Saturday, January 29, 2005

People I'd like to maim, Vol. 1

It's the little things that kill
Tearin' at my brain again
-- Bush (the band, not the presidents)

Today I'd like to focus on people who think their own convenience takes precedence over the needs of others, people who will cheerfully waste several minutes of another person's time to save themselves 20 seconds.

Exhibit A: The We're-Too-Cool-to-Check-Baggage Crowd. I saw a few of these this past weekend. You get a couple--or, God help us, an entire family--each member of which has packed a week's worth of clothes into a carry-on bag the size of an English mastiff. They drag these behemoths onto the plane and bring the line to a halt while they find and fill an empty overhead bin originally designated to hold the belongings of three passengers. At that point, those of us in the "Purse-and-Laptop" gang, those of us who GET THE HELL OUT OF PEOPLE'S WAY and kindly store our carry-ons under the row in front of us, have to sweat it out in our now even tinier seat because there's no room for so much as a coat in the compartment above our heads.

Then while the rest of us slouch off to the baggage claim at the end of the flight, they trot breezily towards the exit, toss their hair over their shoulder, and cast glances of pity and disdain at us plebes who were so uncouth as to have--gasp!--suitcases.

Then, while crossing the road on the way to the garage, one of their slick "little" carry-on's wheels gets stuck in a pothole, and a shuttle bus with faulty brakes puts them out of our misery.

Hmm. I didn't think that would have such a happy ending.

Exhibit B: People who leave shopping carts in parking spaces instead of returning them to the store or walking fifteen feet to the corral.

Must stop. Seeing red again.




Friday, January 28, 2005

Fingers and toes crossed

I don't believe you'd like it,
you wouldn't like it here.
There ain't no entertainment,
and the judgments are severe.
The Maestro says it's Mozart,
but it sounds like bubble gum,
When you're waiting for the miracle to come.
--Leonard Cohen, "Waiting for the Miracle to Come"

I don't know if I should even tell you this, as I'm setting myself up for mass-scale public humiliation. Here goes:

February 25, 2005 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the night the fiction-writing virus first infected me. I spent the evening watching my friend's son play guitar in a two-man blues band at a coffee shop in Catonsville, Maryland. I tried espresso for the first time that night. The combination of caffeine and good music synchronized my brain into The Zone. My actual surroundings faded, and I began to see a man in a much darker coffee bar drinking espresso, watching a blues band, when strange things start to happen. A mysterious woman enters and changes his life.

Thus began my first novel, which I like to refer to as my "practice novel." It's funny as hell and contains some incisive description, but the story has so many holes and implausibilities that even with ten years' experience I still can't repair it.

Anyway, some time very soon, maybe even today, my proposal for a fantasy trilogy is going before the acquisitions committee of a major publisher. Major as in take-over-the-world-someday-and-mold-it-in-its-own-image major. (No, it's not owned by Rupert Murdoch.) The acquisitions committee is the last step before they make me an offer. They give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down (why do scenes from Gladiator keep flickering in my mind?).

My proposal has the enthusiastic support of the line's senior editor. On the other hand, she's one voice among many on the committee, which include folks from the marketing department, people who can peer into the minds of Ms. Constant Reader 2007 and discern what she craves.

My instinct is to cringe and wait for the blow, for the rejection that is statistically likely. It seems too storybook-y for something astronomically wonderful to happen to make up for the rolling stone of misfortune that began with Election Day and continued through wrecking my car and my husband, then last weekend when I spent an entire convention in my room with a stomach virus. This boulder of bad luck has too much momentum. Lately my attitude has been rather Russian: Things could always be worse, and they probably will.

But send out some hope, prayers, ritual sacrifices (wine and honey only, please, no animals), good karma, whatever, for me anyway, would you? Fling your "Jeri is awesome!" thoughts towards Manhattan as hard and loud as you can.

I have to wait until Ivanova goes to sleep to try it myself. Where's that vodka?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


So ConFusion was very nice. Lots of friendly, energetic, funny guests and attendees, a host of intriguing panels, and rip-roarin' parties galore.

At least there were from the four hours of it I saw.

From the time we retired at 11PM Friday night until we left for the airport Sunday at 2:30, I stayed in my hotel room, sick with a stomach virus. I became intimately familiar with the pair of flower paintings on our wall. Defying all decorating convention, they were (and still are, I assume) identical.

I missed participating in two panels and an autographing session. Since I'd never been to this con before, it was a great opportunity for me to make new friends and win new fans, maybe even sell some books. But as they say in Australia, chunder happens.

Health experts claim that a lot of "stomach flus" are actually food poisoning. So I asked myself, was it the Lebanese dinner we ate Thursday night, the bountiful desserts I snorkeled into at Friday's reception, or maybe even the 1.38-ounce bag of .22 caliber pretzel nubs from the airplane?

Considering it's now Wednesday and the queasiness has yet to depart, I'm thinking it was the Inauguration. Our minds can trick themselves into denying reality, but the body always knows.

Silver lining alert: I've already lost all the weight I gained over the holidays. I needed a belt this morning for the first time in weeks, and I didn't even have to exercise.

By 2008 I'll be so skinny, people will be able to use me as a bookmark.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

One way to look at it

A few of you already know that my husband was in a car accident last week. He's fine "except for" a broken collarbone. More details than that I probably shouldn't post online, since there may be a legal case pending.

One of the downshots is, my loyal Mazda Protege (which, at 9 years and 117,000 miles old, was the baby of our car family) is totaled. She never requested nor received glory or recognition. Critics called her "underpowered," "sluggish on turns," and "lacking a power button on the stereo," but in the end she gave her life to save Chris.

I've been trying hard to find a silver lining in all this (other than the "it could've been worse" factor, which initially made me giddy with still-having-a-husband), and I think I've finally come up with at least a bronze or copper lining:

I never had to sit in my car and punch the pre-programmed radio buttons to hear 99.1 WHFS in its new format ("El Zol"--which is Spanish for "the disappointment." See previous post.). My car and HFS went together like jalapeno jelly and cream cheese. I lost both in the same day--kind of a poignant coincidence.

Or is it? Perhaps my Protege had lost the will to go on living. I hear that in 13th century Spain, "El Zol" was a mystical term that everyone used but no one understood.

It meant "the suicidal automobile."

Monday, January 17, 2005

El this is not happening

Sampled and soulless
Worldwide and real webbed
You sell all the living
For more safer dead.
--"Rock is Dead," Marilyn Manson

Last week I dreamed that a flock of goblins* were in my house, trying to attack me, my greyhound, and a collection of frightened German Shepherds. I woke up and told my husband about the dream, then informed him that our house was full of kid ghosts (I assumed they were ghosts because they were sitting still without the aid of video games).

Then I woke up from THAT dream into reality. Or so I thought. Breakfast tasted like real eggs.

But I opened up my virtual Baltimore Sun to discover that the only radio station I ever cared about, the only one that played true alternative music, 99.1 WHFS, is no more.

Or, more precisely, it now exists as "El Zol," Washington-Baltimore's new Latin music station. According to BabelFish's translation website, "El Zol" means "the zol." I translate "zol" as "that which erases any lingering delusions of youth" (it's a complex concept summed up in one word, kind of like Zeitgeist).

I acknowledge that 1) the Latino population of the metro area is underserved musically and 2) WHFS hasn't been much of an alternative to anything for the last several years, playing an increasingly bland and limited list of ever more derivative "artists" such as Good Charlotte, Blink 182, and Nickelback, and whose corporate bigwigs at Infinity Broadcasting wouldn't know a fresh sound if it wriggled past their ear drums and invaded their brain patterns, like that little slug thing from "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Mr. Roarke."

Where was I? Oh yeah: HFS sucks, and this was the grand finale of suckiness. Without warning or so much as a nod to the great station it was years ago, it became, at noon last Wednesday, "El Zol" (roughly translated as "the music for listeners who buy things, not losers like you who still think it's cool to shop at thrift stores").

They were alternative when the word still meant something. The world has changed, and music with a different beat is still out there and more accessible than ever, through satellite radio and the Internet.

But still...put me in my rocking chair, hand me my Geritol, and let me long for days past. Yes, kids, once upon a time there were people called "disk jockeys," and they had the power to decide what records to spin. Some of these brave, discerning, and occasionally sober "DJs" were even hired for something other than the ability to laugh at their own jokes.

*"Flock" of goblins? Does anyone know or want to guess at the collective noun for goblins? A herd? A network? A basket? A boardroom? I think "A pocketful of goblins" has a jaunty ring to it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hey, everybody, it's Mardi Gras season!

From 1994-1999, our spectacular friend Rob Staeger went to enormous efforts to make us compilation tapes of Mardi Gras music, featuring greats like Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Daniel Lanois, and a lot of surprises. For the last few years, I've spent the month before Mardi Gras listening to the tapes. It takes that long to get through all six twice--plus, for sentimental reasons, I like to close with 1994's tape around midnight on Mardi Gras, when I'm stuffed to the gills with whatever food and drink I've made or purchased for the occasion. I try to overindulge to the point where fasting on Ash Wednesday becomes a welcome experience.

I'm a big fan of balance. Lent is long and--if you do it right--hard. All the self-denial, self-examination (it ain't pretty if you're honest), and repentance is good for the soul, like exercise for the body.

But let's be honest. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular (and in this context I'm including my own Episcopal Church as a Catholic church, since their spiritual and liturgical practices are nearly identical), tends to place a bit too much focus on sin and suffering. We're so bad as a species, we're told, that God had to come to earth and die in the most excruciating way available in order to save us. Our universal symbol is an execution device.

If you go to a Catholic or Episcopal (and probably Orthodox, but I don't know for sure) Church during Advent, you won't be singing Christmas carols. Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, and guess what we're supposed to do to prepare? Yep, repent! Advent is technically another penitential season, sort of a Lent Lite. Christmas decorations aren't hung in the churches (or in the homes of really strict observers, of which I have met none) until after the fourth Sunday in Advent, which can sometimes occur as late as Christmas Eve.

So I think in these dark times it's fair to stretch out the Mardi Gras celebration. We need to remember to celebrate the abundance of life in the middle of winter, when it seems like that damn sun will never again rise before 7 AM, and the fresh tomatoes you buy at the store are pale on the inside and taste like wet cardboard, and everybody's adhering so carefully to their Fad Diet of the Year that no one dares to even go out for a beer unless it's to watch football, and who cares, anyway, because the Ravens and Packers are both out of the playoffs and the Eagles will have a tough time against the Vikings and that rat bastard Randy Moss.

Mardi Gras season is four weeks of good music and good wine, like Christmas without the shopping. So take some time to enjoy life just because it's there, and at all costs, laissez les bons temps roulent!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Now Hiring: The Boss of Me

I need someone to tell me what to do. I need someone to sit me down each day and say, "Write X number of pages on this screenplay, send this book to a reviewer, write a synopsis for this book to submit to X publisher, read these articles, do yoga, now drink some coffee--no, not that much!" Et cetera.

There's so much I need to do right now to get my writing career off the ground again, and only one of those things is WRITE. That one I can handle--I've been doing it for almost ten years now. It's the other stuff--following the markets, making submissions, doing research, reading in my genres, deciding which of my many projects I should start or finish next--AAAAUGGH!

I should mention that I do technically have a boss, but she's extremely sweet and would never order me around, and besides, the stuff I do for her is for her, not me.

I need a manager. A strict one. What I would like is a market-savvy version of my dictatorial second grade teacher, Mrs. Daub. All I remember about her besides the fact that she seemed to hate seven-year-olds--to me, the most likable age of all--was that her husband sold canoes in the mall.

I also remember the time this kid Andy brought in his model trains he'd gotten on his trip to Chattanooga. The trains were passed from child to child for examination, and at the end of their journey, one of them was in two pieces. Mrs. Daub slipped effortlessly into Gestapo mode (if she weren't too old to be alive now, I'd suspect her of running Abu Ghraib). She went around the room and asked each student to describe the exact state of the train during the moments he or she possessed it.

I was, of course, near the end of the line. The hours of interrogation rolled by until I was in a state of panic. When it was my turn I stammered out--

I was a fearful child. In addition to the standard phobias such as monsters under the bed and in the closet, I was afraid of lightning, vacuum cleaners, the Blob, and balloons. I've outgrown all but the last. I was also afraid of sleep for a day or two, because in first grade our gym teacher told us this story about a boy who was running in the hall and fell and hit his head and got a concussion. The nurse told him to be sure to tell his mom when he got home, but he forgot, and that night he went to sleep and died in his sleep. Until that moment, I hadn't known you could die in your sleep. He was trying to tell a morality tale, I guess, about running in the halls, but he ended up freaking us all out about an activity that takes up a third of our life. He wasn't rehired the following year.
--------------END CONTEXT-------

I stammered out something like:
"Well, I, I was, um--when I got the train, I, um........I got the train and, uh, I turned it over--"


", I was--I was looking at the wheels, to see if--to see if they turned, and then--"

"Look, I don't want to hear your life story, I don't want to hear your thoughts about the engineering, and I don't want to hear how you were (mocking tone) 'looking at the wheels.' All I want to know is, was it broken when you got it?"


She moved on. The person after me said something about one of the trains feeling loose, and the kid after her, Freddie Meier, said, "Same here." Our teacher kept the five of us in the last group of desks (the prime suspects) through recess, while the rest of the class was released to their recreational pursuits.

Andy, meanwhile, was at a doctor's appointment during the Daub Commission hearings. When he returned, Mrs. Daub made me stand in front of the classroom in tears and tell him what had happened to his valuable show-and-tell prize.


"(incoherent blubbering) Nooooo....."

I sat down, condemned.


This is the best part.

THEN Mrs. Daub proceeded to tell the class how brave I had been and how she knew that I hadn't broken the trains after all. She said she knew that other children had been lying.

"And I'm looking at you, Freddie."

That was the end of it. When I saw my mom that afternoon and she asked if anything had happened in school today, I said nothing. Because even though I'd been publicly exonerated, I still felt responsible. To this day I carry shame for things I haven't done.

It just goes to show that you don't need to be Catholic or Jewish to have guilt. All you need to wear that Scapegoat costume comfortably is your own Mrs. Daub.

Well, this post took an odd turn, didn't it? Come to think of it, if I had her as a manager, even if she were market-savvy to the point of omniscience, I'd probably strangle her on the first morning.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Up with People

Holy moly, someone counted the votes.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Got Blues?

Last night we were privileged to see Guy Davis perform right here in li'l ol' Westminster, at the 263-seat Carroll Arts Center. Davis is a young blues player in the old-time tradition, Delta blues, the kind played on a back porch with a bottle of bourbon at your side and a tired hound dog at your feet. That's the kinda blues I love--none of that slicked-up, electrified Chicago-style Blues Brothers nonsense, although that has its place, too, for a certain kind of mood.

Davis looks much younger than his gravelly voice comes across out of my CD player. He told some great stories, including one about meeting the President when Guy's parents Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were honored at the Kennedy Center last month. They talked about their strict mamas and Davis said Bush seemed like a nice guy, but he couldn't reconcile in his own mind the nice guy in front of him with the not-so-nice guy (Cheney) standing by the hors d'oeuvre table.

He played several songs from his latest CD, the enthralling, addictive Legacy, including originals like "Payday," "Long As You Get it Done," and the blues classic "Things About Coming My Way."

My whole life, I never liked blues music at all, thought it was boring and repetitive, didn't give a hoot that rock 'n' roll grew out of it. Then I went to Memphis in October 2003. We took my mom to Graceland for her birthday, and while we were there we hung out on Beale Street, listened to some blues. We took a tour of Sun Studios and heard some original recordings of the Prisonnaires, Joe Hill Louis, and other early Delta Blues greats.

Even then it didn't really take hold of me, although I was starting to understand how other people might like it. Chris bought a couple of CD's at Memphis Music on Beale Street, owned by a certified bluesologist, who personally recommended The Rough Guide to the Delta Blues (various artists) and Alvin Youngblood Hart's Big Mama's Door.

I can remember the moment, the location, the song, when blues first grabbed my soul. It was later in that same trip, when Chris and I headed to Florida for this guy's wedding. We were driving from Tallahassee to Cape San Blas (which I highly recommend--Cape San Blas, not Tallahassee, and stay here if you go), down through the Apalachicola Forest (I love saying "Apalachicola"), and we put in Big Mama's Door.

It starts with the title track, and something about hearing Alvin sing about takin' that right-hand road down to Chickasaw, while driving through the deep deep DEEP South infected me like a virus, one I don't ever want to get over.

Blessed and doomed in the same moment. There's a blues novel stuck inside me now, if I ever get the guts to write it, because that's the only way I know how to honor something I really love.

I've been trying to come up with a way to describe the appeal of blues to those who don't get it yet, but it's impossible. It's like one of those spontaneous religious experiences of salvation the born-agains talk about, and you can't convert someone who hasn't felt it themselves, you can only wait until they do so you can grab their hands and talk about it for hours, eyes shining with the light of mad devotion.

All I know is blues makes me happy, no matter my mood--blue, red, yellow or green. Not cheerful--unlike bluegrass, whose indomitable faith inspires but occasionally alienates me--but happy, deep down in my wretched soul.

Ain't got no money
Ain't got no grub
Backbone and navel
doing the belly rub
But after all my hard traveling
Things about coming my way.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Looking for a reason to raise a glass, besides that annoying tickle of despair at the state of the world? (Okay, with despair one doesn't so much raise a glass as tip it.)

Today, January 6, is not just the 12th Day of Christmas, otherwise known as Epiphany, when the Wise Men slapped their foreheads and said "Doh! So that's who this kid is! By the way, who was supposed to buy the card?"

Today is...insert drum roll...

National Smith Day!

Why? Because we Smiths need something to make up for the fact that we have the world's most frustrating geneaological research task. (Editor's note: there are more Wangs in the world than Smiths, but hey, they already know they're Chinese. End of detective story.)

If everyone out there bought one Smith a drink today, think what a better world this would be. And if we could just keep the spirit of National Smith Day alive in our hearts year 'round, there'd be no more wars, hurricanes, traffic accidents, or ferret bites. Sigh...I'm a dreamer, it's true.

Anyway, check out this goofy holiday site and try to see past the vertigo-inducing design to its underlying truth: nearly every day is a holiday. Every day, someone, somewhere, is observing a special time, taking a few moments to mark the year's passing, wiping away a wistful tear at the memory of Leap-Second Time Adjustment Days gone by.

Thanks to Thomas Roy of Lebanon, PA, we can now celebrate National Dimpled Chad Day (you missed it this past Tuesday), or better yet, Northern Hemisphere Hoodie-Hoo Day, February 20, in which you wave a beach blanket at the sun at high noon and shout "Hoodie-Hoo!" twice, in hopes of warmer weather. To me, shouting "Hoodie-Hoo!" seems like a durn good idea just about any day or time, except maybe during a board meeting or a funeral.

See, Mr. Roy invents holidays. He is, in a sense, a holidaysmith.

On the holiday site I discovered that my birthday takes place on National Town Criers Day and during National Farriers Week, which seems fitting for a Smith.

Check out your own birthday. Sorry if it's July 15.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Where I've Been

Around, pretty much. I just haven't been blogging. The reasons run the gamut from the holiday hustle-bustle to the fact that most of my thoughts have been too bummeresque (I could say 'dark,' but that sounds sickeningly teen-gothy and melodramatic) to share with the world. I had a nicely written post a month ago about why I wasn't in the Christmas spirit, but decided that no one would be better off having read it. I worried that if I posted it, I would receive a visit from Dickens's three ghosts, and since I was spending Christmas in New York City, the spirits would just end up hanging around my house, scaring the cats and emptying my liquor cabinet.

The primary reason for my blog-lapse is a good one, though. Most of my creative energy is finally focused on writing fiction. Currently I'm working on my first original screenplay, a romantic comedy (a "romcom" as we "say" in the "biz" as we sip our "carrot and wheatgrass juice" off of each other's--never mind) with an existential twist. I don't have a title yet, but "The Velveteen Roommate" makes me chuckle.

As you might remember from a previous post, I was working on a novel a month or so ago, but it was starting to depress me. I needed something enjoyable for the holidays, so I went back to this screenplay I'd outlined over the summer. For the most part, it's been a trip. No one battles the forces of evil, no one is the victim of a government conspiracy, no one struggles for redemption. It's just a guy trying to fall in love and be himself, preferably at the same time.

When I finished Act One, I got stumped, trying to figure out what to do next. I sat around, wordless, for over a week before I got sick of myself, called me a loser and plunged into Act Two just to spite the other Jeri. Since then, I've bounced along, writing one, two, five, seven, sometimes even ten pages a day, which is a lot when you consider a screenplay is only 120 pages. I'm now approaching the end of Act Two, reaching the character's point of no return, when all looks darkest for our hero and he's got to find a way to win back both the girl and his self-respect.

Except I'm not sure how he does it. I have a general idea, intellectually, thematically, what has to happen, but I don't see it, and ever since Thomas Edison invented the DVD player, movies have been a visual medium.

Gene Fowler once said that writing is easy, just a matter of staring at the blank page until your forehead bleeds. I checked the mirror--no blood yet, not even sweat, because I've been here before and somehow, with an infusion of stubbornness and caffeine, I got through it.

But ask me in a week, after I've written twenty blog posts to avoid the screenplay, how Act Three is going. And bring an absorbent towel.


This Side of Salvation

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Jeri Smith-Ready

Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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