8 Works Inspired By The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies. Even though I have the DVD, and can curl up with it any time I desire, there’s something magical about catching it on television.

It aired in back to back showings last weekend, and as I watched, I was reminded of how powerful this film is as an American cultural icon, as a shared American experience. Who wasn’t frightened of the flying monkeys as a child? Who doesn’t smile when they hear the words, “And Toto, too!”?

At some of my writing workshops, instructors encouraged us to collect “seeds” as others read their work. These are particular bits of writing that catch your imagination and inspire new ideas. As a work of art, The Wizard of Oz (based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) is fertile as a fat lady rabbit. Just look at this mere slice of creativity its seeds have inspired (including a great Marj Hahne poem at the end of this post):

1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released in 1973, this is one of Elton John’s best and best selling albums. It also includes the song of the same name, with lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Ben & Jerry’s “Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road” is a 2008 homage to Elton’s classic, in chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, butter brickle and white chocolate chunks, developed to commemorate Elton John’s first concert in Vermont.

2. The Wiz
Diana Ross is Dorothy. Lena Horne is Glinda the Good. Michael Jackson is the Scarecrow. And the great Richard Pryor plays the Wiz. This brilliant 1978 Motown production, directed by Sidney Lumet and nominated for four Oscars, was billed as an “An African American adaption of The Wizard of Oz that tries to capture the essence of the inner-city experience.” It’s technically a second-generation seed, since The Wiz was based on the book of the same name, which was inspired by Dorothy Gale and her friends.

3. Dunkin’ Munchkins
Well, it’s not exactly art, but these bite-sized “donut holes,” introduced in 1972 by Dunkin’ Donuts and sold in boxes of 25 no doubt were named for the small denizens of Oz’s Munchkin Land.

4. Wicked
A mashup of wizardly and witchly wonders, this 2003 Broadway musical (based on a novel by Gregory Maguire) is the story of the witches of Oz. They meet as schoolgirls, long before a tornado drops Dorothy’s house on one of their sisters, and despite their differences, become friends.

5. Toto
What is it about the 70s? Because he’d just seen The Wizard of Oz, Drummer Jeff Porcaro (who died in 1992) got in the habit of writing “toto” on demo tapes he made with his yet-to-be-named band, consisting of keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and guitarist Steve Lukather. This was only designed to distinguish these tapes from their studio work. However, the name stuck, and in 1976 a legend was born, even if most people only remember their single, “Hold the Line.”

6. Ruby’s Slippers
This 2009 novel by Leanna Ellis is a modern, Christian twist on The Wizard of Oz. A tornado busting through Dottie Meyer’s Kansas farm (and putting her in a three-month coma) is only the start of her voyage to find her family and, some readers say, God.

7. The Wizard of Id
Created in 1964 by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart (coincidentally, both died in April of 2007) this syndicated comic strip about the medieval kingdom of Id still appears in almost 1000 newspapers around the world. Parker’s son, Jeff, and Jeff’s wife, Nicola, are currently creating the strip.

8. And one of my favorite seed-blossoms, this poem by Marj Hahne.

Dorothy Gale: The Post-Oz Years

A sucker for smart guys, Dorothy Gale,
after graduating from Radcliffe with a doctorate
in anthropology, stayed in Cambridge for its dating
scene but soon grew bored of scholarly discourse
falling short as foreplay. She wanted a roll in the hay,
so she returned to the home of her dreamy Kansas
girlhood, where Scarecrow watched over the long,
fertile fields of corn. He’d come far since Oz,
taking night classes in humanities at the local
community college. Tuesday evenings and weekends,
Dorothy and Scarecrow went head to head in Scrabble-
he, a keen strategist, making multiple words in a single play
by laying the lettered tiles parallel to ones already on the board;
she, a lover of words, aching to make mauve, pecan, canopy.
No matter who won the game, they both scored big
in the end, sweaty and breathless and coming
apart in the corner stall of the barn. But Dorothy
was a junkie for adventure, always off on some emerald
jaunt in her mind, the everyday sameness of the farm
not shiny enough, and Scarecrow knew this.
So when Tin Man began showing up at the place-
to fix a squeaky door or a leaky pump or a clogged
drain-Scarecrow hung his head in the books
and in his fieldwork, afraid of a match
of wit versus sentiment with his old friend
from the road. Tin Man brought Dorothy roses
and chocolates; he wrote poems for his love dot,
his oil of dee. But his gestures were too mechanical;
he cried too damn much. So, though she knew
she would pine for his woodwork, everything
in the house started functioning again. Truth is,
Dorothy wanted a mate with more mettle, more leap
in his step. So, that winter, when Lion came by the farm
collecting clothes and toys for the annual holiday drive,
Dorothy invited him in for supper, sunflower biscuits
and a carrot-mushroom-corn loaf hot in the oven.
They toasted to witches, wicked and good, laughed
about the time she slapped him hard on the nose
for chasing Toto. While Dorothy talked about her
dissertation on the migration habits of Homo munchkinensis,
Lion, having barely touched his plate, excused himself,
ambled to the sofa, stretched regally across
and over the length of it, and fell asleep.
A vegetarian since her undergrad days-
a radical turn from Auntie Em’s home cooking-
Dorothy knew she couldn’t be too picky
about certain lifestyle choices in the dating pool.
But, as a chronic insomniac (since the twister of ’39),
she had to steer clear of snorers, and Lion’s snores
were far less sexy than his roars.
Discouraged, disheartened, dumbfounded,
Dorothy Gale did what any self-respecting woman would do:
she went out and found a new pair of shoes.


7 Books Worth Buying in Hardcover

A few nights ago I started reading a very old copy of The Brothers Karamazov. It came to me in a group of classics from my stepfather’s collection. I have no idea how old it is, because for some reason Random House decided not to include the copyright date on the indicia of its “Modern Library” line, but considering that it was stamped inside “From Mrs. Smith’s Rental Library” and included a Tulsa, Oklahoma address with no ZIP code, I can assume it probably dated sometime in the 1940s, which is spot-on according to this Modern Library collector.

No matter what the date, I love old books. I love the smell of them, even if a room full of them makes me sniffle. I love that they hold the energy of everybody who ever touched them, including Mrs. Smith in Tulsa. If I had scooped this novel up along with the other free Project Gutenberg classics available for my Kindle, it simply would not have been the same. A good, massive, Russian novel deserves a medium that feels heavy in your hand to really set the stage for the epic journey within. Here are some other books I think are worth buying (or borrowing) in hardcover, just to experience the story with the fullness of the authors’ intent:

1. War and Peace. Gotta love the classics. Unfortunately, I picked this up as an e-book because it was free, but that was a mistake. It makes the story feel too light, too airy. And, unfortunately, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (another massive book, which I just finished reading) includes a spoiler alert for War and Peace. I’ll still finish, although I’ll probably switch to hardcover. Dammit, Franzen.

2. Anna Karenina. This, I believe, is one of Tolstoy’s best books, and far better than War and Peace. The story is so large, in concept, human drama, and size, that nothing less than a hardcover can do it justice.

3. The Prince of Tides. Pat Conroy’s prose is sumptuous, his family tsuris so close to the bone it aches, his South Carolina setting so nearly a character in itself you can smell the salt marshes and the hairspray of the carefully coiffed Southern belles. This is one of his best novels, one you may want to sink into it in a chair by the fire for many, many nights.

4. Doctor Zhivago. This is one of my favorite Russian novels. Period.

5. Anything by John Irving, especially The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.  He writes novels I want to burrow into, immersing myself in the worlds of his quirky and sometimes dark characters.

6. The Grapes of Wrath. I read this Steinbeck classic in electronic format a few months ago, because I needed to start on it immediately for a tight deadline writing test-prep questions. The story of the Joad family’s journey through the American southwest during the Dust Bowl is heart-wrenching and mesmerizing, and I should have taken a few minutes to go to the library for the hardcover. This is the classic American novel, and captures a period in history so vividly and from so many points of view, that it deserves the respect of a physical edition. Next time, for sure.

7. The Color Purple. Yes, Oprah was great in the movie, but the story is so much better on the page. Alice Walker is a brilliant, brilliant writer, and the details in this novel are exquisite. If you want a real treat, pick up one of her audio books, as long as she has done the narration.

What are your favorite books that you would never consider reading in anything but a printed edition? Or did you give away your library once you got your e-reader?

Use Your Brain To Increase Your Productivity

Welcome to my world, and my sometimes-messy writing room, filled with books, toys, pens, coffee mugs, and various adapters to computer components I no longer use or possess.

Welcome to my day. At any given moment, I could be working on a myriad of tasks. Compiling research for the first draft of a web article. Writing an e-mail to a source in order to score an interview. Conducting that interview. Drafting a proposal on why a prospective client absolutely must give me her next writing project. Editing the random commas and overused “thats” out of my novel manuscript. Managing my in-box. Or, ferreting through the web to find out how the human body would react if set upon the Martian landscape without oxygen. (I’d tell you why, but then I’d have to kill you.)

Basically, I am a ping-pong ball with a keyboard.

I love being a writer. It’s one of my main reasons for living, but it’s tough sometimes. Okay, it’s tough a lot of the time. Sometimes the enemy is my own brain. Even the most facile thinker can have problems bouncing from project to project, reorienting his or her brain toward the required task. You’re tapping away at your magnum opus, when BOOM, the phone rings- your best client, who needs to talk to you right away. You scribble down notes about revisions to the project, and then go back to your computer to find fifty new e-mails waiting for you. One of those is a request for proposal for a job that’s only going to be hot for the next couple of days before the marketing manager must choose a vendor.

So how on Earth (or on Mars) can you shift your focus and apply your best self to each task?

Discipline, yes. Those things you’re supposed to do, like keeping a to-do list, blocking out spaces of time for each project, returning messages promptly… those Highly Effective Steps all of those Highly Effective People use every day.

But there’s much more to the task of balancing tasks than mere paperwork. According to Dr. Nick Hall, internationally recognized psychoneuroimmunologist, (try fitting that on a business card) we can work with our own biology to become more productive.

For instance, some studies show that our brain hemisphere activity cycles every 90 to 110 minutes. This is a brilliant method the brain uses to manage its energy throughout the day. The trick is to harness and work with the brain’s natural rhythms.

The first step is to figure out which brain hemisphere happens to be switched on.  According to Dr. Hall, you only need to pay attention to your breathing. More specifically, your nostrils. Sit very quietly, inhale through your nose a few times (blow your nose if you’re congested), and note which nostril feels less constricted as you breathe. As I’m writing this, my right nostril is definitely doing more than its fair share of the work. Using Dr. Hall’s hypothesis (cribbed from ancient India), my left-brain is more active. So it’s a good thing I’m using my right-brain language skills now.  And in about 90 to 110 minutes, I should switch to my left-brained tasks, like sorting out my inbox or updating my contacts list. Theoretically, this will make performing all types of tasks more efficient.

Another way Hall recommends you improve productivity is to match your breaks to your tasks. After spending 45 minutes composing a proposal (language skills), don’t hop on down to chat with your friends at the water cooler (or the virtual representation of the water cooler) for a break. This is not a break. This is a continuation of language skills. Sure, we need breaks. But if I hang out on Facebook for five or ten (okay, fifteen or twenty) minutes and then return to that proposal, my brain is already tired and hasn’t rested. Probably a better break for me at that point would have been a quieter activity like fetching a cup of tea, going for a short walk, or taking a few deep breaths. Then I can go back to my linguistic pursuits refreshed.

One method I use is to work with my unique biological rhythms. I am more energetic and more creative in the morning. That’s when I do the bulk of my writing, or tackle tasks that require more energy. After lunch, I work best at editing or revising. At around four or five o’clock, though, my energy plummets. This is when I normally exercise. And from banging my head against the wall time and time again, I’ve learned that the part of my brain that makes sentences checks out after about seven o’clock, so I have no business writing then. Better to perform a more rote task, or even better, eat dinner and relax.

You probably know when you’re at your best for certain things and not for others. It’s much easier to fit your tasks around your rhythms than trying to muscle your way through something your brain is just not up for.

But I know what you’re thinking: “I’m at work, and my report is due in two hours. According to my ‘nostril clock,’ I’m on the right side of my brain. So I’m screwed, right?”

You might not be. Some studies have suggested that you can change which side of your brain is “switched on” by closing the currently active nostril and forcing the other to do the work. I haven’t gotten this to work yet. Maybe you’ll have more success.

What are your favorite productivity tips that don’t involve your nostrils?