that living away from a big city allows writers to cultivate. Like Bass with his shyness (" an illness!"), I tend to carry my prairie creature-like remoteness with me even when I'm in a place like Phoenix or San Francisco, because the remoteness allows me to watch what people are doing, how they are speaking and what their authentic body language is saying while their affectations are trying to portray something else.

If I believed in reincarnation, I'd often wish to come back as a fly - not a fly here at our place, of course, because although there would be more piles of horse manure than I could possibly dream of, I'd soon be sprayed with Pyranha by some crazy woman writer with an apple picker and a wheelbarrow. No, I'd want to be a fly that could choose at any time whose living room wall I could attach myself to. First I'd buzz over to The Chapmans' place in Hawaii because...well, who WOULDN'T?

After that, it's anyone's guess where I'd go. If you asked me yesterday I would have said that I'd fly out to an old travel trailer on the Navajo rez, or to a random, upscale house full of marital confusion in suburban California, because those are two of the settings I'm working on for my current novel. And I'd go hang out in the houses of guys in general, but not for the prurient reasons you might assume (who, ME?). Nah, it's just that the guy thing is something I'll never get tired of observing. I consider it a great boon to have grown up with an older brother whose friends were constantly divulging to me - their surrogate little sister - the kind of guys-only information that could have gotten them labeled as traitors and booted from the brotherhood (I was all ears; I all but carried a notebook and pencil with me when my brother's friends were around).

Still, despite my years of insider status, I struggle with authenticity when writing a male character, just as I suppose any writer does (or should) when writing about someone who is "other" than themselves. Fortunately, I live with two members of the male species, so the research is never ending there. But in order to create characters who don't in some way resemble people I know or live with, it's important to find other real people who share some of the characters' traits. When I do find them, the trick is getting close enough to observe while at the same time staying a fraction of a light year away. As a writer who finds herself living once again on the fringe of civilization (though it seems to get more crowded all the time out here on the prairie) I like to think I have an advantage where this particular skill is concerned.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

early harbingers of spring

This was the view from our kitchen window this morning It's finally warmed up enough to snow (night time temps were dipping well below zero earlier in the week), so now there's this vast and lovely white quilt outside. The roundpen in the foreground was built by my husband out of aspen poles that he cut and hauled from the north rim of the Grand Canyon years ago, and it's one of my favorite photography subjects.

Speaking of photography, I think I've changed my mind about the camera I want to buy now that my old trusty Kodak DX3900 is gasping for its last breath. For a while my mind was set on this one, but after some research, I've discovered that this one looks like a better value overall. Of course, it's a moot point until I actually have the money to buy it, but it's making me crazy not to have a good quality, reliable camera for capturing those fleeting kid moments.

And speaking of the man, today is his birthday, which means that for the next three months we are the same age (the downside, of course, being that for the next three months I don't get to sleep with a younger man). Dad's birthday also = the kids and I getting busy with art supplies - making cards and writing stories. The girl suprised me this week by not only making her first batch of cookies (I found her in the kitchen mixing up ingredients with the play cooking set she got from Grandpa and Granni for Christmas), but by writing her first book! She's a chip off the old block (if I had suspenders I'd hook my thumbs proudly in the straps).

The story is called "The Red Snake and the Evil Purple Scales, Written by Mr. Apple." There are no actual words, of course, but she tells the story the exact same way every time she "reads" the illustrations. I'm always relieved to hear that everything turns out well in the end for the red snake and his brothers and sisters, especially after that run-in with those awful scales (disguised as rocks), and the smoke that makes all the snake siblings run away. The whole ordeal those poor creatures go through reminds me a little of how this month has gone. But now the sun is starting to elbow those storm clouds aside, the Valentine chocolates are stacked high on grocery store shelves, and the Scottsdale Arabian Show is right around the corner. These are the signs I look for to tell me that, someday soon, this winter, too, shall pass.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

can't wait, can't wait, can't wait...

The Northern Arizona Book Festival is coming up. I'm so glad they've changed it to April. For the first several years it was held in January, which is an irksome time to be walking from event to event in downtown Flagstaff because the streets are sometimes a windy, snowy, slippery outdoor skating rink at this time of year.

Let's year I went to the festival hugely pregnant and met up with my former office mate from NAU grad school days. Tammy's first excellent novel, Breathing Water, had just been published, and it wasn't pregnancy nausea making me green. That was also the festival at which I met a well-respected agent who requested that I send her the manuscript I'd recently finished polishing. Even though she ultimately rejected it (can totally understand why when I re-read the thing now), it felt like an important step at the time. Then there was the year when Anne Lamott came to read (to a packed house at the old Orpheum theater), and I was so happy to see a fellow Marinite in Flagstaff that, afterward (I hesitate to even admit this), I went up and gave her this HUGE groupie hug. (My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat when, as we chatted, I mentioned that I was born and raised in Marin but had lived in Flag for several years. She looked sort of disgusted and, in the most stereotypically elitist tone possible, said simply, "Why?") Two years ago, when I last attended the Bookfest, Annie Proulx was the big featured speaker. It was right around the time Brokeback Mountain was released in theaters, so you'd think she'd be all rarin' to go, but she looked pretty worn out and unhappy when I saw her.

Is it the altitude? C'mon, people, Flagstaff rocks! Fortunately, most Bookfest authors seem to realize this and are super enthusiasic. This year I hope to apply some of my own regional enthusiam to volunteering, so we'll see if they can utilize my talents despite my funky hours of availability. Having been a school board secretary for a few years, I am ALL OVER the whole collating/stapling/mailing thing.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

let's share wubbies

Monday's post about the SPFF's actually started out as an exploration of the different literary genres to which people become especially attached, and why. It's a phenomenon that calls to mind that scene in the movie Mr. Mom, where Michael Keaton has a man-to man talk with his son (who is no longer a toddler) in an attempt to persuade the boy to give up his security blanket. "It's time to give up the wubby," Keaton says soberly.

The older I get, the more I notice two seemingly paradoxical things about the reading habits of myself and others. The first is that most of us are much more widely read than we used to be (i.e. in high school, college, etc). This is to be expected, I suppose. The longer you live, the more subjects you're exposed to and the more people you meet: Interests are piqued, authors are recommended, new worlds of the written word are discovered (and they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on...).

On the other hand, I've noticed that the older I get the more deeply set my literary preferences (and those of many people I know) become. I'm willing to read pretty much anything, especially if it comes recommended by someone who views reading as one of those things that's important for a full life - you know, like oxygen. BUT, if you come to my house and peruse my bookshelves, the jig'll be up. You're going to see my prejudices undeniably on display: John Steinbeck, Charles Frazier, Ron Hansen (who was one of my college teachers - how lucky was I?), Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy, Laura Hillenbrand, Wallace Stegner (whose son, Page, was another one of my teachers at UCSC. Doubly blessed there, I know), Marilynne Robinson...and the list goes on. It's a long list, but there's a definite pattern: I hunger and thirst for books (primarily literary fiction) that tell me something I didn't already know about this world I find myself living in (and the world my parents and grandparents have inhabited as well).

I can't pinpoint the exact book with which this addiction began. Was it Where the Red Fern Grows when I was in grade school - the first book to ever break my heart so thoroughly that I can barely pick up a copy of it now without tears springing to my eyes? Or did my wubby attachment begin later on, with To Kill a Mockingbird or Miller's The Crucible (thank you Mrs. Girton, you rockin' high school English teacher who was way under-appreciated by 99% of your students)? Whenever it started, my appetite for literary fiction has snowballed over the years - to the point where a good book does sometimes feel as necessary as oxygen to me, and a disappointing one sometimes feels like being at the bottom of the ocean and discovering that your Scuba tank is empty.

Truly, my wubby is a many splendored thing: It is understanding what it means to cherish, nurture and eventually lose two coon hounds. It is uncovering the dreadfully unjust nature of witch hunts (real or symbolic), and finding out what standing up for those who are "different" and defenseless looks like. It is a portrait of gritty true love able to transcend even death.

So, what does your wubby look like, and when did your preference for a particular genre (fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, true crime, chick lit, board books, etc.) begin? Via the cool map at the bottom of the page, I know there are people all over the world who have checked out this blog, even if it's only for a millisecond - long enough to go, "This isn't the site I was looking for! Curse you, Google!" So, I want to hear from anyone and everyone - that includes you, citizen of Vladivostok. I know they have wubbies even in Siberia.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I thought you were a Christian

I want to acknowledge at the outset how easy it would be to write a cynical/hipster-type post here that would demonstrate to all of the blogosphere how thoroughly above the whole definition-of-morality issue I am, but the truth is I'm not above it. I'm smack dab in the middle of it (as are most people I know, Christian or not).

So, anyway, as a newlywed I taught GED classes as part of a satellite program for a community college in Prescott. They were satellite classes because our town was 50 miles from Prescott, way out in the middle of High Desert Nowhere. One night, a student showed up with one of those nylon, book-type CD cases, and as he took a practice test I flipped through his collection. "Cool," I said, stopping at Appetite for Destruction. I love Guns N' Roses."

There was a long pause before the student answered, "I thought you were a Christian."

I've thought about that exchange many times over the years. I've thought about it when I've heard sermons about what it means to be a Christian, and I've thought about it when trying to figure out how to approach a potentially inflammatory subject in my own writing. I've probably thought about it too much. I'm sure there are plenty of people who would say, "Who cares what you listen to or what you watch? The important thing is that you love God, right?" Well, yes, there's that verse about what comes out of a man's mouth being the thing that makes him unclean - not what goes into his mouth. The same might apply to eyes and ears. Then again, I know there are others who would say, "It matters absolutely what you watch and listen to because your body is a temple." And they'd be right, too. As for me, I've lived on the fringes of both anti-Christian liberalism and Christian legalism, and I know that neither one is where my soul finds rest or inspiration. So, I'm working through the details now, and have been for many years.

Part of me wishes I could simply toe the socially acceptable Christian line and only consume books, art and music by Christians. Life would be much less complicated that way. But the truth is, I find much of today's popular Christian music and fiction unfulfilling and unable to transport me the way some decidedly non-Christian music and books can. Notice I didn't say that I find Christian literature in general uninspiring - give me a C.S. Lewis book any day of the week and I'm good. I also didn't say that I'm transported by "anti-Christian" arts, because the moment a singer or writer started trashing Christ, I'd be completely repelled.

But, I mean, have you listened to "Paradise City" lately? Among other things, it's a masterful blend of musical artistry and barely-controlled rage (mainly on Axl Rose's part), and I have come to believe over the years that, despite the band's decidedly un-Christian flavor, at least the musical mastery part comes from God. Then again, maybe I'm just looking for an excuse to listen to something a "good Christian" shouldn't listen to. Where art is concerned (well, where basically everything is concerned) I'm far from a humanist. That wasn't always the case (ask anyone who knew me in my UC Santa Cruz days), and while I suppose it's always possible that my views may change about the connection between human creativity and the Creator, I doubt they will. This may be why I have a really hard time dismissing music that may not honor God overtly, but nevertheless has the same elevating effect for me that all great art (or what I consider to be great art) does.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, January 15, 2007

shapeshifting prophets and the aisle of despair

My husband is an avid reader of fantasy fiction - a literary genre I've always found mystifying and vaguely intellectually threatening. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that the fanfic (yes, I get that this isn't the commonly accepted use of this term - click Comments to lodge a complaint :-)) readers I knew growing up were also members of the Chess Club, the Debate Team and Academic Decathlon, while I was in the student theater trying to learn the lyrics for our upcoming variety show rendition of "Good Morning, Starshine" from the musical Hair. (The lyrics go something like this: "Glibby glop gloopy, nibby nabby noopy, la la la lo lo." You think I'm kidding.)

My husband's side of the bookshelf in our bedroom is stocked with paperbacks by - among others - Ursula LeGuin, Patricia McKillip, Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien. Many of these books are decades-old and in near-tatters, having been read several times and carted along each time he's moved. The best part of the day for our kids may be that quiet nook of time between teeth brushing and lights-out, when Dad sits on the edge of the bed and reads them a tale of strange creatures, daring young boys-turned-gallant heroes and smart-as-a-whip young girls (who are no slouches in the courage department, either). My three peeps are currently in the thick of The Princess and the Goblin, having finished the whole Narnia series when we were in California.

The few times I've braved the Aisle of Despair (aka the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle at bookstores) searching for a worthy literary gift for the father of my children, I've found that he is surprisingly easy to buy for. This is not because I am able to divine the literary merit behind the dragons and warlords and crystals-of-unsurpassed-power depicted on the book covers. No, I've been able to pick winners based solely on the advice of the Shapeshifting Prophets of Fantasy Fiction (or SPFF - blow a raspberry and you'll discover their secret password). I refer to these visitors as shapeshifters because, underneath their average, everyday appearance, there is little doubt in my mind that they are actually creatures from the Otherworld, sent in human form to offer guidance to the hopelessly lost spouses of fantasy readers.

The first was an adorable skater chick straight out of the John Hughes film, Some Kind of Wonderful. She appeared at my left shoulder several minutes after I'd started squinting and grimacing at a new series written by an author whose name I recognized from the bedroom bookshelf, but how in the world could I know if it was any good? "Dude, I LOVE David Eddings," the skater chick said, reading my mind with her Otherworldly powers. What followed was a private literary review/consultation and genre overview by, clearly, a teenaged master ahead of her time. I wish I'd had a tape recorder to capture her insights. More to the point, I wish I'd found her in the Literary Fiction aisle so that I could have drafted has as a reader for my then-unfinished novel. I left the store that day confident that I'd bought the right book. I don't know if my husband was impressed later on with my authoritative rundown on Eddings' career highlights and lows, but he tried to look like he was.

A more recent encounter with a SPFF happened at the San Rafael Borders during last month's holiday crunch. I was last-minute shopping for that little something extra for my beloved to open on Christmas morning, and found myself standing once again in the Aisle of Despair. Most of the fantasy books had been pretty well cleaned out by that point, so I blindly chose one of the last remaining box sets they had, not at all sure that it would do. The checkout line wrapped around the store that day, from the registers all the way back past the restrooms, so store employees were doing their best imitation of a Model T production line. When it was finally my turn to pay, an arm shot up from the veeeeery last register, way down at the end of the row. "Next!" a voice shouted. As I approached, I saw that the checkout guy had the telltale long hair and Look of Eagles of a UC Berkeley engineering student trying to make a few bucks before the semester started. He was all business and flurry, ready to rush me and my merchandise through the cattle chute of commerce. And then he saw what I was buying. "Dude," he said. "Robert Jordan is AWESOME." Long story short: I blew him a raspberry to let him know that I was on to his secret identity; he regaled me with the details of Robert Jordan's importance in the fanfic genre while bookstore commerce ground to a halt and his colleagues glared; and I arrived home with yet another winner for my husband's side of the bookshelf. Otherworldly guides, I couldn't do it without you.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

awkward confession

Just downloaded Rick James' "Super Freak" onto the iPod.

Umm...did anyone else out there dream of being a Solid Gold Dancer when they were ten years old?


Okay, then. Forget I asked.

Friday, January 12, 2007

you're ugly, too

So, I'm in the checkout line at one of the Flagstaff Safeways the other day, having spent the last hour loading my cart to overflowing in an effort to restock our cupboards. I had to do a triple-take at the sign above the register to make sure that I hadn't accidentally and boorishly wandered into an Express lane, because there was NO line. This is unheard of in the Bay Area - I'm still in culture shock.

So, as I'm leaning over, stacking my groceries onto the conveyor belt, I get the distinct impression that my head is faux pas-ishly close to something it shouldn't be close to. And when I glance to my left, I see that my impression is correct: My head is mere INCHES away from Cameron Diaz' ass. Well, I guess I shouldn't automatically assume that the ass in question belonged to Diaz (her face wasn't showing), but she does seem to be a favorite of The Tabloid Celebrity Butt Issues, which are - dishearteningly - back at at a grocery store magazine rack near you. In fact, it seems that a veritable Tabloid Celebrity Butt Issue (TCBI) Competition heats up on these racks every so often - who can show the largest derriere escaping from the most pathetically small bikini bottom; who can computer-enhance the greatest number of dimples onto the fewest cheeks; who can publish the clearest bonus shot of an amply-padded celebrity who has also turned her makeup-free face toward the camera in horror, allowing all tabloid readers to glory in the fact that NOT ONLY DOES SHE HAVE AN ENORMOUS BUM, BUT SHE'S ACTUALLY UGLY, TOO. (In the late 1980's short story and novel writer extraordinaire, Lorrie Moore, wrote a story with the same title of this post, wherein she used that old joke - you know the one: A man is told by his doctor that he has only weeks to live. "I want a second opinion," the man says. "Okay," says the doctor. "You're ugly, too.")

Can somebody please explain to me the purpose of these TCBIs? After spending 99% of the publishing year glamorizing these very same celebs for their skeletal remains - er, slender figures - and flawless complexions (which you, dear reader, shall never attain, BUT! For the low, low price of just $3.99 you can take this magazine home and pore over our exclusive photos while finishing off that pint of Haagen Dazs), what is the point of the Brutally Honest Unveiling of the Heinies (BHUH)?

Are the buyers of these rags (and the innocent victims simply trying to pay for our groceries and get home) supposed to all of a sudden feel like that virtuous and legendary child in Andersen's classic fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes?" (Hey! Those actresses aren't perfect after all!) Or is this a more sinister attempt to reduce us all to social snipers straight from the fourth-grade playground? (That Cameron Diaz thinks she's so hot, but have you SEEN her butt?) Don't act like you don't know who I'm talking about. If you weren't harassed by one of those girls, then you probably WERE one of those girls.

Whatever the tabloids' intentions, I propose a massive boycott. Of course, first I'll have to figure out who actually buys these things (Mom, can you send me a list of your friends' phone numbers? I'm KIDDING.) Then I'll have to make sure that I'm not caught out in public in a string bikini any time soon, lest the Star and the Enquirer put a retaliatory bounty on my ass - er, head.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

now you see it

Along with a Google account comes a bunch of options for personalizing your homepage. There's a virtual Post-it notepad, a tiny e-pony that loiters on your screen munching grass (and occasionally needing his mane brushed out), and the super-cool Art of the Day. Real geeks scoff, but non-technoids like me think this stuff is great. A week or so ago one of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes was featured on AOTD, and I remarked to my husband that a modern image of a nude man and woman in that particular pose would probably be considered pornography in our culture. He wryly remarked back something along the lines of, "Well, we're a country founded on Puritanism. What can you say?"

Then, about a week later, a painting depicting the same apple-eating event that basically ruined life for the rest of us showed up on my Google homepage, only this one was painted by Hugo Van Der Goes, a Netherlandish artist who was only about 35 years older than Mr. Buonarotti (and whose name I remember by thinking of a North Dakotan shouting, "Der goes a van!"). I couldn't help but notice the disparity between their depictions of the same scene. For one thing, there's the obvious nudity issue. Michelangelo has Adam and Eve both hanging it all out there (so to speak) while Van der Goes has painted a strategically-placed orchid and hand (which I could understand if the apple in VdG's painting had already been eaten, but it doesn't appear to be so). There's also the difference in the two painters' serpents: Mike's is a female snake-like creature with arms only, while VdG has created a creepy Gollum-like (almost child-like) beast with legs (that it won't have for much longer, payback being what it is).

So, what gives? I'm sure all of this is covered in any Art History 101 class, but having (gasp) never taken a single Art History class, I am left to wonder about these things with my simple, unschooled brain. Is this a cultural thing? Italian vs. Netherlander? Is it an age thing? Certainly, people who are 35 years older than me are - if not dead - under a significantly different impression of what is acceptable modesty-wise. Maybe not so much, though; I have a strong prudish element in my personality.

Regardless, this difference in artistic perspectives - of two men from nearly the same era painting essentially the same thing - fascinates me, and I'm not done thinking about it. I'd love some feedback on this if you're similarly interested, so tell me what you think. And forgive me for referring to the great painter as Mike; my parents had a Basset hound named Michelangelo Buonarroti before having kids, but as a little girl I only knew the old dog guessed it. Old habits die hard.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

buongiorno, signorina

I've just started reading Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King. Apparently, I'm one of the few people who hasn't read this book, but I honestly hadn't even heard of it before someone handed it to me last year. No surprise there. There was a time when I was on the cutting edge - the bleeding edge, as it's called these days, which is a pretty gross term that makes me think of shaving mishaps - of all things old, new, borrowed and blue in the literary world, thanks to a generous e-friend who gave me the NYT Book Review as a gift. Alas, gift subscriptions eventually come to an end, and I had a hard time justifying the expense after taking more than a year off working for wages to finish writing the novel which, as we know, does not tend to fatten the coffers.

Back to the King book. It's enormously intelligent and fun, and I appreciate the fact that King doesn't lionize Michelangelo or Pope Julius II, or any of the players in the 16th century world of Italian art and religion. They were human beings struggling to varying degrees within the place and time to which they were born, and King doesn't whitewash or sugarcoat this. Quote in point: "It was not unknown for artists to get embroiled in fights or even murders...Michelangelo himself had been on the receiving end of a blow from Pietro Torrigiano, another sculptor who punched him so hard on the nose, following a dispute, that Torrigiano later recalled, "I felt the bone and cartilage crush like a biscuit."" I love reading books by authors who likewise love their subject matter.

I have seen the vault of the Sistine Chapel, though it was more than 15 years ago and I undoubtedly did not appreciate it as much as I would now, careless spoiled youngster that I was. Still, even then that work struck me as the beating heart of Vatican City, the way Trevi Fountain struck me as the beating heart of Rome. Or maybe it was just the gorgeous Italian guy who flirted as I descended the fountain steps. I'll admit it. I have a thing. I totally get Jamie Curtis' reaction to Kevin Kline and John Cleese when they start speaking Italian in A Fish Called Wanda, but I'll try not to let it get in the way of objective reading as I finish this book.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Erasmus B. Dragon

Anyone fortunate enough to have access to an NPR station that airs Tom and Ray Magliozzi's unequaled Car Talk will recognize the name I've shamelessly lifted from their "staff list" for use as today's post title. Trademark violation acknowledged.

I really don't enjoy reading blogs about other peoples' misery. I realized this yesterday while reading the blog of another writer who posted a lengthy and way-too-detailed diatribe about the ways he has been plagued by sinus infections, bronchitis and nasal polyps over the years. So I shall keep my whining brief.

I have been - how shall I put this? - feeling like I've been drug through a knothole backward for more than a week now. (I got that last phrase from my husband; it was one of the ways he charmed me when we first met. See? I have hardly an original thought left in my body.) It started with a soft little drumbeat sound in my left ear the night we arrived in Arizona and gradually progressed to a full-on phlegm storm of epic proportions, complete with relentless, hacking cough, utter sleeplessness and the near-disappearance of my voice. The hale and hearty husband of a friend jovially boomed that my lungs were just cleaning themselves out now that I'm back from a year of breathing smutty air. "Ha ha," I said (though it came out sounding more like the driver's side door of my truck being closed when it needs a good dousing of WD-40). He might be right, though. In the late 60's, Flagstaff was reported to be the place where the last pure breath of fresh air on earth was breathed - I kid you not; look it up.

Regardless, since last Tuesday I've kept up with my work-from-home work, gotten the boy to the school bus stop, unpacked Lord-knows-how-many boxes, made pilgrimages to Wal-Mart and Safeway to re-stock our cupboards, taken a truck-load of junk to the dump (out with the old, you know) and dealt with the dreaded County to secure a permit for the impending wood stove install. Gee, I can't imagine why this gunk has continued to plague my lungs for over a week. I think I need some kind of superhero cape, though I'm not sure what letter should be sewn onto it.

The thing about complaining is that it's much too satisfying to keep as brief as one initially intended. I think my whining's done now, though. Thanks for listening.

Friday, January 05, 2007

all we are is dust in the wind, dude*

The school bus was on a snow delay schedule this morning, though we didn't get much more than a dusting last night. Those extra few minutes of prep time gave my brain the opportunity to switch into philosophical mode (from primal, animal survival mode) for the first time since we started packing for our move a few weeks ago. I've been thinking about how long it's taken me to start a blog (a couple of years), and why (because I'm a fairly private person - "You play your cards close to your chest," is how one long-time friend puts it). Then I re-read the following tidbit and any lingering doubts about the validity - nay, the NOBILITY - of my blogging habit were quenched.

According to writer/reviewer Richard Robinson, Socrates (shown above in full, pre-hemlock-ingesting stance) preached "the knowledge of one's own starting points, the hypothetical entertainment of opinions, the exploration of their consequences and connections, the willingness to follow the argument wherever it leads, the public confession of one's thoughts, the invitation to others to criticize, the readiness to reconsider, and at the same time firm action in accordance with one's present beliefs." (italics mine)

So, I figure I'm in good company on at least a few of those points. Bill and Ted knew what they were doing when *they plucked the most excellent Socrates from the fifth century B.C.E. for that history report. Of course, scoring the Grim Reaper to play bass for their totally un-heinous rock band was a bold move, too.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

chop wood, carry water, ride school bus

It occurred to me today, driving along the 4-mile cinder road that runs across the north end of the prairie from our house to the Interstate, that the Nicole Show plays with much less static interference in California than it does in Arizona. Not that I'm not a self-centered navel gazer here - far from it. But living the way we do in this state requires a level of interaction with the basics of life - food, warmth, shelter, transportation - that is completely unnecessary in the Bay Area, where tap water magically appears via miles of ground pipe and where you have to put forth some serious effort if you want to drive on a dirt road. It's taking a good deal of energy just to get used to the idea of our return to rural life, much less actually doing what needs to be done. I'm afraid I've taken to the past year of relative luxury like a moth to a flame, and the end result might be the same if I don't cowgirl up right quick.

Yesterday my husband and brother-in-law moved our new, several-hundred-pound wood stove from the bed of the PowerStroke (that's our old Ford diesel truck for those electric car drivers out there - not that there's anything wrong with electric cars) to our living room, where it waits on a pallet for the Wood Stove Installer Guy (the WSIG, not to be confused with the WIG) to come out and set it up. It's too late in the season to get a wood cutting permit from the Forest Service now, but come Fall we'll be filling the Thermos with hot cocoa or apple cider and heading out with the stock trailer toward Ash Fork, or the Rez or the Grand Canyon to cut next winter's wood supply.

Between now and then we'll make hundreds of water hauling trips either to the local water station, or to the one near the big truck stop between here and Flagstaff if the local one's down. And if we're still closing out this 8-year-or-so drought cycle when summer rolls around, it's likely that underground water table will get too low to supply both of those wells, and we'll have to drive the 30 miles into town to fill up the 500 gallon tank before driving it back home and emptying the water into our cistern. Add thirsty horses to that equation and you can start to see how water quickly becomes a precious commodity here.

One thing that won't take any getting used to - and to which I'm looking forward come tomorrow morning - is the return of the school bus into our lives. There's nothing quite like the rush of hearing that big yellow behemoth rumbling down our washboarded road at 7:35 a.m. and realizing that if the boy does not cram that last piece of toast into his mouth, put on both of his shoes, find his backpack and don his winter parka all in one simultaneous moment, he's going to miss the bus, and Mom will have to drive him to school in the 12-degree weather. Which does not make Mom happy. And as we all know, if Mama ain't happy, ain't NOBODY happy.

Okay, okay, I'm still working on the self-centered, navel gazing thing, but - Lord have mercy - the toenail polish from that last luxurious California pedicure is barely dry. So please, you rural wunderkind neighbors, cut me some slack. Except for Jackie who, if she's noticed my citified status, has been kind enough to bite her tongue.

Monday, January 01, 2007

kickin' it down to second gear for the new year

The WildBlue Installer Guy (WIG) showed up at our house a few hours before we did on Saturday to hook up our Internet satellite. He was supposed to show up last Wednesday, but had to reschedule. No biggee. Figuring he might arrive while we were still en route, I asked my in-laws if they'd be willing to be at the house when the guy got there. Sure, no problem. Only, when my father-in-law opened the front door of our house, he found the WIG (who has a - it figures - Sedona address on his business flyer) sitting in our living room eating a banana. And this, folks, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the differences between rural Northern Arizona and sophisticated Northern California.

Coffee consumption is one of the unfortunate habits I picked up during our year in the fast-paced Bay Area, and I'm finding myself needing to cut back in order to better pace myself for re-entry here. Case in point: Yesterday's trip to Sam Walton's Evil Empire (as living in Marin has trained me to view it). Approaching the Wal-Mart parking lot I was locked and loaded in my little pickup truck, ready to pounce on the first available parking spot that presented itself. Because I've also been trained to realize that it's every woman for herself out there in traffic. Outta my WAY, people. But as soon as I drove down the first row, it became abundantly clear that parking was not going to be an issue, because I was back in Flagstaff now. Not only were there plenty of spaces right near the entrances, but each space was HUGE. That's because people drive trucks here. They pull horse trailers and they drive in from the Navajo and Hopi Reservations to load up with supplies. People here wear western hats and cowboy boots and Wranglers, and they don't look at all ridiculous. In fact, they look quite fetching. I'd almost forgotten. I didn't have to wait in line for a shopping cart, and inside the store the Wal-Mart greeter actually seemed sincere when he greeted me, rather than seeming as if he'd just as soon stab me with a fondue fork for inconveniencing him with my presence.

And Wal-Mart. Oh, Wal-Mart. I have missed you. Yes, you're an ugly, big box, and yes, you're accused of putting the Mom and Pops out of business. But where else can one find enormous boxes of Reduced Fat Cheez-Its for $2.50 each; the best-fitting and longest-lasting jeans I've ever worn for $10.88; and YOPLAIT FOR $0.50, AND THAT'S NOT ON SALE??

See what I mean about the coffee?