Oct 31, 2010

My New Favorite TV Show. You'll Be Surprised.

The other night I stumbled upon Billy the Exterminator on A&E, and I’m going to go out on a limb here to admit: I’m hooked. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a reality show a about a tough-guy exterminator who drives around greater Shreveport, Louisiana, in an enormous black Toyota Tundra pickup truck emblazoned with his company’s name--Vex-Con--on both sides, and takes on tough-guy exterminator jobs that include (but are not limited to) snakes, rats, cockroaches, crocodiles, foxes tearing up backyards, squirrels trapped in fireplaces, and in one unforgettable episode, a possum carcass rotting underneath someone’s house.

There is no job too large, too small, or too gross for this guy.

Billy Bretherton--that’s his name. He’s a former Air Force sergeant—I’m guessing he’s in his mid to late 40s—with a penchant for a black cowboy hat, thin wraparound black shades, black leather, chains and studs. Think Axl Rose meets the Orkin guy and you’ve got the idea. Though I’m not sure how I’d react if my Orkin guy showed up sporting motorcycle boots and a weird little goatee. It’d definitely make Thursday mornings more interesting around here.

Billy’s family co-stars with him and They. Are. Priceless. His mother, Donnie--a wisecracking Southern mama with excellent pouffy blond hair--calls Billy on the cell phone about every ten minutes with a new, challenging, and reliably disgusting or dangerous job, thus giving him the opportunity to slip in educational moments (while talking to her) about the biological or physiological risks homeowners will face if he doesn’t get there fast. (“A rotting animal under a house can be a breeding ground for bacteria and disease.”) There’s also Billy’s father, Big Bill, whose main purpose seems to be moping around in the background while he recovers from a recent heart attack and worries about the business end of things. Billy is often joined in the field by his younger brother, Ricky, who’s categorically stuck in 1985, layered, blond collar-length hair and all. Ricky is my favorite. I think of him as the biggest risk taker of the clan, since he’s apparently allergic to wasps yet, despite his mother’s frequent warnings to bring his EpiPen or wear a mask, consistently ignores her advice in favor of honoring his Inner Dude. In one episode he goes up in a cherry picker with Billy to destroy two wasp nests under the eaves of a hotel roof, with only his bare hands to protect his bare face. You can't help thinking, if this guy is really at risk for anaphylactic shock, is he crazy? Or dumb? Or both?

Billy and Ricky call each other “dude” and “man.” A lot.

As with many reality shows, a fair amount of this one is probably scripted, but something about it feels like it has an edge of authenticity to me. For one thing, the critters all look real. (Anyone who actually knows me knows I have a lifelong phobia of rats, so I have to flip the channel whenever he pulls one out of a trap.) And sure, Billy is a character, maybe even an invented one, but Vex-Con does have what looks like a legitimate web site and business that could have predated the show. Or maybe it’s the gritty surroundings of semi-rural Louisiana that lend the show its credibility. Definitely the clients look real; this is no beauty pageant.When an elderly guy with a lung condition sheepishly drawls about Billy’s stomping, leather-and-chains arrival at his cockroach-infested trailer, “Well, he looked kinda scary but I knew he was the one for the job. He looked like he was ready to kill something” you have to at least hope a line like that wasn’t scripted.

Plus, these client scenarios—I’m not sure they could be invented. I always found it insulting to the collective intelligence when Jeff Corwin’s just happened to stumble upon a rare viper while trekking through the jungle with a cameraman. Corwin’s expressions of anticipation and surprise at those moments were so disingenuous the veil between real life and cinematic orchestration evaporated on the spot. But think about it: would anyone right-minded let producers infest their trailer home with 10,000 dead and living cockroaches just for six minutes of televised notoriety? Or stick a rotting possum carcass under their bathroom floor so A&E viewers can learn that their house smells really, really bad? I kind of think not.

I was a guest on an episode of a reality show about six years ago, back when these types of shows were still relatively new. Naively, I still thought that much of what we were seeing on these shows was real. So I was completely unprepared for the amount of stage direction that took place, like producers watching the action on a back-room screen sending orders into the cameraman’s earpiece about how to direct group conversations, and having to reshoot “natural” scenes to do them differently the second time. And this was a very well-respected, well meaning show. The premise was a group of women who wanted to change their lives for different reasons were put up in a mansion in downtown Chicago and assigned life coaches to help them achieve their goals. I was there because one of the women was a motherless daughter trying to find out information about a mother who had died when she was very young. She felt she couldn’t move forward in her life until she found out the details of her mother’s life and death. I was brought in to have dinner with her and the local Motherless Daughters group, and to then go back to the house with her and see some art projects she had made to commemorate her mother’s life.

The experience was decidedly more surreal than real. Oh, what the hell: I'll be honest. It was a total mind f&#*. It's like finding yourself at a board meeting completely different than the one you thought you were attending, and you have to learn the rules of protocol on the spot so you can play along.

At one point I was brought into a back room for an interview and was instructed to begin speaking a sentence with the opening line, “When she told me about her stepfather, I was thinking…” What I really wanted to say was, “When she told me about her stepfather, I was thinking, ‘This woman needs a good psychologist, not a life coach,” but instead I said something blandly educational about motherless women’s relationships with their stepfathers. I felt obligated to offer something helpful and useful and to sound like an expert, given that I’d been flown out to Chicago, fed a five-star dinner, and put up at the Hotel W for a night. In other words, I was deliberately not being real, because I was trying to please people who seemed to have a very clear idea of what they wanted me to say. But maybe I was dead wrong about that. Maybe being honest would have been better, and maybe that was really what they wanted, because whatever I said didn’t wind up making the final cut. If I’d been authentically myself in that moment at least I would have been speaking a truth instead of trying to participate in a form of packaged and manipulated truth that, in the end, isn’t very real at all.

All this is a long way of saying that I know reality shows aren't really “real.” Just like memoir, they start with the raw material of life (which is often slow and dull in its purest form) and are then shaped and edited it into a narrative package that entertains. The closest thing to a Real reality show I can remember was back in 1973, when PBS ran the documentary An American Family, after filming the everyday domestic dramas of the Loud family of Santa Barbara for seven months. Anyone remember them? I was only nine, but I watched it religiously. Over the course of the season the typical American family was exposed as the anti-Brady Bunch. The parents’ marriage started to unravel (whose wouldn’t, with TV cameras in your kitchen every minute?). Their oldest son, Lance, was revealed to be gay. By the end of the show, we realized that an experiment to give us all a peek into ordinary middle-class life had devolved into a very big mess. More sociological experiment than award-winning TV, the Loud family should have been our cautionary tale about what happens when you ask people to live authentically in front of a camera. We should have learned back then it can’t be done.

Of course, this begs the larger question “What is real?” if so much of what’s presented as “real” today is airbrushed, scripted, orchestrated, tweaked, shaped, stretched, or just made up? I don’t know. Maybe all we can ever know for sure is what we feel—the love we have for each other, the grief that comes from loss, the triumph from achievement, the despair from lack of hope, the fear of danger, the exhilaration of risk.

Lance Loud died in 2001 from complications from a crystal meth addiction, Hepatitis C and HIV. That's about as real as it gets.

Maybe this is why I’m liking Billy the Exterminator right now. Because once you strip away all the attitude and the bad hair and the “Dudes” and the shades, it feels like it’s just about a guy showing up to help regular people deal with everyday problems. Sometimes a dead rat in a trap really is just a dead rat in a trap. And maybe Billy’s are planted there, but the ones that we trap a couple times a year in the space underneath our bathtub are real. I know that to be true.

Not that I actually look at them, of course.

Oct 25, 2010

An Open Note to Kids in Topanga

It is NOT FUNNY at all to leave a rubber baby rattlesnake on the file cabinet in the upstairs office when Mom is home alone. Not funny at all.

Oct 23, 2010

The Thing About Fumiko

This Sunday's New York Times Style section will contain an essay I wrote about the week my 11-year-old daughter had to carry a flour-sack baby--whom she named Fumiko--to school with her every day--to learn about the responsibilities of teen parenting.
Crazy week in our house!
Here's the link to the article, titled Maternal Wisdom (5 Pounds Worth)...and a photo of the one and only Fumiko himself.
For anyone wondering, he and Hursula Zero (who appeared in The Possibility of Everything) do share a bedroom, but not a cradle.
I'm sure it says something about me that I keep writing about my children's dolls..but I'll leave that conversation for the Comments section.

Sep 21, 2010

Google as a Verb: Does It Replace "Remember"?

Driving from the Oakland Airport into San Francisco last week, I saw a huge billboard on the freeway advertising the show "Tales of the Maya Skies" at Oakland's Chabot Space and Science Center.

Being a Maya astronomy junkie, naturally I was intrigued. But I'd never heard of the Chabot Space and Science Center before, and I was traveling about 65 mph, in the car alone.

A couple of years ago, maybe even as recently as two, I would have fumbled around in my purse for a pen and scribbled the web site URL displayed on the billboard onto whatever scrap of paper I could find. Or maybe I'd just jot down "Cabot Science Center, Oakland" and call information, or look it up online later. Instead, I found myself speeding past the sign, thinking, "Oh, I'll just Google it tonight." I figured inputting "Maya" "museum" and "Oakland" all together would net the desired result--which it did, a few hours later in my hotel room when I remembered to look it up.

Now, you might think, What a cool thing technology is! How great that we have Google for this purpose! I'm not so sure about this, though. Because instead of writing down what I needed, or god forbid bothering to commit it to memory, I willfully chose not to remember information I knew I would later need. And it makes me wonder what such an automatic and cavalier dependence on search engines might do to my memory, or anyone's, over time. Will we not bother to remember certain pieces of data that were once natural for us to commit to memory? If so, will the vacuum be filled by something else, something useful or fulfilling? Or will we just naturally start devaluing the power of memory and instead evolve into a species that lives in a continuous present, with limited or radically different powers of recall? Would we be better off for this, or not?

As a memoirist, this intrigues me, and as a human being, well, it kind of disturbs me to think about. (Though over dinner in SF that night a friend pointed out that I still needed to remember to Google the keywords. So at least there's still that.)
I rely heavily on my powers of recall every day, but what if--assuming I were a frequent blogger which, as you've probably noticed, I am not--instead of having to remember the details of what happened last year, or even last month, I could just go into the search function on my blog and pull it up? I look at my daughters, ages 12 and 8, and can't help wondering: what kind of people will they become if they don't have to memorize data to succeed? If, in fact, your ability to retrieve data quickly and efficiently becomes more important than your ability to store it within your own mind? It seems to me that the way we use our brains will change. To some degree, I suspect this has already started to happen.

And don't even get me started about what texting has done to this next generation's communication skills and fluency with language. U really don't want 2 know.

Sep 7, 2010

The Target Story

Everyone's been asking how the Target selection occurred. Well, I don't really have an answer. From my point of view, what happened was one day I got an email from my editor saying "Good news! Your book was chosen as a Target breakout book for the fall!"

I can see how some writers might get the scared deer look upon hearing this. Target? Not a retailer exactly known for its literary prominence. Sheet sets, yes. Memoirs? Not so much.

But me, I was beyond happy. “Excellent!” I wrote back.

You see, I happen to love our local Woodland Hills Target. And the one in Coralville, Iowa, too. It's my family’s premiere source of one-stop shopping. Where else can you find ballet clothes, computer paper, blow-up mattresses for sleepovers because the old one just sprang an inconvenient leak, Brita water filters that really should have been replaced a month ago, tube socks, and classic rock CDs all under the same roof?

Well, probably at Wal-Mart. But I wouldn't know. Because I'm loyal to Target.

My excitement, it lasted for about half an hour. That’s when I got the email from MoveOn.org calling for a boycott of Target. (Sheesh, I couldn’t even get to celebrate for a whole day?) Seems that Target’s corporate HQ donated $150,000 to a group supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who's known to be anti-gay. And then my gay friends started emailing me to say, "Congratulations about Target. BUT." And coming from a family with several gay members, for me, it's a pretty significant BUT.

So I hope this all gets sorted out soon. Because I really do love shopping at Target. And I'm pretty sure no one at my local Woodland Hills Target was involved in the donation. But I voted against Prop 8 here in California. And I'd vote against it again and again.

If you’re boycotting Target, please consider buying The Possibility of Everything somewhere else. If you’re a committed Target shopper, please wave at the book when you see it there. Drop one in your cart if you’d like. Most of all, please enjoy the read.

Sep 6, 2010

The Possibility of Everything--newly out in paperback

In stores now. Online. And at your local Target. With a beautiful new cover, and an author Q&A and questions for Book Clubs inside.

The paperback retails for $15, which IMO is a much more reasonable price point for readers. Truth be told, I hardly buy hardcovers any more myself. But paperbacks, I can't resist. So here's hoping that potential readers of POE feel the same way.

Please help me spread the word! Here's a link to help you order the book online. You can also read more about the book here.

Huge, huge thanks to all the book's readers and fans. I know it states the obvious, but without all of you, authors are just...sitting around in our pajamas, drinking coffee, rearranging words on a computer screen that no one would ever see.

Well, our spouses and our grandparents would say what we wrote is good. But that's about it. So thanks for being around.

Jul 14, 2010

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Again

There’s an odd pleasure to be had from reading other people’s letters, particularly historical correspondence that captures both a character and an era. I relearned this today over at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library over in West Branch, Iowa, where I spent several hours reading years of letters between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.

Yes, that Laura Ingalls Wilder. The author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Although calling her “the” author takes some of the credit away from Rose, who’s widely believed to have been her mother’s ghostwriter and, based on the correspondence I read today, years earlier also functioned as her mother’s editor and writing coach.

That’s what brought me to the library. Sort of. Initially I became interested last summer at the Hoover Days festival, when a representative from the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Burr Oak, Iowa, (one of about five such places sprinkled throughout the Midwest, one in each place she ever lived) told me her daughter Rose’s papers were archived at the Hoover Library and that they included the ur-manuscript of all the Little House books, which Rose had divvied up and shaped into the series. Rose had been a biographer and friend of the former president; that’s why her papers are there.

All year, I’ve been planning to go the library to compare the original text against the final versions, mostly for my own edification as a nonfiction writer, editor and teacher. And then over the past few months, I’ve found other reasons for wanting to go, too. I’ve been considering doing some ghostwriting work—of which there’s a lot in L.A. right now, what with so many celebrity memoirs getting snapped up by publishers looking for big sales figures—and so am interested in how the Laura/Rose mother-daughter team collaborated on Laura’s life stories.

Also, I’ve been having a really tough time lately selling Eden on the merits of reading. Her reading level is appropriate for her grade, even a little above, but she just isn’t interested in chapter books at all. I’m on a campaign this summer to try to get her involved in stories, preferably in a series for children, and so I thought of starting with the Little House books, which I devoured when I was about her age. I seriously thought I was the reincarnation of Laura and even took to wearing a bonnet around the house. It didn’t hurt that I looked like Melissa Gilbert in the TV series (or so everyone used to say). At some point I wrote a letter to Rose, unaware that she’d already died, and received a typed letter in return that, naturally, I thought had been written especially for me even as my mother tried to explain what “form letter” meant.

So, back to the library. I showed up around 1:30 p.m. with two hours to spend, thinking I’d ask just to see the manuscript that developed into Little House in the Big Woods, which Eden and I are about to finish together, and to come back another day to look at the correspondence between Laura and Rose. But the librarian, Matt, convinced me to look at the whole collection which, I soon discovered, will take me about, oh, four years to read in full. He wheeled out six fat legal envelopes full of files—about four linear feet of material—most of it Xeroxed from the originals, and then ran back to retrieve the original manuscript of The First Four Years, the last book in her series. It’s kept wrapped in a complicated folder and was handwritten on grocery store writing tablets. He had to put on a pair of white gloves to handle it. I simultaneously thought, What the hell? and felt like crying from the sheer awe of it. Sort of how I once felt upon seeing handwritten royal decrees from the Middle Ages on display in the British Museum reading room, or a letter penned by Virginia Woolf in a manuscript museum.

For the next two hours I became completely absorbed in letters Laura wrote to her husband back in Missouri (Almanzo--remember the hunk who played him in the TV series?) when she went to visit Rose in San Francisco in 1915 by taking the train across the country, and then attended the Pacific International Exposition, as well as a few exchanges in which Rose encouraged Laura to write magazine articles about farm life and heavily edited her first attempt at publication. Rose secured Laura a $150 fee from Country Gentlemen for a her first published piece, about kitchen renovation. (I kid you not.)

But my favorite paragraph comes from a letter Rose wrote to her mother before that cross-country trip in 1915. Here it is:

“I bet the letter you wrote for grandma and Mary about your getting started to writing could be put verbatim into that “story of my life” thing. If I were you I’d have them save it and send it back, and I’d look at it with that viewpoint and see if I’m not right. I bet it’s better than you could do trying to write it for the story.”

“That ‘story of my life’ thing”--is that not the understatement of the day? A dozen books and millions of dollars in royalties later: yes. It was definitely quite the thing.

Jul 12, 2010

The Blue Bicycle

I’ve been in Iowa for a solid week now, time enough for quite a few things to happen. I could write about the amount of rain that’s come down on us in the past eight days; or how the Iowa River is at grass level in City Park and threatening to flood; or about how happy I am to be a pedestrian again for much of the day; or about the three-day road trip to Missouri that Eden and I just took to visit Maya at camp.

But what I really want to write about is my new sky-blue bicycle.

Eden and I found at a garage sale for $25 the day we arrived, and it’s precisely the bicycle I was looking for. Vintage, retro, recycled, the kind of bicycle that makes me happy just to look at but won’t send me into paroxysm of panic and guilt if it’s stolen. When I brought it to a bike shop in town that specializes in vintage items, they fixed the rear spokes and gave me a wider set of handlebars for a $29.41 bill, labor included. This is the bargain of the decade, folks.

All these years that I lived in Iowa City and have been coming back for summers, I’ve never biked around town. As a graduate student I had an early mountain bike (circa about 1987) and would sometimes go for long trips out in the country, riding past cornfields for hours. But to get to class or just around town? No. It’s kind of mystifying in retrospect, actually. Why didn’t I ever consider biking a valid form of transportation? Only now, twenty years later, am I discovering that a whole new world opens up to you when you cruise along at 12 mph.

For one thing, you make fast friends with the people at bike repair shops. When I brought the bike in on Tuesday to drop it off for repairs, the woman over at 30th Century Bikes—super short hair, piercings, tank top, tattoos, very friendly, the epitome of hip—confirmed my suspicion that this blue cruiser is, actually, just a little too small for a 5’8” person like me. But we agreed it was worth trying to make it work.

“It’s exactly the bicycle I was looking for,” I told her. “And how often in life do you find exactly what you want?”

She nodded. Possibly considered I might be pathetic for saying such a thing, but generally looked like she agreed. Then we debated the merits of replacing the tires this year or next. We decided next. She showed me how to date a bicycle by looking for an inscription on the wheel hub. Mine said 1950 but she explained that sometimes the rest of the bicycle is a few years newer than its wheel hub. The bike says Montgomery Ward on the frame (how fabulous is that?) and we discussed that it might have come from the catalog. Whee—I was learning a lot.

On the way back home (walking, this time) I stopped in Uptown Bill's Coffee Bar on Gilbert St. How is it possible that I’ve been coming to Iowa City since 1989 and never knew about this place? It’s like stepping into a time capsule, including the three tough guys reading the day’s paper at the square linoleum tables. The only tipoff that it’s 2010 is the espresso machine behind the counter.

I wandered into the used bookstore in the back—only in Iowa City would you find a random used bookstore in the back of a vintage coffeeshop—and B. came back to see if I needed any help. I noticed the NY tattoo on his forearm, and asked if he was a Yankees fan. Turns out he’s not, but he was a New York City homicide cop for 27 years before moving to Iowa. There’s bound to be a story there, but he didn’t want to tell all of it and it wasn’t my place to ask for the details. Sometimes being a writer means knowing which questions to ask, and sometimes it means knowing when to back off. So we talked about a dozen other things for the next half hour and then on a back shelf I found a copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which I’d been looking for since May. This pleased me to no end, and I bought it and promised B. I’d come back later in the week.

The bicycle was ready on Thursday, so after I dropped Eden off at camp I walked over to pick it up. When I walked by Uptown Bill’s B. was outside sweeping the sidewalk, so I stopped to tell him this reminded me of all the doormen in New York after a big snow, and then we talked about New York for another 20 minutes before I remembered that I was expected at the bike shop. So in the interest of time I took a shortcut the back way, through an empty alley and parking lot.

As I was walking south through the parking lot toward the shop, a man in an electric wheelchair came cruising north along the sidewalk on my left. Iowa City is something of a mecca for the physically and mentally disabled: it’s mostly flat, very accessible, and has a noticeably high number of group homes around town. You routinely see groups of disabled teens walking through downtown or the indoor malls with aides accompanying them. This particular man appeared to have some kind of palsy and he was alone. It was just the two of us back there. I watched him steer his wheelchair toward a break in the curb that sloped toward the parking lot…and from my angle I could see the opening was too narrow for his chair to fit through.

That’s when I started running in his direction.

What happened next happened fast. He turned the chair around backwards to back down the slope, but his left wheels caught on the curb, and instead of making a smooth transition down the slope the chair tipped wildly in my direction, as if it was going to dump him onto the asphalt. I stuck my hands out to catch him, but I was still too far away and running fast. Yet somehow, somehow, the chair righted itself. I swear to god, it felt as if my hands somehow pushed him back upright, even though
I was still a good fifteen feet away when it happened.

“That was close,” I told him, when I finally made it to his chair.

“That was close,” he repeated. His speech was garbled, but mostly intelligible.“Thank you for that.”

“No problem,” I said.

“Have a nice day!” he shouted, as he zipped away north.

I stood there for a moment, struck by the random encounter. Was it really random? A butterfly flaps its wings in China and…well, we all know that story by now. But here’s another one: a homicide cop in New York quits his job and a woman finds the book she’s been searching for for months. Or a woman buys the perfect $25 sky-blue bicycle in Iowa City, and by some strange twist of fate a man in a wheelchair therefore won’t tumble out onto the pavement alone and have to lie there without help.

I really think we’re all connected somehow, in an intricate matrix of interdependent relationships. And I have the feeling this blue bicycle is going to be the catalyst for some very unusual and interesting times. I just do.

Jun 17, 2010

June 17, 2010

Today is my 46th birthday. (As well as the birthday of Barry Manilow, M.C. Escher, Igor Stravinsky, my friend Nicolle's mother and, if rumor is correct, Jesus.) I post this not so I can solicit birthday wishes --though those are always nice to receive-- but because in the past few years, birthdays have become an odd and reflective experience for me. Definitely of the love/hate variety. Like any woman approaching a (ahem) certain age, I’m ambivalent about marking the passage of time. And yet at the same time, a big part of me never expected to live this long. My mother was 42 when she died, and until I turned 43, I could never imagine myself outliving her. Every year, every month, every day since 42 has been a gift.

How have I passed today? Well, by this point a birthday on a weekday is just another work day, and that’s pretty much what this has been. Took Maya to the dentist this morning, stopped at the mall for lunch and to buy a Father’s Day gift for Uzi, picked up Eden from the bus stop, dropped both kids at Uzi’s office, and hoofed it over to Culver City for the faculty meeting that kicks off the ten-day Antioch MFA residency. I felt completely dorky telling anyone it was my birthday, so I didn’t mention it. Buy my two kids think that having to work on one’s birthday is an absolute crime against humanity, and they’re cooking up something special for tonight. I know this because when I called home to say I was on my way, there was an unnaturally joyous, “Wow! Mom! Great!” and then a request to meet them at Topanga State Beach at exactly 6:40 p.m. instead.

It was only 5:15 when I called, so I’ve stopped in Venice at what used to be the Novel Café (and now looks the same but has an entirely different name) for a coffee and macaroon to pass the time. I got the smart idea to put some cinnamon in my coffee but the shaker released a whole lot of cinnamon all at once, so now I’m drinking a cup of cinnamon with coffee. It’s not bad, actually. Might even become an annual birthday drink, who knows?

I’m sitting at a round tiled table right in the window like a writer on display. Just outside the window two beach dudes are sitting on wicker chairs talking to everyone who passes by. One of them is wearing a pirate’s hat. The other looks like Thomas Hayden Guest with dreadlocks. I’m pretty sure it isn’t Thomas Hayden Guest with dreadlocks. He also has some pretty gnarly tattoos up both arms that look like a cross between Chinese symbols and death-metal threats. People are biking past, walking home from work, driving by with Lakers flags stuck to the window frames of their cars. It’s like a big, colorful celebration of life at 6 p.m. on a bright Thursday evening, and reminds me of when I lived on Washington Square and used to sit outside on the brownstone steps and watch the whole world go by.

I’ve got another twenty minutes before I need to get back in the car and find out what’s waiting at the beach. With Maya in charge, it could be anything at all. It’s so rare to have twenty completely uncalled for minutes these days, I’m not really sure how to spend them. Or actually, I do. It’s the novel café. And I’m supposed to be writing my first novel. So here goes. Twenty minutes. Birthday pages. Let’s go.

May 7, 2010

An Open Letter to Motherless Daughters on Mother's Day weekend

(My mother and I in Florida, April 1967)

On a Mother’s Day morning about eight or nine years ago, my daughter Maya, who was then still in preschool, surprised me with breakfast in bed. On the wooden tray she proudly thrust onto my lap was a cup of orange juice, a whole apple still cold from the refrigerator, and her version of a “cheese sandwich”: a slice of cheese between two slices of cheese.

The cheese sandwich has become an annual tradition in our family, sometimes presented to me on the morning of my birthday as well, and there’s a good chance I might see one this Sunday morning, even though Maya is now twelve and her sister Eden nine. They’re quite capable in the kitchen these days, able to make omelets and French toast on their own, but the cheese sandwich is, well, the Cheese Sandwich. Mother’s Day isn’t Mother’s Day in our house without one now.

I’m grateful for this family tradition, however small, because for many years Mother’s Day was such a dark spot on my calendar. Without a mother to honor on that day, I felt there was no place for me to fit. In the seventeen years since Motherless Daughters was first published, I’ve heard from many readers who’ve felt and still feel the same way. Even those with children of their own feel the absence of their mothers more acutely on the day set aside specifically to remember the ones who birthed us. The initiative for a national Mother’s Day was started in 1907 by a motherless daughter who was looking for a public way to honor all mothers, but somehow evolved into a day to honor only those who are living (and able to physically receive bouquets of flowers and Hallmark cards). But where did that leave women whose mothers had died or were otherwise absent?

In 1996, a small group of women set out to answer this question, instituting the first Motherless Daughters Day luncheon in New York City. They chose the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend to give motherless women a special time and place to honor mothers who were no longer alive. Over the years that tradition has expanded to more than a dozen cities nationwide, including Los Angeles; Detroit; Buffalo, NY; and Orange County, CA. (For a listing, see the Support Groups page at www.hopeedelman.com.) At some point during each luncheon, women join hands and participate in the Circle of Remembrance. They go around the circle and in turn each state their names and their mothers’. “Hope, daughter of Marcia,” I say, when my turn comes around.

There is something enormously powerful about standing in a roomful of motherless women simultaneously honoring dozens of lost mothers at the same time, and speaking their names out loud. How many times a year do I actually say my mother’s name out loud? Sadly, not that many. But on this weekend, she has a whole day of honor. Instead of grieving her absence, it encourages me to celebrate her influence.

For me, the Sunday of Mother’s Day has become a day to spend with my two daughters, starting with a Cheese Sandwich in bed. I won’t lie to you: it’s still deeply sad for me to not have my mother to call on that day. But Motherless Daughters Day—tomorrow—has become the day I set aside to remember her. Not in her final, bedridden state, but as the dynamic, healthy presence she was for the majority of my life. The one who gave me, without either of us knowing it, the foundation I would one day need to manage without her for so long.

This is my 29th Mother’s Day without a mother. A part of me can’t believe it’s even possible to write that; I still feel her presence so strongly in much of what I do. Just yesterday morning I was showing Eden how to separate an egg yolk from an egg white, and it was as if my mother’s hands were guiding mine. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that she taught me to do it herself, in the gold and avocado kitchen of my childhood.

I remember the first few Mother’s Days I spent without her, and how devastatingly sad and lonely they were. And then I remember how empowering it felt to attend that first Motherless Daughters Day celebration and speak her name out loud. “I am Hope, daughter of Marcia.” No matter how many motherless Mother’s Days pass, that statement will always be true.

On this Mother’s Day and Motherless Daughters Day weekend, I extend my warmest wishes to those of you who have lost mothers, the sincerest hope that you will have comfort and peace this weekend, and the blessings of a beautiful and bountiful year. Those of you who’ve written to me this past year—hundreds of you!--have warmed my heart with your stories, and inspired me with your generosity of spirit. You are all such strong, resilient, and courageous women. It has been an honor to advocate on your behalf for these past seventeen years.

With all best everything,

Apr 28, 2010

Hanging with Authors and Thinkers at the LATFOB

The LA Times Festival of Books was last weekend, and like most attendees, I imagine, I was left with two overriding impressions: first, extreme jubilation that so many people showed up this year, especially this year, in support of authors and the written word; and second, total overwhelm from having been in the presence of 400 authors and 130,000 attendees on the UCLA campus over just two days.

If you’re a participating author, your time at the festival always begins in the author’s green room, a huge room of tables and a buffet spread inside the UCLA faculty center which always feels like (no matter how old you get) the high school cafeterias of your past. The prom king and queen drift around the room, occasionally holding court, and you never feel like you’re sitting at the cool kids’ table. Unless you’re one of the cool kids and feeling secure in that knowledge, I suppose. The thing is, most of us who became authors were never the cool kids in high school, so probably nearly everyone in the room was feeling the way I was. (Except perhaps for T.C. Boyle, who walked between the tables wearing a black beret and dark sunglasses with everyone whispering, “That’s T.C.!” in his wake. I think if you actually know him you get to call him Tom. But I digress.)

On Saturday I had the great fortune to participate in an hourlong panel titled “Memoir: Keeping the Faith” with authors Dani Shapiro (Devotion); Eric Lax (Faith, Interrupted) and William Lobdell (Losing My Religion). We joked that our panel really should have been called “Keeping the Faith, Finding the Faith, Losing the Faith, and Questioning the Faith” since we were all coming at the topic from different, yet complementary, directions. Our moderater was Jack Miles, UC Professor of Religion and author of God: A Biography, who got stuck in traffic coming up from Orange County and strolled into the room at one minute to three, picked up the mike, and got us rolling, which was kind of a wonky beginning, but he was so charming and erudite that nobody seemed to mind. Each of the panelists spoke for a few minutes about their respective books, and then Jack asked a question of each of us. These panelists were terrific, all so thoughtful and considerate, and did such a good job of getting everyone thinking about faith and writing and storytelling and personal experience that I think it might have been one of the very best panels I’ve ever participated in.

During the audience Q&A section near the end, a man came up to the mike with a question for me. He said that when he hears about someone choosing to take a child to healers in Belize instead of to a psychiatrist he immediately scoffs at the idea, and he wanted to know what my suggestions I had for discussing faith with people whose beliefs are different from his own. (I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.) It was a good question, and one worthy of consideration, I think. I spoke some about how we first have to establish there is no “right” answer, no one answer, and that because faith is so individual and personal it requires people on both sides of the discussion to maintain a healthy and genuine respect for ideas other than their own. Eric Lax spoke a bit about how that requires a certain degree of humility, to suspend one’s own disbelief (or belief) long enough to consider that perhaps the other person isn’t wrong, because only then can meaningful conversation begin.

It really comes down to a discussion of arrogance, I think. In my opinion, arrogance has very bad p.r., insofar that when we hear the word we tend to bristle, reacting to it as something negative. But if you can sidestep the undertones of haughtiness and disdain that surround the word, arrogance really means steadfastly and stubbornly adhering to one’s own point of view to the exclusion of others, which can—dare I say it?—sometimes be a useful survival tool. Engaging in a respectful conversation with someone who holds a different belief system about faith does require a loosening of one’s own arrogance, I believe. To me, it’s just as arrogant to say, “There is a God because I know it to be true” as “There is no God because I haven’t seen proof that one exists.” I left the panel having reaffirmed that I have my experiences, and the belief system that have grown out of those experiences. As far as faith goes, this makes me an expert only on what I myself believe to be true--yet deeply interested in what others have to say, as well. And judging by the number of audience members who lined up to ask questions of panelists, it seems that others are, too. This is an important dialogue, especially in these difficult times. I hope it continues.

Apr 19, 2010

Earth Day 2010

I feel about Earth Day sort of the way I feel about Mother’s Day. As in, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day? Still, I’m always up for a reason to celebrate it once a year in Topanga, where the festival has evolved into a two-day happening of live music, dancing, demonstrations, face painting, hula hooping, and really excellent vegan food booths.

The girls and I went both days this year, accompanied on Saturday by our friends Amy and Eber who came up from San Diego for the festivities. Since the parking situation along Topanga Canyon Boulevard was impossible as usual, forcing us to park somewhere near the Mexican border, we rode the shuttle bus to the community house, which was an experience unto itself. It was a converted school bus painted royal blue with psychedelic swirls on the outside, renamed Alice the Wonderbus. Inside there were couches lining both walls, comfy stacks of pillows up and down both sides, a big stuffed tiger, a couple of Mad Hatter hats lying around, and shag rugs covering the floor. My friend EJ said her kids hula hooped inside the bus on the way to the festival, though it was too crowded both days we were on it for Maya and Eden to break out their hoops. Still, you know it’s going to be a good party when getting there it twice as much fun as anything you’ve done in the previous week.

Despite a forecast of rain on Sunday we had two gloriously sunny, warm days. Loads of friends milling around, wine tasting, massage tables, jewelry and clothing booths, info about solar power and sustainable housing, a bellydancing performance on Sunday featuring dancers from ages 4 into their 60s, and some guy who calls himself Fantuzi leaping around on stage singing and dancing for 15 minutes both day. (I’m going to start calling my husband Uzi “Fantuzi”. Let’s see how well that goes over in our house.)

Also at the festival, our friend Scott’s unrolled his new local initiative called “Topanga Better Faster” which aims to start community dialogue about opening a food co-op, starting a community credit union, getting a charter middle and high school in town, and—my kids’ favorite—setting up a zip line from the town center down to Pacific Coast Highway. I think the zip line is just for attention, but it’s effective, isn’t it? Scott held his visioning meetings inside a geodesic demi-dome. People: this is Topanga at its best.

What we really need in town is a gas station, reinforced by a bad oversight I made this weekend which resulting in driving Maya and our neighbor to school this morning with my “empty” light on all the way, praying I’d make it to a gas station in time and still be able to get Eden to her bus. But Scott’s idea is to help Topanga become a Transition Town, which means less oil dependent, so I guess a gas station isn’t going to be part of the plan.

Anyway, Earth Day photos will follow. Don’t have a photo of Alice the Wonderbus though, because my camera battery died before the end of the day. Maya hatched the idea of having all her friends transported on it to her Bat Mitzvah party, which I think would definitely leave an impression on a bunch of 13-year-olds. Probably on the adults, too. We’ll probably wind up hanging out in the bus all night listening to Jefferson Airplane while the kids dance to Lady Gaga. Rock on.

Mar 4, 2010

Write By the Beach

It's been a couple of years since I last taught private writing workshops--mostly because motherhood and a book deadline and a tour didn't leave much time for quality teaching. But I've missed working with students terribly, and helping them tell their stories. The classroom is where I feel most comfortable, and there's truly nothing like helping a writer break through a creative barrier and start producing winning prose.

So I've just put two weekend workshops on the calendar, and I hope you'll consider joining me for one (or both!) of them.

The first is in Santa Monica, California, from Friday April 30 until Sunday May 2. This one is for writers of all levels, and will focus on helping you develop and perfect the nuts and bolts of creative nonfiction writing: detail, dialogue, narrative structure, characterization. Class time will be split between lectures, discussion and writing exercises. It's a perfect environment for anyone hoping to start a story of transformation, loss, triumph, or experience. Plus, it's held at the stunning art deco Georgian Hotel, right across the street from the beach.

Cost is $450, which includes breakfast Saturday and Sunday and a group dinner Sunday evening. Class size is limited to 12.

The second class will take place over Memorial Day weekend (Saturday through Monday) at my house in Iowa City. This one's for intermediate and advanced writers who have already embarked on a project. Emphasis will be on reading a discussing up to twenty pages of work per student, as well as on discussion of published authors' work.

Because this one's at my house I'm able to keep the cost down a bit--it's $375, which includes an outing to Prairie Lights bookstore and a group dinner Sunday night. Class size is limited to 8, which is the most I can fit around the dining room table.

Information about both workshops is online here. Registration is still by invitation only; if you'd like to receive forms, please email me at hopeedelman@gmail.com.

And another! If you want to try the personal essay, I've just signed up to teach a one-day workshop on essay writing May 20 through Mediabistro.com in Los Angeles. Information will be available online soon. Check back here for details.

Finally--as always, I'll be teaching two weeklong workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in July. One is on writing Family Memoir, and the other on Writing About the Extraordinary. The catalog is now online and registration is open. Sign up soon, though, because classes there tend to fill up fast.

Hoping to see you at one or another class, or any other time soon--


Feb 27, 2010

Joannie Rochette Takes the Bronze

Like everyone else in America this week, I was captivated by the story of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette. Just a few hours after Rochette's 55-year-old mother arrived in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate in the Winter Olympics, she died from a sudden and massive heart attack.

And her daughter continued to compete.

Some people may find this disconcerting, even heartless, but I found it enormously brave. We can only imagine the kind of focus and control it must have taken for Rochette to keep it together long enough to perform the short and long programs she'd been practicing for months. We saw the tears she couldn't contain at the end of the short program, and those of us who've lost mothers, especially suddenly, empathized with her unique pain. Was there any motherless daughter watching who didn't think, "Oh, sweetheart! What can we do to help you through?"

Elite athletes are trained to shut off all emotion and thoughts when it's their turn to perform, and to focus only on the task at hand, but this was another kind of compartmentalization entirely. That Rochette was able to come through at the level she did, and capture a bronze medal for Canada, is true testimony to determination, love, and faith in her own ability to come through.

In an television interview that aired last night, she mentioned that as hard as it was, and as much as she wanted to be with her family, she'd made the decision to stay in Vancouver and compete because that's what her mother would have wanted. On the one hand, that sounded like exactly the kind of answer she would have been coached to give when that question was inevitably asked. On the other hand, you can't help thinking it was probably true. Or feeling that the greatest tragedy of all in this story is the mother who never got to see her daughter skate, and know what she was capable of achieving under such extraordinary pressure. Although very likely, she already knew.

Feb 7, 2010

Kids Who Hear Voices

According to this article, sent to me by my friend Ann, the phenomenon is a lot more common that we would think. A group of Dutch medical researchers, publishing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, studied a group of 8- and 9-year-olds to find out how many of them heard voices that other people couldn't hear. Ten percent of them reported having what the researchers call "verbal auditory hallucinations." Sixteen percent of children and teens are believed to hear such voices. That's almost one out of five.
You can read a summary of the article here.

Whoa. I found this fascinating on several points. First, because so few of the kids seemed to be bothered by the voices they heard. They took it totally in stride. Second, because there were no other symptoms pointing toward pathology, and in the end the majority of these kids were determined to be perfectly fine, i.e. no evidence of mental illness at all.

And third, because the researchers don't ever say what, exactly, the kids were hearing--don't you wonder what the voices were saying to them?--or speculate about what these voices might have been. I guess "verbal auditory hallucination" is a way of saying the voices were imagined, but it seemed to be real to the kids. What kind of mental process, outside of mental illness, would make voices appear in one's head?

Our family's story was different, insofar that our daughter did seem troubled--extremely troubled--by what she claimed she could hear. Still, whenever an article like this shows up on my radar I'm interested in it, since even after all this time I don't have a definitive answer about what plagued my daughter, only a story about an unconventional journey that by all accounts, seemed to help.

Feb 3, 2010

Trash Cans Never Sounded So Good

Took the girls to see Stomp on Tuesday night--the street percussion troupe that makes music out of every ordinary object known to mankind. Sheesh, they were good. We don't typically do things like this on a school night, Hollywood being a solid 45 minute drive from the house without traffic, but I lucked into half-price tickets that were available only midweek so figured, Just this once: why not? And to make it even extra special, since we got there a half hour early, we made a Pinkberry run before the show.

How is it possible that I've lived in LA this long and never been to a Pinkberry? If you live near a Pinkberry, run--do not walk--for an original vanilla with chocolate chips and peppermint shavings. Oh. My. God.

Anyway: Stomp. It's one of those shows that makes you sit in the audience alternately thinking, How do they do that? and We've got to try this at home. Whole percussive routines using only brooms. Folding chairs. Water-cooler bottles. Those dancers were seriously inventive. Incredibly talented, too. And they did an encore that encouraged audience participation to a rhythmic degree far beyond what you'd think a thousand people could manage--yet did.

In the car on the way to Hollywood, I was telling the girls about how I've seen Stomp twice before, the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1991 when they were still a scruffy bunch from Brighton and no one knew who they were. I was visiting my friend Sharon who was studying in England that summer, and we roadtripped up to Scotland with some of her friends for the festival. We wound up at Stomp because it was one of the few events that still had last-minute tickets available. I'm guessing most of the audience was there for the same reason, because nobody seemed to know what they were in for when the performers started doing their thing. If I'm remembering right, they opened with brooms back then, too, and also did routines with matchbooks, plastic bags, trash cans, and keys. It was fantastic and innovative and wholly new. Or at least that's how it seemed. After the show, the audience poured into the streets of Edinburgh and took off kicking trash cans and drumming against the sides of buildings. The most mundane objects suddenly looked like instruments, worthy of making music on the street.

Reading the show's program Tuesday night, I realized that the Fringe Festival performance had been Stomp's debut. Who knew? I guess those of us in the audience did, at some level, because of the electricity it inspired, the freshness it embodied. About five years later, after Stomp was already ensconced off-Broadway in the East Village, I saw them again and even though the U.S. troupe was equally as talented and the routines even more astonishing, the newness had worn off. The amazement of first contact was gone, replaced by the awe of their performance skills.

It's still an incredible show nonetheless. My kids loved it. It's playing at the Pantages Theater through Feb. 7. In lieu of driving to Hollywood on a school night, you can watch a short clip here.

Feb 2, 2010

Help for Haiti's Orphans

Like everyone else, I was glued to the internet in the 72 hours after the earthquake in Haiti, driven by an insatiable need for the minute details (inveterate nonfiction instructor that I am). How, exactly, were people being extracted from the rubble? Could all the reports about people going without any food and water for 72 hours be accurate, and if so, how was everyone still walking around? Who was doing what to help reunite parents and children, and how? And thinking, my god, all these people, all this suffering, how can one country contain it all?

As my mind always veers to the most vulnerable citizens whenever a disaster strikes, anywhere, I was also thinking, what about the orphans, who've already lost so much and now have lost even more?

In those first, early days I did as everyone else I knew did, sending whatever money I could to Doctors without Borders, and the Red Cross, and wondering how exactly those text donations were working and if Sprint really would send all the money to Haiti or divert some of it for corporate bonuses instead. And then, like everyone else, I hit the wall of disaster overload and had to stop checking the news every hour or two. Had to get back to regular daily tasks, with a prayer sent heading southeast and the faith that those in a position to do real, utilitarian good were down there finding ways to do it.

But there's one story that I can't get out of my mind, and so I'm going to take a chance here and introduce it to yours. It's the story of an orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti, one of the cities that sustained the most damage rom the quake. Our friends Martin and Sue, who live in Topanga, started it a few years ago and now support 13 kids full-time, some who are HIV+, others with special needs.

For the first few days after the quake, nobody knew if the children had survived, if the director and staff were safe, if the building was still standing. It was a tense time for lots of people in Topanga, since Martin and Sue have a large circle of friends and admirers, and many of us have been supporting their mission and cheering them on over the years.

Then, a few days later, word came through from Lia, the orphanage director, that miraculously, all the children were safe. Most of them had been at the park when the earthquake struck, and those who had been in the building--which is all but destroyed--managed to escape injury. But they're living in a tent in the street with their neighbors right now. They have barely adequate amounts of food and water and, thanks to people who donated generously and immediately, medical supplies that were just driven over from the Dominican Republic that will hold them for a while. This is particularly important, since going without meds is not an option for some of these kids. They're stable for the moment. But their long-term needs are great.

Lia has been keeping a blog of their experiences, and it's well worth checking out. The photos are surreal. The children are stunning in their capacity to nonetheless experience joy even under terrible conditions. Yet their plight is truly unimaginable to those of us up here.

You can read updates about the kids and the orphanage here.

So--if you're not suffering from disaster fatigue, and if you're looking for a way to help but want to know that your dollars will go right to those who need them most (and who doesn't?), and if your desire is to specifically help parentless children affected by the quake, I can personally assure you that this is a reputable charity, and that all of your money will go straight to helping the kids.

You can donate online at We Can Build An Orphanage. And blessings to you all for considering it.

Feb 1, 2010

Back in Blogging Mode

Ay yi yi, I'm not really fulfilling my end of the bargain here, am I? I can't figure out exactly what keeps me from blogging more often than I do. Though I have some ideas:
1. My own internal standards of perfection. Blogging, by nature, is a relatively off-the-cuff enterprise. Have thought, type it out, hit send. For someone who labors over every paragraph for hours, by nature, that's a foreign concept. And an unsettling one. Result: avoidance.
2. Time. Well, we all know about that one. Two kids, one husband, one house, two cats, a book that needs to be promoted, a book that needs to be conceived, students, the 2:45 school pickup daily, dinner every night, endless bills, taxes due soon. Structure and time management have never been my fortes. Why do today what you can't do today? Result: procrastination.
3. Fear of narcissism. Maybe I'm unduly affected by readers who accuse me (and other memoirists; I'm not alone) of being self-absorbed. With all that's going on in the world--Haiti, California's budget fiasco, nutso bank bonuses, the price of gas, and (god help us all) Scott Brown, who cares what I have to say? Even more to the point, is it fair of me to try to make other people care what I have to say when so many other more important things are going on in the world (see above)? Result: self-doubt.
If any of you have suggestions not just for how to get oneself on a regular blogging schedule, but also how to keep believing that one's own thoughts are worth sharing on a regular basis--I'm interested in hearing them. In the meantime, I'll be blogging when I know I have something worthwhile to say, not just to fill space and time. God knows, we all have enough demands on our time these days.