Dec 2 2010

Stop and Start

What’s stopping me?

The cursor swings across the dock of icons perched at the bottom of my screen. Each one swells and rises and the tiny arrow passes, as if standing up to wave, “Choose me!” A small red circle whispers that there are 17 unread messages in my in-box. The Twitter app growls at me, someone I follow has just posted a tweet. I eye the Skype icon at the top of my computer screen, it is illuminated, green for go ahead, chat me, call me. Facebook is open on one of the tabs of my browser, She Writes in the other. These friendly distractions smiling at me, reaching out as if to offer me a piece of candy.

Last night’s pledge to get writing as soon as the kids left for school is not forgotten. I hear the door click shut, and their voices fade as they make their way down the stairs and out of the building, out of my way for the day. I heave the obligatory sigh of relief, warm up my coffee with scalded milk that’s been whisked until frothy. I sit with my laptop and I realize that this is my moment, this is bliss. I am alone. Hot café-au-lait beside me. The internet humming. My RSS feed. Favorite blogs. A scan of the tweets from overnight. Emails. Part of me needs that 1/2-hour to wake up, to wet my toes in the day and give myself the gift of messing about and luxuriously eating up time with the simple pleasures of the internet.

I owe much of my writing to these elements of the internet. Because I started blogging two years ago, I have become a more regular writer, which is bound to make you a better one, or at least a more confident. The simple act of posting once or twice a week means I’ve published twice as many words in two years as in the previous decade. And I love the medium. It makes me want to write. Blogging has made my writing a priority. Twitter, too, though sometimes a deterrent, a handy mechanism to avoid the stare-down with a blank page, must be acknowledged because through these micro-texts I have met other writers, solid resources and cunning friends who inspire me to write.

I could blame my computer and its high speed connection to the ether and all the bells and whistles that keep me plugged in to a digital universe — except that universe has been my inspiration, my vehicle, my great encourager. I cannot place the blame there.

What I do each day that doesn’t contribute to my writing is doubt. I doubt that I’m ready to start. I doubt that I have something to say. I doubt that it will turn out as lyrical or poignant or sarcastic as it sounds now, in my head, the seed of something yet to be written, a concept emerging, fecund with its own potential. That’s what’s stopping me.

I know how to do it, how to eliminate it. It happens when I quit the mail app, turn off Tweetdeck, set Skype into offline mode. Once I do that, the words come, slow but then with momentum until I am tapping the keyboard like it’s a piano and I’m playing the Debussy I know by heart.

The doubt is never permanent, but it likes to linger. I know exactly how to eliminate it. All I have to do, is start.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Leo Babauta: Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing – and how can you eliminate it?

Dec 1 2010

Reverb Reflection

I’ve found a rhythm for posting on this blog; it’s about once a week, sometimes twice. That’s about as much as I can write, with the rest of the things in my life calling for attention. But I also think it’s about as much as you can read, given all the things in your life calling for attention. I once subscribed to the blog of a beautiful writer, her well-crafted pieces often made me cry. But the email messages came every single day, and I soon grew too tired of being that intimately aware of every moment her life, and I unsubscribed. (The saddest part of it is that now I forget to visit her blog, so I don’t read her as often as I’d like.)

That experience instructed me: too much can be, well, too much.

I’ve decided to engage in a reflective, end-of-year activity called Reverb10. It’s organized by a thoughtful and enthusiastic team of bloggers, headed by Gwen Bell, a yoga practicing social media maven whom I’ve grown to admire for her zen/wired balance. Each day there’s a prompt that you’re invited to respond to by journaling, blogging, tweeting, posting in Facebook, however you want, publicly or privately.

As a result, I might be blogging a bit more than usual during December.

I don’t expect to answer every prompt here: it might be too private, it might be too short, I might be too busy, I might do it elsewhere, on She Writes, on Twitter or on another blog. For those of you who subscribe by email, I’m going to turn off the alerts on many of these posts so I don’t clutter your in-box. You’ll still get alerted if I write a post that’s typical for my blog, or if one of these Reverb responses feels like it ought to be shared with you. For RSS friends, well, you’ll know if you want to click through or not.

Of course if you’re curious, I invite you to check in anytime to see how I’m doing. By all means go to #reverb10 yourself. It’s not too late to join in!

Jun 4 2010

And the Winner is…

She’d written the short story, titled Danger in the Permarquette River, and re-copied it, twice, to hand it in for her school assignment. Then her teacher sent home a note about the Paris English Young Author’s Fiction Festival, encouraging students to submit their stories to the city-wide competition.
I typed it in to the computer, resisting any urge to change a word here or there, to improve the syntax. I made a few suggestions for edits, most of which she rejected – and I honored this because it was, after all, her story.
I followed carefully the explicit submission directions: Short-pants’ name shouldn’t appear on any page of the story; certain information had to be in the body of the email message to which the story was attached, the subject line of the email had to be titled in a specific way so the entry would be received and noted. All the details confirmed, I hit send, checked off that box and moved on to the next thing.

This is how I live, checking off a box and moving on to the next one. That particular week, just like this last one, was jammed with too many apparently important and urgent tasks. That was the same week as the Spelling Bee, competition that Short-pants was also keen to enter. (Incidentally, she graciously accepted the news when we learned that she did not advance to the final round.) I also remember that I was getting ready to go somewhere, which always adds an extra layer of stress. Preparing to go away, but also preparing to be gone; organizing things at home so they operate as they should in my absence. Then there’s the delicate management of personal appointments. De-facto always rolls his eyes when I have one of my “how am I going to get it all done?” meltdowns, pointing out to me I might be less pressed if I wasn’t also fitting in a haircut, a facial, wax and pedicure. He’ll never understand how, at my age, these things are not luxurious indulgences but rather critical acts of maintenance; an investment in my our future.

Though this week only the most essential grooming made the schedule; a haircut put me in good stead to go on yet another trip. I know I’m lucky to travel as I do, but sometimes I’m too overloaded to appreciate it. Saturday we go to India for a work assignment, after which De-facto and I will stay on for just a few days for some much needed R&R alone, as a couple.

When the email landed in my box informing me that Short-pants was a finalist in the young author’s writing competition, my inner peacock preened for her. The message said that she was among the finalists in her grade level, without indicating exactly which award. Did she win? Second place? One of who-knows-how-many honorable mentions? I don’t know. I just know she won something. I know that this awards program is a 2-hour engagement on a Friday evening, at rush hour, on the opposite side of the city, on the eve of a trip that I am barely ready to take and we leave at the crack of dawn the next day. Of course then Short-pants’ theater teacher sent home a note about how her rehearsal will run later on this very Friday, to prepare for their end-of-year spectacle. (Oh, June, the month of something every night: a performance, a recital, parent-teacher meeting, end-of-school-party.) Not to mention that Ricky and Lucy, who I haven’t seen in more than three weeks, invited us for a potluck dinner in our courtyard, all of this happening on the same Friday night. Tonight.

I suppose this isn’t the right spirit. I know you all don’t want another rant about how busy I am and what a pain in the ass it is to juggle everything. You all juggle a lot too. We all do.

But that’s the point. We’re all jugging a lot: our work, our families, our friends. We’re overloaded with information to ingest, there are more activities to engage with than ever before and who can fault any of us for trying to take advantage of all of them? In this day in age, especially with most mother and fathers multi-tasking, we’re all up to our ears. It makes the surprise element of this event seem more insulting than intriguing.

So the question is: do I arrange for Short-pants to get out of her rehearsal early, dash away with her, squeeze into the metro to get to the 16th arrondissement in time to watch a probably more than 2-hour ceremony honoring a bunch of children I’ve never met in my life, so that she can receive her award in person and have the experience of having a small crowd give her grand applause her as she approaches the podium? What if we schlep through all that only to hear them call out her name, in a string of others, as an honorable mention?

I remember when I was in school, receiving a letter to attend an awards ceremony like this, not knowing exactly what prize would be mine, arriving with a few anticipatory butterflies. What I found out later that night is that my parents knew all along what prize I was winning. They’d received a different letter, so they’d be sure to attend. I wish I could get that letter now. I fished for it, writing back to the organizers and explaining how we might not be able to attend. No hints were given to inspire our attendance. Perhaps that is a sign.

Every other parent who’s organizing their nutty schedule this Friday night is probably going through the same machinations. If we all knew the outcome, well, then only the win, place and show winners would probably turn up. So much for that grand applause.

So what do I do? Buck up and make the trek to the far western side of Paris so that Short-pants can accept her award, whatever it is, and cheerfully celebrate the success of other children while supporting the art of writing at the primary school level? Or do I blow it off, give myself a break and take it easy the night before we leave, calmly packing my valise, hanging out in the courtyard with my family and my neighbors, savoring this summer’s first bottle of rosé?

What would you do?

Feb 21 2010

So We’ll Never Forget

I have always been the documenter of our family’s history. As a child I would stack together multiple pages of paper, folding and cutting them to create pocket-sized books. I’d write about our family rituals or offer how-to advice. These books were a source of great entertainment to my family and good fodder for teasing me, still, to this day.

My most famous title, The U.D.T. Rool Book, a palm-sized field guide I wrote when I was 7-years old, described, step-by-step, our family’s summertime swim-in-the-lake ritual, as practiced by the Underwater Demolition Team (U.D.T.), a club invented by my father to get us out of bed and in the lake every July morning. Another family favorite: the handy pamphlet titled
The Key to Popularity, my very first (circa 4th grade) effort at parody, a tongue-in-cheek embellishment of my mother’s theory that if she just made sure we all learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular.

As happens with the artifacts of our childhood, these little books disappeared. And then, during renovations or severe spring cleanings, they re-appeared. When my mother recovered The Key to Popularity, probably in the back of some drawer, she put it in its rightful place on the kitchen counter, in that the space that is a magnet for all manner of junk – those old, chewed-on, unsharpened pencils, pens that no longer work, worn nail files, remnants of note pads, tchotchkes and campaign buttons – the miscellaneous counter in our kitchen (we all have one, don’t we?) where things just end up and somehow, stay there.

Every time I went to visit my mother, The Key to Popularity was still there, wedged in a square lucite box meant for Post-it notes that were used up over a decade ago. This little book, like many of the masterpieces I authored as a child, was a charming chapter of our family jokelore; she couldn’t bring herself to throw it out. But I cringed every time I saw it.

When my father died – twenty years ago – at the age of 59, we assembled in shock, unprepared and unbelieving. Things we’d meant to say had gone unspoken. Nothing so dramatic that he didn’t probably know already, but still, it felt as though he was plucked away from us; his life was interrupted. The painter who made a portrait of him, later, purposefully didn’t finish the canvas, in homage to his unfinished life.

On the day we buried him, prior to the mass, there was a small private service at the funeral home, the last viewing of his body before the casket was closed. We stood around him, shedding tears – and giggling. “What are you all chuckling about?” my mother asked, mildly perturbed as she approached us at the casket. She saw the little trinkets and photographs we’d placed beside him and she smiled. When I showed her The U.D.T. Rool Book tucked in the breast pocket of his blazer, she took my hand and squeezed it. She even chuckled with us when she saw what had been slipped under my father’s lifeless arm: the previous Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle and a sharpened #2 pencil. “You kids,” she said.

How many times I heard her say that: You kids.

But the truth must come out: It was my mother who started the tradition of doing the Sunday Times crossword when my parents were dating in college. She was, by her own report, quite skilled at crosswords – more adept than my father. But she figured out quickly that if she didn’t answer all the clues she knew right away, it would take longer to finish the puzzle, elongating their afternoon date. This was a surprise to me; I’d always associated my Dad with the Sunday crossword. I asked her about this and she shrugged. “He got so good at working the puzzle, I let him take it over.”

My mother told us, knowing it was futile, not to put anything in her coffin with her. I teased her that I would bury her with the family carrot, but in the end I had a better idea. I tucked The Key To Popularity in beside her, next to the white satin interior of her casket, just a little helpful guidance for heavenly social interaction.

There was something else lying around on that kitchen counter: a hand-made origami oracle that Short-pants gave to my mother last year, to “help her with important decisions.” Constructed out of intricately folded paper, this device resembles an egg carton in which you insert your thumb and index finger and move the triangled peaks this way and that way. With a ritualized guess of numbers and colors, the correct answer to all-important questions can be divined, much like the famous 8-ball, with oracle-like responses under the folded flaps: Yes, of course or Maybe not.

Though I was not present during the days that my mother made her decision to stop treatment and enter hospice care, I have this fantasy that she stood, leaning against her kitchen island, moving her fingers back and forth within the folded paper, asking the question, “Is it time to go?” and that Short-pants’ oracle gave her the response that settled it once and for all.

This folded contraption was also placed in the casket with my mother, in case she needs to make any decisions in the afterlife.

My mother’s mother, my Grammy, used to tell us that she and Grandpa had a plan to meet up after death at the entrance to Macy’s on 34th street in New York. When she died, I imagined some purgatorial dimension where their fantasy was lived out, returning to the roaring twenties that belonged to them when they were roaring, in their twenties, and finding each other again.

So I imagine my mother, holding her edition of The Key to Popularity, meeting up with my father, with the original U.D.T. Rool Book in hand, comparing notes about the memories of their happy life together. “Sure glad she wrote it all down,” they’ll say, marveling at my little handbooks, “so we’ll never forget.”

And then Daddy will pull out his copy of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and they’ll work it together, for eternity.

Mar 23 2009

The Grande Illogic

I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I live in the city that gave birth to café society and there are three-dozen more charismatic cafés within five-minutes walking distance of my home, sometimes I go to Starbucks. This is because of the comfortable armchairs.

I meet several times a week with a friend to do what we call free-writing, an exercise that involves selecting a random sentence – from a pool we’ve dreamed up or borrowed from books – and using this phrase as a prompt to write stream-of-consciousness for ten minutes. Then we read whatever we’ve written to each other, because it’s a curious experience to hear yourself say your own words out loud, even if it is just a shitty first draft.

It’s basically calisthenics for cobwebbed writing muscles, and much easier to do if you’re sitting in a roomy, crushed-velvet armchair with big fat cushions. That Starbucks was non-smoking before French law required also contributed to the origin of this embarrassing habit.

But what is it with Starbucks and their insistence on illogical cup sizes?

I know I’m not the first person to complain about this; a Google Search on “ordering at Starbucks” produces about 542,000 results, and surely it’s been a frequent topic of ire on blogs long before I started writing one. But now it’s my turn: I can never order correctly, and the whole ordeal taxes my brain and illuminates the severity of my maternal dementia. Why does it have to be so hard?

What I want to say is simply this: “I’d like a medium café-latte, please.” But when I do, the Starbuck’s employee inevitably asks, “Tall, Grande or Venti?”

I’m sorry, but I think all these words mean the same thing: big. I don’t want big, I want medium. But there is no such thing at Starbucks as a medium. In their world of white and green cups, it’s all grande.
Waiting in line I’ll repeat to myself, “grande, grande, grande,” but when the server-person turns to me with that expectant look, I can’t help it. I fumble around, and I blurt it out every time, “Medium.”

I think this is because I’m a very visual thinker, so I see the three size options on the display stand by the cash register, and there’s that one I want right in the middle, it connotes (to me) medium. I don’t think it’s a language thing. Grande, or grand – however you want to write it – is not the word for medium in French or English, or Italian for that matter.

Starbucks, I suppose, given its origins can’t help but respond to the ‘Merican need for all things over-sized and over-the-top, and they’ve named their drink-sizes accordingly. Honestly, isn’t it all a bit ridiculous?
But wait. Now, at the Starbucks on rue des Archives (and elsewhere I suppose), a little pamphlet is handed to you along with your change. I say little because it’s palm-sized, however, it contains twelve pages (count ‘em) of explanation about how to personalize your order.

If it takes twelve pages to explain to your customers how to order your product, is it possible that you’re making things a bit more complicated than they need to be?


Short-pants is reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears with her English class. She says the teacher doesn’t mean for them to perform it as a play; they’re just reading out loud together. (The teacher gets points from me on that one.) Yesterday I was listening to her recite her lines – she’s actually volunteered to read the lead role and has already memorized the damn thing – and when she got to the part about the chairs, it all made sense.

While interloping in the bears’ house, Goldilocks tries the big chair (too big), the medium chair (too hard) and the little chair (just right). It’s easy to figure out when you just say it like it is.
Why can’t Starbucks just use good old fashioned plain language to describe its beverage sizes? Although I suppose ordering a medium (moyen or moyenne?) could still be too hard. But not the chairs. They’re just right.

Mar 8 2009

Moderate Drinking

The front and center headache that woke me up at 6:30 am this morning is milder now, and reminds me of the fun I had last night. A couple of glasses of white with early evening oysters, something robust and red to accompany dinner. champagne And after a rather meandering walk home, a final flute of champagne with good friends who live in the building. You can’t say I wasn’t lubricated.

I like the taste of alcohol. I like the buzz. I like to belly up to a bar, it’s a place I feel at home socializing. In my youth (mostly) I tried other vices but my preference is the legal one. I drink often in moderation and on occasion in excess. Don’t worry, sometimes I deliberately don’t drink. But the point is: I like to.

That’s why Anna Fricke’s post, Moderation and the Modern Mom, in the New York Times blog Proof got my attention by combining two pet subjects at once: alcohol and motherhood.

I could have written that post. Not nearly as well as she did. What I mean to say is that I could, like many women, substitute a few of my anecdotes with hers and describe the same experience. Not that stepping up on a narrow bar only to fall into a fortuitously placed barman’s arms was a brilliant idea. (But it is a good story.)

Fricke candidly chronicles an important passage in the life of a modern mother. We used to party indiscriminately – now we must discriminate. The reasons for prudence change as the children age: Concern for the health of the fetus is replaced with fear of contaminating breast milk, is replaced with the necessity to avoid the 7 am agony, when the kids come bounding into the bedroom expecting you to be as well-rested and hydrated as they are. Then there’s our own health to consider. Or the stamina that we seem to have lost. For good reasons, nobody parties like we used to.

In the end, it’s not the alcohol that Fricke misses:

It’s the immaturity. The selfishness. The wasted days frittered away recuperating from the wasted nights. It all turned around so quickly. I wasn’t prepared to be this person.

And that was one of the key points of her post. It’s not the booze; it’s the feeling of being able to be spontaneously foolish and careless. Most of us rally to the responsibility that momhood requires, and it’s not like we don’t reap the benefits of having these little loving beings in our lives. But once in a while I need to say it out loud: I never really wanted to grow up.

But oh, a rush of comments. Lots of readers, like me, empathized or identified with her and lauded her exceedingly honest reflection. Not everyone was so supportive. It’s no surprise that some people would be uncomfortable with her candor, she ‘fessed up to some embarrassing things that have to do with serious subjects: alcohol abuse and drunk driving. But I was stunned at the righteousness from people who either weren’t impressed with her ultimate self-actualization or simply didn’t get it. Some AA-ish advice was gently offered with good intention, but many comments were accusatory, acerbic and frankly, mean spirited. That she herself was making a case for not drinking (the other key point of the post) was lost on these people, who used the comment section to feel superior or project their own painful experiences on to her.
Well, like I said, alcoholism is a touchy subject, not one to be handled lightly. And motherhood is an equally hot-button topic. Everyone has an opinion about what pregnant women and nursing mothers – any mother for that matter – should feel and do. Mix the two together and I guess you have a lethal cocktail.

Mar 7 2009

What was I thinking?

In (what’s left of) my mind, I have an idea about what I want this blog to be. While I’ve hung my shingle on the hook of motherhood and its resulting mindlessness, it is my hope not to be limited to that.

The paradox – that I love these children of mine, but I don’t love the train-wreck they’ve made of my life – spills over into my writing. I don’t want it to be all about them. But somehow, it ends up being all about them. Any mother can sing you this song.

Each day, groping about at my quotidian tasks, little patchworks of prose – on all manner of topics – miraculously assemble themselves in my mind and I say to myself (oddly, in the voice of Toad, from Frog & Toad), “I will write a post about that someday.” And I duly make a note of it.

Yet what has the strongest pull, what ultimately draws me to the keyboard and overrides that ever present resistance that all writers wrestle, is usually some silly (or painful) reflective anecdote about being a mom. I suppose that’s my branding, whether I like it or not, and I seem to respond naturally to the memes that have to do with mothering.
I do believe that I can (and should) occasionally veer from the core subject matter, as long as I circle around and find my way to home territory for grounding. Most of the thoughtful blogs I read do just that. I need only give myself permission.

I am a woman with a private and professional life that spans beyond the subject of coping with children. I have other things to say. And I would say them, if I could only remember what they are.

Jan 13 2009


My tree is falling in the forest, and I wouldn’t mind if someone were there to hear it.

photo by Don DeBold

I’ve been reluctant to start blogging. For one thing, I do cherish my privacy. Blogging portends to a more public life, even if it is just a small circle of people who might happen to find me. Plus there is so much dribble out there, people piecing their opinions together in little posts, blathering on about the minutia of their lives. I didn’t see the point in blogging; I was writing a real book.

But let’s face it. My agent – though very sweet – hasn’t been much help to me in the publishing department. It’s time to take matters into my own hands. I need to express myself; I want to see my words on a page. So why not an electronic one?

Eventually, I could imagine publishing my manuscript serially on my website. I’m warming up to that. But first, I’ve decided to take the plunge and just see what happens when I start blogging. Post by post.

So consider this a gentle solicitation: if you have any interest whatsoever in what I have to write about, then please follow my blog, or even just bookmark it and take a moment once in a while to check out what I’m managing to press out into the ether.

(p.s. this was my very first post!)