Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Good Dog

McDuff, my Cairn terrier, looks more like a pot-bellied pig every day. His swollen abdomen is low-slung and his short legs bow out at the elbows—symptoms of Cushing's Disease. Recently we had to put up a baby gate to keep him from going upstairs; the last time McDuff tried to follow us up to bed, he slipped and went bumping down to the bottom of the staircase, his front legs useless as toothpicks against the pull of his massive weight.

He's an old man, our McDuff. Fifteen. Whenever he goes outside to relieve himself, he stands in one spot for a good five minutes, squinting a little, then turns right around and heads back inside. At this point, his medication costs half as much as our groceries. I don't know what we'll do when it snows. Shovel a path for him, I guess.

Or not. We have been debating, lately, about how and when to play God with our beloved pet. McDuff isn't in extreme pain, and he still wags his tail when I call his name. That's something, right?

But is it enough for a good dog's life? Or is it time to say goodbye?

I grew up on a farm where we had nearly as many dogs as we had horses. They were rescue dogs, mostly. These included one shepherd mix that loved to chase cars and always smelled of skunk; a feisty Yorkie mix; and an Afghan hound that bit anything gray, including our coats. I moved away from home before any of these dogs died or had to be put down; coming home and finding one less dog under the table was a source of brief sadness but not much more.

This is different. I can't stand the thought of losing McDuff.

As an adult, I've had to put just one dog to sleep. Ben was an American Eskimo mix that we adopted from a shelter. A frothy, white, joyful dog, Ben used to race around us in circles whenever we uttered his mantra: “Go Ben go!”

When my husband and I were married in our back yard (a second marriage that combined our four young children), Ben wore a burgundy bow to match my dress. As we repeated our vows in front of a small gathering of friends and family, Ben wandered up and sat down between our children, so that he would be included in the minister's blessing.

At age thirteen, Ben's heart and liver gave out. Making the decision to put him down was easier because he was in such pain that he cried out in his sleep. Still, the kids and I all wept: it was the first time that I fully realized a dog isn't just a dog, but a carrier of family history.

Saying goodbye to a dog you've had for years means shutting the door on an era. In our case, Ben's death earmarked the years between our wedding and the year our oldest son set off for college. Shortly after Ben's death, we moved out of our big family home and into a smaller one; my memories of Ben therefore carry complex emotions: joy and love and grief and loss, rolled into one white ball of fur.

McDuff started his life with us just as Ben was ending his. I got him in the worst way possible—on impulse, in a mall pet store—but for a good reason: I was with my stepdaughter, the youngest in our blended family and the one who always felt left out by our other three children. She was newly aggrieved by the arrival of our fifth and youngest child, who immediately displaced her as the baby in the family. Choosing this dog made her feel, for once, that she was in charge.

As a puppy, McDuff was scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand. Like most terriers, he was stubborn, territorial, and ferociously protective. We put a dog door in our basement so that he could come and go at will. His greatest joy was patrolling our yard and barking at any deer, squirrels, or wild turkeys that dared to infiltrate his space.

McDuff became a member of our family a few weeks after our youngest child was born. He has been through a lot since then: older kids graduating from high school and college, family trips to Canada and Wisconsin, youngest child moving through elementary school and into high school, job layoffs and career successes, the celebration of our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Saying goodbye to him means saying goodbye to boisterous family dinners, birthday parties with balloons and water slides, Christmases with so many presents under the tree that you couldn't walk around it, the death of my grandmother and my father, buying a second house in Canada, and the realization that nothing lasts forever.
Not even a very good dog, who still lifts his head whenever I call his name.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How Much Is a Book Worth?

Recently, I was nosing around a local bookstore in search of a perfect Christmas read for my father-in-law. He's a history buff; last year I gave him the stellar book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. He's still raving about it. What can I possibly give him this year to top that?

As I shopped, I was distracted by prices. I'm still trying to claw my way out of debt incurred over the past few years through a tricky combo of college tuition bills and my husband's various layoffs. I often save money by borrowing books from the library. I frequent used bookstores and treasure hunt through the lonely remaindered books at Barnes & Noble. If a book isn't free, it's rare for me to pay more than $5 for it.

Except, that is, when I love a certain author—then I go hog wild and get the hardcover—or when I feel guilty. My guilt is brought on by the fact that I am a writer who sells words for a living. Over the past few years, I have been the book doctor or ghost writer for several celebrity memoirs. I have also published a memoir of my own through a division of Random House. I would love to have people buy the books I write, so that I can keep doing what I love. Therefore, I feel compelled to buy books by other writers.

But which books are worth buying? And how much should you pay for them?
These are increasingly complex questions in this Wild West of self-publishing and ebooks. The Kindle and Nook are arm-wrestling for our attention. Without editors acting as gatekeepers for many books, and with the demise of book review sections in our newspapers—hell, what newspapers?--it's hard to know what's worth our precious time, never mind our money.

When my husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday, I immediately went for the deals. For instance, I paid $2.99 for Toby Neal's Blood Orchids, which I read on the train to New York, along with various other books by authors I hadn't tried before, simply because they bore that ever-popular promotional price tag of $.99. Heck, I can't even purchase a pack of gum for that money!

Several of my editor friends feel strongly that the self-publishing wave is one more example of civilization marching over a cliff. Lemming-like readers, they say, can't anticipate the plunge into bad writing, so they end up in the choppy, cruel waters of mean metaphors and sharp-toothed punctuation gaffes.

Um, was that a mixed metaphor?

It's true that there are a lot of bad (and badly edited) books out there. It's also true that publishers have helped bring this on themselves by giving million-dollar (or more) advances to certain writers or celebrities, and spending their advertising budgets to back up those advances, then acting surprised when the books don't earn out.

It's no news flash that traditional publishers, which once gave writers time to build their reputations, now expect a writer to earn back an advance immediately, if not sooner. If that doesn't happen, the writer is kicked right out of the stable, off to find another publishing home—or to roam the Wild West with the other raggedy Mustangs.

One writer friend of mine, who has been nominated for the National Book Award and has earned a flotilla of other literary prizes, has published seven books. Despite the high praise consistently coming her way from every literary quarter, and despite modest advances, she has earned royalties on only one novel. She works full-time as a university professor to support herself and her three children, grabbing what writing hours she can on weekends, summers, and, if she has the energy, at night.

Another writer friend, who has authored parenting books and popular chick lit titles under two different names for the past twenty years, told me recently that she used to hate seeing that quarterly royalties statement from her publisher in the mailbox.

“You know the one I mean,” she said, “that piece of paper that shows how many books you've sold, and then gives you that negative number under your advance, because you still owe the publisher money?”

I do, indeed, know all about that awful reckoning, having received my own royalty statements for my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. That book was considered a success by many at Random House, in the sense that the book earned positive reviews and was even showcased in several magazines, including the issue of People magazine with Michael Jackson on the cover soon after his death. I earned a modest advance for that book, but I have yet to see a royalty check two years later.

My friend had to change her name because her third novel did so badly. The publisher wanted to give her a fresh start as a debut novelist. The gamble paid off: recently, she got a statement for her last novel, a fun romantic read that was picked up by a major book club. “I opened the envelope at the mailbox, thinking I'd toss it into the recycling bin before I even got into the kitchen,” she said. “But then a check for $11,000 fell out!”

She had to lie down. So did I, when she told me that story, if only out of envy.

There are, of course, a handful of writers who must be living quite comfortably on royalties and movie deals. I'm sure you can name them as well as I can. But, for most writers, earning a living is a scramble. A fun scramble, but still. Making that next mortgage payment can be a challenge if there's no benefactor or spouse whose job includes health benefits.

In the end, I've decided to canter through the tumbleweeds into the sunset. My first novel, Sleeping Tigers, will be available just before Christmas. (Yes, this blog post is shameless self-promotion.) I'm self-publishing it—a novel vetted by my agent and several writer friends—and I think it's a good book. But how much is my novel worth?

I have to decide, since I'm the one in charge here, and it's tough. I earned an MFA in creative writing and I've been working as a writer for over twenty years. My previous book earned great reviews. I've won awards for my short stories. But does any of that really matter, when you're suffering the stigma of the self-published?

I have to charge a certain amount—a bit over $10—for the paperback to make back production costs plus a dollar for me, since it's print-on-demand. But what about the ebook? Should I go for that whopping price of $2.99, like Toby Neal?

Or would it be better, as my son urges, “to just charge $.99 for your ebook, Mom, because anybody will spend that much money. And you don't care if they read it. You just want people to buy your book.”

Well, as a matter of fact, I do care if people read my book. Does $2.99 say that I'm worth reading? Or am I still better off charging less than a dollar and letting people find that out for themselves? What does any of that matter, anyway, since I obviously don't write novels to pay the mortgage?

Meanwhile, back to Christmas shopping. If I buy my father-in-law a hardcover, it'll cost upwards of $20 even with my friendly independent bookstore discount. If I go online and read book reviews, I'll end up surfing various book blogger sites and reading Amazon customer reviews, checking out all of the writers vying for attention with book trailers and giveaways and Twitter feeds and blogs of their own, crying, “Look at me! Look what I can do! How much is my book worth?”

Which, when you're a writer with a writer's ego (this I know, being one myself), translates into: “How much am I worth? Do you love me? Please love me!”

My own memoir, for the record, has been out in paperback for a year. You can order it through your local bookstore for $14 (a price set by the publisher) or buy it for your Kindle for $9.99 (a price also set by the publisher). Now come on. Who would do that, with so many books out there for $.99?

But wait! On Amazon, you can also buy my book in paperback, new, for just $.94 plus shipping—or used for $.01! Now that's what I call a bargain basement read!

So tell me. How much is any book worth?

And what does the price of a book say about the author who wrote it?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs: Torn Between My Books and My Kindle

My husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday. (Forgive him, O Indie booksellers. He is an engineer who knows not what he does.)

At first I protested. As a writer, avid reader, and patron of indie bookstores with cats curled on floral armchairs, what did I want with this devilish contraption?
“Give it a try,” my husband suggested. “A lot of the books are free.”

Did he say free? As the daughter of a Do-It-Yourself-Or-Die-Trying gerbil farmer, “free” is my middle name, whether I'm surfing for curbside antiques or checking out sample cheeses at Market Basket. How could I resist?

Of course, like any addiction, that first hit lures you down the slippery slope of, “Oh, hell, just one more can't hurt.” Soon I was downloading books by the dozen, bemused and freaked by the fact that the Magic Hand of Amazon could find me even in bed. It could even find me in the White Mountains or riding the subway in New York City. Need a book? Press a button!

The thing is, I started to love my Kindle. But I couldn't give up my obsessive fondling and purchasing of books. I also worried that my books—waiting so patiently in their pretty bright book cover dresses on my bookshelf, or climbing over each other on my nightstand in their zeal to be read—might be hurt by my disloyalty. Alternatively, I worried that my smart-mouthed, quick-on-the-draw Kindle would know I was cheating on her with her plumper, more beautiful cousins.

I agonized for weeks over which was better: digital books or “real.” At first, reading the Kindle was downright confusing. For one thing, what to do with that free hand flapping around while you hold such a slim rectangle and touch buttons to flip pages? (And why didn't I have a Kindle while I was breastfeeding my kids?)

How do you pretend not to notice an annoying neighbor if you can't hide your face behind an actual book? How do you loan your books to friends on a Kindle? What do you put on your bookshelves if you stop buying books? (Either wine glasses or my son's Lego collection, in our case.) And how do you stop ordering books on Amazon once you've seen how easy it is to get a fix?

Gradually, though, things smoothed out. My house has become like that popular British TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs: my supposedly more refined (though not necessarily more entertaining or informative) books reside upstairs, on the table next to my bed, where I contentedly read for an hour or so every night before I go to sleep. My Kindle stays downstairs with the dogs.

At the moment, my upstairs book is Island, a collection of lilting, atmospheric stories by the brilliant Canadian Alistair MacLeod. Reading his textured, elegant, emotional prose, it is impossible not to imagine that Cape Breton's misty cliffs loom just outside your window.

For instance, MacLeod's description of rain in the title story goes like this: “Sometimes it slanted against her window with a pinging sound, which meant it was close to hail, and then it was visible as tiny pellets for a moment on the pane before the pellets vanished and rolled quietly down the glass, each drop leaving its own delicate trickle. At other times it fell straight down, hardly touching the window at all, but still there beyond the glass, like a delicate, beaded curtain at the entrance to another room.”

Downstairs, meanwhile, my Kindle seems best suited to books by comics or mystery writers, as well as indie authors like Darcie Chan, whose books were never published by traditional publishers because they weren't deemed “good enough.” (Many of those authors, like Chan, have gone on to sell thousands of copies. Go figure.)

Digital books accompany me throughout the day, because they are so easily stowed in my purse or coat pocket. My Kindle does its work during doctors' visits, in the car while waiting for kids to leave sports practices, or on business trips that would otherwise require an extra piece of luggage for my paperbacks.

On my Kindle, at the moment I'm reading Holidays in Hell by the conservative but consistently hilarious P.J. O'Rourke—somebody whose books I never wanted to pay full price for because of his politics. Check out his description of General Omar Torrijos of Panama: “Torrijos was a half-baked socialist and a blow-hard, but he was lovable and good-looking...He had genuine feeling for the poor, started some only moderately useless social programs and maintained a modest style of life, keeping no more than two or three mistresses on the side.”

I once read that Hemingway used to write his dialogue on a typewriter because it sounded more like people talking, but chose to write his descriptions in longhand. As a writer, I also go to different places and use different tools, depending on what I'm trying to work on. I often write in a journal when I'm collecting ideas, flesh them out at my laptop, and then edit on paper, standing up in the kitchen with a cup of tea at my elbow, I suppose because then it seems like my work is by a different writer and I can be more objective about revisions. For me, reading has become like that: I choose a book's delivery mode based on what kind of reading experience I anticipate.

So my books reside upstairs and my Kindle is downstairs. Different rhythms, different lives, different sensibilities lead me to choose whether I read fiction or nonfiction, short stories or poetry, ebooks or paper. The important thing is that, for every mood and moment, there is a story to treasure, no matter where I am—or in what form I read it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Staying Whole in a Fractured World

You know that panicky feeling you get when you drop your briefcase or purse and everything spills out in public? That's how I used to feel every day: embarrassed, furious, and anxious because I couldn't keep up with my life.
The last straw may have been my new gym membership. I wanted to feel virtuous about working out four times a week without breaking the bank, so I chose the Wal-Mart of fitness factories, a place where pop music blares and the cardio machines all face TV screens. Insert headphones, work up a sweat, and pick your letters: ABC, CBS, CNN, ESPN, Fox, whatever. Get your news and culture fix here.
I'm a radio junkie, so watching TV news was a novelty for me. At first I enjoyed channel surfing. Or rather, plunging. That's what it felt like, since TV shows give you about two seconds of substance punctuated by noisy, whirling ad tsunamis.
Before long, though, I was feeling rattled and nervous. Despite the fact that the news was being delivered by beautiful couples who joked and flirted like dates, I learned that we apparently live in a world where pedophiles, robbers, muggers, drunk drivers, crooked politicians, and murderers frequent my local supermarket and shoe store.
But maybe the gym wasn't the last straw. Maybe it was my new phone. Selected by my husband, an engineer who gets free upgrades and knows how to use them, this device easily outsmarts me. It can access restaurant reviews and movie times, deliver my email, play music, take pictures, and remind me that it's my mother's birthday. If I try to control it, the tiny keys play hide-and-seek. I might as well be wearing mittens.
I dutifully started carrying this Mini Me everywhere, sticking it in my bra like an extra heartbeat if I didn't have a pocket. Now I could read my email at Market Basket, among the common criminals, or phone clients while walking the dogs. My husband and children could call me any time, for any reason. I was always on tap, talking or tweeting instead of thinking.
Come to think of it, though, the final straw may have been my son's new laptop, which his high school required us to buy. He has textbooks on it—no more lugging that Western Civ tome around!--and homework assignments, too. He can make flashcards online, thanks to Quizlet, and Skype about video games with classmates. Between math problems, he can check Facebook or watch YouTube wonders. Sitting in the same room with my son and his laptop is like spending the evening with the Kardashians: too much, too soon, too often.
For whatever reason, anyway, a month ago the last straw landed, and I lost track of my life.
I was on my lunch break from work, trying to squeeze in errands—post office, dry cleaner's, the 30-minute speed workout at the gym—when my phone bleeped. I checked my email and got a call at the same time. The traffic light turned green; I sped ahead and pulled over to answer the call, but I was too late.
I started to call the client back, then stopped, my thumb hovering over the phone screen. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to know what was on my email. I didn't want anyone to know where I was or what I was doing. And I sure as hell didn't want to go to the gym.
I shut off the ignition and sat there, simply trying to breathe as cars sped past.
To my right, I spotted a tiny road I hadn't noticed before. I got out of the car—so what if I didn't mail the Christmas packages until tomorrow?--zipped up my jacket, and started walking. I accidentally left the phone in the cup holder.
I've walked that road every day since. At the end of this half-mile lane is open land, some of which is being used as community gardens by town residents. There is an abandoned house on the property—a white Colonial surrounded by ancient perennial beds and a few majestic hydrangeas. The abandoned barn now houses only colonies of swallows, but when the wind is right, you catch whiffs of hay and horse.
It is past the growing season, but I can tell that the gardeners were busy this summer. There are still remnants of various small harvests: kale and broccoli, lettuce and eggplant, withered tomato plants and sunflower stalks. There are a few fruit trees on the property, their gnarled limbs almost human. Best of all, a trail leads from the gardens through a field hemmed by ancient stone walls. The trail ends at the salt marshes; beyond that is the river and a big swatch of sky.
I have visited this piece of land—my own circle of quiet—nearly every day. I don't stay long. I park my car at the end of the road and meander towards the field. Chickadees flit through the bushes, prehistoric-looking turkeys startle in the grass, and an occasional cardinal flashes bright. I spotted a great blue heron feeding in the marsh last week, and several times I've seen hawks circling the field.
I don't bring my cell phone. I don't always go at the same time of day, either, because I love being surprised by how different the sky can look over the marsh, depending on the hour and the elements. I have even, like I did today, walked up the road and through this field in freezing rain, blinking hard and shivering.
This walk, this forgotten field, and this quiet marsh give me a chance to take my life back once a day, and to feel whole again in a fractured world. It isn't praying or meditating, exactly. But it is peace on earth.