B. C. – Before Crying

Leaving Los AngelosI am writing this a day early. I normally write and post my weekly essay on Sundays but I am currently on a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore and filled with emotion, so Saturday it is.

In N Out BurgerWe have been in LA since Wednesday afternoon, my husband and younger daughter. Upon arrival we had dinner at In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda, as recommended via Twitter by Food Network and NYC chef extraordinaire Alex Guarnaschelli. It was a very good burger, one of the best I’ve had, certainly the best bun I’ve ever had on a burger. I had the single, no cheese, but with “secret” animal sauce, which tastes an awful lot like McDonald’s “special” sauce for the Big Mac. The fries, meh. Sorry, Alex.

Brunch at Mel'sAfter this apparent LA right of passage, we checked in to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn on Highland. This is the way people talk in LA and about LA destinations, be it a restaurant, a hotel, or an entertainment venue. First you say the destination and then you say “on …” and you say the street. We left our rental car with the valet and headed inside, struggling with beaucoup de luggage. To the random by-passer, we looked like any normal family on a sightseeing vacation over spring break, but we were anything but.

Beautiful Plants at HotelTom and I had packed light, one small carry-on each; I also had my ever present Vera Bradley school bag and Tom had his travel briefcase. We only needed a few changes of clothes each whereas our daughter had packed nearly all of her earthly possessions, including bed linens and towels. We settled into our room and found spots to park her two enormous rolling suitcases and large duffel. The hotel was nice, the lobby very fresh and modern, the room a bit tired but clean and pleasant. Tom and I left our daughter in the room to shower and sort through and reorganize her luggage while we headed downstairs to the hotel bar to have a drink. It had been a long day and an exhausting one.

Joan's on ThirdOn Thursday we had a leisurely morning in the room and then headed out to have lunch at Joan’s on Third, another tweeted recommendation from my BFF (not really, JK) Alex Guarnaschelli. I had tweeted several famous tv chefs and asked for recommendations for eating in LA on a school teacher’s budget. Alex was the only one who replied and both her recommendations were spot on. Lunch at Joan’s on Third was fabulous and reasonable.Joan's on Third salad trio

After lunch, we drove around for a bit and then happened upon the Samuel French Bookstore on Sunset Blvd., and being both book and theatre fiends, we parked and went in. We spent an hour or so in there browsing the published scripts of plays, librettos of Broadway musicals, and screenplays of movies and TV shows. We each picked out our selections and then bought some souvenirs for our older daughter at her home in Pittsburgh. Since we still had down time until our drive to Santa Monica for dinner with some East Coast friends and we were all feeling a bit jet lagged from the three-hour time difference, we went back to the hotel to rest a bit.

Samuel French Bookstore

Samuel French Bookstore

This is a perfect example of the way my family likes to vacation. We are foodies and we want to sample the cuisine and culture of the places we visit so we spend a lot of time beforehand researching the local food scene. We plan out our sightseeing itinerary the same way, with a lot of research and googling before we even leave home. My husband sets up a file folder with all the info we will need to do the things we want to do, see the things important to us, and eat and drink like the locals at the best – but not always the most expensive – places our destination has to offer.

Hollywood at NightConversely, we do NOT run around non-stop from dawn to dusk trying to cram in every single tourist attraction or photo opportunity found in the normal guidebooks or on recommendations from friends who like that sort of thing. We sleep in, dress, have coffee, and then go out for brunch. We do one main sight-seeing activity, and then stop for lunch at one of our pre-planned destinations. We do another sight-seeing activity or tourist attraction, and then we head back to the hotel for a rest before dressing for dinner.

Beauty at a Parking Garage

Beautiful flowers everywhere, even on the parking garage

We might spend an entire day in one museum, having lunch in the museum cafe, and then take our time wandering through the gift shop before heading back to the hotel to rest before dinner. Sure, this isn’t the ideal vacation for most people (“You can sleep at home, why nap on vacation?”), and we’ve had almost 27 years of married life to perfect this but it works for us, and we are thrilled to bits to be away from the normal stresses of everyday life. We don’t want to add any stress to our days away from home, so we don’t want to rush around and try to cram in everything a city has to offer in one three-day weekend.

 

Dinner at The Lobster

Dinner at The Lobster on Ocean, Santa Monica

Later that afternoon, as planned, we drove to Santa Monica and had drinks at my friend’s adorable and Disney-decked out studio apartment, complete with a studio apartment-sized sectional sofa, the absolute cutest thing I have ever seen. It was great catching up with her and her boyfriend, who was also visiting from the East Coast, over wine and cheese. She left DC a year ago to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in California where she could soak up the sunshine and indulge her obsession with all things Disney. Last summer, just before she and her father left to drive to LA with her PT Cruiser stuffed to the gills, she came over to my house and had lunch with me, while we talked about this big adventure she was undertaking, moving to the West Coast all alone, getting an apartment, getting a job, making new friends, starting completely over without her parents, her sister, or her boyfriend.

Black Pasta with Shellfish

Shellfish with Black Pasta (squid ink)

After wine and cheese, we walked to the Santa Monica pier to our restaurant, The Lobster on Ocean, where just after being seated, with the perfect timing of a Spielberg-directed movie set, we watched the sun set over the glorious Pacific Ocean.

Sunset on Santa Monica Pier

Beautiful sunset over the Pacific

Dinner was delicious, and even better, the fun stories and laughter at our table while my husband and I enjoyed the company of these three young people, my friend and her boyfriend and our younger daughter, all at the beginning of their adult lives, where the road stretches ahead on what seems like an infinite path, filled with endless possibilities for happiness and success. They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t care. They have their devices, Google, and social media, and they can find out what they want when they want, learning on the fly so to speak. I am envious of their station in life while also satisfied that some of that is behind me.

Mel's Drive-InOn Friday, we had brunch at the famous Mel’s Drive-in on Highland and then drove to several apartment complexes near Hollywood, including the one where my daughter will be staying temporarily with a friend while she finds a roommate, a job, and an apartment of her own. Now you can see why this trip was not just a normal vacation over spring break; this was mama bird and papa bird crossing the country and returning home without baby bird to an empty nest.

Tacos at Guisado's

Authentic tacos and delicious!

After our apartment hunting, we returned to the hotel and rested a bit before going out for our final dinner together in LA. For this selection, we went with the recommendation of a friend of my older daughter, who has been living in LA for a few years. I sent her a message via Facebook asking for recommendations for Mexican food, and she sent us to Guisados on Santa Monica Blvd., for what might have been the best and most authentic tacos I’ve ever had. Back at the hotel after dinner, we presented our baby bird with a little memento, a picture frame containing a family photo of us four taken on Easter Sunday when we were in Pittsburgh last week visiting our older daughter. Easter Sunday Family PhotoAt the time, I posted the photo on my Facebook page and captioned it, “Our last family photo for a while,” which was both heartbreaking to type and to see in black and white on my Facebook page every time I checked my notifications for my many friends who responded to that sentimental tearjerker of a caption.

Succulents Thriving in CA weather

Succulents thriving in the LA weather

In the weeks running up to this trip, I’ve had a few trial runs for this morning. While out walking the dog or driving alone in my car, I would go through the mental scenario of dropping her off at her friend’s apartment, helping her in with her luggage, hugging her goodbye, and then starting to cry. Once in the car, and out of sight, I would imagine myself sobbing openly, the same way I did when we left baby bird at college for the first time, in the most dismal and decrepit dormitory room I’ve ever seen, a single room turned into a double because of overbooking on the school’s part, so small in fact that the girls had to decide which pieces of their standard dorm furniture to eliminate so they could both fit in the room at the same time.

Puccini with LA souvenir

Puccini with his LA souvenir: a cow’s hoof from a farmers’ market

Dropping off big sister the first time was also terrible but at least we had baby bird with us to take home for two more years. Now it is just the two of us, and the dog of course, but as much as I love that little 16-pound ball of fur, un-house-broken shenanigans, and barks, it is NOT the same as my darling daughters.

 

Lindsey's Apartment BuildingSo on to today, and B. C. We got up, dressed, packed, and checked out. We headed over to her friend’s apartment on Sanborn, and all four of us made our way up to the second floor of this beautiful old building with our daughter’s copious amounts of luggage. Her friend’s home was also a studio, most decidedly not Disney-decked out, but sparingly curated with artsy posters, books, and a free-standing “cat tree” for Ziti and Willow. She then took us downstairs and out back where we found a “secret garden” of sorts, expertly planted with herbs, succulents, and flowering plants and lovingly cared for by two guys who live in the apartment above.

Maddie at Joan's on Third

Our beautiful, smart, talented baby bird

It was a beautiful, peaceful respite in the middle of LA. I can see our daughter sitting out there, with her laptop, writing away on one of her screenplays or scripts. Her friend seemed like a really nice person and when we thanked her for taking in our daughter temporarily, she commented that when she moved to LA six years ago after college, a lot of people had helped her get started so she wanted to pay it back. How lucky we are that the world still has people in it who want to pay it back or pay it forward.

Saying Goodbye

All smiles, BC

And so, after many trial runs, it was time for the real deal. We three walked downstairs to the rental car, where we hugged and I cried, and she got a little pink as well. We promised to text when our plane landed and she promised to call and text and stay in touch with us while she gets started and gets settled in her new home away from home. She ran through the events she had planned for the next few days, I think as reassurance for me that she had this and she was going to be okay. We kissed again and I got in the car and pulled away, and as I had imagined and practically scheduled for myself, I began to sob. I cried all the way to LAX (which by the way is on Airport Blvd.) and every time I thought I had regained control of myself, a new wave of anxiety, fear, and panic would sweep over me, reducing me to sobs and puddles of tears. So many what ifs and things out of my control. So many things to worry about. So many miles between us.

 

Almost Home

Approaching BWI

Once at the airport, bags checked and through security, we headed straight for the food court area for sustenance, both liquid and solid. My husband, who had somehow managed to remain quite stoic throughout the whole cutting of the cord, said, “You did good.” After a cold beer and a hot pizza, I felt better.

On Board Selfie Coming Home

Just us returning home

Mama bird and papa bird then sat alone at the gate, watching younger parents with their toddlers, tweens, and teens, negotiating the use of devices, checking battery power, doling out snacks and drinks, all the while feeling empty nest in a very poignant way. Later today, when we land and carry our small bags to our car, we will touch base with baby bird and check in with her on her first day living in LA, spreading her wings and reaching for the stars. Godspeed little bird, we love you. ❤️

 

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Color My World

Feb issue of Writer's DigestRecently I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine when I came across an interview with Drew Daywalt, who was featured on the cover. I had not yet heard of him (sorry, Mr. Daywalt) but the image of his two children’s books on the first page of the article caught my eye so I read on. Intrigued, I did a bit of research on him and found that he was also featured on one of my favorite websites, Nerdy Book Club. It didn’t take me long to get the 4-1-1 on Drew Daywalt.

By all accounts, Drew Daywalt has had quite a varied career, even at the current age of only 46. He graduated from Emerson College with a double major in screenwriting and children’s lit, leaving the door wide-open as to future plans. He headed to Hollywood with a friend after graduation, using his screenwriting degree to work for the likes of Disney, Universal, Quinton Tarantino, and Jerry Bruckheimer, a charmed life for sure. In 2003, with his wife pregnant with their first child, he sat down at his desk to write a children’s book. His goal was to write something that his kids could read some day, because his work so far had been in horror films, certainly not bedtime-reading material, even in Hollywood.

As he surveyed his desktop of the grown-up tools of a writer, he spotted a box of crayons, which he dumped out on his desk. His creative wheels started to turn and from that box of well-used crayons came the 2013 book The Day the Crayons Quit, illustrated by celebrated artist and Emmy winner Oliver Jeffers. Daywalt’s first venture in children’s literature remained on the New York Times bestseller for two years, and was followed by the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home, published in August of 2015 to critical acclaim as well.

Drew Daywalt interviewI haven’t read Daywalt’s books, although they are currently on order from Amazon, but from reading about them, I am intrigued. The first book is a series of letters from the individual crayons to an unseen little boy named Duncan. Apparently, each crayon has a beef with its owner. It’s this use of personification that interests me, that each crayon has written the boy with complaints about his use (or non-use) of them.

markers and colored pencilsI also have boxes of crayons, markers, and colored pencils at my disposal. In 7th and 8th grade language arts, we normally express ourselves in essays about the literature we are reading. However, after studying Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I realized the value in allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in a more artistic way, with the creation of posters or brochures to accompany oral presentations.

box of crayonsIt was only a small step from thinking of the crayons as individuals quitting their job for a variety of different reasons to considering my middle school students as a box of crayons. John Mayer said once in an interview that he considered himself a box of 64-crayons, although a few were missing. I’m not 100% clear on what he meant by this but I like the visual image his quote calls to mind. We are all individuals, each one of us unique and one-of-a-kind, yet we have many of the same facets of others mixed in to our unique blend. And, to extend the metaphor a bit more, we do all have to live together in one box, like it or not.

box of chocolatesIn the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, says “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes I think of my classroom full of students as a box of chocolates, the assorted ones that come without the labels on the lid of the box to tell you what is inside of each one.

As the school year begins, you have no idea what is inside each chocolate, but slowly, through class discussions, graded work, creative writing, field trips, and after-school activities, you get to know each student as an individual. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Some have well-developed senses of humor and a firm handle on irony and sarcasm while others are more literal and sensitive. Some feel more at home in a math or science classroom and can’t match my enthusiasm for reading or writing about literature. A few students each year remind me of myself at that age, a book at the ready in case there is any down time in the school day or the opportunity to escape back into the story they are half-way through. Some are fledgling writers while others have already found their voice and are well on their way to being able to write coherent and pertinent analytical essays. word cloud of favorite subjectMany list “recess” as their favorite subject, followed by PE as a close second. My school is very sports-oriented and as a result I have had to step up my game and learn some sports lingo to better communicate with them. I now have, with the help of my husband, some sports analogies that help with grammar rules as well as classroom discussions about characterization and plot. While talking about sports is not my strong suit, I am okay with them knowing that they have the upper hand in this area. It evens the playing field a bit.

Since my school is a traditional co-ed K-8 Catholic school, I also observe daily the many differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls, not the least of which is the differences in their maturity levels. It is interesting to see how even when we end up in the same place, with the same answer as to the dominant theme of this work or that, the approach the boys and girls take is quite different. I have girls who are quiet and reticent to participate in class discussions but I also have girls who are strong and confident, not concerned with what the boys may think about their comments in the class discussions. The same goes for the boys, a fair mixture of those who avoid contact when I am looking for an answer as well as those ready to debate anything and everything at the drop of a hat.

crayonsWhether I use the box of crayons or the box of chocolates as my metaphor, my days are segmented into 40-minute periods with a revolving door of unique individuals coming and going. It is my job to find out what is inside each one, much like the assorted chocolates, peel back the wrapper a bit and figure out how best to reach and teach that individual. With 18-23 in each of my six classes, that seems next to impossible. But, to the contrary, I am energized by it and, even now, in my ninth year of teaching, I can honestly say I absolutely love teaching. school bellAt the end of each school day, I am most often content with my work for the day, even if it meant I was successful with making a substantial connection with only a few that day. Each day starts anew, and at 8:20 each morning, I start with a clean slate and a new lesson plan, albeit the same goal: to share with them my love of literature and the importance of reading and writing well.

 

The Second Mrs. de Winter: Not Your Mama’s Cinderella

Cinderella vhsDespite what Walt Disney’s mega-marketing machine would have you believe, he did not create Cinderella. The story may have originated as early as 7 BC, but its European roots date from the mid 1600’s. The basic story line does not vary much: the prince or other wealthy man saves the poor orphaned girl from a desperate life, with or without a wicked stepmother or nasty stepsisters. Cinderella is the title character and our protagonist, and the story, in its many variations, is really about her.

Hollywood, Broadway, and the literary world have all brought us many, many versions of this well-known tale. Just looking through Julia Roberts’ filmography alone we can see many iterations of the Cinderella story. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere saves Julia Roberts from a life of prostitution and cheesy fashion choices. In Erin Brockovich, the legal field and a tough but fair attorney together rescue her from near-poverty, but alas, not from her cheesy wardrobe. In Runaway Bride, Richard Gere again saves her from being all dressed up in white but not getting “a ring on it”. Cinderella is everywhere.

One Saturday in the fall of 1980 I was watching television while cleaning my tiny shoebox of an apartment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a studio apartment that in real estate speak would be described as cozy and “open floor plan”; the kitchen/dining/living room area was only separated from the bedroom and bathroom by a floor to ceiling curtain. I was a first-semester law student at LSU, and as much as I hated house-cleaning then and now, I was dreading even more a full day of reading case studies at the law library. I had channel-surfed for almost an hour and found nothing of interest until I came upon something already in progress, a black and white movie I had never seen before. However, I instantly recognized Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier as the leads, and that alone was enough to hold my attention.

du maurier booksI was awestruck by this movie and for several days had the characters and setting bubbling around in my head. However, in the days before Google, unless you had a TV Guide magazine or the newspaper, it was not that easy to find out what was on television. When I mentioned it to the mother of a friend of mine, she instantly knew which movie I was talking about. “It’s based on a novel, you know, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.” I didn’t know, so naturally, I rushed to the library to get a copy of the book.

Since I had never heard of the book Rebecca or been introduced to Daphne du Maurier prior to stumbling upon this movie, there wasn’t much I could do but proceed getting to know the movie and the book out of my preferred order. Almost thirty-five years later, it is hard to remember my initial reaction to reading Rebecca for the first time, as I have read it dozens of times since then. However, it is, and will always be, one of my favorite books, permanently lodged on my all-time top five list. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In this gothic novel, we get a glimpse of life on a grand English country estate (aka sprawling seaside castle amidst vast lands), set between the two great world wars, with the well-known trope of rich, dashing widower meets poor but pretty young girl. He marries her, and brings her home to a substantial dose of culture shock and all-out social class warfare. Classic Cinderella story, n’est-ce pas?

If you assumed the Disney version, though, you would be very wrong indeed. Du Maurier shatters all such assumptions. In Rebecca, the title character is actually the deceased first wife of the “prince”, and the story is really about her, so much so that we never actually learn the name of “Cinderella”. Du Maurier very craftily makes this young girl, released begrudgingly from her employment as a traveling companion to an old and pompous American woman to marry Maxim de Winter, the vessel through which we get to know the first and late Mrs. de Winter. It is through the slow unfolding of Rebecca’s story that we watch the second Mrs. de Winter save her prince. No spoilers; if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie get thee to Amazon immediately!

This glorious book, published in 1938, has sold millions of copies and is still in print all over the world in many different languages. It is still regularly assigned as required reading in high schools, where its status as a modern gothic novel with elements of romance, jealousy, crime, and mystery are artfully woven together, serving also as a good vehicle for teaching social class and hierarchy with the classic struggle of the upstairs and downstairs life of British nobility, even in post-Victorian England.

rebecca vhsThe movie Rebecca is equally glorious, and you don’t have to take my word for it. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also thought it was glorious, as they bestowed upon it the Oscar for Best Picture of 1940 (although at the time this top award was referred to as “Outstanding Production”). Having been nominated for a total of eleven awards, it also won the Academy Award for Cinematography; the choice of filming it in black and white did nothing to diminish the beauty of Monte Carlo, the roiling Atlantic Ocean, or the English countryside. The director, Alfred Hitchcock in his first American production, stayed true to the novel, with only a major change to the story line, required by the studio to uphold the morals of the time.  Du Maurier herself loved the film.

Hitchcock’s movie is not the only adaptation; the book itself reflects the jealousy felt by a woman for the previous lover of her husband. In a 2013 interview, du Maurier’s son, Kits Browning, revealed that his father had been engaged to a woman before his mother, and that woman signed her last name with “this wonderful great R”. He intimates that his mother may have been jealous of that first relationship, and those feelings inspired the plot of Rebecca, along with the “wonderful great R” featured prominently in both the book and the movie. In reality, du Maurier was more Rebecca than the second Mrs. de Winter, having grown up wealthy and privileged, holidaying in a mansion near the sea in Cornwall.

In Rebecca we have a female character that initially is weak and submissive, so passive and unimportant that, like Cinderella, she is not even granted a first name. She is skittish and worries over everything, even the most minuscule change to her hairstyle and whether her new husband will like it. She breaks a small China figurine and hides the broken pieces in a desk drawer out of fear for being reprimanded by the housekeeper for this accident in her own home. At the start of the book, again like Cinderella, we know very little about her past other than her occupation, presumably because she has no family and must make her own way in life. She goes from the care and control of Mrs. Van Hopper to the care and control of her new husband, a much older and even wealthier companion. While haunted day and night by the aura of Maxim’s first wife, which hangs over the family estate and all its inhabitants like a heavy, cloying perfume, we see the second Mrs. de Winter “come of age” and take control of a tragic situation when her dear Maxim most needs her. It is her strength, borne of love and the compulsion to lift the bitter fog of Rebecca’s memory, which saves them both, when all the world appears to come crashing down around them. While it appears that they lose everything in the process, the spell of Rebecca is broken. In du Maurier’s gothic novel, it is her Cinderella who saves the Prince.

Bibliography

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 17 Aug. 2013. Web. 08 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cinderella.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Rebecca (1940 film).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Rebecca (novel).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.