Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Good Dog

McDuff, my Cairn terrier, looks more like a pot-bellied pig every day. His swollen abdomen is low-slung and his short legs bow out at the elbows—symptoms of Cushing's Disease. Recently we had to put up a baby gate to keep him from going upstairs; the last time McDuff tried to follow us up to bed, he slipped and went bumping down to the bottom of the staircase, his front legs useless as toothpicks against the pull of his massive weight.

He's an old man, our McDuff. Fifteen. Whenever he goes outside to relieve himself, he stands in one spot for a good five minutes, squinting a little, then turns right around and heads back inside. At this point, his medication costs half as much as our groceries. I don't know what we'll do when it snows. Shovel a path for him, I guess.

Or not. We have been debating, lately, about how and when to play God with our beloved pet. McDuff isn't in extreme pain, and he still wags his tail when I call his name. That's something, right?

But is it enough for a good dog's life? Or is it time to say goodbye?

I grew up on a farm where we had nearly as many dogs as we had horses. They were rescue dogs, mostly. These included one shepherd mix that loved to chase cars and always smelled of skunk; a feisty Yorkie mix; and an Afghan hound that bit anything gray, including our coats. I moved away from home before any of these dogs died or had to be put down; coming home and finding one less dog under the table was a source of brief sadness but not much more.

This is different. I can't stand the thought of losing McDuff.

As an adult, I've had to put just one dog to sleep. Ben was an American Eskimo mix that we adopted from a shelter. A frothy, white, joyful dog, Ben used to race around us in circles whenever we uttered his mantra: “Go Ben go!”

When my husband and I were married in our back yard (a second marriage that combined our four young children), Ben wore a burgundy bow to match my dress. As we repeated our vows in front of a small gathering of friends and family, Ben wandered up and sat down between our children, so that he would be included in the minister's blessing.

At age thirteen, Ben's heart and liver gave out. Making the decision to put him down was easier because he was in such pain that he cried out in his sleep. Still, the kids and I all wept: it was the first time that I fully realized a dog isn't just a dog, but a carrier of family history.

Saying goodbye to a dog you've had for years means shutting the door on an era. In our case, Ben's death earmarked the years between our wedding and the year our oldest son set off for college. Shortly after Ben's death, we moved out of our big family home and into a smaller one; my memories of Ben therefore carry complex emotions: joy and love and grief and loss, rolled into one white ball of fur.

McDuff started his life with us just as Ben was ending his. I got him in the worst way possible—on impulse, in a mall pet store—but for a good reason: I was with my stepdaughter, the youngest in our blended family and the one who always felt left out by our other three children. She was newly aggrieved by the arrival of our fifth and youngest child, who immediately displaced her as the baby in the family. Choosing this dog made her feel, for once, that she was in charge.

As a puppy, McDuff was scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand. Like most terriers, he was stubborn, territorial, and ferociously protective. We put a dog door in our basement so that he could come and go at will. His greatest joy was patrolling our yard and barking at any deer, squirrels, or wild turkeys that dared to infiltrate his space.

McDuff became a member of our family a few weeks after our youngest child was born. He has been through a lot since then: older kids graduating from high school and college, family trips to Canada and Wisconsin, youngest child moving through elementary school and into high school, job layoffs and career successes, the celebration of our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Saying goodbye to him means saying goodbye to boisterous family dinners, birthday parties with balloons and water slides, Christmases with so many presents under the tree that you couldn't walk around it, the death of my grandmother and my father, buying a second house in Canada, and the realization that nothing lasts forever.
Not even a very good dog, who still lifts his head whenever I call his name.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How Much Is a Book Worth?

Recently, I was nosing around a local bookstore in search of a perfect Christmas read for my father-in-law. He's a history buff; last year I gave him the stellar book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. He's still raving about it. What can I possibly give him this year to top that?

As I shopped, I was distracted by prices. I'm still trying to claw my way out of debt incurred over the past few years through a tricky combo of college tuition bills and my husband's various layoffs. I often save money by borrowing books from the library. I frequent used bookstores and treasure hunt through the lonely remaindered books at Barnes & Noble. If a book isn't free, it's rare for me to pay more than $5 for it.

Except, that is, when I love a certain author—then I go hog wild and get the hardcover—or when I feel guilty. My guilt is brought on by the fact that I am a writer who sells words for a living. Over the past few years, I have been the book doctor or ghost writer for several celebrity memoirs. I have also published a memoir of my own through a division of Random House. I would love to have people buy the books I write, so that I can keep doing what I love. Therefore, I feel compelled to buy books by other writers.

But which books are worth buying? And how much should you pay for them?
These are increasingly complex questions in this Wild West of self-publishing and ebooks. The Kindle and Nook are arm-wrestling for our attention. Without editors acting as gatekeepers for many books, and with the demise of book review sections in our newspapers—hell, what newspapers?--it's hard to know what's worth our precious time, never mind our money.

When my husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday, I immediately went for the deals. For instance, I paid $2.99 for Toby Neal's Blood Orchids, which I read on the train to New York, along with various other books by authors I hadn't tried before, simply because they bore that ever-popular promotional price tag of $.99. Heck, I can't even purchase a pack of gum for that money!

Several of my editor friends feel strongly that the self-publishing wave is one more example of civilization marching over a cliff. Lemming-like readers, they say, can't anticipate the plunge into bad writing, so they end up in the choppy, cruel waters of mean metaphors and sharp-toothed punctuation gaffes.

Um, was that a mixed metaphor?

It's true that there are a lot of bad (and badly edited) books out there. It's also true that publishers have helped bring this on themselves by giving million-dollar (or more) advances to certain writers or celebrities, and spending their advertising budgets to back up those advances, then acting surprised when the books don't earn out.

It's no news flash that traditional publishers, which once gave writers time to build their reputations, now expect a writer to earn back an advance immediately, if not sooner. If that doesn't happen, the writer is kicked right out of the stable, off to find another publishing home—or to roam the Wild West with the other raggedy Mustangs.

One writer friend of mine, who has been nominated for the National Book Award and has earned a flotilla of other literary prizes, has published seven books. Despite the high praise consistently coming her way from every literary quarter, and despite modest advances, she has earned royalties on only one novel. She works full-time as a university professor to support herself and her three children, grabbing what writing hours she can on weekends, summers, and, if she has the energy, at night.

Another writer friend, who has authored parenting books and popular chick lit titles under two different names for the past twenty years, told me recently that she used to hate seeing that quarterly royalties statement from her publisher in the mailbox.

“You know the one I mean,” she said, “that piece of paper that shows how many books you've sold, and then gives you that negative number under your advance, because you still owe the publisher money?”

I do, indeed, know all about that awful reckoning, having received my own royalty statements for my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. That book was considered a success by many at Random House, in the sense that the book earned positive reviews and was even showcased in several magazines, including the issue of People magazine with Michael Jackson on the cover soon after his death. I earned a modest advance for that book, but I have yet to see a royalty check two years later.

My friend had to change her name because her third novel did so badly. The publisher wanted to give her a fresh start as a debut novelist. The gamble paid off: recently, she got a statement for her last novel, a fun romantic read that was picked up by a major book club. “I opened the envelope at the mailbox, thinking I'd toss it into the recycling bin before I even got into the kitchen,” she said. “But then a check for $11,000 fell out!”

She had to lie down. So did I, when she told me that story, if only out of envy.

There are, of course, a handful of writers who must be living quite comfortably on royalties and movie deals. I'm sure you can name them as well as I can. But, for most writers, earning a living is a scramble. A fun scramble, but still. Making that next mortgage payment can be a challenge if there's no benefactor or spouse whose job includes health benefits.

In the end, I've decided to canter through the tumbleweeds into the sunset. My first novel, Sleeping Tigers, will be available just before Christmas. (Yes, this blog post is shameless self-promotion.) I'm self-publishing it—a novel vetted by my agent and several writer friends—and I think it's a good book. But how much is my novel worth?

I have to decide, since I'm the one in charge here, and it's tough. I earned an MFA in creative writing and I've been working as a writer for over twenty years. My previous book earned great reviews. I've won awards for my short stories. But does any of that really matter, when you're suffering the stigma of the self-published?

I have to charge a certain amount—a bit over $10—for the paperback to make back production costs plus a dollar for me, since it's print-on-demand. But what about the ebook? Should I go for that whopping price of $2.99, like Toby Neal?

Or would it be better, as my son urges, “to just charge $.99 for your ebook, Mom, because anybody will spend that much money. And you don't care if they read it. You just want people to buy your book.”

Well, as a matter of fact, I do care if people read my book. Does $2.99 say that I'm worth reading? Or am I still better off charging less than a dollar and letting people find that out for themselves? What does any of that matter, anyway, since I obviously don't write novels to pay the mortgage?

Meanwhile, back to Christmas shopping. If I buy my father-in-law a hardcover, it'll cost upwards of $20 even with my friendly independent bookstore discount. If I go online and read book reviews, I'll end up surfing various book blogger sites and reading Amazon customer reviews, checking out all of the writers vying for attention with book trailers and giveaways and Twitter feeds and blogs of their own, crying, “Look at me! Look what I can do! How much is my book worth?”

Which, when you're a writer with a writer's ego (this I know, being one myself), translates into: “How much am I worth? Do you love me? Please love me!”

My own memoir, for the record, has been out in paperback for a year. You can order it through your local bookstore for $14 (a price set by the publisher) or buy it for your Kindle for $9.99 (a price also set by the publisher). Now come on. Who would do that, with so many books out there for $.99?

But wait! On Amazon, you can also buy my book in paperback, new, for just $.94 plus shipping—or used for $.01! Now that's what I call a bargain basement read!

So tell me. How much is any book worth?

And what does the price of a book say about the author who wrote it?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs: Torn Between My Books and My Kindle

My husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday. (Forgive him, O Indie booksellers. He is an engineer who knows not what he does.)

At first I protested. As a writer, avid reader, and patron of indie bookstores with cats curled on floral armchairs, what did I want with this devilish contraption?
“Give it a try,” my husband suggested. “A lot of the books are free.”

Did he say free? As the daughter of a Do-It-Yourself-Or-Die-Trying gerbil farmer, “free” is my middle name, whether I'm surfing for curbside antiques or checking out sample cheeses at Market Basket. How could I resist?

Of course, like any addiction, that first hit lures you down the slippery slope of, “Oh, hell, just one more can't hurt.” Soon I was downloading books by the dozen, bemused and freaked by the fact that the Magic Hand of Amazon could find me even in bed. It could even find me in the White Mountains or riding the subway in New York City. Need a book? Press a button!

The thing is, I started to love my Kindle. But I couldn't give up my obsessive fondling and purchasing of books. I also worried that my books—waiting so patiently in their pretty bright book cover dresses on my bookshelf, or climbing over each other on my nightstand in their zeal to be read—might be hurt by my disloyalty. Alternatively, I worried that my smart-mouthed, quick-on-the-draw Kindle would know I was cheating on her with her plumper, more beautiful cousins.

I agonized for weeks over which was better: digital books or “real.” At first, reading the Kindle was downright confusing. For one thing, what to do with that free hand flapping around while you hold such a slim rectangle and touch buttons to flip pages? (And why didn't I have a Kindle while I was breastfeeding my kids?)

How do you pretend not to notice an annoying neighbor if you can't hide your face behind an actual book? How do you loan your books to friends on a Kindle? What do you put on your bookshelves if you stop buying books? (Either wine glasses or my son's Lego collection, in our case.) And how do you stop ordering books on Amazon once you've seen how easy it is to get a fix?

Gradually, though, things smoothed out. My house has become like that popular British TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs: my supposedly more refined (though not necessarily more entertaining or informative) books reside upstairs, on the table next to my bed, where I contentedly read for an hour or so every night before I go to sleep. My Kindle stays downstairs with the dogs.

At the moment, my upstairs book is Island, a collection of lilting, atmospheric stories by the brilliant Canadian Alistair MacLeod. Reading his textured, elegant, emotional prose, it is impossible not to imagine that Cape Breton's misty cliffs loom just outside your window.

For instance, MacLeod's description of rain in the title story goes like this: “Sometimes it slanted against her window with a pinging sound, which meant it was close to hail, and then it was visible as tiny pellets for a moment on the pane before the pellets vanished and rolled quietly down the glass, each drop leaving its own delicate trickle. At other times it fell straight down, hardly touching the window at all, but still there beyond the glass, like a delicate, beaded curtain at the entrance to another room.”

Downstairs, meanwhile, my Kindle seems best suited to books by comics or mystery writers, as well as indie authors like Darcie Chan, whose books were never published by traditional publishers because they weren't deemed “good enough.” (Many of those authors, like Chan, have gone on to sell thousands of copies. Go figure.)

Digital books accompany me throughout the day, because they are so easily stowed in my purse or coat pocket. My Kindle does its work during doctors' visits, in the car while waiting for kids to leave sports practices, or on business trips that would otherwise require an extra piece of luggage for my paperbacks.

On my Kindle, at the moment I'm reading Holidays in Hell by the conservative but consistently hilarious P.J. O'Rourke—somebody whose books I never wanted to pay full price for because of his politics. Check out his description of General Omar Torrijos of Panama: “Torrijos was a half-baked socialist and a blow-hard, but he was lovable and good-looking...He had genuine feeling for the poor, started some only moderately useless social programs and maintained a modest style of life, keeping no more than two or three mistresses on the side.”

I once read that Hemingway used to write his dialogue on a typewriter because it sounded more like people talking, but chose to write his descriptions in longhand. As a writer, I also go to different places and use different tools, depending on what I'm trying to work on. I often write in a journal when I'm collecting ideas, flesh them out at my laptop, and then edit on paper, standing up in the kitchen with a cup of tea at my elbow, I suppose because then it seems like my work is by a different writer and I can be more objective about revisions. For me, reading has become like that: I choose a book's delivery mode based on what kind of reading experience I anticipate.

So my books reside upstairs and my Kindle is downstairs. Different rhythms, different lives, different sensibilities lead me to choose whether I read fiction or nonfiction, short stories or poetry, ebooks or paper. The important thing is that, for every mood and moment, there is a story to treasure, no matter where I am—or in what form I read it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Staying Whole in a Fractured World

You know that panicky feeling you get when you drop your briefcase or purse and everything spills out in public? That's how I used to feel every day: embarrassed, furious, and anxious because I couldn't keep up with my life.
The last straw may have been my new gym membership. I wanted to feel virtuous about working out four times a week without breaking the bank, so I chose the Wal-Mart of fitness factories, a place where pop music blares and the cardio machines all face TV screens. Insert headphones, work up a sweat, and pick your letters: ABC, CBS, CNN, ESPN, Fox, whatever. Get your news and culture fix here.
I'm a radio junkie, so watching TV news was a novelty for me. At first I enjoyed channel surfing. Or rather, plunging. That's what it felt like, since TV shows give you about two seconds of substance punctuated by noisy, whirling ad tsunamis.
Before long, though, I was feeling rattled and nervous. Despite the fact that the news was being delivered by beautiful couples who joked and flirted like dates, I learned that we apparently live in a world where pedophiles, robbers, muggers, drunk drivers, crooked politicians, and murderers frequent my local supermarket and shoe store.
But maybe the gym wasn't the last straw. Maybe it was my new phone. Selected by my husband, an engineer who gets free upgrades and knows how to use them, this device easily outsmarts me. It can access restaurant reviews and movie times, deliver my email, play music, take pictures, and remind me that it's my mother's birthday. If I try to control it, the tiny keys play hide-and-seek. I might as well be wearing mittens.
I dutifully started carrying this Mini Me everywhere, sticking it in my bra like an extra heartbeat if I didn't have a pocket. Now I could read my email at Market Basket, among the common criminals, or phone clients while walking the dogs. My husband and children could call me any time, for any reason. I was always on tap, talking or tweeting instead of thinking.
Come to think of it, though, the final straw may have been my son's new laptop, which his high school required us to buy. He has textbooks on it—no more lugging that Western Civ tome around!--and homework assignments, too. He can make flashcards online, thanks to Quizlet, and Skype about video games with classmates. Between math problems, he can check Facebook or watch YouTube wonders. Sitting in the same room with my son and his laptop is like spending the evening with the Kardashians: too much, too soon, too often.
For whatever reason, anyway, a month ago the last straw landed, and I lost track of my life.
I was on my lunch break from work, trying to squeeze in errands—post office, dry cleaner's, the 30-minute speed workout at the gym—when my phone bleeped. I checked my email and got a call at the same time. The traffic light turned green; I sped ahead and pulled over to answer the call, but I was too late.
I started to call the client back, then stopped, my thumb hovering over the phone screen. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to know what was on my email. I didn't want anyone to know where I was or what I was doing. And I sure as hell didn't want to go to the gym.
I shut off the ignition and sat there, simply trying to breathe as cars sped past.
To my right, I spotted a tiny road I hadn't noticed before. I got out of the car—so what if I didn't mail the Christmas packages until tomorrow?--zipped up my jacket, and started walking. I accidentally left the phone in the cup holder.
I've walked that road every day since. At the end of this half-mile lane is open land, some of which is being used as community gardens by town residents. There is an abandoned house on the property—a white Colonial surrounded by ancient perennial beds and a few majestic hydrangeas. The abandoned barn now houses only colonies of swallows, but when the wind is right, you catch whiffs of hay and horse.
It is past the growing season, but I can tell that the gardeners were busy this summer. There are still remnants of various small harvests: kale and broccoli, lettuce and eggplant, withered tomato plants and sunflower stalks. There are a few fruit trees on the property, their gnarled limbs almost human. Best of all, a trail leads from the gardens through a field hemmed by ancient stone walls. The trail ends at the salt marshes; beyond that is the river and a big swatch of sky.
I have visited this piece of land—my own circle of quiet—nearly every day. I don't stay long. I park my car at the end of the road and meander towards the field. Chickadees flit through the bushes, prehistoric-looking turkeys startle in the grass, and an occasional cardinal flashes bright. I spotted a great blue heron feeding in the marsh last week, and several times I've seen hawks circling the field.
I don't bring my cell phone. I don't always go at the same time of day, either, because I love being surprised by how different the sky can look over the marsh, depending on the hour and the elements. I have even, like I did today, walked up the road and through this field in freezing rain, blinking hard and shivering.
This walk, this forgotten field, and this quiet marsh give me a chance to take my life back once a day, and to feel whole again in a fractured world. It isn't praying or meditating, exactly. But it is peace on earth.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book Covers, Backsides and Body Parts

In the book world, you can easily spot novels designed to attract women by the body parts and backsides on their covers.
Don't believe me? Go to Amazon and browse the postage stamp images for anything that falls into the category of women's contemporary fiction, and you'll see what I mean.
Here are a few examples of covers graced with body parts, all featuring legs: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf, Falling Home by Karen White, and Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer.
Even more popular for novels destined to be pitched to women's book clubs (the Great Last Hope of the publishing world) is the human backside. The humans are generally women—always slender, usually blonde, typically with their hair in disarray and in a style that shows off a slender neck. They might also be back views of children, usually in motion, and often with flowers around them or held in their sticky little hands. Contemporary examples of what I call BBC's (Backside Book Covers) include Julie Buxbaum's After You, Elin Hilderbrand's Silver Girl, Juliette Fay's Shelter Me, Wendy Wax's Ten Beach Road, and Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark.
I suppose that, in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that my own first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, also shows the back view of a little girl running through an orchard of flowering trees. When my editor at Broadway Books first showed the design to me, I was appalled—this design was for the paperback, and I'd become enamored of the hardcover, which showed gerbils peering out of a pair of rubber boots. What did a little girl running through an orchard have to do with gerbils? Who was that child, and what the heck was she wearing?
Anyway, that was in 2010, and now I've been through another cover design process, this time for my novel, Sleeping Tigers (due out in December 2011). God help me, I have a body part on the cover.
Let me explain. When the designers sent me a form asking for my ideas, I wrote up a little synopsis of the novel: Jordan O'Malley has everything she ever wanted: a job she loves, a beautiful home, and a dependable boyfriend. When her life unravels after a breast cancer scare, Jordan decides to join her wildest childhood friend in San Francisco and track down her drifter brother, Cam, who harbors secrets of his own.
When Cam suddenly flees the country, Jordan follows, determined to bring him home. Her journey takes her to the farthest reaches of majestic Nepal, where she encounters tests—and truths—about love and family that she never could have imagined.
Funny, heartbreaking, and suspenseful, Sleeping Tigers reminds us all that sometimes it's better to follow your heart instead of a plan.
For cover images, I suggested that the designer look for something representing the title—the “sleeping tiger” within is breast cancer, as my main character, Jordan, sees it, because it can awaken and sharpen its claws at any moment. (Yes, it does sound like an obvious, hit-your-thumb-with-a-hammer image when I sum it up this way, but I'm trying to write a blog post.)
The other images I suggested to the designer were anything that represented Nepal, because I had traveled to Nepal and loved that country so much that I had set a good part of my novel there. I wanted this to be a sort of fictional little sister to the massively successful Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (which, by the way, has neither backsides nor body parts on the original cover).
The result: two completely different cover images. One showed a very literal (if reversed) image representing the title, with a woman sleeping and a faint drawing of a tiger in the background. The other was a gorgeous shot of a Nepali temple with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Neither worked. The sleeping woman was intriguing, but looked very Jersey Shore, with her mass of teased blonde hair, pouting lips, and obviously fake eyelashes. That cover might have worked for, say, a paranormal thriller about a woman who morphs into a tiger when she's ticked off, especially when men do her wrong. The other cover, while beautiful, and while certainly in Nepal, was more like the cover of a travel book—maybe one of those Lonely Planet guides, telling you where to buy a coffee for thirty cents in Kathmandu.
What to do? I went back and forth with the designer several times, looked at countless photographs online, and checked out other book covers. It dawned on me, as I made my study over a couple of weeks, that the reason you so rarely see an actual face on a book cover is because then it's harder to imagine the story in a way that lets it surround you completely.
If you don't have a face on a book cover, then you're left with household objects, typically set against a blue background (check out Deep Down True, by Juliette Fay, and Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos), or backsides and body parts that give you the emotional feel of the book—happy, sad, searching, longing, scary, or whatever.
That realization gave me a new idea for the book cover. I asked the designer if she could try just one more thing: show me Nepali images with women in them. She promptly sent me several more possibilities. All of them had Nepalese temples (she must have read Eat, Pray, Love, too), but these included women in the photographs. Most didn't work. The women in the photographs were almost always too young (my character is in her thirties), or too touristy (taking pictures of the temples or standing in line to go into them).
There was one image, however, that I loved: an ancient Nepalese prayer wheel in gorgeous colors, with a woman's hand tentatively reaching out to turn it. But did I really want to contribute yet another book cover with body parts to the genre?
The more I looked at that picture, the more I loved it. The image captured the book completely. There was hope and longing in the touch of those fingertips on the prayer wheel, and the colors were exotic enough to suggest a woman on an adventure.
The woman turning that prayer wheel on the cover of Sleeping Tigers isn't just traveling. She is on an emotional and spiritual journey, like my main character—and like all of us who read because we love being transported to other worlds and other lives. It was perfect.
Yes, my new book cover has a body part. But at least it's a hand and an arm—no legs in sight.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Writer for Hire

Yesterday, my mother asked what I was working on.
“Oh, I finished copy editing that memoir and now I'm writing a marketing brochure,” I said. She shook her head. “And to think that your father and I used to worry about you.”
It's true: they did worry. At one point, my despairing father even said that if I didn't focus on a real career, I'd end up “living on cat food.”
They couldn't see where I was headed. Neither could I. In college, I tried on majors like shoes, swapping animal science for sociology, then Spanish for biology. Finally I decided to become a doctor, the sort who wears Safari clothes and saves entire villages from infectious diseases.
My last semester, though, I took a creative writing class. I wrote my first short story and couldn't stop writing. I put off applying to medical school for a year.
A year went by. Then another. My desperate father sent me brochures about nursing school, dental school, and physical therapy. But I couldn't stop writing. To support my habit, I did the kinds of odd jobs all writers do: construction, teaching, editing, waiting tables. Eventually my tiny, poorly paid writing jobs led to better ones. I proofread telephone books, wrote marketing copy for a publishing company, served as a stringer for a newspaper, wrote press releases and newsletters for a school district.
When I had my first two children, day care cost more than my salary, so I quit working full time and consulted in a public relations office part-time. I kept writing, too, when the kids were sleeping or throwing sand at each other in the playground—and eventually paid for day care so that I could write more.
“You can't make a living as a writer,” my father said, still despairing. He had also been against me majoring in English in college, because what could an English major do for a living?
A lot, it turns out, which is why I encouraged my own son to major in English when he went to college. My paying jobs as a writer have included training manuals for a pharmaceutical company, feature articles for newspapers and magazines, ad copy, video scripts, view books and brochures for colleges, institutional newsletters, press releases, advice columns, humor, essays, and, yes, a memoir of my own. More recently, I have been working as a book doctor and ghost writer for celebrities, churning out four of these books in the past two years.
“Doesn't it bug you to write other people's books when you could be working on your own?” another writer asked me recently.
Not a bit. In fact, I love telling other people's stories. What other job would allow me to walk in another person's shoes so completely that I'd feel their blisters? Working as a book doctor or ghost writer, I have the opportunity to immerse myself in worlds as disparate as the priesthood, cooking, fashion design, and Tejano music—I just finished ghost writing an incredibly moving memoir for Chris Perez, the husband of the fantastically talented Mexican-American singer, Selena. Ghost writing isn't just a paying job for me. It's a passion. Sharing stories is what makes us human.
I can hear my writer friend snorting at this. “Okay, maybe memoirs,” she might say. “But university brochures? Really? Is that a passion, too?”
You betcha. I love interviewing students and academics, and finding whatever sets a particular college apart from all the rest.
In fact, I love everything I write. Being a writer for hire is sometimes like being a plumber—you have to get on your knees and stick your head under the sink to fix the leaks. Other times, crafting sentences feels like a delicate, time-honored art that takes your breath away.
Either way, the joy is in the process of writing as much as in the final product, whether those words are for someone else, or all mine.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Juggling Motherhood and Writing

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one: “When do you write?”
The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow. They want me to say something like: “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.” Or maybe: “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you'll have a novel in a year! Easy as ABC!”
Even people who aren't aspiring writers ask me this question. Maybe it's because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do. They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.
“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me. “When do you write?”
Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there's no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you're a mother. Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we're doing something else when we're writing. We're burning dinner because we're working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.
In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success. I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides. I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.
My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor. Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?” I couldn't imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.
Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question. They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids. “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”
As a mother, I couldn't crack this secret code. How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school? How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?
Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time. I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”
“Oh, that's easy,” the famous novelist said. “I have a wife.”
I swear to you that this is true, but I won't divulge this man's name. His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn't already.
Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use: the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley. When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”
Day care! I mulled this over in my mind. I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing? How could I justify such a debutante expense?
I couldn't. There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter. How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?
For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life: while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma. I had a ritual, where I'd make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.
Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers' retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day. Not everyone's idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.
Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty. I'd abandoned my family! I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!
Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me. I'd feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first. Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn't knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.
Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing. It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.
The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home. I'd face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I'd despair again because I wasn't making any progress as a writer. I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.
My husband, luckily, was supportive. He urged me to essentially buy those hours. “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said. “We'll get by somehow.”
God bless him. I lined up extra day care hours. Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time: day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.
Amazingly, it wasn't long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay. I didn't sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies' Home Journal magazine, and then another. An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I'd like to write an article for them. From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.
It wasn't long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work. I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations. I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.
Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn't writing. Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days. Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.
When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this: the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them. On days I didn't have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I'd never been able to tap into before.
Okay. I need to work on that metaphor. But you get the idea. Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There's never a time that I'm not writing, even if it looks like I'm doing something else.”
And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You'll write best if you pay for day care. Run away from home sometimes, too. Your children will survive. They might even be proud of you.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mothers, Teach Your Daughters about the Herman Cains of the World

As Herman Cain strives to rise above the sexual harassment allegations dogging his run for the presidency (and I do mean “dogging”), almost every woman out there is uncomfortably recalling some former teacher, boss or neighbor who did the same things to her.
I have no idea if Cain is innocent or not. I suspect not, since more than one woman has come forward. The important thing about these stories is that here's one of those golden teachable moments: every mother should educate her daughters about the Herman Cains of the world.
I have been in similar situations as Cain's accusers. Most of the men who touched me or said inappropriate things did not frighten me. But these events did make me feel sour and wretched afterward, as if I had somehow caused them to happen.
For starters, there was the neighbor I babysat for who offered me a raise if I “just touched him a little in the car.” I was fourteen at the time.
One college professor—Sociology of Religions, of all things—took me to lunch and promised me an A if I went to Bermuda with him. There was another, less playful chemistry professor who showed up at my apartment when I was home with the flu, under the pretense of bringing me a lab report I could revise. He then proceeded to try and rape me. Lucky for me, he was crying about his divorce at the time, so I was able to fight him off despite having a fever of 102.
Shall I go on? Sure. While putting myself through college, I worked as a waitress in a restaurant. The owner of that place was a notorious groper—not just me, but any waitress was in danger if she made the mistake of being alone in the kitchen with him. His wife was a hostess in the dining room, but none of us ever spoke up because we needed the tuition money.
In one of my first jobs after college, the vice president of the publishing company I worked for promised to make me an editor if I gave him a blow job. “I won't even come in your mouth,” he wheedled. “It'll only take a minute.”
Years later, I worked as a PR consultant in a school district. There, my boss loved to take me to lunch. He never tried to touch me, but constantly referred admiringly to my “shelf,” as he so delicately put it.
Shall I go on? Nah. You get the idea. In fact, if you're a woman reading this, you probably got the idea long ago. Like me, you were probably neither stunningly beautiful nor desperate for attention, yet various men in power seemed to think that it was perfectly legit to make sexually explicit suggestions or advances.
These incidents did not damage me, but that's only because I am one of those fortunate women who had a strong, independent mother as a role model. My mom was a Navy wife accustomed to fending for herself; she taught me early on that there was nothing a man can do for me on the job that I can't do for myself. I managed to sidestep these men and keep moving forward in my life without them.
I hope that I have successfully taught our two blonde, gorgeous daughters—one a newly minted college graduate, the other about to complete her degree--about the Herman Cains of the world. I want our girls to be confident enough about their own intelligence and abilities to know that, when certain men make advances or inappropriate remarks, they don't have to put up with it.
I didn't speak out when these things happened to me, but I wish that I had. I hope that my girls, and generations after them, will know that our voices give us power.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bad Vacation? Treasure the Memory.

A couple of weeks ago, I convinced my family to drive to the White Mountains and hike up to Lonesome Lake hut on the Appalachian Mountain Club trail. Our plan was to sleep at the hut and do some day hikes, maybe see a moose and the last of the autumn foliage.
“Won't you be cold?” my mother asked.
“It'll be great,” I assured her. “How cold can it get in October?”
Pretty cold, as it turns out. We hiked through freezing rain, hail, and even snow at the highest elevation. We couldn't see more than a hundred feet in front of us at times because we were literally hiking through clouds. The trails were slippery and treacherous, too—wherever there wasn't mud, we were skidding on icy rocks.
It was definitely one of those trips that will go down in our family's Vacation Hall of Fame.
We've had a lot of those vacations. There was that foolish train trip to Florida, for instance, where our kids proved to be too young to contentedly look out the window; their idea of fun was playing tag in the aisles. We had another trip to Florida where two kids got strep throat and a third came down with a stomach bug; every time he vomited, he announced, “I tossed my cookies again!” causing the other kids to want a share of those treats.
Then there was our ill-fated trip to Washington, D.C. Determined to show our children the wonders of the cherry trees in bloom and the Smithsonian, we arrived and realized we'd forgotten a stroller for the baby. We managed to buy one, but that mistake cost an entire day. The cherry trees weren't in bloom because winter had lingered, which also meant that the hotel pool was frozen over and out of commission.
Oh, and let's not forget that trip to jolly England, where we rented a restored mill house in the countryside and it rained every single day we were there—so much rain that we finally bought the kids Wellingtons and hiked in it anyway, for fear that otherwise we'd die of cabin fever.
Ah, and the trip to Spain! We brought along my mother as well as all five kids on that vacation, which meant that we had to rent a nine-passenger van—not an easy vehicle to navigate on twisty cobblestone streets through Spanish villages. To make matters worse, they gave us a red one. We might as well have added a neon sign to it, proclaiming, “Stupid Loud American Tourists Here.”
At one point, we drove into the center of one small town and had to back all the way out again because we couldn't turn the van around. The mayor's widow, dressed in her black weeds, her gray hair coming loose in a fountain from her bun, helped direct us, screaming at all of the village men to move their scooters out of our way. Meanwhile, one of our kids (a different one) was carsick enough to toss his cookies, causing the others to shriek.
“That was an awesome trip, Mom,” my son declared after returning from the White Mountains, as we stuffed soggy clothes into the washing machine.
It was, it was. I can say that now that I've thawed out.
Here's the thing: bad vacations are the real family keepsakes, because you survive them together (ideally). You have to play games or tell jokes, you have to get each other through the hail or the flat tire or the flu. Surviving a bad vacation as a family requires everyone to step up and show determination, loyalty, and yes, even courage. Blue skies, sunshine, and a white beach are all pleasant, but what fun is that kind of vacation to reminisce about later?
Remember this, as you're packing up to go away for the holidays this year.

Monday, October 31, 2011

How Much Homework Is Too Much?

It's Halloween today, and I'm bleary-eyed—not from getting ready for the holiday, but from helping my youngest son practice his Spanish presentation.
It wasn't a huge deal of an assignment. Just two minutes about someone deceased—he chose President Kennedy—for a Day of the Dead celebration in his Spanish II class. However, he also had homework for English, algebra, physics and Western Civilization—on a weekend.
He's a freshman in high school, and it's been a rough transition for him. His four older brothers and sisters all went to public schools, and they were whipped into shape early by homework drills: endless math sheets, word searches, posters. I gave up ever trying to clean off the dining room table, because somebody was always doing a project--or having a breakdown because a project wasn't done. Sometimes it was me having the breakdown.
These four older children all went to great colleges. Three have now graduated and actually have jobs, amazingly; the fourth is in her senior year and working on her college thesis. Good for them, right? And great for us, too, of course.
Did all of that homework get them there?
I have no idea. I never would have questioned the idea of homework—it was drilled into my head, too, that you should always have papers to keep you busy, even if it meant staying up until midnight to get it done—except that my youngest son went to a Montessori School. The Montessori philosophy was, hey, if you need to review something, here's some homework that can help you. Otherwise, go outside and play, cook dinner with your family, or draw a picture.
“He wouldn't be having so much trouble with high school if he'd gone to a 'real' middle school,” my cousin grumbles.
Maybe. But the thing is, our youngest son isn't really having trouble with high school. He loves his teachers, comes home repeating incredible stories about Chinese philosophers from his Western Civ class or trying out new physics theories. He loves to practice Spanish. He is making friends and shaving minutes off his time at every cross country meet. He's a successful high school student in every way—except for that struggle over homework.
The thing Montessori taught him—and me, too—is that there are lots of important things to learn in this world. Maria Montessori, in fact, had a theory that kids in early adolescence shouldn't even go to a traditional school, but to a farm school, where they could exercise their bodies as well as their minds and become truly engaged in the world. They should do community service and—gasp--hold down a small job, all as a way of stimulating intellectual curiosity.
Instead of doing homework, our son would rather be practicing flips on the trampoline, hiking with his dad and me, working in his father's wood shop, fiddling around on the bass guitar, and, of course, playing video games online.
“Computer games are ruining our kids,” a friend suggests.
Really? Why? Because he's playing games online with a team of kids from Canada, Spain, Germany, and the U.S.? Because they Skype and learn how to work on team strategies together, learning about how each of them lives along the way? Is that why those games are bad?
“He's always fooling around,” my mother argues.
I suppose that's what it looks like from the outside. Having been through Montessori, though, makes me question whether doing seven hours of homework on a weekend is necessarily more valuable than doing everything else that commands our son's attention.
Don't get me wrong—I'm highly impressed by my son's high school instructors and curriculum. And, given what research show about brain development—that our brains are the most plastic they'll ever be until age 16 or so, which means that whatever those brain synapses are doing during middle and early high school years truly impacts what kind of thinker your child will become as an adult--I'm delighted that our son is stretching himself in many different directions.
It's just the homework that gets me. Why isn't it enough to focus on academics all day, and then give it a rest?
In the incredible documentary “Race to Nowhere,” we see a series of students who have been crushed by homework, while parents and academics wonder how they can keep students engaged and inspired. Duh. If homework kills the creative buzz, why are we still letting it bleed into evenings, so that there's never time for a game of cards, never mind chess? Why do our weekends have to be spent figuring out physics vectors instead of hiking in the White Mountains?
The counter argument, I know, is that homework teaches accountability, reviews topics covered in class, and prepares your child for college. In college, though, students are older and more motivated to organize their time. (Plus, let's not kid ourselves, there's more free time in college than in high school.)
Meanwhile, what message are we sending by piling on the homework in high school?
Here it is: Stress is good for you, kids! See how stressed Mom and Dad are? That can be you, too! Stress is what you have to look forward to in college and beyond. Forget friends, fun, family, or even sleep! You'd better focus on school if you want to get ahead—so that you can take on even more responsibility later!
Really? Is that what we mean by preparing children for a lifetime of learning? Sounds like the School of Hard Knocks to me.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Your Car Says About You

Yes, I know it sounds stupid, but I cried all afternoon over selling a car.
Not just any car, mind you. This was my 2003 Honda CRV, a beat-up red car with probably enough forgotten food in it to sustain a family of five for a week. At 200,000 miles, the air conditioning had stopped working, only one door lock worked, the shocks were gone, and the brakes needed replacing. All signs pointed to the inevitable: it was time to get a new car.
Yet there I stood, weeping as if someone had just dumped my new Porsche into a river.
“You always cry when we sell a car,” my husband pointed out. “I still don't get it. You're going to be driving a better car. I would think you'd be happy.”
I am happy. I hated worrying about that car breaking down on some dark, nameless road while I was driving my children and elderly mother around. But I am sad, too. A car isn't just a car. It has a life of its own. Or, more accurately, your car contains your life.
For example, one of the first vehicles I ever owned was an ancient, wheezing Renault that my brother kept going with pliers and duct tape. But, whenever I drove it, I felt like a French actress, able to live on croissants and love. It represented who I thought I might become someday: a woman of mystery with many lovers.
The car I owned when I finished graduate school? That was a green Pontiac Sunbird with a six-cylinder engine, courtesy of my mother. She was understandably horrified when I informed her that, with this car, I was going to drive across the country—by myself—to start a new life in San Francisco. That adventure included getting stopped by the police in Colorado because I was driving 90 mph.
“If you were my daughter, I'd throw you in jail just to teach you some common sense,” the cop growled as he wrote out a ticket worth half my month's rent.
That ticket was worth every penny. My Sunbird symbolized my cowgirl self. It was a symbol of freedom and frontier daring—especially when I took that stick-shift dragster up over my first hill in San Francisco and landed with a cinematic thud on the other side.
Next came my sensible working woman's car, a powder blue Honda Civic: good on gas and easy to maintain. I invited that car to come back East with me when I married my first husband.
When I divorced and married for a second time, I added two stepchildren to the two children I already had. This meant buying a car that could fit us all. I went for an Audi Quattro wagon with a clever rear seat. The kids fought over the privilege of riding backwards and making faces at all of the drivers behind us. That Audi represented my determination to remain oh-so-cosmopolitan, giving a nod to my blended family status while stubbornly refusing the stigma of a minivan. I should have stuck with Hondas: that Quattro proved to be such a lemon that it cost more than our mortgage in monthly repairs.
Still, I cried when I sold it. I cried when I sold the Sunbird, the Civic, and even the Honda Odyssey, the beloved (and reliable) minivan I bought after I ditched the Quattro.
Why, why, why the tears?
Because a car isn't just a car. It is who you are, at least for the moment.
Inside your car, there are crumbs on the carpet and sticky wrappers forgotten under the seats. More importantly, there are those conversations you had while driving, the children soothed, the teenagers listened to (or lectured). There are great vacations, the time your best friend told you she had cancer, the year you got divorced, and the summer you landed the job of your dreams. All of those memories are there, embedded in that car as if trapped in amber.
When I sold the Sunbird, I grieved because I had reached an age where I would no longer rocket along the highway at 90 mph. Saying goodbye to my Honda minivan meant no more car seats—and no more babies of my own. So sad.
The Honda CRV? That had the college stickers on the back window. As I watched the guy drive it away from the curb, I wept for the trips I had made to those colleges, with or without my children in the car, mourning the fact that my kids had nearly completed the long, sad, happy process of becoming independent.
With one more child still at home, I now have a new car that I trust and love—a blue Honda CRV. I may not go 90 mph, but I can still plow through snow. This car has already taken my family to Prince Edward Island and back again. Once my new car was covered in that familiar red dirt, I started to feel at home in the driver's seat.
My new life has begun—and adventures await.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

After Buying Our Canadian Dream Farm, Now What?

In two weeks, we're going to face our dream – or our nightmare. That's when we're going to actually start living part-time in our Canadian farmhouse.
The house lies in the far eastern corner of Prince Edward Island in the Canadian Maritimes, about a dozen hours northeast of our house in Massachusetts. We drove past it one day in August – back when there was grass on the ground instead of two feet of snow – and decided to buy it on the spot. The house is a century old and has a sharp peaked roof, like the house that Lucy Maude Montgomery used as the setting for Anne of Green Gables, the island's most famous export other than potatoes. We couldn't get inside the house when we looked at it, but we made an offer anyway, lured by the two barns, an acre of rich farmland, a view of the neighbor's sheep grazing in the fields below, and the red clay road leading to our favorite beach.
My husband Dan and I made the offer by phone – an offer worth less than my brother just paid for his used BMW. We drove back up to the island last October to see the inside of the house with a home inspector, alternating between feeling giddy with excitement and terrified that we were buying a money pit.
We had reason to feel both extremes. Friends who actually live in Canada, and strangers, too, agreed with us that Canada seemed more peaceful and civilized than the U.S. Certainly it's a country less prone to doing things like, say, bombing Libya without a lot of discussion. Others warned us that Canadians want nothing to do with Americans, and reminded us of the blizzards. “Who would want to retire in a place like that instead of Florida?” many asked.
“We would,” we answered.
When we drove up for the home inspection, I was so excited to cross the Confederation Bridge that I leaped out of the car as soon as we stopped – only to have the door of our Honda nearly blow inside out in the wind. My face was needled with freezing rain and my jacket was soaked through in seconds. We had definitely arrived.
We'd arranged to stay in a wonderful B&B in North Lake called Harbour Lights To my surprise, the B&B was owned by Americans not unlike ourselves – a couple who had worked until near retirement in the U.S., then decided their hearts belonged on PEI. Bruce and Pat served us a fantastic home-cooked Chinese meal to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving, and we invited them to our home inspection the next morning.
The weather was gorgeous that night. We took a sunset walk along North Lake Beach that was doused in brilliant pinks, peaches, blues and plums, the sand glowing gold under our feet as we admired the dunes and fishing boats. It was paradise.
The next day was anything but, with weather that included lashing rain, winds, and freezing temperatures again. To add to our discomfort, the utilities in the house had been shut off for the past year.
We were nervous about what we'd find inside. But, instead of the usual horrors of an old house renovated and ruined, we were amazed to find original woodwork and hardwood floors, century-old charm in every room. The house even came with furniture, much of it antique and appealing as well.
“I could live here,” I thought, despite my chattering teeth, as I stood on the porch and looked at the sheep huddled in the fields below.
The house, in every possible way, called to us. We signed the papers that week, and for months afterward, indulged in looking at photos of the house, imagining what we'd do when we lived there. Raise alpacas? Make cheese? Start an arts cooperative? Keep working as a software consultant and a writer? Anything seemed possible!
And then things intervened, causing our house – and our future – to fade from view, to become a backdrop in front of the frenetic light show that is daily life for working parents everywhere. I have an elderly mother to look after, plus a young son still at home. My husband's company laid off half the employees and left everyone else scrambling to meet deadlines. Our four older children, two of them still in college, came and went over the holidays and spring break. We did the taxes. And, in the cracks between, we did the recycling and grocery shopping, volunteered and had occasional nights out with friends. It's a good life, but the kind of life that leaves you gasping at the end of every day, because you've suffocated yourself with obligations.
Now it's spring again, and it's a shock to think that we're going to start turning our dream life into a reality. In two weeks, we will see if our Canadian house is still standing. Meanwhile, I'm arranging meetings with the electrician, the plumber, the roofer, the mower, the heating guy, the painter...and probably more who I haven't thought of yet. If we can get the house liveable, we'll spend as much time as we can there – two months at least – between now and next Christmas. We want to give our future a true test run.
By the time our kids are all launched, with homes and families of their own, we might live in Canada and perhaps become dual citizens – or just travel between the two countries, with an apartment near our children. Who knows where that will be? Our children are all talking about different states – even different coasts – at the moment.
Are we crazy? Will our lives in Canada be saner, more content, more creative? Or will we just transfer the craziness North, and add more stress to our lives?
There's no way to know for sure, of course. But right now Dan and I are looking at each other across the dining table with a fresh glint in our eyes. We're on a new adventure together – with every reason to look forward to the next chapter of our lives.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Grooving with Rihanna, S&M and the Kids in My Car

For the first time in my mothering life, I almost turned the radio off today.
Here's what happened: I was driving my 13 year-old son and his three friends to a skateboard park. The boys were busy doing what most teens do: multitasking with the help of an iPod, two cell phones and a Nintendo DS. As if that weren't enough, they wanted the car radio on, too.
Meanwhile, I was doing what most moms do: multitasking. I had tuned everything out to mentally plan my Saturday circuit: skateboard park, post office, grocery store, hardware store, skateboard park, dinner.
We were stopped at a red light when my son asked me to turn up the car radio. “Hey Mom, here's that song I was telling you about.”
“What song?” I turned up the volume. Frankly, as the mother of five, you could probably let a pair of rhinos loose in my car and I wouldn't even blink. I'd forgotten the radio was even on.
“Rihanna's Spaghetti and Meatballs song. Listen.”
You can see where this is headed, right? I turned up the radio, and there was Rihanna, whose music always has that wonderful danceable beat, but whose lyrics are so repetitive that I usually tune her out with the rest of the noise in the car.
This song, though, was enough to make even four teenaged boys fall silent.
Cause I may be bad, but I'm perfectly good at it
Sex in the air, I don't care, I love the smell of it
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But whips and chains excite me
This is one of those teachable moments that all the experts tell parents about, right? Well, I sure could have used one of those experts in my car right then.
I decided to play the dumb mother card. “I don't get it,” I said. “Why do you call this Rihanna's Spaghetti and Meatballs song?”
“Keep listening, Mom,” my son said.
Lord, did I have to? Well, it couldn't get much worse, I figured. I could survive this teachable moment. After all, just the week before, I'd managed to make it through the entire Greek exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts with a pair of eighth grade boys, despite the seemingly endless array of ancient vases ornamented with satyrs chasing nymphs, penises thrusting like swords. Not to mention all of those paintings of nude women sprawled on couches, beds, chairs and fields. Sex in the air, indeed.
Alas, Rihanna wasn't through yet. Here came the cheesy spaghetti and meatballs chorus on a platter:
S-S-S & M-M-M
S-S-S & M-M-M
Oh, I love the feeling you bring to me, oh, you turn me on
It's exactly what I've been yearning for, give it to me strong
And meet me in my boudoir, make my body say ah ah ah
I like it – like it
“Huh,” I said. “What do you guys think of this song?”
“It's kind of boring,” one kid piped up.
“Yeah,” my son agreed. “You'd think somebody who writes as many songs as Rihanna would be better at it by now. All her songs are about how turned on she is.”
“What about what the song's saying?” I asked. “Do you think she really likes whips and chains?”
“Well, they probably look good in her music videos,” my son's other friend offered. “But most girls probably wouldn't like that.”
“No,” I agreed. “It's a bad idea to hit girls, right?”
“Duh, Mom,” my son said.
Duh, indeed. The boys went back to their conversation about skate parks and video games. Meanwhile, I put the grocery list out of my mind and concentrated on what Rihanna had to say:
Na na na na
Come on, come on, come on
I like it – like it
Come on, come on, come on
I like it – like it
Come on, come on, come on
I like it – like it
S-S-S & M-M-M
S-S-S & M-M-M
S-S-S & M-M-M
S-S-S & M-M-M
I remembered Chris Brown, suddenly, and his assault against Rihanna a few years ago, and I couldn't help but wonder: Is this the song of a liberated, powerful, sexy woman with a message not just for my 13 year-old boys, but for all of those high school girls getting excited about prom night this spring? Or for all of those middle school girls giggling as they share the ear buds of their iPods and talk about boys? Really, Rihanna? Is this the best you can do for them?
Na na na na. You can do better than this.

Friday, February 25, 2011

My iRobot: Can a Useful Gift Be a Romantic One?

The newest member of our family, our iRobot Roomba, arrived as my designated gift on Valentine's Day ( I went out to walk the dogs early that morning, and when I returned, my iRobot was vacuuming the kitchen. To his credit, my husband did glue big red hearts all over its pristine white carapace.
“What the heck is that?” I asked, noting poor McDuff, our elderly Cairn terrier, quivering in his dog bed.
“It's the iRobot 530 Roomba,” Dan announced. “I got it on sale,” he added. “You know how you always say you don't have time to clean. Well, this can help you!”
“Um. Thanks, honey,” I said, watching the iRobot zoom down the hall. “Nothing says I love you like a new vacuum cleaner.”
“This will give you more time to write!” By now, my husband was looking slightly desperate around the eyes. “It cleans while you sit at your desk and create!”
Okay, I had to admit that the idea behind the gift was good. It's true that I'm always complaining about housework. I work out of a home office, so I literally put my hands up like blinders when I walk to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Otherwise, I'm tempted to pick something up or wipe a surface. Then it's like that children's book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: one damn thing leads to another.
I watched as the Roomba returned from the hallway, apparently satisfied with its job there. It was pretty cool, I had to admit. But was a useful gift the same thing as a romantic one?
In the living room, the poor little robot ended up eating a Nintendo cord and nearly choking to death. I freed it and set it gently back down by my son's desk, where it started overdosing on spilled cereal and stopped.
“It's full,” Dan said. “I need to show you how to empty its tray.”
I tried not to glare as he demonstrated the little drawer, pulling it out and dumping the contents into the trash. This was too reminiscent of another gift that Dan surprised me with recently: a giant litter box for our cats that also has a drawer, and a roof, too. You tip the cat box on its side and – stop me if you've heard this before – you pull out the drawer and empty it into the trash. If only those iRobot people would make a Catboxa, I'd be all set.
Since Valentine's Day, I've been thinking more about marriage and romance. Is a cleaning robot the height of romance after fifteen years of marriage?
The Roomba is certainly cuter than the tooth flossing tool Dan gave me one Christmas. And it's nowhere near as pitiful as the gift my friend Francine's husband presented her with this Valentine's Day: a new iron.
“He said it's so it won't take me as long to iron shirts,” she said. “Now I have something to clonk him over the head with.”
It took me a while, but I gradually embraced my Roomba. I've started thinking about it as another pet, albeit one that cleans up after us instead of the other way around. I suppose that's because it sleeps at its iRobot docking station under a side table, right next to McDuff's dog bed.
I've decided that my Roomba is romance at its best. Dan has given me plenty of jewelry and chocolate through the years. I have no doubt that there is more to come (especially after my tepid initial reaction to the Roomba). In giving me an iRobot, Dan was truly thinking of what I need to write more. And what could be more romantic than a husband who believes that his wife deserves more time to create?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Our Muses, Ourselves: Why Women Like Me Run Away From Home

As my friend Susan Straight and I cross the border from Maine into Canada, the customs agent follows the usual script: Where are you going, are you carrying firearms, how long are you staying?
Then he trips me up: “What is the purpose of your visit? Business or pleasure?”
Susan and I glance at each other. Business or pleasure?
I'm not sure.
Susan and I have crossed this border together before. We met in graduate school and have stayed friends despite the fact that I live in Massachusetts and her home is in California. We usually meet in New York when we both have business there. And, for the past decade, Susan has flown east every summer so that we can drive ten hours north from my house to Prince Edward Island.
This year is completely different because we're actually sitting in the same car. On previous trips to Canada, we always brought so many children that we had to caravan in two vans. We have eight kids between us (me, five; her, three). We've also brought stragglers, whenever this child or that one begged to bring a friend. One summer we topped out at ten kids.
Those vacations were fun – endless hours of sand castles and board games – but crammed with chores: cooking and laundry, grocery shopping and vacuuming. Susan is divorced. For understandable reasons, my husband always opted out. So Susan and I were left on our own with the children like some wild combo of Sherpas and camp counselors.
This week, we're traveling to Canada alone in search of our inner muses. We have disguised our sudden decision to have a creative getaway as a janitorial vacation, since we're also opening up our summer cottages – she bought one on Prince Edward Island shortly after I did, and we rent them out to help support costs – but our goal is to devote uninterrupted hours to writing.
This goal makes me feel clammy with guilt. But why should it? I wonder about this as we meander along the Bay of Fundy. Guilt is a useless emotion. Yet I'm prone to it, especially when faced with a choice between what I “should” do and whatever I want to do most – as if doing something that makes me happy will make someone else unhappy.
Oh, wait: Escaping the home front to write does make the people I love unhappy. When I left this morning to pick up Susan at the airport, my husband was griping about having to leave work early to care for our youngest son, who stood with his forlorn face pressed against the door. My four older kids wanted to know if I'll have email and cell service, “just in case.” Even our dogs looked miserable.
As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her timeless book, Gift from the Sea, my husband and children, my mother and friends, my home and pets, my neighbors and coworkers represent “a whole caravan of complications.” Leaving them behind for the sake of creativity makes me feel like I have phantom limbs: I itch all over.
Susan isn't doing much better. Luckily, we have time to talk about this, to shore each other up as we drive north, despite our cell phones singing with alarming regularity as our various children and work colleagues reach out to us through the state of Maine and most of New Brunswick.
Why the guilt? Like most women, Susan and I are people pleasers, willing to charge in to fill the black holes of need around us, even if that means sacrificing the time and concentration we need to be creative. Making art – whether it's music, drawing, dancing or writing – demands full attention and passion, but that ability to focus is easily worn down, especially for women with families.
Especially because, in our culture, art so rarely pays enough to put food on the table. With no money in art except for those lucky few breakout writers and artists, there is no power in doing it. Making art definitely feels like a luxury. Maybe that's because art takes so much time, and it's our precious free time that the people around us want most.
I can feel the hot breaths of everyone I left behind on the back of my neck as I drive.


I had imagined us rising early to write. After all, novelist Virginia Woolf proclaimed that every woman needs a room of one's own to do so. But Susan and I are so exhausted by the time we arrive at my house on Prince Edward Island – a modest summer cottage overlooking Malpeque Bay – that we can barely force ourselves out of bed once we have those precious rooms to ourselves.
Instead, we lie in our separate rooms as if we've been clubbed over the head. This isn't exhaustion from the drive; it's more like battle fatigue. Or shell shock: my ears are actually ringing a little. I think it's the silence.
We spend the first day doing chores, like that essential trip to town to replace everything from garbage bags to shower mats. We also go walking. The first day, we traverse the red beach around Darnley basin as if our lives depend upon making it from one end to the other, taking long, purposeful strides, arms pumping.
On the second day, house chores behind us, we take a different sort of walk. This one is a meandering stroll along the shore road that ends at Shipwreck Point. We see people doing more ambitious things: mowing lawns, jogging, carrying groceries into a house. It's almost like watching a movie of real life while we're in motion. We carry no cell phones, no purses. It's just us and the wildflowers and great, billowy white clouds that look like props for a theater piece.
That night, some sort of magic happens. We eat a simple supper of sandwiches and then get to work.
I sit at the little desk in my bedroom overlooking the potato fields and write almost maniacally, churning out sentences which build paragraphs that I might or might not keep. I don't turn out the light until 2 a.m., because there's nothing to stop me: No big kitchen cleanup waiting downstairs, no cell phone service, no email, no cable TV, no husband. Susan sits downstairs editing her new book galleys. We are completely separate, yet it's perfect, since each of us knows that the other is blissfully working.
I have so many good things in my life. Yet being here makes me realize how fractured my life is, with bits of my attention scattered everywhere like pocketfuls of gravel.
How did I let my life get so crowded?


Susan's summer house is an hour's drive from mine. One of her tasks is to buy new mattresses for the twin beds, so we track down a place that sells them at discount. We already have a carload of stuff. Still, rather than make another, separate trip to pick up the mattresses and waste valuable writing time, we jam the mattresses into the back of my Honda CRV on top of everything else.
The mattresses are so long that we have to remove the headrests and put our seats all the way forward. I have to keep my neck bent forward toward the dashboard; it's easy to imagine getting decapitated if we stop too suddenly. I do a little praying that the Canadian Mounties won't arrest us for driving with no visibility.
Then I have this comforting thought: This being Canada, the jail cells are probably really, really clean. If I'm locked up, the guards will let me write and I still wouldn't have to dust or cook.
We make it to Susan's house, then spend the rest of the day vacuuming up millions of fly corpses littering the windowsills and clearing out closets. We're both sore and exhausted by the time we finish. It's too late to go out to dinner, so we dine on fried sausages and potatoes. Then I set up my computer in the dining room and write for four hours. I can hear Susan tapping on her laptop in the kitchen. She is an award-winning novelist whose newest novel, Take One Candle Light a Room, is a gem. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, was put out in paperback this year. We're pleased to be published in this rocky economy. For us, though, the excitement has always been about the actual writing.
I have never been so content as I am right now. Men have always claimed wives and mistresses as their muses. Susan and I have ourselves and, for this week, we have each other. Are we writing masterpieces? Are we even writing something that other people will ever read?
It doesn't matter. The joy is in the creative act.
Women have always found satisfaction in being helpful. There is joy in that and love, too. Women are also creating some of the most exciting and challenging art today. Yet we still aren't catching up to our male colleagues in the arts. Look at the numbers for everything from cinematography to writing, from painting to conducting music, and men win out every time.
Feminists would probably say that there is a glass ceiling in the arts, as there has been in nearly every other field. I'm certainly a feminist. Still, I wonder if more women artists, musicians and writers aren't household names because we don't have enough faith in our own pursuits to give ourselves the time we desperately need to be transformed by a creative vision. Maybe that glass ceiling isn't really made of glass at all, but of sticky little fingers, dishes piled in the sink, and mortgages that demand two incomes.
Not long after my first two children were born – 16 months apart, so close together that I was in a coma for the first three years of motherhood – I went to a book signing by a famous mystery writer. He mentioned that he, too, had young children, so I eagerly approached him after the event to ask how he managed to find time to write fiction with young children at home.
“I have a wife,” he said.
It's true: Even when women have partners or spouses, our significant others often send messages that they'd rather do something – anything – rather than take over child care and housework. It's easy to rant about this, to say that women's lives would be easier if men did their fair share around the house. However, even when our partners are willing to shoulder domestic duties in equal measure, we often get in our own way by refusing to let them. We want to read that bedtime story. We think we're the only ones who can pack the right school lunch. And we long to be the ones greeting the school bus in the afternoon if we can arrange our work schedules to do so.
Many women arrange their lives around the people they love. Unfortunately, that arrangement takes up most of our days. And, as the writer Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, genius isn't a matter of genetics, but of opportunities and persistence: He estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at doing something.
Nobody will give us those 10,000 hours. We have to take them for ourselves.


At the end of the week, we walk on St. Margaret's Beach. I'm in beachcomber mode, stooping to pick up stones that catch my eye. Susan wants to climb the cliffs. She hikes ahead of me and is soon clambering around on distant rocks, farther than I want to go without any shoes.
When I'm tired of picking up rocks, I decide to return to the car and get my book so that I can read until Susan returns. Then it dawns on me: she has my car keys.
For a moment, I'm irritated – why did she have to disappear like that? – and then I feel helpless. What will I do, all by myself on a beach, without even anything to read?
I sit on a boulder, disgruntled, and pile the rocks I've collected beside me. There's nothing to do but watch the waves wash in and out, frothy and pink on the red sand.
Watch the waves, and think. I remember another book signing I went to a long time ago. This one was by the political activist and short story writer Grace Paley. I asked her the same question that I'd asked the arrogant mystery writer: How did she find time to write with young children at home?
“Day care,” she said. “Don't ever be afraid to pay for writing time.”
Easier said than done. For most women, paying a babysitter so that they can write, paint, make pottery or dance is out of the question. Even for women without children, trading hours that produce income for hours that produce “only” art seems like a foolish decision.
What a loss for the world, though, to have women's voices silenced because art is our last priority. Even if we aren't making great art, or commercial art, the very act of creating it is a joyful, transformative experience, one where we explore new emotions and perspectives, ideas and values.
I think hard about this while I sit on the beach. I think about the pages I've written this week, too, and about the way my novel is progressing.
And then, after a while, I'm not thinking much at all, just contentedly watching the force of the ocean, and how the waves make the rocks roll around and create such beautiful patterns in the smooth red sand. I build a little pyramid out of the rocks I've collected. I watch some pulpy kelp become draped over a rock, then wash out to sea again. I dig my toes deeper into the sand. I admire the swallows darting in and out of the cliff above me. My mind is clear.
I am just here. I am here, just me. Through writing, I have discovered a wonderfully still place inside me that I've never seen before. It's good to be here.
Eventually, of course, Susan returns from her walk. I write again that night, staying up until well past 2 a.m. solving a particularly vexing dilemma in the plot of my new novel. The images are fresh and there is tension on the page.
The drive back is lovely and uneventful. Our cell phones chorus again in the middle of New Brunswick, and by mid-coast Maine we've talked to all of our children. Everyone has survived.
We reach my house just before nine o'clock. “Well?” my husband asks. “How was it? Did you write anything you can sell?”
“I don't know,” I tell him. “I missed you,” I add.
I toss dirty clothes into the washing machine, clean the kitchen after dinner, check my email, walk the dogs, help my son order new parts for his scooter online. I make a grocery list.
During all of this, I can feel my brain starting to thrum with activity. The still place inside me has disappeared again. But at least I know how to get there, and who to call when I need help on the journey.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Superhero Underpants

I came upstairs last night and found my husband Dan pulling something out of the laundry stacked on his bureau. He looked puzzled.
“These aren't my underpants,” he said. “Whose are they?”
I snatched them out of his hands. “Mine,” I mumbled.
“They look like superhero underpants,” he said. “I should buy you a cape to go with them.”
It was true. This particular pair of panties – a bit high in the waist, Lycra, and deep purple – definitely looks like something Wonder Woman might have worn, if she'd ever wanted to change up the star-spangled bottoms she favored before DC Comics updated her outfit recently
It wasn't my intent to get into superhero role playing, fun as that would be. I'm just always on the prowl for underpants suitable for women of a certain age. I'm not talking about trying to be sexier. My husband thinks I'm a hot temptress even in my ankle-length black down coat, which makes me look like Shamu the killer whale. I just want attractive underpants that won't divulge my secrets or make me twitchy as a sixth grader in social studies.
Forget thongs. I've tried them all, from those Hanky Panky brands that come in fun little balls of Easter Egg colors to wider, more modest pairs. Whether I'm sitting at my computer or pushing a cart full of groceries, wearing a thong guarantees that I'll get a wedgie. Then I have to remind myself: Oh, wait: that's not a wedgie, that's my thong! Plus, the way jeans are designed these days, if I bend over, everyone knows my favorite color.
Bikini panties are comfy, but it's tough to find styles where the lines don't show. That leads to teenagers walking behind you and thinking, “Ew, gross.” Plus, after you've had children, wearing a bikini just reminds you of how it felt when there was something between you and tying your shoes, because the waistband slices you right where those last stubborn post-pregnancy pounds hang out.
The obvious solution was boy shorts, I thought: good coverage, but still lacy and sexy. Unfortunately, boy shorts seem to be made for boys. Every pair I tried had leg bands so tight that my thighs looked like sausages pinched at the ends.
Maybe the answer was underwear that went right up to my bra, I decided last summer, when I got a dress and the clerk talked me into buying Spanx for a smoother look. At home, I laid out my new dress, put my makeup on, and did my hair with a mounting sense of excitement. After all, Spanx has been giving Oprah a waist for over a decade
At last, I was ready for my miracle foundation garment debut. I pulled the Spanx out of its slim packet. It was skin-colored and felt crunchy between my fingers. It stretched like pantyhose between my hands, but had an odd shape: a square top and legs cut off at the knees. It looked like a preschool craft project. There was no crotch. I tried not to imagine the disaster that might unfold if I guffawed at someone’s party joke and needed to pee.
Nonetheless, I inserted one leg, then the other, wriggling the garment over my thighs. When it came to getting the Spanx over my hips, it was like being swallowed by a boa constrictor.
My new dress did slide more easily over my waist and hips. However, just as a miracle bra gathers flesh from back to front to make you look like you've strapped on a pair of bowling balls, the Spanx gathered everything in my middle and squeezed it up under my ribcage. I was gasping for air like a dying trout.
Dan came upstairs and slid his arms around my newly tight waist. Our eyes met in the mirror. “Great dress,” he said, then cocked his head. “It fits kind of funny around your waist.”
“What waist?” I said with a moan.
“Your sexy, gorgeous waist.” Dan says things like this to me every day, and means them. But now he grabbed my hips and winced. “What the hell are you wearing? It feels like you’re made of cement.”
He wasn't trying to be critical. Dan is an engineer who just likes to know how things work. I hiked my dress up to show him.
“Jesus!” he said. “That can’t be very comfortable. Why are you wearing it?”
Why, indeed? My Spanx has been in my top drawer ever since, along with my discarded thongs, boy shorts and bikinis. Meanwhile, my superhero underpants have risen to the top of the heap. They're comfortable enough for Spin class and don't show panty lines even under leggings. I am Wonder Woman, after all. Time to go shopping for that gold belt.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Is Any High School Really Worth $136,000?

As always, my 13 year-old son has waited until bedtime to download his anxieties. He's a bright, sensitive kid whose worries run the gamut from global warming to how long his gerbil will live.
Tonight his questions revolved around his private school applications, which we submitted just before Christmas. Will he be admitted to any of the schools he applied to? We calculate the odds. What if he gets into all of them? How will he choose? We talk about visit days and how he can decide which school suits him best. What if he starts at one school and decides he'd rather be at another? We discuss that, too.
The one thing we don't talk about is money. I'm glad. Not because I'm avoiding the issue – well, maybe just a little – but because I still haven't managed to wrap my mind around how much money a private high school education costs.
My husband and I are already tiptoeing through the college tuition minefield. We have two older sons who have just graduated from college. Our two daughters are still at university. We've paid and paid for our kids to grow into educated, worldly citizens with college degrees in hand. That's been tough enough. So what business do I have, thinking that I should pay $136,000 for this last kid of ours to attend a so-called “independent school” for grades 9 through 12? What will our son get for this money? A gold-plated locker?
We didn't start down this road by choice. We went to public high schools. Our four older children also went to public high schools and thrived. They played sports, participated in music and theater, belonged to clubs, did the proms and parties. They complained about the usual things: boring classes, teachers who yelled, mean kids, crowded classrooms, stupid homework assignments. Yet all four of them were accepted by good colleges, even Ivy League schools. They majored in subjects that ignited their passions. Our two graduates – one in 2009, the other in 2010 – even managed to find jobs right away in their chosen fields. Hallelujah!
Our youngest son, though, has been different from the start. He always hated his public school, starting with kindergarten, where he fumed about rest time. Why would he rest, when there were so many other, more interesting things to do?
In elementary school, he was chastised soundly by one teacher for making a gingerbread house that wasn't like the A-frame house his teacher showed them, but more like a Frank Lloyd Wright design, all flat roofs and porches. A fifth grade teacher complained that he asked too many questions that weren't on topic, while he ranted about her making mistakes, especially in science. He was selected for the Gifted and Talented Program in fourth grade, but that consisted of just more research papers. He hated going, but went because it got him out of class.
Here in Massachusetts, we have a tense, worksheet-driven MCAS curriculum that puts teachers and kids through their paces so fast that there's little room to do anything else. “Don't learn the math in that chapter,” one teacher warned our son. “Those problems aren't on the MCAS test.”
By the time he hit middle school, our son was complaining about “having to learn too many dumb things that I can't remember” as well as the typical mean or absent-minded teachers. His classmates bothered him, too. Their idea of fun was to push each other into lockers, smoke dope between classes, or de-pants each other in the hallway. His “most exciting day at school ever” was when his seventh grade math teacher lost his temper and chased one ornery kid down the halls with a chair.
At home, meanwhile, our son continued to be enthusiastic about everything, especially when he was building machines, like an automatic card shuffler or a robot that fed his fish for him automatically once a day. “School is just something I have to get through until I can come home and learn things,” he told me with a shrug. “I can't wait until I'm old enough to drop out.”
Uh oh. In desperation, I stopped by a local Montessori School to ask about their middle school program. Amazingly, they had space for him. Even more shocking, we could afford it. Yes, ten grand was a lot of money. But, if it made our son love going to school, it would be worth it. We were fortunate enough to have an education fund for him. We decided to use part of it for middle school instead of saving all of it for college. “It's just a different resource allocation,” my husband rationalized. I saw it as an incubation period, one where he could take a breather from the rigors of public school.
The result was shocking. Our son was transformed within a few weeks. He was happy, polite, and sweet again. He was not only allowed, but encouraged, to follow his interests at school. The first year, he built a camel out of wire and paper as a visual aid for a research project on the desert; he also built an architectural model of our bathroom to scale, and performed as Lysander in Midsummer Night's Dream, reciting Shakespeare in the car on the way to and from school.
“This doesn't even feel like school,” he confessed one day. “It's more like a place where everyone wants to learn things, even the teachers.”
It was true that Montessori didn't feel like a “real” school to me, either. There were no chairs lined in rows. The students wore slippers in the classroom. They snacked when they felt like it, worked together or alone as they wished, and called teachers by their first names. It felt more like learning in someone's living room. The philosophy of Montessori – that each child is naturally curious, and will do the work of learning if you just get out of his way, guiding him only as necessary – might as well have been designed for our son. It seemed to work for lots of other kids, too.
Alas, our Montessori School goes only through eighth grade. Now we're making another transition. Hence our dilemma: We've seen what a difference this private school education made in our son's life. We'd like to keep his enthusiasm level for learning high. But is it really worth paying $136,000 for a high school education?
Most New England independent schools average around $32,000 per year just for day student tuition – not much less than most colleges. These schools look like colleges, too, with their glassy science buildings, smart boards, indoor rowing machines, ice hockey rinks, music studios and playing fields. You name it, they have it: debate team, Latin, Chinese, AP Physics, study abroad, science internships, math teams. The teachers have masters and doctoral degrees. There are just 12 to 14 kids in a class. Who wouldn't want to go to a high school like that, especially if it's filled with other students and teachers who actually want to learn?
But – and again, I ask this in all earnestness, because I really don't know – is an independent school education really a better start in life than a public school education? Part of me thinks yes, absolutely, at least for this child. My hope is that our youngest will find a high school that fits him as well as Montessori has, and that his high school years will help him continue to blossom as a passionate lifelong learner; a concerned citizen of the world; and a confident, loving, generous young adult.
Then I am seized by doubts that aren't just nagging. They're like hammerhead blows to the back of my neck: What if we lose our jobs, I wonder, and we suddenly can't pay for this mythical, magical high school with smart boards and, for all I know, unicorns? What if one of us dies in the next four years, and we can't afford college because there is only one household income, and we've blown our education fund on high school?
Or what if paying $136,000 for a private school education turns out to be a mistake for other reasons? What if this money only continues to shelter my son from knowing what it's like to be around people who struggle every day to put food on the table and gas up their cars?
What if, by going to a school where it's considered normal for every child to have a laptop computer and a North Face jacket, he becomes one of the elite people who don't try to change the world, because they're busy maintaining their status quo?
My son is asleep by now. But I am wide awake, thinking about all of the decisions that we parents make for our children that are so much bigger than the here and now, starting with the kind of education we give them – both in and out of the classroom.