Monday, August 30, 2010

Writing Prompt: Next to Last

This writing prompt is from Lisa Romeo.  She promised a summer of prompts, so I'm pretty sure I know what this one means. Like everything else in my summer, this is coming to an end. I didn't do as well as I had hoped keeping up with the prompts, but I've saved all her emails and will probably go back and work on some of them, posting them as if I had done them on the day she sent them. Or is that cheating? In any case, thank you, Lisa, for the inspirational summer.

Penultimate — it's one of my favorite words. When I first heard it, I thought it meant that the event or thing in questions was even more ultimate than the ultimate. Penultimate is  such an elegant word, so luxurious in the mouth, that it had to mean something great. It was somewhat of a letdown to discover that it meant "next to last" or not quite ultimate. That really took the shine off of the word for me for a while.

But I've come back to it. At first, it was probably due to the smugness that wordies like me feel when we know the true meaning and usage of a word that many people use incorrectly. I've often heard penultimate used the way I imagined it as a child. Every time I hear or read the misuse, I take out my mental Sharpie pen and correct it. There's such satisfaction in being right. It turns a pet peeve into a gleeful moment of triumph.

But the real attraction of the word is that there is something hopeful about being the penultimate. It means there's still one more chance after this one to get it right; one more opportunity to enjoy something wonderful. Penultimate may not be the "ultimate", but it also isn't the final, the last, the end.

Geez, I'm a geek. Who else takes so much joy in parsing words? If you do, come sit next to me. Leave and comment and we'll discuss. Thanks again, Lisa

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Just Tryin' Out the iPad

I'm at the Apple Store waiting for my new computer, and just could not resist the temptation to play with the iPad. While this little goodie has gotten a pretty bad rap, I have to say that it's pretty seductive -- so sleek and small, lightweight and easy to throw in your bag and go. You can surf the net anywhere there's wifi. Way fun, and not as tiny as typing on an iPhone (but I covet one of those, too).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Writing Prompt: The River

This writing prompt is from Lisa Romeo. I have never before posted a picture on the SFD blog, but this prompt led me straight to this photo from our recent trip out west.

This summer, we traveled together for nearly weeks — six of us in an eight-year-old minivan with a Sears car-top carrier. Between Chicago and Seattle, we encountered countless bodies of water, from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. We learned about dams and hydro electric power, and the how engineers and conservationists are revising and rethinking how damming our rivers impacts our environment. 

We crossed the mighty Mississippi early on, at LaCrosse, WI. It was only then that we felt like the trip had really started. Wide and meandering on that border between Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Mississippi was a sleeping giant, lazing along in the heat of the northern summer. It split and reconnected around fingerlike islands, bent at an elbow and slipped passed the I-90 bridge, oblivious of the oily mess it would meet at its delta.

When you start with the Mississippi, how can other rivers compare? I discovered that rivers don't compete. They're content with their own personalities. Creeks and brooks, rivers and streams, mere trickles and pushy waterfalls — we saw them all — and each was thoroughly engaged, a study in movement, some walking, some skipping, some running, but all inexorably going forward to some unknown destination. 

The power of water is can been seen in even slightest trickle. Flowing water both shapes and is shaped by the land formations and obstacles in path. While we watch, we see only the later, how a protruding rock forces the water up, around and over it, changing the shape, color and sound of the water when they meet. We don't see that the water is simultaneously sculpting the rock, smoothing it, scraping and carrying it's minerals downstream. It will take months or years or decades before the human eye can see the water's impact on the rock, but the water's influence over the rock is more permanent and significant than the rock's power over the water.

Many of the rivers we met were suffering the heat of summer.  Wide banks seemed like big-brother hand-me-downs to creeks that had retreated from their edges during weeks of 100+ degree days. 

The true power of moving water could be seen best in the rivers that weren't — or at least weren't any more. The magnificent coulees carved by long-dead ancient rivers bore the scars and patterns of gushing waters that have escaped the bonds of human memory. This dry river bed, this river of rocks and mountain detritus stood probably 25 or 30 feet wide, a lasting memorial carved like a sculptor's self-portrait; a still, unmoving replica of a once-formidable force.

I think this passage meanders more haphazardly than any of the rivers we saw, but hey, it's just a SFD, right?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Writing Prompt: Sin City

This writing prompt from Lisa Romeo's blog, where you can sign up to receive daily writing prompts in your inbox. I usually give myself 10 minutes for these prompts.

To say he wasn't much of a gambler is an understatement. Joseph was a planner — someone who contributed regularly to his 401K, who made sure his bills were paid on time and that his sole credit card was paid off monthly to avoid interest charges. In fact, the only reason he had a credit card at all was to help develop his excellent credit rating and because his job required a lot of traveling, which in turn required a credit card rent a car and reserve his hotel rooms.

Joseph traveled at least two weeks a month, staying in modest, virtually indistinguishable hotel rooms. They tended to be clean, but boring, ranging in color from beige to taupe to tan — more than neutral, the decor (if you could call it that) was practically invisible. Joseph preferred it that way. No surprises, no need to adjust your sensibilities or compare one hotel room to another. Blandness bred contentment, which was more consistent than happiness.

Last week, Joseph was stunned to attention when he checked into a newly remodeled hotel in the heart of an undistinguished mid-sized city in middle America. His records indicated that he had visited this hotel before, but other than the receipts he kept and the Excel spreadsheet where he listed expenses and tracked his experiences (if you could call them that). 

When he drove up to the hotel, he was not surprised that he did not recognize the facade. He was surprised by that this hotel, one he had presumably stayed in before, did not sport the ubiquitous brick or stucco front with a canopied driveway. Instead, he pulled up curbside and was greeted by a liveried valet, who took his rental vehicle God knows where and left Joseph staring after him with the valet ticket clutched in his hand.

Turning slowly, Joseph took one step toward the doors, which automatically slid open to the left and right. The familiar Formica clad concierge counter had been replaced by a stand-alone semi-circle desk in polished aluminum. The entire lobby was shiny metal and red lacquer, lit by a galaxy to tiny, pinpoint lights. The mirrored elevator doors reflected the lobby as he saw it, with the exception that it also showed a beige man in a rumpled suit, with hair and skin that had greyed before its time. It took Joseph almost a minute to recognize himself.

Joseph was brought back to reality when the shiny concierge flashed a digital camera in his face. Her hair was black and blunt cut, and her flawless white skin was bisected by a cut of red lipstick. She smiled and said it would be just another minute and he couldn't help but notice how young she looked, even though he was not yet 30. Her black suit was perfectly tailored and the collar of her red silk blouse seemed to cradle her delicate face. Suddenly, she walked out from behind the semi-circle, pressed a key-card into his hand on top of the valet ticket and guided him by the elbow into the waiting elevator. 

"Tenth floor, suite B," she smiled, taking his key card and waving it in front of a small screen inside the elevator where the button panel should have been. "Enjoy your stay," she said, and as the doors closed, the last thing he saw were her implausibly high red patent leather pumps.

I'm not quite sure where Joseph came from, but the hotel is much like the one my brother recently stayed in when we met up in Seattle. My family and I were stuck in two tacky rooms at a national chain, paying $185 a night per room; he stayed in an edgy, newly remodeled place just a few blocks away for a mere $60 a night with free parking. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing Prompt: The Dance

This writing prompt from Lisa Romeo. I've been away from writing for several weeks while we traveled. I always think I'm going to do a lot of writing on the road, but it never works out that way. My writer friends tell me it's important to take a break and refill the well, so I'm going to pretend that I did that. But now that I'm home, seems a writing prompt is a good way to get back into the swing of things. 10 minutes.

Without question, the longest two hours of my life. Longer than the time I was stuck on the tarmac in Cleveland during a snow storm. Longer even than any two hours of labor. It was the time I chaperoned the middle school dance. 

Just to prove how bad this dance was, the principal decided to cancel all dances from that point forward, so it wasn't just me who that it was bad. It was bad.

I'm no prude and with four kids and two step kids, I've done more than my fair share of chaperoning. How bad could it be? thought I. Two hours in a middle school gym — a little sweaty, a little loud, a little boring, but I could take it. I was a veteran. 

My little sixth grade twins had no idea what the whole dance thing was about. Like all the other sixth graders, the formed a circle around the periphery of the gymnasium, mostly running around and playing tag. 

The seventh graders formed another ring, inside the circle of sixth graders, but not at the center. Here the girls primped, gossiped, giggled and pointed. Totally expected behavior. The boys stood in awkward clumps, hands shoved deep in their pockets, standing on tiptoe to see the real action that was going on in the very center of the room.

The eighth graders closed ranks in tight knots that formed the nucleus of the three-ringed cell. They were the only ones "dancing", if you could call it that. A single girl stood, bent over at the waist, buttocks high in the air. She was surrounded by a group of between six and 10 boys, who took turns bumping and grinding into her from behind, simulating (quite graphically) a variety of sex acts. 

Again, I'm not a prude, but I was seriously shocked. These were 12 and 13 year old kids. I know that jitter bug was considered obscene in its day; my mother wasn't allowed to even listen to Elvis the Pelvis because of his lewd hip movements; and belly dancing, often considered an art, clearly has sexual overtones. But this was overtones, undertones and overt, in-your-face sex. And it was gross. I could understand what the boys liked about it, but I kept wanting to ask the girls "What are you thinking?"

The principal instructed chaperones to physically walk through the circles to break it up. At one point, he turned the lights up to full power to discourage the behavior. I spent two hours as a vice cop before the whistle blew signaling that it was time to go home. I never knew the shrill sound of a whistle could bring such relief. I grabbed my twins and headed home for a much-needed long, hot shower. 

Time: Oy, that was such an awful night. Wonder how I could use this in fiction. That dance was six years ago. Have shows like Dancing with the Stars changed school dance behavior? Would I have been as bothered if it had been a high school dance?