Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jack, Part Five--I Love You More

“A long time ago, there were no humans here on this land we call North America.” As Nana spoke she very quickly got a faraway look in her eye and an almost-musical tone to her voice. Jack found the look on her face a little disconcerting, so he focused his eyes on the cone of light and the dancing snowflakes. The ballet of flakes combined with Nana’s resonant voice to put Jack in a spell and he didn’t move---hardly even blinked—for the entire length of her story.
“In fact, a long time ago there were no creatures at all in North America or anywhere else on the Earth or in the seas. Manitou, the Creator, was alone up in Sky Country and for a long time, He enjoyed just looking at the play of sunlight and shadows, dark and light, as the Earth rotated and revolved through the Heavens. There was land and there was water and after much experimentation, Manitou decided he liked a 25/75 split between the two best.
“Manitou had been around forever, so to Him millions of years were like a day to you and me. But then, one day, Manitou was watching the shadow of night make its way across the face of the Earth and He realized He wanted more. He didn’t know exactly WHAT He wanted; He just knew He wanted MORE. He found a spot beneath His favorite oak tree, made Himself comfortable, and fairly soon—just a few thousand years later—He drifted off. And He began to dream.
“Now, you know how in a dream weird things can happen yet they don’t seem weird to you at all until you wake up and look back at them?” The tone Nana used for this question somehow yanked Jack right out of his spell and made him realize she really was expecting an answer to her question.
“Yeah—I once had a dream that I had a horse, only the horse had wheels instead of legs and it rolled instead of ran,” said Jack.
“Exactly!” said Nana, “That is exactly what I mean.” Quickly her voice changed back to the story voice and Jack understood that he was free to disengage his mind once again and just be in the story she was telling.
“Well, what Manitou dreamed about was a planet very much like Earth, only it was covered with all sorts of interesting things. Some of them were tall and green and stiff. Some were soft and low to the ground and they Had colorful parts facing the sun. Some could actually move from place to place. It was such an incredible dream that when Manitou awoke, He decided to make much of it come true.
“He liked the idea of things that could live on Earth. Earth felt more alive to him when it was home to so much creativity. So, He set about making all the plants and animals and bacteria and virus and fungi and everything else that lives in or on or under the Earth..
“And as I said, Manitou is patient. He certainly took his time. For each living thing, Manitou sat under His oak and he gave His full attention to picturing every detail of a life before He would give it a name and bring it to life outside of His head and on the Earth. Each life had His full focus and the benefit of His boundless imagination. Manitou thought about how each creature would need to take in nourishment, would need to protect itself, would need to meet others of its kind, and would need to produce more creatures like it.
“ And to meet each of these needs He gave each life a set of gifts. These gifts came from Manitou and they were given free of charge. The only thing Manitou asked was that each creature be aware of the gifts and use them the way He had intended. After a billion years of our time, Manitou felt like He was just about done. He was running out of ideas.
“As Manitou put the finishing touches on a creature, He would close His eyes, picture the creature whole in His mind, see where it lived and imagine it in its place in the web of creation he was weaving on the Earth, and then slowly open His eyes again. And as He did so, that creature would appear on the Earth. Not just one of that creature, but an entire population of them. They would be there, newborn and blinking in the sun if they were daytime animals, or peering around them in the dark if they were nocturnal, feeling nothing but joy at their situations.
“Each felt blessed to have everything it needed to survive. Are you still awake, Jack?” Nana asked, because Jack’s eyes were closed and his breathing had become pretty deep and regular.
Jack peeled his eyes open slowly. “I’m awake, Nana.”
“Okay. You just started to look pretty comfortable, that’s all.”
Jack answered, “I was trying it myself.”
“Trying what,” asked Nana, though she had a pretty good idea what Jack had been doing in that head of his.
“Trying to do what Manitou did. Trying to think of a new animal and give it everything it needs.”
“What did your new animal look like?” asked Nana, truly curious.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Running on the Hedonic Treadmill

One excellent benefit of being married to an academic who studies human behavior is I sometimes get to learn about fascinating theories and ideas of human thoughts, motives, and actions. Lately, I have found myself thinking a lot about one particular theory. It is Brickman and Campbell’s idea of the Hedonic Treadmill.

Brickman and Campbell gave this name to the idea that humans develop a happiness “set point” early in life. This set point is fairly stable and it is the level of happiness to which we return after our temporary highs and lows fade away. Other researchers have expanded on Brickman and Campbell’s idea and now there is a Hedonic Treadmill Theory. It describes “the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” (from Wikipedia)

When I first started running, back in March of 2002, I wore Converse Chuck Taylor high-tops and struggled to go 2.3 miles. It hurt a lot. I slowly improved and by the summer I was upping my longest run by two miles every two weeks. I was training for a marathon and I began to look forward to my long Sunday runs. I got new shoes—shoes made for running. I can remember the first time I ran 10 miles. I was high as a kite, reveling in my accomplishment. I couldn’t really believe that I was able to run that far without stopping.

The best training run I have ever had was one August morning when I stepped outside our house in Trumansburg, New York and ran across the rolling farmland and hills between Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake and ended up 18 miles away in Watkins Glen. Eighteen frickin’ miles! It was amazing. And then that October I ran a full marathon—26.2 miles. Sure, it took four and a half hours, but I did it.

You would think the net effect of having run a marathon would be pretty positive and would last a long time. I would have thought so, too. But you and I would both be wrong. The actual net effect has been one easily predicted by the hedonic treadmill theory.

In the last 10 months I have run four half marathons, one twenty-kilometer race, and one 208-mile relay race through New Hampshire from the mountains to the coast. Yesterday I ran a half marathon in Boston. It was a beautiful morning, I was with friends, and I had decided not to focus on my time but instead to just run at whatever speed felt good and to be happy with finishing.

And yet today, when I went to the Cool Running website to check the results, I had a palpable sense of disappointment when I saw my time. 8 minutes and 50 seconds per mile. Just three months ago I ran a half marathon a full 58 seconds per mile faster. God, sometimes being a human is so stupid. Why can’t I just relish the accomplishment of having run 13.1 miles? It is not easy to run that far—not easy at all.

The odd thing is that while I was running I was truly and fully able to set aside my expectations of finishing in a certain amount of time. I really did simply enjoy the company and the weather and the people on the sidelines and the feeling of moving strongly and confidently in my body through the world. I was happy.

Yet not even 24 hours later, the happiness has faded away and the one feeling I am left with is a vague sense of disappointment. Given its name, it really shouldn’t surprise me that the hedonic treadmill theory applies to my running, but sure enough, it does.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Jack, Part 4--I Love You More

When they got to Muncie it was dawn and a steady snow had been falling for hours. James’s father met them at the station and they piled into his Pontiac for the ride to Grandpa Charlie and Nana’s house. When they got there it was Christmas Eve morning. The tree stood in its place in the corner, but it was bare. The living room, which Jack had never seen before, smelled odd to Jack. He could not quite place the smell, but he knew he liked it, whatever it was.
Nana ran over and wrapped each of them in a hug as they came through the door. She brushed the snow off of their shoulders and their hats and their sleeves, kissed Katherine, kissed James, kissed Jack about fifteen times right on top of the head, and then told them mock-brusquely to take their shoes off before they tracked snow through the entire house. She led them straight through the living room, past the undecorated tree, and into the dining room, where bacon and eggs were waiting for them on the table. That was it! The smell—bacon and Christmas tree melded together. Could any combination even be more incredible?
After breakfast they spent the morning decorating the tree. They popped popcorn to string on a thread, they hung family heirloom ornaments, and they made a paper chain out of construction paper. There was grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch—Jack’s first experience of that particular combination—and then an afternoon spent baking gingerbread cookies. Late afternoon Jack, Grandpa Charlie, and Nana went out to play in the snow.
Christmas Eve dinner was turkey, potatoes, cranberries, and corn washed down with non-alcoholic eggnog. It was a day of firsts for Jack and he went to bed that night reeling with the possibilities. After his bath Nana came in and sat on the edge of his bed. She gave him another peck on top of his wet head and then, almost as an afterthought, she said, “Do you want to hear a story before you fall asleep?”
No shyness. No hesitation at all. “Yes, please!”
“I know a story I used to tell your dad when he was your age. In fact, there was a full five months where he really loved this one—couldn’t get to sleep without it.”
“How old was he then?” asked Jack.
“Well…let’s see...I can picture him there now—right where you are. He had his cowboy pajamas on, so he must have been about five or six. Your age!” Nana said, and she smiled a smile at Jack that was just like the gingerbread.
She asked him, “Do you need some water or anything before I start?”
“Nope—I am ready to listen,” said Jack, snuggling down a little deeper under the comforter. From where his head was, he could see out the window to a streetlight that showed the individual flakes as they drifted down out of the orangey clouds illuminated from below by the lights of Muncie. Once in a while the wind would blow and the descending flakes would swirl and dance in the cone of light visible to Jack.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jack, Part 3--I Love You More

Jack continued to grow, his body fed first by his mother’s milk, then by cereal and eggs and pancakes and hamburgers and milk and a hundred other good old-fashioned solid foods. And by malted milk balls. Jack LOVED malted milk balls. His mind and his spirit continued to grow, too. Fed by the love of his parents and his grandparents, whom he would visit pretty regularly. Oh, and by stories—lots and lots of stories. Katherine’s parents still lived in Mrs. Brock’s apartment over in Brooklyn and it was easy enough to go and see them every weekend.
As is often the case with grandparents, they doted on Jack. Sometimes Katherine was jealous of her own son. Her mom and dad were never very demonstrative or silly with her, yet here they were dressing up in aprons and hats and marching around with wooden spoons and metal pots in a Cook’s Parade. She could not remember them ever once doing something like that with her. Of course, times had been different, and harder, when she was a girl.
James parents lived in Muncie, Indiana so visits from them were a once-a-year occurance. Jack thought of these grandparents, Grandpa Charlie and Nana, as a different sort of relation than his other grandparents—Poppop and Grandma Jean. Though there was one particular Christmas—the Christmas of 1957—when Grandpa Charlie and Nana featured heavily. James had been steadily building up quite a body of work and, cumulatively, his books sold fairly well. The family was managing to save some money.
They decided to use a little of that money to take a trip across the eastern quarter of America on a train to see James’ parents for the holidays. Jack had never been out to Indiana before—Grandpa Charlie and Nana always came to New York to see him. Jack remembered that train trip to this very day. He was thrilled to be getting on the silver train that was hissing and venting little eruptions of steam there at the platform at Penn Station. He felt like a character in one of his mother’s stories. HE was having an adventure like some of them did. In so many of Katherine’s stories a journey turned into an adventure, an odyssey, a quest. In Jack’s mind (and in his heart) magic was always possible whenever you put yourself in motion out in the world.
And he was certainly out in the world. He took his aisle seat on the train and turned to look directly at every other face in that car. A coach class inter-city train car in the North in America in 1957 was a fairly diverse place. There were a few men who were obviously traveling salesmen. There were a couple of families like theirs. There were two soldiers in uniform. There was a black-skinned woman and her daughter, who looked to be about Jack’s age. They were all dressed in what one might call traveling clothes.
People today don’t seem to place much distinction between everyday clothes, work clothes, and traveling clothes. People in the 1950s did. Going across the country on a train was a special occasion for most people and special occasions required special clothes
So there was Jack, in his traveling clothes which looked good to Jack when he saw himself in the mirror, but which were scratchy at the neck and cuffs. As he looked around the little girl six rows ahead looked him directly in the eye and gave him a face that seemed to be asking for something—though what it was Jack had no clue. He smiled and turned away, coloring pink as he did. Katherine saw all of this and wrote some things in a small notebook she always carried in her purse.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Jack, Part Two--I Love You More

James continued to write his books, and, as I said, his books continued to sell in modest amounts. They always received good reviews, but never glowing. When he ran low on ideas, he would simply write a retelling of an old Grimm story or a fable of Aesop’s or even a tale from the Bible. These retellings were fun for James to write and he would often run them by Katherine and Jack before submitting them to his editor. By the time Jack was two he had heard just about every story ever told in one form or another.
The ones he heard from James were always good. There were not the long pauses and gaps that filled Katherine’s stories, as she struggled for direction. But Jack always seemed to prefer Katherine’s tales. Jack could not have put into words exactly why he liked his mom’s stories better than his dad’s. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I can shed a little light on the reasons for his preference.
Katherine had a way of telling a story that cast a spell. When she talked, a net weaved its way around Jack and her and held them in a place outside of the regular world. When James told a story, Jack never forgot that he was in a chair in an apartment in New York City, listening to a story. When Katherine told a story, the world lost form and the words created a new place to temporarily replace this one.
Jack would never had a said it out loud, (he was two, so he COULDN’T have said it out loud), but he preferred his mom’s stories to his dad’s. Don’t get me wrong. He loved them both fully and madly. And he liked his dad’s way of playing on the carpet better. But when it came to stories, he liked the ones told by his mom a little better. Okay—a lot better.

It was about this time that Jack and Katherine started a game they would continue the rest of Katherine’s life. It went like this: Whenever they were saying goodbye, both Jack and Katherine would try to arrange things so that each could be the one to speak last. If, for example, James and Jack were heading out for a Saturday morning at the Central Park Zoo to see Cuzco and all the other animals, Katherine might say, “Bye James. Bye Jack. I love you.” Jack would not reply right away. Instead he would wait until he and his father got to the door of their apartment and as the door was closing behind them he would yell back over his shoulder, “I love you MORE,” and hope that the door would latch before his mom could reply.
Of course, in keeping with the game, Katherine would then run to the bedroom window, throw it open, and lurk in the shadows of the room until she heard James and Jack out on the front stoop. She would slink over to the open window, thrust her head out, yell, “I love YOU MORE,” and then slam the window shut before Jack could respond. The winner was whoever got the last word in. Many was the time the phone would ring while James and Jack were out doing something somewhere in the city. Katherine would pick up the receiver and say, “Hello. MacArthur residence,” only to hear a giggly, “I love you MORE,” practically shouted into the phone, followed by a quick click.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Katherine's Son--Jack, Part I

About ten months after that picture was taken, Katherine and James welcomed Jack into their life. (Notice that I used the singular—“life”--and not the plural “lives.”) Katherine and Jack were so in love and so happy to have found each other that each day they entwined the tendrils of themselves more firmly around the trunk of the other. Being two separate people, of course they had two separate trunks and root systems connecting them to the world.
But all of their new growth was in the direction of the other. Each was a heliotrope and each was also a sun. By the time little Jack was born it was hard to tell where Katherine ended and James began.

It was easy to tell where Jack began and ended. He began at the end that cried and gurgled and screamed when he was hungry. And he ended at the end that emitted some pretty foul substances at disturbingly regular intervals. The distance from one end to the other increased substantially and by the time they celebrated his first birthday, Jack was walking, albeit unsteadily, across the length of the small living room that made up most of the MacArthur family’s apartment.
Jack was cute. If you know babies you know the hidden horrible truth that some babies are ugly. Sure, everyone will say to the parents, “Oh, he is SO cute. He looks just like his father.” Then, on the way out of the house and back down the street those same people will whisper to each other, “Poor kid—he looks just like his dad.” No one said this of Jack. He was a beautiful baby. He shined.
He had that smile of Katherine’s—the one from the wedding picture. But his eyes were entirely untroubled by whatever it was Katherine saw as she looked into their future on that wedding day back in City Hall almost two years before.

Details? You want details? Okay, I will give you some details. (But not too many, mind you. Too many details can get in the way of a good story sometimes.) There was no universal Pre-K in 1952. When a woman had a baby in America in 1952, she quit her job, stayed home, and raised her baby. This is exactly what Katherine did, too. She cleared out her desk at Peabody Publishing and handed the ledger books over to a new accountant—a young man just back from the war in Korea.
Pregnant women sometimes have odd dreams--vivid dreams of giving birth to a monstrosity or of losing their newborn child amongst the cabbages in the grocery store. The dream Katherine had was nowhere near as frightening. She had just one odd dream and it was about the marble that she found in her desk as she made way for the new guy. In the dream she was holding her new baby boy and he was staring at a pendant dangling from a simple black leather string around her neck. The dream was from an outside observer’s point of view so that she could see both herself and her child.
When he let go of the pendant she could see that it was her lucky marble—the one she had gotten in her stocking one Christmas so many years ago.
She could also see the look of pure rapture on her baby’s face. So, near the end of her pregnancy she took the marble to a jeweler and asked him to make it into a simple necklace for her. She put the necklace on that first morning as a stay-at-home mom and it somehow made her feel okay—as if she knew what she was doing.

Back then, the job of the man was to go out into the world and bring back a paycheck. And this is what James did. He continued to write children’s storybooks for Peabody Publishing and these books continued to bring in modest, yet steady, royalties.
While James left their apartment on Mott Street in the lower half of Manhattan and got on the train to head up to Peabody every day, Katherine stayed home with Jack. Katherine loved her Jack more than she thought it possible for anyone to love anyone else.
It scared her sometimes how much and how deeply she felt for this little life. She could never tell James this, but she secretly looked forward every day to his leaving so that she could be alone with Jack. When it was just the two of them, Katherine would tell stories.
Some of them were the stories she used to tell herself back in her undergraduate days as she crossed the bridge back to Brooklyn and her parents’ apartment. Some were her own variations of stories she had read as a girl during her long hours at the public library, reading to stave off the hunger in her stomach. But some of them were new stories—stories Katherine made up on the spot for her audience of one.
And some of them were good. Really good. At first, Jack was too young to have any idea what his mother was saying. But still he followed her with his eyes and smiled when she said something funny, grew wide-eyed when the princess was facing danger, and filled his diaper when the troll menaced the town. There was no way he could know what, exactly, she was saying. But he was his mother’s son and he had the same love of stories she did. He knew the rhythm and meter and pace of a story. He could tell when the words his mother was saying were everyday words, like “let’s see what is in the fridge that we can cook up for Daddy’s dinner”, and when they were special words, like “The king’s wizard sometimes took the form of a rooster and roamed around the town, gathering information.”
As little Jack listened to his mother narrate a tale, his eyes would often focus on the green marble that seemed almost to change color, depending on what was happening in the story. Sometimes it glowed with the menacing light of a tornado sky. Sometimes it danced with the green of a shaft of sunlight slicing through sea water. Sometimes it turned dark like a stand of spruce on a mountainside. It was as if the marble translated the story into a sort of pre-language that didn’t need words for Jack to understand.
The marble took the plot and translated it into pure feeling and Jack ate those feelings up.
Of course, Katherine knew nothing of this. All she knew was that when she was telling a story, Jack was as well-behaved a baby as ever there was. In her heart of hearts, she thought maybe Jack knew what she was saying. In her brain of brains, she knew this was ridiculous. Jack was one year old. How could he possibly know what she was talking about when he didn’t even know any words yet? He didn’t even know his A’s yet, let alone his B’s and C’s. Still, when Katherine told about the kingdom they had created together, Jack locked in on that marble and his face showed an understanding that was unmistakable.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sudbury Sprint Triathlon

Halfway through the final leg of my first triathlon yesterday, a guy four years older than me passed me like I was standing still. Not only was he older than me, but he had started about three minutes after I did and here he was passing me. I didn’t know the guy—had never seen him before in my life—but because of the system the triathlon’s organizers used to monitor participants, I knew that he was 47 and that he had started 348th. I quickly got over the fact that he passed me so easily.

Ready access to the ages of the 500 racers made for some interesting opportunities both before and during the race. In the hour before the race began many of us were hanging around in the pool area, just chatting with friends, stretching, and warming up. I started playing several mental games as I stood there. The first one was to take a good, long look at someone—head to toe—and then try to guess his or her age. With most people I was pretty close, but there was one impressive 62 year-old that looked much closer to 40.

The other, related, game was to find other 43 year-olds in the crowd and then compare myself to them to see if I looked worse, as good as, or better than them on several dimensions. Once I found a 43 year-old, I wouldn’t stop the comparison until I found some body part where I outclassed them. With some of my cohort, this didn’t take long. However, many of those triathletes were pretty buff and for some I had to get all the way down to, “well, my left earlobe is FAR shapelier than his,” before I could move on with a shred of self-esteem intact.
Before the race even started, my ego was tired.

During the race, Erica and I stayed together, along with a third friend of ours, Kerry. In fact, we helped each other through the hard parts of the race. For me and Erica, the hard part was the swim. For Kerry, the start of the run was troublesome. I noticed that each time someone passed us, both Erica and I performed the very same head-and-eye movements. First, we would look at the two-digit age identifier on the calf and then we would scroll up their bodies to find out when they had started. The worst cases were like the one above—a person older than us who had started after us was somehow PASSING us.

But the whole system gave me pause to think. I spent the last mile contemplating what specific number would make the ideal identifier, when combined with age. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone walked around the world with their age written in dark, permanent ink on the back of their right calf? And instead of starting position written on both thighs and both biceps, we could all have some other important number there to allow others to quickly size us up. Could be income. Or weight. Or maybe years of education. The numerical possibilities are numberless.

I.Q.? College G.P.A. ? Credit rating? Bank balance? Home equity? What would it be? When I mentioned to my daughter Isabel that I was writing this piece, I asked for advice on what would be a funny/cute way to end it. What number could I propose we all wear on our skin to tell others about us? She thought for a second and said, “We could all have a number from one to five telling everyone else how good a friend we are.” She got it just right. Nothing else to say.

Katherine's Story, Part 4

Katherine and James were married six months later. It was a small wedding, since neither Katherine nor James knew many people. Her parents were there, of course. And Mrs. Brock, the landlady. And James’s best, (and only), friend in New York—a fellow Peabody employee named Eric Cantrell. Eric was a photographer and he took the only picture taken that day of the newlyweds. There was no such thing as a digital camera in the 1930s. Photography required more stillness, more planning, more patience.
On the surface, Eric had none of the qualities that would seem to be required for a photographer at the time. He was always fidgeting, very impulsive, and entirely impatient…until he had a camera in his hands. His camera worked a kind of magic on him that was utterly remarkable.

Aside to the Reader: I know in my short note to you at the beginning of this tale I said that this book contains no magic, so please do not take me literally here. Eric’s camera did not work any REAL magic on Eric. It was really just the ordinary magic that happens when a person is doing the very thing they were meant to be doing. You may have experienced this “magic” yourself.

Anyway, the only picture taken that day is in black-and-white and it has Katherine in the center with a smile that can only be described as “beaming.” Her eyes are direct and they look right into yours through the years. They seem to carry a secret that not even her smile has been let in on. They seem to somehow know of the hurt and the pain and tears looming not too far off into the future. They know, and yet they shine anyway.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Katherine's Story, Part III

Katherine continued to live with her parents in Brooklyn for more than two years after she graduated and started work at Peabody Publishing. She continued to walk across the bridge every morning and catch the train uptown. Only now, as she rode the train she kept her eyes open for people reading books published by Peabody. She could recognize the books by the ornate capital letter “P” on the spine with ivy curling artfully around it. It gave her a little thrill to know that she worked for the company that made those books possible. She loved the idea that in some miniscule way she helped create those books.
Of course she knew in her heart that she didn’t really have any part in the creation of the stories people read on the train. But that thought was something she managed to avoid looking at too squarely for those first two years at Peabody.
Katherine had a goal. It made her keep her head down, her eyes focused, and her heart closed up tight to the world. She was pleasant enough to people on the train and in the office, but she didn’t make any friends or have any conversations that she found even remotely interesting. Her goal was to save enough money to get her own apartment in Manhattan. Friends would only get in the way of saving money. And, if Katherine were to be fully honest with herself, she might admit that she didn’t want anyone seeing where she lived.
As long as she was aloof at work, no one could get close enough to even want to be friends.

But then of course, all of this changed. It was just like in a story. One day Katherine was sitting at her desk, reading one of Peabody’s newest children’s books, when a man cleared his throat to get her attention. It was her lunch hour and Katherine was of two minds. She didn’t want to be rude, but she also did NOT want to tear her eyes away from the collection of fairy tales she was reading during HER free time. She kept reading and he kept standing there in front of her desk. As she read she noticed the smell of the man’s aftershave lotion. Normally, aftershave lotion made Katherine’s nose twitch. But in this case, it was a very pleasant smell filling her head.
She got to the end of a particularly engaging description of a particularly intelligent and handsome prince when she finally decided that whoever he was standing there at her desk, he wasn’t going to go away without speaking with her.
Katherine looked up and saw before her a man, about 5 feet 11 inches tall, with black hair, oiled and slicked back off his forehead. He had hazel eyes that reminded her of a marble she had gotten in her Christmas stocking one year. It had been her favorite gift and she had carried it in her pocket like a talisman for years. In fact, as he stood there, she remembered that the very same marble was in the top drawer of her desk at that very moment.
He smiled, and the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled in a way that made it clear he smiled a lot.
“Excuse me. I know it’s probably your lunch hour,” he began, “but I just wanted to let you know that I think I got paid too much this month.”
The uniqueness of his problem caught her attention right away—that, and the eyes that seemed to warm her soul just a smidge.
“Paid too MUCH?” Katherine said, somewhat astonished.
“That’s what I said.”
“Explain,” ordered Katherine.
“I am one of the Peabody writers and I think my royalty check is bigger than it ought to be.” Katherine liked the way he cut right to the heart of the matter without a lot of wasted words.
“Name?” she said, automatically adopting his way of communicating.
“MacArthur comma James.”
“Okay,” said Katherine, mentally scanning the alphabetical list of Peabody writers in her head. MacArthur comma James was in the children’s books division and he had four titles to his name. None of them sold particularly well, but all of them sold steadily. Katherine had even read two of his books—both variations on traditional Grimm Brothers stories—and found them to be solid works with not quite the right amount of magic.
She dug the master record book out of her desk and began flipping through to the page reserved for James MacArthur. As she ran her finger down the column showing his royalties she saw that he generally received between three and five dollars a week for his sales. However, the most recent check was for thirteen dollars. She let her eyes slide to the left and saw that there had indeed been a spike in the sales of his latest book, called “The Littlest Llama.”
“It seems, Mr. MacArthur, that you are riding the crest of a llama wave.” Katherine recalled reading in the paper and hearing on the radio that the llama in the zoo at Central Park had given birth to a particularly cute little fuzzball, inciting crowds of parents and children to flock to the zoo. Apparently some of those same families had then been migrating to bookstores to buy “The Littlest Llama.” And some of their dollars had been migrating to the paycheck of Mr. MacArthur.
Katherine explained to Mr. MacArthur, (who insisted she call him James), about his check and its fortuitous connection to the baby llama called Cuzco.
“Well. That explains that. I knew it had to be something. I was hoping maybe people were simply discovering how good my books are…” said James, the second part barely audible.
“Your books are good,” said Katherine, a little bit more vehemently than she had planned on putting it. She then shocked herself by blurting, “Listen, will you have lunch with me tomorrow?”
Now this was at a time when women really didn’t ask men out on dates—especially Katherine. In all her twenty three years of living, she had never even been on one date, let alone been so forward as to ask out a man she didn’t even know. James MacArthur was clearly a little surprised, too. But pleasantly so. The crinkles were back at the corners of his eyes and before he really knew what he was doing, he said, “Of course. And I will supply the vittles.”
“Good. Meet me here at twelve-thirty,” Katherine said, suddenly feeling like she was on the roller coaster at Coney Island right before it crested the highest hill and began its mad gravity-inspired dash down toward the ground. She was both giddy and nauseous, but tried to play it cool.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

2nd Installment

Katherine and her parents lived in Brooklyn and every day she would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and then ride the subway uptown to Columbia. Living in a dormitory at Columbia would have been a lot of fun. There were moments, (or, to be more honest, there were entire weeks), when Katherine could think of nothing but how unfair it was that she had to live with her parents in a three room apartment in Brooklyn while her classmates had the time of their lives in the dorms. Knowing that the handsome boy who sat next to her in her Business Law class and the vivacious girl who sat in front of her in her introductory Accounting class were going to a dance at the Student Union seasoned the already bitter taste in her mouth with an extra dose of bile.
She never would have said it out loud---probably never would have even formed the words in the privacy of her own brain---but there were times when she hated her parents. Or, to be more accurate, there were times when she hated the life she and her parents had to live.
She knew it couldn’t be any other way, since her father was a butcher and her mother took in laundry from the neighbors, but she wanted to know what it was like to move through the world the way some of her classmates did. They seemed to drip CLASS. They never tripped over a curb or laughed too loud or wore coats with frayed hems. Katherine loved her parents, but during her long walks over the bridge on the way back to Brooklyn at the end of a long day of classes and a shift working in the library, she would often tell stories to herself.
And her stories often featured a girl who was taken from her family at birth and placed with a peasant family for safekeeping until her TRUE NATURE could be revealed and she could claim her rightful place in the world. But no matter how lost she got in these stories, they always ended at the stoop in front of her family’s third floor walk-up when the landlady, Mrs. Brock, would hack out a hoarse, “Welcome home, Sweetie,” between deep drags on her filterless Camel cigarette.

If Katherine herself had written this book, she would have had her protagonist meet another student working in the library. He would have turned out to be European royalty, pretending to be a commoner in order to escape political intrigue at home. They would fall in love, be separated through a tragic misunderstanding, and then, improbably, reunite at the end of the book.
But, sadly, Katherine did not write this book. I did. And I am not prone to fantasy. I believe in the facts as they are, not in fantasy as we would like it to be.
So, instead of meeting an undercover prince Katherine didn’t meet anyone. She did, however, work very hard and learn a LOT about Accounting. She loaded her schedule as full as the Dean would allow and finished her degree in two and a half years. She passed the CPA exam on her first try and New York State officially declared Katherine a Certified Public Accountant.
She interviewed for several jobs and eventually found work at a large publishing company. To Katherine, it seemed like a good fit. She could spend her days around stories and writers and words and books, even though her job had much more to do with numbers than with words.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Feet to the Fire

A long while ago I told my daughter a story. It took a few weeks and when it was over, we were both taken slightly aback. What took us both by surprise was how good the story was. It was one we collaborated on--stopping sometimes mid-narrative to plot out the next bit of rising action--and as such it is my daughter's story as much as it is mine. We looked at each other and said, "we should write that one down." When we got home we got out of the car and right away jumped on the computer to write down the plot before it faded away.

I then got some of the story written. But not much. And it has languished on my desktop ever since. But I don't want it to languish. I really do believe that it is a good story worth telling. So, I am asking for your help. I want you to hold my feet to the fire.

I am going to post the story, beginning to end, as I write it. I hope you will comment on what you read and let me know when it has been too long between postings. So, here goes:

Note to the Reader:

If you are looking for a story with wizards or faeries or prophesies and other worlds, this is not the book for you. There are many fine books with those ingredients and I am sure the local librarian or bookstore clerk can direct you to some fine choices from these categories. This book would not be in that particular section of the store or library. This story is set firmly in this world and the people in it are flesh and blood and mortal. (far too mortal) They have no spells, no magic charms, no cloaks of invisibility, no magical powers.
Unless, of course, you consider the power of love to be magical. If so, then don’t put this book down quite yet. There just might be something here for you, after all.

by Chris and Isabel Dawson

Part One


Chapter One

Katherine loved stories almost more than life itself. As a child she used to tell people, “stories are like oxygen to me—if I don’t get them, I will die.” People always thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t. She was born at a time when people were out of work, banks were failing, and stories were far more plentiful then jobs or cash, though most of them were sad.
Her family made it through the hard times, realizing that they didn’t really have to be afraid. They could simply decide to make do and get by and hope for the best while preparing for the worst. All through that time Katherine fed herself at the New York Public Library. The more words she took in about magic and princesses and trolls and spells, the less room there was in her stomach for hunger, at least temporarily.
By the time Katherine was old enough to think about finding a job to help her family, the country had won a war and turned a corner and there were more jobs to be had. But her parents had a different idea. What they learned from the hard times was that everything you own can be lost or taken away much more quickly than seems even possible. They decided for Katherine that she would go to college. When they told her this, she asked why. “Because no one can ever take from you what you know.”
That night in bed, when she had time to think about this new door opening where she had previously seen only wall, it made sense to Katherine. People and Depressions might be able to take from you what you own, but they can never take from you what you know. She decided as she fell asleep that she would study English Literature. She dreamt that night of trolls and libraries and golden keys.

At breakfast her father told her that she would be studying Accounting. Now that people were making money again, they would need someone to help them keep track of it all. And Katherine would be the one. She would be a Certified Public Accountant and once she was, no one would be able to take that away from her.
This was a disappointing blow to Katherine. It had been only a day since she had begun to think of herself as an English major, but she had liked the feel of it, the way it sounded in her ears, the way it had rolled out of her mouth as she whispered her side of an imaginary conversation in bed the night before, “My name? Katherine. Yes! I am a student at Columbia. How did you guess? I’m majoring in English Literature—with a concentration on the Romantics.”

“I am an Accounting major” tasted bitter on her tongue.