Author Archives: teresafannin

The Fourth

Today we celebrate our independence. Our country’s birthday. But it wasn’t. The declaration wasn’t even signed this day, I believe the truth is, it was read this day. It’s not like there was this nine month growing from seed to country and then Happy Birthday, you are a country.

This was a process, long, contentious, war-wearying, irrational while yet being the most brilliant, most rational, most elegant solution to government that anyone had ever seen and will likely see again. There is no country on this planet that has been granted the freedoms and the opportunities that are available here. A wonder of wonders for two hundred forty one years.

Today we are divided not just politically but culturally and emotionally because of that WeThe People document and the constitution which did not come into existence until later. My American history is a bit rusty. Not my favorite historical period, truth be told, I have always found it burdened with too many overtones of emotional response, this is my country. It is hard to separate my pride and glee that I was lucky enough to be born here, grow up here, work here, live here.  And, whenever I travel, now or in the past, I am always stuck by the fact that this is where I want to be. Living abroad was an interesting idea, but not one I would take seriously. That is just me.

In the seventies, during the Vietnam war, it was ‘love it or leave it,’ an extreme sentiment to be sure, and not one I agreed with. Because of, maybe in spite of this sentiment, it feels like we have spent the past forty years trying to be more like everyone else, Europe, especially. In my research in the colonial period of Africa, I find that Eurocentrism so strange. It is a view that Europeans are right, they are perfect and the rest of us, from the Americas to the East and the Mideast  to the Africans, are all just slightly less; undereducated, under civilized, and undergoverned. The change in political parties running the US government can be seen as a repudiation;  that many are not willing to abdicate their inalienable rights to a political elite in Washington. That we want to be less governed. We are not undereducated, but perhaps not well taught. Not undercivilized, but civilized differently.

I find it to be unconscionable that some may want to deny what are my inalienable rights for a supposed, in their discretion, a greater good. My rights are not subject to anyone else’s suppositions!  I am not a revolutionary, never could be. Well, that is wrong, I could be persuaded, not sure what I could do at this point, but….

Today, in honor  of all those who fought with word and deed, and those who fought  with gun and sword, who believed all those long years ago, that humans were and are able to think for themselves and to govern themselves with enlightenment, facility and courage, we owe ourselves and our children better than what we  have now.

This is about me, and you, my family, and yours. This is about a country that was founded on the basic truth of acceptance. Acceptance that this is a just and viable form for govenering a free people.

More than happy birthday, thank you.

Magic

I’ve been to the Magic Castle. Nope, have no clue how they do it. I don’t watch ‘behind the scenes’ shows. I don’t want to read blogs on the main characters. Or how the actors live. I grew up in Los Angeles. Went to school with children and grandchildren of ‘those Hollywood’ folk. There was no paparazzi. There was no stalking. They were just ordinary people with a job in the movies.

Hmmm…do I believe in Magic? Sort of. Yes, that wand would be cool. Yes, that spell book would come in handy. Who wouldn’t want all of that? Just a wave here, a snap of a fingers, a few words there and, bob’s your uncle, BAM! Done.

Some say magic is to some, what science is to others. Would I use magic? Probably no. It feels like it we don’t have it because it is too easy. But I do know magic.  I’ve been a reader since forever. I’ve been to places that no plane, train or ship could go. I’ve seen worlds that are too horrible to contemplate, or are too much fun to miss, or are just downright lovely to spend time in. Reading is magic! That is what I am looking to create.

I think of those ‘behind the scenes’ shows and wonder if anyone would be as excited to see a writer shaping a story? Creating a world?  You create a character. You give him/her life, foibles, obstacles. You provide family, homes, towns. You record their thoughts, ambitions, musings. So, yes, I do believe in magic, but not the kind with a wand or a spell book.

Because writing is hard. In nonfiction it is research, read, write, revise. Research, read, write, revise. Sigh.

I’m at that middle of a narrative nonfiction that is a slough. The writing is hard because the subject is hard. While it has been discussed in very academic circles, in MG/YA, not so much. I’ve got to get in some information. Yes, it’s important. Can it be boring? Can it difficult to translate for high school kid? Yes.

I’m sort of at that place where I know what comes after, I know how the narrative continues, but this one place! THIS. ONE. PLACE. Sigh!

Yes, it would be a miracle. And I’m letting it block me. And so, I think I will put in my draft ‘something happens here’ and move on.

Is that a good choice? I have no idea. My goal is to finish this narrative by the end of summer. So I have a couple of months. But time does fly. As if by Magic!

 

Love

Love can be wielded like a cudgel. There is the commercial Love has no Labels. Love is about diversity and inclusion. From the my Baltimore Catechism we learned of the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity; faith in our God, hope in the promise of heaven, and charity which is benevolent, disinterested, and generous, bringing forth friendship and communion. Most say Faith, Hope and Love. But no. Charity– ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ Open, sacrificial, giving, no strings, no tag lines.

Recently there was a TED talk by a Dr. Mary Donohue, a ‘preeminent keynote speaker on multigenerational workplace’.  Dr. Donohue’s TED talk is about the ways in which the other generations communicate enabling one generation to talk to the other so, in her words “work doesn’t suck!”  She uses a phrase like ‘conversation clever,’ describing the generations as builders, doers, adapters, brilliant and then neatly goes on to prove each point with very commercial examples. Sigh. Her talk is clever, practiced, polished and gives each generation something to like about itself and dislike about the others. Supposedly this will help communication but I don’t think it will advance love.

The way we use love  in a commercial campaign is about the same. Slick, practiced, polished and neatly pigeonholed to show it is all right for same sex love, to love a sibling who is disabled, to love one of another ethnicity. And I get it. I don’t think that is the love that will save the planet–politically or culturally.

In my faith Charity is the greatest of them all. In this world Truth is the greatest of them all.  There is the ideal that  love will solve our problems. I think of a banner my sister gave me while in college. We laughed about it because it is so real, so true. It is easy to say that love will conquer all. But no. Not really. It won’t conquer. It can’t even alleviate the distress. Just look at our national politics and all who say that they only want everyone to love one another. Do we see everyone as willing to be  ‘benevolent and open’?

I can say I love everyone. Love is so much easier. But truth, truth is the coin of love, it is what makes love potent, desirable, unshakable. Truth is harder than love because you may have to admit to a lie, one that may have protected you, that made you look good, that served your interest.

Why this interest in truth?

In the middle grade mysteries I write, while love is the emotion that drives the character, it is the truth that finds the killer. A character can grow in love, but it is in finding the truth that lets the main character understand and be ready to take responsibility, to grow up. Putting  together means, motive and opportunity and identifying the killer is to find the truth. Only truth breaks through.

In nonfiction it is the weeding out the propaganda, the bias, the self-interest, both in studying the historical figure and in assaying the author. In nonfiction, with a historical perspective, truth can be victim to the sham of love. It is the sham of love that  wrapped a whole people allowing them to  suffer totalitarianism, brutality and oppression for decades. Only truth will break through.

 

Massive Fail

I clearly remember reading Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. The basic story is that Danny really doesn’t want to do his homework. He and his mom live with Professor Bullfinch who is building a computer for NASA. As I recall after the Professor explains the machine to Danny, he gets together with his friends Joe and Irene and they decide to use the computer to do their homework. Do I remember all the ins and outs of the story? No. I remember that once it was found out, Danny and his friends were in trouble. There were consequences. However, I clearly remember the Professor suggesting that actually there was no harm, no foul. Why? Because in order to program the computer to do their homework, Danny et al had to learn the material and then figure out how to input and make it come out right. The lesson that I took away was that there was NO easy WAY to get around doing homework. Like it or not. Do well at it or not. It was a necessary evil of the education system and someday I would see a benefit.

The story was written in the late 50’s, I was twelve. I think I got it from the Scholastic Book Fair as it came through Villa Cabrini. I still have a number of the books I got. I was more a library person, because I went through books so quickly and I am not a re-reader. EVER.

Fast forward to today. Digital libraries allow me to read whatever whenever. I love it. Trawling through the NC Digital Library I came across Dan Gutman’s The Homework Machine  and I thought wow, how cool. But how would it be different? Because today computers are big and small and ubiquitous. And children, from my two year old grands on up, find nothing strange in pictures on a small 2 inch by four inch screen, and smile automatically when a phone is held up near their face. We Google everything when we are at a loss. We don’t use calculators. We do research in bytes. Yep, it’s different.

The story is written as an after-the-fact testimony of events leading up to the discovery of the ‘creation’, really programing and use of the homework machine in completing the homework assignment of four kids. Benton has programmed his computer to scan homework assignments [this is fifth grade] and then print the answers in a simulation of his own handwriting. Ergo, he never does homework, this allows him to work on projects more suited to his high intellect and interest. Reclusive tho he is, he does become friends with his seatmates and eventually tells them of his homework machine. Pretty soon they are all using it. They love it, they have more free time after school, they are getting good grades, they are and aren’t bonding as a group. But importantly, the adults think they are doing just fine and no one seems to question this about face for two of the most challenged students in this group of four, Sam and Kelsey.

Now all the time I’m reading this I’m trying to figure out what gives here, where does this story go?  The teacher is a new teacher, all unicorns and rainbows about how wonderful the students are, how great it is that her desire to have Benton have friends is actually working. How the whole class stands behind Sam when his Dad dies in the middle east. And even though there is some mention of her talking to the more seasoned teachers, when she follows the advice she is clumsy about following through.  SPOILER ALERT. In the end the kids get caught but at the end of the year! So this is a long, long time, the entire fifth grade.  The parents take some of the blame [we were happy Benton had friends]. The teacher takes some of the blame [I should have recognized sooner that something different was taking place]. The kids appear to know that they were cheating [at one point Judy, when she thinks they will be caught, talks about how this may be morally wrong]. They threw the computer into the Grand Canyon [their only real punishment was that they had to go to the bottom of the canyon and pick up all the pieces.] They lied to the principal. Additionally, they were watched by a man who wanted to exploit their intelligence and their talent, well, Benton’s. They opened a door to a total stranger and let him in the house.

Here is where I think this book is a massive fail, MASSIVE. Sam and Kelsey failed a comprehensive test at the end of the year after turning in perfect homework assignments all year long. Even Judy, the second brightest, gets a C.  There are no, NO, consequences–No talk of summer school. No talk of the fact that they just blew off fifth grade. No talk about what they DON’T KNOW!!!

Unlike the book of the 1950’s, this homework machine becomes an AI [so we are led to believe] and, according to the kids, must be destroyed, hence, the tossing in the Grand Canyon. Yes, the teacher was stupid–giving a really bad name to incoming teachers–and yes, the parents gave far too much latitude to the students–even in the 50s when we were allowed more freedom than today’s kids not sure we would have been able to pull off this stuff about school-school was important. The path to success. Teachers were believed way, way, way before the kid. These are not fifth graders [dating, holding hands, ‘lovey dove’???]  and if they are, we as a country are in far more trouble than I thought.  The end?

BRENTON DAMAGATCHI, GRADE 5 I opened the door. What else could I do? The man was just standing there.

JUDY DOUGLAS, GRADE 5 Basically, the guy wanted Brenton to help him trick kids. He wanted Brenton to spread the word that certain products were cool, so his clients could make more money. I didn’t think it was very nice and I told him so.

BRENTON DAMAGATCHI, GRADE 5 I thought it over. I told the guy I’d like to go into business with him. Judy was really mad. Then I told the guy I didn’t want to sell toothpasteand I didn’t want to sell clothes or CDs or video games. He says, “Well, what do you want to sell?” I told him I don’t want to sell some product to the kids of the world. I want to sell an idea. A really good idea that I’d been working on in my head.The guy was all excited. He asks, “What’s the idea? What’s the idea?” I looked around like it was a big secret that I didn’t want anyone else to hear. Then I whispered it in his ear: “Do your homework.” The guy left. I don’t think he’ll be bothering us anymore. 
Gutman, Dan (2009-10-27). The Homework Machine Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

So the answer in the book is ‘do your homework’?  Why? What for? If you don’t, then what?  If you invent a machine and are a bit smarter than these four kids and you can figure out a way to NOT get caught, then WooHoo?  Not that I want a moral tag. I may be exaggerating, but this book gives credence to the idea that the younger generation is NOT smarter, just able to access information faster. And, there are so many things here that I, as a parent seeing my kid read this book, would want to have long discussions about. Lying. Cheating. Opening the door to strangers. Just as starters.

Sad. Could have been a cool book. A story that hard work can pay off. But no. Not here!

Structure

Radio. No, 1930-1950’s radio. Old Time Radio, well they call it Radio Classics, hosted by the nicest person, Greg Bell, who responds wonderfully quickly to email. As I said, nice man.

What does this have to do with structure? Tom and I travel a lot in our car. It’s easier to car ride to Baltimore than to fly. Fly, ha! it’s an hour south to the airport, be there two hours early, go through TSA, wait, board, wait, fly, deplane, wait or pick up car. And by the time you are done, you have saved maybe an hour or two and you are frazzled, have spent more money than you planned and, well, yuck!  So back to travel. We listen to XM radio or Sirrus, whichever, now they are one. While it’s interesting to keep up on the news, sometimes that overwhelms you, you can only hear about one story told four different ways for so long.

On Radio Classics they have Bob Hope, Jack Benny for laughs–not quite vaudeville, not quite tv either. Then you have the shows! Richard Diamond, Johnny Dollar And The Action Packed Expense Report. Not to mention, the Shadow and the Dimension X series. So, variety shows, detective stories, murder, fantasy, science fiction….all done in twenty minute blocks, THE WHOLE STORY. Radio Classics fascinates me because the stories have a beginning, middle and end…they are complete. Listening to one show back several years I could not get it out of my head. I’ve tried several ways to figure out how to write this story, because, well, I need it to be longer than twenty minutes and I want the hero to be a kid. Enter Greg Bell who not only sent me the mp3 recording of the show, but the transcript!

I’ve vacillated between a girl or a boy. It could be either. I finally chose a girl because the end of the story is one where I want a hard choice, not an easy one, and one where not everyone lives. And I’d like to see a girl make that choice.  But the structure of the story has alway eluded me. How, just how do I get from introducing the characters to the end where the reader <hopefully> is sympathetic enough to the main character to see her ending as not sacrifice, but simply ‘the right thing to do’.

And last night, while researching how I was going to get the main characters from point A to point B so that the denouement is believable, I got it. I had, a while back,  decided that to put them on a plane would be a quick way to get them where they need to go, but there was no way to have the story unfold. So I put them on a train. Last night I really started to research the trains. From California to Chicago is the California Zephyr. and then from Chicago to upstate New York is the Lake Shore Limited. And all the stops along the way. A little research of the stops and some interesting tidbits for the story line emerge.

So I got two things out of making this one decision to have the story revolve around a train ride. One I found the structure for the story, basically about four days, maybe more, but along a train route. Have not factored in train changing time, etc. yet, but that’s not a deal breaker.  And two, I can add a dimension to my character by having her interested, engaged and sometimes overwhelmed by each of the stops as well as the story itself.

Very cool! Lol, now to work.