Friday, April 27, 2007

Back story

Herb Spiceman and his wife came to each other with good credentials; Herb was the product of socially conscious software designers from the early days of computers, and Rosemary’s roots were in organic gardening.

The Spicemans of Connecticut had jettisoned the first-generation-immigrant baggage of their parents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side after making, and immediately dispersing to worthier causes, their first million, deciding to raise Herbert, their only child, on a commune near the peach orchards of Glastonbury where life could be lived, and computer programs designed, in a stress-free environment on about $10 per day, but still within easy reach of the Big Apple.

Rosemary Hipp’s family hadn’t moved more than a mile or so in at least nine generations, and the farm just off the Great Bardfield Road between Finchingfield and Dunmow had been an Essex landmark of the English countryside for a few hundred years by the time Rosemary made her appearance. Her grandfather’s refusal to modernize resulted in production problems that had eaten up most of the family fortune by the time her father was born, but once the “Organic” label was attached to everything from apples to wool … Hipp Organic Products were soon offered all over Europe and were beginning to make their way to North American markets … the coffers again began to fill. The ancestral silver spoons went to Oxfam before Rosemary could wrap her lips around any of them, so instead of privilege and apathy, she learned early on to embrace politics and activism.

Unlike many offspring, Herb and Rosemary did not grow up to eschew their parents’ quest for the simple, the worthy and the natural. Although children of the ‘70s and‘80s, the Reagan/Thatcher gimme-gimme mindset never took hold in either of them, and both blithely continued to pursue the rewards of addressing a grander purpose than mere acquisition.

They met on a steamy morning in Borneo, where they both happened to have landed during independent backpacking trips around the world; gifts, in each case, from parents honoring successful completion of courses of study at universities – his, Columbia, hers, Cambridge – resulting in degrees … education and anthropology, respectively.

Herb had volunteered to help supervise a group of eleven-year-olds from a Kuching grammar school during a weekend of nature exposure designed to instill a sense of pride for their homeland and a hint of environmentalism. Rosemary was spending a month tabulating insects in the mangroves for a friend’s PhD project.

When one rowdy kid pushed another off the viewing platform into the mud near where Rosie was trying to discern just where one scale insect left off and other started, the future Mr. and Mrs. Spiceman came face to face for the first time, albeit slowly, as the sucking mud of a mangrove swamp doesn’t allow for much more than a slow slurping slog.

Once it had been established that while little Zainal might look chocolate dipped and smell like decomposing swamp matter, he was actually uninjured in his fall, Herb and Rosemary experienced what they suddenly realized they’d been waiting their whole lives for … that almost audible click of a missing piece of their own personal puzzle falling into place.

Herb’s unfashionably longish hair and cut-off corduroys, and the fact that he was up to his knees in mud comforting a distraught pre-teen whose bruised ego required more fuss than necessary, combined to twang Rosemary’s heartstrings to a new, but somehow familiar tune.

The thick, yet downy covering on Rosemary’s tanned and sinewy legs sent just the right signal to Herb, and although contact with most young women brought him out in a rash and made stringing sentences together an almost impossible task, this total stranger … this lovely total stranger …somehow calmed him with her mere presence.

“Herb Spiceman,” he said, extending his muddy left hand --- his right being full of Zainal.

“Rosemary Hipp,” she answered, feeling a slight tingle as their fingers met, then clasped.

“Of course,” they both nodded.

By the time they finished their soon combined backpack-around-the-world adventure and made their way through customs at Heathrow, Herb and Rose had already been married in seven different traditional ceremonies of indigenous cultures they visited, with the Maori version on Rarotonga actually conveying full legal status.

A small gathering marked the occasion of the English wedding at the Minster her maternal great-grandfather had served as vicar a hundred plus years before. This tradition was one Rosemary’s mother was not willing to forego simply because her daughter was technically already married. Attendees, all on crowded into pews on the bride side of the church, were united in their assessment of Herb: pleasant enough, for an American.

That the couple had always intended to live in the US didn’t occur to anyone until Rose once again packed her rucksack. The couple’s plan to spend the next few years teaching in inner-city schools smack-dab in the middle of some of the most notoriously violent places gun-strewn America unfortunately provided was, although admirable, not exactly what the organic Hipps had had in mind for their gentle flower child as they raised her in amongst the hedgerows and brambles of the English countryside.

Nevertheless, Herb and Rose found their urban warfare experiences rewarding, and as educational as the courses they taught. A lesson learned early in the process, and reinforced each year they spent teaching the disadvantaged, disenfranchised youth of America, was that any contribution they could make, even as a team, could accomplish very little in the big picture. Desperate to make a real difference in the world, they decided to take the only significant step they could toward the possibility of a world-altering donation: they would have children.

Four to six little Spicemans was the original plan. Figuring just south of half a dozen would make for a manageable brood large enough to produce at least one child (although the hope was to hit the ball out of the park with each and every one) who would grow up to become a person who would promulgate huge changes in the course of life on earth … with, of course, the proper upbringing, the right environment, a diet free from contaminating substances and a total ban on television.

Providing an education steeped in social consciousness, frequent exposure to the wonders of nature, copious doses of fresh air and exercise, an environment of literature, music, art and science, how could they help but produce someone who would end up making thousands of times the difference they could ever accomplish with their work, no matter how dedicated?

After months of research and serious consideration, it was decided they would start this family off in Davis, California … a small city outside Sacramento known for its green politics, laid-back, relaxed and safe atmosphere, and large and liberal university.

Knowing it was meant to be, Herb and Rosemary had no doubt their applications for teaching positions would find them jobs, and they were right. Herb began teaching second-graders a week before Rose took on sophomore biology students at Davis High, and within a few months they’d closed escrow on a four bedroom house on Bombadil Lane and started planting winter crops in the community garden.

A year later, Basil was born. A strapping lad, as new Grandpa Hipp pointed out, he weighed over eight pounds and sported two bottom teeth – pearly white, razor-sharp little daggers that tested Rosie’s resolve that nothing but her own milk would touch her child’s lips for the first six months of his life.

The plan was to have another on the way by the time Basil passed his second birthday, and when that didn’t happen doctors were consulted. It came as no surprise at all that Basil had been a “miracle baby” … after all, he was the most perfect child ever born -- and with teeth -- and was already developing into a child to be admired by everyone … but the news that the one pregnancy was almost certain to be their last was a crushing blow.

Only temporarily deterred, the Spicemans, convinced that it would be their parenting that would result in a human to save the planet, not their genes, started the process to adopt a baby.

They ended up with two. Salina and Kayanne were the twin results of a weeklong dalliance their mother, Patricia, enjoyed in Tanzania with a wildlife photographer. Eleven months a year following elephants across the plains of East Africa, made for lonely living, but it was all Patricia had ever wanted out of life.

An open adoption of the girls into the Spiceman family suited everyone.

When the twins were three, another ‘miracle baby’ appeared. Sage was born tiny and toothless, but was by common agreement one of the most beautiful little girls ever. Unlike her pale parents and siblings, she was strikingly swarthy, with jet hair and sable eyes, and chubby feet as wide as they were long.

With Sage’s arrival, the Spicemans felt complete as a family.

Four kids at home were reason enough for Rosemary to quit the substitute teaching she’d been picking up from time to time. Concentrating on raising the family they had together dreamed would eventually serve as their payment for taking up space on the planet took all the energy Herb and Rose managed to muster.

Parenting Spiceman-style required time and a focused determination from both Mother and Father. Not only did every nibble the children took have to be from only the freshest, the purest and the most nutritious, it took concentrated vigilance to assure no refined, sugary or otherwise contaminating substances entered the bodies of their brood.

In addition to what went inside of their children, the outside had to be optimal for proper growth, as well. Lessons in dance, music and art alternated with French, Spanish and Swahili while gardening sessions, early yoga, and introduction to the life sciences through tide pool walks, wildflower identifying sessions and insect collecting took up most weekends.

Sharing among the children was more than encouraged, and voices were never raised above reasonable tones … well, almost never. The twins were known to throw hissy fits from time to time and could work each other into a frenzy that eventually erupted in high-pitched screaming of “You’re stupid!” and “You stink!” that upset Herb to no end.

In truth, being that Rosemary and Herb had each been the only child in their families, a gang of four offered myriad surprises. Basil’s total disinterest in either flora or fauna was shocking to both parents, and when he reached the age of eight and developed an all-consuming fascination with cars … fast, flashy cars … they were hard pressed to find anything redeeming in his new-found capacity to correctly identify every model of Porsche that had ever been manufactured.

Sal and Kay went clothes crazy in kindergarten. Sage fell madly in love with all things Barbie before Rose had even a chance to teach her the age-old Hipp family method of making apple dolls.

Still, Mother and Father Spiceman continued the encouragement, the lessons, the gentle prodding toward social responsibility and awareness, confident that the world would be a better place, eventually, thanks to one or more of their children.

Family traditions were instigated, and occasionally jettisoned for being either not enough fun for everyone or not having a message worth the trouble. One that Rosemary especially enjoyed was the Saturday Dinner from Someplace Special.

Starting the previous Monday, Rose would comb the Internet for recipes from various parts of the world, eventually choosing a country offering a tasty menu. She was an expert at shopping specialty stores, organic farms and Asian markets, and often included the kids in what she sometimes managed to pass off as adventures in dinner preparation.

The Saturday that featured food from Cambodia provided an even more exotic array of dishes than usual. Rosemary had outdone herself, even managing to find some of the correct frying crickets for Chang-Ret Ling Prai, the stir-fried salted cricket dish she had for an appetizer.

The beef in the Kha Sack Ko (beef stewed in palm sugar) was from a cow who had never known an artificial hormone or antibiotic, and the nhoam panh-chak-poa, the five-color salad, probably sported the brightest five colors any nhoam panh-chak-poa ever had.

These Saturday feasts always came with a lesson on the featured country … a bit of history, some of the culture, a look at the dominant religions, and such … as Rose and Herb felt that the flavor of a country was about more than what went in the mouth.

After cultural immersion, often necessitating finger bowls, it was time for general family conversation. Early on, the kids learned to save up interesting tidbits from their week to share so as not to feel the pressure of having to come up with something significant on a full stomach.

The pressure was always less when there was a theme, so Basil, Sal and Kay were pleased when Herb announced early on that the topic for the evening would be “What I want to be when I grow up”.

Since he and Rosemary were ostensibly already grown, they began the discussing with dreams they’d had as children about paths their lives might have taken. Rose only mildly regretted never having been able to work with gorillas in Africa … after all, her four filled her needs almost perfectly … and Herb, having satisfied almost every one of his goals, could only reinforce how important it was to follow through on dreams.

Twelve-year-old Basil, as always, was the first of the children asked to expound.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately,” he began, “and not just for Saturday dinner conversation.”

Herb and Rose exchanged a warm look across the table, and both puffed up just a tiny bit with the pride they felt for their son.

“After all,” he continued, “if I want to retire with a fortune by the time I’m forty, I’ll need start early. I want to be a property developer. You know … like Donald Trump.”

“And we’ll be your law firm,” said Salina, jumping into the conversation with enough enthusiasm to keep her parents pinned to their chairs, lips firmly pressed tightly in horror at what they were hearing.

“Yeah,” Kayanne added. “We’ve been talking about this for a while now. The plan is that Sal will do criminal and I’ll do corporate. Between us we will make a fortune!”

“I’ll need a bigger firm than the two of you,” Basil countered. “You think Donald Trump has just two? I bet he has zillions of them. And none of them are his sisters, I’ll bet.”

“We’ll hire associates, then bring them up,” Kay added. “Spiceman, Spiceman and Partners! And we’ll give a family discount.”

“I want to own an advertising agency,” little Sage, all of six-years-old added. “Barbie will be my biggest client, and I’ll make a million dollars for every commercial she’s in.”

“We’ll have our own corporate jet,” Salina said dreamily, “and have it painted lavender.”

“No,” her twin insisted. “Pink!”

“You can’t have a pink plane,” Basil argued.

“Barbie has a pink plane,” Sage put in.

“But Barbie’s not REAL,” Kay smirked.

“That is ENOUGH!”

All heads turned toward Herb. His face was as flushed and red as his wife’s was drained and pale, and his eyes shot from child to child in a wild attempt to recognize his own children.

“You are ALL excused from the table this minute,” he said, his voice shaking in a rhythm matching the trembling of his hands. “I would like you to please go to your rooms for some quiet time.”

The children turned to their mother.

“Yes,” she agreed. “Please go read or something. Your father and I need some time alone.”

The following Monday, while Rosemary perused Internet sites on various countries in her usual trawl for recipes, Herb was online applying for teaching positions in parts of the world that he desperately hoped would offer a life that would teach his children lessons other than the ones they’d been learning while he and his wife were busy raising them to save the world.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Herb and Rosemary Spiceman have raised their children, all four of them, to be socially conscious, environmentally aware and culturally sensitive. One evening, however, when their usual engaging dinner conversation turns to futures and aspirations, Mom and Dad Spiceman are horrified to learn that their kids dream of careers in advertising and corporate law, and lust after labels, logos and everything else the couple consider to be the dangerously superficial fluff of life.

Committed to the concept of their children as representations of hope for the planet, they quit their jobs, pack up their essentials ... and kids ... and set off for teaching positions in parts of the world where life will expose Basil, Salina, Kayanne and Sage to more than iPods and Barbie and body piercing.

Their first stop is in Seychelles, where in addition to lessons on the fragility of coral reefs, the damaging effects of invasive creepers and the value of free education in Africa, the kids also come across a ghost on a mission who decides they are to be her perfect revenge, fruit bats, sting rays and a pirate's treasure that's been hidden away for 436 years.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What's this all about?

This is to be the place I come to work on the novel I've been trying to write for a while now. What appears will be first draft material, so subject to ... and in need of ... change, tinkering, edits, rethinks, and more as the process moves along.

I write two professional blogs for AND a person blog, and I'm constantly, but sweetly, interrupted by a four-year-old and a two-year-old who deserve more of Mom's attention than they get when I'm working, all resulting in me being too busy to sink my head into the bucket of fiction waiting impatiently on the corner of my desk. The plan is ... yes, there's a plan ... that by putting the draft of this book into blog form, filling in a blank square with fiction for a change, I'll manage to get more done than I have been while trying to separate fiction from the rest of the writing I do.

This seeds of this book germinated in emails between me and my niece, Rebecca, a reading wonder who'd finished everything interesting for kids by the time she turned eight. With the book forming on this blog, I'm hoping we'll be able to work together, and I'm looking forward to the process.

Pop in occasionally, if you like, and follow along.