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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Last-minute Creativity

Sometimes I look at my calendar and think, ooohhhh! Two extra days off or a whole week.I'll solve all my story problems or get a great new idea! 

Then I go away and am so caught up in the change between my surroundings and daily life that nothing comes to me. That's what happened on our most recent vacation in February. We were in a beautiful place, thousands of miles from home; getting up when we felt like it and seeing the world around us with different eyes.

I tried to think about my character Ruby and how to frame the last quarter of book two of my Beat Street series, which is proving to be harder than I thought it would be. I could think of nothing.

I swam, walked, buried my feet in sand, enjoyed the closeness I don't get to have with my husband most of the time because our working hours differ so much; and gazed for long stretches at mountains. I thought about family issues and one by one, let them go. I tried new foods and looked at the ocean some more. 

And I felt guilty for not coming to Ruby's rescue, or even finding an interesting way for her to journey through the last third of my new book.

And then, on the last day, while packing to go home, it all came to me. One, two, three scenes unfolded in my head and I knew they were absolutely right and organic to the story. I wrote some quick notes, wishing I had a whole other "working vacation" week to finish the book in one fell swoop.

But now I am back to patches again, taking a few hours here and there and reading my notes so I can create what I saw so strongly in my mind's eye.

WHY did it take me so long to get there? I don't know, except to say that time is a writer's friend, and that writers especially need time to be away from their writing to find solutions to the problems they raise.

I don't know why this is true. I only know it IS. 

Is there a lesson in all this? I don't know.

Take a longer vacation? OR smaller ones with more time?

Or find a way to relax, so the thoughts come to you, whatever you're doing and wherever you are, periodically.

If you know how to do that... can you please let me know?

Illustration: Scott Rolfs

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Author Day on Beat Street: Whatcha Got?

I was at a table in Brooklyn somewhere, sitting with a man named Ralph and his friend Michael. I'd been in the city maybe one or two days and they were taking me out for coffee, or drinks. I had moved from Boston to New York to be an actress. I was 23 years old.

The waitress walked over slowly and looked at us like a snake, waiting to strike.

"Whatcha want?" she asked.

"Whatcha got?" Ralph said.

She looked him up and down. "Nothin'."

I can't remember if she had a uniform or her own clothes, but I know they were black. She had dark, curly hair and crimson lips. Long, dangly earrings. In seven seconds she'd managed to terrify me and become my hero. 

Ralph just laughed.

I think he got some kind of eggs and a drink, I got coffee and Michael got something too but I can't remember. I think her name was Rita, but that may just the name I've given her. I wanted to write a story about her. I never did.

Years and years and years have passed, and I've written thousands and thousands of words. I was an actress for a few years and then became a writer. I kept seeing a young girl wander in and out of vision, dark and tough, with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. A little angry, but smart enough to be funny about it.

I named her Ruby. I can see her being this waitress in her early twenties, in Brooklyn somewhere.

Whatcha got?


I don't know where my Ruby will end up, and this waitress thing could just be a pass-through, probably is. But that one night was the night she was born.

Funny how they come to us. How long they can stay.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Funny Men

March is always a tough time of year for me, because it's the month I lost my dad. He died on the 18th, just a few days before spring, which is fitting, I guess, because he always seemed like spring--fresh and fun, like a waterfall.

Today I'm not only thinking of him, but of his two cousins, and the funny bone that runs in our family (that I hope included me). My uncles Archie and Sy were the funniest people I knew, with a near-constant run of quips that pretty much landed every time. 

Both uncles were overweight (Archie much more so), which also worked for them because they were so much larger than life. Archie had married a truly lovely woman named Helen, and they had a son named Freddie who was also uproariously funny. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 21 from a cerebral hemorrhage and no one knew the cause. It was the only time I've ever seen Archie cry, holding on to his wife at the cemetary.

Sy married a dancer named Vivian, and I think they had kids, but am ashamed to say I didn't know them well if they did, and don't keep in touch. (Note to self: find out and if there are kids, find them).

Sy could easily have been a Borcht Belt comedian, but Viv told him she wouldn't stay married to him if he stayed in show business, and unfortunately, he believed her and didn't pursue the career he should have had.

In some ways, I get why she was shying away from show business--it's harder and less forgiving than a rockpile--but I can't help believing that it also sustains us and that gifts should never be denied. Be that as it may, my friends and I certainly benefited from Archie and Sy's humorous take on the world, and I can't help but wish both of them had lived longer than they did.

There are other funny men in the family too--most notably my cousin Alan, who is the son of my father's twin brother Harry. When my son met Alan the night before my father's funeral, he told me he wished he'd known him sooner. Alan treated all of us to an incredible impromptu monologue about New Jersey politics--sounding, as my son said later, "exactly like George Constanza."

Of all the gifts you could have, I think, a gift for comedy is the hardest to fake and the one I want most. I think I have it in little spurts--nothing like Archie, Sy or Allen--and my father and son have those spurts as well. As a playwright, I celebrate the moments when I can get humor into my work--but still wish I had a stronger gift for it.

My husband has a gift as well, which I guess is no accident, and one of my favorite sounds is his laugh in response to something I'm saying. I think the older I get, the more important humor becomes. As a teenager I was in love with stormy, dark dramas and looked down my nose at comedies. Now, I still like those dark dramas, but am gravitating towards comedy more, as a writer and and audience member.

Maybe it's because I've learned how powerful humor can be, as not only a way to alleviate the tragedy and fear we come up against, but as a way to fight back against it. And when I see comedy now, I measure it against what I learned as a child from my two uncles: say what you see and see the humor in it, and keep talking. 

Because the faster your story moves, the funnier it will be. And don't stop until everyone's on the floor around you--characters, actors, and the people watching. The more serious life is, the more you need to laugh at it. 


Paper bag disguise photo: R. Crap Mariner

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Virus Game

Post is a bit shorter this week because I just returned from a trip to celebrate my husband's birthday. 

Now obsessing over whether the Fed Ex guys who delivered our delayed luggage put it on the porch (hopefully) or... left it on the front steps in the snow (hopefully not).

On the plane home yesterday, my husband told me the boy across the aisle from him was playing a computer game focused on creating a virus and infecting countries and communities.

This sounded more than a little insane, so I googled it. The virus game I found was called Pandemic, and involved creating a virus and then finding a way to manage and/or contain and cure it.

Sigh. Breath. OK.

I can imagine this game could be abused at some point, but at least it wasn't created to teach kids how to revel in suffering. There are times when adults overreact to what we are seeing, yes?

In a week when high school kids are heroically standing up to the Man to change the country's truly idiotic gun laws, I am not going to think the worst about teens and tweens. And while I'm not a huge fan of video games, I do see their appeal -- particularly on long plane rides -- so hope that young man figured out a way to cure his virus.

Also hope the young people speaking up in legislative offices all around our country find a way to change our national virus -- aka slavery to the NRA -- and that the rest of us follow their example in changing it, too.

Because the hour may be late, but it's never too late to do something.

Virus photo: CDC Global

Friday, February 16, 2018

Staying In

Dashing off this week to get out of town, but I wanted to write a Valentine's Day post last week and never got to it.

Better late than never, eh?

Leaving you with a short story about my favorite Valentine's Day.

I had a six-year old boy and a wicked case of carpal tunnel brought on by too much time hunched over a computer. I was a writer with a golf-ball sized lump on the inside of my wrist who couldn't type a letter without grinding, blinding pain. I couldn't lift my kid or ut a tomato or start my car or write a check to pay a bill.

We'd been going out for about a year when it happened. Why I started to go out with him was because of something he'd said on one of our earliest dates. I was trying to put myself together after a divorce and told him I wasn't sure about having a "relationship" at that point. Besides that, he was seven years younger and I wasn't sure about that part of things, either.

"I bet you have lots of girls you could go out with," I told him.

"I'm looking for someone I can stay in with," he replied.

And you know, being a writer... I had to love such eloquence. And wit.

I learned that when I was talking, he really, really listened. Paid attention not just to what I was saying but how I said it.

I learned that he loved my son and could think up all kinds of fun activities that would never occur to me -- and that when my son told a joke, he would listen patiently and laugh in all the right places.

And he had the best laugh (and still does) that I've ever heard. In fact, I think it's my favorite laugh, so much so, that everyone else's pales in comparison. 

So I did go out with him, again and again and again, and then the carpal tunnel struck, and struck hard.

Came over almost daily to do all the stuff I couldn't do -- cut vegetables, get my son to bed, drive to the bank, write checks, cook dinner. On Valentine's Day, he came by with the ring pictured here and asked if I would marry him.

Reader, I did. And never regretted it, not even for a minute.

So, I guess miracles really do happen, and some even happen on Valentine's Day.

But if you're looking for me at a fancy restaurant this year, I can save you the trouble. I'm sneaking off to somewhere wonderful with my darlin' -- staying in.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dancing in the Dark: Tween Dating

I remember exactly where I was when my 12-year-old son told me he wanted to go out with a girl. I'm pretty sure she was a friend, not a "girlfriend," but it was the first time I'd ever heard him say he wanted to go somewhere with a female. I was at work and tried as hard as I could to sound bored and nonchalant.

"Want to go the movies? Want me to drive or can her parents drive?"

"No, I don't want to go to a movie."





"Book store?"

"Are you kidding?"

The point was, he wanted to go somewhere without his mom, with someone he liked hanging out with, who was not one of the guys. I was no help and not exactly welcome, I'm sure, but I had some use in being possible transportation.

I'd like to tell you more but I don't think he went anywhere with her, or if he did, one of her parents did the driving.

Are there rules for tween dates? I don't remember having any. I do remember a lot of calling--though boys calling our house when I was 12 were few and far between--but there was certainly a lot of talk about calling, and crushes, and eyeing each other at the beach. Then there were parties that always seemed really stupid, focused around throwing people together who had absolutely no interest in each other and getting them to kiss. Ish.

I also remember a lot of school dances that were both exciting and unsettling. I remember getting asked to dance by a boy I thought was really cute and turning him down because I was too painfully shy to talk to him. I still regret not having the courage to dance, just a little, in the dark.

In fact, I didn't have a real date until I was fourteen, but I think going out with friends when you're twelve is a great thing to do, because it at least takes the pressure off having to be semi-perfect on a "date."

Right now I'm writing book two of the Beat Street Series and my twelve-year-old character Ruby is finding her way through a budding romance. I haven't figured it all out, but her parents are the opposite of helicopter--though she is fictional, which means she's a whole lot easier than a real-life kid.

As for dating one of those, I looked up some possible guidelines for you, though, if you need them:

Tween Dating 101
Tween D8-ating: it's All About Texts
What Are the Guidelines for Tween Dating?

Tween couple: Garry Knight

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I was on Facebook the other day and a friend asked about the first time I'd been on a plane. As it happens, that memory has a lot of resonance for me. 

My parents weren't big travelers. My dad had his own appliance store and worked 6 days a week, AND he didn't like flying. If we went somewhere, we went by car or bus. But when I was sixteen I got into an acting program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and driving there was pretty much out of the question.

My mother had a friend named Florence whose husband had a stroke when he was in his fifties. He was a wonderful man and his wife and he always seemed to be the happiest couple -- and then this terrible thing happened, out of the blue. Florence became a great caregiver, but as any caregiver can tell you, it's never easy (and can be extremely stressful sometimes, too).

When Florence found out I needed to fly to Pittsburgh, she asked my mother if she could take me. "If something happens to me, it doesn't matter," she said, and I was shocked and surprised to hear her say that. I think my mother agreed in the end because she could see how much her friend needed to get away. I don't know how they found someone to care for Florence's husband, but they did, and she got to go.

I was pretty jazzed about getting away for the summer, too. I remember packing and getting on the plane and being happy to hang out with Florence, who was bubbly and funny and full of life. I knew it had probably been a while since she'd had the chance to do something fun, even if all that meant for the moment was taking your friend's daughter to school in Pittsburgh.

I have to say I had a wonderful time with Florence and wouldn't have traded it for anything. She helped me unpack and we went out to dinner. I talked with her about theater and why I loved it so much, and I knew she understood, because she was a very dramatic person herself.

What I remember most about that trip now was not that it was a first ride; it was really my first look at how life can kick us, force us through harsh experiences and heartbreak, and how important it is to find moments to counteract that harshness and jump into them whenever we can.

When my father became ill and struggled through his last years, I spent a lot of time in caregiver mode. There were some beautiful times and I am really thrilled I got to experience them. There were also a lot of times when I cried in the car for hours because being a parent and being the daughter of a parent that needs care was really hard.

I had to learn to grab at moments of fun whenever I could and wring the happiness out of them. I know that's why caregiving sites say it's crucial that caregivers take care of themselves. There's probably a lot more I could say about the sandwich generation - usually women taking care of parents and their own kids -- but most of it is wrapped up in what I learned from Florence.

If an airplane enters your life, get on it. You may have to go home again, but you'll never regret the ride.


For more on caregiving, you might want to check out these articles:

A Story from the Sandwich Generation: Caring for Kids and Parents

The Sandwich Generation: Raising Kids, Caring for Parents

Sandwiched Between Parenting Your Kids and Your Parents

Woman and teen photo: Carissa Rogers