T MINUS 29 DAYS until VANISH goes on sale!

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What do writers do on their days off?

Well, here’s what this writer did on Sunday. Spent the whole day — and I mean the WHOLE day — making tamales. Started at nine AM and worked until five, hand-mixing the masa, simmering the pork, grinding the chilis and garlic and tomatoes into sauce, soaking the corn husks. Then came the assembling and wrapping and tying and steaming. I know it probably seems odd that I, a Chinese-American, would so desperately crave a traditional Mexican dish. Even odder is that tamale-making was a yearly tradition launched in my family by my Chinese grandmother. Grandma, who didn’t speak a word of Spanish, learned to make tamales from her Mexican neighbor, who hardly spoke a word of English. I like to imagine those two ladies, unable to say a word to each other, sharing their cultures through the universally seductive language of food.

That’s what I love about this country. For all its flaws (and there are many), it’s a place where “culture” doesn’t have a hard and fast definition because in the U.S. it’s always changing, always absorbing new richness, always adapting.

In this week’s issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Stephen King writes a wonderful column about how much he loves popular American culture, from books to movies to music. I’m glad he came to its defense — because, yes, it does need defending.

I say this not because I’m the author of what’s called, sometimes denigratingly, “popular fiction.” I say it because I was one of those kids who grew up sitting in front of a TV, and I still think of those hours as some of the best times of my childhood.

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Do you know this song?

“Now sit right back and I’ll tell the tale, the tale of a fateful trip…”

Yep, I can sing the rest of it. Utterly useless information, but that’s not the only song I know…

“Meet Cathy who’s been most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Barclay Square…”

Can YOU sing the rest of that TV theme? No? Then you’re either too young or .. . could it be you’re culturally illiterate?

Or —

“Let me tell you ’bout the story of a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed…”

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I can hear some of you saying: “But THAT’S NOT CULTURE!”

Yes it is. It’s the culture of my childhood, and I don’t regret having that useless information rattling around in my head. While others may try to impress me at dinner parties by quoting from Macbeth, I can impress THEM by belting out:

“Greeeeeen Acres is the place to be! Faaaarm living is the life for me! Laaand spreading out so far and wide, keep Manhattan just gimme that countryside!”

Just how much do I value popular culture? Here’s how much:

My sons think I’m the coolest mom on the planet because, on the day that STAR WARS EPISODE I opened, I told them they wouldn’t have to go to school the next day as we were all going to the midnight premiere. (Luckily, my husband was out of town that day, so I could get away with it.)

Okay, some of you are going to call me an exceedingly bad mom for allowing my kids to skip school. And for what? A MOVIE?

“But it’s not just a movie! It’s a cultural phenomenon!” I tried to explain to my husband, who came home from his business trip to find out that his wife and kids had played hooky. “It was an educational experience! A way to connect with the heartbeat of geeks around the world! And besides, there were all these fat middle-aged guys in line wearing Darth Vader masks and waving their light sabers, and how could you deny our sons THAT experience?”

My husband still doesn’t get it. But my sons do. And they weren’t the only ones. I noticed several of their teachers in line as well, looking a little sheepish about being spotted. (I bet they played hooky the next day, too.)

Of course, I was faced with the tough task of writing their excuse notes for school. Should I lie? If I told the truth, wouldn’t I get a disapproving call from the principal? I decided, in the end, just to tell the truth:

“Please excuse my sons’ absences yesterday. They were too tired to go to school, as they stayed up until three a.m. watching the premiere of STAR WARS, EPISODE I.”

To my relief, I didn’t get any calls from the principal.

(But then, I think he might have been the guy in the Darth Vader mask.)

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