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— SJ

Mundania: Cake and Elderberries and Pandemic Rituals

Here’s a pop quiz: Who has heard back from her editor that her novel has a problem that needs to be addressed; and she’s waiting to get the editor’s document back to see what the problem is; and meanwhile she doesn’t have any way to fill up her time so she ends up blogging multiple times a month? Who could it be? I’ll let you think about it for a few minutes.

*

The other day, the kids and I ate out at Cracker Barrel. The service was rather slow. The kids are good sports, but eventually they resorted to desperate measures and attempted to summon the food via a 2020 pandemic ritual:

(As Ranger would say, “Fun facts!”: 1. We bought these masks from Handworks Gallery. They’re slightly expensive since they’re handmade and fair trade, but they’re very comfortable (for a mask); 2. If you’d shown me this picture in August of 2019, I’d have no idea what those things are.)

*

Recently on Facebook, I discovered my new favorite response in any conversation concerning COVID-19:

“We have to control the spread!”

Elderberries. BOOM!

“They’re hyping it up. You know what they really want, right?”

Elderberries. BOOM!

“I’m just so confused about what to do about school this year.”

Elderberries. BOOM!

It’s short, catchy, and you can’t argue with it.

*

It’s Abigail’s fault that I read some Grace Livingston Hill this month. Hill was a Christian novelist from about a hundred years ago, and very popular with midcentury church women. Both Abigail and I read GLH as young teenagers, and neither of us loved her much. Abigail said I ought to get out couple of her books and read them as an adult. It was a bad idea, and I jumped on it.

Hill’s books are fluff and wisp. I think she herself would regard them that way, since she wrote them to support herself as a widow with children and later when her second marriage failed. She also supported her own mother. So the books are written to sell, and I guess it’s obvious what the market wanted. Hill wrote probably a hundred books, but only one story. It went something like this:

A thoughtless rich and irreligious character is thrown into the company of a good-looking and pious character (not poor, mind you, but solidly middle-class with good taste in furniture and art). There’s usually a “vamp,” a beautiful and brazen young woman to tempt the hero; or a profligate young man who attempts to lead the heroine astray. Yet God and love wins in the end.

I think what elevated Hill above the crowd was her undeniable gift for description. The impressions she created linger long after the story has (mercifully) faded.

Still, I’m not a fan of the romance genre in the first place, and especially not these. They come with an extra layer of moral superiority, and the Christians in these stories are actually kind of awful people. I honestly could write a whole blog post just on the two books I skimmed (regular readers of this blog do not doubt that for a single instant). But I’ll settle for a recurring issue that frustrated me the most.

Hill will describe a character in very unflattering terms (“she was at her studies like a shark…” “the eyes behind her round shell-rimmed spectacles would have been pretty if they weren’t so presumptuous… “her fingernails were like little claws…”). She’ll even have her good characters toss around words like “vamp” or “hussy.” Yet then she’ll put the same sentiments into the mouth of a bad character, and allow her good characters to be shocked and rebuke the impious character with reminders of God’s love and acceptance.

“You can’t do that!” I exclaimed.

“Oh, we can’t?” chorus the dozens of GLH novels. “I think somebody just doesn’t know how to have her cake a eat it too.”

Maybe certain editors who are currently highlighting rumored “issues” in a certain novel could take a few notes, eh?

*

The other day, I took an afternoon to myself. I went to the Walking Mall in the middle of town, enjoyed the sunshine, watched a mourning dove build a nest, and really paid attention to the interesting jumble of history represented in the buildings that line the street. Then I discovered a teahouse, so went in and had an excellent chocolate ginger cake with whipped cream; and some ginger peach tea. It was a much-needed time of refreshment.

And the tea menu was extensive and colorful, and… wait… wait…!

ELDERBERRIES BOOM.

*

Answer to Quiz: It’s me. I’m the one waiting for my novel to get back. Did you get it right?

From My Mother-in-Law’s Kitchen

My mother-in-law has never considered herself to be a great cook. I know because she said it herself; I certainly never got that impression from my husband. DJ has a long list of “Mom’s best meals.”

At some point, I asked her for a few of her recipes. She obligingly wrote them out for me in her cheerful schoolteacher cursive, and I have them in my binder of frequently-used meals. I’m going to share some of our favorites here, for no reason other than that they’re good recipes and deserve to be immortalized on the blog.

(Note: my own mom told me, “You’ll do things different from how your mother does them, and you’ll feel guilty about it.” So while I’ll use ** to indicate the changes I’ve made, rest assured that I feel a twinge every time I replace the vinegar with lemon juice, or the cream of mushroom with cream of chicken.)

————

Japanese Chicken (Teriyaki Chicken)
My mother-in-law cooked this for me the first time I visited their family. I usually serve it with rice and brown-sugar carrots.

3 pounds chicken thighs
Roll thighs in **cornstarch, fry in oil till golden

Sauce:
3 Tbs soy sauce
3 Tbs water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup **lemon juice
Cook sauce til sugar dissolves. Pour over chicken in baking dish. Baste while baking. Cook at 325 for 45 minutes.

** Original recipe calls for flour; vinegar

————

Midwest Chowder
I added buttermilk/soured milk and more cheese because I like the tangy contrast to the creaminess. This dish is hearty. Like, not only will it fill you up, it’ll probably go milk the cows and fix the fence too.

2 cups diced potatoes
1/2 cup sliced carrots
(1/2 c sliced celery, which I omit)
1/4 cup onions
Salt and pepper
2 cups boiling water

Cook vegetables 10 minutes at least. Do not drain.

Cream sauce:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups **buttermilk or soured milk

Cook together till smooth.

Add-ins
1 lb hamburger meat, browned
**2 cups cheese
2 cups corn

Add cheese and hamburger to cream sauce, stir till cheese is melted. Add corn and vegetables. Heat, but do not boil.

** Original recipe called for plain milk, 1 cup cheese

————

Green Bean Stuffing Casserole
A friend once described this dish as “Thanksgiving dinner in one bowl.” It’s one the first suppers Bookgirl learned to cook because she loves it so much.

1 lb chicken breasts
1 box stuffing
1 can **cream of chicken soup
(1/2 can of water, which I omit)
1 can green beans

Cook chicken in butter until no longer pink inside. Cut into small chunks.
Make stuffing according to the box instructions.
Mix chicken, soup, and beans in an ovenproof dish and stir till combined. Top with prepared stuffing. Bake at 350 until heated through, about 20 minutes.

**Original recipe called for cream of mushroom soup

————

My mother-in-law’s cooking style is good solid Midwestern, while I grew up learning good solid Southern. There’s a lot of overlap between those two cuisines, which certainly hasn’t hurt my marriage any.

Mundania: Summertime and Taylor Swift

One of my great pleasures of summer is cherries. My mother-in-law says they’re “elite fruit” and I agree. They’re expensive and available for a limited time. So when they are in season, I splurge and buy a bag every week. Sometimes two bags. We just leave it out on the counter and eat cherries throughout the day. I love cherries.

*

Taylor Swift released a surprise album this week. Despite my dislike for bandwagons, I’ve been a fan of Taylor for a long time. She even helps me clean the bathroom every now and then. Back when she transitioned from country-pop to dance-pop, I wasn’t thrilled; to me, the new songs all sounded alike. Yet she didn’t lose her knack for storytelling. A good many of her songs are lost-love or revenge stories, of course, but not all of them. Almost all manage to establish a character and take you through a scenario.

This new album, folklore, is a very different style from her last two — no dancey numbers like “Look What You Made Me Do” or “Lover.” All the songs are rather dreamy and wandering. Yet after a few listen-throughs, I realized that her storytelling was still on point, and the songs catchy in their own ways. She tells stories from the three different viewpoints of a love triangle, or bittersweet memories of childhood, or the extravagant lifestyle of the woman who had once owned her Rhode Island house.

Both DJ and I are fans. It was also nice to get something in a year that’s mostly characterized by disappointments. However, in the interests of equal time, I will say that another longtime Taylor fan, who loved her previous two albums, said that “all the songs sound alike.”

*

The public pool is open on a very limited basis. You have to go online and reserve a two-hour time slot, and go ahead and pay. When you arrive, they check your name and wave you on through. I approve.

While the kids swam, I watched a squirrel who was also having a good summer:

And just to put your mind at ease, Cosmic the Bunny is still fat and still happy enough that he occasionally dead-flops. I take the picture and message it to Bookgirl with the comment, “Ded buni.”

Ded buni, so hapi:

DJ and I recently took an afternoon date to a tiny town on Rt. 11.

Rt. 11 runs through our valley, one of the oldest roads in the area. There’s a town every fifteen to twenty miles — basically, a day’s journey by horse or carriage. So you can drive 11 (or I-81 which parallels it) and visit one historic little town after another. By “historic” I mean that the highway is narrow, and the buildings reflect every era from the 1790s to last year. I spend much of my time trying to see what any given stretch of highway looked like 10, 50, or 100 years ago. It’s like ghost-hunting.

We began coming to this particular town a few weeks ago when we discovered that their summer baseball league hadn’t canceled their season as our city had. So this time, we drove down early to look at the town, eat supper, and then watch the last baseball game of the season. And exciting things happened!

Which is a lie. It wasn’t exciting at all. We ate at a diner that’s been open since 1955, and served excellent diner food. Which means it wasn’t really, you know, excellent food. But you couldn’t argue with the atmosphere, except that I bet it took them the entire decade of the 90s to get rid of the mid-century cigarette smell.

We also discovered a Little Free Library that was a phone booth! a rocket ship! both! And we could both stand in it and browse the shelves, which was nice because a complete deluge of a rainstorm kept us in there for a good fifteen minutes. It was a perfect setup for a small-town romcom.

Including a sassy hero who held up a book deliberately chosen to make me roll my eyes.

As it turned out, that summer storm rained out the ball game. Ah well. So we got Dairy Queen and drove home along Rt. 11. It was a good day. Taylor Swift, are you taking notes?

My Grandfather’s Songs

I’ll hang my heart on a weeping willow tree, and there it will weep for you.

I learned that line from my grandfather when I was young. (The same grandfather who gave me the silver owl bank.) Grandpa had a head full of poetry and rhymes, which he evidently altered and rearranged at his pleasure. He was always quoting bits and pieces, or teaching us silly poems. For instance, he taught me:

Barefoot boy, barefoot boy
Walking down the street
With his pants full of pockets,
And his shoes full of feet.

It appears to be a mixed-up version of an already zany 1930s song called “Barefoot Boy with Boots On,” which includes other lyrics like, “He was born when he was a baby/His grandma’s pride and joy/His only sister was a girl/And his brother was a boy.”

Or:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Parching peanuts by the peck;
His mother called, but he would not go,

For he loved them peanuts so.

Turns out this was a parody version of Felicia Heman’s 1826 poem “Casabianca,” which was about a boy on a French ship during a battle:

The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

(While searching for this original poem, I found several other parodies, most of which are off-color. That would have suited Grandpa just fine. He knew lots of dirty poetry, just like he could swear like the Coast Guard sailor he was; but he was a man of his era, and we girls rarely heard anything unsavory like that from him.)

Anyway, back to the willow tree. He quoted the above line to me once. I liked it well enough to remember it. I’ve had it in my head for years… for decades. I never knew if the right word was “heart” or “harp” (a reference to Psalm 137), and as I’ve discovered, Grandpa’s recitations were not exactly meticulous.

Yesterday while driving with Bookgirl and Sparkler, I saw a willow tree, and quoted the line. And it occurred to me that now I could look up that line and find out where Grandpa got it.

Bookgirl googled the phrase and came up with a song from 1891. That sounded just right. It was called There Is a Tavern in the Town or “The Drunkard’s Song,” and we listened to a pretty bad recording of it. It’s a song about lost love, and friends, and bidding adieu. It’s an overly sentimental drunken farewell to friends.

And there it was, in the chorus:

I’ll hang my harp on the weeping willow tree,
And may the world go well with thee.

The tune was incredibly familiar, but we just couldn’t place it. It wasn’t until later in the day when I played it for DJ that I figured it out, and felt a bit foolish. The tune is “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” The willow tree lines match up with “Eyes and ears and mouth and nose/Head, shoulders, knees, and toes!”

Once again, Grandpa’s version is not quite the original. But I like it better. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of my grandparents, my uncle, or their homeplace with a spreading beech tree, a chicken yard, a scuppernong arbor and small garden, and a short walk to the creek. They are dead and that’s all gone — a highway now runs through where it once was.

So I’ll hang my heart on the weeping willow tree, and there it will always quietly weep for what is past.

(But I prefer boiled peanuts to parched ones, and if Grandpa could change lines to suit himself, then so can I.)

P.S. My family all shares these memories of Grandpa. My brothers actually recalled the poems better than I did. He’s been gone for over 25 years but is still very much present in our lives.

Talent Show Trials, Chapter 7 (The End)

The [adjective] conclusion to my [adjective] tween drama!

Click here to read Chapters 5 & 6

Chapter 7

The first chapter of this story was about seven pages long. This last chapter was two pages. I was about as tired of this story as my imaginary audience was.

“Susan’s hat!” Amy mouthed from the audience. Sarah saw that Susan’s hat had fallen down. So when Susan began singing, Sarah stooped down and got it. She made it look as part of the dance.

They were at the actual talent show, and this was the last act. So far, it was great. No one else matched SAHJ’s song for comedy, and Susan didn’t flinch when she lost her hat. That was the mistake that others had made. They’d stop dancing and look embarrassed. Susan hadn’t. Sarah was glad that she hadn’t lost her own.

She tossed Susan her hat, and Susan put it on right before the last line. It looked good. They both grinned and bowed.

I don’t know about you, but what I’m hearing is a mashup of Hartfour’s theme music and the Snob Squad’s theme music, swelling around them as the audience goes wild.

Backstage, Susan nearly hugged her rival.

“Thank you so much!” she cried.

“You did O.K. yourself!” Sarah answered. Susan laughed.

I wrapped up the awards ceremony efficiently. A lot like I prefer it in real life, to be honest. Not to keep you wondering… I mean, you’re really wondering, aren’t you?… SAHJ got first place in comedy. As for Lip-Sync, the announcer called Third Place… Second Place…

“Sarah Robsin and Susan Nicks, first place.”

Sarah nearly ran up the stairs to the stage. They’d done it!

And not shown is Miss Grayson sitting in her chair, fanning herself in relief, now that she was off the hook for that few thousand dollars she’d apparently bet on the outcome of this show.

Thanks to the talent show, Sarah and Susan both realized that even though they were enemies, it paid off to go together sometimes.

But only sometimes.

The end.

Honest. That’s the end.

A few notes to close:

As terrible as this story is, I would like to give myself some credit here. It has an actual structure — setup, second-act crisis, and satisfying (relatively speaking) wrap-up. Except for the unfortunate alien possession storyline, I tied up the loose ends. Good work, young writer.

But some of the names missed the mark. Amy and Jeremy were very current, and Sarah would be… but I’m sure I didn’t know anyone my age named Susan, Lisa, Dee, and Daryl. Our very small library did what it could; but many of the books I read were published in the late 50s to the early 70s. Our family also didn’t watch all the new and exciting shows; I watched videocassettes of older Disney movies. I think that’s why the naming conventions in these stories are dated. Later stories reflected the names around me much better — Samantha, Danielle, Derrick, Kristy, Jason. (One thing I never did, even this young, was name my Southern characters double names, like Brenda Sue or Mary Jane. I knew that was old-fashioned and it irritated me when stories got that wrong.)

And finally, shouldn’t Susan have gotten first billing when the winners were announced, since her last name comes before Sarah’s alphabetically? Oh, wait, haha, silly me. Nobody gets higher billing than Sarah Robsin, Queen of the Three Neighborhoods.

I bet I wished I was like that.

Go back to Chapter One (although I don’t know why you’d want to)

Talent Show Trials, Chapters 5 & 6

This is more of the story I wrote when I was 12. It’s not very good.

Click here to read Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Driven by guilt and regret, which once again activates her rocket-bike speed, Amy rushes after Sarah and Susan. She bursts into the civic center just as Sarah and Susan are getting ready to rehearse, wanting to explain about their whole nefarious plan.

But! Sarah and Susan already know about it. As they very coldly tell Amy, Susan’s little sister, Lisa, had overheard everyone talking. She reported it to Rachel, who hated to see her sister so unhappy. So they told Sarah and Susan everything.

(This evidently happened sometime on page 33, offscreen, while the author instead focused on everybody else stewing in their guilty feelings.)

And the plan worked so well that Sarah and Susan are now friends, and have no need for Hartfour or the Snob Squad or anybody. Amy is crushed as Sarah and Susan turn their backs on her and walk away.

She doesn’t see the wink they exchange, but the reader does!

“Let’s get Sarah and Susan’s act,” Miss Grayson said tensly. Sarah and Susan agreed.

They finally did their parts right. They were great. But no one felt good about it.

Everyone thought that Sarah and Susan were best friends. It was depressing.

Then Susan blew it.

She makes a remark about Hartfour, and Sarah responds with something about the Snob Squad, and the whole pretense falls apart as they shout at each other. Things get pretty heated. Miss Grayson’s classroom management skills are not equal to this task; it’s Jeremy who gets up on stage trying to stop the fight. Because he’s so good at bringing peace and security to Sarah’s life.

Sarah throws a punch at Susan, who ducks, and Jeremy gets a sore lip. You can see here that I was poised to make it big in chick-lit, if only I’d been about ten years older!

Sarah “apologised” to Jeremy (I used the British spelling, interestingly) by insulting Susan, and everyone is happy again when they realized that Sarah and Susan don’t really like each other!

With a grin, the enemies admit that they had their own plan.

Their plan was that they would pretend to be friends to get them back. It had been torture! But they’d pulled it off.

I think I was aiming for the “be careful what you wish for” moral of the story. Did it work? Did I get it? No? Oh.

It’s more like, “Don’t try to alter the hierarchy of power, but work to maintain the status quo.” Man. My morals really were messed up at this age.

But who cares about that? We have a happy ending. As I announce with flourish:

Back to normal!

Because obviously that’s when everyone is happiest.

*

Chapter 6

The following chapter is the best one in the whole story. Not because of what’s happening, because that’s just more of the same awfulness. No, it’s because I created a little time capsule of popular songs of the era — with editorializing!

“About the Campfire today?” Amy asked.

“About it?” Sarah asked, playing dumb.

“Sarah!”

“O.K. I don’t know. Anything but ‘Could’ve Been’ or ‘Forever Your Girl’!”

“Straight Up?”

“Hate it.”

“Cold-Hearted?”

“Yuck!”

“I Think We’re Alone Now?”

“AKK!”

“Then what?”

“I don’t want to sing,” Sarah said. “Let’s just dance.”

“O.K.” Amy agreed.

I’m halfway convinced that the Amy of Chapter Two was really an alien invader who had taken over Amy’s body, but was overcome by cigarette smoke in the end. Amy’s completely back to her compliant, sidekicky self. Sam’s death doesn’t even seem to bother her much anymore, so that’s good.

“How about,” Sarah said and stopped. “I’ve got it! The old one, ‘Do You Love Me?’”

“Okay!”

All of these songs were currently popular on the radio. Two more Paula Abdul songs, the Tiffany remake of the 1967 song, and finally “Twist and Shout” as featured in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The funny thing is, if I were writing this story now and I googled popular songs to include, these aren’t the ones that would come up first. I guess 12-year-old nerds weren’t the ones establishing the trends at the time.

Sarah and Amy requested the song on the radio and recorded it. Then they worked on the moves. They had flips, cartwheels, back bends, and tons of other stuff.

I actually could do cartwheels and back bends. It was just a small step to imagine I could also do flips and “tons of other stuff.” Assuming I imagined myself doing any of this, which is completely unverified speculation.

By the end of the afternoon, they were sick of the song, but they knew it.

Notice how they got the song. It didn’t occur to me that a town with an amusement park might also have a mall with a music store. And obviously there was nothing like YouTube, Amazon, or Spotify. No, they did what we in our little remote Southern town had to do: they stayed by the radio religiously, their radio/tape player already loaded with a recordable cassette. The Record/Play buttons were already pressed, along with the Pause button. As soon as the song came on, they popped the Pause button up and recorded the song.

It was actually a bit of fantasy that they could call in and request a song. The pop station we listened to was on “the Coast,” as in the Gulf Coast about eighty miles away. It was almost impossible to get through to make a request.

So! Now it’s time for the Campfire (not to be confused with the talent show).

A special stage was set up. Sarah naturally had to introduce everyone, because she’d made up the Campfire.

No word on who built that special stage. Maybe fairies? I sure wouldn’t trust the adults in my stories to construct it. As for the performances, I meticulously detailed who did what, all by name (most of whom hadn’t even been mentioned in this story). I’ll spare you all that and stick to the important parts.

Amy and Sarah got a huge applause for their dances… Daryl and Jeremy did a skit, too, with Jeremy as a smart proffessor and Daryl as a carefree student. It was halarious.

They all went home at about 10:30, talking about the best Campfire ever.

I’m seeing a pretty heavy Disney influence on this scene. Only in a Disney fantasy that Sarah could organize a show, put on a killer performance, and — this is the big fantasy part — have the other kids pay more attention to her than to themselves.

Go to Chapter 7 (The End)

Talent Show Trials, Chapter 4

The next installment in my must-read tween drama… written when I was a tween.

Click here to read Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Sarah is miserable.

Since yesterday, all her friends and enemies were leaving her out. No one in the neighborhoods would talk to her. What had she done?

Susan is miserable.

Susan stared at some old pictures. She had a black magic marker in one hand, and she Xed out any of the Sensation Squad’s faces.

Wow. I hate to think that Sarah and Susan are insecure, but they certainly are reacting strongly after a mere few hours of friends being unavailable.

And with all their admirers and followers ripped away from them, who else did they have, but each other?

“Whatcha doing?” Sarah asked. Susan shrugged.

“Just got finished spicing up some old pictures,” she answered, and told Sarah about it. They both laughed.

A couple of things here:

1. These pictures couldn’t be too old; Susan herself is only twelve or thirteen.

2. Isn’t Xing out people’s faces disturbing, not amusing? I guess it’s just dictator humor that I don’t get.

It felt funny to both of them to be laughing together, not at one another, but they were lonely and didn’t care.

Sarah got finished watering the garden and got on her bike. Susan didn’t feel like being left alone, so she followed her. At a stop sign, Sarah stopped and turned around. She noticed Susan had a pink bike instead of her usual gold one.

Susan saw Sarah examining her bike so she explained.

“Examining her bike” is a relic of the older, more stilted books I read. I meant “looking at” her bike but wanted to sound like a real writer. The result is that it sounds like Sarah was on her knees going over the paint job.

“This is Lisa’s [her younger sister, same age as Sarah’s sister Rachel]. But it’s too big for her and she hates the color. She wants a silver bike, like Dee and Rosa’s. She wants to be a member of the Squad so bad. I don’t. Not now.”

“I’d let Rachel in!” Sarah exclaimed.

“Will you let her be part of Hartfour?”

“Never!”

“Well then,” Susan shrugged. Sarah understood.

Sweet moments between two deposed tyrants.

They rode out of Perridale to a town Susan had never been to.

Whoa, they rode to another town? Without mentioning it to any parents? I obviously had no idea how far away “another town” would be, either. I guess I thought that urban-ish towns were “all in a row” like neighborhoods were. Or—this is possible—I didn’t actually put much thought into it at all.

The reason Sarah rode to this town was because she wanted to visit Hollie and Jamey. But guess what. Hollie didn’t have time to visit with Sarah because Simone Rogers was at her house. Sarah felt betrayed. All her friends had abandoned her for her enemies. She and Susan pedaled away furiously.

Hollie let Simone out, muttering thanks. [Did Simone just hang out at Hollie’s house waiting for Sarah to show up? How did that work, exactly?] Obviously the plan was working, but the hurt in Sarah’s eyes nearly killed her. It was the same in Perridale.

Amy sat in her room, remembering the look on Sarah’s face that morning [when Amy went over to Dee’s house instead of to Sarah’s.]

Dee had seen a picture of her and Susan through the window in Susan’s room. It had a mustache on her face and one of her glasses lends was blacked out. Susan was mad.

You know, Dee, that’s kind of what you get for looking through people’s bedroom windows. Also, have you ever considered making a new best friend?

Jeremy had seen anger on Sarah’s and Susan’s faces while he was with Tericia that morning.

Tericia felt guilty for doing this to Susan.

Also, Tericia changed the spelling of her name since Chapter One, but it’s not much of an improvement.

Actually, the whole Three Neighborhoods felt awful. And the Snob Squad and the other three from Hartfour were sick of each other.

Above all, the Campfire was tomarrow, and without Sarah, it couldn’t go on.

… Because only Sarah had the gift of fire from the gods to light the Campfire and bless it, I guess?

This all-Neighborhood feeling was so pervasive that Amy, Daryl, Jeremy and the Snob Squad all spontaneously gathered outside Sarah’s house, desperate to tell the truth and get back to their normal harmonious, balanced universe of best friends and enemies.

But before they could explain, Sarah and Susan hopped on their bikes and rode away to rehearse at the civic center.

Miss Grayson was pleased to see them on time and together. She guessed that the plan worked.

But when she saw Amy run in, she wasn’t all that sure.

But Sarah and Susan had their own surprise.

I bet I just made that up to finish off the chapter.

Go to Chapters 5 & 6

Talent Show Trials, Chapter 3

Further adventures of my early protagonist, Sarah. Proceed with caution.

Click here to read Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Rehearsals aren’t going so great. People are out of step, tempers flare, and Miss Grayson sighs. They’re going up against the whole county so she’d scheduled special rehearsals, but “so far the only thing they’d got out of it was new insults.”

It’s Hartfour’s turn to rehearse. But they’ve got news!

“Miss Grayson, the boys dropped out. So we have two new girls. Meet Hollie Tipton and Jamey Harvey,” Sarah said.

“I’ve heard those names, “Miss Grayson said.

Miss Grayson has definitely gone through my box of stories.

“They were in the Masquerade,” Amy said, grinning. Sarah pretended to die. She was sick of hearing about that!

“You two finally made up?” Miss Grayson smiled.

“We four, you mean. And yes, we did,” Amy laughed.

That’s the resolution to this big dramatic fight and breakup? It all happened offscreen between chapters Two and Three? What about Amy’s personality change? What about Sam’s death? What about the way there would never be four in Hartfour ever again? Honestly, sometimes I don’t think this author had any idea what she was doing.

Oh, well, moving on.

Hollie and Jamey, by the way, were Sarah’s best friends in her old town, where she’d lived until second grade. The names were taken from my very own second grade friends, Holly and Jamie, but I performed that same magic on them that I did on Sarah, making them in to entirely different names!

“Got that tape, Hol?” Sarah asked. Hollie nodded. She showed them a tape with SAHJ written on it.

“Sarah, Amy, Hollie, Jamey,” Jamey explained.

“That’s an original name for your group. SAHJ. I like that,” Miss Grayson mused. The four girls stared at each other. What kind of name was that?

Miss Grayson snapped the tape in, and “SAHJ” scrambled up on stage.

A tape! They brought a cassette tape! And Miss Grayson had a tape player on hand! It’s all so cute!

They perform a spoof of “Rock Around the Clock” called… do I have to say it? Seriously, it’s not… it’s just… sigh. Fine. “Rockin’ With the Snobs.” There. Happy? For the record, it was really funny. Hilarious. “Miss Grayson was crying she was laughing so hard at the end.”

Then it was time for Sarah and Susan to rehearse together. “Sarah and Susan would have been great if they didn’t constantly mess each other up purposely, then insult each other.” Everybody thought it was really, really funny. Miss Grayson tried to make peace, but it didn’t work. She apparently has all the classroom management skills of, well, a 12-year-old.

She finally decides that she’s got to turn to the people who know Sarah and Susan best and see if they can help figure out how to get the two rivals to work together.

“Girls, to get a coke. Take your time,” Miss Grayson said, giving them a dollar. Susan paused, confused. But Sarah grabbed the dollar and Amy.

A few observations:

  1. Susan hesitates, Sarah grabs the dollar. This is why Sarah is the Queen, Susan.
  2. Notice that “coke” isn’t capitalized. That’s because, as Southerners, we referred to all sodas as “cokes.”
  3. A dollar to buy two cokes, back in the era of three-month summer vacations and cassette tapes.

Also, “Sarah grabbed the dollar and Amy” is still very much a line I would write now.

Miss Grayson says Amy has to stay behind, and sends Susan with Sarah. Then, having cleverly gotten rid of them, she’s ready to talk to their friends. (Conveniently, Daryl and Jeremy have shown up for this scene.) Miss Grayson asks how they can get the two girls to work together. Jeremy comes up with a typically charmingly sociopathic idea:

“Easy. If Amy began liking the Snob—uh—Sensation Squad, and I liked another girl, Sarah and Susan would be left out. So they’d have to stay around each other. But that’s got some big ifs.”

“We, uh, you could pretend it,” Hollie suggested. “Amy is a pretty good actress. I know that from experience.” She grinned at Amy. [They were in the Katrina Masquerade together.]

“But she’ll come running to us,” Jamey said.

“Simone Rogers will come in handy,” Hollie answered. “Sarah can’t stand her.”

Naturally, Miss Grayson responded this way: “You have to be kidding me. You would really manipulate your friends this way?”

Haha, nope.

“Will it work?” Miss Grayson asked.

“We’ll see,” Amy answered. “We’ll see.”

At this point, I suspect that Miss Grayson has bet pretty heavily on the competition and is afraid of losing her money.

My 12-year-old self had a kind of frightening lack of morals.

Go to Chapter 4

Talent Show Trials, Chapter 2

This is the next installment of a story I wrote when I was 12. Consider yourself warned.

Click here for Chapter 1

Chapter 2

This chapter opens with Sarah’s mother, Kelly, trying to persuade Sarah to take part in a talent show. Sarah is reluctant; she says that all she can do is act and has a good imagination. Kelly adds that Sarah “can dance, you’re brave, and you’re pretty.”

“I have a short temper, I try to rule everyone, I’m a snob, I love to insult people, and I like to keep Susan as my enemy,” Sarah counters.

Wow, that’s pretty brutal self-revelation there. It must be related to her big fight with Amy yesterday, which naturally would be weighing on her mind. Kelly definitely would notice that something was very off.

Except for the one constant throughout these stories: All adults are idiots.

Instead of dropping everything and pursuing this moment with Sarah, Kelly remarks that Susan’s mother is insisting that her daughter enter the talent show. Abruptly abandoning her character growth, Sarah decides to enter the show against Susan. Epic parenting move there, Kelly!

Sarah runs back up to her room where she’s hung up that random paper she found on the telephone pole. It’s an announcement of an upcoming talent show featuring “lip syncing, singing, music, comedy, dancing.”

Well, what do you know? Sarah can sing, lip sync, and dance! She doesn’t seem to think that comedy is an option, which is another tantalizing glimpse of self-knowledge.

But she doesn’t dwell on negatives. She’s got a talent show to try out for.

Just like in all the books I read at the time, Sarah could run outside, get on her bike, and ride to town. She never has to check in with her parents first. On an unrelated note, I lived two miles out of town and couldn’t ride my bike anywhere except to the mailbox—and even then I needed to let my mom know where I was going.

Anyway, Sarah rides to the civic center. As she parks her bike:

Then she saw two gold bikes, two silver, one red, and two a pretty green. The Snob Squad’s. The color of the bike showed what rank they were. Emerald, or green, was the lowest. Gold was the highest. Sarah knew that because Hartfour, which was what Sarah, Daryl, Amy, and Jeremy called themselves, had stolen some of the Snob Squad’s secret files. They’d returned them, though, in the middle of a meeting.

The Snob Squad’s real name was the Sensation Squad. I liked alliteration, but I read a lot of old books so my vocabulary was a bit dated. Also, I’m pretty sure I lifted this idea of ranks and jewels from my parents’ Amway magazine.

And of course Sarah’s clique would have a name too. I was inordinately proud of “Hartfour” (because they lived on Hartford Drive, get it get it?). I could already see it splashed across the posters for the inevitable TV adaptation of these stories.

Anyway, moving on like Amy on a bike! Inside the civic center, tryouts were going on. It wasn’t onstage in front of a panel of judges, but various groups in front of individual judges.

The Snob Squad (I actually wrote that with a straight face, alas) has just completed their tryout, so Sarah approaches their judge to ask for information.

The woman is insistent that Sarah can try out right now, not later—she can just lip sync to Susan’s song! Sarah asks why the woman wants her to try out so bad.

“You are Sarah Robsin, aren’t you?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered, surprised. “How did you know?”

“Your shirt [mentioned previously as having her name on it], your ponytail, and the looks that Susan keeps giving you. I’m Miss Grayson.”

Sarah unconsciously pulled on her brown ponytail that she always wore.

“How did you know about my hair and Susan?” Sarah inquired.

Maybe Miss Grayson, like Hartfour, snuck in and stole some of my past manuscripts.

“You are known for the things your group pulls off,” Miss Grayson smiled. “The Neighborhood War, the Katrina Masquerade, and haven’t you punched some people?”

“Yeah,” Sarah admitted.

“Word gets around. When the famous Susan Nicks signed up, I was hoping the Queen, Sarah Robsin, would,” Miss Grayson laughed. “Now about that try out?”

I hope you appreciate the self-sacrifice it takes for me to type out lines like this. By the way, still no mention of the fight with Amy. It’s almost like I just made it up for dramatic effect and haven’t thought of it again since.

Anyway, about that “try out.” Sarah asks what song Susan is using, and Susan says—wait for it—“Could’ve Been” by Tiffany. Sarah refuses. So Miss Grayson suggests “Forever Your Girl” by Paula Abdul.

Coincidentally, I liked this song in real life, partly because I associated it with this story. My older sister still makes fun of me for it.

“As Miss Grayson had hinted, Sarah did great.” Well, duh. Would we expect anything less from THE QUEEN OF THE THREE NEIGHBORHOODS? Then Susan performed, and she did well, too. Miss Grayson told them to sit together and wait for her to come back.

Sarah sits down, only to discover that Jeremy is right beside her. She’s very cold to him. Apparently, Jeremy, Daryl, and Amy hadn’t talked to Sarah since the big fight yesterday. I’m not really clear why not, but then, that whole fight is shrouded in mystery and alarming personality disorders.

Susan comes over, and Sarah scoots over a seat and orders Susan to sit next to Jeremy. Well, now, this causes quite a stir from all their friends who magically appear in the previously unmentioned seats behind them.

‘Ooo,” Jill Carver said behind Sarah. “Susan and Sarah!”

“Who cares?” Amy’s cold voice said beside Jill.

“What’s this?” Lynn Robertson asked. She was Jill’s best friend.

Sarah said nothing. Susan told them to shut up.

By now nearly everyone from the Three Neighborhoods were gathered around, asking questions. Susan and Sarah ignored them.

Miss Grayson then gets up to announce all the acts that made it into the show. In a very dramatic moment, she says,

“In Lip Syncing, Sarah Robsin—” she had to stop for the cheers “and Susan Nicks.”

There was laughter this time. Sarah and Susan jumped up.

“What?” they cried. They stared at each other in horror.

People in the books I read at the time were always staring at one another in horror.

But it gets worse. Miss Grayson goes through the other acts (I actually listed a lot of them by name, since many were from the Three Neighborhoods and I had created a whole chart to keep up with everybody), and finishes up with the Comedy category.

“… and Hartfour.”

Four people, two boys and two girls, stood up.

“That’s not Hartfour,” Daryl said. “There’s only three of us.”

“Yeah,” Jeremy agreed.

“Three,” Amy repeted.

(I had trouble spelling “repeated” for much of my youth.)

Sarah seals this terrible, heartbreaking moment:

“Never again will there be four,” Sarah said, loud and clear. All the snickering that was going on stopped. Miss Grayson, however, wasn’t fazed.

Wasn’t fazed? Seriously? This is a huge deal, Miss Grayson. Hartfour just broke up. You stand there and watch the world fall apart, and all you have to say is,

“Rehearsals tomarrow. Explinations, now.”

You’re cold, Miss Grayson. Uncaring. Also, you’re a terrible speller.

(By the way, I didn’t actually know how this “talent show” was supposed to work, with all these tryouts and rehearsals. I don’t know if that comes through or not.)

The chapter ends with a dramatic almost-fight and Sarah guilting Amy with Sam’s memory again, leaving Amy stunned. But I’m too much of a coward to type it all out, so we’ll just end the chapter here.

Go to Chapter 3

Talent Show Trials (A Sarah Story)

“You are Sarah Robsin, aren’t you?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered, surprised. “How did you know?”

“You are known for the things your group pulls off,” Miss Grayson smiled. “The Neighborhood War, the Katrina Masquerade, and haven’t you punched some people?”

You may not be quite as well-informed as Miss Grayson is. You may be wondering just who this amazing person of many talents (and apparent violence) is. Well, let me tell you.

Sarah Robsin is the heroine of several stories I wrote as a young teenager. She lived on Hartford Drive along with her best friends, Amy and Daryl; her cute blond boyfriend, Jeremy; and her arch-rival, Susan. Hartford Drive was one of “three neighborhoods all in a row,” and Sarah was referred to, unironically, as the Queen of the Three Neighborhoods.

She was pretty, popular, tough, and absolutely, positively not a fantasy self-insert. As I explain in this post, mind that H!

Some time back, I walked everyone through the classic Sarah drama Trapped! I realize that this isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but I think it’s funny, and this is my blog. So I’ve wanted to do another one for a while.

But it took a while to find a story. Not that I had a lack of choices — I think I wrote over a dozen Sarah stories. I just needed one that I wasn’t too embarrassed to talk about. I nixed the one where Sarah disguises herself to spy on her boyfriend. I also decided against the one where Amy’s sister turns out to be not dead after all. I guess her parents decided not to tell her, because all adults in these stories are idiots.

I settled on Talent Show Trials. You definitely should keep in mind that this one was the least embarrassing of the catalogue.

Talent Show Trials takes place before Trapped! Sarah still lives on the Three Neighborhoods and is locked in a neverending feud with the snobby Susan. The twist in this story is (I think) that they have to work together. Gasp.

This story does offer some vintage 80s references. And they’re completely authentic, because I wrote this in 1989.

So hang on tight! Once this story gets started, the action… um… well, sometimes occurs. Anyway. Here we go.

Talent Show Trials
By: Sara Roberts, age 12

Chapter 1

“Come on, Amy! That’s an awful song!” Sarah Robsin exclaimed.

“Is not!” Amy White returned.

Could’ve been so bu-u-u-tiful! Could have been so ri-i-ight!” Sarah screamed in a high, squeaky voice. Several people turned to look.

“She doesn’t sing like that!” Amy said huffily. ‘Could’ve Been’ by Tiffany was her favorite song and singer. Sarah hated it.

The story launches, as usual, with conversation between Sarah and Amy. I see that I had discovered the trick of showing emphasis with italics. Yes, indeed, I liked this device. I liked it a lot.

 I think the actual lyrics of the song did spell “beautiful” correctly, but there wasn’t a such thing as Google to check these things. I didn’t like the song, just like Sarah didn’t. What a coincidence, seeing as Sarah wasn’t in any way a reflection of me. Remember that H.

Sarah says she doesn’t like the song because “Katrina likes it.” Oh, dang, I can’t avoid the Sarah-in-disguise story after all.

“You are Katrina!” Amy exclaimed. A few weeks ago, Sarah, Amy, and two of Sarah’s old friends went to a costume party. But Sarah went as Katrina Bell, Amy’s cousin, since Sarah was supposed to be gone. It was to see how Sarah’s boyfriend acted behind her back. As it turned out, Jeremy Wallace began to like Sarah as Katrina better than Sarah as herself.

Jeremy Wallace is not only a terrible boyfriend, he’s a kind of awful person. But he’s cute! Aww, I grasped that very important romantic trope at such a tender age.

Jeremy realized his mistake when Hollie Tipton, who was Katina Bell, and Jamey Harvey, who was Kasandra Bell, broke down laughing when Sarah, as herself, was chewing Jeremy out.

I stand in absolute awe here of how I introduced two new characters, their false identities, and recapped a previous story’s climax in one sentence.

Everyone called it “The Great Katrina Masquerade,’ since no one had known it was Sarah when she was Katrina, not even Jeremy.

My characters often talked about episodes of their lives under specific titles—just like in real life and everything!

Amy gets back to the question at hand.

“On the subject of the Mini-Concert. What song will we sing?” she asked.

“How about one from the 50’s? It’s more your style,” a snobby voice said behind them.

I think this was supposed to be a really cutting remark about how Sarah wasn’t up-to-date with 80s fashion. The 50s weren’t quite as vintage and cute thirty years ago as they are now. But Sarah snaps back with some current, in-the-moment commentary on 80s clothing fashion:

“Just because I don’t take a bath in a paint can every morning, Susan, doesn’t mean I’m out of style,” Sarah said without turning around. Susan Nicks was known for her crazy clothes.

“Crazy clothes” probably referred to the trend of neon colors and geometric designs that came into their own in the 90s. Or maybe Susan wore the hides of animals, I don’t know.

The next page or so reviews the fact that Sarah and Susan are enemies, and Susan is always trying to lure Jeremy away from Sarah (you have to admit Susan has some justification for hoping). It also brings in Sherry Smith, Amy’s personal enemy who is—this is going to shock you—trying to lure away Amy’s boyfriend, Daryl.

Sherry wants to know where Daryl is because she has to talk to him about the Mini-Concert. We still have no idea what the Mini-Concert is, except that whoever named it was about as creative as a 12-year-old during a boring summer in Mississippi. Just for example.

Anyway, Sarah and Amy won’t answer, so Sherry calls for backup. Evidently the population of the Three Neighborhoods includes thugs.

“Terecia!” Sherry yelled.

Terecia Jones, a pretty girl who seemed to take pleasure in bullying everyone on her neighborhood, Greenwood Circle, and the one beside that, Sun Street, and Sarah and Amy’s, Hartford Drive [running out of breath for this sentence, get to the verb already!], stalked over.

“What?” she roared. Amy and Sarah stood up.

“These two won’t answer me!” Sherry whined. Terecia was usually used as a defence divice.

My spiral notebook didn’t have spellcheck, okay? Okay.

So this Terecia is a scary girl. Is Sarah afraid? Ha, we scoff.

Then she saw Sarah. Her hand automatically went to her cheek. Sarah had socked her there once for insulting Jeremy. Sarah had a mean fist and a short temper, and she was the only one who dared to stand up to Terecia.

Good thing Jeremy has Sarah to defend his honor, what there is of it.

Terecia backs down and doesn’t make Amy tell Sherry where Daryl is, so Sherry flounces off to find him herself. Which was “pretty easy since they were right by the basketball court, and Daryl loved to play basketball.” What this says, in effect, is that the previous page was entirely wasted space. But that’s all right. Most of what I wrote at this age could be considered wasted space.

Finally, at the bottom of page 5, we find out about the Mini-Concert.

The Mini-Concert was the talk of Hartford Drive, Sun Street, and Greenwood Circle: the Three Neighborhoods. Every June 30, they had a Campfire to celebrate one month of Summer Vacation.

Because back in the olden days, children, schools got out on May 30 and didn’t start back till September 5.

They’d had the Campfire for 3 years now. It’d all been Sarah’s idea. Now she had another idea—a Variety concert, or Mini-Concert! Nearly everyone was doing something.

Um, so apparently it was named by a 12-year-old during a boring summer.

Sarah and Amy spot “the boys” talking to Susan and Sherry, so they rush over to prevent any unauthorized romancing. Susan is begging Jeremy to be in the Mini-Concert with her. Sarah sweeps in and announces that Jeremy and Daryl are going to be in it with her and Amy, and they drag the boys out of earshot.

“Thanks,” Jeremy grinned. “You rescued me.”

“Why can’t you just tell her to bug off?” Sarah asked.

“Don’t have the heart to do that to a pretty girl,” Jeremy answered. Sarah glared at him. He laughed. “I can’t tell you to bug off.”

“That’s different.”

“I couldn’t tell Katrina to bug off.”

Sarah clenched her fists. Amy hurridly stepped in.

Once again Jeremy is being his charming sociopathic self! Good thing Amy headed things off in a hurrid manner. PSA: do not get a boyfriend like Jeremy. Thank you for your attention.

Yet still, with all this thrilling drama, the burning question remains: What were they going to do for the Mini-Concert?

“Sarah won’t do ‘Could’ve Been,’” Amy said, as if Sarah was the dumbmest person in the world because of it.

I just included that line because I’m so impressed by my spelling of “dumbest.”

Sarah repeats that she hates that song, and suddenly Amy gets mad that Sarah expects everybody to follow her rules. She stomps away, gets on her bike, and pedals off furiously. Daryl and Jeremy glare at Sarah for upsetting Amy. Although I think Amy has a point, I’m honestly as mystified as Sarah is by this sudden personality change.

But hey, we’ll go with it. Sarah hops on her bike and heads after Amy. A huge black cloud is already over Greenwood Circle, from whence it would move to Sun Street, and finally Hartford Drive. Because they’re all in a row, you know, like neighborhoods are.

Amy’s personality change evidently includes superspeed, because she completely outstrips Sarah. Sarah finally sees her bike at Mario’s, “a nearby restaurant and amusement park” where Sarah and her friends often hung out. As a reminder, my town didn’t even have a McDonald’s yet.

Mario of course recognizes Sarah and is glad to see her, because he’s concerned about Amy. He points her out—she’s with a crowd of high schoolers.

Sarah didn’t like these people, so she jerked her away. She pulled her outside.

“Stop it!” Amy yelled. She tried to go back in, but Sarah blocked her.

“You smell like cigarettes.” Sarah’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You didn’t—”

“Of course not!” Amy yelled. “And what would you care?”

They shout back and forth for a bit and Sarah manhandles Amy to show how much she cares about her. Then Amy says, “Those people happen to be Sam’s old friends!”

Sam was Amy’s older sister, who died about three years ago. Amy tried to be like Samantha White in everything.

But she’s very discreet and has never, ever mentioned this sister until now as far as I know. As I said, there’s a later story where it turns out that Sam didn’t actually die after all. I can’t bring myself to read that one to find out more, though.

In the spirit of the 80s’ “Just Say No” anti-smoking and drug campaigns that pervaded our school, Sarah then lectures Amy about hanging around with people who smoke. “Just that smoke could kill you. How would Sam feel about that?”

That’s a pretty low blow, Sarah, really.

Sarah gets back on her bike and rides home in a pouring rainstorm. She can hardly see anything for the rain, and bumps into a telephone pole with a paper stapled on it. Since “she loved to put signs up on her walls,” she tore it off to keep it. I doubt it’s anything so helpful as a hotline to call if your best friend suddenly exhibits an alternate personality.

Daryl shows up in the rainstorm, asking about Amy.

“The creep is at Mario’s,” Sarah answered.

“Don’t call Amy a creep,” Daryl growled.

“Well, call her what you want. She’s in there with a lot of people. Smoking,” Sarah answered. Daryl looked surprised. Then he rode off.

By now, Sarah was soaked, so she rode on home, still clutching the paper. Sure, she lied a little. About Amy smoking, that is. But Daryl would get her out of there. She was worried about her friend.

Even if she was a creep.

It’s tough being friends with creeps, but feel free to be in a relationship with one *cough cough Jeremy cough cough*.

I hate to admit it, but that’s how I closed Chapter One.

Go to Chapter Two