Sunday, December 26, 2010


I hate waiting. Yet, somehow I managed to book my mammogram for the week before Christmas, and found myself waiting for something I didn't want during the busiest week of the year.
I had a lump removed from my breast seven years ago, so getting a mammogram for me is always a cause for heart-pounding, knuckle-biting anxiety. What's more, since that first lousy mammogram, every mole, hive, aching joint, and stomach pain makes me wonder: Do I have cancer? Am I dying?
How stupid. Of course I'm dying. We all know how life's movie ends. Still, it didn't help matters that my pre-Christmas technician was one of those perky young ones. She wore a squintingly bright orange t-shirt to set off her sprayed-on tan and chatted like a parakeet as she maneuvered me in and out of the chilly breast sandwich plates. Her sharp nails were scratchy on my bare skin. I shivered like a wet dog at the groomer’s.
When she was through, the technician told me to “sit tight, Hon,” while she brought my films to the radiologist. She left me in a “For Women Only” waiting room with soothing prints of chubby women in garden hats, picnicking in a forest. Who picked out those particular prints, I wondered. Someone who thought we'd be calmed by them? Someone who thought, Oh, good, the fat women in these pictures will make everyone feel thin?
There's one other woman in the waiting room. She studiously avoids my eyes and flips through her magazine. I wonder which particular circle of hell she's in.
I consider the waiting room magazines, artfully arranged on the table in front of me like a colorful fan by some zealous volunteer. I can't bring myself to take one. It would be like pulling a feather out of a peacock's tail.
Seven years ago, I had the lump removed from my breast because my mammogram showed microcalcifications gathered in a “suspicious cluster.” Such a garble of a word, “microcalcifications.” Not cancer, just tiny calcium deposits. Lots of women have them. Normally, they show up on mammograms as big and round and scattered, like benign flower petals. But, for some women, microcalcifications appear in patterns associated with malignancy. These are smaller calcium deposits. They’re more numerous, and they come in an array of shapes: Rods, branches, even teardrops. A good radiologist will feel his hackles rise when he sees them arranged just so.
The last time I had an interesting pattern of microcalcifications, I had a “needle loc” biopsy, as the booking receptionist so breezily referred to it. Her good cheer suggested that there was nothing to fear about the procedure. My boyishly enthusiastic, tactless surgeon’s description of it was “just a little slice and dice.”
Now I know better. A needle location biopsy is a two-step procedure that takes several hours to complete. It’s a type of surgical biopsy that involves more breast sandwiches, but with the added discomfort of a hollow needle inserted into the breast. The hollow needle conveys a long thin wire into your breast in a way that makes you feel like a remote-controlled car. The amount of tissue removed ranges “from the size of a grape to that of an apricot,” as my surgeon had explained.
“What am I, a fruit basket?” I joked.
Oh yes. I joked around during that first biopsy. Then I got home and fell apart, plagued by unanswerable questions: Can you go barefoot in heaven? What would my children do without a mother? If I have chemo, will I look as good when I'm bald as Sigourney Weaver did in Alien II?
I waited weeks for those results. Because the local radiologist deemed my biopsied bit of flesh to be “in the gray zone,” the tissue had to be sent to a Boston cancer hospital, to a man so famous for his breast biopsy readings that my surgeon actually referred to him as “Dr. Breast.” And Dr. Breast, it turned out, was on vacation for two weeks.
“How dare he take a vacation when I need him?” I joked, and hung up, feeling sorry for that abandoned little piece of me sitting alone in a Boston lab, cooling its tiny heels.
As I waited, I tried to look on the bright side of cancer. If I lost my hair, I could be a shaggy brunette on Tuesdays, a smoky redhead on Thursdays, and hey, why not go blonde all weekend? Breast cancer could have other benefits, too. I could finally say no to the PTO! I’d book that vacation to Spain!
When the biopsy results arrived, they weren’t the best, but they weren’t the worst, either: I had DCIS, which means “ductal carcinoma in situ,” or “Damn Cancer In Sight.” The treatment was a lumpectomy, which the insurance company insisted on calling a “partial mastectomy.” I cried, because it suddenly seemed as if a piece of me had gone renegade: The breast that had once nursed my three children was acting up. Naughty, naughty breast, after all of that money I’d spent on expensive lingerie and bathing suits! If that was the thanks I got, maybe I’d just ask the surgeon to lop the whole thing off. Breast be gone! Ha! That would show ol’ Lefty who’s boss!
On the day of the surgery, the only truly bad moment came in the operating prep room, where I made the mistake of asking a nurse how much she thought the surgeon would remove. She patted my hand with a smile. “Oh, he’ll probably take out a chunk the size of a plum. You’ll be just fine.”
A plum! Can’t these people think about anything beside fruit? I fumed, and then the mask was over my face. The next thing I knew, my husband was leading me out to the car with a bandaged boob, a woozy head, and strict instructions to avoid my favorite underwire bras.
As I recovered from the lumpectomy, I had one more visit with my surgeon, who said, “Well, there’s no such thing as a 100 percent cure for cancer, but I’d say you’re in the 99 percent range.” He’d gotten clean margins all around the affected tissue, which meant I wouldn’t need radiation or chemo. “Go home,” he said. “Be happy.”
And so I have. For the last seven years, I’ve managed to do just that – except when I worry about having the Big C.
“What I hate about cancer is this feeling that I'm disappearing one piece at a time,” complained a friend as she headed into her second skin cancer surgery recently.
“Me, too,” I agreed. “Only with me, it’s probably going to be one melon ball at a time.”
We laugh about our battle scars, my friends and I. What else is there to do? We're all learning to wait with grace, and trying to remember that waiting is really just another part of living.
So take your next piece, I silently admonished the radiologist and the surgeon as I sat in the waiting room the week before Christmas, still not touching the magazines on the table. I know I'm not alone. I can deal.
The technician finally came back, all smiles. The other woman in the waiting room and I looked at each other. It was my name the technician was calling. I stepped out into the hallway, supposedly out of earshot, though I knew the other woman must be listening avidly, trying to see which one of us was going to make up the next count of breast cancer patients in this hospital, this country. We know we're in this together.
“Everything looks fine,” the technician said. “Go ahead and get dressed. Merry Christmas.”
Indeed. Happy New Year, too. And may every woman know that she is never alone in the waiting room.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Two of the most common questions people ask writers are: 1) When do you write? And 2) What do you do if you get writer's block?
When I see these questions headed my way – whether from a friend, a student, a book club member, or a radio talk show host – I freeze like a possum crossing in front of a bicycle. That's because my answers are so unsatisfying to most people:
1)I hardly ever write, but I'm always writing, and
2)I don't get writer's block. Ever.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking: What the hell? What kind of writer doesn't have writer's block! Maybe you're even rolling your eyes like a dismissive teen in Algebra class. But both answers are true.
Here's my current secret weapon against low creativity libido: Spin class. You know, that's the class where you furiously pedal a stationary bike to nowhere in an ominously dark room, while an anemic looking instructor shouts orders over thumping techno pop music. “Sprint!” “Climb another hill!” “Break away!”
I never thought I'd take one of these classes, because who doesn't look stupid in padded bike shorts indoors? Then I discovered that I can solve any thorny writing problem in Spin class. Just this morning, I was pedaling hard to pass that old guy with the big calves in front of me – funny how I never can catch him – when I suddenly thought of a way the killer in the novel I'm writing could lure the protagonist into his car. Bingo! I nearly fell off the bike, it was such a brilliant idea! (I won't take time to explain it here. Let's just say that it involved a snake in the basement.)
I don't know if it's the rush of adrenalin that causes ideas to come when I'm exercising, but if I'm sweating, I'm writing. Jogging, gardening, moving furniture, you name it. Even a walk loosens up the words locked in the crammed, disorganized closet of my brain. I take my dogs hiking most mornings after dropping my youngest child off at school. My usual spot is a Conservation area with winding paths through marshes and woods. At one point, there's a terrific view of the river (where I often imagine bodies being dumped.)
There's just one trail that I can't follow anymore, because it passes a sculpted tree with colorful green and yellow lichen on its peeling gray bark. I once hiked past that tree and imagined a spirit woman stepping out of it, her hair flowing right out of the bark, to block my protagonist's path as she went walking. Now, Voila! I'm terrified of that tree. But it's a great plot point in my novel.
Sex serves nicely as creative exercise, too. I keep a journal on my bedside table. My husband has learned not to ask what I'm doing, as I roll out from under him and scrabble around for a pen so that I can jot down a new bit of dialogue that appears like a ticker-tape announcement in Times Square as we're getting busy.
This all might sound flaky – I am a writer, after all – but the truth is that even scientists have linked creativity to exercise. Some research suggests that you can experience a boost in brain power for up to two hours after just half an hour of exercise, no matter what the exercise is ( Check out Dr. David Blanchette's studies on the link between aerobic exercise and creativity at Rhode Island College (, or a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (
Better yet, print out articles about creativity and exercise to read while you're running on the treadmill. Then sit down to write. You might be surprised by how fast new ideas pour out of your pen.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kayak: One Word, One Life

The word was written in red ink across the top of the manila file folder. Shaky letters, a modest schoolboy hand. Definitely my dad's writing.
I sat back on my heels in front of the cupboard where I'd found the folder and stared at the word, almost unable to breathe. Like my father, a Navy officer, I never throw anything away that I might use. This folder was stashed among many others in my office. On some, the lettering has been scratched out and rewritten two or three times. How had my dad's folder ended up in here with mine?
I keep turning up odd things that belonged to my dad, despite the fact that he died two years ago. There are the old photos of him in his Navy uniform, for instance, where Dad looks like Gerald Ford on steroids. A collection of foreign coins, with buttons and batteries mixed in, that he gave to my youngest son the last time we saw him. And his wax jacket from England, which I can't bear to toss, even though it makes my hall closet stink like wet goats.
“Kayak.” Staring at that single, scrawled, red-inked word makes me remember, suddenly, that Dad's kayak was red, too. It was crafted out of heavy duty plastic and lightweight enough for him to lift onto the top of his car even after his seventieth birthday.
Dad bought the kayak when he was living in New England, near me, to use on a local pond. That pond is surrounded by houses and probably just half a mile across. Yet, being a Navy man who once commanded ships, Dad bought not only the kayak, but everything you might need to navigate an ocean storm, too: a bright yellow waterproof flashlight, a neon orange life vest, a floating whistle, a box of flares. He wasn't going to be caught up short in an emergency, no sir, not my dad the Commander.
When he was diagnosed with emphysema a few years later and moved to Arizona for drier weather, Dad gave me the kayak and its bulging box of accessories – miles and miles of nylon rope, it seemed – along with this folder. Dad was famous in our family for his file folders, neatly cataloging everything from Sears purchases (the only store he ever shopped) to our school records, right down to faded kindergarten reports claiming that my brother wasn't paying attention and I needed to speak up more in class. The kayak folder was the last one he ever gave me. It had contained maps, a booklet on efficient rowing, pamphlets on how to use flares in an emergency, and a thick sheaf of boater's regulations you wouldn't ever need unless you were caught in a tsunami on the high seas.
“It's always best to know what you're getting into,” Dad said solemnly, giving the folder a fond little tap as he handed it over. “Be prepared.”
By then, he was on oxygen and had to carry a portable tank with him. Being my father, he always made sure that his tanks were full and that he had a spare. He set his watch and timed his outings to the minute so that he'd never run out of air.
“Kayak,” in red ink, on a folder. What had that boat represented to my father, that he would buy such a risky toy at age seventy?
Dad was a boy from Ohio who joined the Navy before he'd ever seen the ocean or learned to swim. The kayak continued my father's love affair with water. It was also a vote of confidence in his own vitality, despite his age and failing health. The kayak let him have a final adventure his way, prepared for a seafaring challenge with a life vest, a whistle, and flares, even on a peaceful pond.
“Kayak.” It was more than just a word. It was a message from my father to me: “Know what you're getting into.”
Know what you're getting into, when you get into a boat on the water, or into a marriage, or into a house or a job. Be prepared for hard work, for joyful play, for travel, for accidental mishaps, for parenthood, for love, for anger, for sorrow, for illness, for taking life one breath at a time, for death.
Be prepared, most of all, with the single word you would choose to write across the last folder of your life, as a way of reminding the loved ones you left behind that you are guiding them, still.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Piano Chicken and other Tales of Cooking Gone Wrong

Just in time for holiday feasting, I've decided to eat lean. This was a guilt-inspired decision brought on by invading my son's Halloween bag, which I managed to find no matter how hard I tried to hide it.
Eating lean means lettuce, lettuce, and more lettuce for lunch, as I explore the wonders of salad instead of making my usual Dagwood sandwiches. It also means that I'm having to stress my culinary skills, which are admittedly just one step above feral.
For instance, since all of the so-called experts on Web MD (who I suspect are just college students paid hourly to churn out recycled holier-than-thou advice from women's magazines), insist that you need to balance protein and healthy carbs while grazing on greenery, I decided to make a big girl salad yesterday that actually included sliced hard-boiled egg. Talk about excitement! I was nearly panting with pride as I heated a pot of water and gently set two pristinely white eggs in to boil.
My virtuous frame of mind led me to my desk, where I actually paid bills on line (more cause for self praise!) and caught up on emails. I might have made a phone call or two also.
At any rate, it wasn't until the dog started barking in the kitchen that I realized my eggs were, in fact, not only boiling, but exploding. The water was long gone, the lid had flown off the pan, and my eggs had exploded onto the floor, the stove, and even up into the vent hood. Holy Mount Merapi! There is nothing like the stink of sulfur to put you off your feed – a diet tip that the WebMD minions are certainly welcome to borrow.
“You must have been cooking by remote control again,” my husband Dan said with a sigh, when I mentioned the disaster in the kitchen that night.
“At least I tried,” I said.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “Stay out of the kitchen.”
This is, really, the mantra of our marriage: I stay out of the kitchen until it's time for me to do the dishes after Dan cooks. I didn't know this is how it would be when I met him, of course. In fact, our first real date consisted of me whipping up an impressive (for me) lasagna out of jarred sauce and no-boil noodles, which Dan gallantly suffered through with nary a complaint.
It wasn't until Dan cooked dinner for me about a week later – handmade spring rolls, chicken satay, jasmine rice – that I understood what I was dealing with. My husband started cooking for himself at age 12. By his teen years, he was avidly reading Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Mother of God, what a weird kid, is what I would have thought if we'd met in high school. Luckily, I married Dan in my thirties, when I was old enough to know what kind of prize he really is.
There are people like me – lots of us, I'm sure – who would just as soon eat out of cans if we didn't have children to make us feel guilty for not serving something other than tuna on crackers. My friend Phoebe, for instance, describes her husband Michael trying to cook chicken; he went downstairs to play the piano and got so distracted that smoke filled the house. When Michael presented the blackened bird to their family, “He told us that he'd made a special dish called Piano Chicken,” she says with a laugh.
My friend Peach once tried to roast chestnuts. She didn't bother reading a recipe; she figured she could just bake them at 400 degrees “for a while.” She made the mistake of opening the oven to check on them and had to hit the floor as the chestnuts shot out like bullets. Another friend of mine, Chris, had no idea that you should pierce the skin of a potato before baking it, and was forced to spend an hour cleaning mashed potato off her oven walls before she could use it again.
Then there are people like Dan. Dan thinks nothing of throwing together Spanish tapas for twelve, and he made our Thanksgiving perfect, from the turkey he somehow set on fire with brandy to three different kinds of pies baked with his own special lard & butter crust. (You should have seen my daughter's face when he told her that he used 14 sticks of butter to make our holiday meal.)
Dan is the one my friend Deborah turns to when she wants to ask a question about braising beef or seasoning roasted vegetables, and he and our friend Mary can carry on a conversation about different types of Mexican peppers for hours. Dan and I once went to a dinner party where one of the women had just returned from a tour of different olive oil producers in Italy; I have never seen a happier man. Meanwhile, that woman's husband and I talked about our dogs.
What makes the difference between a cook like Dan and somebody like me, whose efforts often result in meals like volcanic eggs, or those shortbread cookies I made where I forgot to put in the flour, even though that was one of just four ingredients? Is it genetics? Interest? Experience? Or just the ability to pay attention in the kitchen for more than 12 minutes?
I have no idea. I only know that, when Dan cooks, there's no place like home.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Murder and Mayhem in a Parked Car

When the man knocked on my window, I jumped and shrieked. It was dark and rain was pelting against my car windshield. I opened my window just a crack. “Yes?”
The man was old and bearded beneath his yellow rain slicker, with flat black eyes that seemed to absorb the darkness all around us. “Lady, you okay in there?” he asked.
I blinked at him. “I'm fine. Why?”
He shook his head. “I've been trying to get your attention. You're all done here.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I fumbled for my wallet and handed him my credit card. Damn. My gas tank was full. I'd been reading while the attendant pumped gas; now I had to start driving again.
The story of my life is that I often leave my life. There are long moments, even hours, where I have no idea what's going on in the world, or even in my own house, beyond the pages of the book I'm holding in my hands. Even as a child, I was so absorbed by my books that every family video shows a pair of adult hands reaching over to take away my book, and then me looking up and squinting like a startled hen.
The book I was reading at the gas station was Erin Hart's terrific debut mystery, Haunted Ground, and the reason I shrieked when the gas station attendant knocked on the window is because I was in a drafty manor house, just like the main character, American pathologist Nora Gavin. I had just found something dreadfully dead in my bed not long after digging up a girl's severed head in the bog. Just the head! No body!
This is my favorite kind of book: Any mystery set somewhere other than here, preferably written by a British author who knows how to weave history, forensics, and a love story together with a good dash of tension, just enough gore, some heart-pounding terror, and lots of eccentric characters. The other great new mystery author I've discovered recently is Elly Griffiths, whose first book, Crossing Places, I read in a single sitting, and whose second book, The Janus Stone, looks even more promising. Her main character is an eccentric archeologist and, in her first book at least, Griffiths crafts scenes of heart-stopping fright. God, I love her.
Other British mystery writers who always give me a thrill: Dorothy Sayers and her gentle but quick-witted sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey; Elizabeth George, who lives in England half-time and passes for a Brit even though she's American; and of course P.D. James, the creator of a poet who doesn't faint at the sight of blood.
What is it about mystery novels? Why do I keep reading about murder and mayhem not only in parked cars, but at the breakfast table, during my son's gymnastics practice, waiting at the airport, and late at night after the house is asleep and I'm the only one with a light burning?
I'm not a violent person. The last time I shouted was at our cat for daring to jump on the dining room table. I've never hit, kicked, stabbed, or shot anyone. I want to weep when I hear news stories of real beatings or murders. Yet I can't fit enough killings into my waking hours.
My grandfather was the same way, and he lived with us, so I guess I can blame him. Grandfather worked in the menswear department of Sears and was always decked out in suspenders and a felt fedora pinched just so over his bald head. He got mystery novels out of the library, and every night, he'd park himself in his favorite chair and slowly smoke bowls of lush cherry tobacco in his pipe as he went through them. He had two stacks of mysteries: the one on his right side was the stack he hadn't read yet, and the one on the left side were books he'd already devoured. As far as I know, he never murdered anybody, either, but we did have a really creepy basement.
Mom and I used to read Grandfather's mysteries after he did, sliding them off the left tower of books beside his chair. From about the age of 14 I was reading about rapes and brutal beatings, serial killers and child abusers, people shot or knifed or run over by cars, even people set on fire or carved into little bits. Corpses turned up in fields and bogs, stone churches and manor houses, inside walls and basements, or just flung willy-nilly by the roadside. It's a wonder I ever left the house.
The natural conclusion of wallowing in all of this mayhem is that I, too, have begun writing a mystery novel. It isn't a classic mystery – more of a thriller, really – and it's not set in England. Instead, this book is set in a house that my husband and I once looked at, thinking we might buy it; we were so terrified once we were inside this house that we couldn't get out fast enough. There was something evil lurking there. And now that evil is in my computer, and on the pages that I'm printing out as I write this.
My novel opens with a woman being tossed off the side of a cruise ship, and there are two more murders besides. There's a voodoo priestess, and unspeakable creatures from the underworld crawling along the stone walls at the edge of the property.
As I was writing a certain chilling scene yesterday, a scene set in atmospherically dusky woods with trees that look like sculptures, my son came up behind me just as my heroine spots something – or someone – standing in front of her.
“Mom?” my son said, and I screamed.
I've never had more fun in my life. The only thing better than reading mysteries is writing one.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kids + Computers = The Perfect Match

A few days ago, a friend stopped by while I was working at home. My 13 year-old son was home, too. As we passed the living room, my friend said, “How long will you let your son stay on the computer?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. Until it's time to do something else.”
“What? That's criminal!” My friend made a face. You know the face: the I'm-a-better-Mom-than-you-are face. “I let my boys have an hour a day on the computer. Tops. Then I kick 'em outside.”
“Well,” I said, and then stopped. What else was there to say? “You're a better parent than I am?” “Your kids probably have bigger muscles?”
I've been a mother for 22 years now. With three boys and two girls in our household, I've been doing battle with screens for almost that long. I still get exhausted remembering how hard I fought to keep our two oldest sons off the computer. Every time I made a rule, they'd find a loophole. Like the time I told them they couldn't have screen time between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends, and discovered – weeks later – that they were setting their alarms for 5 a.m. to ensure that they'd get their four hours of World of Warcraft in before breakfast.
Recently, one of my sons confessed, “You know, I was playing computer games until, like, 2 a.m. in high school. I just waited until you went to bed.” That was around the time that he was hooked on Everquest, an online role-playing game that drew in so many viewers that it was widely known as “Evercrack”
And where is that son now? He graduated from a great college, and found a job three days after graduation in an advertising firm in Boston. A company that specializes, by the way, in supporting web sites for their clients.
Our oldest son, meanwhile, graduated from a great college as well, and has made his way to Los Angeles, where he's working as a production assistant in the film industry. He was just named second assistant director for a Web TV pilot.
My youngest son, the last one at home, takes bass guitar lessons, does gymnastics, loves to rock climb and hike. But he's also on the computer every spare minute. Once in a while, it's homework related – his school gave him a great geography game to play online, and he can now name more countries on a map than I can. He also does math and science online rather than bring home textbooks. Usually, though, his time on the computer is spent pursuing his own interests.
He built a hovercraft after seeing someone do it online, out of a shower curtain, a piece of plywood, and a leaf blower. It actually worked. He learned all about microwaving potato chip bags and building Lego guns through Youtube. He plays his bass along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queen online. (“Did you dress like that in the 80's, Mom?” he asked recently. “God, I hope not.”) He learned how to do flips on the trampoline by watching kids demonstrate on Youtube. And, lately, he has been learning the algorithms for solving the Rubik's Cube from Dan Brown online
Does he read books, this boy of mine? Only if I make him. Which I do. I am, after all, a writer and a book collector, and sometimes I fantasize about having one of those dreamy kids who stays up all night reading books like I did. But, let's face it: kids seem well-equipped to learn online. This particular son of mine knew all about how BP was going to clean up its spill before I did; he also followed the recent elections online. He can tell me where the most shark attacks occur in the world and he's currently looking up the value of individual Magic cards – his new obsession. If this kid wants to know something, he Googles it.
“It's an age of instant gratification,” my sniffy mom friend declared, when I pointed out how much my son learns on the computer. “These kids don't know how to work hard. The computer is making kids stupider.”
Her declaration echoed that popular article, “Does Google Make Us Stupid?” originally published by Nicholas Carr a couple of years ago in The Atlantic Monthly. Carr's piece led to fiery debates about how human intelligence is changing. Read a great summary of that debate put together by the Pew Research Center here:
Maybe it's true that access to technology, and to such rapid fire information, is making our children seem like they have shorter attention spans. My son recently declared that when he's reading, “I feel like I'm not doing anything.” On the computer, on the other hand, his hands are engaged, and the visuals on the screen are more entertaining than those black-and-white ants marching across the pages of his books. Books are slow, he complains.
Let me repeat: I still try to make him read half an hour a day, if nothing more. Yet, I'm also well aware that I, too, would have learned on the computer if I'd had one growing up. I don't buy my friend's argument that my boys have had their learning stunted by the computer. Whether children absorb information by reading or online, learning new things makes them want to learn more. Children are inherently curious, active learners. Aren't the skills of building cities and fighting battles online – especially done in teams – worthy? And isn't the ability to discover, sift through, and analyze new information essential to survival in the digital age?
There is an infinite amount of knowledge. Why not soak it up as fast as you can, in a community of online learners, game players, and musicians who come not just from your own neighborhood, but from around the world? For kids with computers, learning has no boundaries.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The First Rule of Teaching: Do No Harm

It wasn't until I went on a field trip with my son and his eighth grade teacher that I started pondering the recent debates about how a teacher's performance in the classroom should be evaluated.
My son and his teacher, Jennifer, were deep in conversation about some machine that my son had built at home out of spare parts. Jennifer listened, asked questions, then listened some more. She's a former engineer, so she has lots of high-powered technical knowledge she might have sprinkled onto my son's head like falling leaves. Instead, she focused on getting my son to ask the right questions, inserting facts only where she had to, until at last he said, “Oh! I know what I could try next. Thanks!”
I couldn't follow their conversation in detail – I barely passed high school physics – but it was suddenly clear that I was in the presence of one of those brilliant teachers who we hope like hell our children have at least a few times in their lives.
What makes a teacher brilliant? It's not easy for me to say, despite the fact that I've ushered three children and two stepchildren through school and into college. Along the way, I've attended countless parent-teacher conferences and PTO meetings. I've been a school volunteer.
But it was only at that moment, with Jennifer and my son, that I really considered what makes a teacher brilliant and not just okay, or downright evil. While we've never had a teacher as evil as Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl's brilliant book, Matilda – the one who locked children in a tiny room with spikes on the walls – we've certainly had our share of scary teachers.
There was, for instance, the elementary school teacher who made fun of my youngest son because he was anxious and had facial tics. When he told her that he wanted to be a mathematician, she laughed and said, “You'll never be a mathematician if you keep making those faces!” He also had a teacher who, when it was time to make gingerbread houses for Christmas, called him “defiant” because he didn't follow her A-frame plan and created his own design. The very next year, a teacher told my son that he would “grow up to be another Unibomber” because he had drawn a sketch of a gun he'd seen on YouTube.
Most teachers, thankfully, have not been so woefully ignorant or mean. Among the many teachers in the lives of our five children, most have simply followed their hearts in an effort to do good in the world. They get up every morning, balancing family life with work like most of us – only their work involves the emotional and exhausting rigors of caring for other people's children. They fight for what their students need, and sometimes, like the rest of us, they are irritable or too exhausted to be kind. They snap at the kids, or even, in the case of one math teacher at our junior high who, after being pushed to the limit by a wayward kid taunting him from the doorway, chase kids down the hall while waving chairs over their heads. Really.
Burnout isn't their fault, or at least not entirely. The educational system is overburdened – we all know that – and often more of a premium is placed on crowd control and compliance among students than on anything else. Students come to class unprepared or are confrontational, and parents are equally so. It's no wonder that our teachers are stressed and overwhelmed. If they'd wanted to be cops, they would have signed up for the police academy.
Yet, a few rare teachers continue to do their jobs well, or even brilliantly. My oldest daughter, always fearful of writing, became an avid writer because her sixth grade English teacher made her believe that she could do it – even as that teacher was battling breast cancer. My oldest son's first social studies teacher inspired in him a lifelong love of politics. A French teacher's encouragement led our younger daughter to study in Paris.
What sets those teachers apart? Brilliance in the classroom isn't about a teacher's education, training, or classroom experience. No, the kind of teacher who inspires students to learn because they want to, instead of because they have to, has more to do with elusive qualities, like being willing to meet a child where he is, having a keen and sturdy sense of humor, respecting every child's strengths, and bravely setting forth every day ready to try something new.
There has been a lot of debate about how best to test our teachers, such as asking whether we should use standardized student test scores to evaluate a teacher's performance. But the most important things to measure in a teacher are things you can't test for, like the willingness to trust that, within every child, there is a better person who just needs to be coaxed to come out. How do you test for that?
While we figure that out, the first rule to follow when evaluating teachers should be the same one we use in medicine. Teachers, like doctors, should First, do no harm.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Book Tour: Is It Worth It?

As I was winding down my book tour to southern California recently, I stopped at a cafe with new friends I'd made in a high desert town called Ridgecrest. The four of them had gathered to see me off after I'd done a book signing at the China Lake Navy Base nearby, followed by a discussion with local writers at Red Rock Books, a terrific independent bookstore.
My friends were clearly amused by my observations of desert life. They all ride motorcycles and routinely train their dogs to avoid rattlesnakes on the hiking paths. I'd come from New England and might as well have been dropped on the moon, that's how alien the landscape was: pale brown earth streaked red, abandoned mines, roads with improbable names like Twenty Mule Team Parkway, and even a Silver Dollar Saloon. Not a pine tree or maple sugar house in sight.
How did I get from a small coastal town in New England to the California desert to sign copies of my new paperback? It all started with an email from Vicki Rizzardini. She lives in Ridgecrest and started Red Rock Books; her stepdaughter runs the store now. Vicki had read my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, and liked it, so she emailed me through my web site. I was ecstatic! After all, writers put words on the page to reach someone, and it's tough to know if you've done that. Sending your book out into the world is like having a kid go off to college and never bothering to call.
Vicki gave the book to her friend, Betty, an admiral's wife. Which, in turn, led me to screw up my courage and telephone the Navy Exchange at China Lake to see if I could do a book signing there. When they agreed, I thought what the heck, and called the Navy Base at Coronado, too.
“It's great that you're here, but do you actually make any money doing these book tours?” asked one man during my tour. “Was it worth coming?”
He had logically assumed, as most people do, that authors get sent on book tours by their publishers, and was perplexed when I admitted that I'd bought my own plane ticket.
Alas, the age of book tours is over. Every writer I know, with a few best-selling exceptions, has been told by their publicists and editors to just forget those bookstore appearances. “Nobody comes anymore,” they explain.
Sometimes they're right. At my best book signings, I've had a pretty good turnout – maybe 50 to 75 people. At my worst, I've had only one person show up, and that was an ex-lover I would have dearly loved to impress. Most of the time there are only a handful of people.
So why do a book tour, especially if you have to pay for it yourself? The reason bears repeating: we writers put our words on the page to reach someone.
Yes, I ponied up the money to go to California myself. Not a lot of money, since I could stay with friends in the three different locations I made appearances, but still, a plane ticket equals a lot of groceries. I paid out of pocket because I wanted to meet readers. I was especially interested in reaching out to Navy families, because my memoir centers around my father, a Navy Commander who became so obsessed by gerbils that we ended up on a farm with 9,000 of these pocket kangaroos.
Was it worth it? I mulled this over as I left Ridgecrest and drove through Red Rock Canyon, stunned by the beauty of the purple and red light in the sky over the stark hills. At the Navy base in Coronado, I had met a family with three girls; the oldest, a teenager, bought my book because she wants to be a veterinarian. I also chatted with a Navy nurse who bought the book for herself, because it was her birthday.
At China Lake, I talked with a Navy pilot who has a collection of over 300 books; he dreams of being a writer one day. There was a woman who bought four of my books as gifts for her sisters. At Red Rock Books, I talked with other writers about the future of publishing. We concluded that, no matter what form stories take, there will always be people who want to hear them.
Is a book tour worth it, if you pay for it yourself? Probably not, if you're just thinking about money. (Admittedly, it's hard not to.) I probably signed a total of 125 books that week in California. The royalties wouldn't even add up to a new pair of shoes.
But who knows? For every book I signed for someone, that someone might decide she likes it well enough to suggest it to her book club, or buy it for her mom. Word-of-mouth has always been one of the most powerful marketing strategies around.
Meanwhile, I got to see the splendor of the desert sky, to visit with old friends and make new ones, and to be inspired by readers eager to connect. What better reasons are there to keep writing?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Turkeys, Boltholes, and Self-Sustainability

I live in a typical New England suburb: tall trees, a smattering of ranch houses, a few grand Colonials, a Cape or two. Yet, we still have our share of wild creatures, like the flock of turkeys I startled while walking my dogs, about a dozen prehistoric looking birds with gray wattles, brown feathers and clownishly large clawed feet.
As always, the turkeys proved to be as silly and indecisive as a flock of teenagers at the mall. As one started to dash across the road, two more followed. The others looked on anxiously, hesitant to make a run for it. This caused the three initially brave turkeys to question their own moxie and turn back partway, just as the first group decided to go for the gold and cross the road. Within a few seconds, all of the turkeys were milling around in the middle of the road, gobbling in distress.
The dogs and I finally moved forward. Turkeys scattered. As I watched them scramble up a bank, I thought about the book I'm reading, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. It's a great read, funny and edgy and informative. The author, Novella Carpenter, describes how she created a garden in the middle of downtown Oakland, California on an abandoned patch of scrubby land. A central part of the narrative describes her decision to raise her own meat poultry. The first bird destined for the chopping block is a turkey named Harold, who she fattens up in anticipation of Thanksgiving dinner. I left off reading just as she was gathering Harold in her arms to bring him upstairs to the chopping block.
Seeing the turkeys this morning led me to wonder whether I could kill my own meat, and to ask myself why my family isn't more self-sufficient. I have a yard, enough land to grow vegetables, and there's no zoning in my neighborhood against raising chickens. Why don't I raise my own carrots and tomatoes? I could even have a stand of corn. And, if I'm willing to eat meat, shouldn't I also be willing to kill my own?
Thus far, I've rationalized my decision to buy every morsel I consume with this PC mantra: “I'm a busy working mom; I buy local; I recycle; I eat organic foods where it makes sense; I try not to eat much red meat;” etc. Hey, what more could any green-thinking progressive do?
I could raise my own food, that's what. I've been like Rip Van Winkle, sleepwalking my way through life. Yes, I drive a Honda with 155,600 miles on it and try to cook everything we eat instead of relying on packaged foods, but I'm newly awake and aware that I've become a lazy domestic animal accustomed to choosing from 514 brands of cereal on the grocery store shelves.
We've become a country where most of us take it for granted that food arrives on the table, as long as we can make the money to buy it. But making that money leads to lifestyles so far removed from the land that we never think about how much effort and energy it takes to produce what we eat.
This month, my husband and I made an offer on a small fixer-upper farmhouse with an acre of land and two barns on Prince Edward Island, Canada. We made the offer on a whim after seeing the house from the road and peering in its windows. The house has been abandoned for years; we're going up for a home inspection on Columbus Day weekend to see if the house will stand up until we can funnel the time and energy into it to make it a year-round home again.
PEI is a place where everything is about the weather, since the bulk of the Island's revenue comes from tourism and farming. Behind our house is a sheep farm, and across the street and on either side, the farmers raise wheat and potatoes.
Prince Edward Island is famous for its potatoes; the island produces over 20,000 pounds of potatoes each year, and over one-half of the island's total farm receipts came from potatoes alone in 2006 ( The island even has a potato museum
What could we grow on the island? Potatoes, surely. I'm guessing that an acre of land would be plenty for carrots and broccoli, tomatoes and chickens, fruit trees and whatever else we needed to sustain our own family, too.
My mother says this is crazy talk. She's thrilled to pay someone else to grow her food. She and my father lived through the depression; Mom's dad raised rabbits and chickens to get them through, and even when her parents came to live with us on the gerbil farm (, Grandfather insisted on having a half-acre vegetable garden, geese, sheep, and a flock of chickens. He and my grandmother froze, preserved, or canned everything we didn't eat over the summer and fall. He even made his own dandelion and apple wines.
“You never know when the world is going to end,” Grandfather joked, but of course to him it wasn't a joke.
It isn't a joke to us any more, either. The economists say that the recession ended a year ago. Ha! I don't know about you, but I must have slept through that, too. After walking the dogs and scaring the turkeys, I hopped in my car to drive to the gym. There was a bankruptcy notice on the gym door. A house down the road from us just went into foreclosure, and three other businesses in town have shuttered their doors. Several of my friends have been out of work for months. This is only small potatoes, so to speak, compared to what the midwest has faced; I drove through Ohio and Michigan last summer to visit my husband's family, and nearly every small town we drove through was a ghost town.
Yeah, I know I'm late, jumping on the self-sustainability bandwagon. I had college friends who were determined to go organic, get back to the land, dumpster dive, whatever. I made total fun of them. But now I think it's time for us to imagine a different life for ourselves.
What if? What if we could be more independent? What if we found a bolthole – Prince Edward Island, in our case – and figured out how to put food on the table ourselves? If Novella Carpenter can do it in Oakland, surely I can do it in rural Canada. I just need to quit being like those indecisive turkeys gobbling in the middle of the road.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Survivor's Guide to Watching The American

I'm no girly girl when it comes to movies. I like action – Broken Arrow still ranks as one of my all-time favorite movies – and nothing saves a rainy day like Austin Powers. So I went with great expectations to see George Clooney in The American. I love seeing Mr. Clooney, shirtless and spaniel-eyed, acting his heart out with those minimalist jaw twitches that pass for deep angst. Having just gobbled down The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo, I was eager to view Clooney tromping around a snowy Swedish landscape. I was also looking forward to the Italian setting without having to suffer through Julia Roberts eating her heart out in Eat, Pray, Love to reach a size 6 on a fat day.
However, I'm sorry to report that I drifted into sleep mode halfway through The American. I had to let my mind roam to get my money's worth and make it to the end. Here are some of the questions that kept me awake that night:

Why do Swedish assassins look like Saturday Night Live comics?
Where did all of the people in that cute Italian hilltop town go while Clooney endlessly wandered their curvy stone streets?
Is it really a rule that hookers don't kiss their clients on the mouth? Also, if a john gives a hooker oral sex, as Clooney's character Jack apparently does with the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), is the hooker then so grateful that she kisses him anyway? Most women I know would rather kiss on the mouth before oral sex.
In the scene where they swim by the river, was Clara's thong arranged deliberately to ride up one beautiful butt cheek? Or does she have the same problem with thongs that most women do, which is why we're always backing into corners to pluck them free?
Just how did Jack make that gun out of car parts? There are endless scenes of him machining parts that could rival CSI: Miami's porno lab sequences, but there are some steps missing here. Like, a hundred. It looked to me like he bought a perfectly serviceable gun to begin with. And is it really that profitable to handcraft a gun and sell it on the black market?
Do they sell that wash-and-wear color that lets ace sniper Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) change her hair color every day? There could be a big profit in that. Maybe more than in guns.
Obviously, director Anton Corbijn is paying homage to the Spaghetti Western here – a movie typically made by Italians, starring Italian actors and one American, as in Clint Eastwood movies. There's even a meta movie moment here, where a Spaghetti Western is playing on the little TV in the bar where Clooney takes his lonely self every night. But why remake them at all?
Couldn't Corbijn have come up with a friskier music score? The relentless drilling of the dirge-like background music here made my teeth ache.
Clooney is cast as a sensitive, regretful assassin. You know, good at his job, but guilty about his sins, yadda yadda. In case we don't get that on our own, we have the wise priest in this movie (Paolo Bonacelli, who has the world's most photogenic face) tell us this in a series of cliches. If we're still too thick to understand that Jack is a real human, not a cartoon, he has a butterfly tattoo and reads butterfly books! He even knows which species are endangered! And – spoiler alert – in his final tragic scene, as the hooker with the heart of gold and the pink thong gets Jack's gobs of cash, we get to see one of those little endangered fellas fly away. What are we to conclude from this? That movies like this are endangered?
Maybe there's a happy ending to The American after all.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do College Costs + Retirement = Canada?

“So how long do you plan to keep working?” asked a friend recently, after he'd waxed poetic about his own crafty retirement plan (take his pension at 65, sell his Massachusetts house and move to Florida, play tennis year-round, live happily ever after).
“Um. Forever?” I suggested. “I plan to die at my keyboard.”
I wasn't joking. Between the economic free fall and putting kids through college, my husband and I will be working for the rest of our lives.
That's why we made an offer on a house in Canada yesterday.
Why Canada? I've loved Prince Edward Island, Canada, ever since I started vacationing there some fifteen years ago. The island is gorgeous (see photos at, laid back, friendly, green-minded, and there's fiddle music everywhere you go. It felt like home the first moment I hiked the red dirt roads between flowering potato fields.
“Yes, that's fine, but what about the winter?” various friends countered, so I tried traveling to PEI then, too, and found other things to love, like the ice fishing shacks stacked like bright Legos along Malpeque Bay and the snow tornadoes rising like long-skirted fairies in the fields.
But I digress. We made an offer on a house located in the remote eastern corner of PEI because there's no way that my husband and I can afford to retire here in the U.S. We haven't seen the inside of the house – there was no realtor around, and we had to leave the next day – but we peered into the windows from the rotted deck, and we'd seen the listing sheet online. We know that this farmhouse supposedly has five bedrooms and two bathrooms.
We also know that the house is being sold “as is.” That's a little scary, because Canadian realtors tend to be honest to a fault. When I surf with these simple criteria: “Prince Edward Island, $25,000 to $75,000 price range, two bedrooms or more,” I regularly read descriptions like these: “This house has been neglected. Needs a strong arm.” Or, “Small country home that has been left vacant for a few years. Needs a real clean up. The property has no source of heat. Had a wood stove and previous owner took it.”
With this particular house, the phrase that struck me was this one: “Being sold with furnishings and other items too numerous to mention.” What happened to the owner, I wondered, that he would flee or fade away without emptying his house?
Finally, I called our realtor, Anne. She's a trim, no-nonsense woman who used to make her living fishing for lobster; last summer, she showed me a few houses while wearing knee-high green rubber boots. “I don't know where the old fella went that lived there,” she said, “but I can call his nephew down the road and find out more if you're interested.”
That's how the island works: if you know one person, you know six, without any degrees of separation. When Anne called back, though, she couldn't tell me much. Apparently this was an estate sale, someone's children selling it for someone who had died. The “old fella,” presumably.
“What about the septic system?” I asked.
“Doubt anybody knows much about that,” Anne said.
“How do I know if I'd have to replace it?”
“Guess you'd have to just dig it up,” she said. “But I wouldn't recommend it. You might want to leave it be.”
“You mean we'd just buy the house, and hope for the best?” I asked.
“That's about the size of things,” she said. “If it fails, you'd know it.”
This did not sound promising. On the other hand, if the old fella hadn't been using the septic system in a while, everything probably had time to drain.
So we made the offer, and now we're waiting to see if it was accepted. We'll find out this Friday. Meanwhile, I'm biting my nails.
Despite the fact that we love PEI – and this house, in particular, with its charming century-old architecture, peaceful farmland views, and proximity to our favorite beach – I know that this plan is more whimsical than logical. For starters, we have no money. Like so many people, we were nearly flattened by the economic downturn. My husband was laid off twice and two of the start-up companies he joined went under. We struggled to stay afloat as our oldest child started college and we paid health care costs out of pocket for one year, then a second. We finally decided to sell our house and buy a smaller one.
That's when the real estate market crashed. Our first buyer pulled a runner after we'd gotten locked into buying that smaller house, so we ended up with a bridge loan for a year, until we found another buyer. Goodbye, savings. Hello, credit cards.
With no spare cash under our mattress, we'll now have to dip into our retirement funds to finance the purchase of this house. Yet another bad idea: Why take a 10 percent hit, rather than wait until we're old enough to pull the money out without having to pay taxes on it?
Our only arguments in favor of doing so are admittedly weak: our retirement funds are stagnating with the limp stock market, making us think real estate can't be worse, and the PEI house we want to buy is one that we can easily imagine loving full-time. Plus, it's for sale right now at an asking price that's half of its assessed value.
“Prince Edward Island is too far away,” another friend complains. “Why can't you find a retirement spot closer to home?”
Where could we go? Ohio? Pennsylvania? Tennessee? Even those states are more expensive. We're not alone in thinking that Canada is the answer. Far from it: the number of U.S. citizens choosing to live in Canada hit a 30-year high recently (
The last time Canada saw such an enormous influx of U.S. citizens was during the political turmoil of the Vietnam war. Now, many are choosing Canada both for economic and political reasons. Our own reasons are simple: we love Canada, and the cost of living in the U.S. has killed us. Once our kids are grown, we imagine eventually selling this house in New England, which is about the same size as the one on PEI but worth ten times more. We'll have red dirt roads and fiddle music, potato fields and freshly steamed mussels to keep us happy. We'll still be working until we drop to pay back our debts. But we can freelance remotely for the same U.S. companies from Canada – my husband as a software engineer, me as a writer – while we make goat cheese, have a few hens of our own, and grow our own vegetables, all without a crippling mortgage and punishing health care costs.
It's a crazy dream. But it's less of a fiscal nightmare than what we've experienced here.
Or am I missing something? Should we back out of this house deal now, while there's still time to be sensible?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Is the Grass Greener in Canada?

I was vacationing in Prince Edward Island, Canada this summer when I came across this article in The Globe and Mail: “The World Would Love to Be Canadian” ( The writer, Joe Friesen, cites this startling statistic: “Given the choice, 53 percent of adults in the world's 24 leading economies said they would immigrate to Canada.”
I'm teetering on the edge of joining them.
This isn't a whimsical decision on my part. It's been brewing since 1974, when my father took our family on our one and only camping trip. He rented an RV and we headed north from Massachusetts to Prince Edward Island, which he described as “a peaceful emerald isle of enchantment, where the sands are red and the waters sparkle silver.” Dad had never read Anne of Green Gables (, but he made PEI sound tantalizing, like the Land of Oz without the Wicked Witch and her horrible flying monkeys.
Sadly, my mother did not take to camping. “Just more chores for me!” she declared, and forced us to turn around in Maine after driving a grand total of four hours. My parents were divorced soon after that.
Fast forward to my own divorce. When my first husband and I split up, I had two young children; I was dead set on giving them a family vacation, man or no man. Affording a beach vacation in New England was impossible on my single-parent salary, so I convinced a friend and her kids to join us on a week-long trip to Prince Edward Island after spotting an ad for a cottage there that rented for just $400 a week.
We drove twelve hours north from Massachusetts with our kids making more noise in that van than most rock concerts. Between the various stops to pee and feed them all, it was midnight by the time we reached the island. (In those days, the only way to get to PEI was the ferry.) The cottage was on a rutted red dirt road (still plenty of those up there, for all of you Anne of Green Gables fans). I was shaking with fatigue by the time we arrived. It was pitch black all around us, but the sky was a bowl of stars and we could smell the sea.
We woke the next morning to the sound of fiddle music. I sat up and looked out my window at Rustico Bay, where great blue herons dotted the shore. Tall purple and pink lupins waved like some Disney cartoon animation; I half expected the flowers to sing. Across the bay was a tall white church, and that's where the fiddle music was coming from: a festival that we attended that very afternoon. I was hooked on PEI from that moment on.
I've gone back to Prince Edward Island every summer for the past 14 years, and sometimes in the fall or even winter, when the snow blows across the potato fields and the roads disappear out from under you. There is never a time when I don't love it.
Yes, there are certainly moments while driving up Route 95 through Maine (where the State motto should be “Maine, the Infinite State”) when I think, “This is so not worth it.” Even in New Brunswick, where I've come to love the Bay of Fundy's rocky shoreline and the long stretches of farmland with their big brown loaves of hay and spotted cows, I sometimes think, “Why can't I find a closer place to love?” Then I cross the Confederation Bridge from the mainland to Prince Edward Island and fall in love with the place all over again. The colors seem brighter and the air is clearer here than anywhere else on earth.
The Globe and Mail article reports that more than three-quarters of those surveyed in China said they'd prefer to live in Canada, followed by Mexico and India at nearly 70 percent. Most respondents perceived Canada as a place where rights and freedoms are respected on a deeper level than anywhere else.
Is this true? By now, I've explored most parts of Canada, including many of its cities, from Vancouver to Ottawa, from Montreal to St. John. There is urban blight, as there is in the U.S., and visible evidence of unemployment – the Canadian unemployment rate is just over 8 percent overall. Certainly Canada isn't free of crime or substance abuse. The last time I was in St. John with my mother, one drunken spacey fellow stepped onto the escalator behind Mom and rested his chin on her shoulder, passing out for a second until she barked at him to back off.
Yet, wherever I've been in Canada, there is an overall feeling of goodwill from most people – my husband calls most Canadians “pathologically friendly” because of their willingness to chat you up – and generosity abounds. Most recently, I was staying at a friend's house on PEI when another friend brought her bike over for my husband to pump up the tire. Within minutes, we were joined by two other neighbors, both asking if we needed help. They stayed for an hour.
Three years ago, my brother and I went in on a small summer cottage on PEI. It's a typical cottage, mostly porch, overlooking Malpeque Bay. I bought it online, sight unseen, and we've camped out in it happily every summer, renting out empty weeks to help sustain the costs of having an extra house. This summer, I spotted the perfect year-round house for sale in the more remote eastern part of the island, near our favorite beach. Now we're trying to decide whether to buy that one as well. This sounds luxurious, even decadent, this idea of having second homes – but neither costs more than most new cars here.
If we bought the farmhouse, I imagine one day retiring there with my second husband, or living there half of every year after the last of our five kids is off to college. I dream of raising alpacas and selling the wool; my husband is arguing on behalf of goats and cheese-making. Both are pipe dreams at this point. Sensibly, we'd probably do better just doing what we do now: writing and software engineering. But it's the simplicity of having a ramshackle farmhouse on Prince Edward Island that lures us – and the good neighbors I know we'd find there.
Should we, or shouldn't we, go for this dream? Am I fooling myself about Canada because the news headlines here are so awful (think war, oil spills, harsh immigration legislation)? Is it a purely escapist impulse, the kind we all have when fantasizing about living in our favorite vacation spots, that makes me want to flee north of the border? Or is Canada really a better place to live?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Author Photo: Where's My Body Double When I Need Her?

Occasionally, I'm lucky enough to be invited to visit with book club members who have chosen my memoir as their monthly selection. I make a point of joining any book club within half a day's drive, because the members inevitably have such sharp observations that I always come away with something new to think about.
Last night was no exception. In fact, I was stubbing my toe on sharp observations before I'd even made it through the front door.
“You're the author?” asked a woman in obvious disbelief as I headed up the sidewalk and greeted several people gathered on the porch.
“I am,” I said, waving my book as proof. “It's an honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me.”
This woman continued to stare at me as I climbed up the steps. She wasn't hostile, exactly, but she was looking at me in a way that made me glance down quickly to be sure that I'd remembered the essentials: my purse, my notes, my pants.
While we waited for the hostess to answer the doorbell, this woman and I stood eye-to-eye while the other book club members shifted their feet around us like nervous ponies ready to bolt. “Were you expecting another author tonight instead?” I asked after a few moments.
My challenger shook her head vehemently. “Oh, no. We read your book for tonight. I just expected you to be...” and here she deliberately paused to look at the author photo on the back of the book. “Taller,” she finished.
“And younger?” I suggested.
“Well,” she said, and then the hostess opened the door.
Saved, I thought, but no. This woman wasn't done with me yet.
“When did you have this picture taken?” she demanded.
“Not soon enough,” I said. “I probably should have gotten it taken ten years ago, at least.”
With that, thankfully, everyone laughed and we moved into the house, where things proceeded more normally.
Still, her remarks stung. I had struggled, like all writers do, with finding the “right” look for my author photo. Unless you're Stephen King or Jodi Picoult, the publisher doesn't send you out on tour or pay for your book jacket photo. Most authors are left to sink or swim on our own dimes. Some of us ask our husbands and friends to take our pictures, while others bravely go out and risk paying for a professional photographer, hoping this might make a difference in sales.
How much does an author photo really count when it comes to selling the book? I have no idea. I only knew that I didn't want to end up with an author photo like any of the ones that Catherine Lacey gathered for her recent blog , all of which I'd seen while snooping at my local library to consider the photographic possibilities.
The thing is, how many possibilities are there for an author's photo? You can do black-and-white (artsy and classic) or color (fun and contemporary). Beyond that, your decisions are still limited: head on hand or arms folded? Smiling or not serious? Leaning or not leaning? And, if you are leaning, do you lean on a tree or a barn or a fence? That's about it. Oh, unless you want to add a pet (a dog if you're a mystery writer, a cat if you're a romance writer, a camel if you're a travel writer).
Not a lot to choose from, right? Plus, for writers like me, with a mortgage and kids in college, funds are sorely limited. I knew that I'd be lucky to afford a passport photo at my local post office. (Yes, I considered it.)
Then I had another creative brainstorm: What if I just hired my daughter as a body double? She's 21, blonde, blue-eyed and gorgeous. It wouldn't matter what kind of photo or pose she took, because my daughter is in that flawless bloom of young womanhood where she could be wearing a paintball mask and still look good.
Books might not sell better with a gorgeous author, but it couldn't hurt. I wished that I had the sort of look that can sell a book, like the young and lovely Vindala Vida, author of The Lovers, or exotic Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Unaccustomed Earth. Hotties have an easier time marketing just about anything in our society, from detergent to shoes – unless you go in the other direction and market a product with someone noticeably dorky, like that little troll of a guy who has built his empire out of playing the downtrodden Windows PC guy on those Mac commercials.
If I used a body double, though, I'd have to send her to my book signings and media appearances. What would I do if I ever ended up on The Today Show or Jon Stewart? I couldn't disappoint Jon Stewart! He's the conscience of our country!
On the other hand, there was some merit in this idea: If I had a body double, I'd get a lot more writing done. And my daughter loves to travel.
In the end, though, I let go of the body double idea. Here's the real truth: I wanted to be on my own book jacket. After all, my book and I had traveled this far together. How could I abandon my memoir now?
In the end, I hired a neighbor – an art student who is building a photography business from the ground up and was therefore in my price range. Mariah lives across the street and came over one evening to photograph me in the back yard. The process was painless mainly because she was so chatty and relaxed.
Mariah had experience photographing weddings and children, so she had no trouble moving me around various props: an old Adirondack chair, the back garden, the porch. She used a digital camera and was familiar with the many tricks used to massage portraits to perfection. I made her promise not to flatter me too much; on the other hand, I told her that it was fine to make me “look just a little better.”
She did a terrific job. In these photographs, I look older than my daughter, but younger than I am – which was apparently what threw off this particular book club member.
What I love most about my author photo is that there are all kinds of clues to my life: I'm wearing the silver earrings that my daughter and I bought together on a trip to Mexico, as well as the bright woven shawl that my stepdaughter brought me from France. There's a birdhouse in the background that one of my neighbors made me. My dog is there, too, though you can't see him because of the way the pictures are cropped: a white Pekingese that joined our family because I was so sad when my son went away to college.
The author photo does exactly what I wanted it to do: It is a portrait of me, welcoming readers into my life.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sniffing and Sobbing My Way through So You Think You Can Dance

Okay, I admit it: I cried when So You Think You Can Dance judge Nigel Lithgow announced that contestant Alex Wong was going to have to leave the show due to an injury.
I'm sure I was in good company. Like most viewers, I replayed the stunning hip hop routine Alex did with Twitch at least half a dozen times. Wow. Besides, there isn't another reality show on television that provides so many sobfests. Whether it's in homage to a fluid contemporary dance routine or in solidarity with a gushing contestant, I can count on judge Adam Shankman (who I want to be my very own BFF) to get the waterworks going. In fact, I imagine people in living rooms around the country grabbing for tissues as soon as Adam tears up.
Like Adam, I've always been a weep-aholic. I used to lie under the coffee table during certain TV shows because my brother always teased me if I cried. I'd try to hide the sniffles, but my dad would always catch me sliding away and yell, “Holly's leaving us now!” as I belly-snaked along the floor to my Cave of Sorrow beneath the coffee table.
Now that I'm adult, and a mother besides, I cry even more easily: over the newspaper's headlines of doom, during NPR's even gloomier reports, whenever friends admit scary medical problems or divorces, during certain songs on the radio. Now it's my children who throw me under the bus, rolling their eyes at each other and saying, “Mom's crying again!” as I'm trying to choke down a sob in their dry-eyed company. I couldn't even sit through ten minutes of Up without grabbing for the hankies, and I'm afraid to see Toy Story 3 because I know that seeing Andy leave for college will really push me over the edge.
Which brings me back to So You Think You Can Dance. I'm a newbie to reality TV shows. I started watching this show last year, and like any other creeping addiction, this one had me by the throat before I noticed the needle in my arm. I followed it right to the end, rooting for Jakob and Catherine without knowing anything about how, or why, they were better dancers than the others.
I don't feel the least bit guilty for watching. Unlike most reality TV shows, this one is actually instructive. I had dance lessons as a child, but quit (like many) because it was hard work and people kept trying to tell me what to do. Later, I signed up for a jazz dance class in high school – friends talked me into it – and all I remember from that was this monotonous series of steps to Van Morrison's “It's a Marvelous Night for a Moonbeam,” a song I still can't hear without side-stepping and lifting my arms.
Watching So You Think You Can Dance, I've learned about fluidity and toe pointing, partnering and extensions, different dance styles, why the Quickstep is the Kiss of Death, and the importance of conveying character through dance – sometimes by making your gestures “small” instead of large and overwrought, as Adam taught contestant Kent Boyd, the sweet jug-eared boy from Ohio, last week. (Was that kiss between him and Lauren for real? Sure looked like it to me. You're a long way from Wapakoneta, Kent.) I have even started attending live dance performances in my area because of the show.
I wish I could dance. Instead, I can only marvel: How do these incredible athletes perform such feats of strength – while pretending to be dolls trapped in boxes, hunters and jaguars, Ninja assassins or lovers at a prom? And how do they make me cry almost every time?
I'm going to sit right here with my box of tissues until I figure it out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

From One Book Cover to Another: Saying Goodbye to My Gerbils

The paperback of my memoir was released recently, but I barely recognize my own book with the new cover. It hurts my heart to say goodbye to the gerbils on the hardcover edition of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. But what else can I do?
In the publishing world, a lot of money and talent is poured into creating the perfect image and identity for every book. You can't always judge a book by its cover, but a cover definitely helps sell the book.
On the grand totem pole of decision making, the author is usually among the last to see a book's cover – after the designers, editors, marketing and sales teams, and publicist. Last year, when the editor of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter emailed me the cover design for the first time, I was as sweaty-palmed as a girl on her first date. I had reason to be nervous: Since my brother and I were both models for my father's pet books about gerbils, I'd sent the publisher plenty of embarrassing photos to choose from, like that portrait of me at age 12, looking cross-eyed at two gerbil butts while I demonstrate how easy it is to tell males from females.
When I finally took a deep breath and clicked on the editor's attachment, up popped an image that made me laugh out loud: Two gerbils – one brown, one spotted – peeping out of a pair of kiwi-green rubber boots with red trim. It was perfect. I'd even had rubber boots like that when I was a child. What better way to portray the comic story of an eccentric Navy man who became obsessed enough with gerbils to raise nearly 9,000 of them, with his entire family along for the adventure?
The book was launched in May 2009. For the past year, those gerbils have accompanied me to teach classes and do readings, sign books and serve as a pet judge at The American Gerbil Show. Fans seemed to love the cover. One woman put it this way: “That cover just says 'pick me up and read me!'” The book cover was on my web site, and I carried roll-up posters with my gerbils and rubber boots to various events. For a while I even contemplated buying a pair of adult-sized green rubber boots.
Then, as the publisher was getting the paperback ready, I got this startling news: they were creating a new cover. “No more gerbils,” my editor said.
When I asked why, she explained the decision this way: “We'd like your book to reach a wider audience.” She hesitated, then added delicately, “You know, some women just don't like rodents.”
I do know that. My own mother, despite being married to a gerbil farmer, never did develop any fondness for them at all. So what if gerbils put food on our table? “They have tails like rats,” Mom always said. “Ew.”
So, once again, I waited anxiously as the publisher tested different designs with focus groups. I saw two of them – both black-and-white photos of young girls with their backs to the camera, one in a white slip and the other in a bikini – and had mixed feelings. I know that flesh sells. It's also true that black-and-white photos somehow carry more artistic heft. These potential book covers for the paperback of my own memoir were both lovely, moody images in the category of some of my favorite memoirs, like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or The Liars' Club by Mary Karr.
On the other hand, they weren't very cheerful pictures, and my own childhood, though decidedly bizarre, was a lot less tragic than theirs. Should my book go out into the world – to beaches and airports, subways and living rooms – with a moody black-and-white photo? I didn't really think so.
At last, my editor sent me the final design for the paperback of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. I was so nervous that I made my husband stand beside me while I clicked on the attachment.
Once again, I had to laugh. Because apparently those at the top of the publishing totem pole had come to much the same conclusion that I had: Instead of a black-and-white photo of an adolescent girl poised for something to happen to her, the new cover has a little girl in a polka-dotted play suit running up a hill toward some flowering trees, pigtails flying. She isn't waiting for something to happen to her. She is, instead, gleefully running toward her next adventure.
Admittedly, it's a bit odd, as the author of a memoir, to see my book flashing a photograph of someone who definitely isn't me. I can't help but remember the covers of those other memoirs I've read and loved that have color photographs, like the chubby baby on A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and wonder now if those are the author's own photos.
In the end, I suppose what really matters is that the new cover of The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter exudes the energy and joy of a quirky, free-roaming childhood. The design captures the essence of the book, if not the literal subject matter. That little girl and I will become fast friends as we carry my book out into the world together.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Now that School is Out, What Did They Really Learn?

“So what do they teach at that new school, anyway?” my friend Donna asked recently. “Does Aidan still learn math and science? Will he be ready for high school?”
School has been out for a week now, and the kids have moved on to whatever they're doing this summer, notebooks and backpacks happily abandoned in whatever closet they'll live in until we dust them off in September. So Donna's question took me by surprise.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Of course he learned math.”
“I thought it was an alternative school,” she pressed. “What kind of education is it?”
Last fall, my son Aidan started seventh grade at the public junior high school. It was a disaster; my son hated it so much that I had to crowbar him out of the house.
What didn't he like?
Everything. Mostly, Aidan was bored. In his view: There were too many classes. The homework was stupid. The bus ride was too long.
“What a complainer,” my mother sniffed. “Just make him get up and go. Everyone goes to school. You did.”
I did, it was true. And I hated school too. Especially junior high. I was bored. In my view: There were too many classes. The homework was stupid. The bus ride was too long.
Our four older children went to the public high school and did well. All got into good colleges. This caboose of a child is a different story. Aidan isn't the type to sit still when bored. No, he's the kind of kid who, when he wants excitement, will make his own, like the day he got busted in elementary school for running a casino at his desk. His favorite times in seventh grade were when he got sent to the principal's office.
“At least then I'm not sitting in some boring class,” he said.
I had to do something before trouble became Aidan's favorite pastime. I met with his teachers, who just said he had to learn to sit still and control his impulsive behavior. They whispered about ADHD.
I already knew that Aidan had attention and organization problems. I also knew that, under certain circumstances, he could focus better than anyone.
After visiting several private schools in our area, I stumbled across a small Montessori school. Amazingly, they had an opening mid-fall in their seventh grade. Even more amazingly, when I described Aidan's progress, or lack of it, they were up to the challenge.
I knew nothing about Montessori. But I was at the end of my rope: Aidan had to go somewhere that wasn't the school he was in, and nobody else had any openings. I took a deep breath and made the switch.
For a long time, I worried, as Donna did, that Aidan might be missing out by not being in the public school. I quizzed my friends whose children were in seventh grade about what their kids were doing in math, social studies, English, and science to see if I could pinpoint anything that Aidan was missing. I worried, too, that by “letting” him act out in school instead of making him “sit up and fly right,” as my father would have put it, I might be doing Aidan a disservice. We all have to go to school, learn how to get along with others, and put up with supervisors who bore us. Was I spoiling Aidan by pulling him out of the public school? Would he emerge uneducated and unprepared for the so-called “real world?” because he was now going to a crazy school where the kids call the teachers by their first names, wear slippers to class, and can eat snack whenever they want?
Fast forward six months. It is nearly summer, and for their culminating event, Aidan and his classmates at the Montessori School are performing Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. On a real stage, with real costumes and lights. I'm sitting in the audience, and there is Aidan on stage as Lysander, holding hands with Hermia. Aidan is wearing a tunic and tights. He is saying his lines. He is not the best actor on stage, but he's into it, waving his hands around and managing to lie still with his eyes closed while Puck dances wildly around his head.
If you had asked me what I wanted Aidan to learn during his first year of middle school, I would have said math, science, social studies, and maybe how to write a book review. I would never have predicted that Aidan would create, as he did at this school, a model of a half-size camel, which he presented while spouting facts about the desert biome. I never would have predicted how much Aidan loved volunteering with senior citizens, as his middle school does once each week. And I certainly never could have imagined the stories I heard about how, during the middle school field trip backpacking in the White Mountains, Aidan stood up as the moon was rising and started reciting lines from Midsummer Night's Dream.
Did my son learn math at his new school, Donna? Oh yes. He studied language arts and geography, current events and science, too.
But what Aidan really learned was much more important than any of that: His new Montessori school gave Aidan the confidence to be creative and joyful, to ask questions and seek the answers himself. As his teacher wrote in her final progress report, Aidan “embraced learning to understand, rather than studying to get a specific grade on a test.”
And that, to me, is a real education.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Writer's First Year: Seven Ways to Be Your Own Web Butler

I first discovered that the Internet is a magical land when my DVR cut off a recording of American Idol before I found out who got kicked off. I raced to my computer, typed in, “Who lost on AI?” Within seconds, I had the answer.
That's what convinced me that maybe there really is something to this Internet marketing thing for books.
I didn't want to believe this. I'm a writer, which is the opposite of being a marketer. We writers like to sit around alone in our flannel pajamas and slippers, not answering our cell phones and blissfully swilling tea. Marketers dress up and go out into the world, or pull the world toward them by using just the right spin on the phone or online.
When I published my first book last year, I got my very own marketing person courtesy of my publisher. My marketer is beautiful in the intimidating way of a TV news anchor still young enough to be on prime time: ethereal, tall, slim, and naturally blonde. She wears the kind of shoes I always thought were especially manufactured for episodes of Sex and the City.
In fact, in my own mind, that's what I named my new marketing person: Sex and the City. I was, after all, no longer alone in my barn, but encapsulated with my marketer in a 13th floor office of Random House in New York City.
Sex and the City informed me that she would work closely with my publicist. Then she started speaking in a foreign tongue that almost sounded like English, except that it was peppered with scary indecipherable phrases like “create a buzz,” “blog tour,” “domain names” and “before your launch.”
When Sex and the City discovered that I neither blogged nor commented on other people's blogs, she instructed me to start. Now. As in, yesterday.
I was paralyzed with fear. I still used my laptop like a glorified typewriter and encyclopedia: I liked to write on it, and when I needed to know something, I Googled it.
Now I was expected to take action online. I didn't have a web site, I'd never bought a domain name, and I had no idea how to use Facebook, despite the fact that it's been around so long that most of my friends have moved on to tweeting. I didn't want to do this. I wanted a Web Butler who could open doors for me and introduce me to strangers. Preferably one like the butler Batman had in the first movie.
Little by little, though, I tiptoed deeper online and conquered my fear. Along the way, I made some key discoveries about marketing books online:

1. Domain names are easy to buy and cost a lot less than shoes. I went to GoDaddy and had no trouble navigating the site, at least while my husband held my hand and told me when to click the mouse. (I ran into a slight difficulty because that greedy actress, Holly Robinson Peete, bought up all of my domain names. Then I realized that, as long as I bought something with my name contained within it, it would still come up just fine on Google.)

2. Web sites are like second homes. Once you own a domain name, you can put your web site on it. Within that, you can showcase anything you like: links to your articles and books, favorite web sites, pictures of your pets, your biography and blogs. I think of my web site as my other house. A house where it's very cheap and easy to add fresh linens, hang more pictures, or even add a hot tub.

3. Blogging is like writing in a journal. Blog posts don't have to be long, involved, sublimely crafted essays. They can just be short and informative. Blog posts can be a great way to meet other people who share similar interests; I now think of blogging as my virtual water cooler time.

4. Blogging is the opposite of writing in a journal. Writing in a journal is a very private act. Blogging is about as public as you can get, so be prepared for criticism. The first time I put up a blog post on The Huffington Post, for instance, I wrote about the American Idol showdown between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert last season. Who knew that so many people thought Mr. Vanilla Kris Allen shoulda won? Ouch.

5. Using other people's web sites and blogs is a great way to promote your book. If you have a book about motorcycles, or one that features a tattoo artist as the main protagonist, seek out web sites about those topics and see if they'll take a press release. Or search for blogs related to whatever you're writing about and comment on them. You can also do a blog tour.

6. The more time you spend online, the greater your visibility. This is a good thing if you're launching a book. Your goal is to get your name and your book title out there enough times so that the web crawlers will bring it up immediately for anyone who types in something related to you or your book topic.

7. The more time you spend online, the less time you have to actually write. Yes, I still wish that I had a Web Butler. The thing about putting time in online is that it can become, if not an addiction, a source of anxiety of the meltdown variety. If you blog, you get comments and feel compelled to respond. If you see a new book club web site, you can do a bio and a guest column for them! There's your Amazon author profile, your Goodreads fans, and those photos you meant to upload, oh my! Pretty soon you're lost in the forest and the Internet witch is threatening to throw apples at you and steal your little dog, too. Here's the thing: marketing online is a great way to publicize the book you've already written, but it's a lousy way to keep working on your new projects. After the first manic social sessions at this giant virtual water cooler, it's time for every good writer to return to doing what she does best: making sentences, one word at a time.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Can Any Woman Really Have It All?

Every so often, I read something that makes me take a deep breath and reconsider my life choices, like “Judging Women” in the latest New York Times Magazine
In that piece, writer Lisa Belkin points out that, if Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time – and two will be single and childless.
Many people are ranting about this being a bad decision on the part of the Obama administration, their rationale being that we need a mother on the Supreme Court to truly represent our population. That's an interesting argument, but not the one that stopped me.
No, the bits and bobs that jumped out at me in this piece were the statistics gathered from author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose studies show that half of all high-achieving career women (those making at least $100,000) reach that age without having children.
Can a woman really have it all, as in marriage (or a lifelong partner), children, and a “high-achieving” career? That's what I've been thinking about today. You see, I have two college-age daughters, both of whom are driven academically, but also prone to falling in love. Oh, and they both adore kids.
What do I tell them about a woman's choices?
I came of age on the skirts of the women's liberation movement. My mother stayed home with us despite her college degree; in her day, a diploma was simply better bait for a better brand of husband. Nonetheless, my parents expected me to 1) get that college diploma, 2) marry, 3) have a career, and 4) give them grandchildren. All of which I've done, yet none of it turned out quite the way I thought it would.
I had already earned a master's degree and was working as a public relations director for a California school district when I met my first husband and got pregnant. It was a big job with big hours, yet I fully anticipated rushing back to the office after my 12-week maternity leave. I loved my job. I loved making money. Plus, what in the world would I do if I stayed home all day? Didn't babies sleep all of the time?
Ha. Within two months of becoming a mother, I recognized two truths: 1) Because my husband was in sales and traveled three weeks out of four, there was no way both of us could be gone all day, every day, without going broke on day care; and 2) I couldn't bear the thought of leaving this 8-pound person in the hands of anyone else. At least not yet.
After discussing our dilemma for weeks, we made what seemed like a rational decision: My husband earned three times as much money as I did, so he would continue working. I'd stay home for a year, maybe two, then get another full-time job.
We both breathed a sigh of relief as we fell into the roles we knew so well from our childhoods, since both of us had come from families with stay-at-home moms and fathers who traveled for business. In the meantime, I started working as a freelance writer, thinking I'd try to get a job in publishing. As a writer or editor, I reasoned, I could have more control over my work hours than I'd ever had in public relations. That would be a more compatible schedule with mothering. I was adjusting my sights, but still career-bound.
Again, fate bitch-slapped me with an unexpected wake-up call. My husband was promoted and traveled even more just as I got pregnant with our second child. Now day care costs would be even more astronomical. We decided that I should keep working part-time until the kids were in kindergarten.
Fast forward eighteen years. Husband #1 and I are divorced (but still friends). I have, for the most part, continued to raise our children while he has traveled. He rose through the ranks of his company to become a Really Big Cheese. Meanwhile, I kept freelancing. I took more jobs as the kids got older, but I was still the one on call for snow days and sick days, school vacations and summer, juggling what needs to be juggled by mothers everywhere.
I put motherhood before my career. That was my choice. Little did I know that, just by having a baby, I was jeopardizing my career and putting myself at risk for poverty, as so many studies around the world show (,

I am not complaining. I consider myself one of the luckier divorced mothers: I am now remarried and my second husband and I are happy. I love being a writer. But, damned if I didn't do it all over again and have another child with Husband #2.
Between us, my second husband and I have five children – two of his, two of mine, one of ours. He has a steady job as a software engineer. I have continued working as a freelance writer rather than go into another demanding public relations job, simply so somebody is here to manage doctor's appointments, school schedules, grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, whatever.
Husband #2 is a wonderful domestic partner when he's at home. He'd be a better stay-at-home parent than I would be in many ways. However, again the reality is that he makes more money than I do, and he has the health benefits. So, when somebody has to take a day off to meet the appliance repairman or take a kid to sports practices, it's me.
It's me, and it's most working mothers, who – even before we get to our desks every morning – have to wake kids and get them dressed, make breakfasts and lunches, throw in loads of laundry, bake for the PTO sale, fill in the permission slips for field trips, schedule haircuts and oil changes, figure out summer camp and day care and dinner. And, oh yeah, try to get to to our desks on time to meet deadlines. Maybe even while wearing matching socks.
Recently, as husband #1 and I were discussing college tuition expenses for our oldest child, he threw up his hands in frustration when he saw my tax returns and discovered how little money I made last year. “It was a tough year in publishing,” I told him.
“You could have been in sales like me,” he shot back.
He was right. I could have made more money if I'd seen less of our children. And I know he regrets having missed out on so much time with them.
On the other hand, I'm right, too: If I could just waltz out the door every morning and stay gone for eight-to-ten hour work days like the men in my life (and like the men in the lives of most other women I know), I could make a hell of a lot more money. I might have become president of my own PR firm or a New Yorker staff writer. Hell, I might even have become an astronaut or a Supreme Court judge. That would have been a fascinating, fulfilling life. But that wouldn't have been the right choice for me.
The way our society is currently structured, with so little parental leave and no subsidized child care, and very little support in the home by relatives, women can't have it all. Neither can men. All we can do is make our best choices, sacrifice what we must, and hope that we're doing the right thing for ourselves and for the people who depend on us.
That's the answer I'll give my daughters.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cheers and Tears for American Idol Finalists Crystal and Lee: Singers with Heart

It's easy to make fun of American Idol. There are the judges, filthy rich and full of themselves, so bored that they're passing notes and giggling, especially Sir Simon Cowell, who seems to have already checked out of the show mentally, even if his tightly-t-shirted body is still affixed to its chair. There's groovy Ryan Seacrest, the consummate TV host, smoothly chatting up contestants and building mass tension by moving Idols around like pawns on a chessboard. There are the tiresomely cheerful Ford commercials and tall red Coke cups. As Ke$ha would say, “Blah, blah, blah.” (
Meanwhile, the cameras pan across the audience, lingering on the TV and movie stars planted there to flog their newest commercial ventures, or on the pretty girls swaying on cue with their hands in the air like seaweed as the tide comes in. It didn't help garner more viewers during Season 9 that the two finalists were 1) the clear frontrunners and 2) less mind-blowingly talented than past Idol contestants like Kelly Clarkson and Adam Lambert.
But, somehow, I cried and cheered harder this week for these two contestants than I have for any other. (Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Get a life.) Why? Because Crystal and Lee are both musicians with big hearts, soulful singers who love their families and hometowns with the kind of embarrassing fervor that makes us all stop and think, “Whoa. Maybe it's not such a bad time to be alive after all.”
Crystal is sly and subversive in the best way possible. She went along with the Idol program enough to keep herself from getting kicked off the show. She didn't cut her dreadlocks, but she did pin them up. She let the stylists slick her up with lip gloss and eyeshadow, and even stuffed herself into a gown and heels.
Yet, Crystal has stayed true to her Ohio roots, and is ready to tell anyone who will listen that the recession isn't nearly over for that hardscrabble state. That much was clear during her visit home – and during her conversation with Ryan, when Crystal said that it was only because of American Idol that she has the health care she needs. I cried when Crystal visited her farmhouse in Ohio, thinking about how many farmers, single moms and unemployed factory workers across American are rooting for her. Crystal's victory is something to hope for when everything else is lost.
Lee is that guy who could have sold you paint in the hardware store and wouldn't have gotten impatient if you dithered over colors. He's sexy mainly because he doesn't know that he is. (Husbands and boyfriends don't understand this.) He went home to Illinois; like Ohio, that state ranks among the top ten for unemployment. (Ohio is 40th with an unemployment rate of 11%; Illinois is 43rd; that state's unemployment rate hovers at 11.5%
I thought I was done crying after Lee's soul-searing version of Cohen's iconic song “Hallelujah” on Tuesday night, but no. When Lee wept during his homecoming, overcome by gratitude for the flow of support from the people in Illinois who'd gathered to cheer him on, I cried right along with him. He reminded me of all of the parents like Lee's and Crystals, doing their best during tough times to give their kids a future that's about more than just survival.
Whether it's Crystal or Lee who gets crowned on Idol this season, it doesn't really matter. Both artists have given America a reason to cry, cheer, and move on from what's been ailing us.