Thursday, August 14, 2014

My husband the German Shepherd

This is not my dog.
He is only here to
make a point.

I know this is empty nest season. Possibly there's something under the couch or behind the refrigerator that I haven't already said about empty nest, but today I want to write about marriage.

My friend Sharon Hodor Greenthal is an editor of the online magazine Midlife Boulevard, a popular blogger  and published writer elsewhere of all things midlife. As she has become more public she has, of course, encountered her share of critics. She's learned to deal. But I'm touched by what she says about her husband: "He has my back."

I love the sound of that because if marriage is and isn't a lot of things, it should be one thing:  an alliance - the force of two facing down the challenges of one. 

And so, here is an ally story.

Ten years ago, I described the first book I wrote to someone at a party this way:
"Well, it's women's fiction. It's basically about the choices we make and how we defend those choices when we are challenged to make new ones."

He nodded.

I said, "Probably not a book a man would read."

He said, "My wife would never read anything like that either."


I was a new writer and not a very confident one, so I couldn't decide whether he meant his wife was not a reader, or not a reader of women's fiction, or not a reader of  "identity" themes, or not a reader of the drek I would probably write, but that smug tone wounded me.

For days.

"Maybe she's a reader of what he tells her to read," said my husband, the German Shepherd.

There's a reason writers refer to first novels as the "under the bed" book. They're terrible.  They don't have plots, they're about the author, and they are written in such a hurry the characters have the depth of a paper doll. Once, I met an agent who referred to first novels as the "book of me" and I laughed because she was exactly right. 

So that was me ten years ago, a fragile new writer who needed  helpful critique but didn't handle it particularly well,  married to a man who was blessed and cursed with the gift of cutting to the chase. Asking my husband for "helpful critique" without hurting my feelings was like asking a door slammer  to check a souffle.

So, I gave him instructions. "Will you read my book and tell me if it's any good, but tell me the good things first?"

With that, he read my first novel and responded like this: "Well, you know some readers like action and plot but not all of them. Some like character studies and stories that remind them of their own lives."

That was a lot of writing ago.

If you visit me here, you know  I recently finished a third novel and am now getting ready to submit it. If you're a novelist you know this means I've come up with an ending and will be ready to submit it in about a year after I stop fixing it.

Two weeks ago, I detected a problem with flow. The first three chapters were clunky and uneven and "too".  Too much back-story, too little action, too contrived.  I began to panic and flipped through, trying to see where it fell off, where it got fat, and the more I looked at those first three chapters (often the only material your target agent will allow you to send with that query letter that took six years to write) the more convinced I became that nobody's wife would want to read it.

"Oh dear God," I said to Gus, my writer-cat. "We actually really, really suck at this."

My husband was leaving on business, "Give it to me," he said. "I'll read it on the plane."

A week later:

"Okay, I read it," he said.


"Sections two and three are fantastic. They flow, it's fast, the dialog is great, I couldn't put it down. Section one? I'll be honest. If I'd picked up this book in the airport, by the time I finished section one, I would have wanted my eight bucks back." 

Because I am no longer a souffle, I laughed.

 "But I found your problem," he said.

We laid the pages out on the table and went paragraph by paragraph. As he read, he described his reading experience, his attitude, expectations and mood:

"See? Here," he pointed, "I'm thinking, don't tell me what she's thinking, tell me what she's going to do, because I am  really waiting to find out."

And so on... where he was confused, where things seemed extraneous, where it worked and didn't, when he was bored.  

It took hours after we figured it out, but I fixed it.

And said right out loud as if I were meeting this book for the first time,  "Okay, this is good."

Ten years ago, my husband believed in my writing more than I did. Had he made that "eight bucks" comment back then, I might have quit.  But when I asked for his honesty this time, it was because I knew it would sting only if he was being honest, and would also be the kind of honest that gets stuff done.

And that is the very nice thing about some marriages; the more you trust someone, the more willing you are to admit when you're lost, and the more willing they are to fetch you and bring you where you belong because that's what German Shepherds do. Even if they must use their teeth to do it.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How do you want to look back on this?

My mother.
I know her game.
My mother and I discuss grown children from time to time because, well, we have that in common now. 

Either because she's gracious or because she really doesn't know, every so often, she'll ask how I've handled a particular situation with my adult kids. If it's praiseworthy, she'll repeat what I've said as if I'm the wisest person she's ever met.

I like that about my mother.

The other night, we chatted about Sam, who is home for the last summer before he goes off to make his fortune and buy his father and me matching convertibles.

"How's it all going?" she asked.

Forget that Sam, like the other kids, is a bright and hardworking young adult who knows when he is and isn't doing his best, and which end of that range to stay at. Or, that he is funny and charming and does impressions. Or, that he breaks into song while he's walking around the house complete with instrumental sound effects, including trumpets. Forget that there's a certain sizzle in the air that I can't describe, but which wasn't there before and will not be there in four weeks.

That wasn't what she asked.

Her question was more about the adjustment everyone makes when a kid comes home to the quiet, tidy and formerly empty nest after living with his buddies for a year  in space he has described to his mother as "You wouldn't like it."

She said, "You hear about so many parents dealing with reintroducing rules and finding compromises and just having so many conversations about so many issues."

"Well, you know,"  I said to my mother, "We 'keep house' differently, and, well, I never really know when he's going to be in and out, and well, we run out of stuff a lot, and well,  the laundry room might be free or might not be,"  and so on. "So yeah, it's an adjustment for everyone, but well... "

Sam has been home since the middle of May. I've made one policy request which is to let us know if he plans to be overnight somewhere. If I could, or should, or might nag him about things in connection with keeping our nest neat, I try to remember that he too, has had to adjust. Suddenly people are noticing and commenting on his comings and goings which have drawn the attention of nobody for a long time. I doubt any of his college peers have stopped in the doorway to his room and said, "How do you find anything in here?" Or, "Don't you think you should hang the clothes that are clean?"

We have reached a tacit compromise. He won't tell us to get off his back. We won't tell him when to come home or how much sleep he should get.

I told my mother, "A year from now when he's someplace else, I'll think about this summer, right now. How do I want to look back on it? Do I want to remember how I nagged him? Or that I learned to just let go of stuff that doesn't matter?"

She repeated this, "how do I want to look back on it?" as if I were the wisest person she's ever met. In truth, she has been practicing the art of shutting up since long before my first labor pain. 

I know her game.

My mother is fond of saying about raising children, "Give them a break, the world will knock them over soon enough."  I wasn't an awful teenager, but I was not the chipper, high-honors, volunteer-at-the-soup-kitchen kind either. She was the queen of break-givers. Only once, did she stop what she was doing, turn to me and tell me that I could keep complaining about having nothing to look forward to for the rest of my life, or maybe I could ride my fanny over to hospital and read to sick little children in Pediatrics. I'm not kidding when I say I love her for that, even though I chose a third option of, well, shutting up about my bleak future.

This last summer with Sam has made me remember that moments pass, but don't disappear. We'll look back on them one way or another, and I don't want to remember issues and compromises and new rules and conversations about coexisting. I want to add these good summer days to my archives and remember trumpet impressions.

If you are in the middle of a "last summer" yourself, or, if you have those issues my mother referred to, my advice is this:

Address things as you must, nobody likes a martyr. But also, in the words of a psychology professor I once had, if possible, "Never miss an opportunity to shut up".

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why fifty is a kick-ass decade worth waiting for

This re-post is dedicated to my good friend and cousin Hollis Cook, who, I suspect, is under her bed hiding from fifty. 

I did not love my forties like I was supposed to. Usually at the salon, I read about women who, at forty were settling into themselves, asserting their independence,  accepting their flaws, embracing  their wisdom and no longer feeling guilty for saying "no" and, I thought: I'm not doing this right

I've caught up.

At the salon last week, my hair stylist, who is lovable, and blunt and not yet thirty said this to me:

"I keep hearing that it's great to be older because you just don't give a crap about all the stuff  that used to upset you. Is that true?"

Well, hair stylist, yes. That statement, for instance did not upset me.

I'd like to believe I would not have sulked over that at forty, but I would have. Possibly, I would have switched to one of those equally sulky,  dressed-in-black stylists in Boston who don't speak to their clients. 

But because I like candid, charming people more than any other kind, I said, "Mine is the most kick-ass age there is. I do what I want, when I want to, and I do it better."

"That is so awesome," she said, hair tools poised, "I can't wait."

Then, someone on the floor chimed in:

"It's true. Fifty is the new forty."

Well, other salon patron, I thought, I hope not.  I hope fifties is not the new forties for two reasons:

First, in my circle, forties was a time for scrutinizing (and maybe pruning) our lives and relationships while ushering our teenage children through high school and into college with as little household stress as possible. While it is characteristic of forties to enjoy a heightened love of life, self and others,  in my rear view mirror, this energetic decade left little off-the-clock time for that kind of zen-ing.  For me, it was hard to be most places without wondering if I was needed somewhere else.

My circle also agrees that for many women in their forties, there is a late preoccupation with appearance because we fear our days of being considered more desirable - professionally, romantically and personally - are numbered.  Even if we are well adjusted as fifty looms, there is pressure to be sure we are, because you only have so much time to straighten the hell out before that axe falls. 

Well, Hollis, and anyone else hiding under the bed, here are too many good things about fifties to liken them to some other age, especially forties. 

I'm generalizing, of course, and using the universal "you" because it's efficient. Feel free to disagree, but here is my take:

  • After being child-focused for years, being self-centered is entirely okay.
  • You don't replay awkward moments or remarks, you say "eh" and think about something else. 
  • You feel comfortable with moments of silence in a conversation. You stop rambling. 
  • You accept criticism without feeling defensive. Often, you are grateful for it.
  • You develop antennae for insincerity, whether you choose to do anything about it or not.
  • You turn your mistakes and disappointments into funny stories and you know exactly who to tell them to.  
  • Things you're afraid of start to fall away except for the things that could actually kill you.
  • If you've had words with someone, you don't waste time.  If the relationship is worth it, you make them come out with you for a glass of wine and fix it. 
  • You understand that you can't, and never could, control how much people like you and so you stop trying which - what do you know - makes you more likable. 
Let's review. In your forties:

You are younger.

The serenity of fifties is worth waiting for in my opinion, but only if you value the improvements in your emotional life and relationships more than you lament changes in your appearance. Because you will be offered views of yourself that take you by surprise:  storefront reflections, dressing room mirrors,  doctors who have not finished having their own children, but begin their advice with, "Well, as we age..."

But fifties have become things they didn't used to be, and not because they became forties again. In ye fifties of olde, we started wearing lavender double knit pants and rubbery beige shoes. Now we go back for degrees, start online magazines (hi Sharon and Anne), write novels (and screenplays, Hollis, screenplays) and travel like nobody's business. 

My hair stylist finished my do and said, "There you go, you're a rock star again."

Fifty is not the new forty. I was not a rock star in my forties.  Fifty is the new fifty. 

And Hollis, Precious, it is kick-ass.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When college breaks up the boys

Drew and Sam : the boys as the boys
 If you have raised boys, and will see one of them off to college in the fall,  you may worry as I did about what the separation will do to their close relationship. 

When Drew left for college, Sam was not yet a teenager. He didn't count the days until his brother's first break.  He kept a chart on the back of his door and crossed off the days. 

It was after Drew had been out of the house for five years that I understood the enduring strength of their brother relationship. 

Below is a post I wrote that year about the closeness that was not lost in the separation, but enriched by the days that came before.

September 6, 2011

From the kitchen window, I’m watching Drew on the lawn, chipping golf balls into the air toward his target which is the outstretched hand of Sam, who leaps from the shallow end of the pool and into the air like a caffeinated retriever. There is heckling and laughing when he misses, and then catches the little ball. Despite the chance that this ad-hoc game could end with a head injury and a trip to the ER, for now, it has my appreciation.

On paper, Drew the golfer, and Sam the baseball player, have four things in common which are their parents and siblings. Drew is organized, pays his bills on time, and runs his life like a business. Sam is spontaneous, has not met a deadline he can’t extend, and handles all his responsibilities on the same day of the week after he is sure that everyone he knows is busy. They are seven years apart, at different stages of life, with a respective circle of friends who wouldn’t necessarily click. On paper, there is no reason they’d want to spend time together, and yet…

It is a week later and a tropical storm has left us without power. Nobody is happy but for Sam and Drew, who have unearthed a twelve-year-old video game called “Backyard Baseball” and are playing it in Sam’s dark room on a battery-charged computer. There is much mocking of the nostalgic, antiquated game that once captivated them. I crack the door and peer inside and they wave at me. It looks like they are sitting in a mitten. Both are wearing baseball hats.

As people, they affect others differently. People talk to Drew who is by trade as well as by nature, a careful listener and talented writer. People listen to Sam who has been a compelling and persuasive speaker for all but six months of his seventeen years. And yet...

After a while the power is back on and the storm has calmed. The boys appear dressed and showered and announce that they are going to check the level of the river. They haven’t a clue what they’re checking, what to compare it to, and I’m sure they may not even know where the river is, they just think it will be fun to be “storm trackers.”

Here is the something.

Fun happens when we're not trying to have it, I think, a feeling more than a thing we actually do. It can make you glad to be alive, glad to be who you are or glad about who you're with. And though I think fun as a feeling is hard to replicate only by recreating an activity, I believe the soul keeps track of our potential to feel it again. 

In the way they related to each other, our boys discovered their appetite for fun. Despite the distance that followed, they never lost it.

One day, Sam and Drew will have spouses and children and schedule issues that make it hard to get together unless the serious one is willing to hop a flight at the last minute or the less-serious one is willing to plan in advance. They will need to remember the feeling of fun to make it work. They will.

Life says, “Here’s my price,” and we decide: we can afford it or we can’t. My belief, as their mother and ride to the ER, is that they will have absorbed each other’s company and counsel enough to remember these days of fun clearly. Enough at least to make a healthy down payment on that asking price.
Sam and Drew at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
September 20, 2013

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is Facebook enough?

There was a link circulating last week about what Facebook is doing to your brain.Who wouldn't click on a hook like that? 

The video, packed with rapid-fire assertions suggests one theme: we have allowed ourselves to substitute e-connections for actual, IRL (in real life) ones. Depending on the presence you believe you have out there in the cyber-hood,  this is a haunting or illuminating revelation, but true I think it is.

True friendships according to this video - the ones you can't edit your way through - are not possible to cultivate if your circle exceeds 150 "friends".  On Facebook, to keep up with circles in the hundreds, one is required to construct an online friend M.O., comprised of low-investment behaviors -  sharing, liking, commenting -  to sustain them. The things we cull to invest in an IRL relationship - confidentiality, honesty, vulnerability, and the big one, spontaneous expression - are often not invested in the Facebook self we project because among other things, we know that everything we say creates a permanent record. Imagine being overheard in a restaurant by everyone you know at once.

Some comments in response to the video were defensive and worried. Others were more of a shrug. My own reaction was mixed. I know there are those who only use Facebook to connect with others, but they may well be people for whom "real" friendship does not feel affirming, but risky and revealing.

And not everyone with  Facebook friends in the hundreds or beyond is real-friend challenged as the video seems to suggest. Some people are introverts who wish to be neither social nor isolated, and find the non-committal aspect of the cyber-friendship a perfect solution. Some people become fabulous cyber-friends when distance prevents an IRL connection. My own invaluable association with a huge network of writers would not be possible without Facebook. But a balance is important to appreciate both relationships.

Where trouble happens is when direct communication is called for but shunned because the "real" social skill set has been allowed to wither. On a diet of  multiple, empty connections every day we can lose our appetite for real ones. Unplugged, our communication can begin to feel unnatural, and we can become lost in our own company.

That's what got my attention.

I would be lost without my real friendships, and I'm comfy in my own company. But I consider Facebook a fun way to connect outside of them and some of my most important connections depend on it. Still, the video made me and, apparently, many others consider the importance of Facebook in our lives. 

I've decided to curb my own habits. Twice a day I'll check in and once in a while I'll post statuses about strange people in the supermarket or annoying drivers, or  maybe a video with cats being unfriendly toward dogs. I will continue to use Facebook to shamelessly promote my published work. But I've removed phone notifications, and when I'm working, Facebook will stay in the other room.  I'll always leave comments to support or celebrate others I e-know, but I might disconnect from the notifications  ("so and so also commented on this or that") as I usually don't e-know "so and so".

It takes a little trying to build the real friendships that affirm us, support us, give us a place to hide out, produce witnesses to our lives. We can lose those things without trying at all.

And so, with that, I shall personal message a friend and see if they can have that lunch, share that drink, bring me up to date, help keep me out there IRL.

I want to talk about that Facebook video.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

That is one picky universe

"I have a crush on the New York Times," I told a writer friend a few years ago.
"Ask it out,"  he said.

So, I submitted a piece to the Modern Love column. Kindly, they rejected it before I could get my hopes up.

"I was rejected by the New York Times,"  I reported to my writer friend.
"Everybody gets rejected by the New York Times," he said.

That's not true, of course, there are plenty of people at that party,  but I know what he meant. You need talent and the right topic to get in line and then you still might have to talk to the bouncer.

Many rejections ago, when I started writing and sending my submissions "into the universe",  here's what I did. I wrote a 1600 word essay and sent it on heavy bond paper to the Boston Globe. I never got a response and assumed it never arrived. 

What with snail mail.

Many rejections later, I realized that the essay was rejected not only because it was 1000 words too long,  or because it was submitted on cardboard, but because it was not well written, despite what my mother and husband said.

It was over-everything. Over-long, over-wrought, over-reaching, and of course, overweight.

I wasn't startled when I found out how hard it was to publish, I was stunned. Had I known how many rejections that  universe spits out before it accepts a submission, I may have quit.

But because I'm a writer and I love my captor, I soldiered on after the Boston Globe maybe-never received my piece.

I focused on  my fiction and submitted a completed novel which was rejected by everyone.
I wrote a second that was rejected by half of everyone
I wrote a third which brought a request for a full manuscript by a mega-agent the next day.

A week later,  and you'll be so jealous if you're a writer, I received the rejection  with a letter of praise and suggestions. I took the book back and rewrote it.

For six years.

Eventually, I discovered that writing better was more important to me than submitting, and that loving my work felt better than being noticed.  Most important, I learned that big goals are not met in a single leap, but by taking the smaller, friendlier ones along the way seriously.

And here's the thing about "eventually":

The ratio does begin to turn around. More submissions are accepted than they are rejected, and each rejection hurts less. If you don't become an Eeyore, you realize that you're probably further away from the submissions-on-cardboard days,  than the Big Goal.


I published a first piece, about two kids leaving for college at the same time  in  the Concord Monitor.
I focused on my blog and  my traffic increased until some readers were not even related to me, and, lived in places I had to look up on a map.
I sold an essay to a national publication
I published in three online magazines.
The Christian Science Monitor selected one of my pieces as a top ten in its category.
I got picked up by the Washington Post.

My novel and I are almost ready to journey into the universe once more.  "You again?" it will say several times before I catch it in a good mood.

And then, eventually, probably - not possibly - there will be another exchange with my writer friend.

"I did it," I'll say.
"I knew you would," he'll respond.

I would sometimes like to flee, but I can't. I'm a writer and I love my captor.

And I haven't been published in the New York Times yet.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The girl who didn't think she'd win

What do the judges want?

This day, it's the question on the minds of seven contenders for the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year title. Judges will choose a state winner from seven districts, and that winner will go home with $11,000.   

This day will be long, crammed with photo-ops, nervous small talk with political figures, speeches and interviews.

The kids arrive within the same five minute window, not late, not early. They walk a beat behind their mentors, taking in the surroundings, dog-eared speech pages in hand. They wear new suits, borrowed dresses, shoes that hurt their feet and haircuts they aren't used to yet. Their facial expressions are neutral and fixed with the question that has been steeping for months: "What do the judges want?" 

My charming mentee
Some seem terrified, some don't. Most don't behave as if they'll win. The ones who do, I know after last year's ceremony, probably won't.

There is palpable tension while the nominees shift awkwardly from foot to foot, their smiles quick, their eyes darting, their faces animated for only seconds at a time.   

A willowy, nervous girl dressed in a micro-mini, cowboy boots and a leather jacket is part of this crowd.  She has colored her hair in trendy strands of mahogany and fuschia and when she stands near the other kids she says nothing. She slumps as if her height might work against her.

I wonder how she'll do. The judges want poise. Confidence.

My mentee is here, but it's home court for her so she is putting the others at ease. There is not a competitive bone in her body. She's spent a decade learning how to engage with people - too long to put them at arm's length now. She doesn't think she'll win but is here to play anyway.

It's part of my mentee's charm. 

Halfway through the day, the judging starts. The door opens, they are called, they step in and the door closes.

Exactly 18 minutes later, the facilitator taps on the door indicating a two-minute warning, then knocks again at one minute. Not before or after, the door opens and out they come, looking even younger than they are with all that relief flooding their minds and bodies. They are smiling, hugging their mentors, the question of what-the-judges-want, behind them now.

My mentee goes in and uses the entire allotment.
The facilitator knocks at two minutes.
Knocks at one minute.
My mentee comes out, beaming.

The willowy girl goes in, she's out ten minutes later.

Another nervous nominee approaches my mentee. "What did they ask?" She whispers.
My mentee starts to tell her, but I interrupt, fearing the other nominee will fret over irrelevant questions:

"They'll ask different questions of everyone. Just answer truthfully," I say.

Later, the judging is done, the kids are themselves again. Everyone's hungry, their gone appetites back with a vengeance . They're silly and boisterous and a bit sassy  now that they are off display. Tension leaves the atmosphere like air from a balloon.

Later, through a dinner which precedes the big announcement, new energy sizzles in the room. There are speeches and thank yous and acknowledgments and winners in secondary categories.

Two well dressed teens talk about overcoming absent parents, social awkwardness and unhealthy temptations to craft futures of college and, of "giving back". The girl in the cowboy boots talks about overcoming the low expectations of others to be accepted at the NASCAR Technical Institute to study auto mechanics. A polished, poetic nominee compares her life and role in her community to that lived by her grandmother in a Kenyan village. My mentee talks about her crippling shyness that kept her isolated for years.

But few are fully listening. Everyone's waiting for that MC to open the envelope and now she does.

And the willowy girl in the cowboy boots wins.

The applause is instant and sustained.
She stands up and breaks down.
She turns to her father who wraps her in a hug.
She drifts, dazed, to the podium in tears.
She looks around, eyes on everyone.
She wipes her eyes with a Kleenex and, barely able to speak says, "God, I don't know what to say. I just never thought I'd win. I just didn't expect this. Thank you so much. Just... thank you."

Words fail her and the governor begins a new round of applause to rescue her.

"I never thought I'd win," she says again.

And yet, didn't she show up and walk the walk and talk the talk as if she would.

The faces of the other nominees react, some are smiling and some aren't. Some of the coaches look surprised, others delighted.

But if hearts have been toppled I see one that sings, and if minds are racing, I see one at rest,  that question of what the judges want, answered.
She was wrong