16 posts categorized "Brunonia Barry"

October 08, 2011

The Fifty-Dollar Tomato

The Fifty-Dollar Tomato

By Brunonia Barry

50 Dollar Tomato

Okay, so we’re city folk. Or were. But then we bought a house in Salem, MA and it came with a back yard. A big one. The kind of yard that stretches from one street to another, and the kind you have to do something with like actually mowing the grass once in a while, or, failing that, at least trying to grow some grass. So this was our year for landscaping, and we decided to do it ourselves. There was one challenge. While are beautiful big old trees in our back yard, there is no sunlight except on our deck. So we planted hostas and lace cap hydrangeas, tons of them, and, thankfully, they’re all still alive.

But then I had this bright idea.  We should have a kitchen garden, in containers, on our deck. We bought herbs and planted them in window boxes: Basil, sage, rosemary, mint, more basil. We watered. They grew. And everything was fine, until I had another brainstorm: “Let’s grow tomatoes.”

It sounded like a good idea at the time. It would be a container garden. We had some huge pots we could use. We bought heirloom tomato plants. We added fertilizer. They started to grow. We bought wire things to support them. They grew again. We bought bigger wire things to support them. By the end of the summer, the plants were taller than my husband, who is 6’6”.

The plants were strong and healthy, but there were no tomatoes. I take that back. Out of three, seven-foot plants, there were exactly two tomatoes. One of them was hopelessly deformed and rotting from the bottom up. The other, we harvested this morning. It’s a pretty nice tomato. It had better be. When we did our cost-benefit analysis, we figured that one tomato was worth about fifty dollars.  

Now, I make a mean tomato pie. It takes basil (we have a heck of a lot of basil) and chives (have those too) and a ton of tomatoes (which, of course we don’t have). But I was determined to make that pie, so my husband and I set out for the farmer’s market in downtown Salem to buy our lone tomato some companions. Just a quick trip… or so we thought. I was so enthusiastic about the prospect of tomato pie that I hadn’t remembered one important detail. It’s October!

It’s that time of year again in Salem, the Halloween capital of the world. Witches, pirates, goblins and (God help us) anyone sporting bloody body parts rule the road. You can’t get a parking space to save your life. On a normal day in Salem (is there any such a thing, you ask?) our population is about 40,000. On any given day in October, it could be as high as 350,000.

Of course, we needed a parking space right in the middle of things, and, of course that was going to be impossible. Halfway downtown, we realized it would have been easier and faster to walk, but we were already stuck in traffic, surrounded by road raging residents, a few zombies, and a grandmother driving a Mini and wearing a costume that, from my vantage point, looked like the chest of drawers from Beauty and the Beast. She fought us for the one available space on the street, and won.  When she got out of her car, I realized that she was dressed as a grilled cheese sandwich.

We ended up parking half a mile away on the other side of the Common and walking back on Essex Street. The pedestrian walkway starts at the Peabody Essex Museum and is lined with multiple witch shops. It's interesting any time of year, but October adds a dramatic street theater / costume party element. We didn’t see the usual Bridget Bishop re-enactor being dragged through the streets (Bridget was the first of Salem’s accused witches back in 1692, and they reenact her trial several times a day for the tourists). We did see several witches, a proselytizing minister trying to save some souls, and this gentleman:  

Putting the Bite on Brunonia Barry

As we approached the farmer’s market, we passed an old dog, wandering by, dragging his leash. He was moving so slowly that, at first, I thought it was someone in a dog costume, but no, this was a real dog, and his owner was nowhere to be found.  We have a sixteen-year-old Golden Retriever we treasure, so we’re suckers for an old dog, or a lost dog, or any dog actually, so we had to stop. We looked around for his owner. We waited. Guessing that the dog had come from the Farmer’s Market, we finally led him in that direction. He stopped at every tree along the way.

Salem Farmer's Market

The market was crowded. We scanned the area. Finally, we spotted a booth that was selling dog biscuits. We figured it was a good place to start. At least they were dog lovers, They’d help figure things out.

They knew the dog immediately. He belonged to one the farmers. He was evidently a great escape artist. As a reward, the woman selling the dog biscuits gave us an assortment of every flavor for our Golden Retriever. The runaway dog would get his biscuits later, so as not to reward his truancy. He didn’t want to have his picture taken. He wasn’t in the mood.

Our good deed done, we did a bit of shopping. We came home with seven pears, six ears of corn, amd a pumpkin. We had become so involved in finding the dog’s owner that we forgot what we had come for, the tomatoes.

We considered going back, but decided against it. The Haunted Happenings Parade was about to start and there was a 5PM ban on street parking. People were already lining the sidewalks. After that, it would be the candlelight vampire hearse tour, followed by a zombie pub crawl . We figure we probably won’t see downtown again until early November.

Do you have any fall traditions in your town? Do you celebrate any Halloween rituals? Have you ever tried to grow your own tomatoes?

Obviously we’re not having tomato pie tonight. I’m looking for a recipe that features corn and pears. Our fifty-dollar tomato will be sliced and served au natural, with just a little olive oil and some of our bumper crop of basil. Our sixteen year old Golden Retriever, who is normally up and begging for any dinner dish we’re preparing, is ignoring our fruit and veggie entrée. He’s in the corner of the kitchen, happily chomping on his biscuits.


September 11, 2011

This Day to Remember.

Where were you on September 11th? What do you remember?

From Margaret:

  I was awakened earlier than usual to be told that a close relative was in the hospital with a broken hip, so when I flipped on NPR to catch the morning headlines and heard that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center, I immediately turned on the television and was shocked to watch as that second plane went in.  The first could have been a weird accident; the second was clearly deliberate, but who?  why? The horror continued as I flashed on the few times I'd taken an elevator up to one of the towers' high floors.  How long it took even on the express.  To think of trying to walk down through smoke and fire . . .? Ghastly. In addition to all the people who died that day, there were even more deaths to come.  Of the two close friends who lived in lower Manhattan, I'm convinced that  breathing those contaminants for months caused the death of one and hastened the end of the other even though neither was in the building itself.

From Nancy Martin: 

 I was living on a mountaintop in rural Virgina--alone because my husband had already moved back to Pennsylvania for a job. Between writing the last chapter of my first mystery, I was packing boxes that morning and watching the Today show.  With packing tape in my hand, I heard Katie Couric's incredulous voice saying,  "We don't want to alarm anyone, but it looks as if a small plane may have crashed into the World Trade Center." And while I watched, the second plane hit.  I thought, "My daughter is in New York," and you know that expression "my blood ran cold?"  Well, that's how I felt---as if a terrible block of ice hit my chest and spread through my veins all the way to my fingertips. 

An instant later, the phone rang, and the voice of my great friend (and backblogger!) cried, "Are you seeing this?"  It was just like our mothers telling us about Pearl Harbor.  We couldn't believe it.  The sky was so blue and perfect. For hours, I kept trying my daughter's phone, but of course it was out. Thank God for Ethernet.  When she got back from class, we emailed, and she begged me to phone her boyfriend's mother in DC.  Her boyfriend had been on a plane from New York that morning, but I couldn't make the call. I kept thinking he'd been in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.  I couldn't call a mother whose son had died.  But he was already on the subway in DC when the plane went down, and he reached my daughter by email within a few hours. 

My mother called from Pennsylvania.  Her voice shook.  "An airliner flew over the golf course.  It was so low, we thought we could reach up and touch it." That was minutes before it crashed. When I phoned my husband--already at his new banking job--he said in amazement that the guys he'd been doing business with the previous day weren't answering their phones.  They worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. My sister, in Brooklyn, said her front steps were covered in burned bits of paper with the Cantor Fitzgerald letterhead.

That night, alone in the house on the mountain, I heard a tremendous roar of powerful engines down in the valley.  It went on for hours, and the concussion rattled the windows of the house.  I was afraid to go outside to listen by myself, so I took the dog, and Dolly and I stood on the lawn, listening in the dark. Dolly leaned against my leg. I remember how warm she felt, and comforting. Turns out, all the east coast railroad companies had sent their locomotives to hide in the old coal yard in the town below. To be safe from terrorists. Terrorists!  What was a terrorist?

I remember how we all felt in the weeks that followed--joined in a common spirit.  Makes the current Congress look so self-absorbed and petty. If nothing else, I'm glad we have so many stories of heroism and patriotism and unity from that terrible day.

From Barbara O'Neal:  

I had been on a very challenging hiking trip in Provence, and made it home on September 11 at 3 am Colorado time.  I awakened to the phone ringing, and it was my grandmother calling to be sure I was home. She said, "Oh, thank God you are not on a plane. I didn't know when you were coming in. They've bombed the Pentagon."  I thought she was being alarmist, but turned on the television to see the towers smoking after the first plane hit.  The calls continued all morning--my family calling to make sure I was actually home and not on one of those planes.  I have a lot of friends in NYC, but my thoughts that morning were for the friend I'd gone hiking with.  She was stranded in Paris, alone, because she'd taken a later flight than I did, and didn't get home for two weeks.  

The story I think about the most is one from an editor I was working with at the time. She lived in the village and couldn't get to her apartment for quite some time. When she finally got back, she said the smell was awful in the neighborhood and she commented to her boyfriend that it smelled like rotten garbage all the time. He said gently, "Honey, that's not garbage."   


From Hank Phillippi Ryan:

It was a beautiful, beautful day on the East Coast, as you remember, too, Nancy.  And chillingly, as it turned out, that's one of the reasons the plot could work--because it was so clear that it allowed the terrorists to see the towers.

I was--crazily--at the hairdresser, getting a hair cut. That night was my station's preview party for the upcoming TV season, and we were all sprucing up.  Someone came running in, saying something incomprehensible, and then the news came flooding in. I had wet hair.

I knew I had to get to work, GET TO WORK as  soon as possible. As a reporter, this was...well, it was work. Separating the journalists from everyone else. I called Jonathan, yelling over the sound of the blowdryer. Yes, he knew.  Are the kids okay, in Park Slope? Our step-son works in the city...yes they're okay. I don't know when I'll be home, I said. (And I will admit, what I really wanted to do was go home.)

I walked to work, maybe 4 blocks, in that beautiful day. The bars were all open on Congress Street, all the glass fronts wide open, all the televisions on. I remember, so clearly, deliberately walking slowly. Thinking, so clearly, so clearly, "this is the moment our lives are all changing. When I get to work, our lives will never be the same."

(Ridiculously: I'm the investigative reporter, you know? And my boss came racing into my office. "How did this happen?" he yelled. "You and Mary (my producer) have to find out how this happened!"  As if we could do that. I think we stayed in the office for the next--three days? And every time we started to   complain, we'd look at each other and say: "We're not dead. Not dead." And then go back to work.)


From Sarah Strohmeyer:

Yes, it was a beautiful September morning and I'd just sent the kids off to school and sat down to write. We'd recently redone our computer system and installed a New York Times news alert. So many ways to procrastinate! Oddly enough, the first message that popped up was from my childhood friend, Connie Jordan, whom I hadn't spoken to in, gosh, ten or more years.

Connie is a smart, beautiful woman, a Swarthmore/Harvard grad and Presbyterian minister whose husband survived a nasty bout of cancer early in their marriage. I've often thought of Connie as being deeply spiritual - though we occasionally butted heads over different interpretations of Christianity. Anyway, I'm still moved by the randomness - or not - of hearing from this woman of God just as my New York Times news ticker started firing bulletins about a plane crashing into the twin towers.

The bulletins were confusing. First it was a small plane. Then it was a jet. Wait, something was going on in D.C.? Was that another plane in New York? Or the same one? I remember thinking that it was probably a joker pilot. About a month before, a single-prop plane had flown precariously close to high rises in Manhattan and in flying from Manchester to New York, our little commuter flight often followed 5th Avenue. You could even see people working in their offices. 

But this was different.

Finally, I wrote Connie this: "Something's going on."

Connie wrote back. "I know. But what?"

"It's bad," I wrote back, getting chills as the bulletins became more alarming. A missing plane in Pennsylvania. Reports of a small plane flying into the Pentagon. More planes missing.

"I have to pray," Connie said. And that was it. I've never heard from her since.

I called Charlie at work and he was just getting the news. I flipped on the TV and there was Peter Jennings, smoke swirling from the twin towers in another frame. I told Charlie to come home immediately, that the towers were on fire. I thought of all my friends in New York, of the husband of my daughter's godmother who worked at Merrill Lynch. Like Connie, I prayed.

And then the unthinkable. The first tower fell, just crumbled like a house of cards. Peter Jennings went dead silent as Charlie came through the door and I looked at him and said, "We'll never be the same."

All those people. Gone.


From Elaine Viets:


That’s what I remember most after 9-11. Don and I lived in a beach condo in Hollywood, Florida. After the attack, the airport was closed for weeks, silencing the constant drone of commercial flights.

Instead, the skies were patrolled by sinister black helicopters. Warships cruised offshore, some with the ominous bulge of nuclear weapons.

Three of the terrorist leaders moved to Florida in 2000, near our home. South Florida is an international community, and they blended in. They used our local library, where the computers are free to all. They made one of their last appearances at Shuckums Oyster Bar in Hollywood, where at least two "holy warriors" drank forbidden alcohol – screwdrivers and rum and Coke. You can make what you want of this: They ate chicken wings.

Twelve hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, the FBI flashed their photos around the bar. The Shuckums’ server remembered them – and their lousy tip.


From Heather Graham:


The very words will, for everyone old enough on the day, be horrible and poignant. And no matter how much time passes, we all know where we were and what we were doing on that date. 

For me, I was mourning, and cleaning out mother's house with my sister; we had lost her just weeks before. And one of the things that kept running through my mind was at least she doesn't have to see this.

But my mom's passing became back-burner; I hadn't seen a TV. I was driving to a store to buy cleaners when a friend called me and frantically told me not to go to downtown Miami. At the time, I never went downtown, and I thought she'd spiked her morning diet coke. Of course, when she told me that two planes had hit the towers, I immediately started trying to reach my third son--he was going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn at the time, and the kids there were always on the Path train to reach the store where they bought their art supplies. I was frantic, trying to reach him. His cell went straight to a dull tone. 
I rushed back and got on my computer and I was amazed when I got an instant message. He was on the roof at Pratt and miraculously, his Internet was up. He was alright; he was feeling his gut wrench as he and fellow students watched the towers burn. Suddenly he wrote, "OMG! It fell, it fell!" And I didn't know what he was talking about, until he explained, "It went down; the whole damned tower went down. Oh, God, oh God."
The day that travel was allowed again, Dennis and I got on a plane and flew to New York; I had to see him, and friends in the city who had lost loved ones. If I didn't get on a plane, I could never suggest that anyone else ever do so again. I was terrified getting on that plane. It turned out to be Dennis and I, a few scattered people, and about ten pilots heading up to start commercial travel again. I'll never forget flying by the place where the towers had been--and the ground was still smoldering. 
I'd considered myself a student of history, and I had thought I'd known something about terrorism; my mom and her family left Dublin because they were "mixed" and the "troubles" continued. But I had never understood the kind of hatred that could make anyone massacre so many people so blindly. I'd been to Egypt, I had friends who were Muslim. And I had to make myself realize that while their was a culture of hatred--quite possibly the result of poverty and misery as so much hatred was--was not the culture of everyone. 
Today, I know that we often wonder what our men and women in the service are accomplishing because it's true that you can't kill and ideal. But I was with a young serviceman the other day who told me, "You don't get to see the good very often on TV. I was there when we opened a new school, and the parents and the children were grateful and wonderful. Building and giving, yes, we can make a change."
So what do we do in our world today? We defend ourselves. We learn how to do that through intelligence. We suffer, because we can't stop everything. We keep trying to be the country we began to be after the Civil War, seeing all people as equals. It's so easy to hate. And I hate fanatics of any kind who would do harm to others; I pray that I never do so blindly, and I always judge a person for the person they are. And because I really have no control, I pray for our men and women in the service, and I pray for all who are caught in the violence brought upon them by others. Most of all, I pray that we stop being such a party-determined society, and that our law makers can stop following party lines, and work hard to defend and strengthen out country, and show others, through our united front and efforts to benefit all mankind, that we should be emulated, and not alienated, assaulted, and attacked.

From Joshilyn Jackson:

I went downstairs to get coffee and I turned on a little television I had on the kitchen counter. There was the first tower, with the plane going into it.

I immediately called my friend Lydia Netzer and said, Turn on your television, because I didn’t want to be watching alone. They showed it over and over.  It seemed crazy and impossible. We began coming up with explanations for it, back and forth, two fiction writers constructing implausible scenarios, looking for a way it could have happened. We were like children telling each other fairy tales ---- pilots having strokes and electrical instruments going haywire, anything to keep ourselves from understanding.

The second plane came. We saw it happen.

Then we knew. There wasn’t any way to not know. This is on purpose, we said back and forth to each other, but only because there was no other explanation left. We had tried so hard to make it be Fate---God---Accident---Error, anything at all. Anything except a deliberate, human choice.


From Brunonia Barry:

I worked at the World Trade Center for several years in the mid-seventies, soon after it opened. I was in the accounting department of Toyoda America, Inc. on the fiftieth floor of the North Tower. It was one of my first jobs out of college, and I loved the whole experience. But most of all, I loved the WTC. It was like a small community. I was there when Phillippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers.

Windows on the World had not yet opened, and, for a short while, we were allowed to take our lunches up there and enjoy the view from the top floor. A small group of us representing many different companies lunched there most days, until the construction crews put an end to our visits. After that, we all continued to meet for lunch at the restaurant on the 44th floor.

I was our company’s fire marshall, and used to lead the employees in monthly evacuation drills, things they sometimes participated in and sometimes refused to take seriously. Thankfully, my friends at Toyoda had relocated their company offices a few years before the towers came down, but there were others I knew there who remained, friends who were lost.

Ten years ago on September 11th, I was in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery. I remember the television and everyone huddled around staring. I remember hoping that I was hallucinating from the medication, and then realizing that it was not a dream. In the ten years that have passed, I have not visited the site. It’s still difficult for me to think about, as it is for many of us.   


September 10, 2011

Volunteering: Causes, Passions and the Salem Lit Fest

Volunteering: Causes, Passions and the Salem Lit Fest

By Brunonia Barry

  SLF logo

I don’t know about you, but these days, I seem to be volunteering for more than ever before. This is something I’m happy to do, but I’m finding myself spread far too thin. As a novelist who only made her last deadline by forty-five minutes, I’m now hesitating to take on any new projects.

I am already involved in a variety of passionate causes, one of my favorites being The Women’s Lunch Place in Boston, a daytime shelter that provides refuge and services for Boston’s homeless and poor women and children.

Then there is teaching. I do some writing workshops, and visit local high school English classes to talk to students about writing and literature.  

I have joined boards to preserve historic landmarks, committees that provide scholarships, fund raising efforts to end domestic violence. The list goes on. 

But sometimes (alright many times, if I’m being honest here) I’m just exhausted. I can’t take on one more thing. There aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s a good thing I sleep a lot less than I used to, but, frankly, there aren’t enough hours in the night, either.

So it was a surprise even to me when I said yes to yet another project, one that has required more time from me than all the others combined. This year I agreed to co-chair the planning committee of the Salem Literary Festival.

“Are you insane?” was my husband’s question. “Probably,” I answered. If I had known what would be involved, I might not have continued. But the Salem Literary Festival is one of my all time passions, and I wasn’t about to let it die. And that’s just what would have happened, if it weren’t for a group of dedicated volunteers (one of whom turned out to be my husband).

When Salem’s independent bookstore, Cornerstone, closed last year, one of the less obvious casualties was the three-year-old Salem Literary Festival, which was started and anchored by the bookstore. It was a great festival for both readers and writers.

Salem is the ideal city for a lit fest. It’s small, walk-able, beautiful, and it has some of the best historic architecture in the country. Touted as the birthplace of the great American novel (a legacy left by Nathaniel Hawthorne, our native son), Salem has a rich and enduring literary tradition. Add to that Salem’s other American firsts: first millionaire, first candy store, first brick house, first elephant. (The elephant evidently had a drinking problem, but that’s a story for another day.) Salem’s full of quirky places and creative people, the perfect combination. We were determined to see the festival continue.

First we recruited more volunteers. The Spirit of ’76 bookstore in Marblehead offered to stand in for Cornerstone. We held committee meetings at my dining room table. We secured historic venues including The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Athenaeum, the Phillips House. Even the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) made room for us.

We were a bit less lucky with hotel rooms. The Lit Fest runs from September 23-25, but we found ourselves blocked by Halloween visitors who seem to come to town earlier every year. There wasn’t a hotel room to be had. Well, actually, there was exactly one. We grabbed it.

When I tell you that our committee meetings have been stormy, I am being literal. Our second meeting was spent huddled around a television set in our kitchen watching the news. A tornado was ripping across Massachusetts. Our founder’s husband and daughter were stuck at home in their basement, waiting out the storm.

We wrote the festival brochure during hurricane Irene with a copywriter who lived near New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and kept losing power and a collaborator who had no electricity for three days. Somehow we managed. We picked up the printed brochures last Wednesday amid renewed rains and flooding.

Besides working on the brochure, my assignment was securing writers and creating events. Erin Morgenstern, writer of The Night Circus (written while she lived in Salem), and Lipstick’s own Joshilyn Jackson will be our keynote speakers. And speaking of The Lipstick Chronicles, we are hosting a panel on Sunday September 25th featuring Hank, Cornelia, Heather, Sarah, Joshilyn and me.  Believe it or not, it will be the first time some of us have met.

All in all, we have over fifty authors and many great events. Check it out at http://www.salemlitfest.com/schedule.

If you’re anywhere near Salem the weekend of September 23rd, please come. We’d love to see you. And for any of you writers out there, we have an open mic session at Gulu Gulu café on Sunday at 4PM. We welcome your participation.

This is one volunteer job that will soon come to an end. I’m sure I will feel simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. And even though I swore I would never do it again, I will undoubtedly volunteer again next year.  After a short break, we’re planning to have a meeting to discuss next year’s lineup. Knowing New England and our stormy history, I figure it will probably snow.

So what kind of things are you passionate about? What inspires you to volunteer?

August 13, 2011

Forbidden Books

Forbidden Books

By Emily Arsenault


This is Brunonia, and it’s my day to post, but I’ve been sidetracked. Every summer, there is a book I just cannot put down, though it keeps me from sleep and deadlines. Last year it was Nancy Pickard’s The Scent of Rain and Lightning. This summer it’s Emily Arsenault’s new book: In Search of the Rose Notes. I loved this book! A beautifully written story about estranged childhood friends who once investigated the disappearance of their teenaged babysitter, the narrative draws the two back together as adults to explore this still unsolved mystery.  See? Aren’t you hooked already?

Since her book took me away from my deadlines, including my post today, I have asked her to take over for me and write something for you. I think it’s only fair. 

Welcome, Emily…


A man is about to get on a routine flight.

Suddenly, he pauses. He doesn’t know why—but he’s got to walk away.

An hour later the plane goes down in flames.

It’s dismissed as chance . . .

If those words sound familiar to you, you probably grew up in the 80s. They’re from the commercial for Time-Life’s most popular series, their “Mysteries of the Unknown” books—about psychic powers, alien abductions, and other paranormal phenomena.

I was around ten when these commercials started airing, and I wanted these books in the worst way. One thing I was given freely and often—and not just on Christmas and birthdays—was books. But my parents never ordered anything from the television—not even those awesome knives that that cut through shoes and tin cans. Ordering merchandise from 1-800 numbers on television ads seemed like a very exotic practice . . . something that was just not done in our relatively frugal household.

So I never asked for the Time-Life books—just quietly pined for them—pined for all of extraordinary knowledge and understanding I would have if I only held them in my possession.

Somehow, in the drama of adolescence, I managed to forget about those books. I didn’t think of them again until I was in my early thirties, and starting my second novel. In an earlier form, In Search of the Rose Notes was a book about a Connecticut neighborhood, some grim adolescent memories, and a mysterious death. But I kept worrying that the book was too dark—not just for readers, but for me. I needed something to lighten it up.

Then I thought of that Time-Life series I always wanted. I wasn’t sure, at first, if or how I’d incorporate it. But it seemed like it could be fun to try. I was a grownup now (kind of), and I had a credit card, and I could buy as many as I wanted. I picked a few up from a used bookstore, ordered a few more from Amazon.

The titles were so enticing, the ordering of one usually led to the ordering of two or three more. So mysterious, so promising of secret and life-changing knowledge: Phantom Encounters, Mystic Quests, Cosmic Connections, Psychic Powers. (Eventually, I ended up using those titles for sections of In Search of the Rose Notes.)

How lucky I was to finally get to have the books, to read them for hours and call it “research,” to deduct their modest price from my taxes. As I read through them, I began to reshape my manuscript. There would be two eleven-year-old girls. They would own the books. And there would be a mystery in their neighborhood, to which they’d attempt to apply the information they learned from their reading.

Reading the books as an adult, it struck me that it was probably best I hadn’t gotten them as a kid. When I was eleven, I probably would’ve taken their contents very much to heart (Angry, murderous ghosts! Aliens with medical probes!). Some of the material in the books is pretty intense, and I was the sort of kid who could give myself a complex from overthinking a particularly emotional episode of Family Ties.

Reading the Time-Life books as an adult also reminded me what it was like to be that strange and scary and vibrant age I was trying to capture in my novel—when some forms of magic still felt real, when there was mystery everywhere, when a book could easily change everything. 

What about you? What forbidden book (or books) did you covet as a kid?

July 09, 2011

He Must Have Saved a Bundle on All Those Shirts

He Must Have Saved a Bundle on All Those Shirts

By Brunonia Barry


Inspired by Nancy Pickard’s recent post on long-term relationships and a comment Elaine made about a conversation at a wedding last weekend, I decided to write about the ideal man.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately writing about him. I’m not talking about the man you’re married to or the old boyfriend you’ve recently friended on Facebook, I’m talking about the fantasy man, the fairy tale hero. The Map of True Places was all about that man. A real fairy tale (with its requisite hero) was embedded into the middle of the book, written by a female character who found it impossible to create a happy ending to finish her story. There was a good reason for her failure. From her own experience, she realized that these men and the happily ever afters they promise don’t exist.

Perfect men exist only in fiction or in our imaginations, and there are very good psychological reasons they should stay there, but I won’t go into those now. Suffice it so say that if you think you meet one of these fairy tale men on the street, you should run for your life. Just as Barbie doesn’t exist, neither does a real life Prince Charming.

And what if he did? I, for one, couldn’t deal with that kind of perfection, because it would undoubtedly require perfection in return, something that isn’t going to happen for me in this lifetime. But think about it. If you had the perfect man, how long would the relationship last before you grew bored? Give me a man with a few human flaws, and at least I can try to fix him. But that’s a post for another day.

Today, I don’t want to talk about real men, I want to talk about our fantasies. While writing The Map of True Places, I challenged myself to come up with a fairy tale hero who would suit a modern woman’s jaded sensibilities. Now, you may think that’s an easy task, but I’m telling you, it’s not. Make him too nice and he’s sickening, too handsome and he’s competing, too tough and he’s threatening. So how do you create the right balance, something that works for (almost) everybody?

Let me describe the character I created. His name is Hawk. He’s a rigger on a tall ship and works on the side as a carpenter. He has an advanced science degree, but works with his hands. He is sensitive and poetic, but he is not above hurting someone, if necessary, to protect you. Oh yeah, and did I mention that he looks like George Clooney?

Now, I’m not a writer who usually describes the physical attributes of my characters. I might write that someone has red hair or a limp, but I leave most of the creative character descriptions to the minds of my readers (which leads to some great arguments at book clubs). So it was odd for me to describe my modern fairy tale hero in my latest book, but it was absolutely necessary to the story. And hey, who doesn’t like George Clooney?

Hawk might not be your perfect man, but he was perfect for my novel.  Still, creating him was quite a challenge. It has been several decades since I made a list of the attributes of my personal Prince Charming.

The last time I did, I was 29 years old and working at a Hollywood studio with several other single girls who were all suffering through varying degrees of dating anxiety. One day, in the name of creatively visualizing what we wanted in order to manifest it, we decided to write down those preferences and hang them on the bulletin board where we could see them every day.

We thought it would take the afternoon (it was a slow day at the Studio), but the rule was that we all had to agree on each of the qualities, or they wouldn’t make the list. It didn’t take us a day. It took us almost a month. Here are the ten qualities of the perfect man written in 1979 by women who ranged in age from twenty-four to twenty-nine: 

  1. Six feet tall or greater.
  2. At least a year older than me.
  3. Looks directly at me when he talks.
  4. Must have money
    1. Or at least a job.
  5. Educated
    1. But not necessarily working in his chosen field, maybe does  carpentry on the side. Preferably without a shirt.
    2. Looks good without a shirt.
  6. Likes foreign movies
    1. doesn’t complain about subtitles
    2. doesn’t watch porn
  7. Reads poetry, but not too much.
  8.  Handsome but not pretty.
  9. Owns a car. (Note: this should be a subset of #4, but many of us had moved to LA from New York, and so had the men we were dating. Some of them didn’t even have driver’s licenses.)  
  10. GREAT in bed. 

We all agreed that this last quality was by far the most important and probably should have topped the list, but we were writing with a permanent calligraphy pen, and there was no revising.

When I recently showed the list to my husband, his only comment was: “Of course the guy had money, he obviously saved a bundle on all those shirts he didn’t have to buy.”

Every one of my friends from the studio has married since, some more than once. I’m sure their new lists would look very different. 

So tell me, what would you put on your list today? Has it changed over the years? Is there one characteristic that you always longed for in a partner and didn’t get? And guys, feel free to create your fantasy woman. Today, everyone has a free pass to ask for anything. No judgments allowed. 



June 04, 2011

The Last Cookie Dance

The Last Cookie Dance

By Brunonia Barry

  Byzy in his wheelchair

A few weeks ago, we hosted a sweet sixteen party for our Golden Retriever, Byzantium. The cake was made of hamburger and Charlie Bears (tiny dog biscuits), and the guests included his first girlfriend, a Portuguese Water Dog named Roberta, who looks incredibly youthful for her thirteen years, though we suspect she may have had a bit of work done.

Byzy, of course, has never had any plastic surgery whatsoever and doesn’t look a day over ten. The last time we took him in for a checkup, our regular vet was on vacation, and we saw someone new. At the end of the examination, the new vet declared Byzy “quite a specimen.”

In addition to being a specimen, our dog is a local celebrity. Byzy was the inspiration for the dog of the same name in The Lace Reader, a canine who hails from a line of feral Golden Retriever cave-dwelling warriors that protect the inhabitants of Yellow Dog Island. The idea of Golden Retrievers as warriors seems to greatly amuse most of my readers who always ask about the real Byzy. When I tell them he’s sixteen, they look amazed. Their next question is usually “What do you feed him?” 

“Far too much,” I answer. But hey, our puppy loves food. And he is sixteen, for God’s sake, and still here, so keep your judgments to yourselves. I don’t say that last part aloud, of course. I love my readers too much to be so rude.

Byzy has had only one severe health problem in his long life. One morning a few years back, he was acting lethargic and dazed. Since we were scheduled to leave for Italy on a book tour three days later, we took him to the vet to have him checked, something we might not have done so quickly if we hadn’t been leaving town. It was a good thing we did. He had a tumor in his spleen that required immediate surgery. While we sat in the waiting room stunned and worried, Byzy had his spleen removed. Two days later, he was dancing for cookies. 

Byzy’s cookie dance is a carefully choreographed little number that begins with a bouncy hop as both of his front feet leave the ground. That step is followed by rapid head shaking, some additional hopping, and a bit of subtle growling. The end of his routine is punctuated by one sharp, quick bark followed by thirty seconds of quiet but intense staring. If, after thirty seconds, a cookie has not been proffered, the dance routine is repeated until the desired results are achieved.  

Though we know we spoil him, we can’t help it. We love the cookie dance. It is hilarious. And so, two weeks ago, when it suddenly stopped, we were concerned. He didn’t get up with us that morning. When we were in the kitchen making breakfast, he didn’t join us.

Worried, we went to the front hallway where he always sleeps. He stood up to greet us and promptly fell down. We helped him up. He fell again. We weren’t too concerned at first because Byzy has a bit of hip dysplasia which is common to aging Golden Retrievers, and he sometimes has difficulty getting up in the morning. When things didn’t improve as the day went on, we scheduled an appointment with the vet. Byzy’s back legs didn’t seem to be working. We lifted him with a towel-sling and carried him to the car. By the time we arrived at the vet’s office, both Byzy and I were shaking.

The vet stood him up, then curled Byzy’s back paws under, one at a time, watching to see how long it took for him to straighten them. He passed the test easily with his left hind foot, giving the vet a haughty WTF look, but when his right paw was curled under, Byzy just stood there. He didn’t seem to know that there was anything wrong until he lost his balance and began to collapse. The vet eased him down to the floor.

The diagnosis was neurological. Byzy’s brain was no longer sending signals to his right hind leg. He wasn’t in pain, he was simply surprised every time he fell.

“What can we do?” We asked.

“There isn’t much you can do. He’s comfortable, he’s happy, . . . and he’s a fighter,” the vet told us. “Enjoy your time with him.”

Determined to do just that, we took him home.

The next day, we discovered Handicapped Pets in Nashua, New Hampshire. What a great company! We bought Byzy a “wheelchair” that supports his back legs while at the same time keeping them moving.

The brochure said that it was possible for the chair to have a restorative power and that it could help improve the functioning of injured legs. My husband read that part aloud and looked at me hopefully. “Maybe it’s just an injury,” he said. “Maybe he will spontaneously heal.”

“Maybe he will,” I said, but my voice lacked conviction.

Whether restorative or not, the wheelchair has worked wonders. It took a few days of adjustment, both for Byzy and for us (you try lifting a 90 lb. dog and holding him up while struggling to adjust a web of snaps and clips). Once we got the routine down (it required cookies) and installed a ramp, Byzy began bombing around our back yard, tearing through flower beds, shredding tulips and peonies and anything else in his path. We were delighted.

We have now established a new ritual: Byzy rolls through the house, down the ramp, and into the back yard. When we come back inside, we disconnect him from the wheelchair. He stands for a few minutes, then collapses. He sleeps for most of the day, which is nothing new. Byzy’s favorite activity has always been sleeping, unless there was something more interesting to do like walking, swimming, or eating. Eating beats sleeping every time.  

It was eating that inspired what I am now referring to as the Memorial Day Miracle. Byzy was sleeping in the front hall. We were grilling steaks. All of a sudden, Byzy, sans wheelchair, came jogging though the doorway and onto the porch as if nothing had ever been wrong with him. He demanded our steaks. He had attitude. He did his cookie dance.

A minute later, he collapsed. We cut up some steak and hand fed it to him. I cried with joy to have shared that inspirational “last dance.” It’s imprinted on my heart.

We knew it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But it was great!

We understand that this neurological damage will progress in the same way that these things invariably do. But for now, we are taking our vet’s advice. We are enjoying our sweet sixteen year old for a while longer. Our fighter. Our specimen. Who dances for cookies…and steaks.

Do you have a beloved pet who inspires you?




April 16, 2011

Rights of Spring

Rights of Spring

By Brunonia Barry

I’ve never understood why the New Year starts on January 1st, right at the height of winter instead of in the spring. What’s new about it? Here in New England, January, February, and usually all of March are more of the same old same old: more cold, more snow, more ice, more darkness. I understand that the winter solstice means that the days are getting longer, and we’ve turned the corner on winter, but you’d never know it by looking at our heating bills. If we’ve turned a corner, it must be a blind one, because on January 1st, spring is nowhere in sight. Usually there isn’t a hint of spring until early April, and even then we get the occasional freak snowstorm sent our way to remind us not to get too giddy just yet. 

In Salem, we are not a giddy people, but there are certain signs of spring that lighten our mood. These signs have nothing to do with flowers and robins, but they do have to do with birds of a different feather: snowbirds. I have come to believe that every seasonal business in New England is run by people who winter in Florida. And who can blame them? In any case, those snowbird businesses are now coming back, and the signs are everywhere. Here’s one of my favorites:

Lobster Shanty sign

The opening of the Lobster Shanty not only heralds spring in Salem, it does so with perfect New England attitude.

It’s 61 degrees today, and everyone’s out on the streets, high fiving each other with the attitude of survivors. We survived another New England winter, one of the worst in memory. We shoveled snow almost every day of the week, first when it fell from the sky, next when it fell from our roofs. In some cases, we even shoveled those roofs. We spread salt, then rethought the environmental implications and shoveled sand. If we have attitude, we have friggin’ well earned it. You want a lobster? Get it your own damned self!

It’s a good thing that the tourists don’t start showing up in Salem until mid May. They find us a whole lot more hospitable by late spring. By that time, we have almost forgotten the three-day storms, the stocking up on food, the fighting for shoveled out parking spaces. By the time those heralded May flowers arrive along with the emerald green lawns and the blooming dogwood, the cutting ocean wind has turned into gentle ocean breeze. We have all but forgotten those February vows of “Not one more winter!”

But it isn’t May yet. It is only April. And though we finally know that spring has come, we don’t quite trust it. I still remember the Nor’easter that dumped 14 inches of snow on us one April 23rd. I’m not going to tempt the imps by making some kind of declaration that the worst is over. Even though I think it probably is, I will never utter those words aloud.

So, in the spirit of Patriot’s Day and those contrarians who fought for independence from their oppressors, I will (with all apologies to Stravinsky) declare independence from the oppression of winter by proclaiming my. . . 


1.The right not to have our front vestibule look like a sand, salt, shovel, and gravel storage room.

2.The right to immediately get in my car and drive without having to warm it up and scrape the windshield for 15 minutes.

3.The right not to have to wear a thick sweater, a turtle neck, a waffle T-shirt, and six scarves under a down jacket that makes me look like the Michelin Man.

4.The right to actually leave the thermostat where my husband sets it and not sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to crank up the heat.

5.The right to drink my tea with ice.

6.The right not to grab onto walls, fences, sign posts, parked cars, fire hydrants and random passersby in an effort to stay upright while walking down the street.

7.The right to see the sun after 3:30 PM.

8.The right not to have my nose turn red and start to run whenever I step out the front door.

9.The right not to cause myself a medical emergency when I can’t locate my hat, scarf, and/or gloves.

10.The right to happily say “It’s too hot out here. I think I’ll go back inside where it’s cool.”


Those are my Rights of Spring. What are yours?


April 10, 2011

Where in the World are the Tarts?

Brunonia Barry Barry_mapoftrueplaces
I've been on the paperback book tour for The Map of True Places. Or rather, I should call it the culinary tour of Connecticut and Vermont. Great stores, great people, and great food and wine at about nine PM every night. I tried, Weight Watchers, I really tried! But it's just not hospitable to refuse these local favorites. Local Vermont Cheeses and maple cured sausages? Okay, so maybe that was breakfast, but you get the idea. I'm back home for a few days, hitting the treadmill and the bike and eating my five point Think Thin bars. More tour to come, but I'm determined. Thank God I'm not going south this time. On my last tour, I went to Charleston and New Orleans. Weight Watchers didn't stand a chance.


Viets_Uplift Elaine Viets    
I'm spending this weekend in my hometown, St. Louis, at the Missouri Writers' Guild Conference, where I'll get to see Nancy Pickard, another featured speaker. I hope I didn't disgrace myself giving the keynote speech at the banquet last night. I promised the conference organizers my talk would be mercifully short. Sunday morning, I teach a three-hour master's class on creating characters. Then I fly home to Fort Lauderdale on Southwest Airlines. That's the airline that had a plane with a huge hole in the fuselage. Don assures me the flight will be perfectly safe. I told him if I die in a plane crash, I will haunt him for the rest of his days. At night, he will hear me whispering "I told you so."


Barbara O’Neal HowToBake
I am cooking for zillions, cleaning my house because it hasn't really been cleaned since I went underground to finish the current book two months ago.  (It is not finished, BTW.) There is a wedding this week.  My son and his smart, tough, beautiful fiance, whose mother referred to her as "ours."  Doesn't get any better than this, I promise you.   Next week, I'll get back to finishing the book.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have some bacon jam that needs to go in the crockpot.....


Kindred Spirits_lowres Sarah Strohmeyer
I am on deadline for my YA book Smart Girls Get Everything!

[Yet she had time to look up the recipe for Barbara’s Bacon Jam to post on Facebook.][Sarah's link broke, but this is another recipe.]


I'm hunkered down with the windows closed, praying for rain, waiting out pine pollen season. Another week should do it. These pine trees are way oversexed. No wonder they're the first trees to grow in a barren field.
Tomorrow, I'm off to a week-long retreat with some of my writer friends, so I'm packing the car with computer, notebooks, bedlinens, a 12-pack of Pepsis,a bottle of bourbon and a frozen casserole for the night when it's my turn to cook supper. (No Cheetos though. Gave them up for Lent.) I hope to come home with 5000 more words on my 2012 book and a good sense of where the book's going.


[When I asked the Tarts to write these, I sent a reply to Margaret that I had problems with alder tree pollen and had in Washington State, Vermont and California. To which Diane chimed in…]


Chamberlain_midwife Diane Chamberlain
No no, Holly, you don't understand what Margaret is talking about. The pine pollen isn't the make-you-sneeze type. it's the takes-over-the-entire-world type. I made the mistake of opening my office window yesterday and by evening a layer of yellow dust was on every sheet of paper and piece of equipment and ME in my office. I’d covered all the porch furniture with green sheets that are now completely yellow. I've lived lots of places but never experienced anything like this till moving to NC. So this time of year, when you long to open the windows, you must fight the urge and keep them closed.

So that's what I'm up to, along with being chained to my desk, 2 weeks from deadline with the book from hell (oh wait...they all are) that still has no title. It's this deadline that's preventing me from going away with Margaret and the gang for a week of writing and balderdash. :(


Harley Jane Kozak Kozak_DateRefuse
I'm rehearsing this week for the Romantic Times Convention -- I'm the M.C./Joan Rivers-type person for the Mr. Romance Contest (male cover models), as well as singing, dancing and performing Shakespeare at the Vampire Ball, in a show entitled "Zombie Dancers from Planet 9."


Kathy Reschini Sweeney
Today, I am in shock.  My baby boy is 16.  He was a bit of a surprise - one that has turned out to be the greatest delight of my life.  But don't tell him I said that.  He already gets away with too much. How did all these years go by?  I need cake.  Stat.


Joshilyn Jackson Jackson_BackseatSaints
Today my husband and I are engaged in an EPIC SCRABBLE BATTLE. The loser must give Mentally Ill Grudge-Holding Cat his Kitty-Prozac all month. Mentally-Ill Grudge-Holding Cat needs his meds, but he hates to be touched only slightly less than he hates to be pilled. The person who loses this battle gains Mentally Ill Grudge-Holding Cat’s considerable, baleful, and long-memoried  ire. OH, this cat. You shouldn’t make him angry. You wouldn’t LIKE him when he is angry. And since I work from home, I am available to be ired at all hours of the day. So.  I am not going to lose. I have a pocket full of blank tiles and a fistful of illegal tranqs. I LOVE my husband, but if first skill and then luck and finally cheating all fail me, I will have no choice but to roofie my beloved and swear up and down I was victorious.
PS Margaret! I read this and immediately thought
Margaret are you grieving over all your pines unleaving?
 But pines don’t have leaves. And un-needling does not rhyme.
Margaret are you feeding, needing, bleeding, pleading, BAH!
 I actually get a grant from the state of Georgia to NOT write poetry.

Yes yes it is a SPECIAL pollen bowl kind. We have it. For a month the purple car is yellow and the orange car is yellow and my cream trimmed rosey-bricked house is yellow and the green grass is yellow and THE VERY FREAKING AIR IS GOT’DAMNABLY YELLOW.


Sticky fingers_1_very_sm Nancy Martin
I'm hitting the campaign trail to sell Sticky Fingers.  (In the Philadelphia area?  Come to the Borders store in Springfield on Friday, April 15th at 6pm or at the Philadelphia Book Fest on Saturday from 11am to 1pm.)  I'm also finishing up the 8th Blackbird book--which should be published early in 2012.  And . . . my iPad arrived!  Now I have to learn how to use it.  Any suggestions for good apps?


Nancy Pickard Pickard_scentofrain
I’m busy distracting myself from my book that keeps saying it doesn’t care if I need to make a living, it still has percolating to do.  Have I ever mentioned that I think commerce and art are TERRIBLE bedfellows?  Of course, that’s not what my favorite Kansas playwright thought about it.  William Inge, who wrote Picnic, Splendor in the Grass, Bus Stop, Come Back Little Sheba, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,  (wow, right?) said that forcing art through the commerce sieve and vice versa was hunky-dory.  His actual quote is:  “Literature flourishes best when it is half trade and half an art.” I agree, but only when my book actually gets finished and then published and I get paid.  Until those moments, the bedfellows continue to kick each other and bellow and be total nightmares. And let’s not overlook the fact that Bill Inge killed himself.  Damn, I just made myself feel like sitting in this coffee shop and crying. He was so brilliant, and he suffered so from depression and from hiding his sexuality from the pigs and bigots of his day.  Well, you’d never know it from what I just wrote here, but I’m actually feeling happy and springy, in spite of sieves and stubborn books and tragic playwrights.  Here, everybody, have a double latte and a chocolate truffle.

Hank_drivetime Hank Phillippi Ryan

The ducks are back! But you know that..Flo and Eddy have been baffled by the ice on their backyard pond, but other than that, it's a sure sign it's spring. My tulips and crocuses are pushing their way out of the still-frozen earth, and I saw a whole flock of robins in our neighbor's yard. (It was almost scary, you know? Cue Tippi Hendren.)  Right now I am somewhere in the air between Boston and Indianapolis,  gave a speech in Indy to a wonderful group who wanted to know all about e-publishing.  (Gee, I wish I knew. Don't we all?)  Yes, there's a new book (cross fingers please, everyone) which I am editing now. (It's easier to cut than add, right?)  Looking forward to the MWA symposium in two weeks, then the gala Malice Domestic convention where DRIVE TIME is up for an Agatha for Best Mystery of 2010. (Yes, our NancyP is up for one, too, sigh, but she's sold more books than I have, I bet, so don't I need the teapot?)  Is it time to send my winter clothes to the dry cleaners? Ah, I'll think about that later. 

March 19, 2011

True Places

True Places 

By Brunonia Barry

Byzy at the Lake

It is not down in any map, true places never are.

                                                                                           Herman Melville.


That quote is from Moby Dick, my all time favorite book. It was also the inspiration for the title of my second novel, The Map of True Places, which comes out in paperback this week. As I embark on the paperback tour, I am talking with readers about the true places their lives, and so today I thought I’d share one of mine.

The maps of our lives have changed so much in recent years.  There are the usual life changes: people are born, people die, families break apart, new families are formed. Change happens (to borrow a descriptive quote from Hemingway) gradually then suddenly. A few of our sudden changes have radically shifted our perspective: 911, Columbine, Katrina, the financial meltdown. We’ve recently suffered hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and a nuclear disaster. This last week the world was literally rocked on its axis.

So how do we navigate our lives when our old maps have become obsolete? The answer, I think, lies in finding our own true places: safe havens that are home to us and make us feel like our better selves. Sometimes these places are real. Sometimes they exist only in memory and imagination. Almost always, they are connected to the people we love.   

The truest place in my life is a real one, a Victorian summer-house on a lake in New Hampshire. It  was built by my great grandfather more than a century ago and has been handed down through the generations. The camp hasn’t changed much in those hundred years, which makes it easier to conjure images of the people who have touched my life there, some who are still with me, many who have long since gone.  

Standing in the old fashioned kitchen, I don’t have to look far to summon a memory.  Over there is the bucket my grandmother gave us to pick blueberries for the pies and muffins she always made.  Here is the megaphone my father used to call us back when we swam too far from shore. There’s the soapstone sink in the kitchen and the hand-pump we primed at the beginning of every summer with water from the lake.  I can still hear the creaky slamming of the back door and the laughing of children as they rush in and out.  

In the washroom across the hall, the medicine cabinet door won’t close properly. I can see my mother’s compact on the glass shelf, and I can see her too, standing in front of the mirror, her lips pursed as she applies Revlon Fire Engine Red lipstick, blots it with tissue, then puts on another coat.

In my true place, my mother still gets dressed to go dancing. She is not confined to her RA wheelchair. My father doesn’t shake from Parkinson’s. I don’t find him scared and frozen in place in the back hall but rather out on the porch playing with the dogs or pitching horseshoes with the uncles. My grandmother, gone many years now, is still the outspoken matriarch who so frustrated her son-in-law, my father, that one day he locked her in the pan closet in the kitchen and wouldn’t let her out until she promised to be nice to him, which she was from then on.  

In my true place, I can bring all of the generations back to life at once. My reverie supposes that time is non-linear, and that all the characters exist in their happiest moments. People who never knew each other gather together for a weekend celebration. A favorite uncle who read stories to me when I was little reads the same stories now to my brother’s grandchildren. My first dog, Skybo, rolls on the front lawn with my sixteen year old golden retriever whose hip dysplasia has miraculously healed. Pine needles hang from their ears, and moss sticks to their muzzles. My grandmother sits on the front porch shelling peas with the great granddaughter she never knew.

My true place is always sunny and warm, except at about 4PM each day when a quick thunderstorm follows the curve of the White Mountains and moves swiftly across our little lake. We giggle and run for cover. The storm disappears as quickly as it has come. There may or may not be a rainbow.

We gather for dinner around the big oak table in the dining room, under the clock that has ticked the minutes away since the day the camp was built. When I was a child, the sound seemed so loud that it sometimes kept me from sleep. These days, its ticking is just as loud, I am told, but I cannot hear it unless I’m in the same room.  The sixteen-inch rainbow trout my grandfather’s brother caught when he was a young boy is still mounted above the door, and the piano, always off key from the cold that sets in after Labor Day, still sits un-tuned in the corner by the window.

After dinner is over, my grandfather goes to the piano and plays any tune we can think of, in any key, and my aunt sits on top of the piano belting out God Bless America in her best Kate Smith. After that, we play canasta or go for a late swim. The little children fall asleep on the rug where they have dropped from exhaustion and have to be carried up to bed.

My truest place, though real, has the luxury of fantasy. I am, after all, a fiction writer. Fantasy has always been easier for me than reality. Still, this place, with all of its reflected memories, is more real to me than anything in my everyday world, and I hold it in my heart. If all goes well, the family will gather here again next year, and it will, summer after summer, become a true place for the next generations. 

Whether real of imagined, true places are more important than ever in these times of great and sometimes devastating change. I wish for true places, real, imagined, or simply remembered for all those who are suffering today.

 I’ve told you about the place I hold dear. What are some of your true places?


February 19, 2011

Pick a Superpower. Any Superpower. Not that one.

Pick a Superpower. Any Superpower. Not that one.

By Brunonia Barry

Super Powers

Last week, A Marist poll revealed that if most Americans had their choice of superpowers, they would either want to read minds or to time travel. 

Really America?

I am fairly well versed on the subject of reading minds, being quite a talented mind reader myself, and, trust me, that’s not a superpower you want to have. Well okay, maybe I can’t read minds per se, but I did write an entire first novel about someone who can, and that’s just about the same thing, isn’t it? I’m telling you, America, someone else’s mind is not a place you want to go.  To shamelessly misquote one of my own characters, who, albeit fictional, is otherwise an expert on the subject: Knowing what’s in people’s minds is never in anyone’s best interest. This is especially true if what you want to know is what those people think of you.  

Why does it not surprise me that the majority of Americans who chose this particular superpower were women? Since we are so often accused of wishing men could read our minds, and since they always refuse to cooperate, I can only assume that we want to use our new found superpowers to unravel that great mystery, what the heck is going on in men’s minds, anyway? Something? Nothing? And are they thinking about us?

Well, my sisters, I hate to rain on our superpower parade, but men aren’t thinking about us. What they’re thinking about is getting away from us.

Proof? The majority of men chose time travel as their superpower.

Another big mistake. Sure, it sounds cool at first: Guys, history, technology, a perfect blend. But think about it fellas. As soon as it dawns on you that 1967 and the first Superbowl is as far back as you really want to go, you’ll realize that you’ve squandered a massive opportunity. Because if you can’t find some ancient or obscure sporting event on ESPN, ESPN Classics, ESPN Radio, ESPN HD, ESPN 3D, ESPN 2, or ESPN Desportes, then time travel really isn’t going to do it for you. Besides, who knows what kind of access you’d have to La-Z-Boy chairs? You might actually have to stand during a sporting event which would mean you couldn’t sleep during most of it and, without a rewindable DVR, you’d have to stop looking things up on your iPhones and actually pay attention to the game.

Therefore, I’ve decided that the superpower you men really want is teleportation. Ever since Captain Kirk was beamed up on Star Trek, you guys have known on some level that this was what you’ve always needed, the ability to get out of places in an instant. You could say and do whatever you wanted and then just be gone.

Women know this is true. How many times after a social event have we said to our guys “You went too far tonight when you said ...” and received the reply “Well, you should be glad I didn’t say what I was really thinking.”

Which brings me back to that whole mind reading thing. It’s just not a superpower we want to have.

Reading your minds right now, I’m sensing that you probably want me to stop the gender baiting and show you the list, so here it is:

Reading Minds             28%

Time Traveling             28%   

Flying                              16%  

Teleportation                 11%

Invisibility                     10%

Don’t Know                     8%

I’m surprised that everyone didn’t want to have the ability to fly. It’s practical. No more long lines at security or full body TSA pat downs. Soaring through the air with the greatest of ease and as much legroom as you want. And all for free? I would have guessed this would be America’s number one choice.

Invisibility is an interesting superpower. Everyone feels invisible at some point. But who would choose that one? Criminals probably. Writers definitely. This might be my first choice if it weren’t for the flying option.

The most interesting stat for me was the final one. What kinds of Americans don’t know what superpower they want? That’s just ridiculous. Our entire national culture is based on the idea of superpowers. Being one, wanting one. Not knowing which one you want is just un-American.

So step up Ladies and Gentlemen. What would your personal superpower be? Please don’t be constrained by the list above. Be creative. I, for one, have always wanted to be able to jump ten feet into the air and come down in the same place. I know what you’re thinking, that’s a pretty lame superpower, Brunonia. You’re right, it isn’t much, but it would be great fun at parties. Except for hitting my head on the ceiling. Well, maybe I’ll only use it at barbeques and garden parties. But you get the idea. It can be anything you want.

If you could have any superpower your imagination could dream up, what would it be?