Words for a Horrible Week

I don’t have any. But I’ll leave some from a writer whose work I love, Scott Russell Sanders.

“Even the disciples, who at times could be dense as bricks, realized that the true neighbor was the one who showed mercy to a stranger.”

Back next week with some words of my own.

One Year In

My blog is now one year old, and — if anything — I’ve learned that I’m more consistent in getting words out every week than I’ve ever been at finishing all those needlepoint projects that went to die in my closet.

In a year, the blog has garnered 91,387 hits and now has 2,341 subscribers. I have resisted looking into whether that’s good or bad in the big scheme of stats. What I really care about are the comments I get to read from people who take the time to write back. Even after all these years of writing, that thrill has never left me.

My original intent in starting this was to present pieces of the memoir I’ve been writing and see the reaction. Now the book is finished. It’s similar to pushing out a baby and finally getting to see just what the last nine months were really all about. Now begins the process of finding an agent who reads my query letter and smiles and writes back. I like the belief that — even at my age —when we tend too much to look back, there will be a next step that will take my breath away.

I’ll continue to write here, but I’m not sure yet what form it will take. And to the thoughtful, smart, funny people who read “me,” every week (and you know who you are) thanks.

And for any agent who has secretly become a visitor to this page, I’ll be waiting for your call.

 

My 7-Word Brush with Helen Gurley Brown

The phone rang while I was making dinner. My kids were underfoot. It was 1986, we didn’t have Caller-ID yet, and I always suspected telemarketers at that time of day. I tried to answer with an attitude, making it clear we didn’t need new windows or a timeshare in Jamaica.

The voice on the other end was low and commanding, and her name was Myra. She was a senior editor at Cosmopolitan, following up on a query letter I had sent a month before. She was quick and to the point.

“We’d like to hire you to write the article you’ve proposed. We can offer $3,000 with a kill fee.”

I was not yet calling myself a writer back then for fear I would be outright lying. I was piling up meager checks here and there, mostly from parenting magazines and newspaper op-eds. When she said $3,000, I was conscious of not hyper-ventilating into the receiver.

I had queried Cosmo about an article idea I knew nothing about — not unusual for me back then (or now, come to think of it). The topic was the relatively new phenomenon of single career women deciding to have a baby on their own, without a husband or even a boyfriend in their lives. Tame by today’s standards, there was a time when this was groundbreaking.

Myra wound up our conversation with this: “The first draft will be due in six weeks. Of course Ms. Brown will have final say. I’ll be in touch after she reads it.”

I got off the phone, positively giddy. Then I realized Ms. Brown was Helen Gurley Brown. And my knees shook a little.

The next day, I began my research. Since email was not yet the communication of choice, I did everything by phone while my kids sat in front of the television, eyes glazed over by Gilligan Island reruns. It was not my best mothering moment, but — hey — I was going to have a byline in Cosmo.

I felt a connection to the women I interviewed even though I’d gone the conventional route toward motherhood. They were smart and savvy. Their stories were poignant, about their dreams to have a baby, about running out of time. Myra had made it clear in our first conversation that the magazine did not approve of this new way to form a family and my piece should reflect that slant.

I thought I knew better. On the day I put my draft in the mail, I believed I was going to make journalistic history. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Myra.

“We received your draft and Ms. Brown has seen it.  I’m going to read from her memo.”

Here is what Helen Gurley Brown thought of my draft: “This writing is smug, small, and sanctimonious.”
I’ve always loved the idea that she brought forth alliteration to cut me off at my writing knees.

Here’s the good news. There was a kill fee waiting for me that exceeded my wildest expectations. I thought HGB was wrong about my writing, but I still had some wounds to lick. So I licked them. And I developed a clever answer for  friends who kept asking when my article was going to appear in Cosmo.

And the bad news? There wasn’t any. My keyboard was still waiting for me in the morning, with all its possibilities. So I sat down. And I got back to work.

The Other Rules for Writers

All the sage wisdom that begins with “Write what you know,” and ends with “Show, don’t tell,” is there for the asking. Here are some other rules you probably haven’t found in any writer’s handbook. Perhaps one of them will unlock that bestseller that’s inside you somewhere.

1. Let your wall inspire you. Furnish the wall near your desk with meaning. Frame or tack up little things your eyes can drink in when you wonder why you thought writing seemed like a good idea in the first place. My wall sports, among many things, my favorite New Yorker cartoon of a penguin flying high above other penguins, saying, “We just haven’t been flapping them hard enough.” It also has a framed note from Anne Tyler, telling me sweetly why she couldn’t read and critique my manuscript I had sent her. I keep that note to remind myself to be that gracious if I ever win the Pulitzer, and as commentary on my boundless optimism that I really thought she would read my stuff in the first place.

2. Make a negative list. Create a list of all the people who doubt you as a writer. If anyone has said, “Many are called but few are chosen,” put that person at the top. Same with someone who has used the words “writing” and “starving” in the same sentence. Give your parents a little slack. (After all, their job is to worry, so don’t include them.) When you’re finished with the list, fold it carefully and tie it with a ribbon before you throw it away.

3. Make a positive list. Make a list of 12 living people in your life, present or past. Choose one each month and write him or her a letter. E-mails, texts, and cards don’t count. Make peace with your old college roommate; tell someone why you’ve always admired them; make the day of someone who wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Good writing is about relationships, so resurrect, enhance, create or feed some of yours.

4. Don’t throw anything away. Keep a notebook and take it everywhere. After writing becomes your way of life, you may find you dream in already constructed sentences that delight you. Write down phrases and sentences that come to you even though they may have nothing to do with what you’re writing at the moment. And then never throw away your notebook.

5. People watch. Got to a ballgame, even if you don’t like baseball. Sit on a park bench. Give blood. Have lunch alone in a restaurant and listen to the way people really talk. It will help you in writing dialogue more than any workshop ever will.

6. Start over every morning. Let your accomplishments excite you, but don’t let them placate you. Let your rejections teach you something, but don’t let them paralyze you. A writer’s life is like that of any other artist — a composer, a painter, a sculptor. There is nothing there until you sit at your desk and create it. You’re in charge, and there’s no one in the world who can string words together the way you do at that moment, on that day. Now go. Create.

The Square Dance Unit. Or Why I Never Forgave Our Gym Teachers

I liked school as long as I was sitting down, and lucky for me there was a lot of sitting in those days. I excelled at raising my hand and keeping my notebook tidy. In music class, I could hum, eventually locate the melody, and blend in. In art, I learned early that coloring inside the lines often trumped talent. I was relieved to have been born a girl because I had to do far less to prove myself than a boy did. It let me lower my expectations and avoid disappointment. I was excellent at being a girl.

There were setbacks, of course. Because we lined up and walked the halls in Size Order, I was never able to forget for a second that I was freakishly tall. Three girls in my class were also named Linda, rendering me “Linda D.” until I got to high school. I spent a fair amount of time wondering why my parents hadn’t thought ahead before giving me the most popular name in the universe, or — for that matter — combining their towering genes to create a child who was taller than her pediatrician by the time she was 12.

It was harder to adapt in gym class than other quadrants of Raymond J. Lockhart School, but unless it was October, I did okay there, too. Hugging the wall, and shouting, “Yeah!” when my team scored, and “Ugh!” when my team missed a goal, I could pretend to be in the mix of a spirited crab soccer game without my foot ever touching the ball. I was an expert at losing my place in line when we were climbing ropes. By 6th grade I’d mastered all the non-participation tricks ever invented.

But October always arrived no matter what grade I was in. And October meant that our gym teachers would push a button to retract the sliding wall that separated the girls’ gym from the boys’ gym and make their big announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, next week we will begin our Square Dance unit. This is an important social component of physical education. You will stay in your street clothes.” They always made it seem like we’d be curing Leukemia starting the next Tuesday and that always bothered me. Also, who called them street clothes?

Our gym teachers were a married couple. We guessed their combined ages to be about 230. Mr. and Mrs. Tierney went with the Darwinian model when it came to Square Dance as they did for every game we ever played. To me, Square Dancing seemed very much like Dodge Ball except there was some curtsying here and there. I was always slightly disappointed on the first day of Square Dance when I didn’t wake up temporarily paralyzed.

“Girls on this side of the gymnasium, boys on that one. Line up, single file.” And with that, the choosing-your-partner humiliation began.

So here it was, another year when no miraculous change in the curriculum was going to save me. I began by checking to see if any of the boys had grown a foot or two over the summer. As always only Russell Oliver, whose parents were rumored to be over seven feet tall, was taller than I was. I silently yearned for other Massapequa families to be overtaken with whatever chromosome arrangement was lurking in the Olivers’ bodies. I saw no growth spurts.

“Kevin O’Hara!” Mr. Tierney announced. To the accompaniment of some hooting and hollering from the other boys, Kevin walked to the other side of the gym, sizing up the girls waiting to be chosen. He took his pick, and promenaded her to the center line. Then every boy, one by one, got his turn.

As the number of unchosen girls started to dwindle, I did what I did every year. I hunkered down for the long haul, attempting a casual pose, absently looking up at the rafters as if thinking, What is that exciting, important thing I’m doing later?

Sandy Palma and I usually looked at each other at about this point. I was too tall and she was too heavy, and it would come down to which one of us would be the last chosen. I was okay with Sandy getting chosen before me. Sitting down, I could blend in better than Sandy. When she sat down, there just seemed to be more of her. But, oh God, did I hate being the last one even if I was trying to be gracious to Sandy, who deserved it. Being last meant you had to endure the sound of the boys engaged in mock applause when the last boy had no choice but to pair up with you. And for reasons that probably died with them, the Tierneys always acted like they didn’t hear the din going up.

Russell was called third on this day, an enviable position if he wanted to pick a pretty girl, and why wouldn’t he?

Then, in a move that made no sense to anyone, Russell walked over and chose me. What? I may have heard a collective gasp, or maybe that was just the voice in my head. Life was mighty rosy from the center line when you’re not the last girl chosen.

I always thought Russell’s choosing me was a pure act of kindness. As the only boy tall enough to promenade me through the perils of 6th grade, I thought it was a conscious choice, meant to help me out.

About five years ago, I found Russell Oliver on Facebook and wrote to him, telling him how fondly I remembered this moment and thanking him for it. His response was gracious without overcommitting. Because I don’t think for a second he remembered any of this, which makes me think that I took things way too hard in my childhood.

When Baby Boomers Go Old School

I learned a lot about modern parenthood when I watched my brother’s kids for a week while he and his wife went on vacation. I stayed at their house in Massapequa, cooked the meals, and got their kids to and from school — Raymond J. Lockhart School — the same one my brothers and I went to. To claim the kids in the afternoon, I had to show a signed permission slip to a woman holding a clipboard at the door, who had a hard time letting go of her suspicions about me until the third day.

I got there early every afternoon and sat in the lobby with other people, waiting for the bell to ring. I noticed that when parents pick their kids up from school these days, they take apart backpacks immediately, before they even get to their cars, and this surprised me. Parents seem a little frazzled, as if there’s a lot riding on what’s in that backpack. There are questions and there is meaningful pointing to papers.

I pictured me in the last half of the 1950s, right here in this lobby, holding my book bag, walking down these steps with my friends. After a half-hour meander home — I’d say “hi” to my mother and eat a snack before going back outside to play. When she asked how school was I could say “Fine” without having to come up with any evidence.

There’s something transcendent about being in your old school after this many years have passed, and mostly it’s that the universal school smell hasn’t changed one bit. Of course everything looks smaller than you remember it, but not as disappointingly puny as the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History turn out to be, especially after you’ve already told your kids, “You won’t believe how huge they are!” As soon as I walked through those school doors, I could remember my teachers’ faces and the way they walked, even when I couldn’t remember all their names right away.

I was in the middle of 1st grade when Raymond J. Lockhart School was opened in 1957. Before that, the kids in my neighborhood had to be shuttled to class in rented space in Amityville. There were just too many of us, but there was a joyfulness about that, too. Our fathers had survived WWII, our mothers had welcomed them home, and now our parents were planning their futures in great detail, all the while procreating like champs. Now my friends and I could move into a real school with water fountains in the halls and linoleum floors that sparkled and smelled like fresh wax every morning.

For the first few days of picking up my niece and nephew, none of the other mothers said anything to me as I sat down. Mostly they stared at me as if I had Danger tattooed on my forehead and just spoke among themselves.

Then on the fourth day, when it seemed they were running out of things to talk about, one of them looked up at the stately portrait that hung in the lobby and asked the others, “Who was Raymond J. Lockhart anyway?” Before I could remember that no one was looking in my direction, or that Dr. Lockhart had been dead for about 30 years, I piped up, “He was superintendent of schools when I went here.” Maybe it’s just me, but I thought questions would follow, questions like, “So, what were kids like in the 1950s?”

Everything got quiet. Lucky for me the school day was over and the bell rang, and soon backpacks were being unzipped and papers were careening slightly through the air.

Here’s one answer.  We were children who did what we were told, and now we’re all a little embarrassed about that. Sticking a fork in a toaster would zip you across the room and result in instant death as you hit the wall. A pencil could (and would) poke your eye out no matter the speed or trajectory. I took it upon myself to be extra careful with chopsticks we got free from the Chinese take-out restaurant, and also with rulers, just to be on the safe side.

Oddly, along with all the household objects that could kill us, we were also swept up in the American Can Do spirit, and understood that somehow we could accomplish anything we set our minds to. This would turn out to be a handy way to think in our early 20s when we found out we were much smarter than our parents or than any humans previously born.

The Incontinence Aisle? You’re Welcome!

On the back of the women’s room stall at the airport, at just the right height for reading, is an advertisement for a new adult diaper. I commend the marketing genius who put this here because I’m betting that ¾ of the women sitting down at this moment in this bathroom fit the demographic. And I know from a lifetime of being every corporation’s target audience that — for a few more years at least — Baby Boomers will still be where the numbers are. We’re the women who never want to pee once we’re on the plane (the logistics being just too cumbersome), so we put off that last trip to the bathroom until minutes before boarding. We’re the ones who have peeing on our minds, so it makes sense that we actually read the ad in a women’s room stall.

I study the woman in the photograph, who has clearly never taken a bite of red meat in her life and has to be a former runway model turned yoga practitioner, without a wrinkle or a gray hair. And no surprise that she is half of a great looking couple, on a beach. They are holding hands and skipping along, their bare feet remarkably four inches off the ground.

It’s the perfect message, and this marketing wunderkind saw me coming: You can still look like a million bucks, and there’s no way you’ll pee down your leg when you cough! And as if that’s not enough, later you and a ridiculously handsome man will check into an ocean-front room where he won’t be able to take his eyes off you. You, my dear, still got it. You, my dear, will have it forever.

Diaper or not, I want to be her. I’m sucked right into the message, and then I smile at the last phrase, at the bottom: Located in the Incontinence Aisle. I wasn’t aware that incontinence now had its own aisle, but I know my generation had everything to do with that. Incontinence was nothing special until we started to gush when we sneezed. You’re welcome, America.

As I board my plane, I begin to wonder how much time I have left before I have to shop in the Incontinence Aisle. I’ve been using the phrase at my age for a while now, and that’s probably not a good sign. I think I use it to punctuate a statement that might not have enough gravitas on its own, which makes me sound like quite a bore, also not a good sign.

I do notice that I’m repeating stories with alarming regularity lately. Even when I take a second to ask myself, Have I already told this person my adorable story that took place 30 years ago? Either I don’t wait for my own answer, or I can’t remember if I did or not, so I launch into it, because, really, it’s my best story of all time: I walked to my aerobics class, all the way across the entire gym floor at the health club I joined the year after giving birth to my third baby. I noticed men looking at me and nudging their friends. I was getting a lot of attention, just by walking through the club. I was thrilled that they were noticing how well I’d whipped my saggy postpartum body into shape and naughtily delighted at how much they all seemed to want me.

When I got to class at the far end of the building, the instructor came rushing over to me, saying, “Oops, you’ve got toilet paper coming out of your leotard and it’s dragging behind you!”

Lately when I’ve told this story, I see a little impatient nodding going on, because my listener has heard it all before and is trying to save me the trouble of finishing. I believe I’ve now told this story to every living person I’ve ever met, though I can’t be sure, so I’m going to keep telling it, just in case.

This happens, too: I’m driving in a perfectly orderly and cautious way and come to a four-way stop sign, where there is a 30-ish dad in his SUV, waiting. He spots me and begins waving that I should go. The first few times this happened, I just thought I was on the receiving end of some respect-your-elders politeness, and I went on my way.

But today it happened again, and this time I got to see the dad’s face. He looked rather frantic, the way he might if maybe I were about to drive a team of wild horses through the intersection and he was thinking of how he was going to save his children.

I wanted to open my window and shout, “Hey, I’m still an excellent driver!” But this is what my father said to the Police after he mowed down an entire hedgerow in front of their condominium in Florida. So I did go first at the intersection, but I also gave the SUV dad a little thank-you wave, showing off that I could still do two things at once without hitting the fire hydrant on the corner.

There are more signs. They’re subtle but piling up.

I can’t remember the last time I got caught in the rain without an umbrella.

Or ran out of aluminum foil, or dryer sheets, or flour. I stock up on everything.

When I bend down now, I always look around carefully to see if there isn’t something else I should be doing as long as I’m down there. I hope that the cheerleaders from high school also have to do this now.

I’m not sure I’ll ever to remember to cough or sneeze into my elbow because every time I feel one coming, I still hear my mother saying “Cover your mouth!”

I’ve never taken a successful selfie.

I don’t know what Uber is and don’t care enough to find out.

And somehow I totally missed the demise of phone booths. One day they all just seemed to have disappeared from the landscape.

In his later years, every morning and every evening, my grandfather wrote down the weather in the little boxes of the free calendar he got from his newspaper boy. I’m happy to report that I’m not even close to doing that, but the world does seem to be spinning so much faster than it used to.

And for anyone keeping score (not me!) the weather sucks today.

The Book Thing

So, for the last seven months I’ve been writing a book. A memoir. One day back in the fall, for no good reason I can recall, I was struck with the idea that there was a book in me. A really good book that would make readers laugh and cry and — yes — maybe wince here and there. And since time’s  a-wastin’ when you’re 64, I got started that afternoon.

I’ve been a freelancer (on and off) since the early 80s, but I’ve never done anything this serious or extensive … or potentially heartbreaking. Sometimes I read through parts of my manuscript and think “What drivel,” while other times I think it’s got legs. Only time and literary agents who might not “get me” will tell.

Only three friends know about “the book thing” because I have been known to abandon projects with alarming regularity, and I didn’t want to meet an acquaintance in the grocery store sometime in the future, who — just trying to be pleasant — would ask, “So how is your book coming?” and then have to lie or pretend I didn’t hear the question.

So I’m going public. My plan is to post pieces of the memoir (as yet untitled) here, as well as some of my recently published essays that I especially like, and see if I’m hitting any high notes. In the publishing world, this is called creating a platform, a phrase that makes me want to gag, to be honest. Writers are notoriously bad pragmatists. But I’m trying. And Baby Boomers are notoriously bad at putting the microphone down at weddings and karaoke. But I’ve gotten better at that, too. Bear with me.