Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Persistence & Perfection: What we can learn from house wrens

We can learn a lot from birds, persistence being one of them.

I love birdhouses and have a half-dozen of them hanging around our property. Some are attached to poles. Some hang from trees. They vary in shape and color. Each year I hope for a cavity nester, such as a chickadee or house finch, to take up residence. Each year house wrens commandeer every single dwelling. Except the bluebird boxes, which the tree swallows occupy.

The house wren is a small, brown bird with a longish tail, generally held at a jaunty, upward angle, and a surprisingly loud and persistent song. His song is not the only notably persistent characteristic of this scrappy little bird.

They are prodigious nest-builders. And they don’t like neighbors.

The male house wren arrives in late spring here in Vermont. I don’t honestly know if we have one highly ambitious house wren that returns each year to occupy our yard, or several. Given how territorial they are, I’m guessing it’s one. But over the few weeks following his (or their) arrival, the yard fills with noisy wren-chatter, and nest building begins.

The house wren’s nest is far different from the neat, skillfully constructed nest of the ruby-throated hummingbird, who cements his tiny, suspended orb with silk from spider webs and then lines it with dandelion fluff. Or the American robin, who gathers grass, string, paper, and strips of cloth and glues them together with mud that his mate carries in her beak. She then lines the nest with soft grass and molds it into a perfect bowl with her body. Even the marsh wren weaves a pretty little oval house suspended between reeds.


The typical nest of the house wren is a pile of twigs. Without the confines of the birdhouse to bind it, the wren’s “nest” would have no integrity at all. I know this because our Mr. Wrenly, as I’ve taken to calling him, attempted for several weeks this summer to build a nest in our newspaper box, probably in case another wren, or a chickadee, should view it as an attractive nest site. Every time my husband removed the accumulated pile of twigs, Mr. Wrenly replaced them. This bird is a paragon of persistence and not all that concerned about perfection. This combination seems to work for him, and I think he's on to something.

One year a pioneering chickadee built a nest in the box outside my office. Then Mr. Wrenly arrived and declared eminent domain. I don’t know if there were chickadee eggs or hatchlings inside when the wren commandeered the box, but he dispatched them. Birds don’t have a sense of “fair play.” They can’t afford to. It’s a short breeding season, their habitat and food supplies are disappearing, cats and invasive species are increasing. It’s tough out there for birds, and getting tougher. House wrens routinely destroy the eggs of competitors, even other house wrens. These birds are the original NIMBYs.

Once his pile of sticks is complete and he’s filled all the neighborhood cavities to confuse predators and prevent neighbors from moving in, the male house wren starts to sing for a mate. And sing. And sing. And sing. And sing… Eventually, hopefully before we go stark, raving mad, one shows up. House wrens are polygynous, so this is unlikely a mate from a precious season. (Some species of wrens are monogamous.)

He's not all that choosy about a mate, but she is. She assesses his architectural prowess and melodic proposal. If she accepts, they consummate the deal. She then adds a bit of hair, feathers, and plant fibers to the base of the pile of twigs and lays eggs.

I can easily keep an eye on the birdhouse outside my office window, and it’s a marvel to watch the parental care, as they fly off in search of food for the hatchlings, delivering a fat caterpillar or the like every ten minutes or so. They grab a fecal sac from the nest and sail off again in a ceaseless cycle all day long. Baby wrens, like their fathers, are very vocal. Their nearly constant chatter reaches a fevered pitch when a parent returns with food, which is, as I’ve said, about every ten minutes all day long.

Once the baby wrens fledge, it is Mrs. Wrenly who keeps a careful eye on their unpracticed flying and feeds them for another few weeks. Because Mr. Wrenly has other matters on his mind: restocking the twig pile and singing for a new mate. His persistence is unhampered by a need for perfection. He's a doer.

There is much to admire about the persistence and single-mindedness of this Napoleonic bird with a spirit so out of proportion to its size. The male’s determination to commandeer every cavity in the yard and his unquenchable need to colonize and procreate, make me feel something of a slacker as my latest writing project goes unheeded, the garden untended, the administrivia of my life unmanaged, and I really should get some exercise...

Maybe I should care less about perfection: the need to craft the perfect sentence, to raise flawless vegetables, to attain Olympic greatness in my workouts. Maybe I will lower the bar a bit, be more persistent. And sing more.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

So Many Books, by Meg Schmidt

Guest writer and blogger, Meg Schmidt, weighs in again today on her experience owning an independent bookstore. Welcome back, Meg!

Buying a bookstore was an impulsive and imprudent decision. But how could I turn away from the possibility of owning that little shop on the corner, cozy, welcoming, filled with appealing books? A place where people gathered. A jewel in the community’s crown.

There were no arguments compelling enough to dissuade me from such a romantic notion: Would a bookstore be profitable? Of course! It would just take initiative and hard work. Could I manage a small business with a young family at home? Sure, with a little juggling. Did I know anything about bookselling? About retail? Well, no, but I could learn...

After some hurried negotiations, a flurry of paper work, and an inventory check, the Corner Book Store was all mine. And my detractors were right: I didn’t have the slightest notion what to do.

Charlotte, from whom I bought the bookstore, tried to reassure me. “Oh, it’s simple, really,” she said. “You buy books and you sell books. Hopefully you sell most of what you buy. That’s all there is to it.” This sounded too easy. 
“Okay, but how do I know what to buy?” I asked. “How orders are placed? How inventory is tracked? How sales are recorded?”
“Oh, I’ll explain all of that,” Charlotte said cheerfully. “Let me show you the inventory system.” She pulled out long tattered cardboard boxes filled with 3x5 index cards.

Within a few days Charlotte was gone, leaving behind her index cards, too many unanswered questions, and a terrified new owner who realized she was in very deep water.

Those first few weeks were filled with missteps and inefficiency. Where was the copy of Hamlet that someone wanted? How do I order a book on Roman aqueducts? Where is the card for The Joy of Cooking? Backlist, frontlist, fall list, spring list, remainders, returns, ISBNs, IS, OS, BO, TBO, PO, it was an entangled mess.

The biggest challenge of all: What books, and how many, should we have in stock?
“Your order indicates you want a standing display, twenty-four copies of Anne Tyler’s new book,” Bob Brown, the rep from Random House remarked as he looked over my order. “That’s being very optimistic.”
“Anne Tyler is terrific,” I reminded him. “My favorite author! Don’t you think I could sell twenty-four copies?”
“Well, no, I don’t. Not Anne Tyler. Maybe Danielle Steele or Stephen King. You like Anne Tyler, but are twenty-four of your customers going to buy her book?”

Apparently not.

Somewhere along the way, the bookselling jargon made sense, and I learned what to order and what people were likely to buy. (Although there were frequent surprises.)  We computerized the inventory and threw away those index cards. When it became necessary, we diversified, adding more greeting cards and gift items. Eventually we relocated and after that expanded our floor space.

Bookselling was, as I had envisioned, a remarkable experience. Our employees were committed and hardworking and became lifelong friends. The distributors and publishers with whom we worked were unfailingly helpful. We enjoyed the support of the town in which we were located, as well as nearby communities, and we worked together on numerous programs and events, many of them for children. We spent every day with people who loved to read, faithful customers who stayed with us when they could have bought books less expensively elsewhere.

Still, after fifteen years we went out of business. The giants had multiplied: large and alluring bookstores offering an impressive variety of books, deep discounts, and cozy caf├ęs. Then along came an Internet company calling itself Amazon. When it became clear no one was interested in buying my little bookstore, I liquidated and closed the doors.

I was ready to retire; as fulfilling as bookselling was, it was also hard work, long hours, and endless challenges. Buying a bookstore may have been an impulsive and imprudent, decision, but it was the best worst decision I ever made.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Creating Space in Your Garden/Life/Writing

I did a lot of gardening this weekend. Weeding, mostly, but also "editing." 

Since the last time I'd visited my garden, the plants had tripled in size and now looked like commuters in a subway car at rush hour. The less aggressive ones, like Jacob's ladder, were being crushed by the robust day lilies and the ever-encroaching lady's mantle. The solomon seal had marched its way across the bed, infiltrating and colonizing neighboring settlements. Nothing, it seemed, could stop its relentless assault. 

I have long held the belief that it's sacrilegious to divide plants in June in Vermont. Our season is so short I felt it my duty to let each plant fully manifest its destiny until September. Besides, I wanted as much color as each plant could muster.

But I found myself craving space. Each plant had grown indistinct. What I faced was a mass of leafy green giants, elbowing one another aside in their frenzy to attract pollinators. I hate to anthropomorphize, but some plants are greedy.

So I started pulling and digging, first lily-of-the-valley, and then violets, and iris, and gooseneck loosestrife. I carved out pathways and established boundaries. Now that I can see where one ends and the next begins, each plant has taken on an identity. More, I found, isn't necessarily better. Neither is bigger.

This got me wondering what other areas of my life might benefit from a little space. My writing? My volunteer work? My teaching? Each of my friends? My family? Exercise? Do I crowd so much into each day that I can't enjoy and appreciate the component parts?

If so, how do I go about making spaces? Something to think about.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Review of YA novel Seriously Wicked by Tina Connelly

In case you’ve been wondering, pixies are green, frog-like creatures with wings. You have to be a witch to see the wings. Seriously Wicked contains all the classic elements of a good commercial novel: a plucky protagonist with a quantifiable goal, friends in peril, an able ally, an antagonist who knows too much, complications aplenty, high stakes, and a ticking clock. This one also has at least one seriously evil witch and a really sympathetic dragon named Moonfire.

There are also star-crossed lovers, Camellia, our narrator, and Devon, the new boy. Their meet cute involves a goldfinch and a flaming phoenix feather, which might be a first in literary history. Seriously Wicked reads a bit like Harry Potter lite, but Connelly has developed her own taxonomy of elementals, witches, and spells, and a delightfully relatable alternative witch-world, whose residents rely on items like dragon tears, werewolf hair, goats blood, and elf toenails for their spells, and on WitchNet and Witchepedia for much of their information.

While you could read Seriously Wicked as an allegory about the demon in each of us and what we would sacrifice to save humanity from annihilation, it’s more fun to sit back, suspend disbelief, and enjoy the dilemma of a high school girl, imprisoned by a witch named Sarabine, who has summoned a demon that inadvertently gets trapped inside Devon, Camellia’s crush. Sarabine casts a spell, commanding the demon to accomplish a series of tasks, including locating a phoenix stored somewhere on the high school grounds in order to control its supersonic explosion, which is timed to coincide with the Halloween dance just days away. Camellia must find a way to stop this. There’s more. Much more.

If Seriously Wicked suffers from anything it’s a slightly overcomplicated plot. It is so convoluted (although clearly well thought out) that Connelly inserts summaries periodically to help the reader out. The narrative bogs slightly toward the end when the clock slows so that all the answers Connelly has withheld (Why does her friend Sparkle’s nose keep changing? Why aren’t Camellia’s real parents looking for her?) can be revealed in a flurry of expository dialogue. Great. But at this point readers might really just want to know if the town is going to blow up and whether Devon will be restored to his former “boy-band” self.

Connelly exhibits a sharp wit and a keen tongue that make Seriously Wicked a fun read. There is a grocer who stopped doing business with one supplier because he was “caught doing business with people who do business with people who don’t compost.” And our persevering protagonist at one point confides to the reader that she owns jeans that “don’t understand my butt.”

But, there are deeper issues to consider here: What would you do if someone whose beliefs diametrically opposed yours were driving your life? How does one choose between competing desires in a moral dilemma? Camellia insists that she is not a witch. And yet, in order to save the school, her friends, Devon, the town… She must learn, and successfully cast, a very powerful spell (and, meanwhile, not flunk her algebra test).

This is a fast paced, entertaining drama that offers readers the chance to contemplate the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, selfishness and compassion (as well pondering the current color of their auras). Readers will find a happy escape in Camellia’s fantastic world that includes a werewolf puppy and a dragon. But Connelly understands that we face real end-of-the-world threats in these days of rising sea levels, nuclear threats, and terrorism. Camellia, speaking here about witches (who live a really long time) makes a note-worthy observation. “If you know you’re going to be around to see it, you look at the fate of the world differently.”

Connelly supplies a satisfying ending for readers of Seriously Wicked, and some bonus material if you want to try casting your own spells. Before you do, you might want to brush up on your math.

(This review was first published on the New York Journal of Books website:

Monday, March 23, 2015

What Cupcake Wars Taught Me About Getting Published

I am a self-professed Cupcake Wars junkie. I love the inventive combinations: applesauce cake with cinnamon goat cheese frosting, double-shot mocha latte with espresso cream filling and chocolate frosting, salted caramel cake with pecan coconut brittle crumble and caramel Swiss buttercream. I would happily devour them all.

Each show, for those unfamiliar, begins with four bakers. After two elimination rounds, two finalists duke it out in a bake-off that requires them to produce 1,000 cupcakes in 90 minutes and shelve them on a display of their design, executed by one of two bearded, flannel-clad carpenters. They also get four baking assistants.

When the winner is announced, the audience is generally treated to a tearful acceptance speech. "I've worked so hard to get here. It's so nice to have that recognized."

Right. And what about the other contestants? Did they not work hard, too? Could we not acknowledge that in some way?

Writers are in constant competition. I'm not talking here about actual writing competitions. I'm talking about the competition for agents, editors, reviews, publicity budgets, shelf space, and sales. 

Most of us are aware that we're competing for agents and editors, but might not be aware that, once we have representation and a signed contract, we're in competition for the rest. There are elimination rounds, and most of us won't win. In publishing, winning means national advertising, a book tour, a major online publicity campaign, lots of social media outreach, a floor display, and wide galley distribution. By your publisher. 

The non-winners must do our own publicity and, no matter how hard an author promotes her own work, very few can compete with the marketing muscle of a major publisher.

It's usually clear long before the judges decide, who’s going to win Cupcake Wars. It’s less clear which book will be chosen as the winner of a big publicity campaign. Obviously, one that is expected to earn a big return, but which one's that? Not even publishers know for certain. 

What is certain is that a quiet book without an obvious “commercial hook” doesn’t necessarily take less time or thought to write than one with the potential to be an international best seller. Most authors bring their best game to every book: an original combination of ingredients, quality workmanship, a few fanciful twists, reduced fat... They work very hard and give it their all.

Clearly, not everyone can be declared the winner in Cupcake Wars, nor in publishing. There is only so much space on the dwindling supply of bookshelves, only so many readers divided by the dollars they’re willing to spend, divided by the hours they’ll devote to reading. 

Here’s what watching Cupcake Wars has taught me: Acknowledge the journey. To all you writers, bakers, and everyone else out there who’s worked hard to deliver a great product and wasn’t declared a “winner.” Congratulations on a job well done. Thank you for your effort, time, and dedication. You are a winner.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March in Vermont

Here's what I like about winter in Vermont: I can curl up, without apology, in the over-sized armchair in front of the fire and read at 4:30 in the afternoon because there's only darkness beyond the window.

Here's what I don't like about (this) March in Vermont. It is no longer dark at 4:30; darkness now doesn't fall until after 7PM. And yet, snow still blankets our field, and today the wind is whipping up snow devils and rocking trees. The ambient temperature hovers around 20.

My biological clock is telling me, urging me, to stop reading and start looking for signs of crocuses making their way through newly warmed soil. (Theirs is probably telling them to get growing.) I can barely see my garden, let alone anything small and green making its present known. Let's not even discuss purple. Or yellow.

I could shovel and scrape some of the snow from the garden. At Fenway and the Esplanade in Boston, MA, they are sprinkling dark soil on top of the snow to attract heat and encourage melting. I could do that. But what self-respecting crocus is going to poke its nose out in weather like this anyway?

I don't have a date such as Opening Day, or the Fourth of July, by which my garden must be green and lush. I have only my need to dig in dirt, to welcome back my foliated friends, and to be reassured that the cycle of life will, eventually, make its way around.

Nature teaches us patience, forbearance, and acceptance if we're willing to listen. And so I keep curling up in that chair and reading. It's not what I want to be doing right now. But it's a pleasant way to pass the time until spring.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Anecdotes from a Former Bookseller

Meg Schmidt owned and operated The Corner Book Store in Winsted, Connecticut from 1985-2000. An enthusiastic reader and novice writer, she now resides with her husband in Quechee, Vermont. These are her memories:

The book reps arrived in my bookstore in impressive numbers, weighed down by totes and briefcases filled with binders, galleys and catalogues. The small clanging bell above the door announced their arrival, and soon they filled the store with their wares and expansive personalities. 

I loved that although the reps traveled hundreds of miles and gave the same sales pitch to each bookstore owner, when they sat down with me, it was as if they were giving it for the first time, as if there was no doubt I would order in great quantities. I loved that despite how busy they were they took time to teach someone who knew nothing about bookselling something about ordering books.

Who they were

Bob Brown from Random House was a big burly man, always wearing a rumpled white shirt, a colorful tie loosened at the neck, and a wrinkled sports jacket that he would immediately remove and carelessly place on the back of a chair. He’d been selling books for Random House for decades. I quickly discovered that beneath the rough exterior was a kind, gentle man, willing to guide me through the maze of ordering. I was shocked and saddened to hear of his unexpected death a year after first meeting him. 

Don Brock, self-assured, was all business. He stood no taller than I, and as if to compensate for his lack of height, he spoke in a reverberating voice that filled the store. He wore striped oxford buttoned-down shirts and neatly pleated tan chinos. And he loved to gossip. As we became better acquainted, he would often pause, look around, as if to ferret out any eavesdroppers, and give me inside information. “You know, “ he said once, “my wife worked for Martha Stewart. She lasted for three years and then quit. Martha expected too much.” He looked around again, and added, in a whisper, “Martha Stewart can be demanding.” Martha’s demanding personality aside, Don always strongly encouraged me to buy her books. “You won’t be disappointed,” he’d say with conviction. 

And then there was Foxhall Jones, an older man, always smart in an expensive jacket, a color coordinated shirt, and a tasteful bow tie that complemented both. With thinning reddish-blond hair and a perfectly trimmed mustache, Foxy was also a model gentleman, the ideal publisher’s representative, dapper, refined, intelligent. Suddenly, unannounced, Foxy stopped coming to us: we became, I suspect, a casualty of a reorganizational shuffle at Harper and Row. I later heard rumors that Foxy had left publishing⎯perhaps also a casualty of changes that made his style of selling books obsolete.

And finally there was Kennedy McConnell, a Scottish gentleman with a wicked sense of humor and an infectious laugh that echoed off the walls. Ken always told a joke or two, often bawdy, always funny, and laced with a distinct Scottish accent. Ken had an uncanny ability to put me into an altered state in which I foolishly and consistently ordered more from him than I would ever sell. My real downfall was the annual calendar-shopping spree Ken and I went on. Each year I vowed to buy modestly, and each year Ken offered incentives I couldn’t refuse. “Girl, I understand what you’re saying, but look at this. If you order twelve Trivia Page-A-Day calendars, you’ll receive two free! And, I can’t believe they’re doing this, but if your order totals one hundred and forty-four… you’ll get a fifty-five percent discount!”
“Oh, I don’t know, Ken. That’s a lot of Page-A-Day calendars. Too many, really.”
“No, Meg. No. These are going to fly out of the store. Trust me. I would even consider getting more: think about two-eight-eight. Fifty-five percent discount and free shipping. Workman might as well be giving these away!”
I was sunk.

Times Change

I miss bookselling, being surrounded by the books I love, our loyal, book-reading customers, and certainly those book reps. I wonder if they are still going from store to store with their totes filled with catalogues, always smiling, excited to tell you about the wonderful new titles that will soon fill your bookstore shelves. With all of the upheavals in bookselling and publishing, I doubt that they are. But maybe somewhere a bookseller hears the bell above the door clang and warmly greets one of them, ready to convinced and entertained.