Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Memories of New Year's Decades Past QUIZ

Match the following memory with the correct year

___1. The year we filled the bathtub with water because you never knew if it would be the end of the world as we knew it when the clock struck midnight. It was a half-hearted tub-filling though. Last minute, right before the babysitter came over. We left her with instructions:

if the power shuts off, we'll make our way back home as soon as we can. Then, off we went to play board games at our friends' house, leaving the six year old and the two year old in the hands of a teenager and the possibility of a potential computer-glitched meltdown apocalypse. But at least we had some tub water?

___2. The year I was the babysitter, putzing around in some virtual stranger's house, eyeing their champagne, even though I had never tasted alcohol, but wondering if it would be okay to take a sip at midnight? while watching Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve party alone, some random kids asleep upstairs.

(Hint: I was twelve years old.)

___3. First year with my boyfriend (soon to be husband) and we strolled out of my apartment (he was still in school but staying over) and headed down the street to THE cool hangout at the time, a place called Overton Square, where we made our way through the growing mob of cool people and met up with friends, vowing to stand out there until the ball dropped, 

but quit before midnight because some not-so-cool ding dongs in the crowd started throwing glass bottles in the air.

___4. The kids were all grown up and one had jetted off to London, but the rest of us were together, shaking up our annual New Year's multi-family house party by meeting somewhere in the middle, in this case, Asheville, North Carolina, a cabin in the woods, where we went hiking and nearly got blown off the top of a windy mountain, explored the funky art studios by the river and made our yearly music video.

Hint: This is happening right now :)

___5. It's a three-family, four-night slumber party at our house. Six adults, seven kids. Seemingly non-stop eating, drinking, game-playing, father-son-football, and a weepy night, all of us together, watching old videos of the past ten years of New Year's, the kids as toddlers, school age, and now on the verge of teenager-hood,

marveling at how long our families have been coming together and vowing to keep meeting up over the next ten years.

Spoiler alert: We did.

1. 1999/2000
2. 1979/1980
3. 1989/1990
4. 2019/2020
5. 2009/2010)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Favorite Books, 2019

(in no particular order)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I love books where I have no idea what is going to happen next, and this one, hands down, wins in this category. Two newlyweds find themselves trapped in a nightmare that could only happen in America. Halfway through this novel, I still didn't know which character I was rooting for or how in the world the author was going to pull off the ending. Spoiler alert: she does.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jennings Reid.

Grab this one on audio the next time you're on a car trip (or painting the orange ceiling in your dining room). The absorbing back story of a Fleetwood Mac-ish-style 70's rock band-- how they came together and how the whole thing fell spectacularly apart.

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan.

The perfect book for the person who's read The Great Gatsby 50+ times and religiously follows book critic Maureen Corrigan's book reviews on NPR. (okay, I am talking about myself. But I really do think that even if you've only read Gatsby once way back in high school, you might enjoy this.)

Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Be warned: This is not a romance even though it does have at boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back at its core. Dark and heartbreaking with real, complicated people who long to be normal, but alas, that doesn't seem to be in the cards. I still can't believe it was written by a twenty-eight year old. (Side note: Maureen Corrigan highly recommended this one.)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain.

I loved The Paris Wife, which is the imagined story of Ernest Hemingway's relationship with his first wife Hadley. But it's possible that I loved this book, the story of Hemingway's third wife Martha Gellhorn, even more. I heard Paula McLain speak a few months ago about both books and this question naturally came up in the Q & A: Will you ever write a book about Hemingway's second or third wives?

The short answer was no, because she did not like those wives.

Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey.

This sweet, smart romance follows Annie, a rom-com obsessed heroine, who finds love with a guy who is not Tom Hanks, but is still pretty cool. Bonus: there's a fun scene set in the Book Loft, my favorite 32-room bookstore in Columbus Ohio.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

This one was a recommendation of my Circ Manager Sara, who said it had the most horrifying ending she's ever read. Premise: When the main character was a kid, his parents were murdered by his older brother. Now he's a happily married psychologist with two sons... until one day a patient shows up spinning a conspiracy theory that a devilish cult is responsible for the string of drowned college guys in the area. After that unsettling therapy session, our main character learns that his brother was just exonerated by DNA evidence and is about to be released from prison.

The two events have nothing to do with each other... or do they? (Oh, and Sara was right.)

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Another Maureen Corrigan rec. An absorbing story that tackles as its backdrop the height of the AID's epidemic in the 1980's-- the immediate effect of loss on the gay community and the rippling effects in the future for the survivors. (If Ill Will has the most horrifying ending, this book has the most heartbreaking beginning.)

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

As soon as I learned that the author of "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House also wrote humorous stories for women's magazines about her daily life with four kids and a large dog, I wanted to know more about her, and this biography lays it all out. Shirley Jackson was only 48 years old when she died, but somehow she managed to live the dual life of wacky 1950's suburban mom/ professor wife while at the same time writing six novels, three memoirs, and over 200 short stories.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by David Fassler

I struggled with writer's block for part of this year and I credit the Universe with sending this book across the Check-in desk at my library just when I needed it most.

In it, the editor asks 46 writers what piece of literature inspired them to write. The answers cover everything from favorite books to writing tricks to theories about where ideas come from and how we get the motivation to do what we do every day. Two or three essays in, and I was reminded what drew me to being a writer in the first place,

and before I read the last page, I was writing (joyfully!) my own pages again.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

This is the end

was playing on the stereo

and we were having one of those inane (but we thought) deep, philosophical conversations about life and what a giant bummer it was that we were living in the 1980's when everyone knew the 1960's were way better. Because of the music, for one thing. I mean, The Doors were awesome.

Also, we liked the clothes. Mini skirts and tie-dyes. Supposedly, the weed wasn't as good, so that was one drawback, but the point is

people-- young people--cared about stuff then. They were out protesting in the streets against the war and marching for civil rights, and here we were, stuck in the boring 1980's, where there was nothing to protest, nothing to get fired up about, except, maybe global thermonuclear war? (but we didn't count that. because what were you going to do? Chain yourself to a missile like some weirdo Catholic nun?) What were we talking about again? oh, right. The sixties. When people cared.

It isn't that we don't care, you said. It's just that we don't have anything, really, to care about.

That sounded true, I had to admit, and then you told me the story about how your roommate threw his stereo out the window because he was annoyed that his records kept skipping. Three stories down, the thing shattering apart, and then he hauled all of the pieces back up three flights and told you to throw it out, and you did.

Now that's a protest, you said, and I laughed. We were such a weird mix of smug and innocent when we were twenty-two. Smug, because we thought we knew everything. Innocent, because we believed protesting and things to care about were things that only happened in the past.

Flash forward thirty years and I am getting ready to go to a protest. It's cold outside, the streets wet with ice and snow. Alexa, I call out, play The End by the Doors. She does and I am surprised by how much darker and crazier the song sounds than I remember. Also, I forgot that the character in the song kills everyone in his family.

Only took me thirty years to figure this out. Today, I am no longer smug and innocent. I understand now that I know nothing and that the country I love is much more fragile than I realized. But weirdly, I am optimistic. Today could mark the beginning of the end of our democracy.

I head outside anyway.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The eighty-eight year old woman in our home

likes to sleep in the sun.

Or sometimes she will curl up on a heating vent. Why is it so cold in this house, we will say, and then we will stumble shivering into the kitchen and find the eighty-eight year old woman parked out like a queen on the vent, absorbing all of our heat.

Another place she likes to snooze is on a plumped up pillow that we've stuffed inside a box and tucked into the closet. Putting away our clothes in the afternoon we hear her light snores, tiptoe out of the room so as not to disturb her nap.

She is not much of a traveler.

Truth be told, she doesn't like anyone else in the family to travel either. She hasn't told us this, exactly, but she makes her very strong feelings known. Leave an open, half-packed suitcase on the bed, and the next thing we know You Know Who's stretched out grooming herself upon it.

And speaking of grooming, she will tolerate a combing for approximately three minutes and then she will bite us. She does not bite hard, so we try to overlook her aggression.

We have suspicions that she is a Republican.

Also, she is a prankster. Often she will sit in the exact center of a doorway or on the stairs because she knows the dog is afraid to walk past her. What's the crying? we'll say. Where's the dog? we'll say, and then we'll see the eighty-eight year old woman, blinking at us and smirking, the dog cowering behind her.

We have known her for eighteen years, through three house-movings and two states, five fish, the already-mentioned dog, two children--who were once elementary age and then teen-aged and now adults. 

At night she likes to sleep on my head.

Last week she had a stroke and went blind. She wobbled woozily around the room for a day but then righted herself. Twitching her tail, she explores the new dark world, finds the heating vent and her food.

It's almost time, the doctor tells us. But seeing as how she's still having some good days, it's okay to wait a bit.

We cart her back home and let her go, watch her circle her way around the room, carry her up and down the stairs, comb her for approximately three minutes, help her find her pillow.

Tiptoe out of the room so she can rest.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Book recs from my family to yours

We've got a full house here for Thanksgiving, and in between chowing down on 15 pounds of turkey and Grandma's ginormous tin of homemade m & m cookies, everyone is busy reading.

Including Mr. Peppers, visiting from Florida, who is checking out the latest 614 Magazine with things to do around Columbus.

A good audio book series, according to my husband, is the Stephanie Plum Mysteries by Janet Evanovich. The actress who reads the series does a great job voicing the characters and the books are fast-paced and funny. My husband used to hate his commute back and forth to work, but now, thanks to his Stephanie Plum audio books (borrowed from my library!), he hardly minds anymore.

The best book my mother ever read is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Side note: this novel has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for weeks and as long as I have been working at the library, people have been on the waiting list to borrow it. Last time I checked, there were 1000 people in line. Get in line now and you will, according to my mother, cry your heart out.

Auntie Jan says to tell you that the latest John Grisham book, The Guardians, is supposed to be very good. Also, the latest Nelson DeMille. But right now she is re-reading all of the Outlander books because she is in love with the series on Netflix. Plus, she thinks book number 9 is coming out soon and she wants to be ready.

Grandma Linda (of m & m cookie-baking fame) is a fan of the Stone Barrington series by Stuart Woods because she likes the characters and the mystery.

Grandpa wants to recommend a movie. His favorite is Independence Day because he likes how Will Smith blows up the aliens. And speaking of aliens,

Our son, who is not with us for the holiday because he is presently climbing a large rock in Nevada and scaring the crud out of me, highly recommends  The Three Body Problem by Cixin Lui, which is "a sci-fi about the cultural revolution in China, but also aliens."

Climbing a rock and not reading a book right now 

And last but not least, our daughter, who is also not with us because she is presently gallivanting around London... but thankfully, not climbing large rocks: The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty.

Me: What did you like about it?
Daughter: The voice
Me: Can you give me a little more?
Daughter: No.

And there you have it.

Tune in next week for book recs from me!

Monday, November 25, 2019

How to write 50,000 words in 24 days

Short answer: Sit down with your laptop and write 50,000 words.

Which is easier said than done because this is a potentially busy 24 days, with 20+ hours per week at the day job and the seemingly-never-ending cleaning/painting/remodeling projects to do around the new-old house... 

(side note:

I highly recommend College Hunks Hauling Junk for all of you junk-hauling needs. In our case this was a ten foot wide and five foot high pile of rotting wood and other odds and ends collecting in our driveway-- all of the broken down stuff that came from inside and outside our new-old house. (Because the previous owner really really really seemed to enjoy nailing wood up everywhere.) Plus a hot tub in the basement. (Because when I think Hot Tub, I don't think Basement.) 

The college hunks (who I suspect were not actually in college, and truthfully, while they were not unattractive, they would probably not be labeled hunks) loaded the giant pile of wood onto a truck and then set about chainsawing the hot tub in half so they could haul it out of the basement.) 

junk pile

sawed in half hot tub in a truck

everything else in the truck

Also, smack in the middle of this 24-day period I had to attend a college reunion. I was on the reunion planning committee, (long story) so I couldn't get out of it, which meant a 9-hour car drive down to the college and an all day gathering and a 9 hour car drive back, and likely very little writing time. And this was okay! I loved reconnecting with my old friends!

lovely library nook at my college

But it did mean that the 24 days was actually more like 21 days. 

And with Thanksgiving around the corner and house guests coming, beds had to made up and meals planned.... 

Anyway, my point is that while I knew I wouldn't have much time, I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which you pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days and something about signing up on that site and resolving to write the 50,000 words,

forced me to find the time to write the 50,000 words.

So, I did.

The End.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The woman in cabin 10 is not on my stairs

but I was listening to the audio book of that story while I was scraping other book titles off of my stairs.

You might be wondering at this point why I had book titles stuck to my stairs. The short answer is the previous owners of our new-old house had interesting decorating taste. Exhibit A: all of the door knobs in our house are faucets. Exhibit B: the large eyes stenciled on one of the dining room walls. Never mind the prison door in the garden. 

But Jody, people (ie my mother) would say to me, You love books!
Yes, Mom. I love books. I just don't happen to like book-title-decals stuck to my stairs.

Luckily, I had a good audio book to listen to while I was scraping them off. For the record, the work of scraping these decals was painstaking and slow. Basically, I had to use my fingernails. A paint scraper scratched up the wood. Ditto: a razor blade. Meanwhile, what was happening in The Woman in Cabin 10 was freaking me out.

The premise: a woman who has been traumatized by a robbery must go on a small cruise ship to write a story for a magazine. The woman in the cabin next door disappears the first night. The problem is that the cabin next door did not have a guest officially staying there and everyone aboard the ship is acting as if our main character must have imagined...

the woman in cabin ten.

A good audio book for heaving boulders out of a koi pond and yanking out the old rubber liner is Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith. This is the first book in a series about a down on his luck detective who gets pulled into solving a much more complicated and dangerous crime than he'd bargained on.

Side note: I was telling my model librarian friend about this book and she literally guessed the murderer within two seconds of my telling her the premise. I was like, no way! It can't be him!

Cut to: Me heaving a boulder on a ninety degree day and discovering that she was right!

Partially heaved out boulders in a now defunct koi pond.

If you need an absorbing and entertaining audio book for the day you are painting the orange dining room ceiling white, I highly recommend Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

This is a full blown production with different actors playing the various roles. The premise of the story is the rise and fall of a (made up) rock band in the 1970's, told in the form of interviews with the band members, sort of like a Behind the Music episode.

Orange ceiling, partially painted. (Eyes are not shown in the picture)

Eyes in the dining room, plus the eyes of my daughter's boyfriend

One audio book that I did not like as much, but yet, could not stop listening to as I painted the stairs (after scraping off the book titles) was Sunburn by Laura Lipman. The premise: a woman with a mysterious past meets a man with a mysterious past and, I know this was sort of the point, but still it bugged me-- you can never tell if the woman is good or bad or if the man is good or bad, and it was nerve wracking, honestly, wondering if they were going to kill each other or fall in love.

On the plus side, by the time I figured it all out, my work on the stairs was done.

Next up:

Removing the hot tub presently lodged in our basement. Anyone have any audio book recommendations for that?

Also: Anyone want the hot tub in our basement?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Enter Colton. Or How a made-up renegade scientist dropped into my manuscript and broke through my writer's block

Last summer I was suffering from an acute case of writer's block.

It was a combination of being preoccupied by things Not Related to Writing (selling and buying a house, working a new job, having our college graduate daughter home for a few months) and things Writing-related. The writing-related part was that I'd finished revising a book after working on it for two years and realized that it still hadn't come together.

But just the thought of going back into the revision--  or starting something new felt paralyzing. 

My writing partner Natalie suggested that I try something completely different. A lot of my problem, she said, had to do with over-thinking and worrying about the stuff that was beyond my control (ie Publishing, or rather, in my case, Not publishing) and the end result was that writing was no longer bringing me joy.

Oh, she was right about that. Joy? haha. All I felt when I tried to sit down to write was dread. 

But Natalie, God love her, was not going to give up on me. She gave me an assignment. 

Each day for two weeks she wanted me to send her a pitch for a potential book. These could be any kind of book. Romances, thrillers, mysteries, whatever. The common denominator, however, was that these would be books I would never write. The point was to fool around, with no pressure. The more ridiculous the idea, the better.

I dutifully followed this advice, getting a little perfectionist-y about the first few pitches, but then relaxing and having a little fun with the assignment, despite myself, as the days went by. I was never going to write these books, I reasoned, so who cares. 

Example, Day Four, when I threw together this doozy:

The Seed Vault

When Maura snags an internship in London the summer before her senior year in college, she’s overjoyed. It’s a part-time position at a non-profit environmental agency that manages a seed vault, nothing too demanding or stressful, which should leave her plenty of time to explore and soak in European culture. 

But the moment she arrives in London, Maura finds herself caught up in an ever-growing climate-change-triggered nightmare. A record-breaking heatwave with temperatures soaring past an unheard of 115 degrees has turned Europe into a hell-scape. 

And then the rains start, at first welcomed as a relief from the heat, but then, feared as the entire continent begins to flood. 

It’s all hands on deck at the environmental agency, the staff frantic to protect the vault, one of the few places on earth that contains a sample of every seed, but with excessive flooding around the containment zone, the task seems impossible.

Enter Colton... 

He’s a renegade young scientist who’s been ostracized from the scientific community for his unorthodox views of climate and food production. Colton knows there is a way to save the seed bank, but it will involve blowing it up first. The others are skeptical, of course, but Maura finds Colton’s solution strangely compelling. That, and his piercing blue eyes. 

Together, Colton and Maura race against time to save the seeds… and the planet from destruction. 

Yeah. So the idea is ridiculous, of course, but it made me laugh. Suddenly, I really was having fun with writing-- even if I was only writing ideas for books I would never write. For a lot of these, I'd set up some crazy premise and then shake things up by Entering Colton, putting him into more absurd situations each day. 

But something interesting happened as I kept going with these pitches. A few of them didn't need Colton. A few of them were not completely silly.

And two were ideas that I could see myself actually developing. I wrote a potential first page for each one. 

And then I wrote a potential second page. 

Now, two months later I have written over 98 pages in each book, and no sign of slowing down yet. Thanks Colton! (And thank you, Natalie, for getting me back into my groove.)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Model Librarian

The best part about working at the library, (besides being around books/touching books/smelling books/helping patrons find books) is hanging around with the other people who work at the library-- the research librarian and the youth librarian who helped me with my writing projects are now my coworkers!--but I've also made some new friends.

LaNesha and I share front desk duty most days, and in between checking in books and checking out books and helping patrons get their library cards or work the fax machine, we've gotten to be good friends. LaNesha's a librarian, who also happens to be a model, a fascinating combo of careers that I am immediately curious about.

So of course I have to ask her:

Me: What came first, librarian or model?

LaNesha: I have always wanted to model ever since I was a little girl, but I never had the confidence. And I was very shy. My first modeling experience was during my Junior year of college. There was a modeling troupe putting on a fashion show and I decided to try out. I got such a good response from everyone and that encouraged me to keep going.

Me: And you were pursuing your library degree at the same time?

LaNesha: Not exactly. I initially majored in Chemistry. I wanted to be a pharmacist. But when I began my studies, I was so discouraged. It wasn’t interesting to me in the least and I was drastically failing chemistry! So I called my mom and I cried. I told her that I didn’t think this was the right fit for me and that I wanted to change my major. She told me, “If you find a job you like, you’ll never work a day in your life."

Me: I love that advice.

LaNesha: I know, right? It's stuck with me, and at the time, I realized that the one thing I loved since I was a child was reading. So I changed my major to English Literature and fell in love with books all over again. This was also around the time I started working in the library of my university. It changed my life and I couldn’t have been happier.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child?

LaNesha: Dr. Seuss books. My mom read them to me every night. Green Eggs and Ham was my most fav! And now my daughter loves this book so much too.

MeWhat do you like best about being a librarian?

LaNesha: Getting to see all the new books before everyone else does! But honestly, I love the impact libraries have on the community. This place inspires and creates a new generation of thinkers and I’m glad to be a part of that… to help shape the community into what we dream it to be.

Me: What about modeling? Because I have to say that the first time I met you, I was struck by how beautiful you are, but also, how very soft-spoken and reserved... and modeling seems like a career where you'd really have to put yourself out there.

LaNesha: That's what I enjoy about it. With my modeling I get a chance to be myself, freely, and in the spotlight. It’s kind of the direct opposite to who I am on a daily basis: an introverted bookworm who hates crowds.

Me: An introverted bookworm who loves clothes...

LaNesha: I do. I love mixing things up. Old things with new. Vintage shirts with skinny jeans. Bell bottoms with lace bodysuits. Not that I would wear that outfit to the library! But what's fun is expressing myself through fashion.

Me: This is all very fascinating to me because I could not be more opposite when it comes to fashion. Also, I hate shopping.

LaNesha: I love shopping. But I rarely shop in the mall. I mostly online shop. (This is where my introverted personality kicks in). My favorite online stores are Fashion Nova.com, BooHoo.com, and Misslola.com. If I do happen to go into the mall, I’ll maybe shop at Express or H & M. As for jewelry. I love anything gold and elegant.

Me: And make-up. Your make up is always gorgeous.

LaNesha: Thank you! I love playing around with it, mixing a bunch of colors together and coming up with a great new look. My favorite is cat eyes. I love cat eyes! It’s my signature look, I guess. Like Ariana Grande and her ponytail.

Me: I am proud to say that I understand this reference. Okay, now I have to ask you how you balance all of this-- librarian by day, photo shoots by night and on weekends? Plus, you have your little daughter. What's your typical day look like?

LaNesha: Whoa! – Do we have that much time? But seriously, here's a basic outline of how my day would go if I had a photo shoot and also had a shift at the library:

5:45-6:00 am : Me trying to wake up after I’ve pressed the snooze button four times already.
6:00-6:30 am: Start my makeup.
6:30-7:00 am: Chase my daughter out from under the table so that I can do her hair.
7:00-8:15 am: Finish makeup and hair, get dressed, head out for work.
8:30 am-5:30 pm: WORK …. (w/Jody! Yay!!! 😊 )
5:30-6:15 pm: Drive home, change clothes for shoot, refresh makeup
6:45-9:00 pm – Shooting for modeling
9:00-9:20 pm: Driving home from shoot
9:20-10:30 pm: Playtime with my daughter and then bath, stories, and bed.
10:30-12:30 am: Quality time with Clarence (my boyfriend).
5:45 am: Wake up with Sam’s Club size bags under my eyes and repeat!

Me: This is making me exhausted just reading it.

LaNesha: It's a good thing it's not every day.

Me: You forgot to include all of the time when you're reading. I know you've always got a book going.

LaNesha: I normally read three at once. Right now that's The Chain by Adrian McKinty, The Escape Room by Megan Goldin and Animal 3 by K’wan. Pretty dark stuff, I know...  And while I'm reading, just so you know, I'm wearing a cozy sweater and leggings. I love to dress up, but when I’m home, nothing feels better than a cozy sweater, no makeup, leggings, fuzzy socks, and a good book.

Me: We have this in common! One last question: What is the Instagram modeling contest you're competing in right now?

LaNesha: It's through Vogue. They're putting together a special Winter Issue with photographer Youss Foto and recruiting models via an Instagram contest. I sent in a few headshots, not thinking I would even be close to getting selected. To my surprise, I learned that I’d been shortlisted. How it works is the photographer is posting photos and people can vote for their favorite. There are lots of beautiful models on the shortlist, but I’m keeping my hopes high and my fingers crossed!

Me: I am going to check that out right now. And side note to my readers, if you're on Instagram and want to vote for this model librarian, see: @youssfoto. LaNesha's photo should be posted soon. In the meantime you can also follow her here: @unmistakablebeauty712

Thanks, LaNesha, so much for chatting with me today. And see you tomorrow at the library!

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Writing out loud

It's not often that I am surprised by a new writing technique. I thought I had heard them all, tips and tricks for writing through a first draft, breaking through writer's block, tackling a revision, you name it. I love hearing how other writers Do This.

A few years ago I was on an author panel with the lovely Edie Pattou, author of East, West, Ghosting, and Mrs. Spitzer's Garden. Edie hand-writes all of her novels, drafting in notebooks in the mornings and typing out her work in the afternoons. This idea was fascinating to me because I'd never hand-written a book. Even when I was in middle school I banged out my stories on a typewriter. 

But something I've learned over the years is that if you're stuck, it never hurts to try another way In. Hand-writing in pencil in a plain composition notebook, inspired by Edie, was just the trick I needed to break through a particularly painful revision. 

Unfortunately, this method didn't work for me on my next project. Another thing I've learned over the years: each book may want to be written in a different way. I know writers who figure out their process and they stick with it forever and God loves those people, but many writers I know have to try a new strategy every once in a while. 

So, if this is You, and you're stuck, I may have just the ticket:

Dictate the story to yourself. 

This gem comes straight from my friend Kristy Boyce, a YA author AND psychology professor AND mom. At our last meeting with the local SCBWI group (where Kristy is the Social Media Coordinator) she mentioned that because she is very short on time, how she writes her books is "Walking while talking into her phone." 

In one hour, she says, she can "write" 1000 words. 

How it works is you go to your Notes feature on your phone, start a new draft of a note, click the microphone icon and talk away. What you say is transcribed (sometimes not quite accurately, so be careful with that) and then you can email the transcribed file to yourself, a file that can then be copied and pasted into your Word doc. 

When Kristy explained this to our group, I was immediately excited about trying it. 

Cut to: Me, the next day, walking the dog. I looked around to make sure no one was in earshot, and off I went, "telling" myself the scene I was working on. Dialog, description, even pointing out where to add punctuation. A twenty minute walk gave me 300 mostly usable words to work with later. 

I admit I did feel a little strange doing this. And very self-conscious. But there was also something weirdly natural about it too...

And then it hit me why this idea did feel so natural. I used to write this way! Way way back when I was eight, nine, ten years old and kind of a weird little mess of a dreamy kid, I used to tell myself stories. I did this when I was walking to school and home, alone, whispering or maybe not whispering to myself. I have a vivid image of talking in third person, describing what my made up people were doing and saying. I think I waved my hands around while I was talking too, so I am sure if anyone happened to be driving by, they would wonder what the heck that strange little girl was doing. 

I wrote some of these stories down, but mostly, they were for me. 

And after all, what IS writing, anyway, but telling ourselves a story? 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

In my younger and more vulnerable years

my father gave me some advice I have been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the same advantages that you've had."

I didn't write these lines.

But if you're an American literature geek like I am, or someone who was mildly awake during a high school English class at some point in your life, you might recognize where the lines come from. It's the opening of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know these lines (and the last lines of the novel, as well as several other passages) by heart because I have read the book at least fifty times.

The first time was my junior year in Mr. Fay's English class at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

Look! That's my copy from that class and the same copy that I read the 50+ additional times.When I was a high school English teacher, I taught the book to my classes of 11th graders. I just now thumbed through it and saw both of my children's names written on the inside cover below my name, their notes from their time reading the book in school, scrawled next to my own notes as a sixteen year old and later as a teacher.

When I was sixteen, I think it was the romance that drew me in, the obsessive love Gatsby had for Daisy, but more, it was his yearning, his dreams, his desire to make himself over into someone who would be worthy. And the tragedy of it all when we find out that it none of it was enough.

Still, all of that striving was worth something regardless, right?

That's how Mr. Fay taught Gatsby anyway. We also had discussions about the class system in America, corruption, wealth, the American Dream, and the Jazz Age. And then we watched the kinda dumb movie with Robert Redford, who was too pretty and polished to be Gatsby and Mia Farrow, who was too drippy and blah to be Daisy. Or maybe not. Daisy was at the core fairly drippy and blah.

Gatsby's a good book to teach to high school students, for a variety of reasons, I later learned, when I taught it to roughly 800 students over the years. It's only 182 pages-- with nine chapters, something you can easily cover over a two week period in an average classroom. Also, to snag the attention of your students you can play up the mystery, the romance, the bling, the murders. Trust me when I tell you that in the classroom, in terms of keeping teenagers awake, Gatsby easily beats out The Scarlet Letter, another book I've read 50+ times.

And then there's the fun symbolism that all English teachers love: the green light at the end of the dock, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, and what's the deal with Daisy crying over Gatsby's beautiful shirts? So many fun essay questions...

Oh, and the book holds up under multiple readings-- which is good for the teacher having to read it 50 times-- because there are always interesting details to puzzle out. The cuff links made out of molars, Myrtle's pathetic dog, the weird interlude with Nick and another man at a party, the shitty book that Tom's reading about white supremacy.

I can go on and on. And recently, if you've talked to me, I have been going on and on about it. There's a book out about Gatsby that I've been listening to on audio written by Maureen Corrigan. It's titled appropriately So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Maureen Corrigan is a book reviewer on NPR's Fresh Air and for the record, she is my favorite book reviewer, mainly because I love her voice. It's not "full of money" (Gatsby fans will recognize the reference) but I would venture to say that it is "full of books."

Before I started listening to Maureen (can I call her Maureen?) talk about Gatsby, I wondered what she could possibly say to me that I didn't already know about the book.


I don't know who's left reading this blog post at this point, if there are any other people like me who are in the exact center of the Venn diagram of People Who Have Read Gatsby 50+ Times and People Who Love the Sound of Maureen Corrigan's Voice, but if You are one of those people, I beg you to please check out the audio of this book, so we can chat.

I will end this post with-- what else?-- the iconic last line of Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

The End

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Twenty six years ago today I was cleaning my kitchen

I don't remember if it was particularly dirty. All I remember is I had the uncontrollable urge to clean it. I am talking clean clean, the kind where you fill a bucket with sudsy, hard-core cleaning detergent and get down on your hands and knees and scour the corners. We had a big kitchen back then, bigger than any kitchen we've had since, come to think of it, so there was a lot to scour.

I was channeling my cleaning-obsessed Italian grandmother, scrubbing out the oven and emptying the cabinets so I could rid the dark edges of any dropped crumbs. And then I moved on to the bathrooms. It was a Saturday.

Every once in a while my husband would poke his head into whatever room I was presently scouring and say, hesitantly, So, um, are you finished yet?

At some point he dragged me outside to take a walk. We had a loop we used to do around our neighborhood. It started in our humble subdivision and reached up into a much fancier section that seemed like would be forever out of reach for us. Our habit after we both got home from work was to take this same walk. My husband was big into goal-setting and planning. He would say stuff like, What's our five year plan? What's the ten year? Twenty? Thirty?

I used to laugh at him. As much of an imagination as I had, I couldn't project out that far. We were twenty-six and twenty-five years old and had been married for three years and had just bought a house, things I couldn't have foreseen five years before. Five years before, I was, to put it plainly, a mess. The fall of my senior year in college I was in a dark place.

The truth is, I was suicidal. I mean, I was seriously thinking about how I would do it. The only thing that was saving me was that I was too tired. I remember going to bed one night and feeling like it was the end. I wanted only to stop the pain I was feeling. I wasn't afraid of death anymore and I couldn't imagine anyone would miss me if I were gone. Some part of me knew that this was an all-hands-on-deck situation because I started to pray. I am not a praying person, but that night I did. The prayer was a simple one:

Help. Help me understand why I should want to stay in this world.

The next morning I was exhausted and wrung out. I walked to class, stopping on the way to get the mail, how I always did, even though most days there was no mail. That morning there was a letter from my favorite professor. He was on sabbatical for the year and had never written to me before.

It was a strange out -of-the-blue letter. Basically, he said he'd been thinking about me and wondering if I was doing okay. He said, I hope you realize you have a lot in you that's wonderful.

After I read the letter it was like a veil lifted, and suddenly, I wasn't in a dark place anymore. I was outside looking in on myself, thinking very logically about my future, a future that the night before I could not envision.

I still couldn't envision it--at least not the particulars--but I knew with a weird degree of clarity that I could keep going. I could grow up. I could meet someone, get married, have a job, buy a house, have children...

Instead of dread and sadness and anxiety and fear, I felt curious. I wanted to hang around for the things that were potentially going to happen.

A few weeks later I met the man who would become my husband. Flash forward five years, and we are walking around our neighborhood where we've bought our first house. I've just finished scouring the entire place. "Oh, I understand now," my husband told me, "All of this cleaning. It's like the What to Expect When You're Expecting book says. You're nesting."

It turned out he and the book were right. That night we rushed to the hospital. In the morning we welcomed our first child into the world.

Tomorrow, he will be twenty-six years old.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The door in the garden

came from a prison. The old Ohio Penitentiary in downtown Columbus, or so the neighbors tell us. I don't know why someone would put it in a garden. People do strange things. I can see the door right now through my kitchen window.

When I first saw it, when we were thinking about buying this house, I didn't look carefully. I thought it was an old gate. Another one of those shabby chic things cluttering up this house. Broken mirrors and peeling-painted windows hung on the walls like artwork. We got rid of all of that. The prison door, though, it's stuck pretty good in the garden. 

It's a conversation piece, a friend told me. But all I can think about is a man sitting on the inside of a cell holding onto the bars. A murderer. Or some sad pathetic innocent person. I looked up the Ohio Penitentiary on Wikipedia and it’s an awful story actually. The prison opened in 1834 and operated until 1984. There was a fire in the 1930’s where 322 inmates died, some burned in their cells. 

Over the years a confederate general did time there. And the mobster Bugs Moran. The writer O Henry spent three years in the prison for embezzlement, and is said to have written 14 of his stories in the place. A sociopathic doctor in the 1950s did research on prisoners, injecting them against their will with cancer cells. 

The former prison was an abandoned building for a while in the 1980's. The city demolished it finally, in the 1990's. Today the area's the site of a shopping district and a parking garage. 

And now a piece of it is in our garden. 

But not for long.

FOR SALE: One prison door. Best offer. All proceeds will go to the Athens Books for Prisoners.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

In my old neighborhood I took the same walk with my dog every day

Well, actually, I took the same walk with her three times a day. One 15-20 minute loop around our block, past the same houses, the same trees, the same cracks in the sidewalks.

Three times a day the dog stopped to smell the same sewer cover. She sat down at the same corner to take her treat. We went in the same direction: turn right coming out of the house. Once in a while, if I was in an adventurous mood, we'd go to the left. I don't know why I fell into this pattern. I told myself it was for the dog. She gets anxious when we break our routine. But who am I kidding. I'm the one who liked following the same path.

Set me in motion, and I can go, hardly paying attention to my own feet slapping down. No need to look at the houses, the trees, the cracks.

And I was all ready to settle into a similar pattern in our new neighborhood. My daughter helpfully worked out the route for me. She was the one who took the dog for walks those first few days after moving in. She figured out a nice fifteen minute loop and pointed out the landmarks so I could follow it myself. The blocks in this neighborhood aren't perfectly rectangular. They loop and wind and double back on themselves. There are side streets and alleyways, forks in the road that split off in multiple directions.

The first few weeks I followed the route dutifully, but I kept tripping over the unfamiliar cracks, and I couldn't stop paying attention to the houses and the trees. There is too much to look at. This is a fairly old neighborhood-- the majority of the houses were built in the 1920's. Some of them are Sears kit homes and I am fascinated by this fact. And equally fascinated by all of the additions and personal touches the owners have done over the years.

Front porches and side porches. A bridge built over a dry creek bed. Glorious gardens. Around here they have vegetables growing in the front yards. Grass-less lawns filled with perennial plants and multi-tiered rock gardens. Those adorable little free libraries.

I can't stick to a pattern. I have to take the dog down every street, through every alleyway. One day we stumble upon a pollinator garden smack in the center of a street. Another day we find giant silver bulbs as large as beach balls hanging from a tree. A sculpture of a meditating toad.

meditating toad

silver bulbs

little free library

In front of one house is a bed of ridiculously large flowers, brightly colored and top heavy. They don't make sense. The blooms are too big for the stalks. They should be falling over, snapping themselves in half instead of bobbing in the breeze. I can't get over it. One morning I spy the owner and tell her how much I love those flowers.

absurdly large flowers

They're Cleome, she says. I tell her we've just moved into the neighborhood and how much I love it. She asks me where I live and we chat for a bit more and then the dog and I continue on our walk.

The next day I find a baggie of seeds hanging on our front doorknob. (Or rather, our front door faucet. Yes. All of the doorknobs in this house are faucets, no idea why.) There's a card. Enjoy!

I will.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Radical Deconstruction of a Koi Pond

When we bought this house, we inherited a koi pond and we didn't want a koi pond.

First, let me say, I have nothing against koi ponds. Our next door neighbors at our previous house have a koi pond and when we sat outside on their patio, I liked to look at the fish.

They have a big one that I called the Dr. Seuss Fish because it was enormous and could stick half of its body out of the water and it looked like any second it was going to crawl right out and walk across the patio. I told my neighbor, one of these days, there's going to be a knock on your door and you're going to look down, and it's going to be the fish.

Dr. Seuss Fish

Anyway, we inherited a koi pond and we didn't want a koi pond. We didn't know how to take care of it and we didn't really want to learn. The previous owner didn't leave behind instructions. She did leave a bag of food, but when were we supposed to feed the fish? And how much? I called our previous next door neighbor. Can you help us with the koi pond? I asked.

What I meant was, Can you take the fish out of the koi pond and put them in your koi pond?

He said, How many fish do you have?

I said, I don't know. Maybe five?

A few weeks later, he came over with a bucket and a net. He stepped into the pond and started swinging the net around. You've got more than five, he said. Also, he told us the pump was broken and something about the filter. We were all surprised when he pulled more than 25 fish out of the water.

After he left, my husband and I yanked out the overgrown vegetation and promptly found four or five more fish. The plan was we'd catch them, carry them over to our old neighbors' and begin dismantling the koi pond. The plan quickly went awry. For one thing, it was 95 degrees every day and who wanted to be outside. My husband had a hard time catching the fish. He got some and put them into a bucket, but we kept finding more. It was amazing how fast they were and how they could find hiding places in what was left of the vegetation.

I was getting nervous about the ones in the bucket. Every morning I'd go out with the dog and expect to find them floating on the surface, dead. 

One morning I went out and did my usual peek into the bucket and there was nothing there. No dead fish. No live fish. Just water. I called my husband in a panic, thinking maybe he'd dumped them all back into the pond? But no. Something must've gotten them, he said.

A raccoon? A cat? But wouldn't that have knocked over the bucket?

A friend suggested that it was a hawk. It looked like whatever fish had been left in the pond had been snatched away by the hawk too. Not to mix metaphors, but when I'd yanked out all of the vegetation, I'd basically left the poor fish out there like sitting ducks.

That night, before we'd hardly had time to process the deaths we'd inadvertently caused, we realized the empty pond had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. My husband punctured the lining to drain it and added some vegetable oil to the water, something we'd read online would keep mosquito larva from hatching.

By then the koi pond looked like a toxic waste dump. Dead plant stalks, a few oily puddles, and a mosquito graveyard.

A week later and the weather broke. This weekend it looked like we could really take some time out there to dismantle the thing once and for all. Clean up the muck. Pull out the punctured lining. Fill in the big hole.

But first, we found a fish! I have no idea how it made it through the destruction but there it was, an orange flicker in a mucky puddle. My husband caught it and took it across town to be reunited with its old friends.

The End

Tune in next time for the story of the newly discovered raccoon family living in our broken down shed.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

We dropped our daughter off at the airport

and did the whole goodbye thing. Hugs and pictures. Multiple wavings as she stood in line to go through security. And more waves as she turned to head toward her gate. We watched her walk down the hall until we couldn't see her anymore, and then there was nothing to do but go home. But we didn't want to go home yet.

There was too much traffic and we turned into the first restaurant we found off the highway.

I was thinking about the day we dropped our son off, his freshmen year. The college was close-ish to where I'd grown up and I remembered there being a clam shack on the beach, but we couldn't find it. I told my husband to keep driving while I craned my neck looking down the side streets. Everything was unfamiliar, the streets all dead-ending at the ocean, but no clam shack. Not far away our son was settling into his dorm room.

I knew he was excited and I knew he was where he was supposed to be and I knew it was all going to be okay, but still, I felt like crying. Finally, we found the clam shack. We got a table with an ocean view and stuffed ourselves with fried clams and shared a pitcher of sangria and told each other we were fine.

I relayed to my husband what my wise friend Margaret had told me about your kids going away to college. She said, When they go away to college, they're not really gone. Your home is still their home base. They'll keep coming back for holidays and over the summer. When they graduate from college, that's when they're really gone.

Whew, because we had tons of time. The night of sangrias at the clam shack we had a college freshman. We had a daughter who was only a sophomore in high school for crying out loud.

The restaurant off the highway does not serve fried clams. The view from the outdoor patio is of the shopping center parking lot. Our son has lived in San Francisco for three years. Our daughter is at the gate waiting for her flight. Soon, she'll be jetting across the ocean. She's going to graduate school in London. She'll be gone for a year.

I know they're both where they're supposed to be and I know it's all going to be okay, but still.

My husband orders us a pitcher of sangria and we tell each other we'll be fine.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

How to Paint a Room in Ten Easy Steps

1. Prep-work prep-work prep-work! It's been said that 90 percent of painting is prep-work. Okay, I don't know if that's actually been said except for me saying it, but the percentage feels right. There's so much to do before you even start painting-- decluttering the area, dusting, vacuuming... Because the last thing you want is to find a cat hair painted forever against your baseboard.

2, This week is Paint the Kitchen Week and I am ready. Painting clothes on. Hair tied back.

3. Shoot. I forgot to take all of the light plates off the walls. Side note: PLEASE DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Case in point: at the our last house, when I was removing the light plates, I realized that the previous owners had left the plates on and painted right over them. Total amateurs.

4. Primer everything. Wait. First, you've got to wash the surfaces you'll be primering. I got this tip from the guy who was standing behind me in line at the paint counter at Lowes. I was asking about primer, explaining to the Paint Clerk that the people who lived in the house before us smoked and now everything smelled smoky and what kind of primer was best for this problem, and the guy behind me piped up that he knew all about that, being a contractor and just having painted an entire house where six people had smoked up the place for twenty years.

The secret: a solution of water mixed with bleach and Dawn Dishwashing Liquid.

For the record: this is a messy yucky job and it takes a good part of a day.

5. Primer everything. Two coats. (This takes two days.)

6. Paint the ceiling. I have never painted a ceiling before but how hard can it be? I watch a bunch of Youtube videos. And I'm ready. Side note: It's not hard, exactly, but I do get a nice crick in my neck that reminds me of that summer I painted all of the McDonalds in Central Connecticut. 

7. Paint the walls! No, wait. First, you've got to tape everything off. I used to do this step religiously, but after painting what feels like a thousand rooms, I am more confident in my ability to paint a straight line. Still, it's a good idea to tape what you absolutely do not want to ruin. The kitchen cabinets, for example. This step takes a good two hours.

8. Paint the walls!! The color we've chosen is called Familiar Beige and I think it's lovely. Warm and brown. A few weeks ago I painted swatches of it on every wall to make sure we all really like it. We all really do.

But now that I've painted a wall,

I'm not so sure. Maybe it's clashing a little with the cabinets? No. It's fine. I keep going. I paint the entire kitchen and the back entryway. When my husband gets home from work, I ask him what he thinks and he hesitates. It looks a little red? he says. I argue with him that it does not look a little red. And anyway, what's wrong with a little red.

Nothing, he says. Forget I said anything.

I send him off to buy another gallon of Familiar Beige so I can paint the second coat, but as he's walking out the door, I say, Maybe we can change the cabinets?

He hesitates again.


We have a nice long bickery argument with our daughter looking on and shaking her head.

My husband flips through our collection of approximately 200 thousand Lowes paint samples and picks out another color, something called Salt Crystal that looks a lot like the color of the cabinets. He is so wrong about this color selection and I tell him 50 times and then I send him out to buy it.

8. I paint the entire kitchen again in Salt Crystal. Twice. It's creamy and delicious and makes me think of buttercream frosting and damn it all to hell, my husband is right. I do something I rarely do. I tell him he is right.

9. Paint the trim. Twice. (Two days)

10. Peel off the painter's tape. (Two hours)

Wah lah!

Now it is time to paint the dining room.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Please let me pay my fine

The library where I work has gone fine-free.

This is a not-new idea (but new to our little community) that libraries should be about making patrons feel welcome and wanting to check out materials without worrying about being penalized for returning items a few days late. There's been research that shows that some people stop going to the library when they owe a fine, and of course, this hits poorer patrons hardest.

Also, our library didn't really make that much money on fines anyway, and it took a lot of employee time to keep up with them, time that could be better spent on programming and community outreach.

We've been explaining the new policy for the past few weeks, and some people are having a more difficult time with it than others.


Man (eyeing the new DVD display): So, am I really not going to get fined if I don't return a movie on time?

Me: That's right. We're fine free.

Man (smirking): I used to bring these back on time because there was a fine. Now, why should I?

Me: Well, if you don't return the item at all, you'll get charged for it.

Man: Ha! I knew it! You're going to fine me!

Me: No. As soon as you bring the item back, we'll remove the charge from your account.

Man (shaking his head): And you think this is going to work?

Me: Most patrons bring items back regardless of the fine. They get it that if they want to see a movie or check out a book, they have to return it so other people can have a chance too.

Man (taking a movie and still smirking at me): Ooookay.

Example Two:

Woman: I have a fine on my account. I know you're fine free now, but this is an old fine and I want to pay it.

Me (looking up her account and assuming there's some massive fine): Hmm. It looks like you owe 20 cents.

Woman (fumbling around in her purse): That's right. Here's my money.

Me: You don't really have to pay that. It'll just sit on your account and won't keep you from checking materials out.

Woman (looking distressed and thrusting two dimes at me): I don't like owing money. Please let me pay what I owe.

Me: Ooookay.

So this is how it's been going for the last few weeks with people seeming to fall into two camps. The ones who are immediately thinking about how they can game the system and the ones who are freaked out about owing ten cents from ten years ago.

Maybe the smirky guy's right and the whole library system will collapse if we don't punish people.

But then, this happened:

A woman came in to use a computer. For the record, anyone can walk into a public library and use the computers, print something, copy or fax something. There's a small charge for copies but otherwise computer use is free. It's one of the most-used services at the library.

I asked the woman if she had a library card and she hesitated and then said no. I gave her a guest pass and off she went, but later, she came back to the desk.

Not quite looking at me, she whispered, I think I do have a library card, but I owe some fines and I haven't used my card in a while.

Well, let's look, I said. I entered her information into the computer and nothing came up. Nope, I told her. You're not in our system anymore. Sometimes the library will purge accounts that aren't used for a while. So you're good. No fines.

She didn't say anything. She still wasn't looking at me.

Do you want to get a new library card today?  I asked.

I can get a card today? she said.


I walked her through the application and in three minutes I handed her a card. I did my spiel about how many items she could borrow and all of the programs we offered and gave her our little brochure, which still shows the list of fines.

Ignore all that, I said. We're printing up a new brochure soon. We're fine free now.

She looked at me and I realized she was crying. I pretended I didn't notice.

Welcome to the library, I said.