Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Weight Watcher’s Reverse Resolutions

1. I won’t eat cold beans from a can.

2. I won’t hide in the pantry when I lick icing off the beaters.

3. I won’t complain about audacious fast food. That would be lying.

4. I won’t condemn that new Friendly’s 1,500-calorie grilled cheeseburger melt — a burger encased in two grilled cheese sandwiches. They’ve installed defibrillators under the seats, worst-case-scenario.

• • • I wish I'd thought of it • • •

5. I won’t store a Snicker’s bar in my glove compartment to prevent starvation in case I’m stranded in snow or have to wait a long time at a red light.

6. I won’t buy canned frosting and ask my boyfriend to eat it while I watch.

7. I won’t substitute Spam for my Easter ham. Period. End of discussion.

8. I won’t serve poutine (more when you get to No. 13) to guests.

9. I won’t pry the lithium battery out of my Weight Watcher’s scale again this year.

10. I won’t buy peanut butter. Sorry. Scratch that.

11. I won’t eat peanut butter from a butcher knife. A bread knife is OK though.

12. I won’t promise anything I can’t do. So No. 2, the one about poutine, I’m having some second thoughts. Cooking Light has a great recipe for poutine, an ingenious French Canadian dish made of French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds. It’s a good workout for the heart muscle, I’m pretty sure. So poutine’s OK too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Happy Birthday Jim! and Happy Anniversary Rae! and a little more Free Fall

A fabulous picture of Jim,
who celebrates a birthday today.
Credit: Ruth Schneider,
photographer and good friend


Our first time alone together was on the phone. It had never been just you and me.

I was at the beach in Rockport and you were in your Chelsea apartment eating toast. Hurrah for the cell phone. We planned the call after you sent an email on December 2, 2005, that said, “I want to talk.” I thought, “Oh how sexy is that?” Two days later, December 4, we talked. It was, as you well know, unseasonably warm.

Before I forget the obvious: Lots has happened since. Lots has changed.

What has not?

Try this exercise: Say anything. Go ahead. Say it’s raining. Say you are running out to put quarters in the meter. Say my vegetable soup is fuckin’ delicious. I look at you and think, “How sexy is that?” You talk. I like.

I credit your 67th birthday with our love affair. It’s the anniversary of your birth, yes, but also of ours. For as long as we are a “we,” I will love your birthday. Cake! A martini!

So sad that I’m in Rockport and you are in Chelsea. What’s a martini without Jim? You know the answer. I abstain.

2010. Five fast years hence. I knew it would be like this, speedy and fun and a little daunting with all the changes.

2010, where “new” is supplanted by “cherish.” Where the sound of your voice lives in me like a second heartbeat. Where “voice” continues to be the glue. Where, when I hear your tired voice on the phone saying “sleep well” late at night, I hear your sexy bed voice.

December 2. Happy Birthday. Happy Anniversary. Happy. For as long as we are.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

That loving feeling!

During the holidays, we go
to great lengths to recapture
that sense of joy and connection
we first experienced as children.

Here we are once again. The holidays. They bring us home. We might not really travel home and we might not define the destination as home. But we are programmed to want those places in our hearts and our thoughts where love resides. We want to re-experience old and pleasing connections to community. We need and want that feeling of belonging. And though most of us move on, relocate, create new families and select new friends, we invest great energy in building familiar networks. And now here we are, for a month or so, returning to the touchstone. It’s as if we can really go back – to that feeling of kin all about us. The warm bed. The full belly. The prospect of another incredible tomorrow. That place where we learned how to love.

Holidays slow us down enough so we can notice that, in fact, such feelings of community exist all about us. I found it again last night at Cape Ann Cinema in Gloucester, Mass. The cinema is located in a big room above a used record store. It’s a quirky movie theater run very well by a young man named Rob with longish hair and a passion for cinema.

Here are five reasons to celebrate places like this, where the makings of a joyful community are generously and cleverly provided. Forgive the political statement, but it’s a perfect fusion of commerce and community. More like this, please!

(1) Multi-purpose movies

Improves reading skills (subtitles): The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Transports us to new places: The Secret of Kells. Makes us think: Freakonomics. Helps others: Race to Nowhere (education fundraiser). Provokes laughs: Four Lions. Gives us art: Shakespeare in Cinema—Love’s Labour’s Lost and Opera in Cinema—Valkyrie.

(2) Something for every body

A big room full of couches, comfortable accent chairs, recliners, even wooden desks for those with perfect posture or type A personalities. You can’t help but get comfortable!

(3) Popcorn

Per the owner: “Half the oil, organic, delicious.” More to the point, per me: I’d go to this theater just to eat the popcorn. It’s also half the price of the chains and includes about 20 types of seasoning. There’s a stack of big bowls so you can each have your own bowl of popcorn. For popcorn buffs and control freaks, this feature alone is worth the price of admission.

(4) Feeling “tucked in”

No blinding overhead lighting. Floor lamps strategically positioned. As previews draw to a close, proprietor quietly moves about the large room, turning off a lamp here and there. A gentle refocusing and there you are, in the dark and engaged with your movie. Wait a minute, is that a fleece blankie I see on the back of the recliner in front of me?

(5) Among friends

We sit among neighbors, family, friends. This is quite different from stadium seating that positions us so we don’t even see each other. Here we are just one big living room of like-minded people. When we leave, we help each other with our coats and hold the door for each other.

And we all say thank you to Rob, who, it seems, never lost that loving feeling!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How I Review Books — or — Do I Need a 12-Step Program?

• • •
You can attend readings every night in New York City.
More, if you are so inclined. This reading, at Word in Brooklyn,
was in a hot, crowded basement. The editors came
with the authors and served wine and cookies.
Jim & I were lucky to get seats.
• • •

Anna Quindlen, the former NY Times columnist, once said that her work gave her the opportunity to deeply consider what might have otherwise been a trivial or passing moment, event or experience. Writing — thinking in a careful and deliberative way — allows you to draw out the significance of what interests you in that moment. Otherwise, she said, whatever it is would pass as unnoticed and unremarkable.

The same can be said for reviewing books. It’s a great way to get into the book and formulate a considered understanding.

The process is labor intensive. I saw this from a new perspective last year when I attended a few panel discussions led by some of the country’s leading book bloggers. They are a lively and passionate group. Many are young mothers who squeeze the work into crazed schedules. Authors and publishers seek bloggers out because they can get a buzz going. To help that along, authors like to arrange “blog tours” in which a different blogger reviews their book each day or week. Managing requests and scheduling reviews are among book bloggers’ tasks, along with the hard work of getting review books from publishers.

This blog entry explains my system for reviewing a book a week. Other freelancers perform a version of this method. What I detail is but one small part of an enormous writing/production/marketing effort that concludes when you reach for a copy of “Decline of Fishes” by Gloucester, Mass., author Peter Anastas, the book I reviewed this week.

One. Finding out about new books

Most people review books that have come out within the last few weeks — while they’re still on bookstore shelves and in the “new” section in libraries. I relax that rule on occasion because most books can be purchased online.

I usually get to one reading a week. Here in Manhattan, authors on book tours pass through like water under the George Washington Bridge. My hometown library and Toad Hall bookstore — in Rockport MA — also present excellent and ambitious reading series. Sometimes I hear the author I am about to read. I take notes and quote him or her if it’s appropriate.

To stay one step ahead, I subscribe to Publishers Weekly (around $170 a year) and I also read the NY Times book reviews during the week and on Sundays, along with a host of other publications including the NY Review of Books, Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly, the New Yorker, New York, and more. It takes a big chunk of time to go through the papers and magazines I’ve accumulated over the week. Friends, NPR, authors via email, conferences, and the entire online world provide information on new books. I still go to libraries and bookstores and enjoy browsing. Despite all this, many local and regional books never get any notice at all. That’s where I come in.

Two. Ordering books

Requesting books from publishers requires a system. Publicists, publishers, email and mailing addresses come and go. Finding contact information from a publisher’s website is sometimes like mining for coal. You have to go deep. Some still want requests in writing – faxed or mailed on your publication’s letterhead. Others accept emails but reply only if the book is in trouble. Publishers are far more careful about who they mail review copies to in these hard times. Time, patience and persistence are key to the reviewer’s success obtaining review copies.

Three. Reading the book

If I don’t get the book I ask for, often I’ll buy it. I review books I want to read. It’s fun and easy to write clever negative reviews but I see myself as an advocate, not a teacher or critic. I do include criticisms and I do review the books of people I know.

I start reading the book I select on Wednesday evening or Thursday. I divide the number of pages by the number of days I have to read the book. If I skip a reading day, I have to read twice as much the next day — usually late afternoons and after dinner. As wasteful as it is, I mark up books.

Four. Writing the review (more on this next time)

It takes me two or three hours to write a review. I save the last chapter to read before I write so that I can get my head back into the book and I look over my notes. I file my review before noon on Wednesday.

Five. Posting the reviews

Once my review is published, I’ll often post it on Amazon, Scribd, my own website, etc. When papers outside of the area publish the review, I get Google Alert notices. I go to one of the websites displaying the review, copy the URL, shorten it using and then post the link on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I must send the link, and sometimes the hard copy to the publishers, though they, too, use Google Alerts to track books/authors.

Six. Distributing surplus books

I donate books I don’t review or haven’t marked up to the Rockport library. They can shelve these or sell them at one of their fundraisers. Books I’ve marked up, I take to the fabulous Rockport transfer station. They have a small building dedicated solely to book swaps.

For most professional reviewers this process is rote. Many take book assignments and do not go through this process. I prefer selecting the books I review so that I can pay attention to some of the local and regional authors who might otherwise go unnoticed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why I review books every week for free…and usually pay for them myself

The Happy Hooker and friends at a reading
to sell books at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan.
Many books are sold outside of bookstores.

We want to believe that good books rise to the surface, that good books will find the readership they deserve. Yet I know that’s asking a lot of books these days.

Consider the following (culled this morning from the Web):

o About 300,000 books are published each year in the United States. Approximately half this number includes textbooks and other non-consumer books.

o Publishers Weekly, a go-to publication in the industry that reviews books about 3 months before they come out, reviews about 7,000 titles a year or less than .04% of new consumer books.

o A handful of large publishing companies account for nearly 80% of all U.S. book sales. A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies; nonfiction 7,500 copies. The “average” book sells 500 copies.

o About half of the books meant for retail sales are sold in bookstores. Less than a quarter of new books are sold online, though this number does not include e-books.

o A typical Barnes and Noble store stocks about 150,000–200,000. Only half (or fewer) books aimed at consumers get into bookstores. And even if the bookstore carries a new book, it probably won’t stay on the shelf for long.

Note: I didn’t fact check though I used figures I found cited in a number of sources. I also noted that Web users quote from each other. One number, reported authoritatively, can wind up in untold number of documents. Further, I looked at postings from 2008 on. As you know, what’s listed above is changing as we speak. I’ve read this week that Amazon/Kindle claims great strides in e-book sales and further declines in “real” book sales. On the other hand, some in the industry claim that Amazon’s figures are misleading. FYI: Re. paid books available at Amazon: For every 10 books Amazon sells, it sells 6 Kindle editions.

Yet I point to these numbers for the statement they make, generally, about getting a new book into readers’ hands.

What the numbers suggest is that most books get very little attention from “traditional” print media sources — magazines and newspapers. And a large number of new books never make it into bookstores. Despite the realities, most authors are sorely disappointed when they realize no one is going to review their book and they can’t even find their book listed on Amazon, much less sitting smartly on a B&N bookshelf.

Authors need help getting the word out. Even the local papers, as desperate as they are for readers, refuse to publish book reviews. This lack of advocacy for the written word perplexes me. Shouldn’t newspapers and magazines be in the business of celebrating books and writers? Isn’t a book reader more likely to be newspaper reader?

I once interviewed a bookstore proprietor in New England. In the course of our discussion, I mentioned that a new book by a writer just down the street from her store had just been published. She had no idea.

True, the author could have stopped by but this conversation made an enormous impact on me. Publishing a book is way too much like that proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.

An author spends years of his/her life writing a book. An editor takes it over and spends a good many months on the review and editing process. Other experts — marketers and booksellers and graphic artists — are called in to further the publication process. Trees are cut down, ink is poured into press reservoirs and books are printed, packaged, shipped and …. sold??? A book is perhaps one of the most undervalued products in our degraded economy.

Why are newspapers and magazines important to authors? There are plenty of arguments that say social media is the way to get the word out these days. Yes, it probably helps, especially if you’re savvy in these ways and more so if your audience is tweeting and posting to Facebook regularly.

But printed book reviews are still very important because many book readers still read newspapers and magazines. Did you know that as many as 80% of families did not buy a book this year? The pool from which authors draw readers is already ridiculously shallow. Authors need a hand from the obvious places, places where readers already turn.

Since that discussion with the independent bookstore owner, I’ve made it my mission to review books by local and regional authors. For years I received a stipend for my weekly reviews but that has since changed. I work for a different, larger newspaper chain now and I no longer ask for compensation for my reviews because I am afraid my weekly column will no longer appear if the newspaper editor is expected to pay for it from her dwindling budget. Further, because of cost cutting at book publishers everywhere, getting review copies is much more difficult. I end up buying most of the books I review for free!

Next time

I’d like to write my next column about what goes into producing these weekly gratis book reviews. I’ll do so if I’m not distracted by something else that requires blogging.

If you have something to say about book reviews, by all means, please post a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hairdresser Appreciation Day

The first person I told about my love affair was Jeffrie, my hairdresser.

Jeffrie was 250 miles away from where I was conducting this secret, inspired affair, so I stopped everything, found a note card in a corner market, and wrote him.

Jeffrie. Thank you for the gorgeous haircut. I’m in NYC — just went to a Fifth Avenue gallery opening — and everybody had great hair. I want you to know that mine’s better. But, oops, it’s getting a bit roughed up at the moment. Wait! Yes! It still looks great! More later.

If context is needed, here it is: My mother, upon giving birth to me, took one look and screamed. “Good god. I’ve delivered an ape.” It was the only time she ever fainted.

I come from a family where hair has a mind of its own. It’s more untamed mascot than crowning glory. Hair billows from our heads at the rate of an inch a month. It explodes up and out and not so much down. The hair goes in all directions like … well … like nothing else, though tornadoes and grizzly bears come to mind. We could smother a lover with a toss of our head. The Padilla elders, therefore, had no choice. They seized one of the daughters, smuggled her out of her college dorm, and forced her into hairdressing school. She was installed in a special room they added onto the garage and put in charge of Padilla hair. My mother drove me there on Saturdays and said: Do something. My resentful aunt threw scissors into the maelstrom and we Padillas got one version or another of the family shearcut.

Jeffrie, though, never flinched when I walked into his salon after an especially bad drubbing on Boston’s renowned and pricy hairdresser row — Newbury Street, of all places. “I can make you look prettier,” he said. I loved his attitude and I loved the thousand layers that seemed to say to my Padilla hair: I see your inner beauty. But you must comply.

My mother, upon giving birth to me,
took one look and screamed.
“Good god. I’ve delivered an ape.”
It was the only time she ever fainted.

I tended to Jeffrie like I would an African violet or a slow-stirred risotto — dutifully and with great regard. I made a habit of searching high and low for the best birthday card on the face of the Earth. I did this once a year for one person only: The man who knew how to cut my hair. He got 20 percent tips, even if he was the salon owner. He got my best stories. He got all the praise I could muster. He got 100 percent of my loyalty.

Well. The love affair moved from secret to out-in-the-open to cohabitation. During this three-year period of the total destruction of my old life and the slow and scary restructuring of a new life, I realized: Rae, you can no longer afford to make trips of 250 miles just to get your roots touched up or your bangs trimmed. You are going to have to find another Jeffrie.

Women. Believe me, I know the score. I’m a submissive in the Padilla school of hair control, otherwise known as complete and total annihilation of hair. Hair style, in my lexicon, didn’t exist before Jeffrie.

I thought there could be no other Jeffrie. Women have their Jonathans and their Suzanne’s and their Paulo’s. I had my Jeffrie. These are constants, like breath or chocolate or William Shatner. Pardon me. Hasn’t there always been William Shatner?

And there must always be Jeffrie. Unless you quit your job and move in with your lover 5 hours by trains south of Jeffrie’s salon beside a not-so-great sub shop.

After more than a year of transitional haircuts of all sorts, I’ve come to a state of peace with my newest hairdresser, a true artist named Lam. He is a sculptor of hair. He cuts three dimensionally, surrounding his client with mirrors and checking all angles as he works.

When I first began to talk with Jim about quitting my job and living on less, he asked me what expenses I thought I’d have. I didn’t say mortgage payment or car insurance, I said Jeffrie.

We all need the help of a few others to live our best, most accomplished life. I need an editor. A handful of amazing friends. My lover. My daughter.

And I need my hairdresser, the person who takes a look at me and says, “I see you as you want to be seen. I get it. I’m investing my effort, my reputation, all my considerable talents in you. Toss that head of yours. Go ahead. Forget yourself. I’ve got your back.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Book Rave: "Better Than I Ever Expected"

I am pretty sure that none of Joan Price’s books should ever go out of print (she writes about fitness and sexuality), but the one I value most right now is “Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex after Sixty.” I am her audience and I love the way she talks to me. She’s heartfelt, smart, caring and she knows herself and her subject extremely well. I wish everyone could own a copy of this book and I’ll explain why.

First -- “Better Than I Ever Expected” was published in 2006. I should add that Seal Press also published my book “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” and I admire this publisher very much. My enthusiasm shows but, the way I look at it, we owe it to the world to share good and worthy things.

What man who wants good sex wouldn’t read this
from cover to cover and then send Joan
a thank you note, chocolates and flowers?

Joan’s topics in “Better Than I Expected” include dating, “sexually seasoned women,” our bodies, fitness and exercise, sex as we age, sex toys and solo sex, ways to spice up your relationship, resources, lovemaking strategies (“stoking the fire”). And more.

Joan’s book is supposed to be about sex after 60, but a good deal of what Joan talks about has value no matter your age. If you think about sex and wish you knew more, if you value your sexuality and want some kind of orientation as to where you stand among your peers, or if you would love a little nudge to help you act on your sexuality a little more assertively, then log onto right now and order this book. Joan’s insights and her research will supply you with important support, grounding and knowledge. She writes from her own experience and from the point of view of the many people — regular folks and experts in the field — she’s interviewed for this book.

“Better Than I Ever Expected” is also a fun and engrossing read. Once you have it in hand, you’re not going to be able to put it down.

The day that Robert walked into my line-dance class, my hormones thought they were twenty years old again. His smile, fit body, and grace of movement caught my eye immediately.

Then, when he started to dance, his years of tap, modern dance, and ballet training were revealed in every movement, and I was lost at sea. His nimble feet, muscled thighs, and sensually mobile hips commanded my attention. I wanted to touch the inviting curl of chest hair that peeked through the open top buttons of his shirt. I met his dazzling blue eyes and pretended to breathe. For the rest of the evening, I kept losing my place in the dance I was teaching because I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Robert kept coming to class and danced into my heart.

And though Seal Press’s amazing books are for women and by women, I highly recommend that men interested in good hot sex pick this up. It’s a treasure trove. There’s a wealth of information here, but also, there’s a smart and well-informed woman who knows herself well explaining sexuality, physicality and sensuality from a woman’s point of view. What man who wants good sex wouldn’t read this from cover to cover and then send Joan a thank you note, chocolates and flowers?

I love books. I am quite happy when I have a book in my lap and a cup of tea or a glass of wine at my side. This is my comfort zone but it’s also a lively place of great discovery, adventure and entertainment. Naturally I think that books that have been out a few years — be it “Moby-Dick” or “Better Than I Expected” — retain and often increase in value. Joan has a new book coming out in the spring of 2011 and I’m excited for her and for her readers. But I hope no one loses sight of what we already have in hand.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Verboten? Not really

The "Exposing a Difficult Past" memoir panel
at the Brooklyn Book Festival Sunday.
From the left, Darin Strauss, Kathryn Harrison,
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Nelson George and Piper Kerman.

What is unmentionable in public is, nonetheless, fair game in print.

This past weekend I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival. One of their first panels sounded especially intriguing. A group of well-known memoir writers was to discuss what it was like to write about events most people don’t even speak of out loud.

I’m talking about such matters as a secret battle with depression and drug addiction, a family torn apart by AIDS, an upstanding woman’s year spent in prison, a cyclist’s death after veering into a writer’s car (from the writer’s point of view) and, most horrific of all in terms of societal taboos, a young woman’s sexual relationship with her father. Kathryn Harrison did this last thing and wrote about it in “The Kiss,” a book I’d reviewed in the late ‘90s when it came out. I also referenced “The Kiss” in my book proposal for “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” and considered it one of my models.

I couldn’t have known, but Harrison and I have more in common than just telling very personal things to the whole world.

When explaining why she wrote about her incestuous relationship, she said: I was blessed. I was totally unconscious about what I was doing to myself. I wrote without thinking about it and I didn’t think about what would happen.

People I meet are similarly curious: What were your intentions? What do your friends think?

I was a little more cognizant about my purposes than Harrison. I wanted to include erotica in “Free Fall” because I was having what could only be described as a torrid affair. And sexual activity was a catalyst to what followed — a total jettisoning of life as I had been living it for the past two decades.

The sex was fun and sobering at the same time. The element of abandon, something my lover Jim was aware was happening to me during sex, was something I could recognize as important and transformative. I could stop thinking, let go and just be. How novel is this state of being for a middle-aged woman! How pleasurable! Jim gave me this opportunity to let go of a very challenging existence and our sexual activity showed me the way.

The sex scenes in “Free Fall” are strategically placed and though brief they are explicit. I describe them not in graphic terms but in emotional and psychological terms. Sex, in this type of literature, is metaphor. I loved writing it and admit that I was and am very turned on by my own writing. I loved the times, as well, when I could present a completed chapter to Jim, with its erotic parts, to see what he thought. It was fun but, like Harrison, I simply didn’t think too much about it.

That changed when I discovered that my book had been classed as “erotica,” as I’ve written about before. My worries had to do with marketing my book, making use of my mostly male network of published writers and figuring out how to transition intellectually from selling a memoir to selling erotica. I was doomed with that classification, or so I thought. My publicist and editor did their best to help me adjust my thinking: Things are going to be fine. Not to mention, sex sells. It will be OK. You’ll see.

I’ve handled it. My male writer friends/colleagues disappointed me. They stayed away from endorsements or public gestures despite promises of help. Many men friends, on the other hand, wrote thoughtful letters about their own sexual lives and their positive responses. I’ve been interested and impressed by their openness. One thing I still worry over and work at: How do I stimulate sales? Well, we are all trying our best. Promotion, too, is another story for another day.

I still don’t dwell on the erotica in “Free Fall.” When asked how I feel about having such personal information shared publicly, I answer truthfully: I don’t. It was writing. I did it. It’s all there, between the covers, so to speak. And I’m out here, writing, living, moving on.

The sex belonged there. I did what a writer would do, or I should say, what I needed to do as a writer. There was and still is an unconscious aspect to it. I occasionally wonder if those sexual revelations are in any way defiant, anti-social aspects of behavior. I may appear contrite and conformist and gushy-grateful, but I’m counter-culture all the way.

A few months ago, I asked our library director in my town of Rockport what people were saying privately to her. Her answer: I’ve heard people wonder why you couldn’t have written it as fiction.

Like Harrison, much of my fiction is informed by my life. But I wanted to tell this story as truth in case there was one woman out there trapped by circumstances she thought she couldn’t escape. I wanted to show that you take what’s given and you use it to make a change. I wanted to show the value of sex. I wanted to say that sex matters and be heard. I own this story.

Sex is important. Or it can be. It is often the start of a new beginning whether or not we openly acknowledge it. Sex is, for women, probably one of the greatest of all life-changers right up there with education and having children. We meet a man (or a woman), we are attracted, we get intimate. Whoa! What power. What force. It’s all too much. So we create some rules around sex. Society gets a toehold. Order is established, more or less.

And books get written that challenge our tidy constructs.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A little like Durga

Durga has 10 arms, great compassion
and an ability to soothe
in times of stress. In other words,
like women everywhere, she is a equipped to multi-task.

Rae right now: Happy. Anxious. Focused. Hungry. Sore. Frustrated. Guilty. Tired.

Guilt is never not on the list. Pretty much the same is true of hunger. Always guilty. Always hungry.

I’m not bad at playing host to joy and misery all in the same 5-minute span. My memoir “Free Fall” is a good example of simul-emoting but I contend that most women are pretty good at simul-anything. This skill takes many forms, from multi-tasking to multi-emoting to multi-perception. Yes, children, we do have eyes in the backs of our heads.

Out of necessity (that is, because no one else is taking care of important business) we developed that part of our brains that allows us to multi-task. We routinely walk around with 50+ to-do items of unequal importance in our heads. Tasks range from remove rubber band from wrist … to blog (doing that) … to get plums and sea salt … to pee immediately … to get this cat hair off my black T-shirt before heading out for said salt … to inquire as to the status of my book proposal. And so it goes, from the petty to the life-altering all right here right now.

Think yoga: We are masters of the multi-task form. Do we not console and assert simultaneously? Do we not frost the cake as we lick the bowl? Do we not love a good simultaneous orgasm when we can get one? And whenever feasible, we seek the singular experience made up of eating and talking and drinking with friends. This experience is called Joy, with a capital “J.” If a kid or a lover calls while we are so engaged, sure, no problema, lay it on me.

Women don’t have to be told: We personify the mode known as many. Or, think myth and religion: Medusa, Hydra, the goddess Durga, Teotihuacan Spider Woman. Not all positive, to be sure, but when you’re multi-tasking the smile tends to strain. People notice.

Have you never seen a woman drive and apply mascara, for instance? Not recommended, to be sure, but there it is: X-treme multi-tasking as the world is my witness.

Mixing it up can be a healthy thing. Studies show that people who eat just one food at a time, protein, for instance, from their dinner plates before digging into the next thing, the starch component, for instance, have a greater probability of being psychotic.

I contend that researchers have a disproportionate need to identify links between food and behavior. Worse, they scour our psyches to find links between our mothers and our psychoses. So, caution, please. A pinch of salt when espousing scientific theories about eating behaviors or moms.

Just a few hours ago I realized I was experiencing what was looking more and more like a sleepless night. Oh well. I got out of bed at 4 am, stretched out on the couch, fidgeted, thought about things, got up, fed the cats, washed last night’s remaining dinner dishes, mulled the situation, petted a cat, on and on. I pouted. I sighed. I fretted. I enjoyed a good cup of coffee.

Life is complicated, more so as we age. Yet I’m calmer. The goal, perhaps, is an overlay of contentment as we push on, vacillate between conundrums, appreciation, guilt, frustration, pleasure. It’s all there all the time. Durga, with 10 arms and the wherewithal to intervene in stressful situations, lend me a hand.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Afterbite™, please

Q: Who goes to movies
in NYC these days?

A: Bedbugs

We are having a bedbug infestation here in NYC. It’s a fairly clandestine menace, worse than the Invisible Man, by far, but not as bad as that salmonella there in your egg whites.

To make matters worse, I’m scratching all the time. I hasten to add, it’s poison ivy. I got a case of it this past weekend while felling small shrubs, yanking out entrenched bittersweet and weeding the Rockport backyard. Like everything else, poison ivy has taken on a new vigor due to global warming. It’s more poisonous and more prevalent.

I look like a bedbug dining hall. Not good.

Even though it’s going up to 97 degrees today, I wonder: (A) Should I wear long sleeves? (B) Should I go to see the new George Clooney movie I had promised myself as a reward for waking up, going straight to my computer and dashing off an honest review of Tess Gerritsen’s newest suspense novel “Ice Cold”? For good measure, I cleaned the cat litter, worked on (this) blog and sent a book proposal to my agent. I deserve George Clooney.

Why all the hand-wringing about movies and the heat index?

(A) If you admit to bedbugs or look like you have bedbugs, your social life is over. I need a social life. Bedbugs are the modern-day version of shunning. Got bedbugs? Go away.

(B) Movie theaters have bedbugs and one in Times Square had to close to properly fumigate. Some people refuse to go to movies, or at least refuse to sit down once there.

(C) And here is a link, if you want to know more about the bedbug scare:

Routing out the bedbugs is expensive and exhausting, I would imagine. I’m not up to the task and therefore insist that no bedbugs traverse either of my thresholds. You would need to summon the zeal of a Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau if you intend to rid your domicile of the tenacious bedbug. You must hunt them down where they sleep, which is in dark crevices in secret places. They are the size of a lentil or thereabouts when mature and they are red, redder if they’ve just feasted on you. They can live a year without eating! And coolest of all, according to Wikipedia, they are traumatic inseminators:

All bedbugs mate by traumatic insemination. Because the female has no genital opening, the male pierces her abdomen with his hypodermic genitalia and ejaculates into the body cavity. Especially desperate males sometimes mistake other males for females and fatally wound the latter in the abdomen.

Oh please! Hypodermic genitalia!

Why are we worried about a little itching when there are hypodermic genitalia on the loose?

It gets worse. If you read this carefully, you will come to realize that there is such a thing as a desperate male bedbug, one that stops at nothing to ejaculate. These pierce-able carapaces we humans slather with moisturizers? They are ripe for the taking. For all we know, the male could be inseminating humans as we speak.

I cannot curtail my life in fear of the bedbug, however loathsome. I will probably get them. One in every 15 New Yorkers supposedly battled bedbugs last year. It’s probably worse now. But I’ll never tell. And if Jim tells he’s catsup to my bedbug. There are worse things than stealth inseminators, I guarantee.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tips for Better Literary Readings

• • • •
Author and audience members
at a recent reading
at Half King in Chelsea
• • • • •

Sitting through a literary reading when you can’t hear and the author isn’t really into it, as I did the other night at Half King in Chelsea, is more punishment than pleasure. I’m a bit of a literary event junkie. Readings are often free of charge and since I’m a book reviewer with a weekly deadline, it’s fun to scope out for myself what’s new and interesting. This accessibility to new books and authors is a genuine perk for those living in NYC.

I’m afraid that this style of lackluster presentation by authors is more common than you’d expect. A literary reading may be one of the last places where nose-thumbing at the all-mighty dollar is in full view. The anti-sell attitude, if you will, looks and sounds like this:

“I don’t need to notify friends and family of this reading. I don’t need to tuck in my shirt. I don’t need to think about what I am going to say. I don’t need to bookmark what I plan to read nor do I need to know what I will read. And I certainly don’t need to speak up or look up. Frankly I don’t need you people. I’m a published author, after all.”

That last sentence is, admittedly, mean-spirited supposition. I don’t actually know what compels authors to come to their own readings so unprepared and uninspired.

I’ve grown quite a bit as a reader, thanks in part to the honest feedback and help of friends. I’ve reversed my focus from putting my stage fright first to making it secondary to caring about my audience and wanting to entertain them. Luckily this effort was possible and my own way of managing is to dramatize the text as I wrote it and want it to be read by my readers.

On April 9 of this year I read briefly at my book launch in Rockport. It was — ta da — my first “Free Fall” reading. I barely looked up and I didn’t put energy into the reading. I heard about it afterward from friends. The basic message was: Try a whole lot harder.

A blogger who commented on the Half King reading Monday night (the performing author shall go unnamed here) interpreted the man’s demeanor as sincerely humble. How two people sitting in the same room could read a man so differently amazes, intrigues and delights me. This is proof that there is no truth, that there are a million stories for every second in time, that my well shall never go dry.

Some additional thoughts on reading out loud:

1. I need to get this off my chest. The Half King is a great venue for literary readings with one enormous caveat. They almost never invite women to read. Should I return? Should I give them my money for food and drink? Should I continue to review Sebastian Junger’s (one of the owners) books, as I have since he began publishing books? For me, this male orientation is serious bad business.

2. Now for the tips. Author: Look up. Take note of your audience. See who’s there and stay connected. Is someone getting antsy? Does someone dare look away from your scintillating story for even one second? Retrieve him! Read to him! Entertain that wandering mind till you have him safely back in the fold.

3. Apply due diligence to summoning the crowd. Consider filling the room your responsibility. Send out postcards, e-newsletters, news releases, emails, postings on Twitter and Facebook. Make fliers. The work is hard and you can never do too much.

4. Smile the minute you walk in the room and keep smiling. You can stop when you get to the passage about the baby seal being gutted by the great white shark. But when you turn the page, smile again. Let people know you’re happy to be there and happier still that they are there with you.

5. Do you tend toward unkempt appearance or physical ennui personified by slouching or a failure to shave? Take a hint from Lee Child, who has a furious reading schedule every year in the late spring. Buy one good shirt and one well-fitting pair of pants. Consider this your road show outfit and reprise it when called upon to address the public. It becomes something of a talisman that signals “Performance!”

6. Do you tend, as a jaded author, to wear a pall of ennui? Do you save your passion for the page or the sack? Give it up. Get lively for your tribe.

7. Use your finger, if necessary, to mark your place in the text so that you can LOOK UP. You need to know who’s listening and who’s not. You need to make genuine connections.

8. Read favorite passages that work. Read the same passage at other venues. Dramatize. People really enjoy being read to and entertained.

9. Don’t read for more than 10 or 15 minutes because people’s limbs start to fall asleep and their butts hurt. Also: Remember to start off by very briefly introducing your excerpt and explaining the characters and the setting.

10. There’s an odd whole-room pause the second you finish reading. If you want to take a few questions, wait for the applause and then wait a little longer. People need time to collect their thoughts and formulate their questions. I often try to help out by saying something like: One of the most often-asked questions I get is…. That always gets the questions coming.

11. Know in advance how you will inscribe the book. I now write: Enjoy the free fall. (It’s a line straight out of the book.)

12. Never forget that people have traveled to see you. Leave your humility at home and work for them.

13. If you are a man, and you happen to score a reading at Half King, here’s an extra tip: Authors must compete with a thunderously loud drinking crowd on the other side of the wall. And the sound system is not very good. Practice projection and articulation. Make good use of your manly voice.

14. Follow up with thank you notes to the bookstore or library, the person responsible for choosing to book you, and anyone who helped you make the event a success. Sometimes I even bring some wine and cheese when I know I’m going to have a crowd that’s made up of primarily friends and colleagues.

15. Finally, the reality is that you are one of the key hand-sellers of your book. Even seasoned, best-selling writers call up their regional libraries and ask for readings. You do this not just for the book, not just for your readers but for your long-term platform as an author worthy of consideration.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mad at Runner's World

Fabulous running
along the Hudson River Parkway
at the newly restored Chelsea Piers #61 and #62.

Women who exercise and age — and I’m guessing that’s a fair number of women — don’t have much to go on beyond common sense when it comes to determining safe and healthy ways to stay fit.

Magazine articles about women’s fitness avoid anything that remotely suggests there could be an arc (an upside and a downside) to the body’s ability to condition, train, and strengthen or that there may be ways to adapt to the realities as we age. And when I say downside, I mean the inevitabilities that come with living a long life such as arthritis, use of oxygen, changes in metabolism, etc. I believe magazine editors avoid such articles because they think it’s bad for circulation — readership numbers.

Is it wrong to suspect that the only valuable readership is a young readership?

Case in point: Runner’s World (online) just published a column ( by Kristin Armstrong (Lance’s ex-wife). She complains about age-related problems like a spot of fat somewhere in the hip vicinity but she vows to go on running, regardless of age-related infirmities such as this. She’s 36 years old. Aging is only acceptable if it’s not very old.

Runner’s World deserves serious censure for this sort of tactic but they are hardly the only ones. Even magazines like More, which is aimed at older women, target not exactly older women but women in their 40s at the oldest.

Commentary on Armstrong’s piece was predictably polite. Even in disappointment, women lead with grace. We need to get a lot more vocal if this is the best the magazine we’ve subscribed to for most of our running careers can do.

Sidebar: Stuck with a less-than-perfect running bra

I am a feminist who would never think of burning her bra. And from what I’ve read, bra burning was more myth than fact.

In fact most women runners embrace the bra though finding a good running bra isn’t easy. You have to turn to catalogues and reader reviews for the most comprehensive selection, which means trying them on and finding a good one can take months.

Most women with large breasts (I know whereof I speak on this matter) are not thoroughly pleased. Recent studies clarify what we’ve known for years. Our breasts aren’t easily contained! With continual impact they move in a figure 8, which isn’t the up/down motion bras were designed to handle. [note: I remember seeing such a figure 8 performed by a stripper in “The Graduate.” Who would have guessed we all have that capability?]

While these clinical studies and facts don’t enhance the romantic notion of the breast, we must muscle on. The study of the breast is important and with this particular finding, perhaps a better bra is not far off. Here’s the whole story:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Goodbye, again

Some of Betsy and Ed's guests
are pictured at a reading in their home.
Jeanne Peterson, who wrote "Falling from Heaven,"

and I read from our books and answered questions.

Thirty-five years is a long time. It’s a lifetime, for example, as far as my daughter is concerned. It’s also the amount of time Betsy and I have been friends. I mark this time less in years and more in seconds. Betsy has been a continual presence, even if she now lives in San Diego — a good 2,500 miles West as American Airlines flies.

There’s no such thing as always but that’s the way I think of Betsy. “Betsy and I always eat good food when we get together.” “We talk a lot.” (always is implied) “Betsy and I have a phone date at 4,” I tell Jim in such a way as to mark the occasion sacrosanct. “Here we go again,” I tell Betsy, “speeding up every time we talk and walk.”

Continuity is not really part of my life experience. I carry almost nothing from the first 17 years of my life. Running away from home and staying hidden till you reach 18 meant, for me, taking whatever I could carry in one small suitcase. Since then, I’ve made major moves across several states, changed jobs several times, and practiced serial monogamy most of my life.

Without a grandmother’s attic in which to find the old clothes and photographs and artifacts that stitch continuity into a life, I tend to think more in chapters than scenes, more in ends and beginnings than in transitions.

Betsy is far more than a yardstick, of course, though today I’m not wise enough or awake enough to think deeply and creatively about the rich and complicated nature of our friendship. That’s more of a book, actually, and Betsy and I have, in fact, read books about long friendships like ours.

I should clarify: Betsy’s not a yardstick in any metaphor I use to think about our friendship other than the comforts of continuity. I do see how I’ve grown whenever Betsy and I have a rare chance to be together face to face. On this visit I thought: I’m almost worthy now. That’s saying a lot.

It may not be friendship enhancing to say this, but Betsy is a lifeline. I wouldn’t know what to do without her. She knows me. She supports me. She comforts me. I don’t want it to be one-sided. I try to give back. The other day I gave her a nifty roll of doggie poop bags. Another time it was some dessert wine from a winery in central California and a delicious olive oil from Los Olivos. I give her things I value — exalted status of best friend, an introduction to Jim, whatever time she should ever want to discuss the novel she’s working on. Anything, really. Just ask.

The trip West is complete. Betsy and her husband Ed are more deeply embedded in my heart than I imagined possible. As I turn my attention to far less interesting matters than Betsy and Ed’s incredibly meaty, sweet heirloom tomato varietals, I do so feeling a little stronger and a little humbler at the same time.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Safe on Sunset Cliffs

Now that I’m in San Diego, I go out early in the morning for my runs. I’m up and cruising down the hill shortly after sunrise. I make a left at the bottom and I’m on Sunset Cliffs, here in San Diego. Jim is behind me, walking.

Theses cliffs and environs are good for both early exercise and sunset viewing and lots in between, such as surfing and pervert antics and hailing the wonders of whales and/or the green flash. The green flash may be myth or maybe not. It’s a purported flare up that happens just as the last of the sun slides below the Pacific horizon.

Though I’ve never seen the green flash, I’m pretty sure I saw the pervert who’s lately been harassing women runners on Sunset Cliffs. He’s an idiot who likes to try and humiliate women.

I sighted him a couple of days ago at 6:30 a.m. Granted I was stiff and tired from all the travel and anxieties I play host to, but I recognized the man and his suspicious behavior.

He has a bit of a baby face, wears a stocking cap and pulls down women’s running shorts and their underwear. While I’m sure that my own underwear are going to stay exactly where I put them, given my age, I retain the vestiges of female wariness. Tell me there’s an underwear-puller-downer in the neighborhood and I am going to keep my eyes open and my iPod volume lowered to a whisper.

My friend sent me a composite drawing of the man that the police issued just before we got here. I studied the picture and saved it to my laptop, should I need to refresh my memory before a run.

I was on the return trip to my friend’s home, still on Sunset Cliffs, when a beautiful, muscular young woman with blond hair passed me going in the same direction. She got out in front of me by a few yards when a man with a stocking cap appeared from one of the parking lots and began walking toward us on the path.

What I deemed suspicious was the way his eyes covered every part of her. If nothing else, he was rude to the point of belligerence. Aggressively scanning. Taking possession. Offensive. Disgusting.

Then he caught sight of me, noting his stocking cap, his baby face, his predator’s stench.

The young woman sailed past him, unaware, lightly breathing the delicious salt air. Her vision was trained on her panoramic view as she experienced that exhilarating sense of powerful self that comes with physical activity well done. Today there would be no blindsiding, no rude shock, no deconstruction of self.

Me, I had rehearsed this moment and did as I had tutored myself should I happen to run into this creep. I lifted my ear-bud speaker to my lips and said, “Hello? Hello?” Not original but effective all the same. Western women are fortunate. We have the support of friends and police and society. If we are abused or feel endangered, we can ask for protection and we get it.

There will always be predators and perverts. But there is a system of fairness and rules in place here in the United State. It hasn’t been easy. I remember a time when an accusation of rape was heard with suspicion and blame. But much has changed since the ’70s when I worked with women in my city to help educate our local police force.

What can we do, here in our gorgeous enclaves, to help other women much less fortunate? A recent Time magazine cover showed the mutilated face of a beautiful young Afghan woman. Her husband has sliced off her nose and ears because she tried to leave him after he’d abused her. His actions were supported and sanctioned by the locals, who helped hold her down. Afterward she was left to bleed to death.

Here some jerk in a cap pulls down a woman’s shorts and police issue an all-points bulletin. As it should be, of course, but consider the inequalities among women still.

So on I ran, past the perverted man and the danger and the need for hyper-vigilance. Intoxicated by the endorphins, I moved to reinforce the moment with a large shot of espresso at the small café. Jim met up with me and we made our way back to Sunset Suite and our dear friends.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Intolerant Voyager: Notes from the Pacific Surfliner

There’s nothing like travel on a crowded train full of Dodger’s fans to force you to turn your vision inward and think profound thoughts. Such as:

I just invented desperation meditation. I do this in a hurry when the little wired man in the train seat in front of me bounces in his chair. As a consequence, his seatback pummels my laptop lid as if it were a basketball. Mr. Bouncy goes at it for six hours. (Oh, pity the girlfriend.) I don’t need to be told this, but he announces on the 5.45-hour phone call he’s conducting — in such a way as to include all of us in the scintillating conversation — that he quit his psyche meds. And he feels much better now. Phew. That’s a relief.

Messages on Facebook and on my blog site from friends who’ve taken the time to read my blog or book are better than Christmas presents. Materially I have everything I need and want. What writers need is a two-way conversation between their work and their readers. Thank you. And, yes, it’s possible to read bouncy text between cleansing breaths.

It pays to travel business class on Amtrak when you’re in sardine mode. You get free wine, something fun wrapped in a big cellophane bag called snack packs that have great nuts and fruits and a smiling conductor who walks by and says, “Help yourself to the coffee in the urn in the front of the car.” Hey, Amtrak makes delicious coffee! Hide it from Mr. Bouncy.

We pass San Juan Capistrano. There’s a restaurant dug into the cliff and hundreds of people crammed together in similar sardine fashion, though their chairs appear to be plastic and mine is quite comfy. They await the sunset, at which time they will rise up, cheer and clap. I see they are geared up and ready because they wave and holler as our train of travelers zips past.

Why would anyone cram into a plastic chair amid hundreds of plastic chairs to watch a sunset when there are hundreds of miles of empty coastline from which to view the recurring miracle?

We love our fellow man. We crave proximity. Why didn’t we build the extended family into our lifestyle? Why are we so all alone?

Alone? Look around. Who’s alone?

Nevermind. Look at that gorgeous ocean. Good lord. That unique turquoise-blue water. That soft warm sand that firms as you near the surf. Look at all those runners and walkers and cyclists, hundreds of them, exercising their bodies on a hard, dusty path on the other side of the road. Does this make sense?

When did moving the body get put into a 45-minute slot between dental hygienist and paying bills?

For the record, you go numb from the feet up when you are wedged into a seat for six hours, no matter how comfy the seat. It takes about two hours for the paralysis to reach your brain. No prob. I keep my lips going with regular sips of free California Cabernet. This is good stuff.

There are too many people. Jim says it too. I see thousands upon thousands of coastal homes of all sorts (mobile and otherwise), from LA to San Diego. And on the decks and porches and front yards of these homes I see people in bathing suits. Lots of bikinis. One possible naked person. The people recline, for the most part, on chaise lounges. They have suntans and a week to decompress before revving up again. Did we mean for this to happen to us?

And now, encamped, finally, in the spacious Sunset Suite, at the home of my best friend of 35 years. Wow. Amazing. I arrive with a radical haircut I hate and didn’t ask for, much like the asymmetrical Sassoon cut I had the day we first bumped into each other at UNH with babies and fulltime college course loads. What’s really amazing is that she loves me because of my stupid haircuts, slew of crises and all the eccentricities. I love her for her brains and beauty and hard work and her drive to give back the best she has to offer, which is a lot.

Yes. Made it. Safe now. In the arms of loved ones. Where we all long to be.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Selective Recall

Let me set the scene:

Chaucer’s Books, Loreto Plaza, Santa Barbara. 7:07 p.m. Wednesday, August 11. I’ve begun my reading with three pages from “Free Fall” that describe a pleasant visit I had with my father two years before he died. A nice audience has gathered amid the tables of books and I stand and read to them.

And now, the story:

I look up now and then and see, watching me, a man who had positioned himself just slightly away from the rest of the crowd. He was well dressed and fit and had a look on his face that told me he carried a secret, something important. I would have to be patient and wait.

After the reading people came forward, one at a time, picked up a book and we chatted as I wrote personal notes and signed the title pages. The last one to approach was Alastair, the man with a secret.

“You and your mother wrote me a card, do you remember that? It was addressed to “The Lepidopterist.”

“I don’t remember.”

“I was your brother’s best friend. We used to hunt butterflies together.”

“Oh! Scott taught me how to hunt butterflies.”

“And I taught Scott.”

Thus…The Lepidopterist. A man who brought some beauty into the lives of a family bent on ruin.

Alastair was one of several who approached after having read an essay I had published the previous Sunday in the Santa Barbara News-Press. They came because they had some connection they wanted to share, some memories about our distant past. I had to tell every one of them: I don’t remember.

“I understand,” said Alastair. “I saw what was going on there. I had some idea.”

People were kind. “I am the gardener’s daughter.” “Your father could throw a ball, I must say.” “You moved to my neighborhood just when your father…he was a Marine?...came back from the [Korean] war.”

They never mentioned the neglect, the doors kicked in, the little girl who crawled out of her window in the middle of the night to get away, the police – six at a time – showing up at 2 a.m., or even that they, probably, were the ones who called. These recollections are like shadow memories – not inscribed in great detail but cast in broad dark strokes.

I took their email addresses and phone numbers. “Can I write?” I asked. “Can I call?”

Can I remember? Will you tell me?

Afterward Jim said, “You should come back for a couple of weeks or months. Interview everyone.”

I see that the city I ran away from, Santa Barbara, was also the city that saved me. “You were such a free spirit, running around on the grass, playing in the park by yourself, doing whatever you wanted to do.” The gardener’s daughter told me that.

That’s the Santa Barbara I come home to. She gave me joy and beauty and companionship. So lucky I connected back then. Now that I’m back, that’s the part I remember most.