Worth the Waiting

Tuesday night was a really special night for me and a friend of mine. For my 40th birthday, my husband purchased two tickets to Art and Letters Live’s Diana Gabaldon talk in Dallas. I was thrilled! He was willing to accompany me even though he has not read any of her books (having instead listened to me prattle on for years), but he knew that the occasion would be even more special if I went with someone as equal in nuttiness over this author as me.

And so it was that I left work about 3:30 in the afternoon and picked up my friend. In exchange for the blessed ticket, she offered to drive us and buy my dinner. We stopped at Wal-Mart to each pick up an extra copy of the latest book to get signed for friends.

The night involved a lot of standing in line. About a half hour waiting in line for our books. Another half hour waiting for food at the museum’s cafe. Almost that much again waiting to get in to the church sanctuary for the talk. And then a staggering two hours waiting to get the books signed. Standing up past my bedtime with about 15 pounds of books in my arms was exhausting! And the crazy part was that when we left the museum after 11:00 that night, the line still stretched back farther than the point where we had managed to start. I am very curious what time the last person got her (or his, but likely her) book signed. I wonder if she got anything special for her determination.

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It would have been hard for me to have been this cheerful at this point if I were her.

The best part of the night, though, was without a doubt the talk. After about 20 minutes of waiting in our pew in the balcony of the church (at least we were sitting), we were regaled with the sounds of bagpipes and drums coming up the aisle below us. I was terribly amused when the five gentlemen in full Highland regalia turned to face us because one – the drummer, front and center – was actually not in “full” regalia. While the others were wearing the traditional tall socks and matching shoes to go with their kilts, he was wearing sneakers and ankle socks! I’m guessing someone had forgotten part of his costume.

After a lively and entertaining introduction from a very funny reporter from the Dallas Morning News, Diana Gabaldon took the stage to a standing ovation. She is a dynamic and outgoing person and I couldn’t help but wonder how hard something like this might be for a shy author. When she began to speak, I noted just how raspy her voice was. Of course. She had been in Ontario the night before and had been doing this nearly nightly for two weeks! I almost felt bad requiring her to talk that night. Almost.

Some of you may not know who this author is so let me save you the trip to Wikipedia. Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series of books, which is slated as a new mini-series premiering on the Starz network on August 9th. There are 8 books in the main series, published over the last 25 years, and numerous books, novellas, and short stories about various side characters.

The basic premise is that a British Army nurse from World War II named Claire accidentally falls through time, landing herself among some Scotsmen of the 1740s. Her modern sensibilities and dress make them and others instantly suspicious and launch a series of events making it impossible for her to make it back to the stones that would return her to her time.

The books track her, her 1740s husband Jamie, and a number of other engaging characters through time and space, encountering historical figures, danger, magic, and more. It’s full of adventure, intrigue, romance, war, betrayal, and questions of loyalty. It’s also full of really big words that I’m always looking up, which I love… especially since I read on my Kindle, which will open up the dictionary entry with the touch of my finger on the word in question!

Her talk mostly concerned how she came to be a writer and how the first book formed. I knew that she had been a biology professor, holding a PhD in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. What I didn’t know was that she had programmed in Fortran to support a colleague’s research (on the contents of bird gizzards).

That programming experience, coupled with some comic book design work for Disney and a need to earn some extra income while her husband built his new business, caused her to contact Byte magazine and another early computer periodical about creating software programs for them. As part of that gig, she was given some access to CompuServe, one of the forerunners to the internet. On CompuServe, she joined a literary discussion group composed of readers and writers.

When she decided to try her hand at writing a novel, she didn’t tell any of her CompuServe friends because she had seen how the professional writers in the group seemed to react to the wanna-bes. She also didn’t tell her husband out of fear he’d try to get her to stop.

This wildly popular series around the world started like this:

Hmmm. I don’t know if I have adequate imagination to make up my own plot so I think I’ll go with historical fiction so if my mind isn’t up to the task, I’ll have existing stuff to work with. Ok, now what? Or… when?

She saw a Doctor Who rerun where the doctor picked up a companion in the 1740s – a young Scotsman in a kilt – and she thought Ooh! Man in a kilt – I like that! Ok, so 1740s Scotland. Fiction requires conflict and she quickly found Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Rebellion.

She wanted a woman with this group of Scottish men, to add some sexual conflict, and thought that making her English would add even more conflict, so she threw the men into a cottage and had the woman walk in. (This is how she writes – no outline, no planning, just throw the characters together and see what happens).

One of the men looked up and said, “Who are you?”

To which the woman replied, “I am Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. Who the hell are you?”

Hmmm. That’s a problem, she thought. Eighteenth century women wouldn’t talk like that.

Try as she might, she couldn’t keep Claire from behaving like a modern woman. She finally caved to her character and decided Claire had to come from the future and thus added time travel. Claire also took over the story – she’s the first person perspective in the novels.

And so it began.

She eventually put pieces of the story on CompuServe and asked around about literary agents. She then had a series of experiences that is every starting author’s dream. She got an introduction to the (highly successful and very selective) literary agent she wanted. He agreed to look at excerpts of her manuscript (which was incomplete). He found her to be a great storyteller and agreed to take her on. He then sent her manuscript to five publishers, telling them they had 30 days to respond. FOUR days later, he called her to say that 3 of the 5 had already responded that they wanted the book. And just like that, she was a fiction author.

To her chagrin, the first book was marketed as Romance. It has been shelved under many different sections in bookstores including Romance, Historical Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror (have no idea why), and… History! She found that one at a little bookstore in Britain. When she pointed out to the young man that the books didn’t belong there, he explained that there was a little old lady that determined where all the books should be shelved and she insisted that’s where it belonged. “Apparently, she believes in time travel,” he quipped.

The romance reputation turns a lot of people away before they even break open the book. That’s a mistake. I’m not going to lie – there is considerably more sex than in most novels I’ve read. She’s known for writing very good sex scenes. But the books do not follow the usual rules for romance novels and the sex is not the point of the stories.

(A quick aside: As her main characters aged from their twenties to their forties about twenty years ago, she was asked if she thought people really wanted to read about people in their forties having sex. She responded, “Well, I’m 42 and my husband is 43. I don’t plan on stopping having sex any time soon and if he knows what’s good for him, he won’t either.”)

I’m sure that many of her fans – admittedly mostly women – are in it for the sex… or for Jamie. But I’m not. I genuinely enjoy the writing, the dry wit, the complex story lines, the dialogue, all the (very accurate) detail, the conflict, the history… all of it.

After waiting for two hours to get my books signed, I finally got to stand next to her. The museum staff were very efficient. Someone had already stuck a post-it note with my name on the appropriate page and had me mark it with the book flap. As I approached the front of the line, one woman took my phone so she could take a picture of me with Diana. Another took my purse so I’d be unencumbered. Another took my books and, glancing at the two post-it notes, asked which person I was so she could introduce me.

Before I knew it, I was standing next to Diana as the lady slid the book in front of her and introduced me. Diana said hello, addressing me by name, as she signed the book. I said hello and commented that we were happy to see she had a glass of wine to help her get through this.

“Actually, it’s Diet Coke. I wish it was wine.”

I mumbled something in response and then my friend approached her and commented on the wine. “She probably thinks we are such lushes!” she remarked later.

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That’s Diet Coke, not wine, as it turns out!

I enjoyed hearing the history of the novels and picking up some writing tips and meeting her, however briefly. Mostly, it was just nice to get a glimpse into the mind and face of the person responsible for one of my favorite series of books.

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Is There A Doctor In The House?

One recent Saturday morning shortly after seven, as I lay in bed reading and delaying getting up, an eerie sound started up in the boys’ room. It sounded like some sort of special effect from a science fiction movie. Before I could identify the noise, it was punctuated by a robotic voice menacingly declaring “Exterminate! Exterminate!” The music continued and then the voice cut in again and so on.

I soon heard the rustling of sheets and sleepy voices mumbling to each other, first softly and then at a near shout when it became clear that neither wanted to get out of bed. “Turn it off!”…”You turn it off!”…”You are closer!”…”So?! I don’t know how!”…”But I’m on the bunk bed! Just do it! Hurry!”…”I don’t know how!”

Then there was the sound of someone stumbling out of bed, some bumping and exclamations, and then the Dalek and his background music desisted. Some slight rustling as the vanquisher returned to bed. And then silence.

I turned to my husband and smiled. He smiled back. “That was awesome,” he laughed quietly. And, indeed, it was.

You see, that Dalek was ours before it was taken without permission. It had sat placidly in our bedroom not threatening anyone for well over six months since we received it for Christmas. If you press on its head, it will project the time on the ceiling. Pressing its head while the alarm is going off will also act as a snooze and we both continued to smile as we could guess how the boys had likely quieted the Dalek.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, it started up again and the entire situation played out much the same. Only this time, the young bottom-bunk dweller opted to retire to our room after performing his duty so that he couldn’t be tasked with silencing it again.

The next morning, the Dalek greeted us shortly after seven. And again the next. One night, as I tucked the boys into bed, I picked it up and said, “You know, when you guys took this from our room, you fiddled with it and turned the alarm clock on. You need to figure out how to undo it.”

They shrugged me off. I, in turn, shrugged them off. They had dug themselves into this hole and we found the Dalek not merely amusing, but pretty helpful, guaranteeing that our boys would be roused shortly after seven each morning.

After a week or so of this, I went to tuck the boys in last night. Hal looked up and pleaded with me, “Mommy! Will you please, please take that Dalek out of here?!”

“No,” I said, “I rather like it being in here. It does a good job of waking you guys up at 7:15.”

“But I don’t want to wake up at 7:15!” Daryl protested. “I want to wake up at 8:15!”

“Please!” begged Hal. “It scares me. Please?!”

His tone was genuinely that of a scared little boy. I got to thinking about my reaction when I heard that alarm the first time and firmly told my husband he was to never enable the alarm. And how much I had jumped when someone had nevertheless inadvertently turned it on.

I took the Dalek out of the room.

My husband was waiting for me at the dining room table for our budget discussion. I set the Dalek down in front of him. He looked up at it and burst out laughing.

I smiled.

The Dalek had been a gift. One that we had suggested we’d enjoy – mostly because we were after the projected clock. That feature worked but not the way we had intended. The gift, however, has not gone unappreciated. This past week gave us all the enjoyment we needed.

The Best Room in the House

We spent the night in Gallup, NM after dragging ourselves out of the Grand Canyon, tired, stiff, and sore. The night was spent watching the Disney channel, the kids laughing and the parents rolling their eyes.

The best part of our stay was that we had been given “the only room available,” which turned out to be the handicap-equipped room closest to the elevator on the third floor.

We all piled into the very small elevator and as Hal hit the “3” button to close the doors, I looked up. And nearly screamed. Five people were hanging upside down from the ceiling and one of them was looking straight at me! Just as my heart jumped into my throat, one of the others looked down too and Jane yelled. Then we both laughed.

In my brain’s hazy attempt to process what I was seeing in the mirrored ceiling, I first thought that it was some sort of dual elevator and another family was on it too… inexplicably upside down. My second thought was of The Silence from Doctor Who and I feared that they were about to drop down and attack. The experience was unsettling and I could only shake my head in agreement when Jane asked, “Who puts a mirror on the ceiling in an elevator?!”

The room was a sore hiker’s dream. There was plenty of room to drop packs and spread out, but the bathroom was the real treat. I was relieved to see the bar next to the toilet that I could use instead of looking for leverage on the edge of the seat to help lift me back up.

And the shower? Ahhhh…. In a moment of weakness, I had traded my turn at the wheel for Hal-showering duty. I knew I would regret it when we got to the hotel. I had no clue how I would possibly be able to maneuver myself to a kneeling position by the tub. But now? Turns out I wouldn’t have to. The shower came equipped with a sprayer that detached from the wall and a bench. I was able to spray Hal and even have him sit on the bench and lift his legs for me to clean them. And when it was my turn to get clean, all those rails to grab hold of were a Godsend.

Sometimes it’s the little things in life.

Statue of Liberty… Attacks!

SPOILER ALERT: This post includes spoilers for “Angels Take Manhattan”, episode 5, season 7 of Doctor Who.

While riding in the car with my mother-in-law, my husband commented on his desire to go to New York City and see the Statue of Liberty. Daryl called out from the back of the minivan, “Why didn’t the Statue of Liberty go ahead and take Amy and Rory?”

He’s referring to the last Amy Pond episode of Doctor Who, Angels Take Manhattan, specifically a pivotal scene in which Amy and her husband Rory find themselves trapped on top of a building with the Statue of Liberty looming ominously on the other side of the building, mouth open in an angry snarl. The Statue of Liberty, like all other statues in Manhattan, is actually a Weeping Angel who will feed off their time energy if she can touch them. Weeping Angels can’t move while you are looking at them though. Just don’t blink.

At the start of the scene, Rory is keeping his eyes on her as he prepares to jump off the building to die and thus cause a paradox and hopefully, maybe, destroy all the Angels. But as he and Amy argue over whether this is a good idea, it becomes obvious that no one is paying the statue any attention. They have eyes only for each other.

“I’ve got five letters for you,” I quipped. This is an old family joke invoked anytime someone questions something happening in a movie or TV show. My husband used to say it to me, referring to the script. After he had used it several times, I realized, and pointed out with relish, that S-C-R-I-P-T has six letters. But the joke lives on with five.

Anyway, this particular plot point had bothered me too and I said so. “He started off watching her but then when he and Amy started pledging their undying love for each other, they started looking soulfully in each other’s eyes. She totally should have touched him then. I agree.”

“Well,” said my mother-in-law, “the Statue of Liberty is French and they can be dreadfully romantic. Perhaps she was just caught up in the moment.”

“That would make sense,” I said. “But then again, they were discussing what to do to destroy her so it seems like she would have intervened.”

My husband then joined in with his opinion on the matter: “The French never were very good at defending themselves.” Spoken like a true American.

Daleks and Angels and Grasshoppers, Oh My!

We have a bit of a grasshopper infestation. Well, ok, maybe if there’s been a person or two who has actually contemplated not coming to our house because of them, it might be more than just a bit of an infestation.

When Allison came home with us the other night, the grasshoppers greeted our return with their usual fanfare. Hundreds of grasshoppers began to jump in celebration. Think the big “Be Our Guest” number in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A fountain of jumping insects all across the yard.

That’s when we learned that Allison is slightly phobic about grasshoppers. She opted to wait in the car while Jane went in to retrieve her clothes. Unfortunately, the backseat was also occupied by a four year old, who bounded out of the car without shutting the door. While Jane called to Allison to come inside and Allison called out that she was fine, a grasshopper decided to join her.

Suddenly, she was not fine. She began to shriek. And then flail. She begged Jane to come retrieve the grasshopper. And then in a final move of desperation, she scrambled out of the car, jumping from foot to foot and shaking her arms.

Now, this is what I love about Jane’s friends. No, not that this one is afraid of grasshoppers. That’s not what I’m getting at. It has to do with how she chose to describe the nightmare once we were safely back in the car. As she shuddered slightly, she said, “That was horrible. That was the most awful experience ever. That’s worse than Daleks and Weeping Angels combined!”

I’m all for Jane having friends that relate their real-world experiences to Doctor Who. Even if she’s prone to hyperbole.

While You Were Away

Something really exciting happened while my older two children were at summer camp. Something so exciting that I wrote to tell them about it. They both got a letter on the same day with the big news.

The Doctor paid us a visit! In the Tardis! I mean, wow! How exciting! Hal was elated!

When I arrived at their respective camps to pick them up, I even showed them the photographic proof of the visit on my phone.

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To my shock and dismay, neither one of them were impressed. In fact, they flat-out didn’t believe me. Neither one of them.

“That picture isn’t real, Mommy,” said Jane. “The lighting is wrong. Where did you learn to Photoshop like that?”

I reminded her that we didn’t own Photoshop.

Later, she tried another approach. “He’s not really The Doctor, Mommy. That’s not his real name.”

“Oh, really? What’s his real name?”

“He’s not real. He’s just an actor that plays a role on a TV show. His real name is David Tennant.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes. Mommy. It is.” Her impatience was very thinly veiled.

“No, it’s not. The actor on the TV show’s real name is not David Tennant.”

“Oh, really? Then what is it?”

“David Tennant’s real name is David McDonald, but it doesn’t matter because that picture isn’t of David Tennant. It’s of The Doctor.”

“No, it’s not. That’s David Tennant.”

“No, it’s The Doctor. David Tennant was chosen to play him on the TV show because he shares such a striking resemblance to one of The Doctor’s actual physical forms.”

“Seriously, Mom. Where did you learn to Photoshop like that?”

Daryl had a much more flawed argument. He insisted that the picture was obviously fake because “that’s not even the current doctor! That’s an old one.”

Hello? Time travel? The Doctor. Travels. Through. Time.

“It doesn’t matter,” he claimed. “He can still only be one doctor right now.”

“You obviously don’t understand time travel,” I argued. “Each regeneration of The Doctor has traveled throughout time, past, present, future. Any one of them could be stopping in to see us. We just don’t know about it until he arrives.”

Even Jane backed me up on this one but Daryl still shook his head and walked away.

When we got home, they descended on Hal almost immediately.

“Hal, did The Doctor really come to visit?”

Hal nodded his head. Good boy.

“No he didn’t!” they responded in unison. “Come on, tell us the truth. Did he come?”

Again, he nodded. Then Jane pulled a devious trick on her honest little brother. She pulled up a picture of Matt Smith as The Doctor on her phone and asked, “Is this who came to visit?”

Hal nodded. They pounced. “See! That wasn’t The Doctor in the picture! It’s not true! He didn’t come!”

Hal rolled over and buried his face in the armrest of the chair. He was embarrassed and I thought he might be close to tears.

“You two are ridiculous!” I said, coming to his defense. “Hal is a very smart young man. He’s capable of recognizing The Doctor in all his forms. He doesn’t have to look physically the same for Hal to recognize him for who he is. He just didn’t understand your question.”

They still did not believe. Children these days. Such jaded and doubtful creatures. Where’s their sense of wonder and mystery? Why so cynical and suspicious? I’m their mother. Why would I make up such a tale?

What’s the Capital of…?

As the boys played in the play area at Chick-Fil-A the other night, Jane sat with her parents and quizzed us on geography.

“What’s the capital of South Africa?” she asked.

“Johannesburg,” I answered.

“How do you know that?!?”

“It’s common knowledge,” her dad said.

“No it’s not! Fine, what’s the capital of Mexico?”

“Mexico City.”

“Guatamala?”

“Guatamala City.”

“Panama?” she started to laugh.

“Panama City. What’s the capital of Nevada?” I asked, turning the tables.

“What? I don’t know. Um. Nevada City?”

“No.”

“Um… how about… California City?”

“No, but that’s closer. It starts with Ca and ends in ity.” Eventually we got her to name it by giving the last name of a classmate named Carson. We moved on to other states. Her knowledge of state capitals was fairly weak.

“The capital of Florida…” she tried to answer, “…is… it’s like… Naomi. Right?”

“Are you trying to say Miami?”

“Yes! That’s it!”

“No, that’s not the capital of Florida.”

“But it’s pretty close to Miami, isn’t it?”

“No, actually the capital of Florida is about as far away from Miami as you can get and still be in Florida. It’s Tallahassee. How ’bout Kansas?”

“It’s not Kansas City, right? I mean, Kansas City is in Oklahoma.”

“What?!”

“I mean. It’s in Texas? No, wait… it’s somewhere… Missouri!”

“Actually it’s in both Missouri and Kansas, but what’s the capital of Kansas?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wichita*. How about Texas?”

“Houston.”

There was a moment of stunned silence before, “No, wait! I meant Austin! I meant Austin!”

“Wow,” her dad said. “I can’t believe you just said that.”

“I’m not even a Texan and I know the capital,” I added.

“It used to be the capital! It’s because of time travel! I travel with The Doctor, you see. I just forgot when I was. I’m confused. No, I’m…”

“Befuddled?” suggested her dad.

“Yes. Wait. No!”

I truly wish I had a recording of the conversation because I’ve forgotten many of the details. We traveled all over the world, naming capitals and rattling off facts, teasing each other and laughing the whole time. We all got to show off our knowledge and struggle through our weaknesses, like when I took several minutes to call to mind that Ottawa was the capital of Canada, while Jane grinned like the Cheshire Cat. She had classmates playing in the play area, but she chose to spend her time with us, exercising her brain. I truly cherish moments like this.

*Edit: To my great amusement, a friend on the East Coast, far, far away from Kansas, pointed out to me that Topeka is the capital of Kansas, the state that borders my husband’s and my home state. We also misstated the capital of India, but that one didn’t make it into the story. Proof that even the parents don’t always get it right.