Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hanging up my Riding Hat

Claremont Riding Academy in Manhattan closed this spring after 115 years in operation. Yes, a horseback riding stable in Manhattan. My favorite city noise was the clop, clop of horse hooves over honking traffic.

New York City was an odd place to be a child who loved animals and nature. I got my country fix at sleepaway camp where I was introduced to riding. In middle school I started taking the bus on my own to Claremont on the Upper Westside. Riding relieved the social and academic pressures of school.

In high school, I’d wake up at the crack of dawn on Saturdays for combined training classes. Jumping three-foot fences, I had to navigate around eight poles that supported the low ceiling. The small arena was on the ground floor, and the horses lived upstairs and in the basement, going up and down by steep wooden ramps. From the sidewalk, the stable looked like any other building in the city, but it sure smelled different.

To unwind, I’d ride up Amsterdam Avenue to West 90th street to Central Park. Back then, only horses were allowed on the bridle paths. Still there were always loose dogs and curious childrens. When the path was clear, I’d canter around the cherry lined reservoir. I preferred the young horses that ran fast and were unpredictable. The thrill kept me out of worse trouble in the city.

Once a year there was a mock hunt in Central Park. Close to forty riders in their hunting finest would trot down the bridle path to Tavern on the Green. Paul Novograd, who inherited the business from his father, wore his pinks as the red jacket of the hunt master is called. Waiters came outside with hot drinks for the riders (the stirrup cup) and carrots for the horses served on silver platters. Much more civilized than terrorizing a fox, although I’m sure the hunt surprised more than a few New Yorkers.

At the end of high school, I bid goodbye to Claremont and joined the equestrian team at college. No one believed I could have learned to ride in New York City until they saw me make every tight turn on the jumping course.

Since college, I’ve ridden very little. Just the thought of picking it up again makes me sore! Still, hearing about Claremont closing made me teary. It was like reading the last page of a good book.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Swashbuckling Pilot

I’m no longer alarmed to see men dangling out of helicopters or fighter planes banking. Over the years I’ve gotten used to the drone of jets. I barely glance up when a bomber flies in low over the Old Bath Road to land at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Since World War II, the base has made Brunswick not only a college town but a navy town as well.

About 20% of Brunswick school children are naval, adding much needed diversity. A disproportionate share of their parents volunteer in the classrooms, help out at library fundraisers or coach sports. You would think a family only there for three years wouldn’t bother, but navy people give more than they get. My daughter’s soccer coach didn’t even have children, yet he volunteered to coach when he wasn’t training the naval bomb dogs.

My husband grew up in a British naval family, enduring long absenses of his father at sea. Later he attended a naval prep school and was a cabin boy on a merchant navy ship. My father-in-law has an engaging memoir out on how British forces quelled a mutiny in Tanzania (then Tanganyika.) Back then he was the signal communications officer in the Royal Navy.

Over the years in Brunswick I’ve been friendly with a number of naval pilot wives. My husband goes off to do research in Japan for weeks and once months at a time, leaving me a single mom. The academic lifestyle before tenure feels almost military since the family has to follow the jobs. I find my naval friends understand the challenges of displacement, separation and reintegration. It’s hard to see your husband go but equally hard to reintegrate him back into your life.

For S.A.D., I’m drawing from these experiences to create my protagonist, a navy wife in a failing marriage. Her husband is having problems since his deployment to Iraq. He’s left active duty for reserve and a new career as a commercial pilot.

To understand my fictional characters, I turned to our friends the Bailey’s. My husband coached their daughter a few years ago, and the girls were reunited last fall on the same soccer team. During practice, Kristi told me about being a navy wife and suggested I ask her husband about being a commercial pilot on reserve.

Scott Bailey is the skipper, meaning he’s in charge of the 120-person reserve squadron at the base. These hardworking men and women have full time jobs in the private sector and come for reserve training during weekends and vacation time. Officially it’s only one weekend a month and two weeks a year (36 days minimum,) but in practice it tends to be 80-120 days a year. One man flies in from Detroit just for the weekend. Locals can put in night hours in the flight simulator after work. Either way, it’s a big time commitment to serve.

Scott gave me a private tour of the reserve unit on Saturday. I spent more than a few anxious minutes worrying about what to wear. Should I dress like the Queen inspecting the troops or for the cold, damp weather? Due to the climate and my limited wardrobe (no white gloves), I settled on a twin-set, pearls and cords.

The squadron leapt up to attention when we entered a room and were intrigued to have an author visitor. One young man in a leather flight jacket asked if there was going to be swashbuckling hero pilot. I replied, “of course.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him the poor guy would be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

There was a cavernous hanger full of P-3 Orions with torpedoes lined up like luggage. These large planes with their 13-man crew search for submarines and hidden forces. They are even used for anti-drug operations in the Caribbean. In Iraq they scout ahead of the troops for danger in the desert with their state of the art surveillance systems. The planes themselves are not so high-tech but 20-30 years old. The P3’s were originally used to ferry passengers and then to track Soviet subs. I felt like I’d walked onto a movie set from a different era.

It’s an era that is due to end. The base will shut in 2011. Scott’s squadron stopped flying two weeks ago, and the reserve unit will be deactivated in November. There are also three active duty squadrons on the base; there used to be more. As the activity winds down, the air station will still be used for plane repairs and refueling before it shuts.

The Brunswick Local Redevelopment Authority will decide the future use of the base land. Many entities are competing for the space: Bowdoin College, a homeless shelter, the Conservation Commission and more than a dozen other worthy causes. I’m looking forward to finding the moose that lurk in the woods when some of the land is returned to the Town Commons.

The closure of the base will profoundly change the nature of Brunswick. It was part of the reason I wanted to write a novel about the time period. I may be a pacifist, but I have the utmost respect for those who are willing to risk their lives for our country and still funnel their peacetime energy into the community. I’m hoping some of these brave men and women will decide to settle in my town.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Portland Nightlife

“Oh-my-God-oh-my-God, it’s Professor Kitch!” shrieked a Bowdoin blond. When Aaron Kitch isn’t teaching Renaissance literature at Bowdoin College, he plays keyboard in the 80’s revival band, Racer-X.

The lead singer and guitarist, Vineet Shende , teaches music at Bowdoin. Vin had just come back from a semester sabbatical in India, studying sitar and letting his hair grow as long, black and curly as mine. For their gig at Ri~Ra in Portland, Vin clipped his hair short and donned a wig. Stretch pants and leopard print replaced his trademark jeans and leather jacket. Could this be my soft-spoken friend?

If Henry and I hadn’t gotten there early to see Racer-X set up, I doubt I would have recognized our mates. It wasn’t only their clothing that had changed. With the amps ramped up, the lights flashing and 20-year-old girls dancing and screaming, these professors were rocking.

Portland is the biggest city in Maine, a half an hour south of Brunswick. By day it’s a brick and cobblestone boutique haven of Old World charm, but by night the over-booked restaurants and bar crowds spill onto sidewalks as does the music of live bands.

The city doesn’t come alive until late, so we killed time at Books Etc. (open until 9pm Thursday-Saturday and every night during the summer.) I skimmed the new releases, pleased to see most were in my genre of women’s fiction. In the used book section I discovered a hardcover copy of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, the best novel I’ve read in the past year. I read about two books a month, mostly in my genre and in literary fiction. I’ve found the best writing teacher to be a well-written novel.

The stalking tiger on the cover of The Hungry Tide is as beautiful as the fairytale inside. It’s a contemporary story set in eastern India where deified tigers roam free and viciously wild in tidal country. The tough Indian-American heroine has come in search of the elusive river dolphin and inadvertently her ancestry. She hires an illiterate fisherman whose knowledge runs deeper than the hidden pools. It’s a world beyond intellect, ruled instead by dreams, spirits and unpredictable storms. The prose is as captivating as the story that compels the reader to read, return and read again like a favorite song.

I’ve always enjoyed books written by Indian authors. The setting is exotic but the English fluent. There is respect for family, nature and spirituality both rigidly confined and enhanced by culture. Two other favorite novels are Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. I’ve never read a better collection of stories than Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpretation of Maladies.

Lahiri’s novel The Namesake has just been released as a finely acted film. Vin says it’s the story of his life: “Did she call up all the people I know?” It’s a modern tale of Bengali immigrants whose son, Gogol, grows up to date a blond. Gogol is torn between his heritage and mainstream culture, struggling to find his footing in a world that sees him as a foreigner, despite being a native born American.

The Namesake rambles like many first novels, but it speaks with heartfelt honesty. You can almost forgive the hopeless plot that is more of an overstretched story than a novel. As a New York Jew living in small-town Maine, I’m drawn to tales of displacement and discovery.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Smart Plot Growth

I just had the best day. Early Tuesday morning I swam laps, as I do 2-3 times a week to counter all those hours sitting at the computer, and walked slowly home enjoying the sun. I opened all the windows to the wonderful warm air and produced a NEW chapter after a long, painful week of controlling plot sprawl.

Rambling prose is quite a common problem in a first draft. Many writers can only discover their characters through writing. I need to hear them talk, meet their families and see the world through their eyes before I can decide what is worth sharing. A classic piece of advice I’d heard from a writer-friend: you needed to write that, but I didn’t need to read it.

Before my children came home, I interviewed a school board member/former superintendent for research on S.A.D., my second novel. I like to let my imagination run wild and then take a reality check, adjusting details for verisimilitude. Often I ask my experts to spot-check the section later for mistakes and jargon. It’s odd being active in real educational politics while writing an imaginary version – almost like living out a dream.

I could have gone back to proofing, but it was low 70’s with a cooling sea breeze and everything had started blooming all at once. I took the dog for a walk on the way to get my daughter from girl scouts and lingered in the playground. The girls were playing an inventive mix of baseball, badminton and freeze tag. Even close to 5pm the sun was high above the tall pines. In Maine the flip side of short, dark winters are blissfully long spring/summer days.

On the deck I broke out my library book, Lionel Shriver’s The Post Birthday World. It is written in back to back chapters contrasting what would have happened had the protagonist kissed another man on his birthday or stayed faithful to her life partner. It sounds gimmicky, but it’s very well done. There are amusing twists: when she’s unfaithful, her partner dotes on her, but he almost ignores her when she’s dependable. Her flirtation sparks her creativity, but her work suffers when she leaves her supportive partner. It’s the book that answers what if… in two versions, and it does so artfully.

To top the perfect day, Henry and I decided to try Sweet Leaves Teahouse with the kids for dinner. All three dinner options were delicious (pork roast, gnocchi and scallops) and it was open mike night. I started laughing so hard I thought I’d fall off my chair to Henry’s horror because he thought the singer was trying to be serious.

Afterwards I had to get the name of the woman who sang about menopause, rhyming “my breasts are sagging” with “my energy is flagging,” and “aging” with “hormones raging.” The singer recognized me from my blog and said I was friends with her sister the writer Charlotte Agell. What a small town moment and what a pleasure to meet the talented Anna Agell.

Last night I slept well which doesn’t always happen. Often during creative bursts I wake in the night and scribble plot lines and dialogue on file cards I keep in the bathroom. I can’t help it – the characters wake me with their chatter. Other times I have worried about getting published, but as a writer I keep on writing. I do it because I can’t stop and because every day I look forward to working. It’s a passion as much as an obsession.

Some people ask how I manage to concentrate while working at home or how I find self-discipline without deadlines. I must have attention excessive disorder. I love what I do, even when it is painful, mostly it is pure joy.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Building Values or Buildings?

"Brunswick School Plan Hits a Snag" is today's headline, front page in the Portland Press Herald, the largest newspaper in Maine. The Brunswick Times Record has a similar article: "Elementary Grade Level Regrouping Criticized" as does the weekly Forecaster: "School Reconfiguration Draws Angry Response." Click blue titles for links to articles.

On Monday night April 30th the Brunswick School Board held a televised public hearing on the Educational Specification Report’s recommendation to build a large consolidated intermediate school for grades 3-5. The state will only fund one new building, but the town can pay to renovate the old, small schools as well.

By June 2008 the town must vote through public referendum to accept or to reject the new school due to open in 2010. My children are too old to be affected although they attended one of the old small schools due to shut.

Twenty-eight community members from all 4 elementary school districts testified before a packed room. Almost all criticized the lack of public involvement and information. Most questioned grade reconfiguration and urged the town to build instead a new small K-5 school with state funding, as was originally proposed, or to analyze more options with less bias.

For more information read Size Matters.

Below is my testimony:

The proposal to build a new elementary school in Brunswick with full state funding is a wonderful opportunity for our community to discuss what we value about education and to be involved in the decision making process. This town has a tradition of not only encouraging but also seeking out public opinion and participation. Sadly, compared to other big town projects like the Open Space Plan, the Comprehensive Plan, the Maine Street Station and the land reuse of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, this process has allowed for barely minimal public input.

Tonight is only the second School Department public hearing on the new school proposal in a year and a half. The only forum that openly debated the merits of various options was organized by parents, not by the school department. Building Committee meetings are open to the public, but no time is allotted for public comment. The Educational Specification Report we are discussing tonight is based on single visits to the elementary schools, which were, with one or two exceptions, poorly attended. The lack of public involvement is dangerous because a disenfranchised public might just vote down a new school in frustration when this town desperately needs more space to deal with crowding and new programming.

In order to win public support, we need a new school that reflects our values, yet the Educational Specification Report, despite its title, spent many more pages on building specifications than on educational values. Although many participants voiced support for small K-5 schools, the report concludes that school size and configuration does not matter and what matters is small learning communities. Then the report makes the leap to recommending a K-2/3-5 configuration that would, given our student population, necessitate building a large 800 student intermediate school. This conclusion does not follow from the data if educational philosophy were the driving force instead of building and administrative efficiency.

What are our educational values? For decades this town has had a system of small K-5 schools producing excellent academic results. The original proposal to build a new 350-500 student K-5 school to eliminate decades old portable classrooms created no controversy. By a large majority, the letters and Op-Ed’s in the Times Record were in support of small K-5 schools and equity. The newest member of our school board, Kathy Thorson at-Large won the majority of votes in every single district last November campaigning on a platform of small K-5 schools and equity.

Some people have said that a big consolidated school would solve our equity problems, but buildings don’t solve problems. The visible equity problems between our elementary schools will still exist inside the walls of a big consolidated school, only they will be less obvious to detect. There is concurrence in the academic literature that educational results decline, especially among children at risk, as school size increases. Who will find those lost children in the long halls?

I urge the School Board to vote against grade reconfiguration. Build two small K-5’s within one school building if indeed Longfellow School is too expensive to renovate. We need to start with educational values and design a building to fit our philosophy rather than change our philosophy to fit a building.