Balloons and Birds

This weekend was the town fair. A hot air balloon launch scheduled for 6am Saturday morning kicked off the festivities. So Justin and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:30 and headed over to the golf course where the event would be. The paper advertised around 60 hot air balloons, but when we got there: zero. But there were spaces marked off for them, and a large crowd was gathered, and there was music, so we waited. Eventually, about ten minutes after 6, a caravan of balloonists appeared. Truck after truck towing balloon baskets drove onto the grass. It was about a twenty-minute wait for the balloonists to get situated and start laying out their balloons before the first ones went up in the air. But it was so worth the wait. Watching balloon after balloon fill up with hot air and lift into the cloud-streaked blue sky, the snowcapped Rockies in the background—such a beautiful site.

As fun and cool as our town’s hot air balloon launch was, it didn’t even come close to the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival. Justin and I were able to attend that for the first time with my brother’s family last fall. It was frickin’ amazing. At both events you can wander around the lawn right next to the balloons as they are being inflated, and you can talk to the balloonists, but in Albuquerque there are just SO many balloons. On all sides of you balloons swell bigger and bigger, lurching into the air, drifting over your head. Eventually the sky is filled with hundreds of little dots of color. It made me feel very small and a little dizzy at times. Here’s a photo I took of our town’s balloon festival as we were driving away:

Pretty cool, I think. But for comparison, here’s a shot of the Albuquerque balloon festival:

Yikes, that’s a lot of balloons. There are also a lot of different character balloons at the Albuquerque festival. Darth Vadar and a mug of beer were two memorable ones from last year. But there were a couple unique ones at our little balloon festival too. There was a tweety bird, and this fun and colorful one:

And this guy made me laugh. Whenever we saw him he always seem to be peeking around something:

This one was my favorite. The painting on it was just so beautiful:

We also spent a good chunk of the day in the backyard pulling weeds, planting flowers, and pruning bushes. Everything was mild and pleasant until an episode of animals gone wild that had an unhappy ending.

Our dog Ace is a total bird dog. He takes running hops at one of our trees that always houses a nest in the spring and summer and he’s always racing around our yard, checking his different bird spots. He’s never caught a bird though, at least until yesterday. We were working away in the yard when this bird swoops from a neighbor’s tree down toward the grass. He wasn’t a very good flier and stayed only a wobbly foot or two off the ground. We weren’t sure if it was a baby bird learning how to fly or if it was already hurt or sick. Anyway, Ace saw the bird and almost immediately was on it. The craziest part of all this was that at the exact same moment, two boys in the next yard over chased a baby bunny through our fence and into our yard. So in the span of probably a minute, the bird swoops into the yard, Ace catches him, two other birds dive at Ace trying to help their friend, my husband is chasing the dog, I jump up to help but see the bunny madhopping across the lawn straight toward us and I say, “A bunny!” and then refocus and grab a hold of Ace and straddle him doing my best to hold back an 80 pound dog who is really, really excited that he finally caught one of his long sought after birds, while my husband shoos away our other dog, and here comes Peter Cottontail darting right through the middle of all this commotion and into the next neighbor’s yard. It was a crazy 60 seconds I tell you.

Ace only had the bird in his mouth for a brief moment before Justin got him to drop it, and we hoped the bird was just stunned or slightly injured, but it wasn’t to be. We took a break with the yard work and had everyone go inside to give the birds some time together. I don’t know if birds pay their last respects the way people do, but we felt so horrible about what had happened it was the only thing we could think to do. Later my husband took the bird and buried it beneath a tree in the park and marked the spot with a little cross made out of bark mulch.

But then, later that evening, my husband excitedly called for me to come see something. He pointed into a tree and this is what we saw:

See the hungry baby bird reaching up its beak for dinner? There are two more in that nest and all three of them were poking up their heads, stretching open their mouths and waiting for food. It was the cutest thing and alleviated some of our guilt over the bird Ace had caught earlier that day. And that’s when the sun broke through the clouds and a gospel choir came step-clapping into our yard singing “Circle of Life.” Okay, maybe that last part isn’t true. But if life were a musical, that’s totally what would have happened.

Long Live The Traitor King

My book group recently read The Traitor King, by Todd Mitchell, and the author was kind enough to join our book group for the discussion. For anyone looking for authors to invite to speak at your schools, libraries, bookstores, or conferences, you might want to consider Todd. Based on how he was with our book group, I think he’d be fabulous for an author visit. (You can find information on his visits and how to contact him at his website He has been a teacher for the past twelve years and is currently the Director of the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University. He is very personable, and I think would have wide appeal speaking to both young audiences and adults. He did a lot of research on Celtic mythology, which is incorporated into his book, and might be a good curriculum tie-in. If you’re not familiar with the book, The Traitor King is a middle grade mix of contemporary fiction and fantasy. Darren Manahan goes on his annual family summer trip to his uncle’s house only to find his uncle has disappeared. He and his sister solve a series of clues while being pursued by the creepy skeleton man and end up discovering the fantastical Land of the Forever Young where their uncle is held captive. It’s up to Darren and his sister to save their uncle, with the aid of a brownie, a wolf, and a nixie. Along with the Celtic mythology woven into the story, there are also themes of alcoholism and environmental awareness that might be of interest to students.

I’m not singing the praises of Todd Mitchell and his book because he’s a personal friend—I’d never met him before our book group meeting—but I do have to confess, I have an ulterior motive in spreading the word about The Traitor King. You see, I was surprised to learn in talking with Todd that, although this book is clearly set up as the beginning of a series (he said it was a trilogy), his publisher has no plans at the moment to publish the next two books. I understand that publishing is a business and from a business standpoint, it must not have made sense to agree to all three books right from the get-go. But as someone who enjoyed reading the book and whose main question for Todd was “When’s the next one coming out,” well, I’m sure any fellow book lover can imagine what a let down it was to hear “maybe never” as the answer. But! An independent bookstore here in Colorado called The Reader’s Cove has started a campaign to help get the sequels (and paperback version of the first book) published. If you’ve read The Traitor King or know of others who have and enjoyed it, you can send an email to Reader’s Cove at telling them what you liked about the book and why there should be a sequel. The bookstore will pass all the emails on to Todd’s editor. I think it’s wonderful that The Reader’s Cove is supporting Todd like this, and as a fan of the book I hope their efforts work. I’ve already sent in my email.

Could you imagine if there was only a Book One of the Harry Potter series? His Dark Materials? Series of Unfortunate Events? Of course in retrospect it might be hard to imagine that because those books have millions of fans now. But they didn’t have millions of fans with the first book. Their popularity grew as the series grew. Well, I can’t say that for a fact about Philip Pullman because I believe he was a more established writer when The Golden Compass came out, so maybe he did have a million fans right off the bat, but I suspect not. And even if he did, the amount has surely grown with the completion of the series and everything that followed. I was working in a children’s bookstore and as a nanny when the Harry Potter books were published in the U. S. and saw firsthand how the buzz around those first three books started small and grew and grew until I went to the midnight release party for the fourth book which was a frenzied, festive, literary event the likes of which I’d never witnessed before. It was seriously like a rock concert, minus the rock music, drugs, and stage diving. I’ve heard booksellers tell stories of meeting J. K. Rowling at an author event for the first book where there were maybe twenty people in attendance. I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Handler when he presented at a small writing conference when the first of the Unfortunate Events books was published. He had many wise words to share (like stygian, omphalos, and Schadenfreude) and struck me as a witty, talented writer with a panache for playing the accordian. But he also seemed relatively unknown at the time. (Although I went to a reading he gave that same weekend and while there wasn’t a tremendous amount of kids in attendance, boy did they go nuts for him. Daniel Handler has the ability to make people giggle even when all he’s doing is standing still.) Fast forward several years to when I was sitting in a sold out theater in downtown San Francisco, listening to Daniel Handler and Pulitzer prize winner Michael Chabon chatting with each other onstage.

So am I saying that I think The Traitor King will become as popular as these three series? I have no idea. If there were a way to accurately predict the runaway successes, the whole publishing game would change. The success of the series will depend on the rest of the story Todd Mitchell has to tell and how readers respond to it. But I sure hope I get the chance to read the rest of the story.

Born Standing Up

I can remember sitting on the living room couch, my feet barely hanging off the edge of the cushion, listening to records—or LPs as my parents still call them—through speakers that flanked our upright piano. Two of my favorites were comedy albums—Bill Cosby and Steve Martin. When I listened to my musical albums, like Sha-Na-Na or Disney’s Mousercise, I danced or turned cartwheels in the open space of the living room. But those comedy albums were like read-aloud stories, and for those I sat quietly and listened.

I don’t know how many of the jokes I understood, or exactly what it was that I found funny. I’m not really even sure if the comedy bits I think I remember being on those albums actually are, or if I’ve just mixed in later memories of their comedy routines. My recollection is spotty (I just typed “my recollection is potty”—tee-hee), but I listened to those records so many times as a kid, I’m sure it would all come back to me if I listened to them again today.

That was my introduction to Bill Cosby and Steve Martin, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I mean The Cosby Show—come on! I so wanted to be Denise. And I wanted a two-story house like theirs with a basement office for my dad to work in, just like Cliff. I wanted three sisters (because I already had the brother) so we could do lip sync performances on special occasions, just like the Huxtables.

Steve Martin was hilarious to me because he wore that arrow through his head or a balloon animal hat while he talked, but acted like there wasn’t anything weird about it. My all time favorite was his happy feet dance. That prompted many happy feet dance interpretations from my family. We do them today still. My dad will come in from the garage on his way to get a handful of chocolate chips out of the freezer and he’ll break into a sudden happy feet shuffle in front of the TV. It’s guaranteed to make me laugh.

Steve Martin won me over as a solid, lifelong fan when he appeared on both The Muppet Show (remember him playing the banjo and singing the Ramblin’ Guy song?) AND he was the surly waiter in The Muppet Movie. I watched his skits on Saturday Night Live with my parents and my brother. (Wild and crazy guys, of course. Another favorite was the one where he did a beautiful, romantic dance with Gilda Radner and then they’d suddenly break into a goofy, happy feet dance, and then go back to their traditional waltz. That description probably doesn’t sound funny, but trust me, the skit was. At least to my sense of humor anyway.) I grew up on Steve Martin’s movies, enjoyed reading Shopgirl, and there are passages in Pure Drivel and Cruel Shoes that made me cry I was laughing so hard.

So I was very excited to read Born Standing Up, his recently published autobiography. And you know what? It was better than I had anticipated. Seriously, if you are a fan of his, it’s a must-read. If you are interested in stand-up comedy or the entertainment business, especially circa the seventies, you’ll get a lot from it too. But what surprised me was that I took away a lot from the book not only as a Steve Martin fan, but also as a writer.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. I mean, by now he’s proven himself to be an accomplished and serious (but funny) writer between his movie screenplays, his novels, his comedy books, his essays for the New Yorker, his plays. I was expecting the book to be good, but it was different than I expected and better than I expected.

Some of the things I took away as a writer: He told the essential bits, and that’s it. Nothing felt extraneous, everything applied to the focus of the book, which is the story of how he became a stand-up comedian and what that experience was like for him. There have to be so many stories and events that aren’t included here, but what is included is entertaining and is exactly enough to give me a decent idea of what this time in his life was like for him.

There was most definitely care put into how he told his story. It wasn’t just a string of anecdotes. In the book he talks about how he always gave his stand-up acts a beginning, middle, and end and he clearly does that here as well. There’s a nice structure with the beginning talking about his early days working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and a couple anecdotes about his family life, the middle is his climb to unbelievable success and achieved dreams, and the ending comes full circle, reconnecting with his first comedic stomping grounds and his family.

He is self-deprecating and humble and gives a lot of credit to his mentors and friends along the way. In fact, a lot of the funniest lines are attributed to other comedians. But it is also clear that he worked really, really hard. This is a guy who, when he’s passionate about something, does his best to study it, and practice, and dedicate himself to improving his craft, whether it be magic tricks, banjo playing, telling jokes, or performing in front of an audience. This is a good reminder for any artist, I think. It’s easy to look at people, like Steve Martin, who have reached a certain amount of success and fame with the arts and think: “Well yeah, but he’s naturally funny. If I was that funny, I could do that too.” And while I’d guess he always had a good sense of humor, I think it’s shortchanging him to assume that it just comes naturally without any sort of thought or effort. What his book makes clear is that while he is a funny and personable guy, it’s the dedication, discipline, strategy, passion, practice, networking, and a bit of luck that got him to where he is today.

I just did a search to find an image of the book cover to attach to this post and came across a bunch of interviews he did on NPR. This quote from one of the interviews is a great example of how he has no airs about his rise to stand-up comedian fame: “I think it’s somehow an American story in a strange way, because I started untalented. I didn’t have any gifts except perseverance.”

The book is funny, insightful, inspiring; it’s a quick read. I highly recommend it.