A Fresh Start

I take an almost childlike pleasure in new, fresh notebooks with their blank sheets of paper waiting to be filled.  The first day of vacation is my favorite, with all the days stretched out ahead, full of promise and freedom.  I hold my breath during the moment in the theater when the lights go down and the curtain goes up, in the hush of anticipation.

I love fresh starts.

Why, then, this refusal to take part in the most iconic fresh start that exists –- the day that seems to cry out for innovation, for reinventing oneself, for swapping out the old bad habits for the bright and shiny new ones?

I’m not certain when I stopped making New Years’ resolutions, but at some point the ratio of “Guilt:Success” must have overwhelmed me.  I suppose the process went from fun and whimsical to an exercise in disappointment, and I simply stopped.

Everyone knows that diets can only start on Mondays, right?  Interesting then, that my most successful ones have started, say, in the middle of the day on a Thursday.  I quit smoking, after years of First-of-the-Month Monday resolutions, at a time and on a day that I can’t honestly remember -- sometime in August before my 50th birthday.

I know this may make me sound rather curmudgeonly and dark, like someone who refuses to believe in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny.  The truth is that most people who know me would characterize me as an absurdly hopeful person.  I’m someone who believes that good can come from the most surprising places and in wonderfully unexpected ways.

It may seem like a non sequitur, but I’d like to share a snippet I took away from a lovely little book written by the Dalai Lama, called “The Art of Happiness.”  I’m not quoting here, and he may not have actually written this in so many words, but as I said, it’s what I took away from the reading -- and I love it so much that I’m not even going to look it up, as it might ruin it for me.

I believe he said that we all have the choice, every morning, of waking up and thinking of those who have more than we have, and being unhappy about it –- or of thinking of those who have less than we have, and being grateful.  In short, happiness is a choice we make every moment of every day.

For me, resolutions are the same.  This year, I suppose my resolution is to throw caution to the wind and decide in the middle of the month on a Wednesday at 3 p.m., that I’ll carve out more time for writing.  Or that I’ll eat more vegetables, appreciate my husband more, find more joy in work, or call my mother more often.

I’ll make choices, every moment of every day, to be happy.  In that way, every moment is a fresh start.

And I do love fresh starts.



Writing For the Love of It

Once when I was expounding… (perhaps I was obsessing)…about someone who owed me money, my dear and sensible husband said, “What if you tried giving money to someone with no intention of getting it back? Just give it with love. That’s what I do. Then if it does come back, it’s a gift.”

(When I’m obsessing, that’s really not what I want to hear, by the way.  I want commiseration, sympathy, or at the very least, a “tut” or two.  But Robert has always been better at making his way through the real world than I’ve been.  When I’m smart, I listen to him.)

Since then, I’ve found that before handing over my hard-earned cash, I ask myself if I would resent never getting it back.  I can’t express how much it’s helped, because I let the money go without strings, or I don’t let it go at all. 

(And the important thing for me to remember about strings is that they’re not only tied to the other person -– they’re tied to me as well, and sometimes I get tangled up in them, while the other person walks blithely away, whistling.)

Yes, I’m getting to the point…about writing.

I wonder if the name “author” is only reserved for those who get paid for it -- or if it’s possible to be an author while giving it away, without strings.

(You see, I can’t seem to stop writing, no matter how little I get paid for it.) 

A novel-and-three-quarters written, and starting on a third.  Not only have I been paid next to nothing, but I’ve actually spent a little printing books to give to friends.  And I don’t regret a penny of it.  In fact, it felt really, well…good.

So, if we put a value on our writing –- and I do –- then as we blog, and post, and price books at 99¢, we’re giving gifts.

No regrets.  No expectations.  No strings.  Just for the love of writing.   

(Don't get me wrong...if someone handed me a big check right now, I wouldn't be turning them away...)

But really, I do love to write.  For the love of it.



Home for Christmas

My son is home for Christmas.

I almost said “my boy is home” but pulled myself up short.  At 28, 6’5”, and as self-sufficient as a man can be, my son is no longer a boy.  Since the beginning of time that law of nature has been tugging at the hearts of mothers, while simultaneously engendering a sense of pride that often requires a quick intake of breath.

Right now, he sleeps a floor below me, in the bedroom that will always be his, as promised.  It’s one of the things I’m making right from the last generation to this one – my bedroom disappeared when I drove away to college, but for as long as he wants it, and probably beyond that, he will have a bedroom wherever I live.

Someday he may sleep in that room with a person he hopes to spend the rest of his life with, perhaps grandchildren will snuggle into the matched pair of single four-posters in the other downstairs bedroom – but for now, he walks seriously and singly through life, studying, planning, laughing, training, thinking.

There’s that intake of breath again.  Have I mentioned that I’m very proud of him?

For now, he sleeps and dreams downstairs, of things I probably can’t imagine, surrounded by photos of his childhood, the tassel from his graduation cap, the book of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons we read together and giggled over for so many years, the old calendar with spectacular panoramas of great golf courses which never goes out of date, the picture on the wall of the scoreboard at a San Francisco Giants baseball game wishing him a happy 15th birthday, the soft bear he named Booey when he was two – the one with the space where the nose used to be, because he very simply loved it away.

Many of those days were a blur for him, the speeding train of growing up.  For me, they stand out in bas relief, a fresco that I can walk along and remember so clearly, not only what happened, but how I felt about it.

I’ll spend the next five days drinking him in, before he flies off again to his good and productive life.  My mother, who loves him as I do, likes to say that she just enjoys sitting and “watching his hair grow.”  She does it overtly and dramatically, making him blush – I’m more of the furtive type, but I love him no less.

This is my best gift.  My son, my boy, is home for Christmas.  

My two favorite men -- Thomas and Robert



TED Talk: What We Learned From Five Million Books

TED Talk:  What We Learned From Five Million Books
by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel

And not only 5 million books, but the 500 million words in them.  When language, mathematics and Google meet...

A fascinating and funny talk from a couple of brilliant word nerds... gotta love 'em... 



On My Bookshelf: “One Man’s Meat” by E.B. White

One of my earliest and most enduring literary influences was E.B. White, who contributed regularly to The New Yorker Magazine and Harper’s Magazine in beautifully concise and elegantly simple writing.  Most will know him best for the beloved books, “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” and students of language may know him as one-half of the team of Strunk & White, who crafted the small Bible of writing, “The Elements of Style.”

White wrote magazine columns, which were the blogs of their day, I suppose.  Virtually “something about nothing very momentous,” but with a point.  If we’re lucky as writers, that point stays with people – they wonder about it, they apply it to their own lives, and they come out a little different for having read it. 

 “One Man’s Meat” is a collection of columns and essays set from the years 1938 through 1943, when White lived in Maine on a salt water farm, raising hens, sheep, blueberries and mackerel.  It’s the kind of book you can pick up anytime: on a plane or a subway, on vacation or a break at work, and read a little gem of a story in its entirety that will make you smile and sometimes cry, but always, think.

One example: White attended the World’s Fair in 1939, grandly titled “The World of Tomorrow,” but he did it with a head cold.  In his lovely understated style he wrote: “When you can’t breathe through your nose, Tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday,” but he bravely set forth to see it all.

The World of Tomorrow had a ride, set in the far future of 1960, full of purple light, fast cars, and trees enclosed in glass bubbles.  White watched a small boy named David as he traversed the magical future, and then listened to him describe the ride afterwards.

David, in his excitement, chose the one thing that he would always remember.  At the end of the ride, David said, “the car gave a great—big—BUMP!”

And White wrote:  “…mostly the Fair has vanished, leaving only the voice of little David Wagstaff and the rambling ecstasy of his first big trip away from home; so many millions of dollars spent on the idea that our trains and our motorcars should go fast and smoothly, and the child remembering, not the smoothness, but the great—big—BUMP.”

I realized then, and have felt it true since, that we always remember the bump.  When we talk about our weddings, we recall the words transposed, the trip up or down the stairs, the wind, the rain, the cake never delivered.  They make for good stories afterwards, and we laugh, and feel stronger for having moved through them with grace and good humor.

White saw that, right away.  He celebrated the bump as a thing to learn by, a way to connect to each other, and a reason to smile.

This is a book I loved when I first read it thirty years ago.   The real test is that I love it even more today.


Small Moves

I’ve started writing a story that begins in 1979, and it’s asking me to remember how I felt about politics, social conventions and popular culture back then.  That’s what writing does, because even the most outlandish fiction requires a strong underpinning of truth.  In the same way that actors must recall their feelings, painful and otherwise, in order to feel what their character is feeling, we, as writers, must pull from deep within to find the motivations of the people who populate our stories.

So, in short, I woke up on this Sunday morning thinking about the ‘60s in America.  More particularly, that decade in the suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where I spent most of my formative years.  I wasn’t overtly politically active, but I did run for Girl’s League President in high school on the basis of asking for more variety in the cafeteria, and, on a platform that will cause wide eyes from anyone under fifty, the right for girls to wear denim jeans to school, even if they did have a few holes in them.

Not really “changing the world” sort of stuff.  And I suppose most of the people you ask from that generation would say that we were disappointed in the results of “The Summer of Love” and the hippie culture.  We were co-opted by a lot of young people who simply wanted to get high and drop out, and so, hippies are now remembered by many as dirty, lazy, and drug-addled, which, in truth, is what lots of them were.

At seventeen, that was my first experience of disappointment in the ability, even of a large movement of people, to change the world in big ways.  But seventeen is an idealistic age, and we wanted massive change, so we were bound to be disappointed, weren’t we?

Now, I’m more a believer in “small moves,” in the way I saw Ellie in the film “Contact” scan the outer reaches of the universe for signs of life.  If you go too fast, you might miss something. 

I now know that nothing ever stays the same.  By being here on this planet, each of us changes things in small ways.  And as writers, we have the opportunity to make people think about things they never might have thought of otherwise, and that most certainly effects change.  It ripples outward in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Small moves.



The Big Green Cat Toy

“Felix! NO!”

“Rocky? Don’t even THINK in that direction…”

The annual torture has begun.  For them, and for us.

Let’s see.  We dangle pretty, shiny things at them all year long.  Say things like “What’s this? Pretty! Shiny! Come play!”

Then, we place something right in the middle of the living room, chock full of dangly, shiny things, something that smells good, like the outdoors, that sparkles…and we say…

“Don’t touch!”

I don’t know about your cats, but mine just look at me as if to say, “Are you kidding?”  And then, they casually begin to clean their fur. 

But I know what they’re thinking. 

“Sooner or later, you’re going to have to go to work…”


Please? I won't break it...



To Read or to Write: That Is the Question.

It’s Saturday. Husband is at work. Yes, there’s an undecorated Christmas tree in the living room. No, I haven’t determined the quantities of ingredients to buy at Costco tomorrow to make Christmas cookies for friends and family.

But I woke with a feeling of abundance, the prospect of a day at home, cats curled around me against the cold outside.  A full day to write.  Bliss.

But first…just a peek at Twitter.  (Just to see what’s going on, mind you.)  First one blog, then another calls out to me.  Fellow writers, putting their struggles and how they overcome them into words –- beautifully, succinctly.  It’s my struggle too.

I tell myself this is research.  It is, isn’t it?

Then, a link to a new survey on authors…then to a talk on TED.  They’re talking about writing.  (I need to know what they have to say!)  I listen to one, then another.

A link from a tweet, to an exerpt from a Book-On-Tape.  My commute to work is an hour there, an hour back, and if I spend that time listening to books come alive through my car speakers, it flies by.  (I’m nearly done with “Mansfield Park,” after all.)

As a writer, I need experience.  I need to hear new voices, to learn of places I’ve never been, to explore other professions, to feel the hot wind on my face in a Sahara desert, or the biting cold of a dogsled in Alaska.  All of that is on the internet.  (All of that and more.)

On YouTube, you can take the Eurostar from Paris to London.  The countryside speeds by, and if you concentrate, you can feel the vibration, the clack-clack of the rails, as if you were there.  You can fly from Seattle to Reykjavik, and then on to London.  It’s almost as if you’re pulling your bag across the tile floors of the airport in Iceland as you change planes...

Ah, you get the picture.  Choices.

So how do I write today?  I’ll portion out my day -- half in learning, half in writing.  I’ll do my best to give each my full attention, the way I used to when I had a full-time job and a small child.  I’ll try not to wish I was doing one when I’m doing the other.

In short, focus on the now, and when I move on to the next thing, focus on that.

Focusing…Here’s hoping…  ¸¸.•*¨*



On My Bookshelf: Stephen King's "11/22/63"

I should start by saying that this is the first Stephen King novel I’ve ever tackled.  Considering how prolific an author he is, and that he is, in his own words, “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” you’d think I would have picked one up at some time or other, at least for a good beach read. 

But the closest I’ve come to the man is watching the film versions of “The Green Mile” and “The Dead Zone” in their entirety -- and parts of “Carrie,” “Christine” and “Cujo” through my fingers. 

I don’t do well with horror films or books.  They become too real for me and refuse to leave my side even long after I’ve finished with them.  Not helpful for sleep.  But his latest, “11/22/63,” sounded too interesting to pass by.

I was ten years old when that day came and went in America.  It was the beginning of a long stretch of the painful reality of violence.  First John Kennedy, then Martin Luther King, and then Robert Kennedy -– the three of them linked forever in tragedy.  It seemed that no one could stand up and speak their mind without finding a bullet at the end of the proposition.  It was a frightening, disillusioning time, and it changed American history -– politically, psychologically, culturally, and in every other way possible.

It won’t ruin the book for you if I share what it’s about, since every piece of publicity tells us:  “On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas, President Kennedy died, and the world changed.  If you had the chance to change history, would you? Would the consequences be worth it?”  The teaser goes on to say that in a small diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, a portal is discovered that can take you from the top of the stairs in 2011, to the last step, which lands you in 1958.

Going back to the Big Mac and fries analogy –- I know I’ve never ordered at McDonald’s without knowing that it’s not good for me, and also that ultimately, I’ll enjoy it.  I suppose that’s the spirit in which I began reading.

King’s dialogue can jangle, his metaphors may seem tired, his characters appear to be stereotypical -– but after leaving it, I couldn’t wait to pick up the story, and I had a very hard time putting it down again.  We know what’s  going to happen, but not how it will happen.   The story combines the simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic feel of time travel with the talent of a man who knows how to “spin a yarn.” 

King may not be an expert technician, but he’s a master storyteller.  He writes in the same way that the elders of the tribes have sat crosslegged around fires and recounted tales –- not always in a linear fashion or with exquisite grammar, but in a way that puts a knot in your stomach and makes your eye speed to the next word, and the next.

I loved it.  Every minute of it.  And as far as how the man writes?  The snobbish English Literature major in me cringes just a bit.  But the rest of me thinks:  I should be so lucky to write like that.