Homecoming weekend

March 22, 2017

Maybe you can’t go home again. But sometimes, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, you get to stop by for a gratifying visit. That’s how lucky I was last weekend, when I returned to Vermont to celebrate the publication of my first book in twelve years – titled, appropriately enough, Are We Still Friends?

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Just a fraction of the crowd at The Flying Pig

During the two decades my family lived in Burlington, we laid down a wide network of deep roots. Between neighbors, school and library connections, local politics, synagogue, kid-lit circles, David’s work at UVM and mine at Seven Days newspaper, we got attached to an awful lot of people. When we moved to Rhode Island 10 years ago, an awful lot of those friends stayed in Vermont. And thanks to the magic of the interwebs, we’ve been able to keep in touch.

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With Chris Tebbets and Joe Nusbaum, one half of my online critique group…in the flesh!

When my son’s preschool sweetheart had a baby, I saw the pictures. When writers I’d edited and mentored wrote great articles and published books, I kvelled. I followed friends’ and allies political and professional careers, commiserated over deaths, watched kids grow up, go away to school and start careers….and through it all, kept our Vermont peeps up to date about our milestones. Needless to say, when the baby I’d held as a newborn got ready to became a bat mitzvah just a few weeks after my book was to be released, I jumped at the chance to share both events with my old friends.

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With Elizabeth Bluemle children’s author and bookseller extraordinaire

The bat mitzvah was on Saturday, so I arranged to do a book launch at Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne on Sunday. I posted the event on Facebook and Twitter, and wrote about it on my children’s writer website. I made up special postcards and sent them to 100 people, including personalized notes; if I knew the name of someone’s grandchild, I used it. In some cases, I followed up with emails.

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It felt a little bit like my old days in politics — trying to accurately ID likely voters and then make sure they vote. And it was almost as nerve-wracking. What if they held an election, I mean, a book-signing, and nobody came? I lost some sleep and suffered through some stomach cramps. But that turned out to be all I suffered. The folks at Flying Pig were as welcoming and well-organized as any bookstore people I’ve ever worked with. More importantly, though, my friends came through. Like crazy.

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With my wonderful friend Trish Hanson, the entomologist behind Breakout at the Bug Lab

They just kept pouring in through the door, each with a huge grin and a big hug. It was actually sort of overwhelming. But in the very best possible way. I am stunned and thrilled and oh, so very grateful to everyone who came – and to those who couldn’t make it, but wanted to. (We would have found a way to squeeze you into that room, but we wouldn’t have had enough books.)

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Thank you all for still being my friends! I sure hope you like the book!

 

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Are We Still Friends? Indeed!

February 28, 2017

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Fall, 1991. Croats and Serbs are fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Refugees are fleeing death squads in El Salvador. But the Soviet Union is breaking apart, peace talks are succeeding in Cambodia, talks in Madrid between Israel and its neighbors look promising.

I was 34 years old and living in Burlington, Vermont, with my husband and our two kids, who are 3 and 6. My first picture book, Bat Time, had recently been released, and I’m awaiting the long-delayed publication what will be my second book, Mommy’s Lap. I’m also writing for adults. I’ve published my first short story in the literary journal Shenandoah.  Another journal will publish a story of mine in the spring.

In the midst of this fertile time, when I’m writing and sending out dozens of picture book and short story manuscripts – and receiving dozens of rejections, I write a picture book called Bees in the Trees. It’s about a beekeeper and an apple grower who have a spat that grows into a feud, until they end up building a wall of junk between in their properties. It’s a foolish attempt to keep their bees and their trees apart. Naturally (pun intended) the bees know better, and the friendship is saved.

Fast-forward through the next 26 years since. Bees in the Trees goes out to and comes back from publisher after publisher. Eventually, I set it aside, and go on to publish Breakout at the Bug Lab, Crab Moon and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank. My kids enter high school, and I move away from writing children’s books — first to work for a newspaper and my kids to college, and then to write an ambitious novel for adults.

That novel, which took me nearly a decade to complete, still hasn’t found a home. But it did connect me to my wonderful current agent Linda Epstein, who encouraged me to look back at my children’s books. In my search for abandoned projects, Bees in the Trees resurfaced and got revised, and eventually found a happy home at Scholastic, with a terrific editor Tracy Mack, and the fabulous artist Blanca Gomez .

It was Tracy’s idea that the book needed a new title. I confess that at first I resisted. It’s hard to part with something you’ve known for more than two decades. But as the book officially hits store today, its new title, ARE WE STILL FRIENDS? couldn’t feel more timely.

This spring, I will turn 60. My kids are 29 and 31, and my grandson Theo is old enough to tell Beatrice and Abel’s story — which is now dedicated to him. I get to share this new / old book with friends from all over – some new ones, some whom I’ve known forever, many who I thought I’d lost but have re-found through the magic of the Internet. Are we still friends? Indeed!

Publishing a new children’s book so many years after the last one feels like rekindling a long-lost love affair. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to return to the world of kid lit.

And finally, how could I have imagined, back in 1991, the walls– both figurative and literal – that are being built today, not just along national borders, but also between communities and friends, and within families divided by political ideologies. Now more than ever, we need to follow the example of the natural world and try to remember that we share a small, fragile planet on which our common interests far outweigh our differences.

Whose book is it, anyway?

November 13, 2015

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Abel and Beatrice are best friends and neighbors. Abel grows apples. Beatrice raises bees. They get along perfectly – until a sting and a misunderstanding escalate into a feud.

That’s the premise of my picture book, BEES IN THE TREES, which Scholastic Press has scheduled for release in Spring 2017, with illustrations by the wonderful Blanca Gomez.

When I first conceived of the story, more than 20 years ago, I sketched cartoons of my characters. Abel was as roly-poly as an apple, with my dad’s male-pattern baldness and glasses, and an unlikely bow tie. Beatrice was brittle, with pointy features and a penchant for wearing stripes.

My words don’t mention either Abel or Beatrice’s appearance. The way they look doesn’t figure in the story, and in a picture book, you can’t spare any unnecessary words. But those early sketches stuck in my mind. Through draft after draft, revision after revision and decade after decade, as I have been waiting for an artist to give my characters life, I have pictured roly-poly Abel and brittle Beatrice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently saw Blanca Gomez’s first sketches for the book, and discovered that all this time I’ve picturing Abel and Beatrice wrong. He is actually a skittery mouse, and she is a roly-poly bear.

But wait! Some of you may be thinking. Can she do that? Isn’t it your story? If you had wanted them to be a mouse and a bear, wouldn’t you have said so? And shouldn’t she have at least asked your permission?

To which I say, yes, maybe, and no.

I started the story with my words, but it won’t be complete until her pictures are. And the finished book will be a marriage of my words and her pictures that will belong to her as much as it belongs to me. That’s the contract a picture book writer makes in her mind when she sets down her first sentence – if an artist will agree to turn my words into pictures, I will give her a half share in the story’s creation.

This process of sharing begins when the picture book writer decides which details to spell out, and which to leave for the illustrator to fill in. My mental picture of Abel and Beatrice had nothing to do with the story. So I saved my words for the essentials.

The sharing process continues when an editor gets involved. My original manuscript included several sentences listing various pieces of junk. Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, suggested leaving those out, to give the artist freer reign. The advice made sense to me. I didn’t want to hamstring the artist. And at that point in the story would have a stronger impact if it had fewer words, and gave the reader time to quietly study the details in the picture and maybe list them aloud herself.

As Blanca’s art takes further shape, the sharing process will move into yet another phase. I’ll undoubtedly discover more truths about my story, and Tracy is likely to make more editorial suggestions to make a more perfect union between the pictures and the words.

And the sharing process won’t end there. Once BEES IN THE TREES has become a real book and readers get their hands on it, they will also share in the story’s creation. Each time a parent reads Abel’s dialogue in a special funny voice and Beatrice’s in another – each time a child searches out a certain detail on a certain page – each time the book makes someone think about apples and bees and friends and feuds – the story will become theirs as well.

And that’s the whole point of writing a picture book.

Reclining Buddha

June 25, 2015

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Uncover your head. Remove your shoes and place them in the provided bag. Now, as your soles touch the cool marble floor, look up and be amazed at the pure size of the thing.

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The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok is 105 feet long and 50 feet high. It fills the entire building – from end to end and from floor to ceiling, with narrow a passageway on either side so you can make your way around it, admiring the satiny gold plating, the liquid lines, the huge feet.

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Painted pillars give the impression of a cage, as if the Buddha were a specimen in a zoo. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He smiles serenely, right hand propping up his head. That right hand, I’ve since learned, means this isn’t an the Buddha on his death bed, as I’d thought. It’s the Buddha encountering the giant Asurindarahu. When the giant refused to bow to the Buddha, the Buddha made himself appear enormous, and then showed the giant the enormity of the heavens. Asurindarahu was duly humbled, as is the visitor to Wat Pho.

But it’s not just the scale that moves you. There’s a stillness here, and a coolness. Especially after the heat and hubbub outside. And soon you become aware of an ethereal music. Metallic percussion. Bells, maybe. Some notes are higher, some lower, some louder, some softer. But there’s no discernible melody. The rhythm is irregular, but each note has the same tone. It’s the way stars might sound, if you could hear them flickering.

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Fill your ears with the sound as you make your way around the Buddha’s tall feet (undergoing restoration during our visit, a sign regrets to inform us). Start up the far side of the temple, and you discover the source of the music. And realize it’s not music at all. At least, not intentional music. Lining the wall behind the Buddha are identical metal bowls. One hundred eight  — one for each of the auspicious characteristics depicted in mother of pearl on the soles of the feet we can’t see. For 20 Thai Baht, or about 70 U.S. cents, you can buy a dish holding 108 metal tokens, one to drop into each bowl.

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I paid my 20 Baht, and contributed to the music, making myself, for the time that it took to return to the Buddha’s head, a part of the sacred architecture.

That Old House

March 31, 2015

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The email came a year ago. The subject line was “Montclair House.” I didn’t recognize the sender. Angie said that she and her husband had bought my childhood home, and hoped to restore it to its original footprint. She had found a blog post I’d written about it. She wanted to talk to me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her. But I wasn’t sure why.

The house is a rambling Victorian built in 1900. A landing in the stairs overlooks the living room. The main entrance isn’t at the front, but, quirkily, on the side. When our parents bought the house, in 1958, the shady hemlocks, dark cedar shingles and wrap-around porch reminded our mother of the Adirondacks. I had just turned one – the last of four children. Until our mother died, in 1999, the house was our family’s gravitational center.

It’s where I learned to read. And write. To ride a bike and drive a car. We carried the black-and-white TV into the backyard to watch Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, and onto the porch for the Watergate Hearings. All three sisters crossed the landing and descended the stairs to get married in the living room. Four generations gathered in the dining room for Passover seders. Each of my siblings moved back at some point, as adults. I never moved back, but the house stayed inside me.

For a long time after we sold the house, I found myself waking up at night longing to search through closets and drawers that had long since been emptied of our stuff and refilled with other families’ possessions. I couldn’t believe our childhood drawings weren’t still crammed into the built-in drawers in the master bedroom, that our broken kitchen chairs weren’t stored in the back attic, that my head comics were no longer hidden behind my bed.

The property has changed hands a few times since we sold it. Early on, the sellers held an open house. My brother went, and took pictures. I pored over the photos, trying to reconcile the freshly painted rooms and neatly landscaped yard with the well-worn, lived-in spaces I remembered. Passing through town, I would idle at the curb, trying to mentally replant the lost hemlocks and replace the new blue siding with the old cedar shingles. Eventually, I learned to let go of the physical building. I knew I would never lose the sense of home that endured in my mind.

But Angie’s email revived the old longing. I sent her a quick note, asking for more information. While I waited to hear back, I tried to imagine how anyone could restore our home to what it had been. Would they bring back the clutter? Re-peel the paint? Rewire the light switch outside the bathroom so it only worked when it was jiggled just so?

Four days later, Angie answered. She wanted to know my favorite memory of the house. But the rest of her questions were architectural. Had the “front” door always been at the side? Was the little room off the dining room ever a porch?

I forwarded her email to my siblings. We swapped memories about staging plays on the landing over the living room, and soaking in the claw-foot tub. We told each other how glad we were that the house was back in the hands of people who loved it. And we agreed that the idea of restoring the “original footprint” made no sense. The “front” door had always been on the side. And the little room off the dining room had always been the “sun room,” where our father paid the bills and we kept the Passover haggadahs.

The next time she wrote, Angie attached old photos from when the house was first built – pictures we had never seen.

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There was the front door, at the front of the house. And there, in the corner where the sun room belonged, was an open porch.

As I studied the photos, trying to reconcile the house on my screen with the one I remembered, I realized what I had always known, but never absorbed. For 60 years before the house was ours, other families had already called it home. If the first owners could have seen how the house looked when we lived there, they would have had as much trouble recognizing the place as I do today.

In one of my emails to Angie, I mentioned those haggadahs in the sun room. She replied that at their seder that year, someone in her family had said, “Next year in Montclair.”

That “next year” is this year. I like imagining Angie’s family celebrating  in the Montclair dining room. It doesn’t matter so much if they open the door for Elijah at the side of the house or the front. I do hope, though, that when they pass the house on, they’ll hold memories of home as enduring and enriching as mine.

Fold. Cut. Unfold.

March 13, 2015

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I’ve been home from the hospital one week now, recuperating post-surgery. It’s going well.  Each day I’m a little more limber. A little less uncomfortable. A little less tired. One day it’s a big deal to walk around the house. Two days later, I take a short walk outside. Two days after that, I drive the car.

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My first day home, I took scissors and paper, and made paper dolls. There was a familiar pleasure in folding the paper, cutting out a dancing lady who would turn into a string of dancing ladies, and opening the paper to see how they came out. The answer is not well.

As soon as I saw my mediocre result, I folded another piece of paper and started over. This time, I cut out abstract squiggles and straight lines with no particular pattern in mind. When I unfolded the sheet, the result was a happy surprise.

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I have made one abstract cut-out each day since. When each is done, I can’t help assessing it – too many straight lines, too many squiggles, too much positive space, too much negative. And I can’t help trying for a better outcome the next day.

Mostly, though, I try to let my hands take the lead, and to keep my brain from getting in the way. It’s a soothing ritual. Fold. Cut. Unfold. Acknowledge.

My body is healing, incorporating my surgeon’s cuts into a new normal. I only understand a tiny part of the complex process involved. But I don’t have to know more. My job, mostly, is to keep out of my body’s way, and to acknowledge the progress as each day unfolds.

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Post Op

March 7, 2015

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I’m home recovering from elective surgery.

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Heather, one of my nurses at Women and Infants Hospital, told me this same procedure changed her life. “Sneezing and laughing!” she promised. “Trampolines!”

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No trampolines for me yet. No jumping at all. Or running. Or lifting.

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For now, I’m enjoying brief walks around the house, good meals cooked by my husband, and long periods of sitting on the couch.

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I’m used to spending my days at home. But that usually means running up and down the stairs, between my desk and the kitchen and the laundry and the bathroom, not to mention in and out of the house. When I do sit around, I’m usually watching the view out the window or staring at my computer.

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Usually, I have too much to do, and too little patience, to just sit.

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Today, though, I have been watching the light shift across the floor in the front hall.

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And that’s been plenty.

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Protect and Serve

January 2, 2015

Cranston cops

On New Year’s Eve, we had dinner at our house with a couple of friends, and then the four of us piled into our friends’ car and headed out for our neighborhood bowling alley. A few minutes into the drive, we noticed  a weird rattling. Our friend pulled over and climbed out to investigate. Flat tire. So we all climbed out and set about changing the tire.

Easier said than done. First we had to pry the spare out of the trunk, and then we had to find the special tools, and then we had to figure out how to use them. It didn’t help that we were standing in the dark on a relatively high-speed through-street. Plus, it was cold.

We were huddled around the trunk, trying to read the instructions on the tool bag by the light of the tail lights and our phones’ flashlight settings, when a police car cruised by. Oh good, we thought. Help has arrived. And it had.

The cop angled his car protectively behind ours and trained his headlights on our work area.  We would have been grateful enough just for the light and the protection. But the officer – a slight, young white guy with a band-aid on his finger – didn’t stop there. When he realized that we hadn’t called a road service and that we were having trouble changing the tire, he pulled out his flashlight, studied the instructions, and went to work.

It didn’t take him long to get the car jacked up and remove the first couple of lug nuts. But neither he nor any of the rest of us had the strength to loosen the last lug nuts and get the flat off the car.

As luck would have it, a second police car came by. It parked up behind the first one, and the cop strolled over to see what was up. This second officer was taller and beefier than the first one. By jumping on the lug wrench a couple of times, he was able to free the flat tire.

What would we have done if the cops hadn’t come? What would we done if they hadn’t been so helpful? How could we thank them? We asked for their names so we could write a letter to their chief. But they waved the question aside.

“That’s not necessary,” the first cop said.  “Next time you get in trouble like this, you should call us.”

The second cop took a picture for the department’s Facebook page. “This will be great for community outreach,” he said.

We agreed. Those cops were good guys who do a difficult, dangerous and necessary job, and they went above and beyond what that job requires.

We all shook hands, wished each other a happy New Year, and went our separate ways. The first cop’s shift was almost over. The second one would be working until 8 the next morning. And we had a date with our local bowling alley.

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We live in the Edgewood section of Cranston, Rhode Island, a relatively prosperous neighborhood of large, well-kept, owner-occupied homes between Narragansett Bay and Roger Williams Park. Like most of our neighbors, we and our friends are white, conservatively dressed English speakers. Our car was clean and – except for the tire – in good shape. And the four of us were old enough to be the police officers’ parents.

The bowling alley is less than two miles from our home. But to reach it from the block where we pulled over, we had to cross the railroad tracks and Route 95.  The bowling alley is on a busy street across from a discount grocery store, in a neighborhood where most residents rent. The other bowlers were all younger than us by at least two decades. They included people who had prominent tattoos, who weren’t white, and who weren’t speaking English.

Looking around, as we bowled through the last hour of 2014, I couldn’t help but wonder. What would the experience have been like if the flat tire hadn’t happened to us, in our neighborhood? What if it had happened to one of the other bowling parties at the alley? Would the cops have gone that extra mile? And how would we have felt, when that first cruiser pulled up, if we were younger, or less white, or if English wasn’t our first language? Would our first thought have been, Help has arrived?

Happy New Year!

December 31, 2014

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2014 has clearly not been my Year of the Blog. Not that there hasn’t been a lot to write about. If anything, there’s been too much.

In the wider world, the very real tragedy and hyped-up panic of Ebola. Injustice in Ferguson and Staten Island. Children murdered, Earth’s climate gone haywire, war after war after war.

There’s been good news, too. Expanding marriage rights. Thawed relations with Cuba. Greater awareness of income inequality, white privilege and sexual violence. Those might sound like bad news, but they’re hardly new, and the fact that we’re finally talking about them is progress.

Here at home, we saw momentous events, too. We said goodbye to my beloved father-in-law, and hello to our first grandchild. We spent time with family and friends, celebrated my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday, and explored rocky canyons and beautiful beaches.

I had thoughts about all of this. But when I sat down to post my thoughts here, words failed me.

Not that I haven’t been writing. If anything, I wrote more this year than I have in a long time. I wrote and rewrote picture books — about swans and pirates, bears and dreams, builders and baby brothers. Mostly, though I’ve been working on a novel – about an odious uncle, reality TV, and two girls on a mission from the Universe.

And while I’ve been writing, I’ve been waiting for the publishing world to send me good news. That has happened for me in other years, and I have considered myself very lucky. This year, though, it didn’t. So I’ll keep waiting. But mostly, I’ll keep writing. Just not necessarily here.

For me, on balance, 2014 was a good year. I hope it was for you, too. And I hope that 2015 is a good one for all of us.

Found!

October 21, 2014

kindle returned

So after all my moaning and groaning about leaving my Kindle on the plane and getting scammed into giving my Visa card to someone claiming to be from Delta Airlines’ Lost and Found Department, and canceling said Visa card, I finally reached a live human being at Delta’s Customer Service Department to complain. (They don’t answer their phones on the weekend.)

I detailed my suspicions to the nice lady on the phone. She told me that Delta outsources Lost and Found to an outside contractor, and that asking for my Visa number was part of their regular operating procedure. She couldn’t explain why UPS didn’t recognize my tracking number. But she did say that she would pass along my complaints.

My next call was to Lost and Found — the number that I had called half a dozen times on Friday until, at 9 pm, someone finally picked up. This time, my call was answered immediately, by a woman who told me my Kindle had been shipped three days earlier.

“Then why doesn’t my UPS tracking number work?” I asked.

“Because we don’t use UPS,” she said. “We use Fed Ex.”

Oh.

Could have sworn the lady said UPS. That’s what I heard, anyway.

A quick visit to the Fed Ex site traced my Kindle to East Boston. Expected delivery the next day.

And here it is! My shiny new Visa card came yesterday.

Can’t wait to curl up this evening with the last part of The Paying Guests. Sometimes, wrong is the best way to be.