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Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Maryland Book Tour

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Hmmm... my Maryland book tour was a full month ago, but still recent enough that it's reasonable to write a bit about it, I think. Maryland is where I was born and raised, and where most of my extended family lives. So, at the end of April, I spent a week there-- had some lovely school and college and bookstore visits, but spent most of the time driving around, somewhat lost, in a silver economy rental car.

At home in Fort Collins, Colorado, it's easy to get around-- most streets are fairly flat, straight, and on a grid, with neat ninety-degree angles, going directly East-West or North-South. You can never get hopelessly lost, because the mountains are always to the west, which helps you orient yourself. The sky is big and open and the trees aren't dense enough or the buildings tall enough to block your view of the mountains.

Maryland is a different story. It's like a thick green jungle compared to here, lots of lush foliage and springtime rain and clouds to utterly confuse you. And the roads-- hilly, winding, completely nonsensical-- and me, in the rental car, with my stack of Mapquests, trying desperately to figure out where the %&$! I was.

The most severe getting-lost episode occurred when I was driving from my friend Andrea's bachlorette picnic-yoga extravaganza at an arboretum (tree place) somewhere in northern Baltimore to a party at the Candlelight Inn, just outside of Baltimore in some other direction. There was no reason for me to go through a fairly sketchy section of downtown Baltimore, but I found myself driving around aimlessly there, with no gas stations to stop at for directions, or even convenience stores (there were a few, but they were boarded up.) I was supposed to be at the party in five minutes (did I mention the party was for me and my book? that my parents invited the whole extended family gang who drove from all parts of Maryland to get there on time?) I was utterly lost, fallen off all of my Mapquest maps.

And then I remembered my brand-spanking new cellphone!

I pulled over into a weedy, trash-strewn dirt lot and tried to remember how to turn off the locked keypad and find the address book and then dial the number. (Luckily, the night before, my two good friends, the Amandas, had given me and Andrea a crash course in Cell Phone 101 as we were waiting for a seat outside a happenin' Thai restaurant in DC.) So I called my dad (he was at the restaurant, waiting for me along with all my other relatives) and blubbered for a couple minutes and then he calmly directed me out of the boarded-up liquor-store neighborhood. Within twenty minutes I was in the parking lot of the Candlelight Inn, only about a half hour late, drenched in nervous sweat and looking pretty darn haggard when I arrived at my party. (Things got much, much better after a few crabcakes and a glass of wine...)

So, as much as I'd feared my cell phone was the beginning of the end when I signed that contract at the mall before my trip, I must admit it did come in handy. I haven't used it since except once at Safeway to ask Ian if we needed barbeque sauce, and maybe one or two other times, but I feel a special fondness for it now, since it saved the day (with my dad's help.)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Letting Dancing Bananas into my Writing Life

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Last week was the fourth and final creative writing workshop I did with a fun group of six fifth and sixth graders. For the past four Tuesdays we got wildly creative in their media center. They learned about developing setting, characterization, suspense, and story openings-- along with a bit about the publication process, writing as a career, and the inspiration for my books.

I learned from them, too. They reminded me about an important thing about writing. It's something easy to forget once you grow up and start dealing with bills and car maintenance and other boring stuff. It's something that fifth and sixth graders naturally excel at: Having fun. Pure, goofy fun.

So here's the lesson I learned/remembered: Let yourself giggle hysterically as you write. Take deep, hilarious pleasure in telling a story. Be playful and spontaneous with your words, and remember that laughter loosens up our imaginations.

The earliest creative writing I did was in mid-elementary school-- a series of "Bottlebug" stories full of humor and magic and adventure. I wrote them for my friends, and we giggled and acted them out and made up a dance and a strange language to go along with the stories (which really annoyed our teacher-- "No more Bottlebug talk in school!" she'd snap.) It was fun!

I promised this group of students (who are brilliant writers and will no doubt be publishing their first books within a few short years...) that I'd post their comments on my workshops. Here goes:

"I like the Jimmy /World Travel prompt. It let us laugh and write a lot. You taught us to use all the senses. Next time put a banana in the mystery bag."

(Note: The Jimmy prompt refers to a scenario we developed for a group writing activity about a boy who eats a magic almond that gives him the ability to instantaneously appear in different parts of the world... and what we eventually came up with was a story that could have been called "Jimmy and the Dancing Bananas." The mystery bag refers to a bag of mysterious objects that the students had to incorporate into story openings... and lamentably, I forgot to put a banana in there, although there was a coconut ape.)

Okay, to continue:

"Fun. Interesting. 2 words or 5 syllables, Dancing Bananas!"
"I liked the dancing bananas with rocket launchers."
"It was fun and funny and interesting."
"Loved everything. Everything was very fun. Nothing was boring. Great advice. Fun fun fun."
"It was a really good time. I learned a lot. Laura was a big help to my writing."

Hanging out with these imaginative, fun kids was a breath of fresh air into my writing life. Every Tuesday I drove from their school back to Fort Collins with a smile on my face.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

My Embarrassing Anaco Adventure in Ecuador

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Brief Background to my Anaco Adventure:

In January, I went to Otavalo, Ecuador on a research trip for my next two books. I stayed with my friend María and her husband and son. Maria’s a beautiful woman-- inside and out—who spends part of the year selling crafts in Colorado, which is where I met her. María and I are writing a book together about her amazing childhood and teenage years.

During part of her youth, she wore traditional indigenous clothes daily. In Colorado, María wears her traditional clothes only on special occasions, like parties and potlucks and nights on the town. In Otavalo, she seems to wear them whenever we go downtown, to the market or shopping. The clothes are beautiful—a black anaco (wrap-around skirt), a white flower-embroidered blouse with lacy sleeves, and a faja—a wide, thick strip of fabric wrapped around the anaco’s waist. I’d always thought that the faja was just decoration, but it turns out, that fabric is what holds up the entire anaco... and if the faja is too loose, well, the whole thing falls off... (maybe you can see where this is heading...)


The Actual Adventure

So… it’s one of my last evenings in Otavalo, and we’ve planned to go out to eat with our good friend Alex, another beautiful Ecuadorian woman-- inside and out-- who I met years earlier in Colorado.

Alex bursts into the guest room. “Laurita! María said she’ll dress us up in her clothes tonight!”

I’m excited. Not only will this be a fun girly bonding thing, but it will help me get inside the head of María’s character in our book— to know how it feels to wear these clothes, so that when I’m writing about it, it’s more real to the reader. I’m a little worried that people will think I’m a poser… but María assures me that it’s fine, that Otavaleñas feel proud, or at least entertained, at a gringa running around dressed like them.

So I’m standing half-naked in María’s room, wishing I’d worn less ratty underwear. She wraps the anaco around my waist, over the poofy blouse. Actually, it’s not exactly my waist—more like my lower ribcage. My ribs creak and groan as she winds the cloth tighter and tighter.

“Suck in your stomach, Laurita!” she commands.

I hold my breath. This thing is a corset! I had no idea! In rural communities, women and girls wear these all the time—as they’re cooking and cleaning and washing clothes and taking care of pigs and cows. Even in the city, girls wear them to school and around town and in Internet cafés.

“There,” she says, proudly, tucking in the end of the fabric. “Perfect.”

“Uh, María? Can we loosen this thing a little? It’s strangling me.”

“No. If you loosen it, the anaco will fall down.”

“I don’t think I can wear this,” I say. Panic is rising.

“It’s only for a few hours,” she says. “And you look beautiful!” She fastens a necklace of about fifty strands of gold-coated glass beads around my neck, and wraps long ropes of tiny red coral beads tightly around my wrists, up my forearm. I walk to the mirror, gasping for air, my pulse struggling to keep going under all the beads on my neck and wrists. And not only does my ribcage feel bruised and perhaps slightly fractured, but my other internal organs are squeezed so tight, I wonder how I’ll get any food in there at dinner.

I look in the mirror. The gold beads make my face look extra pale and clash with my blond hair that has been pulled back into a slick ponytail. The iridescent blouse with sequins and gold thread makes me look peaked and a bit sickly, truth be told.

Alex looks much better—her skin is golden, a shade between mine and María’s. She’s considered mestiza, which is a class/ethnic distinction that means she isn’t indigenous, although she clearly has some indigenous blood in her ancestry. The gold and red beads suit her, and the shimmery blouse makes her face glow. She admits the outfit is somewhat constraining, but it doesn’t seem to be damaging her innards the way mine does. Or else I’m just a wimp. Unlike me, she’s used to wearing sexy jeans and squeezing her toes into pointy high heels and wearing pantyhose on occasion and suffering a bit for beauty. Alex has often complained to me that Ecuadorian society expects this from women. Yet she embraces it to some extent. In Fort Collinsland of Polar Fleece and Tevas-- she could breathe a bit easier, but at the same time, she missed getting all decked out for a night on the town.

“You look beautiful,” I tell her.

“So do you!” she says, but I suspect she’s just being polite.

We get ready to leave to walk downtown-- María, Alex, me, María’s husband, and their three-year-old boy. On the way out the door, still struggling for breath, feeling claustrophobic in this get-up, I pause, then turn and teeter back upstairs. Secretly, I fetch a shirt and pair of baggy pants and stuff them into my purse. In case of emergency. In case the food goes down my esophagus and finds nowhere to go because my stomach is squeezed so tight.

“Okay, ready,” I say with a strained smile.

It’s about a mile downtown, and every step, every breath is torturous for me. We stop to buy bobby pins at a tiny drugstore, for Alex’s hair, which keeps falling out of her ponytail. She asks the vendor eagerly, “Do I look indigenous? If you saw me, just walking on the street would you believe it?”

The vendor eyes her doubtfully. “Maybe.” And it’s true. The way we walk in these outfits isn’t the way the indigenous women do-- slowly, gracefully, their heads high, their bodies somehow at ease in these cages of clothing.

“What about me?” I squeak.

The vendor bursts into laughter. I want to laugh along with her but it hurts to much to let much air enter my lungs.

We enter the brightly lit restaurant, where a football game is playing on TV and the orange plastic seats are about half full. All eyes are glued to the screen. This has always annoyed me about small-town Latin America—the ubiquitous TV’s in restaurants and cafes. Hardly anyone notices our outfits. And then I smell the food—frying chicken, sizzling plantains, steamy rice, fresh cilantro, grilling steak, and I realize I’m hungry and want to put lots of food in my stomach, but there’s no way of fitting it in there.

I hang my head sheepishly. “Um, guys? I’m gonna go to the bathroom and change into pants and a shirt.”

“What?” Alex asks, confused.

“Uh, I brought a change of clothes with me.”

She gives me a betrayed look.

“I can’t eat with this thing around my waist!” I moan.

Maria clucks and chuckles. “Listen, we’ll just loosen it up for you once you sit down. But Laurita,” she says sternly. “This is important. You must remember to have me tighten it again before you stand up. Or else the whole thing will fall off.”

“Okay,” I say, relieved.

Alex sits down next to me and discreetly loosens it up. We joke a bit about what a wimp I am, which is fine with me because I am in heaven now that I can let my gut hang out. Delicious freedom! I eat my fill of plantains and rice and chicken, enjoying the feel of my belly stretching to capacity, laughing extra hard, savoring the air expanding my lungs. Every once in a while, the other customers cheer for their team’s goal or let out a collective sigh over the other team’s goals.

After the meal, I have to go to the bathroom. I stand up. I slip out from the booth. I start walking across the restaurant. Suddenly, I feel something fall to my feet, something unravel from my hips, and then the air, cool on my bare thighs.

“Laurita!” Alex and María cry together.

I am standing in my grubby underwear. My anaco is pooled on the tile floor beside the uncoiled faja.

In one desperate movement, I crouch down, grab the anaco, and sloppily rewrap it around my waist. Alex’s and María’s hands are over their mouths, in laughter and horror. Feeling the blood rush to my face, I look around the restaurant, expecting all eyes to be on me, hands over mouths in that same expression of laughter and horror.

But no, every pair of eyes is still glued to the soccer game. The blessed soccer game! Even the waiters and cooks stare unblinkingly at the screen. The only stranger looking at me is a young toddler girl in a high chair, still at the age where it’s okay to walk around with no pants. Anyway, she’s preverbal and couldn’t communicate my gaffe to anyone even if she wanted to.

I waddle to the bathroom, clutching the anaco to my waist, laughing now, feeling more than ready to change into my stretchy knit pants and comfy T-shirt.

Now, when I eat in a restaurant with a TV blaring a sports game, instead of annoyance, I feel deep gratitude. And when I see an Otavaleña woman walk by, I gaze at her with a newfound respect and admiration. Then I take a long, deep breath and let my belly hang out in bliss.