Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dear Bully

I remember bullies.

One in particular. Chris O. A tough little Irish kid from a big family. He came to school wrinkled and unprepared. He was always getting in trouble. The teachers couldn’t reprimand him enough.

And he tortured Gloria Z.

When I say that picking on Gloria was akin to kicking Bambi, I’m not exaggerating. Gloria was shy to the point of mute. She wore thick, coke-bottle-bottom glasses, and always walked with her head down and her shoulders slumped, as if she were trying to make herself invisible. In eighth grade, when most of us were sporting platform shoes and shag haircuts (sorry, it was the 70’s) Gloria showed up in knee socks and little-girl plaid skirts, only in large girl sizes.

Her grandmother dressed her. That’s because Gloria’s mother had died … none of us knew how, or why .. and Gloria and her brother had come to live with their grandparents. Who hadn’t gotten the memo about mod.

Gloria wasn’t my friend. She was just some quiet kid in the class and I was very busy with my own circle of friends and didn’t pay attention to her.

But you couldn’t not notice her when Chris O moved in.

With his spectacular homing device for detecting vulnerability, he focused every bit of mean he had on Gloria. He’d sit behind her and make kissy noises, and croon, “Gloooooria, won’t you be my girlfriend?” prompting laughter from all the boys around him. When she got up from her desk, he’d stick his foot out and trip her. Sometimes, during class, he’d whisper to her. Things that made her face turn bright red. Nothing for an audience that time, but designed solely for her pain and his delight.

Gloria was his goat, and the game was contagious. Other boys took up the cry. And even some girls (who years later would become doting mothers posting precious little Facebook details about their own cute daughters) would mock her, making fun of her clothes and her childish, whispery way of speaking.

To my credit, I never piled on Gloria. But to my shame, I don't recall ever rising to her defense, either. I was a shocked, silent, fearful bystander, horrified by what Chris O was doing ... but afraid of taking steps that might direct his aim at me.

I like to think I made a point of being kind to Gloria. But I didn’t invite her to my sleepovers. I didn’t sit with her at lunch. I can’t recall if she had friends. I think she didn’t.

The woman I am today considers that silent, former teenage self equally to blame for whatever emotional ruin Chris O might have caused Gloria. I can’t help it: I think bystanders suck. To witness bullying, or unkindness, and say nothing, is to tacitly condone it. I would do anything to go back in time for just ten minutes of that eighth grade English class, and get it right. But it doesn't work that way. The experienced middle-aged woman can't return to the eighth grade body and fight Chris O. I can't time travel back to the 70s and invite Gloria to anything.

Dear Bully, edited by the amazing Carrie Jones (love her YA books!) and Megan Kelley Hall, is a collection of essays written by authors, all sharing their stories about bullying. It’s a book about victims and perpetrators. Heroes and bystanders. Every role that one could play in the ongoing drama of bullying, all contained within this wonderful volume.

I haven’t finished all the essays yet, but more than one has moved me to tears. If you’re a teacher or librarian, I urge you to add this book to your class/library collection.

Epilogue to my bully saga: Chris O had an illustrious career as a perpetual troublemaker and bully, picking on smart girls (our future class valedictorian, who went on to become a mission doctor in Africa) and targeting Jews with particular venom (our future class salutatorian, who went on to become a famous medical researcher.) Administrators banned him from attending our high school class graduation trip, but he showed up anyway with cases of beer, got drunk with his friends, and trashed the hotel where we were all staying. I heard he later went on to become an inmate at some correctional facility, but I can't confirm that.

Gloria graduated from our high school, but I don’t know what became of her following graduation.

I went on to become a writer of teen novels, still processing all the things I learned … and didn’t learn … back then. Creating characters who are braver than I was, which, unfortunately, isn't saying much.

A portion of all proceeds from Dear Bully will be donated to Stomp Out Bullying.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Biggest Boob

I was supposed to be blogging about Banned Books Week today (which I am, if you’ll just bear with me) but first: a word about boobs.

Actually, “boobies.”

Don’t you just love ‘em? I do. I love mine. When I was in my early thirties, they fed my children. They linked us in a way which was more profound and emotional and visceral than I could have anticipated. They imprinted me as “mother” in a way that even pregnancy and childbirth did not, and stripped me of all the various credentials I had worked so hard to amass up to that point, reducing me to one, all-important thing: caregiver.

Which is the greatest thing anyone can be, whether one is a parent or a loving friend; a breast feeder or a formula feeder; man or woman; biological parent or adoptive. For me, it took those boobies to firmly establish what’s important in life, and I am so grateful for them.

I’m also grateful, every year, when I take those boobies off to the scanner and receive the diagnosis: healthy. I’m so grateful mammography exists, so grateful that because of the strides made in research and technology, a diagnosis of “breast cancer” is no longer the death sentence it was back in my mother’s day.

That is, if you catch it early. Which is why raising awareness about breast health and early detection is just as important as hurling millions of dollars toward lab research. Which is why what’s going on at Medomak High School in Waldoboro, Maine is so upsetting.

You know those rubbery Live Strong bracelets? Well, there’s a bracelet being sold to raise money and awareness for breast cancer, and it is stamped with the words “I (heart) Boobies.” Attention getting, don’t you think?

At Medomak High School, Principal Harold Wilson has been suspending kids who wear the bracelets to school and refuse to take them off. He says the bracelets are “disruptive to the education process” and violate the school’s guidelines against wearing sexually provocative attire.

Dude, in the eye of the beholder. Just because you can’t see breast cancer awareness bracelets without thinking of sex, doesn’t mean your student body isn’t more enlightened.

Yes, kids, you’re right: some adults are idiots. Please, don’t grow up to be like them. Please keep reading and informing yourselves, so that, unlike Harold Wilson, you’ll know that a Federal judge in Pennsylvania has already ruled that students are within their rights to wear these quiet little rubber bracelets, and forcing them to take them off violates their constitutional right to free speech.

Harold, do you really want to spend the taxpayers’ money in Bangor defending your policy when the Maine Civil Liberties Union challenges it in court? Because you know that’s gonna happen.

Which leads me (yes, I’m finally getting around to Banned Books Week) to all this squeamishness about breasts and body parts. And I was reminded of one of my favorite and most recently “challenged” books, The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister, by my friend, Charlotte Agell.

This delightful middle-grade book has been challenged by school districts around the country for a variety of reasons, one of which includes issues surrounding the discussion of breast cancer. The protagonist, India, has a mom who, in addition to being an artist, is a breast cancer survivor. She has had a mastectomy. But before her surgery, she made a plaster cast of her breast … not unlike the plaster casts some women make of their hugely rounded bellies in the final stage of pregnancy … which now adorns the living room wall in India’s house.

India remarks that this is a bit of a curiosity to her friends who visit, but she shrugs it off as just another body part. What if her mom had made a plaster cast of her nose? Odd, perhaps. But no biggie.

The pre-pubescent India approaches breasts with innocence. Free of all the sexual connotations they summon in the adult world (think Harold Wilson) they are mere facts of life, something all mammals share. She breezes past the plaster cast in her living room without a thought, without an agenda, but acknowledging that her beloved mother dodged a bullet when she had her breast removed.

India is not unlike those brave teens in Waldoboro who are refusing to remove their bracelets and willing to face suspension. They don’t have some twisted, prurient preoccupation with breasts. They’re not wearing the bracelets to be difficult: they have friends and relatives who have either died from or are dealing with breast cancer. They bought the bracelets as an act of solidarity with them.

The sexualized, lewd and vulgar view of breasts seems to be the realm of the adults. Who fear words. Like “boobies.” Yes, indeed, a molotov cocktail thrown into the order of an unruffled day at Medomak High. Which, ironically, is in an uproar at this point, because the principal felt compelled to make such a stink about it. Talk about “disruptive to the education process.”

Which makes you wonder if Principal Harold Wilson might not be the biggest boob of all.

Note: several days following this post, the Superintendent of Schools in Waldoboro ruled that students at Medomak High School could wear the "I (heart) Boobies" bracelets. All those who had been suspended would have their suspensions removed from their records. This ruling was in no part related to this blog post, but was most likely related to the power of common sense.

September 24th – October 1, 2011 is national Banned Books Week.

The Bangor Book Festival will be held just as Banned Books Week concludes: September 30th – October 1st. I’ll be participating in a panel on banned and challenged books with authors Charlotte Agell, Carrie Jones and Kelly McClymer at 9:00 a.m. in the Bangor Public Library Story Room, at 145 Harlow Street, Bangor, Maine.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Adonis versus Herb

Like many of my friends, I have a high school senior living in my house … which I guess tells you a lot about the year I’m in for. Exciting, bittersweet, stressful. Fraught.

I know this stage is no picnic for the kids, either. Especially when the adults circle, with their inevitable questions about Life After High School.

At a gathering of families recently, we honed in on one particularly vulnerable member of the youth pack. She’s applying to college and has fixated on a single school. Despite our chorus of dire warnings about the need to have a list of “safeties,” she was adamant.

“What’s wrong with falling in love?” she demanded. “I mean, do people have safety husbands? Do they say, ‘I really love this guy, but if he doesn’t work out, these other three dudes would be fine.’” That caught us up short.

“Don’t think of applying to college like choosing a spouse,” offered one sage adult. “It’s more like … choosing a prom date. Marriage is forever but the prom is just one night.”

“Oooh, prom,” crooned one mother in the group to another. “Does your son know who he’s taking?”

“Prom is in May,” I commented, even though she wasn’t speaking to me. She shrugged.

“Never too early to lock up that date. Girls start shopping for their dresses in January.”

It was the first moment in my life when I actually thought I might drop to my knees and begin pounding the earth with my fists, wailing, “No no no! Don’t make me think about this! Not now, not ever, but especially not in September!”

I remember my own proms. For most of high school, I had the same boyfriend, so finding a date was a non-issue. Until my senior year, when the boyfriend went off to college and we broke up and I was untethered and prom-dateless.

That’s when I focused on … we’ll call him “Adonis” … for prom. He was sort of a friend but mostly a crush, and I really really really hoped he would ask me. He was the slim drummer in the band, a tan, varsity tennis player, and very cute. As the season for asking drew near (in the spring, by the way, none of this 10-months-ahead-of-time nonsense) I remember the phone ringing one afternoon, and a nervous male voice on the other end.

It was Herb. A guy I was friendly with, but didn’t know very well. A generally acknowledged “nice” guy who didn’t cause heads to turn when he entered a room. Herb was a solid citizen; he even stood low to ground. He exuded a sense of gravity.

He politely asked me to accompany him to the prom.

Reader, I tell you and I know this does not reflect well upon me: I turned him down. Not only that. Surprise pried frankness from my lips. I told him there was this other guy (I did not mention Adonis’s name) I really wanted to go with and he hadn’t asked me yet, so …

Yuck. Yuck yuck yuck and fie on the teenage me. As the mother of a teenage son I now loathe and detest all girls who reject perfectly nice boys for prom. I loathe my teenage self who didn’t have the sense to not tell poor Herb she was holding out for someone else. But as it turns out, I got what was coming to me …

Adonis asked me. Wonder of wonders, right? I was beside myself with excitement, and planned a pre-prom party at my house. Meanwhile, Herb went on a juggernaut of asking. Somehow, it got out that girls were turning him down left and right (I learned I was #3 on the list) and people started taking bets. Not only on who would be next in line, but how many he’d ultimately ask and who would finally say yes.

To his credit … to his great credit, actually … Herb got into the spirit of the thing, and when #9, Alison, accepted his offer, he made sure everyone knew. On the day during lunch when he strode to the ticket table to buy his prom “bid,” every student in the cafeteria rose and gave him a standing ovation. Herb bowed and waved.

Herb and Alison came to my pre-prom party and at prom sat at the same table as me and Adonis. Who, incidentally, spent most of the evening at another table, talking to a few of his tennis buddies. Who bought me flowers that clashed with my dress. Who barely spoke with me, let alone dance. For some reason, Adonis had had a change of heart about attending prom with me, and made no effort to conceal it. I had a miserable time.

Meanwhile, Herb was the man. Alison had the most beautiful wrist corsage in the room, and she and Herb danced every dance. I watched as he pulled her chair out for her, brought her punch from the drinks table, told her that she looked great. Let me tell you, #3 was feeling pretty jealous of #9 that night.

I guess this is all a long and tortured way of saying … I don’t know … what we think we want may not necessarily be the best thing for us? In life, go with substance, not flash? Don’t overlook those Safety Husbands, because they are true gold?

Maybe it’s just this: be open. Be open to all possibilities, and people. Because life surprises you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dumping the Dude

On Facebook, I’ve been reading reams of posts from friends who dropped their children off at college this week. They are all such nice parents.

“Tell me how you all handle this! I miss her,” writes one.

“Have I adequately prepared him for what lies ahead?” muses another.

“She’s happy; but this is so hard for me,” says another.

“Wow. That’s the fastest move-in I’ve ever seen,” said Josh. My son’s roommate. After we heaved his belongings into their cell-like double in just under 23 minutes.

“We’re on our way to a wedding,” I explained to him, as my husband and I wrestled his dorm mattress (which had been suspiciously, stickily, adhered to a piece of plywood on the bed frame) into a sheath designed to deter bed bugs. Josh the Roommate, an affable fellow from Brooklyn, New York, had a few packages of cookies opened on his desk. He had arrived earlier and fully expected his roommate’s family from Maine to linger and visit a bit. Help unpack. Have a cookie.


“You’re good with the sheets, right?” I asked my son, a.k.a. The Dude, once the bed bug cover was on. My eyes darted over the pile of stuff on the floor. Fridge, computer, duffel filled with clothes, microwave … good to go. A few things required assembly, but I figured even if Josh didn’t have a screwdriver someone in their suite would …

“Sure,” The Dude replied easily. Outside, it was a steamy 88 degrees, but inside the dark, dank room, it was a cave-like 68. Awesome, I thought. No need to stop off at Rite Aid for a fan. His dorm last year was air-conditioned. Not so this 70s-era heap of bricks and mortar, which resembled an air raid shelter.

Ah, last year. Freshman year. Orientation and all the fanfare and nerves and excitement of Move In Day. When dozens of upperclass volunteers wearing big smiles and Cardinal red tee shirts met us at the curb and carried our boxes into his airy, spanking clean dorm room. Where we took pictures of him and his roommate standing awkwardly together, arms folded tightly across their chests. Where I hungered for other freshmen parents to chat with, console with, confide in. Where we left, reluctantly, after hours of goodbyes and programming designed to make it all easier.

What a difference a year makes.

Instead of the silent, achingly nervous teenager we dropped off last year, we were delivering a young man who was glad to be “home.” As we drove him to the office where he’d pick up his room key, he rolled down the car window, hoping to catch a glimpse of people he knew. He had already registered for all his courses, already RSVP’d to three parties for the following weekend, already lined up an on-campus job interview, already knew his practice schedule for Ultimate Frisbee and a play he was in …

He was happy and busy and self-sufficient and we were free. Free to simply stand back and be happy for him, no worries. Free to hit the road and get to the rehearsal dinner on time, because he wouldn’t miss us as he and Josh set up their stuff in the abysmal room they were so thrilled to share.

After the wedding and the long drive back to Maine, I poked my head into The Dude’s now-empty childhood bedroom. The dog was curled up on his bed, which he had made up before we had departed days earlier. I wouldn’t call it neat, exactly, but it was tidy enough, and his books were back on the shelves and his bank statements and other mail were carefully stacked on his desk. He knew that would matter to me, that his room wasn’t left in a mess, and that’s when I felt the clutch in the throat. I called the dog out, and closed the door.

We’ll see The Dude again in about six weeks. But who’s counting?

For other posts re. The Dude, see 6/13/11 and 5/3/10.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I spent two intense days recently with a particularly troubled teenager.

Unpredictable. Moody. Self-destructive. Given to emotional, violent outbursts as well as tender acts of kindness. Like I said, it was an intense two days. But I was preparing to speak at a writers’ conference, and lead a workshop on narrative voice in young adult fiction. And I was determined to reread The Catcher in the Rye before making any sweeping generalizations about how teens speak.

It had been a long time since Holden Caulfield and I had spent any time together. I think our last visit was back when I was a teen myself, reading his story for a high school English class. Judging from the semi-audible groans I heard from the attendees at my workshop, groans which moved through the room like the crowd wave at a ball game when I pulled out the book and its familiar red and yellow carousel horse cover, Holden was a known quantity to them as well.

“Isn’t that a little dated?” one outspoken fellow said, getting us off to a rip roaring start.

“Well, in some ways, it certainly is dated,” I conceded. “I was surprised to see the book’s original copyright is 1945.” (That drew a few contemptuous snorts.) “And Holden definitely uses some outdated slang. He references movies and film stars and music which a teen today wouldn’t relate to. But in the essential ways which define the so-called young adult voice, Holden is incredibly authentic.”

Prove it, their blank stares challenged. Show us how a 16-year old who has never heard of Twitter, Facebook or even the internet, can teach us anything about a young adult today. This dude has never used a computer. Never texted, sexted, or snapped a picture on a cell phone. He has no cable television, no iPod, no MTV. He puts change into a pay phone which has a rotary dial. He’s never heard of rap; he listens to jazz …

“Holden is first and foremost and above all a teenager,” I told them. “Regardless of all the rest of the discussion about him … Is he the voice of a disaffected generation? Is he having a nervous breakdown? Is he traumatized? Is he an alcoholic? … he sees the world and reacts to the world uniquely as a teen. And if we’re going to write for teens, we need to learn from Holden.”

Here’s what I learned from Holden, and what’s so true about every teen:

1. Holden “hates” everything … but not really. He constantly talks about what he “hates,” but it’s just a catchall word he uses as his emergent adult self begins to see and judge the world in new ways. He’s beginning to recognize hypocrisy and meanness and sadness, and it’s not fun. So he lumps it all into the category of things he “hates.”

2. Holden reacts to everything personally, but hasn’t a clue about himself. He’s hypersensitive, but not self-aware.

3. Holden wants to tell us his story … but wants us to think he’s indifferent to telling.

4. Holden acts first and thinks later. If he thinks at all.

5. Holden swears and drinks and affects what he recognizes as “adult” behavior, but the love of his life is his kid sister Phoebe, and he’s nostalgic about their trips to the carousel ride. Poor Holden isn’t an adult yet … but he’s no longer a child.

It doesn’t matter whether Holden is listening to Kanye West or Frank Sinatra. It doesn’t matter if he’s sending a friend a text message or a postcard. It doesn’t matter if he describes something as “corny” or “weak.” Holden responds to the world and tells his story from the perspective of an emerging adult, in a way that transcends the limiting details of popular culture. That’s why The Catcher in the Rye, despite being 66 years old, has something to teach us today.

So in my ongoing quest to capture the young adult voice in my fiction, I have a new mantra:

What Would Holden Do?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

No Tears Here

So in our local paper there has been a fair amount of hand wringing and eulogizing over the closure of the Borders Bookstore this week.

Leading the list of heart-wrenching observations is the loss of more than 25 jobs, which I agree, is a pretty bad thing, especially in this economy where it's no small feat to find another job. There's also been some praise for the franchise owner, who has been active in the community and has made efforts to promote literacy projects. Laudable stuff, that.

But as a local author, I have to confess I'm a bit bewildered by all the mourning. Not only did I have to consistently exert herculean efforts to convince the local Borders to keep my books in stock (and I'm distributed by a major publisher, so it's not like this was difficult) but I was always a bit surprised to see how many outstanding Maine authors were not on their shelves. This was in sharp contrast to our small, independently owned downtown bookstore (Gulf of Maine Books) where the owners are knowledgeable and actively promote Maine writers.

Plus, my neighbors seem to forget what happened when Borders arrived.

It located itself in a strip mall a few short years ago within (literally) a potato-bazooka-blast distance from a Maine-based bookstore/cafe called Bookland. Bookland was a largish store, filled with knowledgeable employees and book-lovers, and was a watering hole for many in our community. It hosted book signings by local authors, amazing Harry Potter parties for kids on "release" nights, sponsored literacy projects in the schools ... it was a fine store and good neighbor. It struggled mightily to remain open when Big Box Borders elbowed its way into town, but we all know the scenario: it was no match for the discounts which the multi-million dollar giant could offer customers, and eventually closed its doors. That retail space remains vacant. Oh, and a lot of people lost their jobs back then, too.

The narrative of the predatory Big Box Store and the demise of the Local Store is an oft-told, well-known tale at this point ... but it's repeated again and again in communities all over our country, and I don't understand why we haven't figured it out yet. We're all so sad when the little mom and pop convenience store, where you could get anything from screws to crochet hooks to school supplies to winter boots, is euthanized by the arrival of a Target or a WalMart, but when those chains open we all scurry to be the first to pick up deals on opening day.

Here's the really scary thing: in some communities, now that Borders has closed, there is no bookstore left. They killed off the competition, and now have disappeared in a puff of smoke themselves.

Amazon must be lovin' this.

As an author, I have gained a deep, deep, deep (we're talkin' Grand Canyon here) appreciation for the small business owners who run independent bookstores in communities throughout our country. They promote literacy and the arts every day they open their doors, and they're not getting rich doing it. May I humbly suggest that the next time you want a book, you browse one of their stores instead of the internet?

As an author, there are all sorts of things one can do to not only sell books but also support local stores. I thought this blog had a couple of great ideas:

Meanwhile, here's a shout-out to just a few of my all-time favorite indie bookstores:

Sherman's Books (Maine!) who recently sponsored the Books in Boothbay Summer Book Fair. Thanks, Jeff and Audrey!

Gulf of Maine (Brunswick) and the amazing, one-of-a-kind Gary Lawless.

Children's Book Cellar (Waterville), an anchor of literacy in downtown Waterville.

Longfellow Books (Portland)

The Vermont Book Shop (Middlebury) which was my favorite bookstore when I was a student and was reportedly Robert Frost's favorite, too.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness

So late May/early June is when I hear a lot of graduation speeches.

This can be fairly mind numbing, as clichés seem to have their origins in the Graduation Speech genre. One group of inventive Bowdoin College profs I know (names withheld to protect the guilty) have come up with a sort of “bingo” they play during the graduation ceremony, checking off boxes whenever a speaker utters a particular cliché (references to the ivory tower, going forth into the world, etc.), and jumping out of their seats and shouting the name of the current governor when they have checked off all the boxes on their cards.

It’s disruptive, highly amusing to those in the know, and puzzling to the other graduation attendees.

So I was amazed and delighted to hear a speech, written by a young man who graduated from Middlebury College this past February, which not only made me laugh out loud, but made me think. Rethink, actually. And question my assumptions about a few things I had previously held dear.

Here's the excerpt that grabbed me:

The problem with the American dream, the dream so often spouted on days like today, is not simply that it leaves us chasing material success, thinking that if we just get a bigger car, a bigger house, a bigger TV, then we will be happy. It’s the very idea of the pursuit of happiness. Because happiness is not something you pursue. It’s something you create.

I loved that. The idea that happiness isn't a goal or a pursuit, but a creation. And not necessarily for ourselves.

Then, this week, an article in The Atlantic came to my attention. It was titled "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," and the basic premise is that parenting with a primary goal of raising happy children might be resulting in a generation of unhappy adults. It also posits that shielding kids from disappointment and rejection and pain doesn't do them any favors.

How many times as parents do we say, regarding our children and their futures, “I just want them to be happy.” As if that's the ultimate bottom line? The most important attribute we could ascribe to their adult selves?

Is there really anything wrong with that?

As a parent, it’s hard to hear one of your kids say “I’m not happy.” I mean, it’s sort of hard to hear it from a three-year old. But it’s sharply painful to hear it from a teenager/young adult. Your instinct, instilled from the moment of his/her birth, is to apply the bandage/erase the hurt/make it better. Because isn’t that our job? To make them well? Guide them along the road to happiness?

This article, and that speech, made me rethink happiness. I wondered, what if we stopped pursuing happiness, or just stopped considering it altogether? What would we insert in its place? What might constitute a better "pursuit?"

And how would my focus as a parent have changed if, instead of "I'm not happy" my son/daughter said, "I'm not ... compassionate."

How about, “I’m not generous.” “I’m not loving.” “I’m not kind.” "I'm not thoughtful."

When I look at it that way ... wow. Being somewhat unfulfilled or a bit bored with life or bummed out because you didn’t get invited to the party or disappointed because you didn’t get into your first choice college is … fine. Manageable. Lacking compassion is devastating.

I’m not sure how to resist being swept up in the cultural tsunami of The Self Actualized, Happy-at-all-Costs Child. It's tough enough to swim against the tide of parents in your own community, let alone a whole nation. Where we seem to think we have a constitutional right to happiness.

Maybe it's simply a matter of reordering priorities. Maybe move "compassion" to the top of the list for things we hope our children attain. Along with a capacity to forgive. The ability to show love. Loyalty. Generosity.

Somehow, I think if we make those sorts of things the goals, happiness will just happen. Something we discover along the way to a productive, unselfish life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Return of The Dude

It always takes me about one full week to adjust to summer.

Huh? you ask. Adjust to what? Sunshine and warmth? Fresh vegetables from the market, flowers in the garden, grilling, school’s out … ah.

Yes. School’s out. That’s it.

All the glories of summer in Maine aside, my head and my schedule have to make a tremendous adjustment each June to Teens at Home. Large bodies, fairly inert except for trips to the refrigerator, filling the house, filling the couch, filling the bed until long after noon … It knocks me off track, I’ll confess, especially since I’ve had ten months of quiet days to write, with only the dog making demands for the occasional walk.

In all fairness, I’m not describing my daughter, who is a veritable dervish most of time, and even when she is “relaxing” is productive in her art room, or trotting off to the library for a new book on tape, or going to her summer job or heading with friends to the beach. She’s actually the kid we entreat to watch more television, maybe play a few rounds of Angry Birds on the iPad.

No, I’m talking about The Dude, who has returned from college. Where, reportedly, he functioned. He got up and went to class and, judging from the grades he received, did the reading and learned something. He did laundry. He went to meals, joined clubs, made friends. In other words: The Dude was alive.

But then, year over, he returned to the nest.

“So what’s with the vegetative state?” little sister asked me, upon his return. The contents of his dorm room were still strewn about his room, which did not smell good. Which was probably due to the fact that the door remained closed well into the early afternoon, as he slept.

“What happened last night?” his father asked me, when, his day beginning at 2:00 in the afternoon, after his beauty rest and shower, The Dude met up with friends and returned loudly home at 1:30 A.M. It sounded like thieves had broken into the house and were ransacking the refrigerator.

I don’t why everyone expects me to have the answers to these questions.

“What happened?” I asked The Dude. “Did you have a lobotomy when no one was looking?”

“Huh?” was the reply. Truly, he was perplexed.

While there may well be no answer to this problematic question of why and how young people, who fully function as adults out of the parental home, manage to completely regress once back in the bosom of their families, there is a solution: The Summer Job.

In The Dude’s case, this is quite a job. Not only will he leave the parental nest once again and relocate to an island in Maine, but he will be responsible for a camp’s worth of boys for six solid weeks. He’ll be a camp counselor/tennis instructor/trip leader, taking boys into the woods or down Maine’s rivers for days at a time.

He will not only get himself up and jump in the lake at 7:30 every morning, but he will get The Little Dudes up. He will not only keep his tent clean and his stuff organized, he will entreat Little Dudes to do likewise. He will nag. He will remind. He will instruct.

He will know how it feels to push molasses up a mountain. And yes, I’m enjoying this.

Best of all, for six weeks, The Dude’s focus will be on someone else. Instead of being taken care of, he’ll do the caretaking. Instead of “self actualizing” he’ll help others come into their own, make friends, learn new skills. He’ll work to keep them safe and help them have a memorable summer.

I really can't think of a better way for him to spend his time right now.

So, tonight’s the farewell dinner and movie with The Dude, then he’s off. Little sister, The Dervish, will still be home, so life’s not quiet … but it’s not sponge life, either.

The New York Times had a great feature about teens finding summer jobs this season, which we all know is no easy thing in this economy. Take a look. I particularly enjoyed the kid in the carrot suit.

Monday, April 4, 2011


This blog is taking a break this week because I'm BUZZING! Visit me at the Random House Teen Book Community, Random Buzzers: You can ask questions about JERSEY TOMATOES ARE THE BEST and I'll do my best to answer before the week is out. Thanks for dropping by!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Virtual Tour

Until very recently, I didn't know what a "Blog Tour" was. I don't want to confess how recently, because that would reveal my complete ineptness (is that word?) when it comes to Cyberworld Book Promotion, and book promotion in general ...

I had always assumed you promoted a book by going to bookstores and signing copies, or getting invited to nice events where people wanted to hear you talk about yourself or your book, and maybe they'd buy a copy. Pictured to the left is the "standard fare" of book promotion: stacks of Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, offered for sale by a couple of very nice people, Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard of Gulf of Maine Books, an Indie Extraordinaire. They attended my book launch party, sold a few copies, and I signed.

That's it, right? Authors head out to stores or libraries or conferences, meet people, and sign books. In person.

But then my publicist told me that Tomatoes would be out on a Virtual Tour, a.k.a. a Blog Tour, and in the course of a mere week we can visit thousands of potential readers from all over the world, let alone Main Street in our home towns. If you're like me, and have only just learned about this sort of thing, here's how it works:

For five days, five different young adult bloggers will post reviews and interviews about Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best. Each blogger has asked different questions, so if you follow the tour you won't be subjected to the same material over and over. At the conclusion of each post, they'll "link" to the next day's blogger, as well as reference the previous post. It's a great way to spread the word about the book, as well as connect "followers" from one blog to another.

Most of the bloggers on the tour will be offering contests/book giveaways, so if you're interested you could win a copy of Tomatoes!

Here's the lineup for the Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best Blog Tour. I hope you can drop in for some, if not all, the stops along the way:

Monday, March 28: Steph Su Reads

Tuesday, March 29: The Book Butterfly

Wednesday, March 30: Random Acts of Reading

Thursday, March 31: The Reading Zone

Friday, April 1st: Cleverly Inked

Friday, March 4, 2011

Launch Day

The other day I was asked the following question by someone who was reviewing my new book, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best:

“What has surprised you most about becoming a published author?”

The question itself surprised me. Sure, I’ve learned a lot more about the publishing business since selling a book. I’ve experienced the “process” first hand, of reviewing galleys and going over copyeditor’s notes, and writing bios and jacket flap copy. I’ve sat in bookstores and autographed my book. Stood in front of groups and read aloud (that’s way more fun than signing copies in bookstores by the way …) I’ve done all that sort of published-author-fun-stuff, and yes, it’s fun.

But I guess the biggest “surprise” of all is that I feel like the exact same writer I’ve ever been. Nothing has changed, really. I haven’t gotten rich, although my husband is still planning to retire on the movie rights to one of my books … if and when a big studio decides to purchase the movie rights. People don’t recognize me in the street, except to ID me as so-and-so’s mother. I still buy milk at the grocery store, scrub toilets, fold laundry and walk the dog. Although, now that I think of it, some days, when I’m working, and happen to glance up from the page, I see Frisbee staring at me with more than the usual patient worship. “My owner is a published author,” those brown doggy eyes seem to say. “A published author scoops my poop.”

So, there. That’s something new and different.

The fact is that even if someone decides to give you money and print your stuff, it still boils down to the same thing: hours alone, trying to tell a story and string words into sentences. I’ve been doing it since 8th grade, and the process is … pretty much the same. Although now I have a computer, and back in the dark ages, when I was an 8th grader, I didn’t even have an electric typewriter.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Anne Lamott, describes this phenomenon brilliantly and irreverently in her book, Bird by Bird. These past few nights I’ve been rereading her chapter on publishing, not only because Tomatoes is scheduled for release this week, but because she just gets it.

Anne Lamott on “Launch Day”:

There is something mythic about the date of publication, and you actually come to believe that on this one particular morning you will wake up to a phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel …

In fact, Anne spends the day by the phone, waiting for it to ring. I usually don’t hear from my editor on launch day, but I usually send her a little something. Chocolates. A mug. A card thanking her for believing in me and my work.

Anne Lamott on “Being a Published Author”:

I tell you, if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you are lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent. … There will be a few book signing parties and maybe some readings, at one of which your publisher will spring for a twenty-pound wheel of runny Brie, and the only person who will show has lived on the street since he was twelve and even he will leave, because he hates Brie.

And finally, Anne Lamott on “After You Publish a Book”:

But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page. The beginnings of a second or third book are full of spirit and confidence because you have been published, and false starts and terror because now you have to prove yourself again. … What I know now is that you have to wear out all that dread by writing long and hard and not stopping too often to admire yourself and your publishedness in the mirror. Sometime later you’ll find yourself at work on another book, and once again you figure out that the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point.

For the next few weeks, now that Tomatoes is officially out in the world, I suppose I’ll be reveling in my own “publishedness.” I’ll get to read out loud, to a live audience, which I’ll confess is a lot of fun. There’s a party planned, and a couple of signings.

But then, it will all die down, and it’s back to work. I’m writing a new novel, which means long days alone with make-believe people, my laptop, and my biggest fan: the dog.

And that’s just fine.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Just Write

Is everyone writing in my town, or does it just seem that way?

At a benefit auction the other night I sat across the table from a woman who has been writing short stories and memoir pieces for years. She’s at the point where she’s wondering if she could publish her work. She’s wondering: Am I ready for that? What’s the next step?

A friend across town who has an amazing literary blog (far more productive than I, by far) has just finished a draft of her fourth novel. Two blocks from her, another friend, who has won prizes for her poems and essays, is busily at work. In that same neighborhood there is another memoir writer, and two children’s authors. Across the street from them ….

Wow. Never mind. I won’t be able to list all the writers I know in town, let alone all the others I now imagine are squirreled away in their home offices/writing sheds/the library tapping away at laptops or scribbling in journals. I shouldn’t be surprised. Not only is this a college town, but it’s where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived when she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I’m convinced there’s something in the water that makes one want to tell a story.

Because basically, that’s it. It’s not about a career, or fame. Definitely not about the money, although some lucky folks do extraordinarily well. It’s simply a compulsion, to describe and tell and make stuff up and go for a wild imaginative ride and bring a few friends along if they care to listen. That’s it. If you have another goal in mind, I’d suggest abandoning this endeavor, immediately. It begins and ends with a need to tell a story, and tell it as well as you can.

The telling is what matters, because that might be all that comes of it. The best thing I ever heard in the way of writing ‘advice’ came from my advisor in college, the poet Robert Pack, who told us, “Most art isn’t very good, and most art doesn’t last.”

To a self-important 21-year old, this was a shocking revelation. What? Isn’t the goal here to create great art? Award winning novels, poems for major publications, series that resell as movie-rights? Anything short of that would be failure, right?

Oh, so, so wrong. Bob Pack was spot on, and here’s my riff on his wisdom: Most art isn’t ever published. Most published art sucks. So just go out there and tell your story. Because you have to. Because it gives you joy.

Another writing friend (from that same creative writing seminar with Bob Pack) has published several non-fiction books, but also writes many things that he simply … shares. Every year he writes a lovely Christmas story, and emails it to the zillion people he knows who just enjoy listening to him, and it’s a gift. It’s absolutely wonderful to see it appear as an attachment each year and it’s absolutely perfect without a cover or an ISBN number.

At the same benefit auction the other night was another friend who has decided to go a more structured, professional route with her writing. She’s entered an MFA program (Master of Fine Arts) and is currently taking classes with a fiction writer. She said something to me about that class which sparked this whole blog post.

She described herself as “superficial” (so not true) and said this guy is deep, and is trying to get her to be “deep.” She described her writing as horizontal, and this “deep” fellow wants her to be more “vertical.”

Okay, I’m not in the class, and maybe I’m getting this wrong, but can I just say I would love to throw a brick at this guy? This gal has been blogging of late, and her posts are hysterically funny. She has a voice; an authentic voice. I certainly hope Mr. Deep gets that, because an authentic voice is a rare thing. Something he can’t teach.

Beware of writers trying to be deep. They are full of … yeah. My guess is those “deep” stories wind up in the category of don’t-last-aren’t-very-good. Which is all fine, but probably not much fun to read.

Here’s my advice to my not-superficial, horizontally-writing friend: screw deep. Write “true.” What’s the story you want to tell? The story you have to tell, and the character’s voice that speaks to you? Don’t be afraid to tell the truth, to annoy people and rub them the wrong way and say the things that make them uncomfortable. Don’t worry about whether it’s profound. Just dig within yourself and make it true. And whether it winds up deep or published or just in the bottom of some drawer: it’s yours.

Okay, sun’s up in our little town. Coffee’s on. Let’s write.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Anti-Social Network

I haven’t been able to put my finger on what bothers me about Facebook, but then Stanford University did a study and nailed it for me:

Here’s my favorite line from that article: “Facebook tends to exploit an Achilles heel of human nature.” A.k.a. You Are Not Invited to the Party.

Yes. My friend Barb and I talk about this all the time. On days when we’re low energy, feeling like we haven’t seen anyone for a while, and wonder if everyone is getting together for dinner but not inviting us … Facebook is the nail in the coffin. It confirms our worst fears: everyone is having more fun, is happier, and, by the way, is better looking, than us.

Luckily, I’m a woman-of-a-certain age, in a relationship, with work I love, so on those low energy days I have much to fall back on and bounce right back. But if I were a teen?

OMG. Forget it. I don’t want to think about how I would have felt, 35 years ago, if there had been Facebook. I would have hated seeing pictures posted from all the parties I wasn’t invited to. I would definitely have felt that everyone in my entire high school was better looking and more popular than I was. What got me through those years was not having it shoved in my face that I was “out of it.” I could content myself with having a few wonderful girlfriends, a handful of activities I enjoyed, music to practice, homework to complete …. That’s how I survived. Ignorance is bliss. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

I think it’s ironic that the biggest global “social networking” creation of our age is the brainchild of a 20-something who, for all his achievements and brilliance, is a disaster at relationships. Yes, yes, I know, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, does have a real girlfriends, so the depiction of him and his ex in the movie “The Social Network” is not accurate. But … pretty much every other interaction he has with real live people is fairly disastrous, don’t you think?

I’m trying to get my head around what this means for our kids who are coming of age in the age of Facebook. Of texting instead of speaking. Of emailing instead of slowly, thoughtfully, by hand, composing letters. I have boxes of old letters from when I was in college: letters from my parents, my now-deceased grandmother, old boyfriends … They are gems. Did you ever notice how someone comes to life for you when you see their handwriting? I have an impulse sometimes to strokes the words on the page; as if pieces of their souls inhabit the ink.

I think it’s fair to predict that when my son graduates from college, I will not have a single letter from him in my possession. I will, however, have received thousands of texts and countless emails from him. Frankly, that’s one of the benefits of sending kids to summer camp where there are no computers: they have to write letters home.

Sometimes I wonder if I should print out his emails, and save them in a box.

Anyway. I don’t plan to delete my Facebook page any time soon. But thank you, Stanford researchers, for helping me better understand what’s been bugging me about the whole “posting my wonderful life” thing. And in all fairness to Mark Zuckerberg, he does appear to have more of a sense of humor than Alan Sorkin gave him credit for:

Mark Zuckerberg on SNL

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Advice for a New Writer

The Dude (see May 4, 2010), a freshman in college, had some exciting news for us. His class schedule leaves Fridays open, and he plans to use the uninterrupted time to write. Not papers and course assignments: his own stuff. Things pulled from his imagination and deposited on the page. He has an idea for a play, and goes to a college where students regularly bring their creations to the stage, so apparently he's been inspired.

I tried to contain my enthusiasm, because The Dude withdraws, turtle-like, in the face of overweening parental eagerness. But I’ll confess, I’m thrilled. I’m a big fan of the creative life, and never dreamed that one of my own might choose it. I’m curious to see where this might lead.

I’m also DYING to talk writing with him. Oh, I want to heap my thoughts and advice and writing stories on him in ways that would undoubtedly make him run for cover and never, ever, take pen to paper again. An apt metaphor would be my woodstove, which gave me a lot of trouble early this winter, because I put too much kindling and fatwood in it to start, and filled the house with smoke. I piled on, way too quickly, and almost destroyed all hopes of lighting a fire.

I don’t want to do that to The Dude.

Start small with a fire, and gently feed the flame, one piece of dry kindling at a time. Make sure the flue’s open and the smoke is gently rising. This takes a bit of patience, but eventually the flames are strong enough for the big wood.

So I’ve kept my mouth shut, for the most part, and just expressed a lot of enthusiasm for his idea and his plan. However, if he were to ask, and I were to tell him, these are the two (only two) pieces of advice I would give a New Writer. Not a young writer: a new writer. Someone with a desire to write and a kernel of an idea:

Get a comfortable chair. Writing is, first and foremost, about sitting alone for long periods of time as you string words together, one by one. This is a basic, physical reality, and the key to The Creative Life. You don’t write by just thinking about it, or talking about it, or sipping cocktails at parties and saying, “Well, this is the novel I plan to write when I retire,” or “If I wrote a play, this is what I’d do ….” Nope.

This is solitary, sedentary, and maddening. You will spend an hour on a paragraph, then throw it out the next day. You will write three pages, only to realize that the last sentence on the third page is actually taking you in a completely new direction and the entire story is going to shift. It’s a process, and discovery happens during that process, but only if you sit down and just do it. Alone. For hours. So get comfortable.

Get acquainted with your characters. I’m a great believer in “Plot Follows Character” and have absolutely found that once I know my characters well, their actions (a.k.a. the plot) naturally follows.

So … how do you get to know your characters? Well, write about them. Move than pencil across the page and get them talking. How do they speak? Accents? Good grammar and big words? Bad grammar and profanities? What do they look like? What do they hum while they’re working? What’s at the gritty bottom of their backpacks? What do they find in the pockets of their winter coats when they pull them out each fall? What do they eat when they eat alone? What secrets do they have?

And … that’s it. Yes, certainly, I could write tomes of advice and suggestions and it would actually be a lot of fun to go over all that. I love to think about writing and talk about writing. But the fact is, I think it all boils down to these two suggestions.

So … good luck, Dude. Fly. Create. Be fearless. What did that teacher say on the Magic Schoolbus, that PBS show you always watched when you were a Little Dude? “Take chances! Get messy! Make mistakes!”

Yes indeed. You’ll find great things in the mess.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Driving in Cars With Teens

I met a guy the other day who says he enjoys teaching teens how to drive.

No, he’s not some adrenaline nut with a death wish. He’s a father of teens. Who all have their licenses and happily cruise around town without smashing the family van or causing injury to anyone. This guy has a track record of proven success, and apparently other parents “lend” him their kids, who are in the permit stage, for highway practice.

Here’s what I would say about this man: he has no pulse. Unflappable. Calm, with a sense of humor, in the face of impending disaster. Someone should give this guy a medal.

The scariest thing I have done as a parent is get in a car with a newly permitted teen driver. Actually, it may be the scariest thing I’ve done, period. Scarier than having surgery (at least trained professionals are in charge) and scarier than skiing down a double black diamond slope (I’m afraid of heights.)

I realize that it doesn’t help the Newly Permitted Teen Driver to see terror on the Parent Passenger’s face, or hear the Parent Passenger gasp as the teen races to within mere feet of the car ahead before SLAMMING on the brakes. It doesn’t build confidence in the young driver to have a Parent Passenger clutching the armrest, eyes clamped shut, muttering prayers. An overall atmosphere of calm should pervade the driving experience; a calm which is shattered when the Parent Passenger says, “Slow down. Slow down. Slow down slow down SLOW DOWN!!!!!” when approaching a stop sign.

My buddy without the pulse reportedly doesn’t react this way. He’s known to calmly comment, “Okay, you just cut off a tractor trailer, which crashed into the car behind us. Remember to signal, check your mirrors, then glance over your shoulder before changing lanes.” Or: “Okay, luckily there are no cops in sight, because you just ran a red light and almost hit a pedestrian. Always remember that red means ‘stop’ and green means ‘go.’ Otherwise, you’re doing great!”

I’ve considered incorporating that calm, “no worries, bro,” tone:

“Now, did you see the way my head bobbled, whiplash-like, when you stopped just then? You hit the brakes a bit too suddenly, and were going a tad too fast.” Or:

“Did you hear that bumpety-bumpety sound just then? That was the sound of our car rolling over those kids crossing the street. You might want to pull over, so we can wait for the police to arrive.”

Even greater than my fears of what my Permitted Driver might do to hapless passers-by is what Even-Worse-Drivers might do to her. We’ve talked a lot about defensive driving, and exercising caution while on the road:

“Now, I want you to think of the most irresponsible, untrustworthy kid at your high school Someone you can’t count on to get from Point A to Point B without somehow messing up. Consider this: that person has his/her license. Every car on the road is potentially driven by that person. Heading your way, in the oncoming lane. So … watch out.”

Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to inspire calm and confidence in a young driver. What can I tell you? I’m the shrieking-praying-armrest-clutching sort.

The only thing worse than driving with the Newly Permitted is watching them pull out of your driveway, with your car, the day they become the Newly Licensed. The day I watched through the dining room window as my son drove off with the Subaru, paroxysms of anxiety swept over me. I telephoned my own mother, who had taught me to drive on Route 17 in New Jersey.

She was not sympathetic.

“Yup. I know. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since you got your license,” she said. I laughed.

“Mom, I’m a middle-aged woman.”

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s a long time to go without a decent night’s sleep, let me tell you.”

It sure is.