A Change of Philosophies

When I was young, I had two fairly insipid philosophies that I lived by.

Home is where your clothes are,” and “Being afraid of something is not a reason not to do it.”

Now they sound idiotic to me at this age but I understand my point of view at the time. I traveled around a good bit so after living out of a suitcase for awhile, I’d inevitably bask in the pleasure of having all my clothes around me. (If I was somewhere long enough to have them sent to me.) Clothes are really so much more personal than furniture for defining who you are, for comforting you and for providing familiarity.

Especially when you’re young, your clothes announce to the world how you hope to be seen: sexy or too-casual-to-care or Marian-the-librarian or what have you. Your wardrobe contains your special party clothes (the ultimate costumes for projecting how you wish to appear to others) as well as seasonal clothes. Like Christmas ornaments, when you pull a sweater out of storage after not seeing it for a year, you not only feel like it’s somewhat new again, but it has a few memories attached to it, too.

I think it interesting that I saw my clothes—something so innately portable—as the thing that attached me to a place or  made me feel at home. Because I’m not nor have I ever been much of a clotheshorse or fashionista. I certainly never invested any real money in clothing and when I finally got to a certain age (and financial level) one of the first things I told myself was that I’d never buy clothes out of season again. (So smart and frugal, but such an exercise in delayed gratification.)

The second philosophy—and the one I hope my own son never thinks of let alone follows—was no doubt created because I’d made up my mind to do something and didn’t want a little thing like better judgment or second-thoughts to derail me. (Come to think of it, this also goes along with the idea of being my own worst enemy but that is another post.)

I did things in my youth that took me waaaaaay outside my comfort zone and I did them because I knew I’d be glad somewhere down the line that I did (and I was right BTW). I likely also did them because I knew someone else had done them first (so I wasn’t totally crazy), but I knew that without that little push from myself, (the philosophy chanted like a mantra at particularly scary moments) I wouldn’t open the doors that I needed to open.

My Dad used to say when you’re on your deathbed, it won’t be the things you did in your life that you’ll regret but the ones you didn’t do. I have to say I took that way of thinking to its limits most of my life. I tend to be a tad shy (and lazy) and I’m definitely more comfortable wrapped up in an afghan in front of a gas fire with a cup of tea than I am reaching out to people or accepting invitations or pulling on my boots and going out into the chilly night.

I think a lot of the promises we make to ourselves when we’re young have to do with the idea of freedom or staying true to ourselves, even if we don’t consciously put it into exact words like that. I also think, at the end of the day, that it’s fear, generally, that keeps us from fulfilling those promises. I was always determined that I wouldn’t let being afraid—even justifiably so—get the best of me.

That whole concept pretty much came to a screeching halt the day I found out I was pregnant.

I swear I don’t think I was ever really very anxious about anything until I had a child. And then, a whole new world of things to worry about opened up to me. Forget traveling on a whim to Bahrain as a single woman with a backpack and no permanent address—try watching your sixteen year-old drive off alone in the family car for the first time.

It comes down to what you value most. I’m not saying I didn’t value my safety when I walked through Little India (in heels) alone and at dusk in Singapore in the late eighties. But the reassurance of “what are the chances?” doesn’t really give any comfort at all when it’s your own precious child whose taillights you’re watching go around the curve as he heads toward I-285.

These days, when I wave him off to wherever his road takes him (currently that’s back to his dorm room an hour and half away), I realize that my old mantras or “philosophies” were really just tools to help me go forward—to get my bite out of life without letting it pass me by (all too easily done).

Nowadays, I don’t worry about taking chances or staying open to surprises and opportunities. My current codes-to-live-by are all different variations, pretty much, of the same “please keep him safe” prayer. I know “safe” isn’t a great way to live if it’s your life. But from a mother’s point of view, it’s exactly spot-on.

Again, it comes down to what you value most. I know I’ve still got a lot to do in this life—but mostly, I don’t think it’s stuff that will require much bravery anymore. I figure I’ll deal with whatever’s coming with the tools I’ve already gathered and honed from a lifetime of living experiences.

As far as suggesting philosophies-to-live-by for my son and the world he lives in, I have to say that while I’m impressed that my own parent was brave enough to tell me I’d regret not doing things worse than doing them, I’m just not quite that unselfish –or brave—to pass the same philosophy along to my own child.

Not yet anyway.

 

The places travel really takes us to

I write a lot about travel and how it affects us because of the perspective I think it allows us when we get away from our own little corner of the world. I always re-enter my daily round with a fresh way of seeing things after I’ve been outside the US. It’s easy to construct a simplistic mental picture of what “out there” looks like from the vantage point of our front porches and I think a lot of us do that because it helps to manage day-to-day stresses  if we can just compartmentalize and reduce the larger world. To that end, I find I often fall into thinking of certain countries in stereotypes in my mind—until I visit them again and am reminded how basically alike we all are after all.

One of my favorite memories, and one that I hope I will keep vivid in my mind until I’m an old bent-over crone with pins in my hips, is the forty-five minutes I spent in Venice between midnight trains one night many years ago.

The forty-five minutes is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. I was traveling Europe with my mother and my paternal aunt and I’d miscalculated the timing between trains for our trip from Nuremberg to Prague. A five-hour layover in Venice was the result. Later,  I realized I should have just booked us a couple of rooms and gone with the flow but at the time, staying to our schedule seemed important.  I parked my elderly companions at the restaurant, where we later had a memorable pasta dinner watching the cold drizzle  (it was October) from our table, and trotted the half-mile back to the train station to grab tickets for the next train. It was only a few blocks but it was already dark when I left the restaurant and the fog had dropped heavily onto the streets like a wet drape.

19212830I slipped down an alleyway that looked to me to be a short cut to where I remembered the train station was and when I came out of it, I saw I was standing in front of one of those arching stone bridges that crisscross back and forth over Venice’s canals. I took one step onto the bridge and stopped, for what reason I can’t imagine since I am nothing if not single-minded, needing constantly to be reminded to look around me. I realized that I was totally alone although it wasn’t late. I stood on the bridge, stopped in my mission and just needing to pause and look into the murky fog that blanketed the water below. As I watched, a single gondolier emerged from the mist—his back straight, his hat at an angle, the pole fluid in his hands. He began to pass beneath me on the bridge and just before he did, he looked up at me and languidly blew me a kiss.

Then he disappeared beneath the bridge and back into the mist.

If I hadn’t  continued to stare after him as he retreated, I might have convinced myself I imagined it. The feeling that that gesture evoked in me—so cavalier, so Italian, so romantic—registered an emotion in me that made my heart ache.

I’ve thought about it so many times since then. Why did it affect me so? Was I longing for love? Was I needing an affirmation of my youth? My attractiveness? And more than just what I felt when he did it, what about why he did it? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t expecting me to throw him a tip. I couldn’t see that he did it for any other reason than just the fact that we were both alive and the night was young.

I used to try to imagine who he was. Was he a complex man? Did he have  a wide range of deep emotions? Could he be the sort of complicated  individual who could have a fight with his wife that morning, maybe worry about paying an electric bill in the afternoon and then coast through the eerie mist and spontaneously blow a kiss to a lone woman on a stone bridge? Or was he simple-minded? Did he blow kisses to everyone he saw?

GondolierI honestly don’t know why the experience arrested me so. Or why I still think of it to this day. I just know that sometimes when we travel away from our own streets and subdivisons, we can find ourselves  mindful of the world around us in ways that we aren’t normally, and magic—unexpected and potent—can come drifting by in front of us where, for once, we actually see it.

When the reader knows better than the author

Sometimes the book you write comes from down deep inside you and it’s a liberation because you can explore the thing that’s driving you without doing something permanent—like run off to join the circus or get plastic surgery. Sometimes the book is “fixing” a thing that’s wrong in your own life—even if, of course, it doesn’t really fix it. But the fictional world you create can be manipulated by you, the author, to right the wrongs that can’t be righted in reality.

Of course every book isn’t like this. Sometimes a story is just a story and, for me, as long as I’m totally immersed in it, that’s all I need. And that’s true whether I’m reading it or writing it.

This series I just finished writing, The Irish End Game, was triggered by a singular frustration on my part when I saw the world rushing by so fast that I felt the likelihood of appreciating the smaller things in life was becoming less and less possible for me and my family. (Stopping to smell the roses or even glance in the direction of the roses was something I struggle to do even before I discovered Netflix and on-demand videos.)

So I wrote a book about a woman who went on vacation with her family and was literally forced to stop and smell the roses when a bomb went off and stranded them in a foreign country. I put them well away from any support system, any familiarity, any infrastructure and please God any technology. I loved writing this story because it was all about survival and having to do things none of us ever think about on a daily basis in our happy, comfortable pre-apocalyptic daily rounds.

And when I ended the book and had the family return to their home in the states, sadder but wiser with any future overuse of their techno-toys, I got emails and reviews from readers, literally from around the world, that said, in effect: “No effing way are you letting them go home as if nothing happened and don’t tell me they “learned so much during their trial in Ireland.”

So when I looked at the first book in the series, Free Falling, which is permanently free by the way wherever ebooks are sold: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, Diesel, Kobo, but also available in print, I decided to do the one thing that a traditional author would never be able to do in a million years.

I rewrote the ending.

That’s right. I decided my readers were right and I turned that military transport plane around and had my hapless American family stay right where they were, complete with no cars, no electricity, no communications and no safety net. And then I let the bad guys come out of the woodwork and from behind the bushes in the peaceful Irish countryside.

It turned out my readers knew more than I did about where this story was going…where it needed to go next.

Book 2 in the series, Going Gone, ratchets up the tension and the violence (it is post-apocalyptic after all) by putting the American heroine, Sarah, on a long and desperate journey across some of the most treacherous terrain in the world in the Welsh National Forest in order to find her way back to her family. In this book, I’m able to fully explore what a normal soccer Mom might be capable of–when push comes to bloody shove.

The 3rd book in the series, Heading Home, was released last week. The entire Irish End Game series is on sale right now as a complete volume for 6.99, or separately for 3.99 a piece. I sincerely hope you enjoy this dip into what-if? And that, at the end of it, you find yourself appreciating all our freedoms (and technologies!) all the more for it.

While I ended the series in such a way that, if I get no more emails, I’m pretty comfortable leaving it as it is, if prompted, I can write another book in the series. And maybe another after that.

Hey. I’m game if you are.

What are YOU watching these days?

What does it say about us as a people that most of us can name ten brands of perfume or handbags or yogurt, but can’t name ten US presidents?

19066849 When I was younger and living overseas, I would frequently get good-naturedly ragged (I assume it was good-natured) about the average American’s reputation for being uninterested in anything that happens outside of America.  Living in a foreign country, I was amazed at how interested everyone in my host country was in foreign news. New Zealanders will pour over news from South Africa or Japan with nearly the same interest as their own island. I knew what they said about my country was true—most people I knew “back home” didn’t know or care to know about things happening outside the country.

I have a not-so-funny anecdote about my best friend in the States who, when I said I was moving from New Zealand to the UK, asked me if that was closer to Atlanta. (She has a graduate degree and is an accomplished clinician. She just never bothered to look at a map beyond the borders of the U S of A.)

You know what I think? If anything, we’ve gotten worse.

Why is it that the xenophobic Americans have gotten even more stand-offish?  I don’t think it has anything to do with fear of terrorists or a baseline distrust of other countries. If anything,  you’d think a heightened concern for our safety  abroad would prompt an obsession in the average American regarding the motives and goings-on in other countries.

No, I think it’s more insidious than that.  I think it’s us.

I think the cable and ready-availability of nearly 24-7 celebrity news and lowest common denominator action films has helped us lose our ability to focus on things that really matter in lieu of who got married to whom or who is having whose baby out of wedlock.

And don't even get me started on the weight problem we have in this country!

And don’t even get me started on the weight problem we have in this country!

I grant you it’s easier to listen to silly gossip or watch semi-famous people dodge photographers than it is to sit through a Ken Burns documentary or listen to a pundit explain our sorry political situation at the moment, but apathy does not explain this phenomenon—not at all. You have to ask yourself: why are we more willing to watch something that has  nothing to do with us instead of something that fundamentally impacts the way we live?

What does that say about who we are?

Now just get rid of all the boring "text," and you'll have tomorrow's best seller!

Now just get rid of all the boring “text,” and you’ll have tomorrow’s best seller!

At the very least, I’d say we are a nation of drastically shortened attention spans. If you look at the popular movies and books of today and slap them up against what was “in” just twenty years ago, you’ll see more exposition and description in novels back in the eighties; more leisurely approaches in movie settings and characterizations. Today, we’re so impatient to ingest the story, our books read like scripts—mostly white space and dialogue because everyone knows readers won’t trudge through  descriptions to set the scene.

By catering to the fast and easy, the get-on-and-get-off mentality of the typical American consumer (and if you’re selling to them, baby, you’re catering to them), we have permanently altered the pace and methodology of how we deliver information, entertainment and even education.

I found this amazing quote that supports my theory from a popular politician who made a stunning prediction that, I think, brings us to the cusp of where we stand today. He said:

 “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step in and crush us…? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio (River) or make a track on the Blue Ridge…in a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

That comment by Abe Lincoln is more relevant today than it was when he delivered it in 1838. The way we live today—dedicated to a culture of gossip and consumerism and fast, painlessly delivered data (and that mostly nonsense)—is a personification of us as a country, a noose coiled around our collective necks, kicking the stool we’re standing on.

And the hell of it?  We can’t avoid where we’re going because—even though we’re determined to wear blindfolds for the trip—we are still the ones in the driver’s seat.

Tess Trueheart: Voodoo Dog

This is a departure for me so if you can’t bear the thought of wading through somebody else’s dog story I totally understand and will catch you next time. For everybody else…

I once had cause to learn about a wunderdrug in veterinarian circles called Anipryl when my poodle mix began to show signs of confusion. I tried it on her and was happy to see her shake off a new foggy-headed recalcitrance and quickly become her old self again. It made me think, even though she had yet to show any change in behavior, that my other aging pooch, Tessie Trueheart, might also be a candidate for the drug.722258

To be honest, Tess had always been a little gaga right from the get-go.

The list of symptoms that Anipryl claims to countermand read as a personality description of  Tessie who I found at a Humane Society  in Gainesville, Georgia when she was 18-months old.

A mixed-breed terrier, Tess had a hunted, fearful look in her large brown eyes that I was convinced I could vanquish with lots of love and attention. Years later, the best that I can honestly say is that the fearful look wasn’t always there. Whatever happened in those first eighteen months of her life was always lurking right below the surface.

Tess never failed to shy her head from my hand when I leaned down to pet her. She never understood what I wanted when I called her to me. I’d have to say that she adapted to love and learned to tolerate signs of it from us, her family who she lived with for 14 years, but physical intimacy or affection would always freak her out and we learned to be careful not to oppress her.

When Tess first came to live with us, she spent a good deal of time staring at walls. (This, by the way, is one of the classic symptoms that Anipryl promises to address.) There were times when the rest of the family would be watching TV and one of us would turn away from the tube to notice that Tessie was staring intently at one of us—often within just a few feet of our faces.

Once when my brother came to stay with us for a long week to build a fence around our house, he spent evenings with Tess on his lap which was unheard of. He spoke to her in a soft, crooning voice, constantly soothing her. By the time he said goodnight each night, she would follow him to his bedroom and then sleep outside his door.

However, the next morning she would bark at him as if she had never laid eyes on him. She did this every morning for the nine days he was with us. Devoted to him by night. Totally unprepared for him by morning.

A Haitian woman who was cleaning our house once remarked to me as she was leaving one day: “Your dog talks to me.” I had to admit I had noticed that Tess was particularly committed to staring at this woman as she worked. “What’s she saying?” I asked. The woman went to Tess and pulled back her ears. 81746934“Mostly stuff about food and hating the vacuum cleaner,” she said. “But she says children threw rocks at her.” The woman’s hands rubbed over the scars behind Tessie’s ears that I didn’t even know were there.

Once we gave a dinner party where Tess sat two feet away from one of the female dinner guests and kept up a low-grade growl while never once taking her eyes off the woman. (I must confess to having never liked this woman and was more amused by Tessie’s rudeness than I should have been.)

If she was let out to the backyard to relieve herself, she would later return to the closed door and stand silently for one of us to remember she was out there. But when you opened the door, she would just stand there staring at you. (Another advertised symptom treatable by Anipryl, BTW.) Usually my husband or I just lifted her back inside.

We often referred to Tess as our “voodoo dog,” because she was so otherworldly in so many ways. She acted as if she heard voices from a place only she had access to.

Once she awoke the house in the middle of the night by making a sound like a human scream. Later that morning, we received word that a friend of ours, dying of breast cancer, had given up the fight at exactly the time in the middle of the night that Tess screamed.

Tess was a classic Omega dog. She never allowed herself to sleep on our bed while we are actually in it, but indulged when we left. While my other dog would sniff a proffered treat suspiciously, holding it up to the light, touching a tentative tongue to it to make sure I wasn’t trying to poison her, Tess immediately wolfed down anything offered to her. She allowed all other animals in our house—dogs and cats—to eat before she did, yet she was ravenously hungry at all times.

Tessie resembled a bloated miniature greyhound. She was tan and, because she liked food so much and I saw it as a way to give her love, chubby. Her head was small, her legs long and skinny but her middle was very round. Once, when my husband was picking up my step-daughter from her relatively-snooty equine day camp which was heavily populated with adorable Jack Russells in the back of every SUV, Tess, who had accompanied my husband that day, got out and became briefly, insanely happy, rolling in a pile of horse manure. When my husband finally caught her, a middle-aged and very unimpressed woman asked with intense disdain what kind of dog it was. My husband—carrying a redolent Tessie at arms’ length—grinned at her and said: “I’m surprised you don’t know. This is a pedigreed Butterball!”

Two years after we got Tess, my son pointed out to me that Tessie was wagging her tail. We’re not sure when, exactly, she started doing that, but we do know she hadn’t done it before.

As it turned out, while I was happy to have my other ancient dog on Anipryl—and was pleased with the results—I knew in my heart that it wasn’t really an option for Tess.88305750

As my husband said, “What if we put her on it and she becomes normal?”

Heaven forbid.

NB: When Tessie died, she did it in typical Tessie-style—without explanation or advance warning on the 14th anniversary of the day we found her.

 

 

As Parents of Boys, Does the Worry Ever End?

This is an older post that I’m re-posting in honor of my son’s 19th birthday  this month and the birth of my stepson’s first child (a boy) due to make his arrival later this month.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a statement that I know a lot of people will have an issue with but it needs to be said so here goes: when it comes to having children, girls are better than boys.

There. It’s said.

19260736And I have to say I welcome any and all to refute or argue that this is not true. My own incontrovertible arguments are below.

It has been my experience as an only girl with three brothers and as the mother of an only boy that a boy is born and then begins a fairly constant campaign of trying to kill himself from then on.

You do not find girls flipping through gun magazines at age eight. You don’t see girls trying to create their own mailbox bomb at ten or taking apart the laptop because “You didn’t look like you were using it much and I wanted to see how it worked.” You just don’t.

I have friends with girl children and they have plenty to complain about but none of the whining or gossiping or nonstop talking or whatever gripe you have about daughters can compare with the worry you must live with on a daily basis when your child is a boy.

My older brother got his pilot’s license on his sixteenth birthday, before he even collected his driver’s license, which he did the very next day. My mother, when it became evident that my son was also mad for jets, said: “Do yourself a favor, forbid him to learn to fly now and save yourself the terror you’ll experience every time he walks out the door.”

Unfortunately, when I laid down the edict to my son, like most things, I went too far. I told him something along the lines of : “I don’t want you to fly as long as I am taking breath on this earth.” Maybe not surprisingly, the thought of my dying does not appear to unduly unsettle him. Rather, he finds himself wondering how old he’ll be (i.e. when I die) and if there’ll be a flying school near his house.

7232917Boys want to do dangerous things with dangerous implements and they want to do them pretty much from the moment they can reach. I have a girlfriend who had three girls before she and her husband were surprised with their last, a boy. She told me the story of how she handed down to this, her last child, a wooden toy that all her daughters had played with as babies. She said the first time she gave it to him—he still couldn’t walk yet—he gave it a whack that broke it into three useless pieces.

Boys are so different.

My husband’s cousin’s son achieved fame within the family (posthumously, I must add) when, clowning around with his pals, he climbed a telephone pole and then reached for the wrong wire.

Can you imagine a girl doing this?

I think being a parent means learning to manage fear just about all the time. When you treasure something that much, you’re constantly worried about losing it, but with a boy, the worry is racheted up several notches higher. I mean, really, what is there to worry about with a girl?

That she’ll drink or do drugs? That worry is not exclusive to girls and boys have a worse peer pressure for doing those kinds of naughty things.

That she’ll be abducted, raped and murdered? Sorry, that also is not exclusive to girls.

That she’ll get pregnant? Please. Not the end of the world. Nobody dies in this scenario. Next.

That she’ll get a DUI (or worse)? New statistics have come out that indicate teenage girls are delaying getting their driver’s licenses. So, fewer of them are driving until later when they’re more mature. Boys are LESS mature at 16 than girls are at that age and THEY are not delaying getting their licenses!

32252586How about that she’ll want to play with guns or bash her brains out playing football or decide to join the Army or take up rock climbing so she can hang from a precipice 10,000 feet up and make you go totally WHITE before your time?

Boys are different.

My son is into backpacking and he’s recently bought a camping hammock. To me, the hammock resembles one of those contraptions you hang bananas in until they ripen, not unlike, I assume, how a hungry bear will view my son.

Which brings me to the end and the seemingly innocuous incident which prompted this post in the first place. Upon returning home from school today, my son grabbed a hatchet and said: “Heading into the woods, Mom, to find something for Dad’s birthday.”

Seriously. Can you honestly imagine a girl uttering these words? (Fortunately, it was a tree, not an animal in his crosshairs but even so, there was blood involved when it was all over.)

Boys. Are. Different.

39176807And finally, what about the undeniable comfort one parent gets from the solidarity of being able to share fears and concerns with the other parent? Let me refute that myth right now. When my husband came home tonight, he dropped his briefcase and headed out the back door, yelling over his shoulder in the direction of my son’s bedroom: “Hurry, John! Neighbor said there’s a nest of copperheads in the back yard.”

Seriously?

ALL. Boys. Are. Different

NB Update: My stepson’s baby wasn’t born “later this month” as I mentioned earlier but the day after I wrote this post, on October 3. So, welcome to the world little Brody–now put down that rattle and get back in that bassinet!

How do you spell SUCCESS?

I was at a regional  writing conference last year (and I’m pretty sure I’m swearing off the foolish things forever) where the authors who had traditional publishers—even if they never saw an advance*—behaved poorly around the crowd of indie authors who were in attendance. From my conversations with the two groups, both seemed pretty well versed in publicity and book promotion methods. Both were focused on craft improvement. In fact, the only difference I saw between the two groups was that the Indie authors were making money on the sales of their books. And the trad authors, well, weren’t. (*Interesting note: The authors who had gotten sizable advances from their publishers didn’t tend to act like jerks lording it over the indies but the ones who hadn’t gotten any money up front, kinda did.)

It seems to me that there are two ways to claim success in any given field:

  1. You either produce something of quality that has your peers (or the general public) raving,
  2. Or you are well-paid for the thing you’ve produced even if nobody breaks down your door to tell you how marvelous you are.

After thinking not very long at all on this, I realized that my idea of writing success involves getting paid for my efforts—at least enough to live on.  I don’t have to win the lottery, but I’d consider a thousand bucks a month still “hobby” status. (I’ve been a freelance copywriter nearly my whole adult life so it wasn’t

You'll notice this writer, typical of most authors--trad or indie--is clutching a fistful of singles...

You’ll notice this writer, typical of most authors–trad or indie–is clutching a fistful of singles…

that big a jump for me to see writing fiction as something I should be paid for. I tend to believe this, in spite of the fact that artists and authors through the ages typically weren’t able to support themselves on their earnings. No one is more surprised than I am to realize that getting paid for my work—even work that doesn’t sell gym memberships or Lexus cars—is a baseline expectation of mine.

And of course, before you ask—yes, I’d do it even if I never earned a dime.

Goes without saying.

So along those lines is of course the other big reason to write. In fact, probably the main reason. It’s the reason most writers all started out with, and it’s the one that sustains us through the brown bar of shame on our Kindle Reports, the one-star reviews and the $1,000-plus editor and cover design costs.

John Gardner said it best, I think, on the last page of  his book, On Becoming A Novelist when he wrote:

“The true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga or way, an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfaction no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

So which is it? Do you write for money? Or for recognition? Do you have to have both to consider yourself successful? Or do you just write for yourself and book sales are irrelevant?

Love to hear.

But what have you done lately?

The above headline is one of the industry jokes shared among the inmates of the profession of advertising when I was in the biz. It wasn’t really very funny and it basically addressed the fact that regardless of how many CLIO awards you’d won or whatever glowing peer recognition you’d tallied up for being brilliant, you were really only as good as your last ad campaign. The rest of it—regardless of how good your TV and print ads looked in your portfolio—was irrelevant compared to what you had done lately. Maybe a lot of professions are like that. I’ve been away from the business for several years now but I was reminded of this attitude the other day when I visited my mother at her house.

I walked in on her in the middle of the day and found her elbow-deep in clipped out magazine recipes and open cookbooks at the dining room table. When I asked her what she was doing, she sighed and said: “Still trying to find my signature dish.”

I sat down with a thump and laughed until I cried. We both did.

My mother will celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a few weeks.

What's YOUR signature dish?

What’s YOUR signature dish?

So it’s officially true. You never stop looking for that one thing that sets you apart, that one gift that will have people remembering you and immortalizing you. My mother was a gifted painter in her day and she was gorgeous to boot: thick auburn hair, ivory skin, hazel eyes, willowy slim. Like many people who’ve lived a long time, she’s done a lot in her life: raised kids, been adored by a special man, (thankfully for us kids it was our father), and travelled the world.

Seeing her at the dining room table looking for the dish that might be the lynchpin of her reputation as a cook was great to see because it reminded me that while I and the rest of my family are in awe (and fear) of her advancing age, that’s not how she sees things.

She sees that she’s not done yet and that reputations can still be made.

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it's "too cheesy" can it really be what I'm known for?

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it’s “too cheesy” can it really be what I’m known for?

I love that about her. In no small part since it helped me to see the world in more cheerful colors, because I’m also still searching for my “signature dish.” I don’t think my mother’s intention was so much in search of a legacy  after she’s gone but to fulfill a reputation right now. She’s looking for the thing her family will think of her today, beyond all her other accomplishments in life.

What about you? Are you still looking for your “signature dish?” The thing that sets you apart and that people will think of when they think of you? Would love to hear!

The Merits of Losing

There’s this building on Peachtree Road in the neighborhood of Buckhead in Atlanta. It’s a very old apartment building called the Al Hambra. I lived there in the mid-eighties. The Al Hambra was all hardwood floors and Mediterranean-styled rounded doorways. My apartment had a stone balcony that faced Peachtree Road and I could sit out there with my friends, drink beer and watch the Peachtree Road Race every year, or just sit out and drink beer.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I've set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

My apartment is the bottom one, far left (nearly out of the picture.) I’ve set two mysteries here in my Maggie Newberry mystery series.

Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I’d wrap up in a comforter and sit out there and watch the night life happen right in front of me and I always felt perfectly safe. The sounds of sirens and horns honking were background noise to my life  for the three years I lived there.

Because the Al Hambra is located in Buckhead near Garden Hills, I could walk to the neighborhood restaurants, mom ‘n pop grocers, pubs and outdoor cafes. The city’s first Fellini’s Pizza opened up next door to the Al Hambra and although in the beginning it was tattered and dark and bare bones, it was also exotic and earthy and quickly became popular. I liked meeting friends there to sit outside, eat pizza (and drink beer) because you could feel the hum of the busiest street in the city as it flew by. Living at the Al Hambra made me feel alive. It  made me feel like something exciting was about to happen.

I loved the Al Hambra. And I loved living there. But more interesting, I think, is the story of how I lost it. And how losing it became a major turning point in my life. In fact it became the final event in a series of four events that happened over a six-week period that changed my  life for good.

The first event that happened was when I lost my job as Creative Director at the ad agency that had the Hardee’s Hamburger account. It was the only account we had and when we lost it, we closed the doors. Like most out-of-work writers, I just turned my hand to freelancing with no real financial hardship.

A week later, the second event happened when I saw the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Seeing that movie was significant because it lit a fire under me that helped push me over the line right when things needed to happen. That movie illustrated to me that I was young and free and there were adventures in the world to be had if I would just tap into the courage needed to find them.

The third thing that happened was that a good friend of mine introduced me to a man who was visiting him from Auckland, New Zealand. We hit it off and as I didn’t have a job to worry about, I made plans to come “down there” and visit him. I bought a round-trip ticket to Auckland for a month’s visit. I began to view my coming visit to the South Pacific as the Big Adventure I was looking for.

My parents weren’t thrilled.

Auckland is a long way away, even for a visit. It was in fact the furthest point on the globe, except for Adelaide, Australia, from where they lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In those days—before computers, before cellphones, before LOTR—most people I talked to didn’t even know where NZ was on the map.

As it happened, my folks were right to be worried. And that’s because two weeks before I was to board the jet to LAX that would take me to Auckland, I got a letter from the management company of the Al Hambra telling me to vacate the premises. They were turning the building into condos. If I—and everyone else—would clear out within thirty days, we’d get our deposits back no questions asked.

This was the fourth and most crucial event. With no job and now no apartment to come back to in ATL, there was no reason not to stretch my visit as long as I wanted to stay. With my stuff safely in storage, my plants donated to friends, a hunky new love-interest with a really cool English accent waiting for me, I was able to turn away from all the security, comfort, and familiarity of my life in Atlanta—in the States for that matter—and prepare to embrace the unknown and experience the thrill of discovering the larger world that was out there.

My parents nearly went nuts.

But it was one of the very best things I’ve ever done.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my living room window in Parnell.

Rangitoto volcano across from Auckland Harbour. This was the view from my balcony in Parnell.

If I hadn’t lost my apartment at the Al Hambra, I wouldn’t have taken that last step—to find a job down there, which I did, or to spend the next two years living abroad and traveling the world solo—Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, Tahiti, Fiji, London, St-Tropez. The experience changed me fundamentally—as travel always does. The things I saw, the people I met, helped make me the person I am today.

My grand adventure came together in a series of coincidences combined with lucky kismet over a six-week period. But I was ready for it. I was looking for it.

I didn’t make it happen. But I knew to let it happen when it came.

I’ve recently moved away from Atlanta—my home for more than thirty years—but when I used to drive down Peachtree Road—to take my son to some piano competition or football practice, or to meet my husband for lunch (not the same fellow I should add)—and pass by the Al Hambra, I always felt a rush of gratitude when I saw it.

I felt gratitude for the joy I had living there, once upon a time when I was a single girl in Buckhead, unfettered and alive.

But also for the thrill I once had leaving there, too.

Marriage is No Laughing Matter

A couple well into their nineties are in front of a judge to get final confirmation on their appeal for a divorce. When asked by the judge why, after  seventy years of marriage, they were divorcing now, the couple said: “We wanted to wait until after the children were dead.”

Okay, that’s pretty dark, and I’m sure it says something about my husband and me that it never fails to amuse us, but as I approach the 24th anniversary of the day I met him, I thought I’d wrench myself away from the endless unpacking, writing and equally endless rewriting long enough to share a few thoughts on marriage survival. I guess it’s an obvious no-brainer that with the average divorce rate hovering at 50%, pulling off a long marriage is a tricky wicket taking immense amounts of hard work and commitment, in addition to love. Like everyone else, my husband and I have had our share of ups and downs and in some ways nobody is more surprised than I am to find myself with twenty-three years of marriage under my belt.

The fact is, I married late (I was 37) and while I’m convinced I stumbled into “soul-mate” territory when I finally met my husband, I have to say I’ll encourage my own son to find his mate a whole lot sooner than I did. So along those lines, I’ve compiled a helpful little list to aid him. (He’s always so pleased when I do stuff like this—isn’t your teenager?) Fortunately for him, I’m taking most of the list not from personal experience but from a very sensible, albeit unmarried, expert in the matter, Father Pat Connor—an 80-year old Catholic priest who spent his entire celibate life, including nine years as a missionary in India, working with young people on how to find and have a happy marriage. I have to say there are more points than the six I’ve listed here, so if you want the whole nine yards, check out Father Connor’s book Whom Not to Marry: Time-Tested Advice from a Higher Authority. Meanwhile, my own culled list for my son includes:

  1. Never marry someone who has no friends. When you think about it, it’s what they say about practically every sociopath who’s ever murdered and eaten his neighbors—“he was a loner,” “he  kept to himself.” So maybe some people have to be told not to date obvious serial killers but I think Father Connor’s underlying point here is that a person without a few close friends is probably incapable of the intimacy that marriage demands.
  2. Does your intended partner use money responsibly? Most marriages that founder do so because of money. He’s thrifty, she’s on her tenth credit card. Personally, that seems like a nice balance to me, but all the books say not.
  3. Is he overly attached to his mother? Okay, now as the doting mother of an only son, I didn’t know this was really possible, but this priest (did I mention he never had kids?) says it’s a factor so it’s on the list.
  4. Does he or she have a sense of humor? If your partner makes you laugh, you win. If you make him or her laugh, you win. If you’re laughing because he’s dressing up in your underwear…well, at least you’re laughing. (BTW: why the heck are you laughing?)

Speaking of laughing, and prefacing #5, that reminds me of a joke:

An Amish boy and his father are at a mall. They’re amazed by everything they see but especially by two shiny silver walls that move apart and back together again by themselves. The lad asks his dad: “What is that?” The father, having never seen an elevator before, says: “I have no idea.” While the boy and his father were watching, wide-eyed, an old lady in a wheelchair rolls up to the moving walls and presses a button. The walls open and she rolls into a small room behind the doors. The doors close and the boy and his father watch as small circles light up above them. Within seconds, the doors open again and a beautiful young woman walks out. The father looks at his son anxiously and says: “Go get your mother.”

Which brings us to…

5.  Don’t marry someone thinking you will change him. I remember asking a friend of mine who was on the brink of her divorce many years ago and who was complaining graphically about how hard she tried to change her awful and soon-to-be-ex during their marriage. When I asked if she succeeded in changing him at all, she thought about it and said, yes, he got worse.

6. Unreal expectations. Self-explanatory but here’s something to drive it home:

One day, a magic fairy visits a lonely spinster and offers her three wishes.
“I wish I was 21 again!” The wish is instantly granted.
“I wish I had a million dollars!” The wish is granted.
“I wish my cat here was the most handsome guy in the world and was madly in love with me.” The wish is granted. The young babe and her guy go inside and start to cuddle and the man looks at her and says: “Now aren’t you sorry you had me fixed?” (This is also known as the “be careful what you wish for” syndrome.)

Bottom line, unless you’re an unmarried priest, (just kidding, Father!) marriage is not easy. In fact, I think I’ll probably skip all the Huffington post ten-steps-to-finding-a-perfect-mate type advice for my son and just opt for a more time-tested parcel of advice in the immortal words of the Apostle Paul (he was married, right?)

“In all your dealings with one another, speak the truth to one another in love that you may grow up.”

Come to think of it, that’s pretty good advice for all of us.
So, what do you think? Got a maxim you live by to better live together? Love to hear it!