Click here to read an excerpt.

The Whole Story of What I Call Life in 150 Words!

I’m very happy that my editor had the job of writing the synopsis of this book and not me. I mean, how do you tell an entire story covering four generations in only a few paragraphs? It’s an interesting writing exercise. You should try it sometime. I think these two paragraphs actually do a pretty good job of summing up the tale:

Cal Lavender is perfectly happy living her anonymous life, even if she does have to play mother to her own mother a whole lot more than an eleven year old should have to do. But when Cal’s mother has one of her “unfortunate episodes” in the middle of the public library, she is whisked off by the authorities, and Cal is escorted to a seat in the back of a police car.

On “just a short, temporary detour from what I call life,” Cal finds herself in a group home with four other girls, watched over by a strange old woman that everyone refers to as the Knitting Lady. At first Cal can think of nothing but how to get out of this nuthouse. She knows she doesn’t belong there. It turns out that all the girls, and even the Knitting Lady, may have a lot more in common that they could have imagined.

(Okay, okay, I know. There are 154 words, not 150. Just seeing if you bothered to count.)

All My Obsessions in One Book!

One of the best things about writing this book was putting so many of my interests—okay, my obsessions—into one jammed-pack novel.

While I was working as a journalist, I wrote a serious book for grown-ups about kids who were living in foster homes and juvenile prisons. I also volunteer in a writing program called The Beat Within, which is for teens who are locked up in juvenile halls. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of kids and heard so many interesting, sad, upbeat, tragic and perfectly hilarious stories about their lives. I thought: Every kid needs to hear these stories. That’s why I created Cal and Whitney and the others.

While I was doing the research for both books, I learned about the Orphan Train movement. This was the largest migration of children the world has ever seen. Between 1853 and the early 1900s, more than 120,000 children were removed from city streets, placed on trains and sent West for a new start in life. It was a very controversial idea. The organizers believed that by removing kids from poverty and unsupervised homes and placing them in morally upright farm families, the children would have a better chance of escaping a lifetime of suffering.

Others thought it was little better than kidnapping.

Trains loaded with children stopped at more than 45 states, as well as Canada and Mexico. Some of the kids had a really terrible time in their new surroundings. Many were treated more like servants than members of a family. Did you know that the ultimate bad boy Billy the Kid was an Orphan Train kid? That was new to me. But other children fared pretty well and went on to live simple, normal lives. As adults, some were great successes, becoming doctors, lawyers, and teachers. There were even two governors.

There are some really good books out there if you want to learn more. I really like the Orphan Train series by Joan Lowery Nixon. There are also some interesting websites and a documentary produced by PBS that’s full of great old photos and wonderful music. If you’ve already read What I Call Life, you know that one of the characters joins a vaudeville troupe. I’m fascinated by that old time form of entertainment. From 1890 to 1920, more people went to vaudeville shows than any other kind of entertainment. Many famous people got their start or wound up on the vaudeville stage—magician Harry Houdini, comedian Bob Hope, The Marx Brothers and The Barrymores (Drew Barrymore’s grandparents). If you don’t know who these performers are, ask your parents and grandparents. They’ll know for sure.

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Harry HoudiniPersonally, I’ve always loved any kind of variety show. The cornier the better. Stupid jokes! Acrobats! A flame-spewing Regurgitater! I was born way too late for the real vaudeville, but every neighborhood has the kid who bosses all the other kids into putting on shows. That kid was me—director, tap dancer, corny comic, vaudevillian wanna-be of a three-block radius in Northeast Philadelphia. Like the character Lillian in the book, I knew how it felt to desperately want to run away and make it big on the stage. But alas, I cannot sing at all! If you want to learn more about vaudeville and see where I got my inspiration for the World’s Fastest Typist, check out the documentary, Vaudeville, which aired on PBS.

Here’s Harry Houdini who got famous during the heyday of vaudeville by escaping from handcuffs, leg irons, straightjackets, prison cells, packing crates, a giant paper bag (without tearing the paper), coffins and the famous Water Torture Cell. No one could figure out how he did it. That’s probably why he’s smiling.

Now for my other obsession. Look through my junk drawer to see how much I like knitting!

Excerpt

Here’s the first chapter from What I Call Life. I sure hope that you will want to read more.

Everyone is always living her story.

When I first heard this, I thought: What kind of nutty philosophy is that? Who would buy it? Everyone? Always?

All I had to do was look at my own personal situation to see how wrong-headed this kind of thinking happened to be. I looked around at where I was living at the time and with whom I was living and shook my head. No sir. This isn’t MY story. This is nothing like MY life.

My life—what I call life—had been running its usual course up until recently. Until everything came to a complete and total halt. That was the day my mother happened to have one of her episodes in full public view at the library (more on that later). I, for a fact, knew that things weren’t as bad as they might look. Anyone who knew my mother knew that she’d snap out of it eventually. She always did.

But certain people in the library didn’t look too kindly on some of the things she was doing during her episode. So these certain people called the police and while one of the officers whisked my mother one way, another whisked me outside and loaded me into the back seat of his patrol car.

That had been my first time ever in a police car and while I suppose that most 11-year-old girls would have thrown a full-blown emotional conniption, I didn’t put up a fuss, no fuss at all.

Which brings me back to the subject of life stories. If I was going to tell mine, that’s one of the first things I would put in about myself: Cal Lavender is known far and wide for never fussing.

No crying. No whining. No complaining. No fuss. Not even when she has to sit in a police car breathing in the smell of sweat, stale cigarettes and worn, cracked leather. Whew! I’ll tell you one thing. If this is any indication, the police cars of our city could definitely use a good airing out. But even though I have the ability to clean up far worse messes, I wasn’t about to volunteer to do it. Let that officer and his criminal riders clean out their own car.

There was a sharp crackle of static from the police radio and that’s when I decided that I would fold up and die right then and there if the policeman put on the siren. I cringed at the thought of being paraded through downtown in such an embarrassing manner, especially so soon after the previous embarrassing situation at the library. (Like I already said, more on that later.)

That’s another thing you could put in any story about my life: Cal Lavender hates it when nosy strangers think it is perfectly okay to stare at situations that they know nothing about.

But thank goodness, the siren didn’t happen. There were only the usual traffic noises. I was perfectly anonymous, just the way I like to be. I pressed my nose against the window. I looked out at the streaks of stores and buses and people rushing by, but nobody could see in. For all they knew, the car contained a cold-blooded killer/arsonist/drug dealer on her way to the electric chair, instead of a 11-year-old girl with a mother who unfortunately happens to have episodes every once in awhile. Which, to my way of thinking, does not come anywhere near qualifying as a criminal offense.

Every so often, I caught the policeman sneaking peeks at me through the rearview mirror. When he saw me looking back, he snapped his eyes away. But then he would look again when he thought I wasn’t looking. Then I would snap my eyes away. We went back and forth like that for awhile, until we stopped at a red light. This time, he didn’t drop his eyes. “No problems back there, right young lady?”

His eyes held onto mine, which made me feel kind of funny in the stomach even though I’m sure I didn’t show it. I have spent many hours in front of a mirror imagining embarrassing situations even worse than this one and making sure that whatever jumpy feeling was going on inside of me, I, Cal Lavender, would have the same fixed expression on my face. I call it My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations. It looks like this:

Eyes like two black checkers. Mouth a thin line with only the slightest curve at the corner. I’m naturally olive-skinned and thin with one long eyebrow instead of the two short ones that ordinary people have. This gives me the ability to scowl without even trying. My mother, who has the same line across her forehead, says it’s an awning over our eyes, protection against whatever life throws at us.

That’s the face I showed the policeman, which made him cough nervously and then say, “Hey, you like one of these breath mint things? Sure, all kids like breath mints.” A tin of Altoids landed next to me. I didn’t touch it. “Not all kids think that their breath needs help,” I said.

“No offense intended,” he said back.

I forgave him. I had seen the name on his tag—Officer Quigley—and immediately renamed him in my mind. Officer Quiggly Wiggly. That’s another thing I inherited from my mother. She has a way of finding the perfect name for everyone, me included. (More on that later, too.)

Then, there was more crackling from the radio. “Yeah, that’s where we’re headed,” Quiggly Wiggly said into the receiver. The light changed to green. The car moved forward.
Now your average 11-year-old would probably have been scared out of her wits, not knowing where she was headed, where the ride was taking her, not knowing what waited ahead.

But not me. Not Cal Lavender. I wasn’t scared at all. My knees were aligned, my thighs pressing together and perfectly matched. My hands were folded on my lap. 

Why should I have been scared? After all, this wasn’t my story. This was just a short, temporary detour from what I call life.

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