The Saga of Howard, and how he finally got back in touch

Howard was a sock monkey.

My sock monkey.

And when I went on a trip to Florida in 1998, he decided to jump ship.

Made from scratch and lovingly sewed by my mom as a Valentine’s Day gift when I was small (at right), Howard was the beloved brother of Harold — my sister’s sock monkey — and we were rarely apart. When we went to Miami and I got a horrendous sunburn (born of my own stupidity, yes), I wasn’t in my right mind. And somewhere in my overheated delirium, my beloved friend slipped away.

The picture below, snapped on a Florida balcony, is the very last time photo I have of Howard. (Please pay no attention to my terrible hair, Hanson hat and smug, sunburned smile. I was 12.) Though I considered splashing it on milk cartons across the nation, I never quite had the opportunity.

And Howard, in all his self-absorbed craziness, never bothered to send me a postcard from his new digs in South Beach.

Last week, I wrote a column for the newspapers where I work detailing my sock monkey’s abrupt disappearance from my life — and how, in the aftermath, I tend to see sock monkeys everywhere. I love them, of course — so much so that I bought one for Spencer and he got one for me for my birthday! I see sock monkeys on calendars, in commercials, on book covers. They’re everywhere.

In my column I talked about the summers Howard spent with Katie and me at my grandparents’ home, and how my mom re-glued his eyes and tied him a Valentine’s bow. I also expressed my displeasure that he wouldn’t even bother to call his own brother and let him know where he was headed . . . I mean, he and Harold are flesh and sock.

Well, the Saga of Howard was a big hit. Coworkers, friends, family and readers have emailed, called and popped in to inquire about my runaway monkey.

And yesterday? Yesterday, I got an anonymous letter in the mail.

From Howard.

Kelly popped into my office with a plain white envelope. My name was written in careful script across the front and, in lieu of any return address, “Howard The Sock Monkey” sat in the corner. Inside was a single sheet of white paper with these typed words:

My Dearest Meg,

Hello, from Howard, your long-lost sock friend.

I’m sorry for the greetings I failed to send . . .

But do not fear, my life is good

Having so much fun that I thought I never could!

You see, Harold often cramped my style and stole the spotlight —

And to be quite honest, we often partook in sock fights!

But I so enjoyed Florida and visits to Grandma

Truly reveling in the many things I saw!

I hid in El Paso Hotel, for there was more I wanted to see . . .

But I regret the pain I caused of your missing me.

I’ll never forget my very best friend

Or your Mom’s love for my life and the many sewing mends.

Never forget — you were the best —

Hey, tell me, is Harold still a sock monkey pest?

From my calendar photos I’m doing well, as you can see —

They’ll forever keep memories alive for you, Meg,

From Howard, your ‘lil sock monkey.

I’m not going to lie to you guys — I’m pretty sure this is the coolest thing ever.

As soon as I was done reading the poem aloud to my coworkers, I sat in shocked silence. I mean, wow. My sister was the next one to hearing my rousing rendition of the verse, and by then I practically had the whole thing memorized. Spencer read it. My dad heard it while making pancakes. I’m emailing it to my mom, and reading it to my grandmother at lunch today.

It’s postmarked from Southern Maryland, where my column runs twice a week, but I know the truth: Howard is really out there.

And his writing skills have dramatically improved from when he was helping me with my seventh-grade English essays.

Everybody’s free (to write a gushy fangirl letter)

I’ve always been a fangirl. I’m pretty sure it started during my rampant and incredibly serious obsession with Hanson, that flaxen-haired trio of Oklahoma brothers who took the music scene by storm (storm, I tell you!) in 1997 with “MMMBop,” a mostly nonsensical but awesome ditty I’ve been humming for, oh, 13 years.

(That was a really long sentence. Please bear with me.)

Moving forward from my days of Hanson worshiping (and yes, I still love them — and they still tour; I’ve seen them in concert almost a dozen times!), we had our boy band phase — which fortunately fizzled out with ‘NSYNC’s demise. But there have been actors (Josh Hartnett, James McAvoy) and singers (John Mayer, Brandon Flowers), too. And my obsessions are not limited to dudes, either; I’ve gone through quite a few passions for TV shows (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Tudors,” “The Office,” “Teen Mom”) and movies (The “Star Wars” series; “Becoming Jane”).

My point: when I like something, I like something. And I’ll gladly tell you all about it.

The modern incarnation of this, of course, translates to my book love. When I love a book, y’all, I really love a book, and since I have this little blog on which to wax on (and on…) about my favorites, that’s just what I do.

Sometimes, though, I have to take it a step beyond. I have to write a Fan Letter.

There are two things I know for sure: everyone likes to be told they’re awesome, and everyone likes to be told they’re awesome in prose so they can read your words and save them forever, whether they’re in email or letter form. To date, I’ve written fangirl letters to Sarah Strohmeyer, Suzanne Supplee, Margaret Dilloway and Megan McCafferty, among others. In some (fortunate) cases, the authors themselves have contacted me first — and then I get to squee! all over the place as their name appears in my inbox, followed by attempts at not sounding like a lunatic when I reply.

What prompts me to write an email to an author versus just writing a book review talking about how great they are? Well, emotional connection. Margaret Dilloway first wrote me after seeing my review of How To Be An American Housewife, a novel that totally captured my heart and imagination, and I couldn’t resist writing her back to say — again — how utterly awesome it (and she) is. I wrote Suzanne Supplee after finishing Artichoke’s Heart, one of my all-time favorite books, because it really touched my soul and helped me come to terms with some scary emotions I didn’t know I still hadn’t dealt with.

When I have something nice to tell someone, I make it a real point to say it. Too often in life we go unnoticed as we sail through our jobs, home lives, volunteer work. Unlike in school, when awards were doled out for every conceivable thing to make us all feel special, no one comes along to pat us on the back or offer kind words regarding a fantastic job we did on a project or obligation. Or even that we got up and kicked the day’s butt by excelling at every task we had to accomplish, no matter how small they may have seemed.

Basically, I think we should be generous with our compliments and reserved with our insults. And when we have something nice to say, we should say it.

Since I started writing my newspaper column, I’ve archived every single complimentary letter (pictured above) or email I’ve received from readers — and I also have every kind email or blog post sent over from blog readers, too. When faced with harsh criticism or some Debbie Downer, I pop open a folder containing all those glowing words and draw strength from that. Not everyone loves me, sure, but some people do. And those people? They have to count more than the others.

One line from that Baz Luhrmann’s ’90s spoken-word graduation tune “Everybody Is Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” has always stuck with me: “Remember the compliments you receive. Forget the insults.”

Words to live by.

And words I’ll continue to share — whenever the mood strikes me.

Have you ever written fan letters to authors or celebrities?
What prompted you to reach out to them?

Postcards from far away

In this day of Facebook, email, Twitter, texting and — yes — even the occasional phone call, there’s something enchanting, reassuring and exciting about getting mail. And I don’t mean bills, of course, or credit card applications, coupons and flyers. I’m talking smudged-by-the-post-office, honest-to-goodness, postmarked-in-the-U.S.-of-A. handwritten correspondence.

The only person with whom I now keep up a penpal-like relationship would be my grandma — and she lives a lengthy 5-minute drive from my office. Despite the fact that we see each other often, we still love to write letters just catching up on our daily lives. To be honest, I think I tell her more in writing than I ever would in person . . . because writing is where I’m most comfortable. Putting my thoughts down in ink is very different than trying to speak them aloud, where I inevitably wind up throwing in an “um . . .” every few breaths. For good measure, you know.

A site I recently discovered after Nat’s mention at Book, Line, and Sinker gives me another way to break out the ol’ writing skills — and put them on postcards. Postcrossing is an international postcard crossing project that allows members to sign up for free, then receive the address and profile of another Postcrossing member. We check out their information, see what sorts of postcards they’re interested in receiving — and then we send away! After your postcard has been received by that member, you’ll receive one from someone else. Somewhere in the world.

I signed up a few days ago and have ordered postcards from Moo featuring my local photography. I’m highlighting Maryland, my home state, in all its many forms — so y’all know I had to get some blue crabs shots in there! I’m really excited to receive my cards and get them in the mail. The folks who will receive my first batch of cards are in Finland, Brazil and Poland — the motherland! When I make a trip to New York to visit Spencer’s family later this month, I plan on sending some more from Niagara Falls and the surrounding area.

It’s just another way to connect, grow and practice my penmanship. How else would I find Ana, a 24-year-old journalist in Brazil — and someone with whom I’d imagine I have plenty to discuss? I love projects that make the world smaller. And I love being a part of that world.

Book review: ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_societyReading this stunning work of historical fiction, it’s easy to feel the sun warming the beaches of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France — but much harder to grab your heart back when you’ve finished spending time with your new friends Poignancy, Heartache, Gratitude and Stunning Prose. Basically, after you’ve finished reading Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The novel opens in 1946, just a few short years since the end of World War II and the ravaging of Europe by Hitler’s Third Reich. Much of London is still decimated — dilapidated buildings still stand, but spill their contents onto the streets by the River Thames. Author Juliet Ashton survived the difficult time in England through her writing — and helped others deal with the terror, confusion, pain and harshness of war through her columns in a London newspaper. Often humorous, Juliet’s musings were so popular in England that, after the end of the war, they were published — and sold quite well. Now riding high from the success of her book, Juliet is struggling to find a new subject on which to focus her literary pursuits . . . and is coming up empty.

Told entirely through a series of letters from a great variety of individuals, Guernsey is first and foremost Juliet’s story — but quickly shifts to encompass the lives of so many other exceptional people, too. As Juliet travels England on her book tour and laments her lack of inspiration, a letter from far away drops right into her lap. A man on the island of Guernsey has stumbled across a copy of book once having belonged to Juliet — before the contents of her home were ripped apart in a bomb blast years before. Somehow the book made it to the Channel Islands, still with Juliet’s inscription in the front — and has become a staple at the meetings of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a slightly underground organization developed on the island during the five years in which German troops occupied Guernsey, making its inhabitants captives.

What always stuns me about fantastic historical fiction — particularly those stories which bring life to the people affected and haunted by World War II, one of the greatest blights and tragedies in human history — is its ability to completely transport me to another time, a distant place — and display to me, in a very human way, the toll of war upon those who fight and those who stay. None of the characters in Guernsey were soldiers, but they all knew — and loved — soldiers. None had to pick up and bear arms, but they did bear the daily burdens of not knowing whether their loved ones were safe.

It’s impossible for me — a modern American woman — to begin to understand what it must have felt like, both here and abroad, during World War II. At many times while reading, tears welled in my eyes as characters wrote to Juliet about the Occupation: what they sacrificed, how they survived, the uncertainty which enveloped their entire lives. Not having enough food, or coal, or warm clothing; not having a bed or a roof over their head. Watching prisoners marching through their once-beautiful streets, so thin as to almost disappear. But reading a novel like this reminds me how important it is that though I cannot truly understand, I can try to: and that this period of history, however horrible, can’t be forgotten.

I don’t want to make Guernsey sound morose . . . because it’s quite the opposite, really. It’s a testament to the human spirit. Like other fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read from the time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, it’s as much about the unexpected kindnesses as it is about the tragedies . . . it’s about the resilience of the human spirit. It’s about being alive.

If I don’t keep myself in check, I’ll wind up writing a 20,000 word review of this one . . . so I’ll hit upon a few more key points before I let you go:

• Juliet. I loved her — and am pretty sure I would love to be her. She’s intelligent, beautiful, sincere, independent, kind, loving, witty — and a writer. She’s an unstoppable force of nature. Reading her often-hilarious, always sincere letters to her friend and editor Sidney Stark, Sophie, Dawsey and Amelia basically made me . . . want to be a better person.

• The love story. I won’t elaborate — I would never dream of ruining it for you! But it was romantic, sweeping, realistic — gorgeous. My heart swelled to bursting.

• Perspective. Reading this novel forced me to take all my “problems,” throw them into a balloon, fill it with air and then watch as it floated away, completely disappearing from sight. Not only was I entirely caught up in this story while reading, but know now that Juliet and the residents of Guernsey — and the realities of life in a very different, difficult time — will stay with me for days. How blessed am I, in 2009, to live in a world of freedom — and to have a life free of relatively free of hardship, pain or want?

• The writing. Oustanding. The novel was begun by Mary Ann Shaffer, who sadly passed away before its completion; it was then taken up by her niece Annie Barrows, who did a superb completing it. All of the voices blend together seamlessly and, though many of them are similar, each individual letter-writer has a style and tone all their own. There’s no such thing as a “background” character; every person tells a story and has a purpose. No words are minced or wasted. Flawless.

And how fortunate am I to have read this novel? If you have any hesitation about starting it or doubt the sincerity of my crazy high recommendation, I’ll share another quick story: in order to finish the novel this morning, I woke up at 7 a.m. I woke up early — before my alarm clock. I couldn’t bear the thought of going to work without knowing how everything turned out! So I threw a blanket over my head to block out the harsh reading light, made a tiny slit for my eyes to pass through and frantically flipped the pages until I was done. And then I sighed. With pure contentedness.

So you have your orders, friends — get a move on, now. Don’t let me see you dawdling!

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385340990 ♥ Purchase from AmazonOfficial Book Website
Copy received as a Christmas gift — last year! I’m so ashamed!