Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Victorian Clothes

This is what I looked like a couple of months ago:

This is what I looked like last week (note: I hadn't had time to take off my sunglasses yet):

The reason for the transformation is that I accompanied my daughter and her boyfriend to the San Francisco Dickens Christmas Fair, held at the un-Victorian-sounding Cow Palace south of the city.  A warehouse-sized venue, it was made to resemble bustling London streets as they might have looked at
Christmas in the mid-19th century.  This involves sets designed to look like alehouses and shops, open areas set aside for readings, period dances, and puppet shows, craftspeople making candles and drawing caricatures, and a cadre of Cockney-accented actors wandering the premises in period dress enacting small dramas and interacting with those of us who had dropped in from the future.

It was a fun few hours, although I, personally, do not enjoy actors who want to interact with me when I’m window shopping and munching on candied cinnamon almonds steaming in a paper cone.  (The violation of personal space is unpleasantly reminiscent of the tactics employed by clowns.)

Wearing that dress was very odd.  Your legs disappear beneath billows of skirt and petticoat, but you are keenly aware of them as they move freely, invisibly.  You might think the sensation would be pleasant, and it is, sort of, but you also have to maneuver all that stiff fabric around crowded rooms, turning almost sideways to squeeze through crowds, tripping on your own hems if you momentarily forget to hold them off the ground.  And when you’re holding your skirts, you can’t hold anything else, which is annoying.  It’s all more complicated than it seems.

And more restrictive, bare legs notwithstanding.  I’ve been thinking about those Victorian women—encased in wire and fabric—and how difficult it must have been to get anything done as they went through life hauling all that architecture around with them.  They were prisoners of their hoop skirts, muffled by their muffs, sheathed and contained and effectively immobilized by finery.

When it comes to clothes, I’m a big fan of modesty.  Most women (and men) look sad and ridiculous when they try to flaunt their bodies the way the clothing industry leads them to believe they can.  (Note from me: you can’t.  You really can’t.)

But last weekend I experienced the significant difference between modesty and concealment.  The one is about respectability and appropriateness; the other about pretending (or being told to pretend) that one’s body doesn’t exist, or that its imperatives can be cheerfully ignored. 

Let’s face it: if wearing floor-length dresses and corsets and metal hoops made for ease of being in the world, men would have commandeered them long ago.

Making my way through the throngs of Dickensian revelers, I couldn’t help thinking about those 19th-century writers I love so much: Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans), Elizabeth Gaskell.  They wrote while wearing all that stuff.  They must have been so uncomfortable.  

But they wrote.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Shame on Me

I woke up this morning feeling bad about something.  At first I couldn’t tell what it was.  But I couldn’t shake that potent cocktail of embarrassment and shame I seemed to have drunk in my dreams.

What could I have done? I thought as I drove the familiar tangle of freeways to visit my mother and take her for a drive. 

I took me a while to figure it out.   And really, it’s not so bad.  Except it is.

I am ashamed of the blog entry I posted yesterday.  The one about what I did on Thanksgiving.  The one in which I whine and feel sorry for myself.

I am one of the luckiest people I know.  And a day doesn’t pass when I don’t remember to feel grateful for all that I have.  So much; so many things.
I’m not speaking materially.
I am the recipient of miracles.

Which makes me yet more ashamed.
My Thanksgiving was a day for which to be especially grateful: for Robert, for food, for my children who are out in the world, productive and happy and more adventurous than I have ever been.  For my friends.  For good work to do.

For health.  Oh, my God, for health.

Shame on me for not remembering that when I blogged yesterday.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Eating Out on Thanksgiving

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Mine was okay.  My adult kids had other obligations (son and his girlfriend were at her mother’s house in L.A.; daughter and her best friend were camping in Utah), and the friends we usually share the holiday with couldn’t make the drive, so Robert and I were on our own.  We had a small, traditional feast with my kids on Sunday and weren’t up to cooking another one for just the two of us.  So we went out to dinner instead.

I was a little apprehensive about doing this.  I imagined that the restaurant—a well-known seafood house offering a traditional Thanksgiving meal in addition to the regular fare—would be nearly empty, the waiters either overzealously solicitous (because they felt sorry for the patrons who had nowhere else to go) or grudging and resentful (because they had to work).

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The restaurant was full of happy, garrulous people being served delicious food by a warm and appreciative wait staff.  Robert ordered fish, not minding in the least that he was missing out on the day’s culinary rituals.  I (who could eat poultry every day of the year) had turkey.

Here are some of the things I thought about at dinner:

            A lot of the patrons seemed to be people about my age escorting aging mothers;

            Many people did not dress up; a few did.  (The ones who didn’t got on my nerves.  Dressing up is part of how one acknowledges that one is not in one’s own house.  I wore a form-fitting Nicole Miller dress, so that I would be reminded to stop eating when I was full.  It worked.);

            There were several children on the premises.  All behaved beautifully;

            I sat near an older woman who wore heavy makeup and penciled-in eyebrows;

            Also, two gentlemen in navy blue blazers and bow ties;

            The elderly mothers who accompanied their families seemed extremely happy to be included in the festivities.  As far as I could tell, they did not send anything back to the kitchen or tell the waiter there was a draft;

            I thought about my mother but didn’t regret my decision not to spend the day with her;

            Sparkling wine gives me a headache;

            It is remarkably easy to give up eating a favorite food—stuffing, in my case—when you are gluten-intolerant and know that eating it will make you wheeze;

            Waiters who do not tease you about eating everything on your plate are better than waiters who do;

            Tea lights strategically placed make people look better, even when they have over-plucked their eyebrows;

            Professional chefs will occasionally put too much cinnamon in the yams;

            On the other hand, the sweet potato bisque was scrumptious;

            If I had had nothing else to eat except the cranberry-Mandarin orange relish, I would have been very, very content;

             On the drive home, I saw strip malls with full parking lots.  What is wrong with people?

All in all, I had a nice evening, because Robert and I love to eat out and the food was great.  But that’s not really what Thanksgiving is all about, at least not to me.  I missed my kids.  I missed being teased about the Cranberry Waldorf Salad Mold.  I missed 40s big-band music on the CD player and drinking in the kitchen and the frantic rush to make gravy.  And everybody lying like overstuffed whales in front of the fire after dinner.

It was, however, marvelous not to have to clean up.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Parents Who Brag

I have conflicted feelings about parents who brag about their kids.

On the one hand, there’s a kind of bragging I hate.  Like, when it’s happening, you’re looking at the parent who’s doing it and thinking, Do you not hear yourself?

On the other hand, my mother didn’t brag about me At All.  Even I, at the age of eight, knew she was different from the other moms.  When I asked her why, she said, I hate bragging.  I believed her (as I do to this day), but I admit to feeling a little crushed when she said it.  At the time, it felt as though my mother couldn’t think of anything nice to say about me.

Because here’s the thing.  It’s a good thing for parents to be proud of their kids.  Right?  So when does bragging cross the line?

I know three mothers whose bragging sets my teeth on edge.  Here’s why:

--There's a sort of urgency to their bragging, as though they are transmitting Information You Really Must Hear.  As though your own ordinary, skipping-impaired little girl will benefit hugely from the knowledge that their three-year-old daughter's gymnastics coach thinks she may have a shot at the 2024 Olympics.

--They brag about their kids as though no one else has ever had children who were as smart and accomplished.  It’s not enough for them to say how well their children did on their SATs; they tell you their scores AND make you read their essays.  And throw in their IQ scores for good measure (but casually, as though they think everyone's kids get this score and it's no big deal, or with feigned embarrassment, as if they told you by mistake).

--They are brazen in their willingness to take other people’s children down a peg.  Here’s a good rule to live by: if you want to brag about your children, you are, in effect, signing a contract that requires you to smile politely when other people brag about theirs.  Tit for tat, bitches.

--Even when they tell you about problems their kids are having, they find ways to let you know that doctors/teachers/rehab counselors/Relevant Professionals with Scholarly Credentials went out of their way to tell them that they are excellent parents, that they have done everything right, that none of whatever it is that is going on is their fault.  It’s quite astounding, really.

Here are a couple of additional notes about bragging:

--My mother—the one who hated bragging?—used to carry pictures of my children in her purse.  She would whip them out anywhere—at the grocery store, in the Emergency Room—and use them as an excuse to go on and on.  (This, it was pointed out to me later, was an indication that she was in the early stages of dementia.)  Once, before leaving on a cruise, she was showing me a couple of outdated photos of the kids that she was going to spring on unsuspecting fellow passengers.  “Why don’t you go to one of those meetings?  You know, the ones where grandparents show each other pictures of their grandkids?” I asked her.  Without a trace of irony, she said, “Why would I do that?  I don’t want to look at other people’s pictures.  I want them to look at mine!”

--When my ex-husband was ten, his beloved grandfather died.  As I remember the story, B was sitting next to his  hospital bed when a nurse entered the room.  “Have you met my grandson?” his grandfather said, and then went on at some length about what a great kid B was.  Much later, B realized that this was his grandfather’s way of telling him how much he loved him.  (It’s a family that doesn’t talk easily about feelings.)

I’ve come to realize that there’s bragging and then there’s bragging.  Sometimes it’s just a way of telling your friends how much you adore your children.  And that can’t be a bad thing.

Just don’t start telling me about how your damn cat can pee in the toilet.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Birds and Trees

Last week, we drove to the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge in the town of Willows.  We do this almost every year, with friends.  Always, we drive through the sanctuary to see the huge numbers of birds that nest and feed while migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

This year, the weather was unseasonably warm.  The sun bathed the wetlands in yellow light.  We saw hawks, Northern harriers, coots, mallards, Canadian geese, and pheasants.  The reeds and grasses along the roadside had been trimmed back, so we had excellent views of the waterways.

Note: I know nothing about birds.  Robert and Roy and Josine opine heatedly about the differences between buffleheads and grebes.  I can tell that the ones with green heads are ducks, and that’s about it.  Still, I love the Refuge.  I love that people have made a place for birds to congregate and rest.  My favorite thing is the way that vast hordes of birds, compelled by something invisible and therefore mystical, will suddenly surge out of the water, swarming into the sky, calling and honking madly.  The racket is unlike anything I have ever heard before: raucous and insistent and both ugly and beautiful at once. 

The next morning, I woke early and went for a four-mile walk in the area surrounding our hotel.  The neighborhood is quiet and flat, the homes well-kept.  It was breezy, a surprise since the day before had been still.  The trees shivered in the wind, their leaves rattling against each other, an ever-present static.  Whenever a gust blew in, I found my eyes drawn to them, as though their noisy shimmying was a show they were putting on just for me.

There are birds where I live, and trees.  But sometimes you see them better when you’re away from home.  That’s where you realize that the clamorous caws and hoots, the rustling overhead that is like an urgent whisper, are really Nature’s way of calling out, of telling you to pay attention.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stupid Questions

“Beware,” I told my daughter, “of the question-and-answer session.”

We were sitting in the audience, waiting for the Billy Collins reading to start.  And I knew from experience that a lot of people in the packed auditorium had questions.  Burning Questions.
Also, I knew that not all of these questions would be Smart Questions.  In fact, not all of the Questions would be questions at all.  Some of them would be Ways to Show the Writer that the Question-Asker Is Really Smart.

(Okay, so as an adult, I know I’m supposed to say that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  But at a writer’s talk, that’s not really true.)

During his marvelous reading, Mr. Collins addressed some of my concerns.  “I think the worst question I’m ever asked is, ‘What is your favorite letter?’” he said.  The crowd groaned collectively.

When he finished reading and took several courtly bows, my daughter whispered, “Oh, my God.  I’m so nervous about the questions.”

“Calm down,” I said.  “It’s not as though he doesn’t know they’re coming.”  But I knew what she meant.  Sometimes you cringe, just knowing that other people are going to make fools of themselves.

Some of the first questions were okay.  I think “Which of your own poems is your favorite?” was in there, as well as “Who were your literary influences?”  (Coleridge).  All seemed to be well until a woman on whom Mr. Collins called cleared her throat.  I knew we were doomed.

“Sometimes,” she began, “I tell people you are my imaginary boyfriend.”

The audience laughed.  Collins looked embarrassed.  My daughter was looking into her lap.  “Oh, my God,” she whispered.  “Oh, my God.”

The woman went on to say that she had told her son she was going to a poetry reading and he had said, “Oh, well, then it won’t take very long.  You’ll be back in half an hour.”

More laughter.  More all-body wincing in the seat next to mine.

The woman went on again.  She was trying to say that what she loved about Collins’ poetry was the way it was conversational, accessible.  What she actually said was, “Other poetry seems, like, really deep and complicated.  Yours is just, like, on the surface.  Why is that?”

I’ll bet Billy Collins loves having to explain that he does, in fact, have a Ph.D in English over and over and over again.  And that “accessible” doesn’t mean “on the surface.”

Clearly, though, he’s an old hand at keeping the question session to a minimum.  Which was a relief to everyone.

I should have tried to ask my question—“Can you speak to the difference between free verse and prose?”—but I was too shy.

Ultimately, even after what Collins said during his talk, someone raised his hand and asked, “What is your favorite letter?”

“Oh, ‘L,’ I guess,” he answered, sounding weary.

I think he said ‘L.”  I was too busy squinching my eyes closed and whispering “Oh, my God, oh, my God” to be entirely sure.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Writers Talking

Tonight my daughter and I are going to see Billy Collins speak.  I am very excited.

The first writer I ever heard speak in person was John Updike.  He was marvelous.  He said that when he came to California in the summer, he was always struck by how brown the hills are, so unlike New England’s verdant lushness.  But, he said, Californians needed to relish their state’s own particular beauty and not wish for it to be anything other than what it was.
I think about that every year.  Truly.

In the early 80s, I saw John Irving speak at the College of Marin.  He read from an as-yet-unpublished novel that would become The Cider House Rules.  He seemed a little taken aback by the rousing welcome he was given by the crowd, which included many women, one of whom raised her hand and asked, “Do you drive a Volvo?”  At this, he recoiled visibly.  I was embarrassed for the woman, who thought she was being funny.

Lorrie Moore was shy and self-protective.  I heard her speak just as Birds of America was published.  She said only one of the stories was based on actual events in her life, but she wouldn’t tell us which story it was.  At the time, I was pretty sure I knew: I had read “People Like That Are the Only People Here” in The New Yorker and thought that no one—not even Lorrie Moore—could imagine something so harrowing out of thin air.

I’ve seen Annie Lamott speak several times.  She is known as the sort of writer women flock to hear.  She’s the best friend we all wish we had.  (Actually, my best friend is the best best friend there is.  We went to see Annie Lamott together once or twice.  Afterwards, we always said we wished we could invite her out for hot chocolate.  The way everyone else in the audience wanted to.)

Patricia Polacco writes children’s picture books.  She speaks at over 300 schools a year, a feat I find almost unimaginable.  I was mesmerized by her.  She has a rare gift: the ability to speak to children and adults at once.  She personifies the distinction between a writer who gives talks and a true storyteller.
The funniest writer I’ve ever heard speak is Elinor Lipman.  She makes her own writing sound screamingly funny when she reads it.  For years after I heard her the first time, I imagined her reading whatever I was writing.  If it sounded funny, I left it alone; if it didn’t, I revised.

David Sedaris is a marvel in the meet-and-greet department.  My daughter and I saw him at a small indie bookstore that was jammed to the rafters with fans.  After his wonderful reading, he stayed to sign books, and I think he engaged personally with every single person in the room.  He had a sweet conversation with my daughter about Australia (where she was headed in a couple of weeks), and then asked me my name. When I told him, he went on for a bit about how he likes to sign books with some reference to the person's name, but mine reminded him too much of "vagina."  We had a good laugh.  He ended up drawing me an owl that is thinking "I love black people!"  

There have been other writers over the years—too many to mention—but these are the ones who stand out.  Always, I remind myself how difficult it is for someone to stand in front of an audience and read what she has created, what she has thought important.  It is first and foremost an act of bravery.  I know from experience.

If Billy Collins reads “The Lanyard,” I will bawl like a baby.


Addendum: He did read "The Lanyard."  I didn't cry (but only because my daughter would have been annoyed).  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Facebook: Middle School for Grownups

Most of my friends on Facebook share my feelings about politics.

Several of them don’t.  Among these, two stand out.

One is a man I have known for over twenty years.  He was one of my first writing teachers.  I think he’s pretty brilliant.  I do not get his politics At All.

Once, years ago, at a writing retreat, I jokingly made reference to a political issue about which I knew we disagreed.  He looked at me imploringly and said, “Please let’s not talk about it.”  I understood that he did not want to fight with me.  I didn’t joke about it anymore.

Recently, this man posted something about President Obama as a response to something I had written.  I posted back, “Love you.  We’ll just have to agree to disagree.”  And he respected me and said nothing further.

The other person I want to write about is someone I’ve never met.  It’s funny that we’re even Facebook friends, since our lives are about as different as two Americans’ lives can be.  But we became online friends after his daughter starred in the trailer for my book PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion 2012)

This man disagrees with just about every political opinion I hold.  But what I love—what I find meaningful about our virtual friendship—is that we’ve actually had extended conversations (via Facebook) about things that are hot buttons for both of us.  These conversations have been civil, even friendly.  That’s a rarity in today’s world.

The reason I’m writing about all this on a blog supposedly devoted to writing, books, and my life as a middle-aged woman is that I am working on a manuscript that takes place in a middle school.  Middle school, as we adults know, is a dreadful, dreadful place, and I was trying to catalog the reasons for this.
The usual things came immediately to mind: kids have one foot in the adult world and the other in a child’s, their voices are changing, they’re getting their periods, their skin is bad, their hormones are misfiring.  Everyone’s basically a hot mess, and there’s a lot of homework.  Just thinking about it makes me sick.

But the really bad thing—the worst thing—about middle school is that you only talk to your friends (which, this being middle school, you’re lucky to have).  There isn’t a whole lot of inter-clique mingling.  The athletic boys hang out with each other at lunch; they don’t have much to say to the Theater kids or the smart boys or the boys who go their own way or haven’t figured out just who they are yet.  Or the boys who want desperately to belong somewhere and, whatever the reason, don’t.

That is what is so dreadful about middle school.  That is what tears at my heart when I think about it.

This morning it occurred to me that many of us adults have re-created our own grownup version of middle school for ourselves.  We hang out with people who share our beliefs.  We whisper about the people who don’t, or make fun of them, or tell other people how stupid they are for believing what they believe. 

It’s kind of crummy, actually.

I’m not going to stop posting memes about how dangerous “the other side” is, or how they make up facts, or are delusional, or misinformed, or just plain wrong. 

But my two Facebook friendships have made me realize a couple of things.  One is that I have to keep in mind that “the other side” is made up of people I like and respect.  Would I say nasty things to their faces, in person?  Nope.  I would not.

The other thing I’m going to remember is that having a substantive conversation with someone who sees the world differently from the way I see it is far more satisfying, and ultimately more fun, that sharing funny memes.

Even the one about the idiots who think Girl Scout Cookies promote lesbianism.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On Being Eighty

A few days ago, my daughter and I were browsing in a used-book store.  She pulled a book off the shelves, thumbed through it, and then handed it to me.  “This is something you would like,” she said.  “It looks sad.”

The book was a novel, EMILY, ALONE, by Stewart O’Nan (Viking, 2011), and it wasn’t sad, or at least, it wasn’t to me.  It is a lovely character study, a meditation on growing old with grace.  I found myself riveted.

The book is told entirely from the point of view of Emily, an eighty-year-old woman, recently widowed, who lives alone in Pittsburgh.  Emily’s days are quiet, occupied with reading, puzzles, classical music, the care of her dog, and occasional outings with her sister-in-law Arlene.  She waits expectantly for calls from her adult children, for warmer months, so she can indulge her passion for gardening, for family reunions held every year.

The book is interesting for several reasons.  I was amazed that a man had written it.  I did not for one moment doubt Emily’s voice, her way of looking at the world.   It is one thing for a male dramatist or a short-story writer to craft a well-drawn heroine, but it is quite another for a male novelist to inhabit a female character so artfully and so completely.  The fact that she is eighty makes the accomplishment yet more notable.  O’Nan (who is younger than I) captures beautifully the rhythms of aging—life slowing and shrinking—as well as Emily’s dignified submission to them.

The story dwells less on death than one might expect, even though death is all around.  Emily thinks often of those she has lost.  Still, there is forward motion, however slow.  But it is a story without the devices we have come to expect in modern novels.  There are no car crashes (of any significance), no brutal crimes, no life-shattering revelations, no epiphanies to speak of.   Ultimately, we are told the story of a woman who, even within the constraints of a life winding down, manages to change and grow.

I read the book expecting to see my mother in Emily, but, surprisingly, I didn’t.  Before dementia began ravaging her mind, my mother was not as introspective as Emily.  She was more adventurous and less preoccupied with the past (at least as far as I know).  She had little use for friends, no patience for crosswords.  She did not care for the neediness of dogs.

Instead, I saw myself in Emily: a woman who takes comfort in books and music and the company of friends and family.  I hope I do not end up as alone as Emily feels herself to be.  But maybe I can muster some of her grace.  That would be something.

When you’re my daughter’s age, you can’t imagine being eighty.  I can’t really imagine it, either, but I know it’s coming.  (At least, I hope it’s coming.)  I don’t know what my life will look like then, but EMILY, ALONE underscores that the things I value—good health for me and those I love, a well-functioning brain, books and music and a friend or two—are reasonable things to hope for.  Can you take spin classes when you’re eighty?  That would be nice, too.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Update on My Mother, and Some Sad News

My mother—93 years old and suffering from dementia—is being much nicer to me these days.  I think that’s because she has finally forgotten that I took her car away two years ago this month.  She looks forward to my weekly visit, and to our drives through neighborhoods in which she used to live and which she no longer remembers.  She enjoys the stories I tell her about her own life. 

Here are some other things I noticed last Friday:

--When I escort my mother from her apartment to my car and back, we hold hands.  I always extend my hand to her and say, “Can we hold hands?” (I know, I know, “May we hold hands?”, but who says that?), and she always takes it and tells me how she holds hands with my ex-husband when he visits her.  I do it because she is very unsteady on her feet—last week she fell in her apartment—but I don’t think she knows that.  I don’t ever remember holding hands with her, not even when I was a child.  Her hands are slim, with long fingers and beautifully manicured nails.  (The caregivers take her to the salon, where someone named Henry does them for her.  “I love that Henry,” Mom always says.)  She does not have arthritic knuckles, a fact that amazes me.

--She is almost unable to articulate a complete sentence.  When we drive past houses she likes, she whispers, “Lordy” or “Vey iz mir.”  “Vey iz mir” is one of my mother’s traditional expressions; she said it all the time when I was growing up.  “Lordy” is something new.  I have no idea why she says it.  I’ve asked her caregivers, and it’s not something either of them says.  Every time she says it, I have the same thought: that the woman I am driving around isn’t really my mother but someone who is simulating her and doing a bad job of it.

--She loves trees.  She can be brought to near-ecstatic exclamations at the sight of a tall redwood or a robust, spreading oak.  Sometimes she calls them her “friends,” which is weird and lovely and sad all at the same time. “They must be so old!” she says in wonder. 

--When we look at nice houses, she often says, “So much money!”  Since she married my father in 1950, she has enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, but her Depression-era roots (daughter of non-English-speaking Hungarian immigrants who died when she was five, a childhood spent in a [wonderful] Jewish orphanage) are in there somewhere.  Her tone when she talks about people with money is admiring and derisive at the same time.  She is not aware of how much money it is costing to keep her in her home with ‘round-the-clock care.  She is also not aware that her credit card can’t be used anymore.  “Can I fill up your tank?” she always asks, and I always smile and say, “No.  But thank you.”

--Another thing about looking at houses:  At least five or six times on any given drive, she will say about a particular house, “That one’s empty.  No one lives there.”  I always laugh and say, “Yes, they do, Mom.”  But she is adamant.  “Why do you think no one lives there?” I ask sometimes.  She peers out the window.  “No one’s in there,” she says, certain.

--Twice, she said, “I love my grandsons.”  And I (who seemingly cannot-CANNOT-stop trying to make her see the world as it really is) said, “One grandson and one granddaughter, Mom.”  “No,” she said stubbornly.  “Two grandsons.” 

--For the first time in two years, my mother said "I love you" without my having to say it first.  Also: she seems to know who I am, but she can't bring my name to mind.  A year ago, I would have wondered if she was saying "I love you" reflexively, without really knowing--knowing--who I am.  Now I don't wonder.  I just accept her statement with love and gratitude. 

I have more to write, but I just received a phone call from my daughter: her grandfather—my ex-father-in-law—just passed away, after a few months of illness.  He and my mother were great friends, despite her insistence on calling him “Fonzie.”  (His real name was Gonzalo, but he went by Gonzy, a name my mother just could not remember, even before she became ill.)  His illness was abrupt and immediately devastating, as opposed to my mother’s, which is incremental and slow.  I wonder, Which way would I prefer to go?  And honestly, I do not know.

What I do know is that he went with supreme grace and dignity.  And that I will have to tell my mother tonight, and the news will make her sad. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


This morning, driving home from spin class, I heard “Beauty and the Beast” on the radio and I didn’t cry.

Here’s why this is noteworthy to me:

When my son was in the fourth grade, he played the Beast in a school production.  He got the part mainly because he was tall and also because the director loved him.  He did not get the part because of his voice.  (The director told me, “He sings in the key of H.”)  Still, when it came time to sing the big song, he pulled it off.  And for years, every time I heard that song on the radio, I burst into tears.  Not because it’s THAT kind of song—even though it is—but because it reminded me of the boy he was:

Here we are at about that time: me rockin' the Howard Stern look, him being his wonderful self.
Last night I talked to my son on the phone.  He is crazy-busy with a new job and with helping his girlfriend start her business.  We talked about his nana, who has dementia and didn’t recognize him at dinner a few nights ago.  And about his grandpa, who is dying with supreme dignity in New York.  He has become a person whose advice I seek, a man I look up to.  I carry the little boy he was in my heart, but it’s not who takes my call once every two weeks.  And somehow, after many years, this has become okay with me.

Next week, my daughter and her boyfriend are going to Ireland, and I’m almost completely okay with it.

They are going to be hiking through tiny towns without phone access.  It will be raining.  They won’t have much access to the Internet.  I’m fine, except at three o’clock in the morning, when I’m not fine about anything.

When my kids were young, I couldn’t imagine that they would ever be able to cross the street by themselves, or drive a car, or drink alcohol, or talk to strangers.  And now, they live independent lives and I go to sleep every night not knowing where they are or what they’re doing.  And somehow, we’re all getting by.

I know this doesn’t sound like a big deal to a lot of people.  But maybe a few parents will appreciate knowing what I wish I’d known ten years ago: that one day, the hurt of their leaving will fade; that you will always miss them, but not as desperately as before; that gradually, your life will take on new contours, shift to a different shape, and you will be able to rejoice in it.

You won’t forget the way it used to be.  But remembering won’t make you cry as much.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rage and Fear and Weariness

In this blog, I try to write about subjects that affect or relate, directly or indirectly, to my life as a writer of books for children.

But today I feel compelled to write about something I always swore I wouldn’t touch. 

Two days ago, yet another gunman with serious mental-health problems walked into yet another public space and started shooting.  By the time he was finished, he and twelve other people were dead, and many more were injured.

I am weary and heartsick.  And furious.  And terrified.  Most of us are, aren’t we?  I’m sure I’m not writing anything inflammatory or controversial here.  Aren’t we all just bloody tired of this?

When I read the victims’ names in a news account yesterday, I noticed that many of them were in their fifties.  It took me aback.  Perhaps, post-Columbine and -Sandy Hook, I have now come to expect that children will always be among the murdered.

As the day went on, I found myself thinking about the middle-aged dead, how they went to work as usual, undoubtedly preoccupied with the minutiae of an unremarkable day, without the slightest inkling that they would never see their families again.  But something else was bothering me, something at the edge of my conscious thought.  At first I thought it was some degree of over-identification I might be feeling with the victims, many of whom were close to me in age.  But that wasn’t it.

It took me a while to figure it out.  It took me thinking of my own adult children to realize what was bothering me so much.

All those middle-age dead people are somebody’s babies.  Tonight, somebody’s elderly mother is remembering something no one else does: sleepless hours in a rocking chair in the middle of the night, rainy days re-reading The Cat in the Hat aloud until she thought her eyeballs would pop out of her head, hours spent pitching balls and braiding hair and correcting spelling and lying on the grass, pointing out the cloud that looked like Abraham Lincoln.  Her heart is blown apart as surely as if someone had fired a gun into her chest.  She will never again be able to laugh deeply or take a joyful breath.

I wish this would stop happening.  I wish everyone—gun owners and non-owners, Republicans and Democrats, hunters and vegetarians—would get together and figure out a way for the world to right itself. 

Because this isn’t working.  This isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing.

Monday, September 9, 2013


The walls of my office are painted.

It was an interesting week.  In my last post, I complained about being frustrated by my lack of sales, by the effort of writing books that no one seems to want to buy.

Then, when I had to spend every minute of every day of the last week painting, I found that writing was constantly on my mind.

For the first time in years, I fell asleep dreaming of dialogue.
When I woke up in the middle of the night, I put myself back to sleep plotting as-yet-unwritten novels.
I am re-reading The Stories of Mary Gordon (Anchor, 2007) and finding that a great writer’s voice is supremely motivating.  I have always known this to be true, but it has struck me anew.  Gordon, like Alice Munro, writes about small, domestic moments in ways that render them urgent and important.  I particularly enjoy the stories about adults told from a child’s point of view.

At any rate, I heartily recommend taking a break from the daily task of setting words to paper in order to create in one’s self a near-frantic urge to return to doing it.

Or maybe it’s just the fumes.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On Home Improvement and Distraction

Robert and I are about to embark on a home-improvement project.  We are going to paint my office and the adjoining bedroom (aka my now-adult daughter’s old room), remove the carpeting and have hardwood floors installed, and have more built-in bookshelves built.  The end result will be an office/library.  I’m excited to start.

But I have a theory.

My theory, developed after years of watching friends endure the agony of home improvement—entire families living in hotels, eating take-out food for months—is that people put themselves through this misery to distract themselves from other life problems.  The reason I think this is true is that many of the people I know who have done this didn’t much like their spouse or their job or their children before they started building a family room, and hated them after it was finished.  And then started on the kitchen.  I found it staggering and mystifying.

So, as is my wont, I’ve given our project a lot of thought.  Am I distracting myself from something unpleasant?  Do I prefer the discomfort and limbo of having my office torn apart to something else?

And here’s what I’ve come up with: 1) I really need to fix up my office, and 2) I hate my career right now.

Okay, “hate” is extreme.  I love writing books.  But I hate working on a manuscript for over a year and then finding out that no editors want to buy it.  I hate devising perky, chirpy 140-character sales promos for my books on Twitter in the hope that a few of my followers will actually want to buy them.  Most of all I hate making the switch from full-time writer to part-time writer /part-time entrepreneur.  I don’t want to be an entrepreneur.  (If I did, I would have put my MBA to good use during the eighties, when it was actually worth something.)

So yeah, in the spirit of brutal candor, I must admit that I am looking forward to the diversion that comes with matching paint chips and gesticulating madly at non-English-speaking carpenters.

On the bright side, the paint currently on my office walls is the color of an Ace bandage.  It will be nice to look at something else all day while I am writing and not selling anything.

Friday, August 23, 2013

On Not Winning

Last week, I didn’t win a contest.

Earlier this summer, I entered the first three chapters of a Young Adult manuscript in a contest called (unsurprisingly) The First Three Chapters.  The first prize was e-book publication.
The reason I entered this particular manuscript was twofold: 1) I like it, and 2) my agent hasn’t been able to sell it.  She told me the reason lies (in part) with the fact that since the story takes place in 1968, it is considered “historical fiction,” and editors aren’t buying much historical fiction these days.

(So much about this just boggles my mind.  In the first place, how can 1968 be considered “historical”?  I was eleven in 1968: acing spelling bees, building model cars, outfitting Barbies, and falling helplessly in love with Peter Tork.  Isn’t there a difference between “history” and “the past”?  And also, even if 1968 is considered “history,” why aren’t editors buying books that take place in it?  Why must all teenagers be forced to buy books about vampires and slutty girls who drink too much?  Isn’t there any room for something else?)

I should note that the title of my manuscript is EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED THE SUMMER HELEN KELLER DIED.  The reason I should note this is that it is by far the best title I’ve ever come up with.

I should also note that I came in second.  Which is gratifying, although not as gratifying as coming in first.  I imagine.

The second-place prize is free copy editing with a company that specializes in bringing e-books to market.  I had my first conversation with the “publishing associate” at the company today.  He is named Shea and he is from South Carolina. He is very gentlemanly and has a cute accent, but he will not be my “publishing consultant,” to whom I will speak next week.

Despite all the aggravation involved in this process, I am planning to proceed with this new way of doing things, even as I nurse the secret fear that e-publication lacks the prestige of traditional book publication.  This, I know, betrays my own snobbery, which is based on my own preferences. For so long, I have loved not just literature, but books themselves: how they look, how they smell, the way they feel in your hands.  The fact that I have written seventeen of them is something in which I have always taken great pride.
I do not know if I will feel the same way about an e-book.

But the world is changing.  Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine needing a smart phone.  “Why do I need internet access on my phone?”   I used to say (snobbishly).

I will post about the process as it unfolds.  (I am very happy that my great friend, the artist Brigid Manning-Hamilton, will be designing the book’s cover.)   In the meantime, I will wait to hear from my “publishing consultant” and ruminate on all the ways that old preferences can yield gracefully to new ones.  (As it turns out, I now think Peter Tork is ridiculous.)

Monday, August 5, 2013

On Clothes and Writing

Someone I love very much—a member of my ex-husband’s family—is terribly sick, and all my sad thoughts are keeping me from getting much done.

I thought I would blog about it, but I can’t yet: it’s too new and too upsetting.
So instead, I’m going to write about clothes (because they are frivolous and distracting) and what they have to do with writing (because this blog is supposed to be about writing, at least tangentially).

Recently I was at a party where someone significantly older than I was inappropriately dressed.  By that I mean that she dressed “too young” and didn’t take her particular body into consideration.  I might add that this woman is extremely slender.  (Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that being thin isn’t the equivalent of being stylish, which you might think if you believe the dunderheads who yak about this in the media.)

You can tell that this lovely woman looks in the mirror and sees her twenty-five-year-old self.

This happens to be something I don’t do, because I like myself more now than I did when I was twenty-five.  However, I can sympathize.  I have stopped wearing various items of clothing because at a certain point, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and saw with horror that I was trying to recreate an image of myself that can no longer be captured.  Into the Goodwill bag have gone ripped jeans, boxy t-shirts, midriff-baring workout gear, super-high heels, anything with shoulder pads, tankinis, and short skirts that no longer flatter me, even though I am thinner and fitter now than I was in college.

(I did keep one dress—short, figure-hugging, and backless—that I believe I wore out to dinner in 1984.  Recently I tried it on.  Still fits.  Looks ridiculous.)

So what does this have to do with writing?

Yesterday I was parking my car in the garage and I noticed atop a box in the corner three copies of the magazine in which I was first published as a children’s writer.  (I cannot explain how I hadn’t noticed these magazines before, given that I park my car in the garage every day.)  I thumbed through the June, 1990 issue of Cricket and found “Elliot’s Tough Decision,” a story I have almost forgotten.

Of course I read it, wincing as I did.  Treacly, obvious, preachy.  I hit readers over the head with what I wanted them to learn. (Ugh.  Bad writer, no scotch.)  And the dialogue sounds as though it belongs in a terrible 1950s sitcom.

Well, okay, it was my first published work for kids, the beginning of a new career.   I was just starting out, learning the craft.  I consoled myself with the fact that I don’t do those things anymore.

That’s when I thought of my clothes and the way I have learned how to dress myself over the years.  I wasn’t one of those girls born knowing what looks good on her.  It took me a long time to figure it out.

The analogy doesn’t hold completely: some of what I no longer wear was once fashionable (whereas bad dialogue never is).  But I still say that there is an aspect of honing—and of ever-increasing self-knowledge and self-confidence—that informs both fashion and writing.

I’m hoping that by the time I’m in my seventies, I’ll get both of them right.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What I Found under My Daughter's Bed

Yesterday, Robert and I paid a hauler to come and remove my 24-year-old daughter’s few remaining belongings from her room.

Well, actually, more than a few.

Robert and I moved in together about four months after my daughter was graduated from high school.  She had already gone off to college by the time I left the house and the community in which she had grown up.
She was really mad about it.

Really, really mad.

I know this because she told me years later, not because she was exceptionally unpleasant about the whole process as it was occurring.  In point of fact, she was an amazingly good sport, helping to pack up her room, bringing a bunch of new friends home during her first fall break, enjoying our Thanksgiving and holiday traditions with her customary spunk and spirit.  But I now know that she was masking her true feelings, keeping them private, out of my field of vision.

Still, she managed, despite her sadness and anger at me, to build a life here for her late-teenage self.

Here’s some of what I found on the floor under her bed, after the haulers took it away:

A shoe box she had decorated, filled with makeup brushes and bottles of dried-up nail polish;

A crumpled Obama poster (she went to Occidental, where the president went for two years before transferring to Columbia; she campaigned door-to-door for him in Las Vegas with college friends);

A binder full of sheet music from her high-school choir classes;

About four hundred mini Milky Way wrappers;

A small ceramic shoe—a leopard-skin pump—that I had given her when she was a little girl (I used to buy her different styles of these shoes once in a while, as a treat);

A book about origami;

A postcard from her friend Shanna;

Two fuzzy pink slippers that didn’t match.

In the end, I let the haulers take her bed and her dresser and boxes and boxes of clothes.  I kept her bookshelves , at her request.  And her photos.  And her books.  (I don’t give books away, on principle.)  And her stuffed animals, because it’s like I’m still four and they’re still real, and I can’t, I just can’t.

But here’s the weird thing.  The things I found under her bed—the things she seemed to care about least—were the things I found the most moving, the most evocative of her, my little girl who became the most friendly, bubbly, talented, funny teenager and is now a college graduate, living on her own, working hard, paying her own bills.

So I kept those things, too.  (Except for the Milky Way wrappers.  Those I managed to let go.)

Robert and I plan to make the room into a library, an extension of my office, which adjoins it.  But it will be empty for a little while.  And that is fine with me.