Melanie Shankle's best-selling memoir, Sparkly Green Earrings, delivered a laugh-out-loud portrait of the good, the bad and the hilarious aspects of motherhood. In her new memoir, The Antelope in the Living Room, Shankle turns her keen observation to marriage, sharing the ups and downs, the joys and disappointments of her own 16-year union with husband, Perry—all with her trademark, relatable humor. In this guest post, Shankle takes a refreshingly honest look at the holiday of love: Valentine's Day.
I’m sorry if the title led you to believe this was going to be any sort of actual researched work detailing the true history of Valentine’s Day. Because you’ll never convince me that it’s not just a holiday made up by Mr. Hallmark to find a reason to sell greeting cards and boxes of chocolate in that historically dead period between Christmas and some relative’s birthday.
And since the dawn of Valentine’s Day, it has proved to be a harbinger for most women as the day of the year we most prepare ourselves for disappointment. Maybe you’re in the minority of women and your husband actually shows up with two dozen roses and a piece of jewelry from the jewelry store at the mall to tell you he’d marry you all over again. If that’s the case, good for you. We’re all happy for you even though we may not like you. Also, you can quit reading now.
But for the rest of you, I will share a little story. In The Antelope in the Living Room, I write about the first Valentine’s Day my husband and I spent together. We’d been dating a little less than a year and he showed up at my apartment with a giant tin full of red cinnamon-flavored popcorn. And because I was a 24-year-old girl in love, I assumed there was a good chance that there might be a ring box containing an engagement ring at the bottom of that popcorn.
I was wrong.
My daughter read the story from my book out loud about the popcorn the other night, and she stopped at the end of it, looked up at me with a look I can only describe as pity and said, “I can’t believe you thought Daddy was going to put a ring in a bunch of popcorn to ask you to marry him. You didn’t know him AT ALL back then.” And I laughed out loud because she is so right.
Back then I had all these romantic, sappy notions of what Valentine’s Day should look like, and it involved candlelit dinners, roses and other grand gestures. But the truth is that real love isn’t just about a day of the year. True love is the daily commitment to share a life together that is sometimes messy and beautiful and frustrating and wonderful all at the same time. It’s the courage to pick up the pieces and fix what’s broken and constantly work to keep it all woven together.
And so for me, I’ve learned that Valentine’s Day isn’t going to look like it does in the movies or on Hallmark commercials, which is probably for the best because I really do not care for the chocolate assortment contained in those heart-shaped boxes. (It only takes biting into something with coconut filling once to scar you for life.)
So Valentine’s Day at our house is going to look pretty much like every other day of the year. There will be dishes to wash and dinner to cook and kids to drive to soccer practice. There might be pizza delivered for dinner and maybe a card that says, “I Love You” if it happens to be a particularly good year. There will be a car already started in the morning to warm it up for me before I have to leave the house and trash cans rolled out to the curb and leaves blown off the back patio because he knows they drive me crazy.
And what I’ve learned is that all those things look a whole lot more like real, true, lasting love than any piece of jewelry ever could.
Thanks, Melanie! What do you think, readers, will you be checking out The Antelope in the Living Room? Learn more on Melanie's blog.
(Author photo © 2013 by Leslie Lonsdale)
Very few people are lucky enough to love their job as much as David Menasche loved teaching high school English in Miami. One of his favorite lessons was called "The Priority List," in which he asked his students to rank ten words—wealth, love, education, for example—in order of importance to them.
Even after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2006, David continued teaching—until a debilitating seizure in 2012 made returning to the classroom impossible.
Instead of giving up and letting his illness become the focus of his life, David reevaluated his own priorities, ultimately deciding to end his treatment and embark on a journey to reconnect with former students, who were scattered across the country. Fifty cities and 8,000 miles later, David has reunited with more than 100 students, all eager to let him know the positive influence he's had on their lives.
Menasche shares his courageous journey in his new, incredibly moving memoir, The Priority List, which will inspire readers to reflect and reassess their own priorities. In this guest blog post, David shares the story of the "no-going-back" day he realized he wanted to become a teacher.
For me, teaching wasn’t making a living. It was my life. Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and watching my students “catch” my passion for language and literature.
For 16 years I taught 11th graders at a magnet high school in Miami, and my classroom was my sanctuary. So much so that on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when, at the age of 34, I was diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable form of brain cancer, and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did: I went to school.
I am a pragmatic man. I know there is no reason I should still be alive. The cancer never lets me forget that it and ultimately it will win this battle of wills. But I choose to live for today and cherish the memories of yesterday. I may no longer get to be in a classroom, but my time as a teacher was time well spent.
The novelist Alice Sebold wrote, “Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had.” I backed into my dream-come-true while I was studying journalism at Eugene Lang College at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. One of my favorite professors convinced me to sign up for the Teachers and Writers Program. The program placed aspiring writers in New York public schools and gave them the opportunity to teach. I was sent to teach a group of eager first-graders in upstate New York.
The small village, with its frozen pond in the center, was enchanting to a Miami kid like me. On my very first day, I decided that I wasn’t going to teach the kids by the book. Instead, I read to them from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I couldn’t help but be animated and energetic when I read it, as Whitman had always had that effect on me. When I looked out at my six-year-old students, sitting Indian-style in front of me, I saw wonder in their eyes. Their hands shot up, and they called out questions before I’d even finished reading. Watching their reaction to Whitman’s poetry, I got an idea. “Tell you what,” I said, “why don’t we go outside and write our own poems.”
The kids squealed with delight. I bundled them up and marched them outside like a flock of ducklings. Giving each one a small stack of yellow Post-it notes and crayons, I asked them to write down the things they saw—one item per piece of paper. They ran around looking at everything, and like Whitman, I thought, they had a blissful enthusiasm for their surroundings. They wrote words like “rock” and “leaf” and “snow.”
After I noticed one of my little duckies with frozen snot on her upper lip and shivering, I shepherded everyone back inside and asked the kids to stick their notes up on the board and rearrange them until they were in an order that they liked. When they were finished, they had written a poem. The students jumped up and down with the same sense of accomplishment and joy that I felt watching them learn.
That was it for me. There was no turning back. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher.
Thank you so much, David. Readers, The Priority List is out now, and you can continue to follow David's journey on Facebook.
(Author photo by Chris Granger)
guest post by Beth M. Howard
I get asked all the time how long it took to write my book, and my answer is “Three months.” But the fact is I’ve been writing my book over a period of nearly two years. In real time. On my blog.
Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie came about in part because of my blog, The World Needs More Pie. The theme of my blog was about how pie can make the world a better place, how making a pie by hand represents nostalgia and simpler times. In my essays I evangelized about how pie was an antidote to the high-tech world we live in, a way to nurture our overworked souls. In fact, it was an antidote to my own overworked soul. I had had a dot-com job where I spent 16 hours a day in front of a computer. I finally said, “Enough!” The money—all six figures of it—wasn’t worth the stress. I quit and got a job baking pie. And started a blog.
My pie blog entries were charming and light, which was all well and good, but my blog didn’t become important to me—or popular with others—until I started blogging about something else, and nothing to do with pie: my 43-year-old husband Marcus’s death. Because I couldn’t find anyone willing to talk about the love I had lost, I used my blog to vent my feelings, my sadness, my very acute and complicated grief. And then people started writing me emails thanking me for being so open and honest, telling me that my stories about my struggles were helping them. So I kept writing. I kept sharing. I kept blogging.
When people ask "How did you get your book published?" I always tell them that they should start a blog. It’s free. You will get instant gratification seeing your work live in a public forum. Blogging will encourage you to keep looking for story ideas. You will hone your writing skills (hopefully!). You will home in on your theme. You will get feedback from your readers. You will be motivated to keep writing. And then, one day, you’ll realize that you’re ready. Ready to chain yourself to your desk for three months, not bothering to get dressed or comb your hair. Ready to turn down dinner invitations and weekend road trips. Ready to sit at your desk and wrestle with words and sentences and story structure. Ready to commit and realize your dream of becoming a published author.
Beth M. Howard is the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.
guest post by Rick Lenz
Not having been exactly a megastar actor, I knew my memoir North of Hollywood would have to be different—unstereotypical. I share with you some of the guidelines that came to me in a scalding blast of inspiration as I considered this.
Okay. First of all, make sure you have nothing to say. If you have something to say, it means you’ve already begun organizing it, which—if you’ve done that before you begin writing—is death. Un-stereotypical writing has to be completely fresh.
Two: you can’t be unorganized either. Once you’re sure you have nothing to say and have said it inventively, make sure you then put it all in a sensible order. Just because you’re capable of covering a canvas with a coat of red paint doesn’t make you Rothko. Unconventional writing—just like anything else in the creative arts—had better have a lot of structure if it's going to be accessible unconventional writing.
Three: Make sure you’re at peace with yourself. Chaos never creates anything but a mirror image of itself. Don’t commit the day-to-day mess in your mind to paper. If you do, people will have firm evidence that that’s what’s in your head and they will not pay you for it.
Four: Make sure your writing is crystal-clear and avoid clichés like the plague.
The fifth, and perhaps most important, rule of unconventional writing is never to forget that everyone else is trying to be unconventional. We live in a time in which it seems as if we’ve watched too many absurdist comedies in a row. Our frames of reference have gotten bent around to the point that everything seems preposterous and nothing provokes surprise.
Ergo, at this very moment a million authors are thinking, “How can I shock the pants off them?”
Well, most readers’ pants are already down around their ankles.
To illustrate: an increasingly large proportion of writing in the 21st Century is for the Internet and television. If my late mother were to watch network TV today, she’d faint within a minute. The next night, she’d faint again.
But eventually, after some nasty falls and a few bruises, she’d make sure she was sitting in an easy chair when she turned on the television.
Then, gradually, her responses would turn into little more than faintly raised eyebrows.
Finally, she’d just stare at it like everyone else.
Meanwhile—and this more of a caveat than a rule—never forget we live on a continent that was only recently (in the big scheme of things) populated by people who deeply believed that plants, rocks, fire, water, as well as animals and people were imbued with a sacred inner life by the Great Spirit. Compare and contrast that with the man (also on television), warning men to seek medical help if their erections last longer than four hours.
To sum up: In order to write in an unstereotypical way, do not know what you’re talking about, but organize it well. Be peaceful (a lobotomy is permissible). Be lucid and remember that everyone else is trying to break the stereotypes too.
Maybe the best thing to do is simply to write old-fashioned, cleanly- stated prose and not worry about anything beyond that—unless you want to count being interesting and honest.
Rick Lenz has been acting on Broadway, TV and film since 1965. In his memoir, North of Hollywood—on sale today—he talks about a life spent acting alongside the likes of Walter Matthau.
Twenty-three-year-old Alice Ozma's new memoir, The Reading Promise, is all about the joy of reading: it chronicles the more than 3000 consecutive nights that she and her father, a single parent, spent reading aloud to one another. But does a love of reading translate to an apartment full of books? Ozma doesn't think so—read on for more.
Books: Sharing the love
guest post by Alice Ozma
People always assume, when they hear that I'm an avid reader and that I wrote a memoir about my father reading to me for 3,218 consecutive nights, that I own tons of books. They make jokes about it when they visit my apartment, especially since I have a study. They imagine wall after wall, shelf after shelf, of big, sturdy books. And they're shocked when they see what I have: one tiny bookshelf, up to about my knees, comfortably full but not at all jam-packed.
But the thing is, I just can't bear to keep books to myself.
When I buy a book, it is almost always used. I love knowing that it's been read, and loved, and passed along. It's like wearing my grandmother's jewelry. And once I own it, I can't bring myself to break that cycle. Try as I might, even if I know I'll want to reread it or reference it later, I can't help but pass it on. Whether I donate it, or give it to a friend, or leave it in the break room at work, I am happiest when I imagine the book being read. It wasn't made to sit closed and idle.
As a new author, I am keenly aware that the more “free” copies of a book float around, the less the person who wrote it makes. Even that does not deter my strange, insistent desire. I've heard the quote that love should be divided, not multiplied. It's something we can't just hoard.
The books I pass along may be dog-eared, tea-stained, and worn in some places. They may contain a few of my long, auburn hairs, or even a receipt that I used as a bookmark. But they're brimming with love. True love gets dusty on a shelf.
Longtime BookPage interviewer Alden Mudge talked to Greg Mortenson for our December issue. Here, he shares his impressions of the best-selling author and a few of the more memorable quotes that didn't make it into the finished piece.
I am by temperament knee-jerk skeptical of heroes and hero worshipers. So for several years I resisted the Three-Cups-of-Tea fever that had infected a good number of my intelligent, well-read friends. Then I was assigned to interview Greg Mortenson about his new book Stones into Schools. Call me a believer.
During a long phone call, I was utterly convinced and charmed by Mortenson. He was both forceful and self-effacing, remarkably candid, completely dedicated to his cause, and very opinionated. Not all of his opinions fit in the BookPage print interview, so I thought I’d offer a few outtakes here:
“I love to talk with students around the country, and one of the main topics we end up talking about is failure. As a society we’re very loath to talk about failure. When I ask an adult audience ‘who can tell me what the first chapter of Three Cups of Tea is called?’ not one hand goes up. But if I ask college kids or high school kids, nearly all their hands go up. They know it’s called “Failure.” Kind of interesting. I think in order to succeed you need failure. If we could admit that we failed a little bit once in a while—especially our government—we’d be better off. I think the military actually gets this. They’re willing to admit that in many ways they failed originally in Afghanistan.”
“The Afghanistan government was set up at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Eighteen countries met and decided how to rebuild Afghanistan. The problem was that it was set up as a centralized, deprovincialized system, very U.S.-oriented, very bureaucratic. But Afghanistan is a feudal, multiethnic society. Power is really with the shura, the elders. I’ve studied the Marshall Plan extensively. It was quite a brilliant plan. The main component was that it was provincialized and decentralized, especially in Italy and Japan. In Afghanistan the U.S. completely flipped it around, made it exactly the opposite. Only in the last two or three years—ironically through the military—has this started to change.”
AFGHANISTAN, THE POSITIVE AND THE NEGATIVE
“What I try and tell the public is here’s what you have to look at, the positive things and then negative things in Afghanistan. The positive things are: In 2000, which was nine years ago at the height of the Taliban, there were 800,000 kids in school, ages 5 to 15, and 99 percent were boys. Today there are 8.4 million in school, including 3.5 [million] females. The goal is 13 million, so that is like 60 percent of the way there. The Afghan army is at 80,000 and the goal is 180,000, so that’s 40 percent of the way there. There is now a central banking system in the country, which started in 2006, which is huge. There’s an Eisenhower-era road building program; the road now from north to south is completely done and the road from the east to west is about half done, so the roads are about 70 percent finished—the main trunk roads. If you go into a district court, the amount of women and men, but especially women, filing titles and deeds for landownership is just skyrocketing. So those are the positive things.
And the negative things are: the U.S. is taking more hits. A lot of that is because starting two years ago—it was actually General McKiernan and now General McChrystal—have put a huge emphasis on cutting down on bombings. There have unfortunately been some deaths from bombings, very tragic. But the amount of bombings has gone down 70 percent in the last three years—the number of bombs and the frequency and the weight. Two years ago the U.S. started deploying forward operating bases out into the very rural areas. Their job was to embed with villagers or with the Afghan army and build relationships. Unfortunately what that does is exposes the U.S. so we’re going to take more hits, more casualties. But the alternative is to do more bombings. One thing that all the shura agree with—and they’re very vehement about it—is that the top priority is not to kill innocent civilians. And their message is being heard quite loud and clear in the military. The military kind of has a choice—pull back our troops, put them in garrisons or compounds— but if they do that they’re going to have to do more bombing and then the civilian casualties will go up and there will be public outcry both there and here at home. The other thing that I think the military and our government has done a very poor job at is telling the public that nearly half of these troops are trainer troops, or brainpower; they’re not firepower. Eight thousand of the 22,000 troops that the U.S. put into Afghanistan this year are dentists, engineers, agronomists, horticulturalists, civil engineers, nurses, doctors, trainers, police trainers, anti-mining personnel. Of these 40,000 new troops they’ve asked for, they want approximately 15,000 of them to be what I call brainpower or trainer troops. I don’t know if the public is aware of that.”
ON BOOKS THAT SHAPED HIM
“The first real relevant book I read—I was about eight—was called Reverence for Life by Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He was a medical missionary in the Congo. He talked about how all living things are sacred—animals, plants, and humans. It actually had a big impact on me. My first big book—I read it at about 11 or 12—was called The Territorial Imperative which looked at the animal kingdom and at how humans also are territorial. It was a pretty heavy read but it had quite a dramatic influence on me. So did Jonathan Livingston Seagull—remember that book?—about thinking out of the box. After I read those books I was really inspired.”
Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for BookPage for more than 15 years. He lives in Berkeley, California.