Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sniffing and Sobbing My Way through So You Think You Can Dance

Okay, I admit it: I cried when So You Think You Can Dance judge Nigel Lithgow announced that contestant Alex Wong was going to have to leave the show due to an injury.
I'm sure I was in good company. Like most viewers, I replayed the stunning hip hop routine Alex did with Twitch at least half a dozen times. Wow. Besides, there isn't another reality show on television that provides so many sobfests. Whether it's in homage to a fluid contemporary dance routine or in solidarity with a gushing contestant, I can count on judge Adam Shankman (who I want to be my very own BFF) to get the waterworks going. In fact, I imagine people in living rooms around the country grabbing for tissues as soon as Adam tears up.
Like Adam, I've always been a weep-aholic. I used to lie under the coffee table during certain TV shows because my brother always teased me if I cried. I'd try to hide the sniffles, but my dad would always catch me sliding away and yell, “Holly's leaving us now!” as I belly-snaked along the floor to my Cave of Sorrow beneath the coffee table.
Now that I'm adult, and a mother besides, I cry even more easily: over the newspaper's headlines of doom, during NPR's even gloomier reports, whenever friends admit scary medical problems or divorces, during certain songs on the radio. Now it's my children who throw me under the bus, rolling their eyes at each other and saying, “Mom's crying again!” as I'm trying to choke down a sob in their dry-eyed company. I couldn't even sit through ten minutes of Up without grabbing for the hankies, and I'm afraid to see Toy Story 3 because I know that seeing Andy leave for college will really push me over the edge.
Which brings me back to So You Think You Can Dance. I'm a newbie to reality TV shows. I started watching this show last year, and like any other creeping addiction, this one had me by the throat before I noticed the needle in my arm. I followed it right to the end, rooting for Jakob and Catherine without knowing anything about how, or why, they were better dancers than the others.
I don't feel the least bit guilty for watching. Unlike most reality TV shows, this one is actually instructive. I had dance lessons as a child, but quit (like many) because it was hard work and people kept trying to tell me what to do. Later, I signed up for a jazz dance class in high school – friends talked me into it – and all I remember from that was this monotonous series of steps to Van Morrison's “It's a Marvelous Night for a Moonbeam,” a song I still can't hear without side-stepping and lifting my arms.
Watching So You Think You Can Dance, I've learned about fluidity and toe pointing, partnering and extensions, different dance styles, why the Quickstep is the Kiss of Death, and the importance of conveying character through dance – sometimes by making your gestures “small” instead of large and overwrought, as Adam taught contestant Kent Boyd, the sweet jug-eared boy from Ohio, last week. (Was that kiss between him and Lauren for real? Sure looked like it to me. You're a long way from Wapakoneta, Kent.) I have even started attending live dance performances in my area because of the show.
I wish I could dance. Instead, I can only marvel: How do these incredible athletes perform such feats of strength – while pretending to be dolls trapped in boxes, hunters and jaguars, Ninja assassins or lovers at a prom? And how do they make me cry almost every time?
I'm going to sit right here with my box of tissues until I figure it out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

From One Book Cover to Another: Saying Goodbye to My Gerbils

The paperback of my memoir was released recently, but I barely recognize my own book with the new cover. It hurts my heart to say goodbye to the gerbils on the hardcover edition of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. But what else can I do?
In the publishing world, a lot of money and talent is poured into creating the perfect image and identity for every book. You can't always judge a book by its cover, but a cover definitely helps sell the book.
On the grand totem pole of decision making, the author is usually among the last to see a book's cover – after the designers, editors, marketing and sales teams, and publicist. Last year, when the editor of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter emailed me the cover design for the first time, I was as sweaty-palmed as a girl on her first date. I had reason to be nervous: Since my brother and I were both models for my father's pet books about gerbils, I'd sent the publisher plenty of embarrassing photos to choose from, like that portrait of me at age 12, looking cross-eyed at two gerbil butts while I demonstrate how easy it is to tell males from females.
When I finally took a deep breath and clicked on the editor's attachment, up popped an image that made me laugh out loud: Two gerbils – one brown, one spotted – peeping out of a pair of kiwi-green rubber boots with red trim. It was perfect. I'd even had rubber boots like that when I was a child. What better way to portray the comic story of an eccentric Navy man who became obsessed enough with gerbils to raise nearly 9,000 of them, with his entire family along for the adventure?
The book was launched in May 2009. For the past year, those gerbils have accompanied me to teach classes and do readings, sign books and serve as a pet judge at The American Gerbil Show. Fans seemed to love the cover. One woman put it this way: “That cover just says 'pick me up and read me!'” The book cover was on my web site, and I carried roll-up posters with my gerbils and rubber boots to various events. For a while I even contemplated buying a pair of adult-sized green rubber boots.
Then, as the publisher was getting the paperback ready, I got this startling news: they were creating a new cover. “No more gerbils,” my editor said.
When I asked why, she explained the decision this way: “We'd like your book to reach a wider audience.” She hesitated, then added delicately, “You know, some women just don't like rodents.”
I do know that. My own mother, despite being married to a gerbil farmer, never did develop any fondness for them at all. So what if gerbils put food on our table? “They have tails like rats,” Mom always said. “Ew.”
So, once again, I waited anxiously as the publisher tested different designs with focus groups. I saw two of them – both black-and-white photos of young girls with their backs to the camera, one in a white slip and the other in a bikini – and had mixed feelings. I know that flesh sells. It's also true that black-and-white photos somehow carry more artistic heft. These potential book covers for the paperback of my own memoir were both lovely, moody images in the category of some of my favorite memoirs, like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or The Liars' Club by Mary Karr.
On the other hand, they weren't very cheerful pictures, and my own childhood, though decidedly bizarre, was a lot less tragic than theirs. Should my book go out into the world – to beaches and airports, subways and living rooms – with a moody black-and-white photo? I didn't really think so.
At last, my editor sent me the final design for the paperback of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. I was so nervous that I made my husband stand beside me while I clicked on the attachment.
Once again, I had to laugh. Because apparently those at the top of the publishing totem pole had come to much the same conclusion that I had: Instead of a black-and-white photo of an adolescent girl poised for something to happen to her, the new cover has a little girl in a polka-dotted play suit running up a hill toward some flowering trees, pigtails flying. She isn't waiting for something to happen to her. She is, instead, gleefully running toward her next adventure.
Admittedly, it's a bit odd, as the author of a memoir, to see my book flashing a photograph of someone who definitely isn't me. I can't help but remember the covers of those other memoirs I've read and loved that have color photographs, like the chubby baby on A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and wonder now if those are the author's own photos.
In the end, I suppose what really matters is that the new cover of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter exudes the energy and joy of a quirky, free-roaming childhood. The design captures the essence of the book, if not the literal subject matter. That little girl and I will become fast friends as we carry my book out into the world together.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Now that School is Out, What Did They Really Learn?

“So what do they teach at that new school, anyway?” my friend Donna asked recently. “Does Aidan still learn math and science? Will he be ready for high school?”
School has been out for a week now, and the kids have moved on to whatever they're doing this summer, notebooks and backpacks happily abandoned in whatever closet they'll live in until we dust them off in September. So Donna's question took me by surprise.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Of course he learned math.”
“I thought it was an alternative school,” she pressed. “What kind of education is it?”
Last fall, my son Aidan started seventh grade at the public junior high school. It was a disaster; my son hated it so much that I had to crowbar him out of the house.
What didn't he like?
Everything. Mostly, Aidan was bored. In his view: There were too many classes. The homework was stupid. The bus ride was too long.
“What a complainer,” my mother sniffed. “Just make him get up and go. Everyone goes to school. You did.”
I did, it was true. And I hated school too. Especially junior high. I was bored. In my view: There were too many classes. The homework was stupid. The bus ride was too long.
Our four older children went to the public high school and did well. All got into good colleges. This caboose of a child is a different story. Aidan isn't the type to sit still when bored. No, he's the kind of kid who, when he wants excitement, will make his own, like the day he got busted in elementary school for running a casino at his desk. His favorite times in seventh grade were when he got sent to the principal's office.
“At least then I'm not sitting in some boring class,” he said.
I had to do something before trouble became Aidan's favorite pastime. I met with his teachers, who just said he had to learn to sit still and control his impulsive behavior. They whispered about ADHD.
I already knew that Aidan had attention and organization problems. I also knew that, under certain circumstances, he could focus better than anyone.
After visiting several private schools in our area, I stumbled across a small Montessori school. Amazingly, they had an opening mid-fall in their seventh grade. Even more amazingly, when I described Aidan's progress, or lack of it, they were up to the challenge.
I knew nothing about Montessori. But I was at the end of my rope: Aidan had to go somewhere that wasn't the school he was in, and nobody else had any openings. I took a deep breath and made the switch.
For a long time, I worried, as Donna did, that Aidan might be missing out by not being in the public school. I quizzed my friends whose children were in seventh grade about what their kids were doing in math, social studies, English, and science to see if I could pinpoint anything that Aidan was missing. I worried, too, that by “letting” him act out in school instead of making him “sit up and fly right,” as my father would have put it, I might be doing Aidan a disservice. We all have to go to school, learn how to get along with others, and put up with supervisors who bore us. Was I spoiling Aidan by pulling him out of the public school? Would he emerge uneducated and unprepared for the so-called “real world?” because he was now going to a crazy school where the kids call the teachers by their first names, wear slippers to class, and can eat snack whenever they want?
Fast forward six months. It is nearly summer, and for their culminating event, Aidan and his classmates at the Montessori School are performing Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. On a real stage, with real costumes and lights. I'm sitting in the audience, and there is Aidan on stage as Lysander, holding hands with Hermia. Aidan is wearing a tunic and tights. He is saying his lines. He is not the best actor on stage, but he's into it, waving his hands around and managing to lie still with his eyes closed while Puck dances wildly around his head.
If you had asked me what I wanted Aidan to learn during his first year of middle school, I would have said math, science, social studies, and maybe how to write a book review. I would never have predicted that Aidan would create, as he did at this school, a model of a half-size camel, which he presented while spouting facts about the desert biome. I never would have predicted how much Aidan loved volunteering with senior citizens, as his middle school does once each week. And I certainly never could have imagined the stories I heard about how, during the middle school field trip backpacking in the White Mountains, Aidan stood up as the moon was rising and started reciting lines from Midsummer Night's Dream.
Did my son learn math at his new school, Donna? Oh yes. He studied language arts and geography, current events and science, too.
But what Aidan really learned was much more important than any of that: His new Montessori school gave Aidan the confidence to be creative and joyful, to ask questions and seek the answers himself. As his teacher wrote in her final progress report, Aidan “embraced learning to understand, rather than studying to get a specific grade on a test.”
And that, to me, is a real education.