Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Glamorous Booksigning Life

Ah, the glamorous life of a writer. I’m “on tour” with my latest book, which means I’m signing at some bookstores, “chatting” on a few weblogs, speaking at a handful of writers’ conferences, and spending all my advance money making cute little bookmarks as bribes for potential readers.

If you haven’t done a book signing recently, here’s how they typically go: You cold-call booksellers, ask if they’ll host a signing for your upcoming “bestseller,” and show up at the appointed time to sign autographs for your adoring fans. At least, that’s the idea. Here’s what really happens: You email the booksellers asking for a signing because there’s not enough alcohol in Danville to provide the courage you need to actually speak to them, certain they will laugh in your face at this ludicrous idea.

When a bookseller surprises you by asking when you’d like to come in for an event, you blurt out a date, which has already been booked by JD Salinger or JK Rowling. He counters with only date he has left this year and you gratefully accept, only later realizing that it’s the same time as the Super Bowl, the last episode of Gray’s Anatomy, or Christmas.

You send out handcrafted invitations to 200 of your closest friends, including the grocery clerk, the five-year-old boy next door, and the new neighbors you haven’t even met yet. You email the rest of your fans, creating an eye-catching flyer that doesn’t convert on anyone else’s computer and reads: “*^$&((%##& *&$^#*&^($($*(!”

You bribe your future readers to the event by promising them an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet and free bookmarks, then search the knock-off stores for a “literary outfit” that makes you look like JK Rowling. You realize after you purchase it you look more like Lady Voldemort so you change into a T-shirt featuring an ironed-on copy of your book cover, pull on a pair of black jeans to hide your less-than-literary fat, and skip the fake glasses.

When it’s “book-signing time,” you arrive at the bookstore to stage your themed display. You find yourself at the kiddy-sized table in the back, next to the Books That Never Sell. You sit down and try to look busy by constantly rearranging your book stack, while shoppers give you a wide berth and never make eye contact. Finally someone approaches your table, smiles, and you get your Mont Blanc pen ready to sign a heartfelt passage, personalized to the reader. That’s when she asks you where the restrooms are located and you point with your outrageously expensive pen.

Suddenly you’re flooded with table-visitors, all asking questions like, “Do you have any books on bird-watching?” “Have I ever heard of you?” and “What’s Sue Grafton really like?” Between “customers” you browse the bookstore shelves and end up buying more books than you sell. You wonder why you bother to write books that nobody reads, and ask the bookseller if he needs any part-time help, since it’s time you got a “real job.”

Just as you’re packing up, someone approaches and asks if your latest book is out. You smile proudly, point to the stack of unsold books on the table, and give her your well-practiced pitch: “It’s a kind of Gone with the Wind meets ‘King Kong’ set in Fresno, featuring a love story between a feisty former nun and a muscle-bound rodeo clown, who overcome a nuclear war, barely escape death by quicksand, and achieve happiness as Telemarketers.” She puts your book down, says she only reads chick-lit cookbooks, and heads for the free snacks.

Hey, don’t feel sorry for me. I love every minute of it. Try to come to my next signing. There will be free snacks...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Danville vs. Seattle

Life is slow in Danville this summer. At least for me. At least compared to life at Seattle Grace. Seems like all I’ve been doing is watching videos of old TV shows. Like “Grey’s Anatomy.”

I’m not usually a big TV watcher (yeah, sure), but I often have it on for white noise while I work. Now that the kids are gone, I need it to replace all their screaming and fighting. Helps me concentrate.Sure, sometimes I watch a few intellectually challenging shows. Like “So You Think You Can Dance” (ask me anything about Paso Doble). But the main reason I don’t get attached to shows is simple: They get cancelled.

“Studio 60” with Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford? I loved that show. Now it’s gone. Remember “Surface,” the one about aliens coming to town (or was it “Invasion?”) Anyway, they were both cancelled. This year I got hooked on “Jericho,” where Johnny Depp-look-alike, Skeet Ulrich, tries to save his town after bombs destroy the rest of the country. Cancelled. At least until a bunch of fans sent nuts to the network as a form of protest. (Not me. Cashews are expensive.)

If you ever want a show to go off the air, ask me to watch it. The shows that get renewed are the ones I miss. “American Idol?” I can’t tell Kelly Clarkman (sic) from Simon Cowbell (sic). I missed the boat on “The Office” too. Every week over Family Sunday Dinner my kids discussed the latest episode, while I tried to chat about “Knights of Prosperity” (cancelled).

Desperate to be included, I finally joined “The Office” midseason. Now I have a crush on Dwight Schrute. (Where can I get one of his bobbleheads?)“CSI”? Missed it. “My Name is Earl”? Nope. “Lost”? Too much like “Gilligan’s Island.” But the worst mistake of all was my hunch that “Grey’s Anatomy” was just another “E.R.”/”Scrubs”/”House” (another hit show I managed to miss) with a bunch of angst-ridden interns who accidentally kill innocent patients. One episode was enough to give me an undiagnosed illness.

With summer slowing to a crawl and nothing new on TV (aside from Dr. Phil: “Your Lesbian Grandmother is Sleeping with Your Terrorist Boyfriend – and YOU DON’T CARE!”), I broke down and rented the first two seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” OMG, I’m totally hooked. Seriously. Meredith, Christina, Izzy and George are like my new best friends. McDreamy is well, dreamy. And I even like Bailey and Burke.

I want to move to Seattle, go to med school, and hold a live bomb inside a chest cavity so it doesn’t blow up – until the cute bomb squad guy shows up. I want to discuss the relationships between Meredith and Derrick, Meredith and George, George and Callie, George and Alex (whoops), and Meredith and all the men in Seattle.

But once again I’m lagging. Everyone else has moved on. They’re all watching something called “Ugly Betty.”Oh well, wait until the new season begins. I’ll be on top of the best shows this year. Can’t wait to try “Farmer Wants a Wife” (a group of city girls move to the country to compete for the heart of one farmer), “Kitchen Nightmares” (hot tempered Hell’s Kitchen chef goes on the road to help restaurants in crisis), and “Lady or a Tramp” (a group of rude and crude party girls are sent to charm school to learn how to behave like ladies.) Plus that show based on those Geico cavemen.

I may live in Danville, but thanks to my TV, I can go to Seattle Grace, Wisteria Lane, and what’s left of Jericho any time I want.

Tahoe Vacation

I spent New Year’s Eve in Lake Tahoe, along with most of the population of Danville and perhaps the rest of Northern California. If you’ve ever been up there during the holidays, you know how crowded it gets. And how cold. And how far, far away from home it is. For me, these are all issues I had to deal with, since I have a touch of Enochlophobia (fear of crowds), Frigophobia (fear of cold), and Agoraphobia (fear of leaving a safe place).

It seemed like a good idea at the time—that being after a couple of glasses of wine. We felt lucky to book a “rustic cottage” along the north shore, practically the only accommodations available during the New Year’s weekend rush hour. We should have known that the “cottage” would be smaller than a walk-in closet and more “rustic” than the homemade playhouse in our backyard. That was also an issue for me, since I also have a touch of Claustrophobia (fear of small spaces) and Ataxophobia (fear of rustic places). At that point, all I needed were a couple of clowns, (Coulrophobia), a big fat spider (Arachnophobia) and a dead squirrel (Necrophobia), and I’d have had to relocate to the nearby hospital (which also would have been an issue since I have a touch of Nosocomephobia.)

While I may be exaggerating a little about the phobias, I’m not exaggerating about the size of the cottage. The double bed filled the room, leaving little space for the shower stall, which was the size of a cupboard. It could only fit either a human being or a bottle of shampoo—not both. Didn’t matter. I couldn’t raise my arms above my shoulders to wash my hair in the tight space. The thermostat offered two settings: freezing or roasting.

As for the rustic amenities, there was one overhead light with 10-watt bulb, one bedside lamp with a five-watt bulb for reading, and a TV that mostly featured reruns of “Law and Order: Year One” and “The Pelican Brief” in Spanish. The self-labeled “resort” promised Internet service, but the connection kept shutting off in the middle of my search for various phobia spellings.

While most people were in Tahoe to ski, snowboard, and snowmobile, we came to celebrate a relative’s milestone birthday and watch our grandson’s first experience in real snow. However, like his grandmother, Bradley seemed to have Chionophobia (fear of snow). He didn’t care for all that white, cold stuff. Nor did he didn’t care for the snow boots, mittens, or padded snowsuits. And he especially didn’t want to slide on a slippery saucer. Maybe he got a heads up when I did the splits in my pink Uggs the first time I stepped on the snow.

My mini-vacation to the snow went downhill, so to speak, from there. Finally we packed up our suitcases, checked the “Beat the traffic” site for the best route home, set the GPS to “Danville,” and took off, leaving friends, relatives, and Northern California’s most beautiful natural resource behind.

Still, I was glad to come home, even to burst solar panels, a flooded backyard, and a raccoon break-in (they ate all my Christmas chocolates!) Best of all, my phobias are cured! Except for Oeno-rusti-cotta-chiono-phobia (fear of drinking wine and then booking a rustic cottage in the snow), of course.

Retirement Dreams

I don’t know how you retired people manage. My husband has been out of work for a couple of days, due to the weather, and I’ve already asked him to find his own apartment.

How did it come to this? I remember, as a young bride, resenting the fact that he had to go to work every day and we couldn’t be together 24/7. Funny what 37 ½ years of marriage does to a couple.

The first day home, after reading everything in the morning paper from the front page dateline to the last Frys ad, he hovered over my shoulder as I worked on my column and asked the classic question, “Whatcha doin'?” Odd, since he’s never been particularly interested in my writing. That’s how bored he was. I suggested he finish one of the projects he’d abandoned over the past two decades, such as changing a light bulb, figuring he should keep up his skills, since he’s an electrician. Or maybe he could clean out his closet and get rid of worn-out T-shirts that read, “Impeach Nixon” and “First Annual Devil Mountain Run.” Or how about getting that condemned backyard playhouse up to code before our grandson hired a personal injury attorney.

Moments after I began listing all the things we need to have done around here, he switched on the TV and surfed nearly 200 channels until he found a must-see show on the History Channel called, “Modern Marvels: Distilleries.” Then, over a beer, he got out a bunch of fake paperwork he found in his closet, spread it all over the kitchen table, and occasionally ruffled a paper when I turn to check on him.

When I called his bluff and asked him what he was “working” on, he gave his standard answer: “Taxes.” He always says “taxes” when he wants to stop a conversation. He knows that if I say anything more, he’ll give his usual speech: “Well, if you didn’t spend so much money, we wouldn’t have any taxes.” Inevitably, it’s all my fault.

After more shuffling of papers, he soon had several mountains of receipts, checks, and bills strewn about the table, barely leaving enough room for his three TV remotes, his beer, and the leftover Halloween candy. I suggested that, instead of keeping his tax materials in a plastic Target bag, he enter them into the computer like other people so the entire process is easier at tax time. He said he couldn’t find the TurboTax program I bought him last year or the Quicken program I got him this year but he planned to find them soon and get organized.

Unable to take any more of this, I headed out to pick up a DVC schedule, hoping he might sign up for a mini-class like “What To Do With Your Life When You’re Out of Work For a Few Days” or “How to Keep From Annoying Your Wife When You’re Home All Day.” When I returned, I found him lying on the couch killing robots with lightning bolts, racking up the top score against a bunch of nine-year-old competitors.

At that point I sat back down at my computer to finish my column, which would practically be the sole support of the family until his work picked up again, and wondered what I was going to write about next week, after I’d murdered him with one of his own Xbox cords. I do hate to lose a good source of material.

All the World's a Playground

Was it Shakespeare who once said, “All the world’s a playground…” Or maybe I’m thinking of the parody quote by Weird Al Yankovich. Anyway, whoever said it, it’s a spot-on metaphor for our little world of Danville—when you’re three years old.

No matter where you go or what you do, when you’re three, everything is a playground. Take going out to dinner, for example. Before we had kids, eating in a restaurant in Danville was a simple pastime for us. We’d slip into designer chairs at our favorite haunt, order a couple of glasses of Spanish wine, peruse the tempting menu, and settle into pithy conversations about credit card debt.

When we had kids, we tried to continue the weekly ritual, but when our three-year-old son Matt learned how to arch his back and slip out of the high chair, we pretty much stuck to pizza parlors and fast-food restaurants from then on.

It wasn’t until the kids moved out that we were able to return to restaurants that didn’t have video games along the back wall and plastic menus that came with a side of crayons. Lately we’ve been meeting our extended family—including our two young grandsons—at local restaurants. My husband Tom and I go early to secure a table for the growing numbers, but once we mention we’ll need a highchair, we’re seated in a dark back corner.

While we wait for the others, we order a bottle of economical Chianti, (supersize it, please), and try to drink as much as possible before the troops pull in. When the rest of the gang finally arrives (Luke had to finish his nap, Bradley had to finish his Wii game), we attempt to seat the three year old in the high chair, but Bradley prefers a real chair now, so the high chair turns into a catchall for purses, toys, blankets, diaper bags, and already-been-chewed bread.

The restaurant quickly becomes a playground for Bradley, who prefers bouncing on the seat, crawling under the table, and running out to watch the chefs prepare the meal than sitting, chatting, or waiting for the food to arrive. I don’t blame him. There’s just so much to do in a restaurant when you’re three besides eat. When the food arrives, we order another bottle of wine and chug it down while we swallow our food whole. During dinner Bradley plays with his mother’s iPhone (which he operates better than most adults), eats the tops off all the garlic bread slices, and entertains us with his musical repertoire—the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, the Hamster Dance, and a couple of songs he made up.

When the check arrives, we all take a deep breath and wait for indigestion to settle in while Bradley plays a drum solo on the empty plates using his silverware, stacks the sugar packets into a tower, and waves in collusion to a kid at the next tableLike I said—and perhaps Shakespeare before me—“All the world’s a playground…” if you’re a kid. Unfortunately, if you’re an adult, you only get to watch.

A Good Night's Sleep

I have a feeling my husband and I were the last people on the planet still sleeping in a waterbed into the 21st century (except Berkeley residents, of course.) Tom and I got married at the end of the 60s, and as poser Hippies, we were only into the things that made us look hip. We wore bellbottoms, hung Madras sheets on the wall, and were the first on our block—perhaps town—to buy a waterbed. Our friends used to come over to marvel at this brave new sleeping product, while our parents just shook their heads, made “What if it pops?” jokes, and gave the whole hippie-water-bed-thing six months. Not ones to give up on a fad too quickly, we were still sleeping on that floatation device nearly 38 years later.

For those who had one, you know: a waterbed is comfortable, warm, and the kids love to roll around on it. But with three cats, we knew the bed wouldn’t last forever. After patching the same hole half a dozen times with half a dozen types of tape and glue, we had to accept the fact that the waterbed was sinking fast. Now what? Would we get another waterbed—did they even make them anymore? Or would we finally conform and go with a “normal” mattress? The last time we checked—38 years ago—mattresses only went for a few hundred dollars, so we decided to check out what was new in bedding, and see if there was anything remotely comfortable that we could sleep on for the next 38 years.

With a list of the “discount mattress” stores in hand, we headed for the closest one. I hadn’t seen so many mattresses since summer camp—and they all looked alike. I mean, a bed is a bed. What would we judge it on? The pretty swirls sewn onto the top of the mattress? How high off the ground it was? What color of white would look best under all of our colorful sheets and blankets? The salesman moseyed over, sensing we were wicked-smart buyers who didn’t fall for the first pitch we heard. After a brief, over-my-head explanation of the various types of coils, springs, and stuffing stuff, we told him our needs: Tom wanted firm, I wanted soft. That would shake him up a bit, Mr. Smooth Salesman.

“Lie down,” he said, indicating a bed nearby. We did as he instructed. “What do you think?” he said. “It’s fine,” I replied, keeping my poker face. After all, it was just a bed. I’d be asleep most of the time while using it so what did it really matter? “Now try this one,” he said. We did.

OMG. It was the perfect ratio of hard-to-soft to please both of us. I felt like I was lying on cotton candy stuffed with marshmallows on top of puffy clouds. I didn’t know lying down could feel this good. We looked at each other and said, “We’ll take it.” And then we spotted the pricetag. The one we wanted “started” at three grand!Feeling as if a cloud had been pulled out from under my feet, I wondered what had happened to the cost of sleeping in the past 38 years. Did Hillary Clinton have plans in her national budget to do something about it if she became President?

After the salesman whispered his final offer of a “manager’s-special, deep-discount, today-only, sale price,” we bought the bed. Plus new sheets, blankets, comforter, skirt, and matching throw pillows. We hope to get a good night’s sleep soon. It’s not a leaky waterbed that’s keeping us up at night—it’s that outstanding bill we owe the mattress people.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Scrap Happy

My daughter-in-law Sue is a “cropper.” If you don’t know what a cropper is, you aren’t one of the 25 million people in the United States who scrapbook. And I’m pretty sure all 25 million attended the Scrapbook Expo at the Pleasanton Fairgrounds last weekend. Make that 25 million and one. I was there too.

My latest hobby, scrapbooking, is not a whim like my other hobbies—collecting Italian Charms, crocheting mufflers, or raising children. According to statistics, “scrapping” is the fastest growing hobby in America, second only to collecting knock-off purses. The average “cropper” now spends hundreds of hours working on scrapbooks instead of making dinner or cleaning house. And she spends nearly $2,000 a year in tools and supplies. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what she once spent for shoes.

The most popular themes for scrapbooks are cats, with dogs a close second. For your cat scrapbook you’ll need cat decorated paper, cat paw stampers, cat catch phrases like “My Cat Can Whoop Your Dog’s Butt,” and hundreds of candid shots of your cat’s daily life—mostly sleeping or licking herself. Other popular themes include “My Vacation, “My Wedding,” “My Honeymoon,” and “My First Baby,” (second babies have a scrapbook but there’s nothing in it, and third babies don’t even get the book.) After those basics, croppers really have to brainstorm to come up with other themes to continue their habit—“My Trip to the Grocery Store,” “My Grandson’s New Potty,” and “My Husband’s Favorite TV Shows.”

If you’d like to join me in my new hobby, just clear out one of your bedrooms (move all your kids into one room), and set up your Crop Shop. Then fill every nook and cranny with organizers of all sizes to hold your crop crap. At the Expo, I found tons of goodies to help “enable” my “addiction”—“antique” ink to “distress” paper, stampers featuring everything from animals to things that start with the letter Z, hole punches that make hearts, stars, even dog bones, and stencils featuring every holiday from Christmas and Halloween to Groundhog and Boxing Day. My favorites are the phrase books with quotes like, “Been there, done that, scrapped a page about it,” “Don’t Worry, Be Scrappy,” “Born to Crop, Not Mop!” and “Nothing Stops a Cropper, Not Even a Paper Cut.”

Sue came home from the Expo with armloads of her incredible creations. She can scrap anything from a cardboard box to a paper bag, and turn it into a work of art. I’ve tried to copy her designs, but I usually end up with antiqued fingertips, stickers stuck to my clothes, and a scrapbook that looks like my three-year-old grandson’s artwork.

I asked Sue how she and her friend Robyn Frendberg became addicted to scrapbooking. Sue said, “I started scrapbooking when my son Brad was born. (No, he was not named after the scrapbooking embellishments called “brads.”) I was passionate about preserving his memories, and I needed that creative outlet as a stay-at-home mom. Some people have a perception that scrapping is frivolous, but for me it’s an art form.”

“I tried scrapbooking several years ago,” Robyn added, “but I never really had time for it. Then when my son was born three years ago, I pulled out my supplies. I have thousands of pictures of Josh, who changes nearly every day, and I’m motivated to scrapbook his adventures. And after chasing a preschooler around all day, I find scrapbooking therapeutic.”

I could go on about my new passion, but I’ve already broken a basic cropping code: “What Happens at Crop, Stays at Crop!”