nancy martin ELAINE VIETS SARAH STROHMEYER HARLEY JANE KOZAK
KATHY RESCHINI SWEENEY MARGARET MARON JOSHILYN JACKSON HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN BRUNONIA BARRY NANCY PICKARD CORNELIA READ BARBARA O’NEAL HEATHER GRAHAM AMY HATVANY
Holly, the blogwerker here. I'm most likely to reach for a fun-sort of women's fiction [not the sob-sort] when I settle in for the evening. This winter I discovered Jill Mansell. Where has she been keeping herself? Over in England, apparently. Jill writes fun, yet meaty stories that I have eaten up. I was so happy that when I fawned all over her, Jill agreed to come over here [electronically] to guest blog.
Hello! Question for you - do you like yourself? If it could happen, would you like to be your own best friend? I think the answer has to be yes, because you'd enjoy each other's company, love doing exactly the same things ALL the time...enjoy the same TV shows, visit the same shops, read the same books... Perfect, really. (Yes, I know. These are the kinds of things I think about when I can't sleep at night.)
Then I started to wonder if I would be as happy if I had to be best friends with a younger version of myself. And that was when I realised how very much I'd changed over the years. It had never occurred to me before, but I'm different now- at 53 - in so many ways.
I used to be passionate about clothes and wore different outfits every day. I adored high heeled shoes. Now I wear pretty much the same thing all the time - long bias cut skirts, long flowing tops and jackets, almost all of it black. I have refined my style to such a degree that I own many versions of the same clothes and would never consider trying anything else. I own no pairs of shoes at all, just a few pairs of boots for winter and jewelled flip-flops for the summer. The twenty-something me would be utterly baffled by this! (Can I just say, I do aim nowadays to look elegant rather than frumpy. And I do go wild with the accessories. I don't actually resemble a nun.)
I used to read only non-fiction, and mainly books about world war two. Now, I read chiefly light commercial fiction. That's the wrong way round, surely?
I used to LIVE for music and knew the lyrics of practically every song ever written. Now I rarely listen to it and never buy any. My younger self would WEEP if she knew this.
On the plus side: all those boys who broke my heart, made me cry and had me wondering miserably if I would ever be happy again? I can't remember most of their names or even what they looked like. Although when I'm enjoying a particularly glamorous best-selling author moment I'd be lying if I didn't occasionally think wouldn't it be great if they could see me now...?
Another major difference is I now spend most of my working day home alone, which is something I couldn't have done in my twenties. I had a genuine fear of solitude and made sure I was NEVER on my own. I shared apartments with friends, then married at twenty two. When my marriage ended after five years, I became a landlady and filled my house with tenants.
My life is so different now. I have changed so much. I might still like my younger self - she's basically a nice person, after all! - but we wouldn't be best friends, not in a million years. But what of the future? It's only just occurred to me that twenty years from now I could have metamorphosed into something completely different again. What might I start doing then that I wouldn't dream of doing now? There's sky-diving...triathlon races...nude modelling...
Oh my goodness, I could turn into one of those completely outrageous and fearless old ladies who are always up to all sorts. I want to start now, right away. That's it, I'm going to dye my hair purple and get a tattoo!
Jill Mansell lives with her partner and children in Bristol, and writes full time. Actually that’s not true; she watches TV, eats fruit gums, admires the rugby players training in the sports field behind her house, and spends hours on the internet marvelling at how many other writers have blogs. Only when she’s completely run out of displacement activities does she write.
Jill Mansell's books have sold over three million copies and her titles include her most recent (in England)To The Moonand (here in the US)Staying At Daisy's
She is on the tail end of it. It is going. She is my youngest, and her eyes are still wide and feckless. She is a flibbertigibbet. She cannot be pinned down. She gets every solo and the lead in every play, she is the only girl in jazz who can do a full split. She is built like a blade of grass.
She wants toe shoes. She wants to know who she will marry. She wants a puppy. She is incapable of turning in her book report on time. She likes a boy, a boy, a boy and she doesn’t even know what that means, but she knows enough so that I am pretty sure she would die if I told you what his name was.
Setting: The pediatricians office, waiting for her check –up. While we wait, and wait, and wait, she gets bored enough with her own book to ask me to read her the pamphlet on puberty in girls. We read it. We get to the part about periods.
Her, in outraged tones: Does that really happen?
Me, very matter of fact: Yup.
Her: Well whose idea was that?
Setting: My basement. A commercial for insurance or banking or something comes on and someone who might be 5 for Fighting is singing, “I’m 22 for a moment...”
Her: I don’t get that song. It makes it sound like your twenty-two for, like, a second, and then BANG, what, you are forty-five all of a sudden?
Me: Yes. Exactly.
Her: Mama. That doesn’t make ANY sense to me.
Me: *I wait til she prances out of the room to say, in an ominous tone* It will.
Setting: We are rubbing the belly of a nice dog.
Her: Why do Ansley’s nipples look like that, like, weird and poinky down like that?
Me: Ansley was a mommy-dog. The puppies nursed there, and pulled them down a little.
Her: EW! It’s kinda gross. I’m glad that doesn’t happen to PEOPLE!
It’s going. She used to look like this, and now? She’s nine.
The last day I was truly innocent happened when I was nine. Things changed that year --- a hundred things happened. Here is one: I stole Alex Haley’s ROOTS and read it under the covers. The slave ships, the rape, the foot. I never knew people could be so mean. Literally. I did not know there were people in the world capable of such things.
Her last day is coming, but I take her to rub the bellies of adoptable dogs and read her Frances Hogsden Burnett because it’s not my job to end these days. The world will do it for me.
I don’t know what you did in 1973, but I helped Kevin Kline.
Kevin was born and raised in St. Louis. In ’73, he toured the country with the City Center Acting Company, along with other Juilliard drama school graduates, including Patti LuPone. The troupe performed "Threepenny Opera" in St. Louis.
I was a 23-year-old feature writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, interviewing the up-and-coming actor with a hometown connection. Kevin was going far beyond St. Louis. He was one of John Houseman’s first students at Juilliard.
During the interview, I asked Kevin about his acting. We talked about Duke Ellington, too. Don and I heard Ellington play at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. Ellington, in the twilight of his career, was magical.
So was Kevin Kline at the beginning of his career. His Macheath was intense and athletic.
After the show, Ellen, the theater’s public relations person, sent me a note dated Nov. 20, 1973.
"This thank-you note is a little late in coming, but I do want you to know I appreciated the nice publicity you gave us in the story about Kevin Kline," Ellen wrote. "Immediately after it appeared in the Post, we sold out. I talked to his parents at the play and they were just thrilled about it.
"Please don’t hesitate to give me a call if I can help you with anything in the future. I certainly owe you a favor."
I didn’t have the pull to pack the theater. I was a cub reporter. But newspapers had tremendous power then. A print story could fill a theater.
Kevin moved on, racking up Tony Awards on Broadway and then Golden Globes and Oscars for his movie roles in "Sophie’s Choice," "A Fish Called Wanda" and other major films.
"Wanda" has an in-joke. Kevin, trying to identify a caller, asks, "Was it Kevin Delaney?" Those are his first and middle names.
The New York Times called Kevin "America’s Olivier." In his hometown, Kevin has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. The Professional Theatre Council of St. Louis gives out the Kevin Kline Awards. Not bad for a boy who went to St. Louis Priory School.
I’ve moved on, too. I write mysteries instead of newspaper stories. "Pumped for Murder," my tenth Dead-End Job novel, will be published May 3.
I need your help, Kevin. My Dead-End Job series is making a major change. Helen Hawthorne will still be working those low-paying jobs, but now she’s going undercover as a private eye. Helen and Phil have opened their own PI agency. In "Pumped for Murder," they investigate two cases. One is a Miami-Vice style murder from 1986. The other case explores extreme bodybuilding.
The reviews are good so far, but I’d like to pack the houses. I’ll be touring seven cities starting this week. Check the Events at www.elaineviets.com. You might be in St. Louis May 25 visiting your mom.
You wouldn’t even have to read my novel. Just carry it with you on an airplane. Do you still fly commercial?
"Pumped for Murder" would make a terrific movie. It has sweat, sex and nearly naked bodies. My new book trailer shows the visual possibilities. http://tinyurl.com/5wsr9en
Come on, Kevin. We Catholic school kids have to stick together.
As the royal wedding approaches, we’ve been barraged with pictures of the upper British class cavorting around the countryside. I will be in DC for Malice Domestic Friday morning and if someone turns on the television at five a.m., I shall definitely adjust my pillows and watch. While I wish the young couple all the happiness in the world, I will not be focusing on them so much as on the headgear worn by their guests.
Honestly now: have you ever seen such? Some of these feathery “fascinators” would be dangerous to wear during bird-hunting season.
I love the idea of hats—real hats, not baseball caps, knit ski helmets, or sun visors—but I never wear them except when working outside in the summer. My garden hat is not a pastel vision adorned with ribbons and flowers such as Larry Block wore at Malice several years ago, but rather a plain, wide-brimmed straw designed to keep the sun off my face, neck and ears. The last time I wore a hat in public was two years ago when someone clapped a squishy velvet tam on my head shortly before they gave me an honorary degree. They asked for it back immediately after the ceremony, too. My last Sunday-go-to-meeting hat was probably back in the Eisenhower era. Indeed, Eisenhower was our last president to regularly wear a hat.
Men and boys alike used to wear felt fedoras and trilbies or straw boaters every time they stepped outside. Roosevelt wore them, Truman wore them, Ike wore them; but John F. Kennedy went mostly bare-headed after his inauguration and a nation of men, seeing how young and handsome he looked, immediately threw their fedoras in the trash. Jackie’s iconic pillbox kept dressy hats on female heads for another four or five years, but after that,the women’s hat industry would have died a quick death had it not been for black women who still won’t go to church without a beautiful hat on their heads.
Aretha Franklin’s hat was not an anomaly. Not here in the south, anyhow.
My New York mother-in-law loved hats and had a nice selection of seasonal pastel and floral concoctions similar to those worn by Queen Elizabeth and Lady Camilla. She never went to mass bareheaded or with only a head scarf, and her hat boxes took up two full shelves in her closet.
Country and western singers started wearing Stetsons on stage about the time other men were giving them up, and Wyoming mystery writer C.J. Box wears his cowboy hat everywhere even though I don’t think he sings. He may be part of a resurgence though, because after a long hiatus, men’s hats seem to be coming back. Is it the Indiana Jones influence or that TV show Mad Men?
What about you? Are hats part of your normal wardrobe or will you be joining me Friday morning to snicker at (yet half envy) the hats we’ll be seeing?
Contrary to frequent lies I told my daughter throughout grade school, the playground never really disappears. There will always be the cool kids and their innately exclusive four-square game, the superior athletes zipping across the monkey bars and the outcasts doing their own thing, mostly trying not to get hit with one of those red rubber balls.
Never was the female literary playground more active than last week when recent Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan, in trying to needlessly impress a Wall Street Journal reporter, noted:
My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. ....There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models?…My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.
The blogs went wild in indignation. Jennifer Weiner, for whom I have both high respect and curious bewilderment, ran with it on Twitter, trouncing Egan for being so quick to draw the line between Her and Us, lest there be any confusion. Egan was on the monkey bars, flying high. We chicklit writers were rubbing our heads and wondering how come the rubber ball. What did WE do?
Finally, after a year of Franzenfroid (led, in part, by Weiner), a female author whose novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, blew me away wins the Pulitzer and immediately trashes my personal heroes, women who write, ahem, "very derivative, banal stuff." (Note that Egan did not get on the case of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan for plagiarizing - just for plagiarizing Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot and, especially, Megan McCafferty. Nice.)
But what I found so interesting was not merely Egan's comment - a grasping quip one might overhear during orientation at the MacDowell Colony - but the reaction among women writers like Weiner and, okay, like me. After all, I was once dubbed (way erroneously) by People magazine as The Chick Lit Queen so I get to claim a hooker spot on the corner of Banal and Derivative, too.
Our reaction was not simply a "how dare she" moment. Our reaction - and maybe yours - goes to an essential primitive question about female relationships:
Why must women consistently divide themselves from other women?
Because we do. Even when we don't want to.
If we were honest with ourselves, we'd own up to the fact that we mentally, even subconsciously, search for ways in which we are like or not like others in our gender. Right away, we go to appearance. There are those of us who are "overweight" and those of us who "aren't." Big divider. After that, it's those of us who work vs. those of us who don't. Those who spend money on their hair/nails/bodies and those of us who channel our precious financial resources toward other endeavors. Those who read. Those who watch. Married. Single. Educated. Not. In rapid fire analysis, we can define how a woman is alike/not like us within five minutes of waiting for a dressing room door to open.
I'm sure the underlying reason is somehow biological.
Now, take that process and apply it to women competing in a field still dominated by men and watch out. The competition can be vicious.
Recently, a mega successful author confided to me that she had no author friends. "It's as if," she said, "they think readers will only read one book a year." When she said this, I went blank because this has not been my experience at all.
Partly, that's because I forced myself early on never to check my work against that of the kid next to me. Also, this is my second career. I didn't really start writing fiction until my late thirties. By that time, I was so grateful to be free from cantankerous newspaper editors, to have found a way to earn money from home while my kids were small, that such things as not rising as fast up the bestseller list as my contemporaries didn't bug me. Much.
(Though I will admit that while in weakness I might look to Weiner, whose career started when mine did and who immediately jumped to the top of the NYT list, I shamefully never, ever compare myself to men. Never.)
I also owe a lot of my sisterly feeling to this blog and to Nancy Martin's attitude that we ALL benefit when we promote each other. For one thing, it's fun. Writing is so solitary that it feels good to connect with other writers and you really do find yourself cheering for their successes almost as much as your own. For another, it's simply good for the soul. Karma and all that.
And maybe this is the advantage of getting older. You begin to learn that those words you slaved over ten years ago are selling for $.50 on the used book table at the PTA fundraiser. It's all dust in the wind, folks. Best not to take it seriously.
That goes for Egan, too. And Thomas Berger, N. Scott Momaday, Adam Haslett and other Pulitzer winners whose names, alas, have not exactly won the traditionally female honor of being called "household." Also, for Weiner, Kinsella, Cabot, McCafferty and Strohmeyer.
Pulitzer or not, chicklit or post modern post modernism, let us never forget John Updike's last days, struggling to remember what he'd written, who he was.
Wait. He said it better himself - of course - in his last poem: Requiem.
It came to me the other day: Were I to die, no one would say, “Oh, what a shame! So young, so full Of promise — depths unplumbable!”
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes Will greet my overdue demise; The wide response will be, I know, “I thought he died a while ago.”
For life’s a shabby subterfuge, And death is real, and dark, and huge. The shock of it will register Nowhere but where it will occur.
Remember how last month I blogged about doing a 9-day detox, because I had a coupon? Completely inaccurate. That was no coupon. That was a groupon.
Groupon. Before I knew the word, I thought of it as “the addiction that dares not speak its name.” But now that I know it for what it is, I must share my cautionary tale, and perhaps start a support group.
Groupon, for the uninitiated, is a company that began in Chicago in 2008, offering customers a half-price pizza. Last November, Google offered to buy it for 6 billion dollars. How could such growth happen?
I’m afraid I’m responsible.
Here’s how it works. Every day I check my e-mail and there, in my in-box, are 2 or 3 deal-a-day offers. I call them all Groupons, but I’m using the term generically. Mine are from local competitors, faux Groupons, all using the same principle. A business—say, a hairdresser, or piano tuner or Mongolian barbecue offers me a product or service at a spectacular discount. 75, 80, 90%—serious savings, the kind that turns a casual shopper into an obsessed nutjob. The catch is, I have 24 hours to click on the link and pay for it. The next day, that deal’s gone.
If I and a minimum number of fellow shoppers buy it, a certificate appears in my in-box. I print it out, and take it to the drycleaners, the yoga studio, the sushi bar, and hand it over. No money changes hands.
Plus which, my local “groupon” site gives a portion of the proceeds to my kids’ elementary school. I can get my air conditioner filter changed, and educate our young.
But here’s the rub. I was listening to NPR last week and learned that the merchants offering these huge discounts—let’s say 80%—split their measly take with Groupon. Now, I’m no Warren Buffett, but if a merchant’s getting 10% of her usual fee, I’m guessing she's losing money on the deal. Still, it’s worth it to her if I become a lifelong customer and pay full price from now until the end of time.
Ah, but will I?
If it’s the piano tuner, yes. The drycleaner, no, because it’s not geographically convenient. Yoga studio, yes. Detox, no. (I regained the weight I lost within 7 minutes.) Laser hair removal, no, because there’s a finite amount of body hair I want to part with. It’s for this reason that you’re unlikely to find a Groupon for funeral services, wedding cakes, or vasectomies.
So now I feel morally obligated to skip any groupon service I can’t really commit to.
And that "one-night-stand" mentality is only one of the risks the merchant takes. Another is that Groupon clients forget to tip. Another is that too many customers sign up, and swamp a small business. On the buyer’s side, there are, tragically, expiration dates. I know because I was late by one week for a manicure/pedicure. The horror. The horror.
I am genetically predisposed to be a Groupon junkie. My Aunt Olga was a champion coupon clipper, hitting 3-4 stores a day to save 7 cents on a case of ketchup, whether or not she liked ketchup. I feel her spirit egging me on. True, I don’t really need a dog trainer that makes housecalls, but at least I have dogs. And what, you may ask, does a Man Friday do? I don’t know, but I’ll keep you posted, because I bought $120 worth of his services for $30. And four hypnotherapy sessions so cheap they were practically free. I can use them to cure me of my Groupon habit.
But not yet. Because I’m waiting for the big score, one of my Groupon dreams, at 90% off:
Summer in the Italian Alps for one adult and 3 children
A week at Canyon Ranch, for everyone at TLC
A new boyfriend (or even an old one, in good condition)
I’m not sure Luanne Rice needs an introduction; she is, after all, an internationally beloved author whose magical, witty, and deeply emotional stories of love and family connections have won the hearts of millions of readers.
Never-the-less, they asked me to do these honors for a very odd reason. While I might not be the tart who knows her best, I think I can safely claim I am the only tart who has ever felt her up...
I somehow scammed my way into some swanky publishing party in NYC, and she was there, too, only more legitimately. She had done me a great kindness when I was first starting out, so when we were introduced, I got excited. I began spazzily thanking her, saying. “OH GOSH, YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW MUCH IT MEANT TO ME WHEN YOU BLURBED MY FIRST NOVEL!” I put my hands out, like JAZZ HANDS, all frantic and grateful...
She is not a tall person. I am klutzy. So. I somehow managed to grab her boob. *sigh*
Now I am here to say, and say with authority: Please welcome Luanne. She’s a wonderful writer, a lovely human being, and, yeah, she has a nice rack. You’re welcome! Joshilyn
I’m the oldest of three sisters. When we were young we shared a bedroom and on warm spring nights (or any night) we would climb out the window to watch night birds and wish on stars. We shared a lot: secret language, fair-isle sweaters, and, on rare and terrible occasions, boyfriends. The sister’s creed: No sister shall ever date a sister’s boyfriend, even an ex.
We spent every summer in our grandmother’s beach cottage on Long Island Sound. We’d arrive in June the same afternoon school let out, and stay barefoot through Labor Day.
Every summer day was an age-appropriate adventure. Swimming, crabbing, fishing, building sandcastles. Walking the tide line, searching for moonstones and sea glass. Visiting old graves in the small, shady cemetery. Taking the secret path to a hidden beach for picnics. Spreading a blanket on the sand on August nights, watching the Perseid meteor shower. First kisses, first beers, bye-bye virginity.
The parents of some of our friends used to point to us, say to their daughters, “I wish you were as close as the Rice girls.” To us that was like hearing, “I wish you had freckles like the Rice girls.” We took our closeness for granted, like having freckles or being right-handed, or at least I did.
We’d drive the Shore Road, windows open and our hair blowing back, all three of us in the front seat, singing to WABC-AM. This was the era of great beach girl music: the Beach Boys, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Golden Earring. Yes, Brandy: you are a fine girl. Hearing those songs now brings back the smell of Bain de Soleil.
Carly and James lived and loved on Martha’s Vineyard. On clear nights we could see the loom of the island from our roof. It glowed beyond the eastern horizon, a drive and a ferry ride away. Carly, one of three sisters, sang as if she’d had her own heart broken while also breaking a few along the way.
During those bright years, my sisters and I would go to Sound View for lemon ice; we’d play tennis till after dark, then go swimming to cool off, daring and brave as we swam in the gentle, black waves. One midsummer night we went to Essex with a young man; parked down by Steamboat Dock, jumped out of the car with headlights on and music blasting, and we danced in the high beams, the three of them jitterbugging like mad and I trying to keep up.
Our mother used to say, “You’ll have many friends, but only two sisters.” She was right, and nothing can alter that fact. The words seemed so obvious, I used to wonder why she’d say them. Maybe she foresaw the troubles that would arise among us, but if she did, what were the signs?
When I was in second grade and my middle sister was in kindergarten, our school held a Halloween costume contest. She and I both wore the exact same white fairy princess outfits, and she won. I hugged her, but did my mother read envy?
Sometimes, as in all triangular relationships, it would be two-against-one; in junior high that same sister and I would go to New York to see plays, have adventures in the city without the Little One (our name for the youngest.) Later the two of them moved to Newport and didn’t ask me to rent the apartment with them.
In Carly Simon’s Two Little Sisters, there are two lines:
I didn't choose you and you didn't choose me.
I didn't choose you, who would guess we're from the same family?
It’s true: sisters don’t get to choose each other, the way they do friends. But being sisters is like being wisteria vines: you shoot off on your own, trail off in different directions, get tangled up together, good and twisted but still separate as you grow thick and old, nearly grafting onto each other, and then you grace each other with purple flowers.
In the forward to Freud’s Blind Spot, a collection of 23 essays by writers about their siblings, the editor, Elisa Albert, writes of the psychological vertical model, “You are who you are because your parents made you that way.” Then, “But what about the horizontal mode…what about lateral influence?” In other words, what about the importance of siblings?
Freud negated the power siblings have on other’s development—the way we share early memories and a singular connection, know each other’s primary truths, first loves, deep pain, quirky humor, vulnerabilities—thus his “blind spot.”
Freud didn’t know dick.
The last lines of Carly Simon’s Two Little Sisters:
But, what will you do when the nights get cold?
When the stars grow dim and your dreams seem old.
Watcha gonna do when winter calls,
And your flowers fall from the garden walls?
I'll come home to you, you'll come home to me.
My love will be your remedy.
I'll choose you and you'll choose me.
We'll be two daughters dancing by the edge of the sea.
I change the last line to say “three daughters.” I would be so happy to dance by the edge of the sea with my two sisters, in the light of the high beams, on midsummer’s night, in the dead of winter, any time at all.
There's a small piece of music at the very beginning of Doctor Zhivago that I've always really loved--a woman's voice in Russian, singing something really plaintive at Yuri's mother's funeral--with some other voices doing beautiful, spooky harmony. It fades pretty quickly into Maurice Jarre's overture, the whole Lara's Theme thing. I wanted that lone voice to keep going, though--no swelling string section, no balalaika stuff. Just that mournful sound of utter loss, captured in a single woman's throaty lamentation.
Maybe I first liked it because there's a little kid in the scene, and the focus is kind of on him. I always got drawn into film and TV with kid characters, when I was little. I also got suckered into watching Dark Shadows for a while that way. I was home sick from school on the day it debuted, and was fascinated by the two little kids it started out with--something about a telephone, if I remember. And then the little kids were kind of never seen again and it got supremely boring by the time I'd recovered from the mumps. Sigh.
Usually it kind of segued into the same characters as adults entirely too quickly for my taste--kind of the way the notes of that song vanished into orchestral hugeness at the beginning of Zhivago. (And hey, turns out this little kid playing the young Yuri is Omar Sharif's son, which I never knew before.)
I tried to figure out what that song was for many years, to see if there was a longer version somewhere or if Jarre just wrote those few notes and left me hanging. It's only listed as "Kontakion" on the film soundtrack, and it turns out there are lots of different Kontakions in Orthodox sacral music. I bought a lot of cassette tapes of Russian stuff over the years, just looking for it. No luck, though. This, of course, was pre-Internet, and pre iTunes. I even have some Orthodox choirs on CD, because I'm obsessive like that. STILL no luck...
But now I have a really heartbreaking version of it as an MP3, performed by The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (thank you, Google and iTunes.) I'll put that at the end of the post.
Anyway, this week I've been thinking a lot about my own departed. Probably because it's getting close to the first anniversary of my dad's suicide. And maybe Good Friday, I don't know.
I visited one of Dad's brothers a couple of weeks ago, when my stepmom and young half sister were east. Listening to Uncle Peter reminded me hugely of Grandmama Read, too... the way he speaks is somewhat like her, though his accent is old New York and hers was Brahmin Bostonian. And I thought, while listening, how strange it is to think about having the voices of the dead in my head... how my daughter won't ever know what these people sounded like.
My cousin Marshal was there, too, and he laughs a little like Dad did. Which I totally can't explain at all in words. Crap.
We were all sitting around the kitchen table having tea and cookies, and things were really lovely--the year's last snowstorm outside, catching up with people I hadn't seen in at least a decade. I remember Marshal and his wife once giving my ex-husband and I a Thermos full of coffee to take with us as we drove from Purchase, New York, up to Syracuse. I hadn't seen Marshal at that point since I was thirteen or so, and I was then about twenty-four.
There's something really comforting to me in hanging out with Reads. Like, they're my tribe, even though I don't know them very well, having grown up on the west coast. They're rather dry and droll, lovely storytellers. They're smart, and not too effervescent. I feel something open up in my chest whenever I'm around them, like being home in this weird way. And it's always kind of poignant, too.
So anyway, we're sitting around the table and telling stories and it's all really lovely and everything, but we didn't really mention Dad at all. We were talking about colleges, and where my sister and daughter were hoping to go in the fall, and catching up on other relatives. And there was some talk of slime molds, and a botanist they know who's at Princeton.
And then Aunt Pru walked us around the house to look at some beautiful old paintings from my grandparents' house, and some of her photography--which is astonishingly good. One especially beautiful shot of sheets blowing on a clothesline in Nova Scotia, black and white.
So she and I get to the living room, and there, on a desk, next to someone's computer, is a picture of my father. And I just... lost it.
He's just so goddamn young in the shot, and it was before all the bad shit happened, at least with us, and he has everything ahead of him. And still, there's already a lot of damage around the eyes, somehow. Like you can tell he'd been broken well before this moment, if you know him at all. Maybe he's toughing it out, but not at all perfectly.
Or maybe that's just my hindsight, it's hard to say.
I just stood there and tears started leaking down my face and everything, and Aunt Pru hugged me. I mean, we are not really huggy people, for the most part, but it was really a very nice thing that she did.
And then my stepmother came back into the room, and saw what I was looking at, and she started crying. And then my sister. And, well, fuck... we're all standing there weeping at this point, you know?
Here's the picture:
Cousin Marshal scanned it for me, which is deeply wonderful of him. He said his parents figure it was taken when Dad was in the fifth form at St. Paul's, here in New Hampshire--which translates to junior year of high school and would have made him about seventeen at the time.
Well, so it's another not-exactly-feel-good blog post from me, here, and I hope not to become the Sad Tart of the Weepingness or anything, but I'm just thinking a lot about the departed this week. Beloved people of mine who aren't here anymore. Which sucks. And, to be honest, sometimes it wasn't exactly easy when they were here, because people tend to be complicated like that. Especially people I'm related to (and God knows they could say the same of me, most days.)
I've got a character in the book I'm working on right now who's based on another lost friend. His name was Rick Dage, and he and my ex worked together when my girls were little and we were all living in Boulder, Colorado. He was an amazing friend to me--saw me through a really rough time in my life, the year after we'd moved from Boulder to Cambridge. He was a big bear of a guy, with a wonderful laugh.
He left Boulder too, moved home to Ohio. He lost his job there, and couldn't find work. He'd gotten married by then, and had a little son. He used to call me up sometimes, just to check in. We lived in Berkeley by then. My marriage was falling apart. I'd hear from him maybe every three months or so, and do my best to cheer him up.
One day the phone rang as I was running out the door, late for a pediatrician's appointment. I saw it was Rick and picked up, a little breathless. "Listen," I said, "I'm running out the door. I'm late. Can we talk tomorrow? What's a good time to reach you?"
He said to try him around noon, and I admit I was a little pissed off when I did call the next day, and only got his voicemail.
And then his wife, whom I'd never met, called me back about five minutes later.
"Rick died last night," she said. And I realized he'd been calling to say goodbye. And she and I both started to cry.
And finally we hung up, and I just wept in my strange little kitchen in California, thinking about his son, and how I wished I could have had that final conversation with my friend.
And then the phone rang again, and it was my agent, telling me we had the very first offer from an editor for my manuscript, and I started sobbing into the phone all over again. Which freaked him out quite a bit.
"I don't think I've ever had an author react that way to good news," he said.
So I explained, and then he got all teary too. I didn't know at that point that his father had been murdered, when he was a kid. Man... we've all got sadness, you know? Everyone. Which is why it matters so much to be kind, I think.
Anyway, I'm spending time with Rick as I work on this book. Trying to describe him, his voice, what it was like to hang out with him in Boulder, all those years ago. The character's name is Cary, right now. If I ever finish this damn novel, I hope you'll give him a tip of your hat should you read it.
I've been thinking of him this week, and of David Thompson--whom we lost way too soon too, last year.
And of my favorite "stepfather," Bill Fassett, who founded a little hamburger joint in Big Sur known as Nepenthe, and was kind to me when I really needed it, a long time ago.
Here's Bill in the middle, much younger than when I knew him. His wife Lolly is on the left, and Henry Miller's on the right.
Okay, so the good part about all of this? I've also been thinking of a really wonderful program that's on Oprah Winfrey's new network, called Master Class, I think. I've only watched an hour of it, but it was about Maya Angelou.
She spoke about all the people she's lost in her life, and about sadness, and some pretty heavy stuff. But she also said at one point--in that rich, marvelous voice of hers--that every time she has to get on stage, and is a little frightened, she remembers that all the people who've ever been kind to her over the course of her entire life are there with her, cheering her on.
And I have all these people with me, too. As much as I miss them.
So here's the Kontakion for the Departed, sung by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge:
The lyrics in English show up at the beginning, along with some bells and stuff. I think I like the Russian better--because I don't speak Russian and it feels a lot more non-denominational when you don't know what the people are actually singing--but it's pretty beautiful all around. Especially the stained glass window inscribed with "Be Not Afraid." I totally dig that.
(On a more cheerful note: since it's both Passover and Holy Week, here's an alleluiah to my Easter peeps:
And חַג כָשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ to my Pesach peeps:
So whose voices do you guys carry with you? Whose words still give you comfort, even though they may be departed?
I love to cook. Love it. When my husband was in business school we would regularly invite over six or eight or 12 people, or as many as 20, for dinner parties. I almost always made something I’d never made before, because where was the fun in that? I roasted lamb, stuffed peppers, rolled fresh pasta, simmered molé, churned ice cream, and braised everything I could get my hands on, with or without a recipe. When people asked what the secret of my far-ranging cookery was, I answered cheerfully, “Don’t be afraid to fail!”
But here’s the thing: sometimes, I totally failed.
During a birthday party I ran so far behind schedule that I was still frosting the cake while everyone else was eating dinner. Two batches of ice cream froze so solid we had to chip, not scoop, them out of their containers. The Guinness pork with sweet potatoes was too sweet, the macaroni and cheese too rich, the carrot-ribbon salad too citrusy. And when I overreduced a balsamic vinegar reduction to drizzle over some strawberry-and-feta skewers, it was so black and sticky we couldn’t get the skewers off the plate.
We all have kitchen catastrophes. On my food blog, http://simmerblog.typepad.com , I try to write about the failures in the same detail as the successes, because doing something wrong can teach you how to do it right. I never would have suspected that failing to seal a pan sufficiently would turn my sweet, syrupy homemade dulce de leche into an inedible rock-hard sugar-and-milk mess, burned nearly black in parts. On another occasion, I tried making mussels at home for the first time—they stuck to their shells so badly that I started to worry I’d undercooked them, and pitched half the batch directly into the trash and monitored myself for signs of food poisoning the rest of the night. I might never do it again, but I’m not sorry I did it the first time – cooking is about experimentation.
And that’s the thing. A kitchen catastrophe is rarely a real catastrophe. Your dinner guests want you to succeed. They want to eat delicious things and have a good time.
When I served all those flawed experiments to all those students, nobody really cared. They ate what was edible and chuckled over what wasn’t. They chipped away at that ice cream until every last bite was eaten. They tugged free the bits of strawberry and feta that hadn’t been trapped in the reduction and licked their fingers afterward. And they said thank you, and poured me a glass of wine, and asked when we’d be doing this again.
Full disclosure: I did set the oven on fire once, which could have been an actual catastrophe, but I learned from that too.
In my book, The Kitchen Daughter, a shy young woman who has always cooked just for the sake of cooking learns how to use food to connect with others. Ginny has Asperger’s syndrome, which makes social situations hard for her, and her parents have always protected her, shielding her from any interactions that might turn uncomfortable or confrontational. Basically, they’re afraid to let her fail. (And what parent wouldn’t be?) But when they are both suddenly killed, Ginny has to find a new way to navigate her world, including her overbearing sister Amanda. Amanda wants to take over their mother’s role of protecting Ginny. Ginny wants independence, and with it, the freedom to fail.
And what’s the worst that can happen? To Ginny, or to any of us? That’s a big part of what the book is about. What happens when we try. What happens when we fail. And how the word “catastrophe” is, like many other words, all relative.
Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), and a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael's work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.
We’ve had horse stories here before at The Lipstick Chronicles, but perhaps not quite like this. I’d like to introduce you to an old friend of mine—Linda Gresham Hanick of Colorado who devotes much of her life to saving and protecting the wild horses of America. That's Linda, above, with her husband Vic, and "Cloud," who is the most famous wild horse in the world, the subject of a PBS documentary.
Here’s Linda's story. . .
It was 1995, and Linda and her family were riding horses to the bottom of a canyon. She saw her first wild mustang there, on a rocky ledge above her.
Then there came a close encounter with a wild horse on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. “We drove up the highway next to the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming on the ﬁrst day," Linda told me, "praying that we would see just one horse.
"For a while we saw nothing but a lot of sagebrush and rocks, and then this beautiful, muscular black horse appeared, quietly standing near the road like a welcoming committee--nonplussed by our being there in our car, and behind him on the hill was his mare, calmly grazing. I’ll never forget Sam. Sadly, I must say that Sam died this year, but his legacy son, Admiral, has taken his place as the welcoming committee on the Big Horn Canyon road.”
By that time, Linda and her husband Vic Hanick (another old college friend of mine) had taken care of and trained horses, but it wasn’t until 2009 that she was galvanized into action on behalf of the wild mustangs, and it changed her life forever.
That’s when the Bureau of Land Management started rounding up the Pryor herd to cull them. These particular horses are, Linda explains, “primarily the Spanish barb horses, those that were brought to the New World by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. They are thought to be the source of the Crow Indian 'TrueCrow Ponies,' the coveted steeds of our Great Plains Indians. This herd also holds a great deal of history that goes back to the horses of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which lost many of their horses there on their trek across Montana. This herd is the only remaining wild herd left in Montana and its historic signiﬁcance is great.”
“Round-ups” and “herd management” can mean terrible things. Just last year, Linda attended a roundup in Colorado last fall to, as she said, “experience ﬁrst-hand the terror of the helicopters and the resulting injuries and deaths."
At the largest Short Term Holding pens in Canon City, CO, 3000 wild horses--stallions, mares, babies, and burros--are incarcerated in pens.
She and her fellow volunteers work to advocate for the wild horses, to protect them and prevent their suffering.
I asked her, What are the forces that are lined up against what you’re trying to do?
Linda's answer: “Our public land was set aside for multiple use and there are several stakeholders in addition to the wild horses: Recreation use, ﬁshing and hunting, cheap corporate livestock grazing leases(not family ranching), and mineral extraction industries (gas, oil, gold, uranium). However, the horses do not represent money, so they are left out in importance in the struggle for money and power, and their removal only enhances the other stakeholders. “
There isn’t enough room here to give you the whole story, so I’ll let some links---and the horses themselves—do that for me. If you want to ask Linda any questions, she’ll be here today to answer them, but first I want to share with you the beautiful thing she said to me:
I’ve always believed that we are put on this earth to make it a better place, and this is one way I can make it a better place for the future. I want my grandchildren and future generations to be able to walk up a mountainside and experience the rush of seeing a band of wild horses running in the wind or a mare protecting her newborn foal. And I feel I have something to contribute to affirm Ghandi’s quote: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."