Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Unfollowed and Defriended

Someone unfollowed me on Twitter today.  And because not that many people are following me there, I know who it was.

It surprised me when she began following me, to be honest.  She didn’t seem to have any connection to writing or books, and I didn’t know her personally.  She has been on the Council of Economic Advisors.  I was like, What the hell?  I assumed she had a kid who had read one of my books.

And then today, when I went on Twitter, I was down one follower.  And I figured out that she was the one.

Is it weird that this kind of depresses me?

Since having joined Facebook in 2009, I’ve been defriended by three people.  I know who two of them are.  One of them didn’t like my politics, and the other one was someone I’d known well at another time in my life.   I think she’s troubled.  Or maybe I bored her.

When you’re a writer, you get used to rejection.  It’s not a way of life, exactly, but it is definitely part of your everyday experience.  When an editor rejects one of my manuscripts, I read the note very quickly, and then I either 1) eat something, 2) swear and eat something, or 3) stand up, stretch, and let my eyes scan the bookshelves in my office, which is my way of reminding myself that I am a person who writes books, and even if I never sell another one, no one can take that away from me.  Then I go eat something.  And then I move on.

But being rejected via social media is different.  It’s a little more personal, because at one time someone wanted to follow you or be your friend.  And then you said something, and suddenly that person was like, What was I thinking?  Poof, it’s over, and you didn’t even get a chance to defend yourself or say I’m sorry.  It’s like a bad breakup with a really passive-aggressive asshole.

What did I say that upset the Economic Advisor lady?  I tweeted about how I love my boyfriend but hate watching “Ancient Aliens.”  And about how I get depressed when I know we’re having fish for dinner.   Are these clues?  Does Economic Advisor believe that Jesus was an alien?  Does she really, really love tilapia?

I will never know.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Birthdays, Book and Otherwise

Tomorrow is the day PRETTIEST DOLL goes on sale at bookstores and online.  It’s called a book birthday, which is reminding me of other, different kinds of birthdays.

My son was born on December 28.  I was in labor for at least 36 hours, after being told by a chatty sonogram technician on Christmas morning, “Boy, that kid’s got a big head.”  In those days, it was unusual to know the sex of the baby, so my husband and I were in the dark on that score.  Also in those days, they gave you Demerol.  It was fantastic.

When he was born (9 pounds, 2 ounces, 22 inches long, at 7:20 pm), I became almost instantly ecstatic in a completely new way.  It wasn’t just his birthday that day.  In an instant, I became a different person.

My daughter was born three and a half years later.  The delivery was harder, owing to egregious medical nincompoopery.  She was born on her due date—June 3, 10:20 am—and her gender was also a surprise.   I didn’t experience ecstasy right away (owing to the idiots who delivered her), but two days later, there it was again.  She was 7 pounds, 1 ounce and 21 inches long: a perfect little peanut of a girl.

I love all the books I’ve written, and I’m proud of each of them.  I hope lots of people buy PRETTIEST DOLL, and I hope it resonates with them, makes them laugh, makes them think and feel and wonder.

But when somebody says, Having your book published is like having a baby, my first thought is always, No, it isn’t.

It isn’t anything like that at all.

Monday, October 29, 2012

People Who Don't Like My Book

I love being a writer.  I love for people to read my books and think about them.  I love hearing what they have to say, even if it isn’t always complimentary.  Well, okay, honestly, I’d rather hear compliments.  But good criticism, thoughtfully articulated, is always appreciated.

What I hate, though, are opinions that are colored by bias, poorly backed up, or otherwise incoherent.  And the Barnes & Noble site has posted a couple.

First off, let me say that I’ve received bad reviews as long as I’ve been writing.  My first book (NATALIE SPITZER’S TURTLES, Albert Whitman, 1992) was reviewed by a librarian who objected to the fact that the main character’s best friend was African American.  She took this to mean that I think black people are followers, because the best friend happened to be a follower (who, it should be said, eventually came to a good decision on her own).

As it happened, the decision to make the best friend black was taken by the editors, who commissioned the illustrator.  It was a surprise to me when I received my copies in the mail. And also, since when are all African-American characters in works of fiction supposed to be leaders?  Who ordained that?

But I never said a word, in part because it’s unseemly to seem overly miffed by criticism, and also because back then, to whom was I going to complain?

Of course, that was before blogging, which, conveniently, allows me to bitch if I feel like it.

An unnamed reviewer of PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion, November 6, 2012), whose review appears on the Barnes & Noble site under the headline “Children’s Literature” says, in part, “I seriously worry, though, about the implications that young teenagers are likely to be perfectly safe and better off if they run away from situations not even close to being as oppressive as they imagine them.

Does Worried Reviewer worry about Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the classic FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER?  Does she think Harriet shouldn’t have snuck into other people’s dumbwaiters in HARRIET THE SPY because doing so might give readers bad ideas?

Kids read fiction for the same reason that adults do: to lose themselves in a story.  And the best way I know to allow that to happen is to write about real people: kids who do dumb things, over-controlling mothers who might be crazy but still love their daughters.  If writers aren’t ever supposed to write about children who behave poorly or recklessly or impulsively, then we’re going to end up with books that are more like comic books than literature.  Is that what we really want: a main character who always acts heroically and wisely, a bad guy whose temperament is never leavened with even a kernel of mercy or intelligence or gallantry?

Trust me, Worried Reviewer.  The fact that Liv Tatum runs away from home is not going to cause readers to up and head for the nearest bus terminal.  PRETTIEST DOLL is a book, not an instruction manual.  Kids will get that, even if you don’t.

After reading PRETTIEST DOLL, a self-identified “teen reviewer” says, “…In addition, her language seems simple compared to language in other books in the same age category, but there are profanities throughout the novel.

Does Teen Reviewer know any twelve-year-olds?  Any eight-year-olds?  Does she know what they sound like?  I have raised two kids, and they swore like stevedores from the time they were five years old.  (Actually, my daughter called her beloved brother an “idiot asshole dick” when she was two and a half.)  And that was in my presence.  God knows what they said when I wasn’t around.
They’re now highly functional adults who know how to behave at work and in graduate school.  They’re fine.  A few swear words in a book—I think there are no more than five in PRETTIEST DOLL—are not going to turn innocent children to a life of crime.  But a book written for young people with language that is stilted, inauthentic, and artificially purged of realism will simply never be read.
Suck on that, Teen Reviewer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Twitter and Publicity and Walking the Hills Without a Cane

So I finally broke down and opened a Twitter account.  Just writing this sentence makes me embarrassed.

Publicizing PRETTIEST DOLL is exhausting.  I haven’t had time to write in two weeks, what with trying (in vain) to figure out Twitter and writing to everyone who entered the book giveaway and answering a blogger’s interview questions ( and attempting to arrange a book tour.  Meanwhile, I’ve had a nasty cold, the roof rats are chewing on the shingles at night (blissfully unaware that the roofers are arriving tomorrow, thereby putting a definitive end to their shenanigans), my car needs servicing, and my 92-year-old mother who has dementia is ducking her caregivers and going out for unattended walks without a cane.

I’ve decided to let her do this, because it is, after all, her life.  (And also because she yells at me if I try to interfere in any way.)  It makes me very anxious; I’m always waiting for a phone call from a doctor with dire news.  My mother is unsteady on her feet and broke her pelvis in a fall last March, so she is undoubtedly at risk for grave injury.  But she loves to tell me about her walks when I call.  “I did the whole thing,” she says.  It takes her half an hour and is hilly in places, and I know she is proud of herself.

I think that in telling me she’s done it, the whole experience becomes more real to her.  She can believe with more certainty that it actually happened.

I was raised to think that tooting one’s own horn was boorish and uncouth and just a little bit unattractive.   But I’m trying to think about it in a different light.  Maybe publicity is really more than just a way to tell the world that I’ve done something that makes me proud.  Maybe it’s a way to convince myself that I really sat down and wrote a book.  An actual book.
Because after all these years, sometimes I still don’t quite believe it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Enter To Win

I have been receiving lovely notes from lots of adults interested in children’s books—librarians, teachers, readers—who are submitting their names for a chance to win one of ten free autographed copies of my upcoming novel, PRETTIEST DOLL (which will be published by Clarion on November 6, 2012).

Publicity is an amazing thing to a writer.

When you write, you disappear inside your head, and the only people keeping you company are the characters you dream up.  It’s a big party up there, and for a while, it’s fabulous.  But then you finish the book, and the characters go away, and you go back to your real life, where you make soup and watch “The New Normal” with your boyfriend and wait for your adult children to take your calls and visit your 92-year-old mother with dementia who is still mad that you took her car away and get quotes from roofers because you have roof rats and run every day because you are addicted to running even though you think you might have runner’s knee. 

And it’s as if the book and all those characters have evaporated, are just gone.

But now I have a publicist.  And publicists know how to make sure that people know about your book and those characters.  One of the things they tell you to do is to offer to give away some free copies of your book.  A lot of people will write to you if they think they’ll get a free book out of it.  (All in all, my book has received more “hits” than 89% of the other children’s books advertised this year.  Yes, I’m bragging a little. )

That is a pretty extraordinary thing.  With all the stories about the demise of the printed (as opposed to the electronic) word and the corporatization of the publishing industry, you wouldn’t think people would still want to own an actual book.  But they do.

I’ve heard from a teacher on Long Island with the same name as my daughter who thinks my idea (about a beauty-pageant contestant) is great.  And a young college student who writes a blog and wants to be a writer herself.  And a woman who likes the look of my website.  I didn’t recognize the name of her town, so I Googled it.  She lives in Iraq.  IRAQ.  Isn’t that incredible?

It is just the most heartening thing, to see how books are still meaningful to so many people.  It makes me feel happy and hopeful about the future (a fact that will make my closest friends laugh, because I tend toward the melancholic and despairing).

It’s not too late to enter the contest.  Visit my website ( and drop me a note.

And in your non-reading hours, check out “The New Normal.”  Ellen Barkin is going to win an Emmy.  I just about guarantee it. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On Doing Things You're Not Very Good At

Years ago, when my son went off to college, I told him, Do at least one thing you never thought you would do.  He went to a dance class and it completely changed his life.  (In truth, I don’t know if he even heard what I said.  He would have gone to the class anyway, because two girls asked him to go.  But I like telling the story this way.)

Recently, I decided to take my own advice.  I am a very verbal person.  I need words to make sense of the world.  But I’ve always wished I were more visual.  So I signed up to take an online photography class in self-portraiture.

This class is really hard for me.  The other students are very beautiful women who can rock short hair and wear orange skirts that look good when they’re twirling in a meadow.  One woman in particular takes the most amazing photographs: her hands in blue paint, her unclothed body demurely rendered in grainy black and white, her smiling face wreathed by daisies in clear glass vases surrounding her head.  She is so creative and clever and artistic and inventive. 

Whereas everything I take looks like an ordinary snapshot.  

Here’s the thing, though.  I think it’s really good for me to be doing something I’m pretty terrible at.  Because, first of all, and most obviously, if I never try something new, then I’ll never learn how to do it better.  

But here’s the other thing, the thing I didn’t expect: it’s really kind of fun to be lousy at something and know that I’m going to keep doing it anyway, voluntarily.   There’s no pressure, no sense of urgency.  It’s like playing, which I’ve kind of forgotten how to do.  But the one thing I remember about playing is that you can’t be good at it, and because you can’t be good at it, you can’t really be bad at it, either.

When my son was about three, he wanted me to play “guns” with him.  (We didn’t have any toy guns; we just used our fingers.)  He kept “shooting” me and making realistic shooting sounds with his mouth.  I made sounds that sounded as though I was drinking out of a trough.  Then I started explaining that I wasn’t very good at pretending to shoot because I’d never done it before, and also that boys were probably better at it than girls and I didn’t know why that was, and even though there was probably a girl somewhere who was good at it, I’d never met her.

My son sighed and said, “Mommy, just stop talking and die.”

Assuming he was speaking metaphorically, I think this is good advice.  

Monday, September 3, 2012

Favorite Books

Writers love talking about their favorite books.  When I talk to kids, it’s usually the second question they ask me.  (The first one is, How much do you get paid?)

It’s hard for me to answer this question if the asker wants me to name just one book.  Different books mean different things to me, and the longer I live and the more I read, the more answers I have.

Here are some of my favorites, and the reasons why they’re my favorites:

--Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964).  A little girl wants to be a writer, spies on people, and writes it all down.  I think I was ten the first time I read it.  Reading Harriet the Spy, I was reading about myself.  It was the first time I saw myself in someone else’s words.  I loved that Harriet wanted to be a writer, that she was a writer, and most especially, that she was comfortable in her own writer-ly skin.

--Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White (Harper & Brothers, 1952).  This book was read to me by my father before I could read to myself.  For the first time, I knew (in the way that children do, which is to say, mysteriously, pre-consciously) that prose could be poetry.  I’ve read it dozens of times.  To this day, I cannot read the last page without crying.

--The Forsyte Saga, A Modern Comedy, and End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy.  Each of these is a trilogy, so nine novels in all, written in the early twentieth century about an extended English family and spanning five decades.  I was a precocious reader and began to read these novels when I was twelve and my family got hooked on the British TV series.  The novels gave birth to my deep love for all things English, as well as to the realization that reading was a way to ogle other people’s dysfunctional families.

--Rabbit Is Rich, by John Updike (Knopf, 1981).  John Updike wrote in the most beautiful, meticulously crafted prose imaginable about a car salesman who drank too much, cheated on his wife, and tried to understand his place in the world.  This novel, the third of four in the Rabbit series, made me understand what it is to be a certain kind of American man.  It also made me understand that a well-drawn protagonist does not need to be heroic, or even likable, to be compelling.

--Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth (Random House, 1969).  The funniest novel I’ve ever read.  More dysfunctional-family drama.  The beauty and rage and pathos of being a Jewish man in America.  Neither Roth nor Updike has many good things to say about women, but boy, can they write.  (Note: This is not a kid's book.  I don't believe in censoring books, but if you're a kid, you ought to clear this with your parents before taking it on.)

--Anywhere But Here, by Mona Simpson (Vintage, 1992).   Dysfunctional Families R Us.  The story of a complex mother-daughter relationship, told from the daughter’s point of view.  Well, of course I’m going to love it.

--Too Much Happiness, short stories by Alice Munro (Knopf, 2009).  Munro is Canadian, widely heralded as the greatest living short-story writer in the English language.  The stories in Too Much Happiness are magnificent, but so are all her stories.  Here’s a wonderful line from “Face”: “In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.”   No fancy words, no exploding cars, no pyrotechnics of any kind.  Just words that make you wish you’d written them.  And lots of dysfunctional families.

What are some of your favorite books?  Send me a comment, or tell me on Facebook.  Really, I never get tired of this stuff.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On Book Trailers and Trying to Get Kids to Read

I’ve been working to get everything in order to publicize my new middle-grade novel, PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion, November 6, 2012).  For the first time, I commissioned a book trailer.  The very talented and amazing Daniel Brown of Wide Eyed Pictures directed.  Here’s a link:

Isn’t that little girl wonderful?  Her name is Payton Walker, and her parents wrote to tell me that she doesn’t really have much of an accent but practiced on the way to the shoot.  I think she nailed it.  She managed to capture exactly one of the qualities in Olivia Jane that most touched and interested me: that sense of wanting to put her foot down, say no, stop the bus and get off, all while not hurting anyone or making anybody angry. 

Even though PRETTIEST DOLL is about the world of beauty pageants, I hope it will be meaningful to any kid who feels pressured to participate in activities that don’t really interest her.  When I was raising my children, their friends were not involved in beauty pageants.  But I knew a lot of chess players and singers and black belts and Little League pitchers and gymnasts and swimmers and water-polo players and dancers and actors and goalies and divers and one kid who was on a trivia team and knew everything about European music history and one kid who fenced.  I hope they were doing these things because they loved them and not because their parents were living through them.  It’s hard to know for sure.

(The kid who liked trivia won over $59,000 on "Jeopardy" a few years ago. I think he was twenty-three when he did it.  He is one of my son's best friends.  You should have seen me yelling at the television when he won.)

When I first started writing children’s books twenty years ago, I never gave publicity a second thought.  But now, the combined effects of publishing-house mergers and the allure of other, more dazzling media mean that writers have to work hard to make sure their books get noticed.  I won’t lie: writing the narration for the PRETTIEST DOLL book trailer was a total blast, the most fun I’ve had professionally in a long time.  But the whole thing makes me a little sad, too.  Apparently, books all by themselves aren’t interesting to a lot of kids, who are more likely to read them if a good trailer hooks them first.

Isn’t it funny that reading is the one activity that some parents care about intensely until their kids actually learn how to do it?  And that these same parents sort of lose interest in their children being readers when the glories of the soccer field and the uneven parallel bars beckon?   Why don’t parents cheer when their kids want to lie in bed on Sunday morning and lose themselves in a good mystery?  (And by “cheer,” I don’t mean “pay their kids five dollars for every novel they read.”  I mean “cheer.”  Or better yet, “not cheer.”  Just let their kids alone, for once.)  Why don’t they see the value—the beauty—of a childhood spent under the spell of good books?
Not everyone likes to read.  That’s really okay.  I’m not suggesting that parents turn their crazed attentions to reading and try to make it into a competitive sport.  And I’m not denigrating athletics and music and theater and all the other wonderful things that teach children the value of hard work and self-discipline and membership in a group.

But maybe if parents let their kids know that reading really matters, it might even the playing field (so to speak) and allow books and kids to find each other.  To do this, parents would have to embrace the radical notion that it’s okay to engage in an activity that will not culminate in a trophy or a ribbon.  No clapping, no belt test, no team, no winning.   Just pleasure, and the joy of losing one’s self in an invented world.
Can we parents do this?  I don’t know, but I hope so.  I hate to think what writers are going to have to do in 2042 to get anyone to notice their books if we don’t.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


This has been a long summer, in most ways wonderful, but I haven’t been blogging at all.  I was thinking today about why this is.  I’m currently publicizing my upcoming middle-grade novel, PRETTIEST DOLL (due out from Clarion in November), trying to interest an agent in my travelogue/memoir of my mother (my own agent doesn’t represent non-fiction), revising a new novel, and traveling twice a week to visit my mother, who continues to decline. 

So I guess that’s why.

In truth, I have a lot of ideas for things to write about, but no inclination to do anything more than jot them down.  (In my head.  I haven’t held a pencil since 2007.)  So I figured that today, I would just take note of a few things and not beat myself up for not fashioning a whole post on any one thing.

--What is the proper etiquette for acknowledging other people while you’re running?  I run the same route through my neighborhood every day, and I see the same people.  There are a few friendly women who comment on my shoes (neon pink adidas) and an elderly man who walks slowly with a cane, pausing when he sees me to say, “Ah! Youth!”  There is a man about my age with a dog who always says something encouraging, and a lesbian couple with their dog that barks at me.  (His owners think he doesn’t like my shoes.) 

But there is a woman I see almost every day who ignores me completely.  She is not listening to an ipod.  I have tried saying “hi,” holding my hand up briefly for a cursory wave, and smiling.  There is no response.  Because I am a children’s book writer and children may read my blog, I will not tell you what I think when I see her coming now.  It’s mean, though.

--I love listening to big band music from the thirties and forties when I cook.  In the car, though, I only like blues or seventies R & B.  Why is that?

--I have recently read Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness” and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”  Both are short-story collections, and both are wonderful.  This is from Munro’s story, “Child’s Play:”
For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly.  Its scenes don’t vanish so much as become irrelevant.  And then there’s a switchback, what’s been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it’s plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.
Sometimes the universe gives writers a gift, and this quotation is one of those gifts.  I’m going to use it as the epigraph at the beginning of the book about my mother.
--I am usually the worst person in the world to watch the Olympics with, because I am always complaining about how little-girl gymnasts don’t get to have a childhood and why American TV doesn’t cover things like women’s weightlifting.  But I was better this year.  I really got into the spirit of the whole thing.  I’m starting to get why the things athletes do are meaningful and inspiring to people like me, who would never in a million years have thought I had anything in common with them.  But the older I get, the more I think that sports is really just a metaphor for life: you struggle and you overcome and you deal with setbacks and when you win, the whole thing was worth it, and when you lose, you wonder, but you keep doing it anyway, because the only other option is giving up, and that really isn’t an option.
So I liked the Olympics this year.
--There is a dj on KPIG named Uncle Sherman who I think is stoned whenever he’s on the air.  I just want a dj to tell me what’s been played and who sang it.  Nothing else.  Uncle Sherman should just stop talking.

Monday, July 16, 2012

One More Excerpt from My Work in Progress

Day 18

Robert and I drove along the Gulf Coast through Grand Bay, Alabama Port, and Bayou Le Batre (proclaiming itself “The Seafood Capital of Alabama,” with signs for shrimp, grouper, flounder, and cigar minnows), and out over a tall hump of a bridge to Dauphin Island.  In Alabama Port, we passed the Clyde Sprinkle Volunteer Fire Station.  Later in the day, I looked Clyde Sprinkle up.  He died at the age of 94, in 2005.  He owned and operated Sprinkle’s Grocery Store and Sprinkle’s Can Company and he was a co-founder of the fire station in Alabama Port.  A note on indicates that as late as 2000, he was “a joy to listen to and had such spirit.”
The predicted rain never arrived, despite thick cloud cover and oppressive humidity.  A stiff breeze was blowing as we pulled onto the Mobile Bay Ferry—our craft was the Marissa Mae Nicole—for the trip to Fort Morgan.  We were sent on our way by a blue heron patrolling the dock, and by flocks of pelicans.  The pelicans are something of a mystery.  No one knows where they go in the winter: Mississippi?  Florida?  Mexico?  Scientists are tagging them to see.
It took forty-five minutes to get to Fort Morgan, chugging over choppy seas.  We passed more pelicans and several oil rigs.  We hung out with a worker on the boat who grew up north of Minneapolis.  There was no reason to ask him why he lives here now, but Robert did anyway.  When the man said, “Winters,” Robert—a native of Joliet, Illinois—laughed in knowing solidarity.
Once we docked, I let Robert off to ride and drove along the shore, past houses in pastel shades of yellow, green, blue, red, and gray.  Almost all of them were built on tall posts on the beach, in what seems like random relation to each other.  They are rustic rather than grand: faded and weathered.   The overall effect is informal and charming. 
At Gulf Shores, I drove north, over a toll bridge crossing the Wharf Parkway and Brown Lane.  The toll collector, anticipating tomorrow, wished me a happy Mother’s Day, as though my maternal status was tattooed on my forehead.  I drove to Foley, which was having an arts festival.  I parked the car and strolled through the park where the festival was being held.  At one booth, I stopped to admire a piece of stained glass.  “I love this,” I said, “but I’m traveling and I’m afraid it might break.”
A woman standing next to me overheard. 
“Where are you from?” she asked.  She was young and heavy, with pale, pocked skinned.
“Oh!  California,” she murmured, as though I’d said I might be having an allergic reaction to shellfish.  And then, “I’ve heard about California.”
“Heard what?”
“Just how it’s different.”
We smiled at each other.  It made me feel as though I wasn’t the only one wondering.  We both were, across the divide. Both hearing stories, trying to imagine ourselves living unimaginable lives.

We came to rest in Pensacola.  On our way to dinner at the Oyster Barn, the sky finally opened, shedding rain.  Just as we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant—a little shack overlooking the bayou and a lovely bridge—the rain let up, and we went in.  Robert had his raw oyster fix.  I watched some young men fishing on a dock.  The rain started again, but they kept at it.
At a table next to ours, a young father and his seven-year-old son ate oysters and hush puppies.  They knew the owner and all the waitresses, who ruffled the kid’s hair and teased him.  The father let the kid be teased, let him answer questions as though he was a regular person, not as if his own self-image was wrapped up in whether his kid proved sufficiently smart or funny or cute.
The owner of the restaurant approached them and introduced them to an elderly man who had been sitting at the counter.  “I’ll pay you if you take him off my hands,” he said, comically at his wits’ end.  “He eats here every night.” 
The elderly man didn’t know the younger man or his son, but they all began to talk.  The old man sat down.  “Do you like your teacher?” he asked the boy, who said he did.  The owner went back to the kitchen.
They talked for another ten minutes, until the elderly man left the restaurant.  The father did not seem irritated to have a stranger at his table.  The little boy was polite: talkative but not insistent on being the center of attention.  And the elderly man, who ate alone at an oyster bar every night, was gracefully included in someone else’s family for a few minutes.
It was really quite extraordinary.  It felt like something I had never seen before, this human dance in which all the participants knew exactly where to put their feet.

Until five years ago, I lived only a few miles away from my mother.  She dropped in unannounced several times a week, mainly to see the kids, one or the other of whom was usually still around then.  We often went out to eat together, and she was always at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.  At Thanksgiving, she brought Marie Callendar peach pies, because she didn’t like apple or pumpkin or pecan.  At Christmas, she proclaimed routinely that “it’s not my holiday” and didn’t bring presents.  Perversely, though, she bought almost every ornament that hangs on my tree to this day.
She was part of our everyday lives.    
Occasionally, we traveled with her.  We took two cruises together—one to Alaska and another to Hawaii.  Once, when my then-husband was away, she and the kids and I drove to Disneyland for a few days.
On the drive home, merging from 580 onto 680, I was nearly cut off by a woman who tried to squeeze past me on the ramp.  “You bitch,” I said more to myself than to anybody else, positioning the car to prevent her from passing me.
My mother was furious with me.  “Gina!” she cried, tipping her head toward the back seats, where my kids, aged 11 and 8, were sitting.  “I don’t like that kind of talk!”
Not a minute later, we were safely on 680 heading north, and she rolled down her window as the offending driver passed us on the right.  “Asshole!” she yelled, both middle fingers extended prominently.  She was 77 years old.
The four of us laughed so hard.  And the kids and I still do, when one of us brings it up.   It reminds us that my mother had spirit, that she was never afraid of confrontation, that she was funny as hell and knew it, but could laugh at herself a little, too.

On the drive back to the hotel, the rain came down so hard that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up.  The thunder felt as though it was inside my body.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the old man driving home.  I hope he has the kind of house that looks cozy from the outside.  I hope he has an overstuffed chair to sit in, and a quilt to put over his legs that someone made just for him.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another Post From My Work-In-Progress

Day 23
 Highway this morning edged in tall, thin pines and orange, purple, and yellow wildflowers growing in the grass along the shoulder.  And then, all of a sudden, the pines opened onto an enormous meadow: green, un-mowed and a little shaggy, vast.  It was a kind of gift, a glimpse into what is hidden and enchanted.
 I’ve noticed that birds that look like egrets hang out near the cows munching in the fields.  So I googled it and found that they are cattle egrets—a kind of heron—and they hang out with cows because cows’ shambling gaits cause insects to rise from the grass.  Cattle egrets need insects to survive.  This is called commensal feeding, because the egrets profit from the relationship, but the cows don’t.  The Internet is a wonderful thing.
 Lake City is another in a string of small Florida towns: a mix of the pastoral and the ugly ordinariness of mobile-home sales, fast-food and barbeque joints, churches, real-estate and insurance offices.  And flower shops.  Small, southern towns have a lot of florists.   Do people really have enough money to buy fresh flowers on a regular-enough basis to keep these shops in business?  The one in Lake City has a sign out front: Life Is the Flower; Love Is the Pot. 
A large percentage of roadside business in the south is devoted to selling, repairing, and repossessing mobile-homes.  I don’t remember this from the last time I was here.  I suspect this hints at something fundamental that is changing in this country.  It is yet another facet of life that is so different from mine that I can’t claim really to understand it.   How do you live in a double-wide?  In one of those parks?  I simply do not know. 
 And that reminds me how hard it is to know how anybody really lives.  I remember Oprah hosting an early show about stay-at-home moms.  And in her genuine, nonjudgmental way, she asked them, What do you do all day?  Really, what do you do?  She didn’t know. 
 I don’t know how to live in a small town (as opposed to a suburb).  I don’t know how to live a life that involves going to an actual job every day.  I don’t know how people live where it snows.  (I did it in college, but somehow, that doesn’t count.  Someone else drove me around and cooked my food.) 
 In a weird way, thinking about how other people live is like thinking about death.  You just can’t quite put yourself there. 
 My mother grew up in an orphanage, without parents.  I simply cannot imagine how she survived.  But she always had remarkably little curiosity about how other people lived.  I would muse about life on farms, something that, as a young adult, I convinced myself I would love.  (I realize now it was because I had heavily romanticized attitudes about livestock and homemade pie.) And my mother would say impatiently, You would hate it.  It’s just like your life here, except you would have to work harder. 
 She was right, of course.  Sort of.  The rain would have really mattered.  The air would have smelled like hay.
Once, on a car trip from San Francisco to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, my mother told me about a long-ago train trip she’d taken.  We were at that moment driving through an Iowa cornfield, and that is what reminded her.  She said she sat next to a boy a little bit older than she—maybe 20 or 21—and he told her that farmers said, “The corn is knee-high by the Fourth of July.”  She never forgot that, she said.  (Well, she’s forgotten it now.)  She said it wistfully, and I, who was 20 or 21 at the time, knew without being told that she had liked the boy and had always wondered what had happened to him and how things might have been different.
Now, when I see a cornfield, that is always what I think about.  Her memory has become mine, like a handed-down pair of shoes. 

The things I like about traveling are: staying in clean hotels, eating food that I didn’t have to cook, seeing things I never really believed I would see (Westminster Abbey, Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, the Mitchell, South Dakota Corn Palace), and thinking about how people live.  And always, I come home with the realization that I can’t put myself into other people’s daily routines.  I can imagine them, but I can’t know in the way that I want to.
 When I was 17, I went to New York by myself.  My cousins took me to a stage performance by Theodore Bikel, which I barely remember, because I sat in the theater feeling overwhelmed with the feeling that I was Somewhere Else. 
 I’ve visited many people’s homes in many unfamiliar places.  But I think that was the closest I ever came to being in other people’s lives.  Maybe it was because I was young and without defenses.  Maybe it was because I hadn’t lived enough to intellectualize my wonder and was experiencing it on an emotional, visceral level.  I don’t really know.  What I do remember is coming back to my cousin’s Upper West Side apartment, closing the door to the guest bedroom I’d been given, and feeling that the air itself was made of different atoms and that by breathing it, I was not quite filling my lungs, was gasping like a fish just caught and flung into a boat

Monday, June 25, 2012

What I've Been Doing for the Last Few Months

I haven't written here since March.  This is because Robert and I were away for several weeks and I've been writing about our trip, hoping to end up with a book.
For many years, Robert wanted to ride his bicycle across the country, and we decided that this year--the year he turns 60--would be a good time to do it.  I was, by turns, excited about the trip (which I would make by car, acting as the slag wagon) and anxious about leaving my 92-year-old mother--newly diagnosed with dementia--behind.
What ended up happening was that 1) Robert succeeded in riding his bike through (most of) the country, and 2) I booked motels and helped plan routes and drove back roads looking for him when his tires blew and worried about my mother.
The book that is currently taking shape is part-memoir and part-travelogue.  It is also pretty personal, which is hard for me.  I've never written anything like this before.  Its working title is: Complicated Journeys: A Cross-Country Road Trip and Thirty-Three Memories of My Mother.
I thought I'd post a few excerpts:

Day 5

Quartzsite is just over the California/Arizona border, about twenty miles east of Blythe.  There is no denying the assumption that the people who live in Quartzsite think Blythe has too much going on and are opting for a less stimulating way of life.  The gentlemen who checked me in to the Super 8 Motel are non-natives: one is from Hong Kong, the other from Vancouver.  In Hong Kong, they tell me, they hated the crowds; in Vancouver, one of them was robbed.  With high gas prices, they are struggling to keep their motel afloat.  Many of the bicyclists who usually stay there have taken to camping as they inch across the country.  The man from Hong Kong looked aggrieved as he told me that he tried to phone the tour group that manages such trips, but no one would take his call.
Robert arrived around noon, ready to give up for the day after only three hours.  A slow, insidious incline and punishing heat took their toll.  He sat in the bathtub for half an hour, listening to the semis out on the Interstate.
I took a lot of car trips with my parents when I was a kid.  We drove to Carmel a couple of times a year, to Los Angeles occasionally, to Santa Barbara and the Grand Canyon and Tahoe and the Feather River.  My father loved to drive.  My mother loved the break in routine.  They both loved to listen to classical music on the radio, eat fast food (which they never did at home), and stay in motels.  My father was a doctor, but my parents traveled like people who had to watch their money.  It didn’t occur to them to do it any other way.
My mother complains a lot about her marriage, which ended in 1977 when my father died of a brain tumor at the age of 53.  She says mean things about him which may or may not be true.  When she says them to me, I tell her to stop.  It doesn’t seem fair to me that he isn’t around to defend himself.  He was a difficult, angry guy, but I loved him a lot.  I know my mother doesn’t remember about the car trips or hanging out in the kitchen drinking martinis once a week or how he called her “Dear.”  When I have tried to remind her, she has taken it as license to regale me with grievances, so I no longer bother.

Robert and I drove through town in the early afternoon.  It was 111 degrees.  We bought candied grapefruit at Daniel’s Jerky Store and took a brief walk through the Hi-Jolly Cemetery, where a plaque commemorates Hi-Jolly, born Hadji Ali in Syria in the 1830s, charged in 1856 with managing a herd of camels imported to assist in the building of a trans-Arizona roadway.  The federal government abandoned the project after some years, but for many years after, wild camels roamed the area. That is something I would have liked to see.
At lunch, reading the local newspaper, we saw an ad for a used-book store at the end of town, past the Family Dollar store.  I was sure it wouldn’t be open on a Sunday, but I was wrong.  Reader’s Oasis Book Store was open and patrons were poring through books on a “Free” table set up in the parking lot.  I joined them and immediately found a book called The English Scene, published in 1940 by The American Book Company, previously the property of School District #40, Yamhill, Oregon.  The book is a textbook, presenting “a general view of England and the English as seen through their own literature.”  Sometimes, something just screams your name.
I was marveling at this when the proprietor of the store emerged.  He was as tan as old leather, slender, with a graying ponytail extending down his back.  He was also completely naked, except for a black sock that he was not wearing on his foot. “Hey, can I smoke in there?” a traditionally clothed, middle-aged man clambering out of his car asked, and Naked Book Store Guy said, “Sure, ‘cause this isn’t really a building.  There’s no roof on it.”  He turned away from us to escort the smoker into the-building-that-wasn’t-a-building.  The cheeks of his ass drooped like coin purses full of pennies.
I wanted to look through more books, but the smoke put Robert and me off.  I went into the store briefly and handed Naked Book Store Guy a few dollars.  “It was on the “Free” table, but I had to give you something, because this is just fantastic,” I said.  He thanked me, but I don’t think he really knew what I meant.
We went to dinner at the Quartzsite Yacht Club, which is the only yacht club in the world built nowhere in the vicinity of a body of water.  It’s a bar with decent pub food and a dance floor and pool tables.  We asked the bartender about Naked Book Store Guy.  It turns out he is rather renowned.  His name is Paul Winer and, according to the bartender, he used to teach at “a big college in Connecticut.”  “Why did he move here?” Robert asked, and the bartender said, “To get as far away from Connecticut as possible.”  She said he is one of the loveliest people imaginable, and that he doesn’t mind wearing shorts in local restaurants.
Paul Winer has made me love this town.  It was 111 degrees here today, and I didn’t even care.  Paul Winer gives me hope for the human race.  Not because he’s a nudist, but because he’s himself, and people you’d think might object are perfectly fine about it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

March 1-9 by the Numbers

9: Number of days I ran 3 miles;

9: Number of days I made the 200-mile round trip to visit my mother, who is 92 and fractured her pelvis last week;

6: Number of times my mother said she didn’t want to live anymore;

5: Number of times she said a nurse had stolen her purse;

1: Number of times she said I ruined her life by taking her car;

7: Number of times my ex-husband went to visit my mother;

1: Number of afternoons spent getting acquainted with my daughter’s new cat;

148: Number of pages in rejected manuscript I am revising;

30: Number of proofreader-spotted mistakes I have to fix by March 19 in another manuscript I thought was finished;

0: Number of times I went down to the beach and watched the sunset;

0: Number of nights I cooked a real dinner;

30+: Number of conversations with doctors, nurse practitioners, social workers, case managers, and physical therapists;

2: Number of nights I woke up at 3 am and cried myself back to sleep.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Worry Is

I came across this on the Internet a few days ago: “Worry is like a prayer for something you really don’t want.”

I am a compulsive worrier.  I hate it.  I wish I were different in this one way.

I’m not exactly sure who said “Worry is like a prayer for something you really don’t want.”  A quick Google search leads me to “Christian author” Sophy Burnham, but I’m not 100% sure of this, so I apologize if I’ve made an incorrect attribution.  At any rate, the words resonated with me.

I’ve worried about different things over the years: friendships, relationships, children, health, children’s health, money, loneliness.  I think somewhere along the way, I learned (or was taught) that worry was like a bargain I was making with God: if I just made myself miserable worrying, God would see that I was not being arrogant or careless about my good fortune and would make sure nothing really bad ever happened to me, as a reward.

Intellectually, I know this is stupid.  But the worry grooves have already been carved deep into my brain.  I can’t stop.

Monday, on my 3-mile run, I decided to use the worry thing as an affirmation.  I timed it out to coincide with the rhythm of my steps: Worry is like/a prayer for something/you really don’t want. 

I would zone out for a few blocks and then check in with myself, to see if I was still affirming.  Sometimes I was.  Sometimes I’d mucked up the words.  One time I caught myself saying: War is like/a prayer for something/you really don’t want.  Another time it was: Prayer is like/a worry.  I self-corrected.

As I was heading for the hill on Townsend, two little girls were pushing their scooters up to the top.  They looked to be about seven.  Clearly, they were celebrating Presidents’ Day.  They careened down the hill ahead of me, shrieking with happiness.  They did not wear helmets.  One of them was in a dress and barelegged.  They zoomed straight down the middle of the street, oblivious to the curve at the bottom, the possibility that a fast-moving car might suddenly appear, heading right for them.

When I got to the bottom of the hill and began my slow chug up Cliff, I checked in with myself.  My affirmation had become: Where are the/goddamn idiot/parents?

I self-corrected.

Then I thought, Assuming those little girls aren’t hit by a bus, they are going to end up being joyful and fearless, which is a pretty good way to go through life.  Maybe if I had been allowed to speed down a hill like that, I would be a different person.

Then I realized that I WAS allowed to speed down a hill like that.  (On a bike.  We didn’t have scooters.)  And no one watched me or told me about cars around the corner or made me wear a helmet.

So I don’t know what the answer is.  I’m back to thinking it’s just how I’m wired.

Worry is really tough to turn around.  But I am going to keep trying. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rethinking An Empty Nest

Since I wrote my last post about being an empty-nester, I’ve been feeling a little blue, even though I received some wonderfully generous comments from other parents who get what I’m saying.  (Your support is very, very welcome.  Thank you, all.)

But then God or the Universe or whatever decided that I had had enough wallowing.  And brought me to a blog written by a young father of two (  Whereupon I remembered a night about twenty-one years ago.  A night that will never be forgotten by three of the four people who lived it. 

The night in question involved communal, familial vomiting.  It involved the Baby Who Started It All and then mercifully and uncharacteristically slept for ten hours.  It involved a five-year-old boy who moaned every twenty minutes, “Mommy, I don’t like this!” and then threw up again, sometimes in the toilet, sometimes not.  It involved a (then-) husband who raced home from his late-night job to be ill loudly and repeatedly.  It involved me standing in the kitchen guzzling orange juice, knowing full well that I was going to barf it up in the sink before I could get to the bathroom.

At around 3 am, I turned my head to look at my husband.  He, I, and the boy were lying on the guest bed to avoid waking up the baby.  My eyelashes hurt.

“I would trade a year of my life for a ginger ale,” I said.

Whereupon then-husband staggered to his feet, got in the car, and drove to Safeway (where they remembered him from the week before, when he’d shown up in the middle of the night to buy tomato juice for the dog who’d just been skunked).  And returned with a big bottle of Canada Dry.

We may be divorced, but I will never forget his gallantry that night.  (Or what he sounded like throwing up.  It was kind of terrifying.   Women don’t sound like that.)

Remembering all this, I can laugh (a little).  I think most families live through at least one night like this.  It becomes lore.  It bonds you.

But it’s really hideous, and I don’t ever want to do it again.

So thanks, Kevin Hartnett, for reminding me that a nest populated by two middle-aged birds who are meticulous about getting their flu shots has an upside. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

An Empty Nest Is for the Birds

My children are 26 and 22, but when I dream of them, they are usually about 10 and 6. 

I don’t know why this is.

I’ve read New-Age spiritualists who say that everyone on the other side is about 30, and that we will recognize our friends and family even if we never knew them at this age.  Not sure how these theorists have come to these revelations, but I sort of believe it.  Or maybe I just want to.  Thirty is a good age to be for eternity.

When I’m awake, I picture my children as they are today: young adults, my son tall and bearded, my daughter with cool boots and a chic haircut.  But asleep, I see them as they used to be.  Is it because at ages 10 and 6, they had settled comfortably into life, with friends and interests they have to this day?  Is it because I enjoyed this period of motherhood so much, happy not to be merely a live-in nursemaid but not yet having to contend with the anxiety brought on by teenager-hood?  Is it because this is when they still enjoyed hanging around with me?   Is it because they—we—were still untouched by divorce?

I don’t write very often about how I miss my kids.  (This is because I don’t like to write about things that might embarrass or upset them, but what the hell: they probably don’t even read this.)  For one thing, they are wonderful about keeping in touch with me.  I saw my daughter yesterday; I visited my son in L.A. two weeks ago.  I talk to them on the phone often.  I am lucky, lucky, lucky, and I know it and acknowledge it every day of my life.

But that doesn’t keep me from occasional melancholy and a deep longing for something that is gone, finished.

Society as a whole laughs at parents who feel sad that their kids have left home.  Either that, or we are admonished, told that we should be happy our kids are doing well and becoming productive citizens and what, we should want them to live in our basements when they’re forty? 

I resent all this.  I am thrilled that my children are on their own, living their lives, becoming yet more themselves.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But don’t tell me to be embarrassed about feeling sad. 

Motherhood changed me so profoundly.  In one instant, I became a completely different person.  And the thing about an empty nest is that you change again, but it’s not instantaneous and it’s not complete.  You’re still and always a mother, but now you have to be a regular person again, too.

In my dreams, my kids are usually trying to help me find something.

When I’m asleep, I don’t know what it is.  But when I wake up, I think I do.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On Blogging and Boundaries and Gravy

Yesterday I went to lunch with a group of women I like a lot.

One of the women said something complimentary about my blog.  Then she said, I couldn’t write a blog the way you do.  You say so much personal stuff.  (I am paraphrasing, but this is what I took away from her comment.)

It made me think a lot about myself and about the unwritten contract a writer-who-blogs has with her readers.  How much personal stuff is appropriate to divulge?  What are my obligations?

This is tricky for me.  For many years, I was an introvert who talked too much.  I was very happy in the company of my own thoughts, and then I would go to a party and regale people I barely knew with information that was 1) inappropriate and/or 2) indiscreet. 

Oh, jeez.  It still makes me cringe.

Then I learned about boundaries, which is what you learn in therapy (in addition to all the ways in which you were toxically parented).  I learned that I didn’t have to reveal personal details of my life to mere acquaintances just to prove to myself that I was open and authentic.  I could be private.  I could keep my mouth shut for a change.

But here I am, blabbing away again.

I’d like to say that I’m doing it in the hope that something I say about my demented mother or my fledgling efforts to dress well or my difficulty adjusting to life as the mother of adult children who bungee jump in New Zealand and drink Scotch without asking my permission first may help someone else going through something similar.

And that would be nice.

But honestly?  The reason I do it is because I’m a writer.  And writers write for the glorious, intoxicating, simple pleasure of Writing It Down. 

It’s lovely if someone reads it, wonderful beyond description if it provides comfort or solace or a sense of not being alone in this world.

But that’s all gravy.  And as my mother used to say mournfully when the waiter brought her the meatloaf, “I didn’t know there was going to be gravy!”


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why I Am Exhausted

Questions asked by my mother while I was at her apartment this afternoon:

--Can I get you something?  Some soup?

--What can I get you to eat?

--Do you still have those crappy curtains in your bedroom?

--Is it Thursday?

--Can I make you some soup?

--Why isn’t that Huntsman winning?  I like him.

--Why has that damn clock stopped again?

--Do you like Wolf Blitzer?  I love him.

--Can I make you something for lunch?

--How’s Richard?

--Do you like tuna?  Can I make you a tuna sandwich?

--Why doesn’t she (CNN’s Candy Crowley) lose some weight?

--Why is Piers Morgan on television?  I can’t stand that Piers Morgan.

--What is the matter with that damn clock?

--Are you hungry?