In the Company of Writers

I'm Going to BlogHer Writers '11!

BlogHer Writers was a one-day conference for … well, writers who blog. Two hundred of us gathered for a day of education and sharing, and if the enthusiastic conversations on Twitter are any indication, the other 199 enjoyed it as much as I did. All the elements of an awesome conference — knowledgeable and articulate presenters, well-designed sessions and workshops, and relevant topics yielding many takeaways — were in place. Best of all, this was a community of smart and savvy women (and a few good men) who also happened to be NICE PEOPLE. What a pleasure it was to spend the day with them.

I’m a writer because I love to write. Always have. Yet my unfinished novel sits waiting for me to complete it. What’s my problem?  Oh, I have a million excuses, like working full-time and being too tired at night and not having the time, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and time marches on. How much longer can I procrastinate? The time has come to stop kvetching and start producing.

I started this blog, booksiswonderful, to flex my creative writing muscles which were mightily in need of the exercise. A writer needs to write (a recurrent theme at the conference). Most successful writers will tell you that they produce something every day. It doesn’t have to be perfection. It just needs to get typed on that Word document. That is what I need to do.

The well-spoken presenters at BlogHer Writers talked frankly about the publishing process, the challenges to the industry (increased costs, disappearance of Border’s and Oprah’s Book Club, growth of self-publishing, among others) and the even more intense competition for writers. But the good news is that new talent is still being sought, and literary agents often read blogs to discover that talent.

What else did I learn? Here’s a smattering:

Using the f-bomb in blogs is OK.

Getting rejected by a gazillion agents is normal and does not mean your book is worthless. Nor does it mean that you are without talent.

It is important to get rid of toxic people in your life.

Editors and book cover designers usually, but not always, get it right.

Scrivener is worth looking into.

Publishers really do look out for your best interests.

A blog is not a book. But good writing transcends all.

I hoped this conference would teach me HOW. How to get started, how to shake off the self-doubt. How to just do it.

I came away feeling inspired. I think I can, I think I can.

I know I can.

BlogHer Writers, I will see you next year. With book proposal in hand.

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Holy Baseball!

Sundown tonight marks the beginning of the holiest 24 hours on the Jewish calendar. The evening service, known as Kol Nidre, ushers in Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, a somber period of fasting, reflection and repentance, which lasts until sundown tomorrow night.

According to Jewish belief, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to seal the verdict. We take a frank look at mistakes we have made in the past year, and what we can do to right those wrongs. We consider ways to become a better person.

This day of introspection and prayer is preceded by a hearty evening meal of challah, brisket or chicken, noodle kugel or other calorie-laden Jewish dishes that purport to stave off the hunger pangs tomorrow (note: it doesn’t work). After our bellies are stuffed with apple cake and rugelach, we will stagger from the table and leave for synagogue.

But … wait a minute. Isn’t there a baseball game tonight? The Very Important Game 5 of the National League Division Series between our beloved Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals?

Oy.

This is a perfect example of religious beliefs and modern culture colliding in a most inconvenient way.

This dilemma has presented itself in the past, perhaps most famously in the case of Sandy Koufax. Jewish people are fond of recalling the decision of the legendary Brooklyn/ L.A. Dodgers pitcher who declined to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. A mensch (good person), say the Chosen People with pride. Really? question those for whom baseball IS a religion.

My friends, unlike the ancient scribes who pondered these things for a living, I do not have the answer. Nor will I judge you one way or the other, whatever your decision may be. I will leave you with a joke published in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning:

A guy calls his rabbi and says, “Rabbi? I have a problem. I have tickets to the Phillies-St. Louis game and it’s Yom Kippur. What should I do?”

“No problem,” says the rabbi. “You can record it.”

“Oh!” the guy cries. “That’s great! I didn’t know you could record Kol Nidre!”

Shana Tova, and may all of you, no matter what your faith, be inscribed in the Book of Life.

And go Phillies!

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My Little Town

The lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s tune have haunted me this morning, especially these:

Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

With the news (read the New York Times article here) that Reading, Pa. is now the most poverty-stricken city in the United States, I am overwhelmed with sadness for my hometown, a place that seemed so idyllic as I grew up.

I had the best childhood, the kind every kid should have, filled with opportunity and fearlessness and life lessons that prepared me for adulthood. The children of Reading now have little hope of living the life I have led.

As a child, I had dreams that had every likelihood of being fulfilled. Today, the children of Reading don’t dare to dream, or hope. If current trends continue, only 63% of them will graduate from high school. Just 8% will get a college degree. Too many of them will have babies way too soon, and the downward spiraling continues.

On summer nights I was lulled to sleep by the sound of cicadas. The children of Reading are awakened by gunfire or other forms of violence.  Because with poverty comes desperation and lawlessness.

What happened to Reading? The factories left. The outlets left. The young people left. The minority population surged, along with it the rates of unemployment, crime and drop-outs from high school.

My high school friends and I have remained close, with treasured memories we love to share. We never miss a reunion, our most recent one having taken place just last month. We often comment on how well our classmates have fared. So many have gone on to have thriving careers, successful relationships, truly rewarding lives. We came from different backgrounds, but our parents and teachers gave us the gift of believing that the world was ours for the taking.

The children of Reading will not look back on their high school years the way we do, if in fact they last in school that long.

Reading, my little town, I weep for you.

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Slam Dunk

It is dark and the house is still except for my softly snoring husband. Not even the earliest rising birds have begun to ruffle their feathers in wakefulness. I am in deep REM slumber with at least an hour of delicious sleep yet to savor. Suddenly, my dreams are interrupted by an intensely cold wetness on the back of my neck.  My eyes fly open and I fling myself over to come face to face with a freckled white, not to mention cold and wet, nose.

I yawn. Duncan apologizes with his happy canine smile. I feel the flutter of a cooling breeze as his furiously wagging tail fans my face. “Dunk,” I whisper, as I glance at the clock in disbelief, “do you know what time it is?”

I feign indignation, but he knows he’s got me wrapped around his paw (or “pawsie,” the baby talk term I use with him. Yes, I’m hopelessly sappy). I rub the sleep from my eyes as he gazes at me adoringly while resting his head on my leg. I throw back the covers and head for the bathroom to pull on my sweats. Duncan does a happy dance and prances around the bedroom, which rouses Zoe from her spot in the corner. Arching her back in a morning stretch, she trots over to rub against my leg. The three of us make our way through the dark to the kitchen, and my two furry friends wait patiently for their breakfast.

I am a morning person and treasure this brief respite before my busy day gets fully underway. As the sun begins to rise, I make a pot of coffee and putter around the kitchen while Duncan and Zoe crunch away. After a quick scan of the headlines and a few moves on Words with Friends, I ask Duncan if he is ready for his walk. He has never turned me down.

My day begins with quiet “me” time, a chance to reflect and prepare, and best of all, expressions of unconditional love from two of the most adorable creatures ever. Who needs that extra hour of sleep, anyway?

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9/11 Ten Years Later

I was up earlier than usual that day, feeling reasonably peppy and up for some exercise. Hurriedly finishing my first cup of coffee, I laced up my sneakers, zipped my hoodie and headed outside for a run. It was pitch black and the sky was studded with twinkling stars. I inhaled the crisp September air and started to compile my mental checklist of what was on tap for this Tuesday, September 11. Drop off the kids a few minutes early, I reminded myself. Gotta get to work in time for an 8:30 meeting.

The streets were quiet, most houses dark with slumber. I jogged up and down the hills of my neighborhood to the beat of Bruce Springsteen in my headphones. As the sun began to rise, I reached the last leg and chugged toward home. My neighbor’s son stood on the corner waiting for the school bus. “Hey Ben!” I called out to him. He waved.

Aren’t we all reliving that day, September 11, 2001, and don’t we remember every tiny detail? The day that began like any other. A normal Tuesday morning, distinguished perhaps by the vivid blue sky. Normalcy turned into something too awful to have ever imagined. The disbelief that a plane, no, four planes, could be used to attack our country. The confusion, panic, not knowing if my city, Philadelphia, was next to be attacked. The surreality of a traffic jam in mid-morning as office buildings emptied with horrified Americans desperate to get home, to pick up their kids, be with their families. Looking up at that cloudless sky, so deeply blue, now devoid of planes. Glued to the TV, unable to do much of anything else, except cry.

I was in the midst of that 8:30 meeting. A colleague sat in my office. We heard a commotion out by the secretaries’ station. Someone had called with the news. Dumbfounded, we all rushed into a conference room and turned on the television, just in time to see the second plane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Life changed forever for all of us that instant.

Today, ten years later, we remember this achingly sad day forever known as 9/11. Our country’s pain has not dulled, not really. That terrible day is so fresh in our memory, could ten years really have elapsed since then?

We grieve for the innocent men, women and children who lost their lives that day. We grieve for the families whose suffering will never end, the children who are growing up without the love of a parent, the parents whose children never came home.

We will never forget. Not ten years later. Not ever.

9/11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial (Photo credit: InSapphoWeTrust)

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Serena Williams, You Got Game

Serena Williams delivering a serve.

Serena Williams delivering a serve. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Serena Williams has faced difficulties of all shapes, sizes and colors with a positive attitude. Perhaps she was preordained, by virtue of her given name, to have the ability to find inner calm in the face of adversity. Her determination and focus have everything to do with why she is still a contender in this year’s U.S. Open.

Serena and her older sister, Venus, were an anomaly when they burst onto the USTA circuit ten years ago. For starters, they were beautiful African-American women, muscular and awesomely strong. Also, they were insulated from the professional tennis circles by their father. Overbearing and even disturbing at times, Richard Williams had nonetheless managed to coach his talented daughters to super-stardom with his own rules, answering to nobody, and he obviously knew what he was doing.

Serena and Venus faced plenty of haters and doubters in their early years, maybe even still to this day. Skepticism, catcalls, and indifference if not antipathy from other players in the circuit was what they dealt with every day. But they almost always kept their cool, and I give them tons of credit for that. Relentlessly poked and prodded in interviews, they took the high road, in their soft-spoken way.

There was a famous incident a couple of years ago between Serena and a line judge. Serena lost it, and was fined accordingly. She is not perfect. If there are other examples of her losing her composure, though, I am not aware of them. Yes, her frustration sometimes gets the better of her, but she can psych herself back into the zone really well.

She’s had her ups and downs, plagued with a number of injuries, and missed several tournaments this year. Seeded #28, she came to the U.S. Open this year expecting no less of herself than when she was ranked #1. Fighting every step of the way, she has again showed her brilliance. Tomorrow she faces Carolyn Wozniacki in the semi-finals.

Serena, go out there and wow us again. I’m rooting for you.

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Freshmen Orientation 101

If you are a college student or the parent of one, I don’t need to tell  you that your summer is over.

No matter what the calendar says, the fall semester is here, or almost. Most freshmen report for Orientation about now, with classes beginning shortly. Remember the good old days, when the fall semester started after Labor Day?

Yes, cars packed to the brim with necessities, like shower caddies and extra-long bed sheets and laptops, are chugging along the highways destined for college campuses. With a mixture of sadness and relief, parents move their children in to their new homes away from home, and return to the old homestead, tearfully wondering where the years went.

By then, however, the newly minted freshmen are getting to know their room mates and finding out how cool it is to be in college. And once they begin Orientation, the fun really begins.

If you are a new college parent, let me tell you that Orientation is a whole new ball of wax from what it was in our day. The tedious stuff, like registering for classes, is done in advance online. Orientation is now Party Central.

Do you remember your Orientation? It was like, what, one day of intense boringness? Perhaps something like this happened on your first day.

You arrive on campus and have no idea where to go. A cheerful upperclassman directs you to the gym.

The gym is at least 125 degrees because, after all, these are the dog days of summer and there is no AC. You stand in line to register for a course, beads of perspiration dotting your upper lip. Finally, it is your turn. An unsmiling administrator hands you a course slip. You suddenly realize, uh oh, there’s a conflict. You’ve made a mistake. Unsmiling Administrator is motioning to the student behind you. You back away slowly.

Ugh. You’ve scheduled Sosh and Econ for the same time block. You glance furtively around the gym. No one else seems to be having an issue. Students are happily exiting the gym with their well-conceived course schedules. You start to doubt your college worthiness.

You get back in line. This time to drop/add. You drop Sosh and add Ballroom Dancing. It’s the only course left.

Off to the bookstore you go. There are lines snaking around the store. You search the shelves for dozens of required textbooks. Almost finished, you manage to drop your armload  of books. All over the floor. Which you wish you could drop through somehow. You feel the intensity of many curious eyes as you scramble to gather your things.

Cute Guy standing in line offers to help. He asks you where you live, what your major is, what your sign is. Turns out he’s taking Ballroom Dancing, too. Things start looking better. Maybe college will be OK after all.

And now, as a college graduate and the mother of three college graduates, I still wax nostalgic this time every year. Freshmen, I hope you will soak up every experience during these once-in-a-lifetime, incredibly exhausting, amazingly wonderful four years.

And parents? You’ll miss them. But the empty nest can be kind of nice, too.

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Jon and Kate and Kendra and Tatum and Ashley

I’ve been harboring a secret that is bursting to get out. What I am about to tell you may change your mind about me. You might think I’m, well, shallow.

Deep breath.

I stand before you and shamefully admit to an addiction.

No, it’s not drinking. I assure you that I am a one-glass-of-wine kind of girl. Nor is it drugs. Are you kidding? I can’t even take a Tylenol PM without getting woozy.

My nasty habit is … dum da dum … reality TV.

I can trace my addiction back several years when, absently channel surfing one evening, I came across something called Jon and Kate Plus 8. With index finger poised to move on to the next channel, I stopped in mid click. Whoa! How adorable were those kids? Would you look at that, eight of them! I guiltily settled in for what felt like legal voyeurism, intrigued by control freak Kate, impassive Jon and the chaotic day in, day out with their lively brood.

I was hooked. I got to know each little tyke by name (the two twins, Mady and Kara, should have their own show). Like a doting grandmother, I oohed and aahed when Kate dressed them in identical outfits. I loved the little day trips they took — to the zoo, to a Phillies game, or simply the grocery store. Even the potty training episodes brought a knowing smile to my face.

Then came Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a Hollywood fractured fairy tale featuring whiny, raven-haired, olive-skinned princesses with fancy cars and an eponymous boutique, a bossy loudmouth mom and faded Olympics superstar stepdad Bruce Jenner. Their lifestyle fascinated me, as did the absence of any discernible talent on the part of the princesses.

Next were the Girls Next Door, starring Kendra, Holly and Bridget, with Hugh Hefner making an occasional pajama-clad appearance. I ignored the creepiness and happily followed the crazy exploits of the girls until Kendra decided that 20-somethings and 80-somethings don’t really have all that much in common and left the Mansion for younger football-playing Hank.

So of course I had to watch Dancing with the Stars since Kendra was in it and, although she was eliminated in just a few weeks, I got completely swept up in the drama with Kirstie and Max (were they an item off-screen, do you think?) and the amazing dancing of Chelsea and Mark. The addiction got worse.

Before long I was sucked into The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Can true love spring from a reality show? I wondered. Ali and Roberto found their way, but sadly, like the withering petals on the final rose, romance died for Emily and Brad as soon as the season ended. The next season featured Ashley, a Penn dental student and Brad reject, now searching for another Mr. Right. And she found him in J.P., the studly construction manager from Long Island, leaving second-place Ben at the altar. Poor Ben.

Perhaps most achingly poignant is Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals. After years of estrangement and bitterness, this father and  daughter have resolved to give their relationship one final chance. In stark and rather uncomfortable sessions with their psychiatrists, we watch them peel back layer after layer of resentment to try to uncover the familial love that existed long ago. I find it hard to watch, but hard to turn away.

Maybe it’s because I am secure in my reassuringly humdrum life that I can peek into these other worlds with fascination but not jealousy. I liken these forays to the thrill a sociologist must get when embarking on an anthropological dig, exploring unusual customs in a native habitat.

Life under a microscope must be lucrative, and fame must be irresistible, but I will contentedly remain perched on the outside looking in. And enjoy every minute. But that’s between you and me.

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Without Borders

This was a tough week. I unhappily bid farewell to a friend who was always entertaining, full of light and had an uncanny knack of drawing me in. Naively, perhaps, I thought our relationship would last forever. So I am in denial that things are over.

RIP, Borders.

My sadness is tinged with a bit of indignation. What does this say about our culture that a well-respected, successful, forward-thinking corporation that sells BOOKS has sputtered out of steam? Was this a long time coming, or did I ignore the signs of malaise? Was the writing on the wall, as it were, when mom and pop bookshops collapsed one by one like stricken toy soldiers?  We mourned the end of that era but understood the economics. Rising coats, competition, we got it.

But not big, strong, iconic Borders??

With the announcement of the closure came a collective moan could be heard across the land. Well, in my office, anyway. Author Jennifer Weiner tweeted, “Very first reading for my very first book was at Borders on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Sad to see them go.”

Does Borders’ demise sound the death knell for the few bookstores that remain? For the record, let me disclose that yes, I do order books online. Amazon is easy and efficient, and the free shipping is enticing. But it is simply not the same experience.

Will the next generation of readers, the multi-tasking, attention-challenged, sensation-hungry demographic that it is, ever while away a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon at the neighborhood bookstore? Will our grandchildren yawn when we describe the art of browsing bookshelves with heads tilted 45 degrees, contentedly shuffling sideways as we perused new titles and old favorites? Will they roll their eyes when we wax rhapsodic about the joy of selecting a book and rifling through its pages?

You can’t take your kids to Amazon and let them roam free in the children’s section while you nose around the cookbook stacks and your husband gets absorbed listening to tracks of new releases in the music section. Same goes for story hour, author appearances and girl scouts cookie sales by the front door.

Borders was my go to store more than any other. I caught up friends over a cup of coffee. As an alumni admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I sat with prospective students in the comfy armchairs. If I needed to buy gifts, Borders afforded one stop shopping, with free gift wrap, no less. Best of all, though, was the idle time spent looking and savoring, and often discovering literary gems just by happenstance.

I can accept that popular reading devices, like the Kindle, are rapidly usurping the hard copy book. I can acknowledge that newspapers and magazines are shrinking, if not disappearing, and books are being eschewed as pre-millennial. Even our libraries are reducing their inventory in favor of the electronic variety. But not having Borders … well, that borders on crazy.

And  now let me get back to my book.

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I Went Bananas When My Daughter Met a Monkey

“Mom,” the voice quavered through the crackle of the international connection, “I’ve got some bad news.”

Surely anyone hearing those words from a loved one would react as I did: a sharp intake of breath, a lump in my throat thudding into the pit of my stomach, palms sweating.

Whatever pronouncement would ensue, a reassuring hug would not be imminent. My 25 year-old daughter, Emily, was in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the month of July, volunteering as a medical assistant at a local clinic. Bolivia. Three long plane flights away.

I had a flash back to last winter when Emily began talking about it. “What a great opportunity,” she had enthused. “I’ll feel like I’m really making a difference. And I can improve my Spanish, too.”

Although I deeply admire my daughter’s altruism, to say that I was less than thrilled is putting it mildly. I pointed out the litany of negatives: poverty, diseases, unsanitary conditions, political unrest. Was there political unrest? I wasn’t sure, but I went with it.

So she launched into a full-court press, peppering my inbox with upbeat articles about up-and-coming Cochabamba. Even the venerable New York Times had touted the area as a “must see” for adventurous travelers.

I still wasn’t convinced. Just scanning the list of recommended vaccinations gave me the willies.

“Em, do you understand the risks?” I argued. “Malaria. Snakes. Big insects. What if you get bitten?’

This is, in fact, what she was calling to tell me. She got bitten. But not by a bug.

By a monkey.

I Went Bananas

Dear reader, do not apologize for suppressing a giggle. I confess to a fleeting notion myself: a teeny tiny thought in a remote recess of my brain that there might be an element of humor in this scenario. But that impulse quickly gave way to panic. My mind was clicking as I began to ask questions and process what needed to happen.

Does it hurt? Not really.

Did you see a doctor? No, there weren’t any doctors.

Did you get any medical attention? I went to a pharmacy and got antibiotics.

When can you leave? As soon as possible.

I told her to start packing while I called the airline.

Cute little monkeys? Not!What I would learn later was that Emily and a few friends were visiting a nature preserve outside of Cochabamba. This Bolivian version of Great Adventure served as recreation and entertainment for the locals. Swarms of people — including tons

All went well at first. But then ... everything went bananas.

of noisy kids — hiked on its trails. Monkeys roamed freely and, accustomed to the sounds and movements of humans, interacted calmly with the visitors. Until my daughter arrived, that is.

Yes We Have No Bananas

What turned this serene simian into a pernicious primate was likely Emily’s decision to crouch down to monkey eye level. With a monkey mama and baby nearby, this was a Bad Idea. SCREECH! SCREECH! The monkey alarm system was activated. As if in a scene from a horror version of The Lion King, an alpha monkey grabbed a tree and started shaking it violently. A hush shrouded the onlookers. The only sound was the ominous rustling of leaves. Monkey minions lurking nearby looked up with interest. One by one, they muttered their displeasure. The chattering intensified. Emily’s monkey friend, just a couple of feet away, bared his teeth in a fearsome grin, lunged toward her and sank his teeth into her calf.

She screamed. He gripped her leg. She tried to pry him off. What seemed like hours was probably less than a minute, but he finally released her. They glared at each other (another Bad Idea, for those of you who might be in monkey company some day). She backed away and slowly headed down the trail. Her attacker followed for a few steps, then thought to leave well enough alone. He probably strutted proudly in front of his bare-assed buddies back at the ranch.

At times like this, you think about what could have been, and you are thankful for escaping with minimal damage. I was able to get my daughter on the next plane home. It was a grueling journey, but she was seen by our local doctors just 48 hours after the incident, and except for the painful rabies shots she endured, with more to come, she is doing fine. Despite everything, she has fond memories of her sojourn in Bolivia.

And now … we can remember the story with a smile.

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