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New writers often ask me for advice. Although I’m a bit of a lone wolf in that I’ve never been a part of a writing group or have had early readers, I still received plenty of help along the path to becoming published. So, it’s my pleasure to answer questions and share whatever helpful information I can.

Between you and me, I still feel a not-so-tiny thrill at people thinking enough of my books to consider me an expert in the field. It’s a win-win: folks come away from our conversations with the tools they need to finish, edit or polish their work. And I get to feel like a rock star. More importantly, I am helping them.

Well, it was a win-win right up until it turned into a win (for him) and a I-wish-I-had-bashed-myself-in-the-face-with-a-hammer-until-I’d-passed-out-so-I-wouldn’t-have-to-talk-to-this-jackwagon-any-longer for me. This spring I got a call from a man identifying himself as a neighbor who’d heard I’m a novelist. As I was listening to his message, I dug around in the junk drawer for a pad and a pen. For I knew he was going to ask for help and I was already imagining meeting him at the Essex library and sharing with him the seven things that all great novels need. It’s an outline I created from working with my own genius editor, Suzanne.

I grabbed a pink magic marker and a horse-shaped sticky note. Although his name sounded vaguely familiar in a not-so-wonderful way, I couldn’t place it. But, in the two years since my first book launched, I’ve never turned anyone away, so I happily called him back and left a message.

A few hours later, I was driving with my kids and he called again. Not wanting to talk shop while I was with the little people, I didn’t answer, but I did listen to his voicemail. Hearing his name again suddenly triggered enormous, flashing, screaming red flags.

Crap. This couldn’t possibly be who I thought it was. Crap.

I quickly called Kurt (using hands free blue tooth, of course). Our conversation went something like this:

ME: Hi Sweetie. Remember when we were getting the permits to build the house and some crazy person got removed from the town meetings because he kept screaming at everyone? What was his name?

KURT: That guy? Willie Johnson.

ME: Oh no. He called me today asking for help with his book.

KURT: Good luck with that.

I consoled myself thinking that I’d done the right thing by contacting him and maybe I’d get lucky and he wouldn’t return the call.

Not so much.

The next morning, I was minding my own business, continuing my glamourous existence as a novelist. And by that I mean I was in my pajamas with fuzzy socks and sandals, gnawing on a hunk of cheese and trying to make my fourth book a story about a girl who grew up in the racecar world rather than a book about racecars as I had promised my agent a non-racecar racecar book. I was so engrossed in coming up with a synonym for “turned left” that I didn’t even check the caller ID when my phone rang and I answered it.

“Sue,” came a nasally voice, “this is Willie Johnson.”

Where’s a hammer when you need one?

My conversation with Mr. Johnson went something like this:

ME: Just to let you know, I have a meeting at my kids’ school within the hour.

HIM: Blah blah blah. I’m such a wonderful writer. Great American novel. Blah blah blah. Should I self-publish or use a traditional house?

ME: Blah blah blah. Depends on your goals. Self-publishing can be great. Marketing this. Percentages that. Publicity and royalties.

HIM: This is the greatest book ever written. It’s much better than yours.

ME: Um… okay. Do you have an agent?

HIM: No one’s signed me yet because they’re all stupid.

ME: Really? All of them?

HIM: How much do you make?

ME: (Long, awkward pause).The industry standard provides authors a percentage of the sales.

HIM: My book is too good for that. I get to keep everything if I self-publish.

ME: True. But, with self-publishing you don’t get marketing, bookstore placements, online media publicity, print ads, reviews in national publications, author blurbs, an editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, a cold reader, an agent, a cover design team or any way to market the book as most indie stores won’t sell self-published books.

HIM: But, I get to keep all the profits.

ME: Yes, but if no one buys it, that doesn’t do you any good. After all, 100% of nothing is still nothing. Oh, would you look at that, time for my meeting.

Never in my life had I been so happy to get called to the principal’s office.

Fast forward six months to a Sunday evening when we found a notice of action rubber-banded to our front door. Years ago, while we were getting approval from the town to build our house, Willie Johnson took a tour of our property without permission and a dog bit him. Yes, it was our land, but it wasn’t our dog.  Recently, he was skulking around our land again and got bitten by yet another dog, also not ours.

Kurt called our homeowner’s insurance people and sure enough, Willie has filed suit against us. He claims that we should have taken action to prevent the dog from entering our property. He has a point. If we’d built the Great Wall of Essex around our house, I suppose it would have kept him out, as well.

Needless to say, this is going to be a fight for our insurance company. We’ll leave it to the powers that be to explain to this guy that we don’t have a dog and he was breaking the law by entering our property without consent. We found out from the people who actually do own the dog, that Willie Johnson has been planning to file suit against both of us since the first incident nine years ago. I want Kurt or our lawyer or the insurance agent to tell this guy that he has very large testicles to call me for help with his amazing, magnificent book while he’s in the midst of suing us.

In case that doesn’t happen, I guess the best I can do is blog about him and hope he’s a subscriber.

 

 

NOTE: Because it’s an active claim, I had to change his name and the circumstances of the case. Unfortunately for me, the phone call is almost word-for-word.

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They say you can’t pick your family. In my case, I kind of did and I chose the best one. I just didn’t know it at the time. When I met Kurt twenty years ago, I had no idea that his family would become such an important part of my life. We’d only been together a couple of months when we met his parents for dinner in Miami. Knowing Kurt was the one, I wanted to make a good impression. I wore a cute dress. I brushed my hair. I talked about sailboats and other things I knew nothing about. Lou and Marie made me feel so comfortable that I forgot to be nervous and had an amazing dinner with them.

With a giant glob of something green plastered to my front teeth the whole time.

The next morning Kurt told me his dad noticed it right away but didn’t say anything because he knew how hard I was trying to make them like me and he didn’t want to embarrass me. That’s the kind of guy Lou was- making sure everyone around him felt like family.

In my second book, I mentioned Lou and Marie in the acknowledgements. I thanked them for loving me like I was one of their own and always making me feel like a rock star. I have never spoken truer words. Writing is fun and it’s definitely my dream job. But, it’s not curing cancer or ending hunger. Lou made me feel like what I do is just as important. When we’d see Kurt’s parents a couple times a year at Christmas and in the Outer Banks for family vacation, Lou would ask about my writing with such sincerity, I honestly felt like he really, truly believed in me.

Families and maintaining relationships among them is often difficult and rarely easy. There were several years where I was disconnected from parts of the family I grew up with. It was a desperately lonely time and one that I’m not sure I would have survived without Kurt’s family sucking me into their fold and doing their best to make me feel like my spot at the dinner table had always been there- just waiting for me. That’s a love that is hard to come by, no matter who you’re dealing with.

Lou had many health scares in the last several years. And each time he seemed to make a miraculous recovery. Despite the fact that he was in his seventies and hadn’t always been kind to his body, I started to secretly believe that he’d live forever. He had to. He was the glue that held us together. Time with Kurt’s family has always been my favorite two weeks of the year- we do nothing but talk, swim, eat, read, enjoy each other’s company and play Scrabble. No matter if we were at Lou and Marie’s house in Florida or on the beach in North Carolina, year after year, I marveled at the same phenomenon. We all gravitated to Lou. The kids wanted Grampy to read them a story or play a round of Trouble with them. And I was fascinated by his knowledge of… everything. There was never a lull in the conversation and we’d talk about everything from primitive villages in the Outback to his painting techniques to which movies were worth staying awake for.

Now Lou is gone. And I still feel like he is going to live forever. I guess you could call it denial. His death was sudden and certainly unexpected. But, I do think he’ll live forever. In how selfless his daughter Susie is. And in how Kurt is the one person in the room who makes everyone feel like they belong. And in his grandchildren who have his sideways sense of humor.

To say it was a privilege to be a part of Lou Strecker’s life and family for twenty years is a gross understatement. I feel beyond blessed to have been loved by him and, like I said, treated as one of his own for almost half my life.

May you rest peacefully, Lou. I love you always.

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I like to tell on myself. It clears my conscience and I don’t have to sneak around trying to cover up whatever sin I may have committed. Now that NOWHERE GIRL is out in the big, wide world of bookstores, I am crazy busy with events, readings, TV appearances and newspaper interviews. Lord knows those are perfect places to rack up saying and doing stupid things.

Here they go…

My first event was to be on a TV show called CONNECTICUT STYLE. Oh- the irony. For someone whose office is her couch and work clothes consist of feetie pajamas, I was the odd man out. This was my second time on the show, so it was going considerably better than the first. Right up until the host asked me a question I didn’t have a good answer for. I explained myself the best I could, but apparently she wanted more. I didn’t have anything brilliant to say about how I wrote about twins even though I am not one (I don’t even have a sister). I started to sweat (literally, and I’m a smelly sweat-er), and blurted out something I really hadn’t planned on telling the world. Good news- it stunned poor Jocelyn into silence. Bad news, it was an awkward silence.

After the segment was over, I asked someone to take my picture with the still-mortified Jocelyn. Unaware that the studio was almost silent and people were talking in whispers, I very loudly said, “WOULD YOU PLEASE TAKE OUR PICTURE?” only to hear someone yell, “Cut!” and then have fifteen grumpy people glare at me. Oops- they were on air.

After slinking out of WTNH’s station, I got myself together to do my first bookstore appearance in Madison, the town I grew up in. My dear friend, Paulette, offered to provide drinks and desserts for the event. She laid out a beautiful set up of fruit, chocolate, eclairs & waters. She constructed gift bags with her realty company’s (WILLIAM PITT/SOTHEYBY’S INTERNATIONAL REALTY) logo on them. You see, Paulette is the best realtor around and also a lovely person. In defense of me and my stupidity, speaking at RJ Julia is a little like playing Woodstock. It doesn’t get any better. I was so star struck that I was weepy when I got behind the podium. Everything I wanted to say, including thanking Paulette for providing the goodies flew right out of my mind. But, don’t worry, I thanked her profusely at the launch party… about twenty minutes after she had left.

Next came an interview for THE DAY NEWSPAPER with the very funny and talented Rick Koster. Rick and I spent some time together on the phone when my last book was released, and he made me feel like I was talking to an old friend. My kids are pretty awesome and I’m very comfortable with Rick, so I didn’t think twice about multi-tasking and speaking with him while I was driving the little people to the barn. Settle down- it was hands-free blue tooth. My kids now know who offed poor Savannah in NOWHERE GIRL as they were sitting in the backseat getting an earful. We pulled into the barn and I told the kids to go in and I’d come in when I got off the phone. Rick and I were having a lovely conversation about books and music, lots and lots of music, when Ainsley came running out yelling that Cooper smashed his face and was crying. I asked Rick to hang on a second, ran inside, and with him still on the line, discovered that Cooper, who never cries when he’s hurt, was sobbing and had broken his tooth. Uh Rick? I gotta go. Click. An emergency phone call to the dentist, photographic proof of the accident and forty-five minutes later, I did call Rick back. Despite our fragmented conversations and several emails that had everything to do with music and very little to do with the book, Rick still managed to write a fabulous article. I don’t know where he got his information- I was of very little help to him.

Okay, moving on. What was my next flub? Oh yes- the launch party. Taking place at a hip and funky art gallery and with nearly two-hundred people coming out to celebrate, it was a smashing success. We sold a ton of books, stayed at the gallery an hour longer than we were supposed to (and magically did not overstay our welcome), and then walked down the street to the fabled Gris and closed the bar. They actually herded us out the door with mops in hand. And before that, I stood in front of all the revelers and made an impromptu speech about how fortunate I am to do what I love and then I thanked everyone for coming (some from as far away as Florida). I made sure to thank the lovely and talented Suzanne Kingsbury for being the world’s best editor. I forgot to thank her at the last launch party. So, I made sure I got it in this time… after she left. I think she might have gone splitsville with Paulette. So, I thanked two people who weren’t there any longer, but I forgot my parents, Kurt’s parents, Sue the bookseller and my amazing friend Cathy whose company donated an entire living room set among many other pieces of furniture so people would have a place to take a load off. CRAP! I have a whole new respect for those NASCAR drivers. They never miss a beat every weekend when they say how well the “KFC, Coca-Cola, Tide Detergent, Black and Decker, Tampax, Skittles, Summer’s Eve, Preparation H number 99 car” did. I need to take notes.

This morning I was at FOX 61’s TV station waiting to go on air with the beautiful Erika Arias of GOOD DAY CONNECTICUT. This was my second go around with her and she’s so lovely that I wasn’t nervous at all. I met a dog named Cutie Patootie, learned a little something about the Irish sport of hurling and read the extremely flattering article Rick Koster had written. I emailed him to say thank you and told him what I was doing, adding that I hoped I wouldn’t be an oaf this time. He graciously responded saying I’d be great and gave me simple yet powerful advice. “Don’t be an oaf.”

I never was good at following directions.

The interview actually went well. I didn’t stumble with my answers and I mentioned Keanu Reeves- any day I get to talk about him is a good one. My friend, Sarah, who is a Fox journalist watched the interview and immediately texted when it was over saying I was funny and relaxed. All was good. A super nice crew member unhooked my mic and said that he respects what I do. I humbly said my job is easy compared to his. I could never keep it together long enough to work under the pressure of being on live TV every day. Everything was great. I was having a good hair day, my outfit was cute, I didn’t barf on anyone. And then…

And then I turned to say goodbye to Erika and there she was, exactly in the spot she’d interviewed me- beautiful, long dark hair, skinny and wearing a black dress. As the words, “Thank you so much for having me, Erika” were coming out of my mouth, my brain was screaming at me to stop. Abort! Abort! Something’s not right! But, I couldn’t stop myself. Would you believe me if I told you there were two beautiful, skinny women with long dark hair in black dresses in the studio? And I thanked the wrong one.

I was so close to taking Rick’s advice. But I just had to be an oaf.

Tomorrow is a new day. I’ll be at Mohegan Sun Casino with one of my favorite bookstores ever, Bank Square Books and the wonderful Otis Library to do a luncheon, reading and discussion. I really like Annie, Kate and Elissa, the women who run these events and I don’t want to screw up in front of them. But given my track record… I wonder what kind of oafery I will commit. Who knows- maybe this will turn into a weekly installment of all the stupid things I say and do.

On the bright side, it’ll give me something to blog about. I’ve been quiet far too long.

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My grandmother was known as Grammie. Didn’t matter if you were related to her or not, almost everyone called her Grammie. And the few people who didn’t, thought of her as Aunt Ruth. Because that’s who she was. She was the matriarch of the Boyd family, the high priestess of the Woodland/Roxmor clan and everyone’s grandmother.

Grammie celebrated her 100th birthday last summer, surrounded by all of her kids, most of her grandchildren and almost all of her great grandchildren. People flew in from Seattle and Germany and even Papua New Guinea. Surrounded by more than fifty family members, we celebrated a life that spanned a century, crossed a millennium and went from a time of horse-drawn carriages and staticky radios to facetiming with her family in Europe.

We took turns at that party sharing what having Grammie in our lives meant to us. I only had a few moments to think about it before a video camera appeared in my face and I had to speak. Having Grammie in my life meant growing up with someone I could talk to when I didn’t feel like I had anyone else. My friend Kristin and I were among the youngest of the group of kids at our vacation cabins in upstate New York, a place I still affectionately call Woodland. We were probably ten or eleven years old and some of the teenagers were talking about leaving the council that night to go to the inn and make out. We had no idea what they were talking about, so we promptly went home to a house named Boulder Camp and asked Grammie to please explain what making out meant. Without a trace of hesitation or embarrassment, she told us the best she could. I understood what she was saying, I just had no idea why anyone would want to do that. There were many other times I turned to Grammie when I had questions I didn’t think could be answered. Why didn’t my parents live together anymore? Why were friendships so complicated? What in the world was wrong with boys? Grammie never turned me away and she always held my hand and looked me in the eye, even when she had to say the hard stuff.

Grammie and Pa founded a colony of old, charming cabins in Shandaken, New York. No, you don’t know where that is. One of my favorite books growing up was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I was so fascinated by that story, by the way those children slipped through the closet into a magical world. That was Woodland for me. When I was little, we’d pack up the wood-paneled station wagon and head to Woodland for the entire summer. This was well before cell phones and cable, but it wouldn’t have mattered. We were so far removed from civilization that TVs didn’t get a signal, pipes froze in the winter time and there were no electronic gadgets of any kind. There were seven or eight other families who spent most of their summer vacation in Woodland, as well as many of my cousins. Our days were spent making leather belts, stamping intricate and unique designs into each one, swimming in an always freezing stream, digging up clay from the banks of the stream, swinging on a knotted rope and my favorite, rolling down the hill at the Inn. Our nights were filled with playing flashlight tag, catching lightning bugs and participating in the council where we’d have talkfests, one-legged chicken fights and sing slightly disturbing songs about mothers-in-law getting shut in folding beds. Years later I’d sing those same songs to my children when they were babies and I was trying to get them to sleep. We also spent hours square dancing, sitting on the porch at the inn, telling ghost stories and eventually drinking beer and making out with boys. Don’t tell my mom.

We even went to Woodland during the winter to go skiing. There were two mountains nearby and I learned to ski as soon as I could walk. I still remember my favorite trail was called Long John. Being about a hundred years old, the cabins were not winterized and, as I said, the pipes would freeze in the winter making showering impossible. We’d get metal buckets full of snow and put them on the wood-burning stove to melt. Then we’d use that water to flush the toilets. All this was done after we’d park our cars at the bottom of a steep and long hill and carry our suitcases, sleds and food up to the house. It was exhausting and we were always cold, but we begged our parents to take us up every weekend.

Woodland was my very own Narnia. A magical place where I spent almost all of my free time doing things that are unheard of today. I still contend that square dancing is one of the most fun things you can do with your clothes on, and strangely, no one I know outside of Woodland knows how to do it. I can tie sheepshank, clove hitch, bowline, figure eight, granny and square knots. I can tie knots I’ve never heard of and have no idea what they do. My best memories of childhood are of Woodland. And all of them happened because of Grammie.

Grammie had five children, ten grandchildren, sixteen great grandchildren and countless others who thought of her as their surrogate mother or grandmother. She was one of those people who everyone knew and loved. Sometimes I would watch her interact with people I didn’t know and I’d wonder what it felt like to be loved the way she was.

Grammie was more than a hundred years old when she started to decline. The week before she left us, I called Kurt crying at the imminent thought of losing her. I said to him that it was hard to imagine a world without Grammie. He responded that it’d been a long time since there was a world without Grammie. I thought about that statement. How the world, the universe had been graced with a century of Grammie. Generations of families grew up being served Grammie’s lemonade and baked beans at the annual 4th of July parade. Countless kids led more charmed lives for having been loved by her.

Minutes after Grammie left us, I heard my aunt Ruth on the phone with her brother, Jim. She was telling him that long ago Grammie told her that all she wanted was for her children to be happy and love each other. Simple but powerful words.

I have made mistakes and spent years missing some of the people I love the most. Grammie’s 100th birthday party was the first time I’d seen them in far too long. Although we were supposed to be giving Grammie presents that day, she gave me the opportunity for the greatest gift of all- forgiveness. I was welcomed back. I don’t know that that ever would have happened if Grammie’s party hadn’t brought me back together with them.

That was Grammie. The sun of our universe. Making our lives better and brighter. She illuminated our world. For the one hundred years that she was with us and for all the time to come. Grammie was and always will be our sun. We love you now and forever.

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Here’s the problem with talking a friend into riding your bikes together for one hundred miles in Killington, Vermont. Six years later when she asks you to ride a measly thirty miles with her, you pretty much have to do it.

When Sarah and I did the JDRF Century Ride, we trained for six months. We went out on our bikes on Sunday mornings with the intent to ride twenty miles, got horribly lost, took a ferry to get back on the correct side of the Connecticut River, and ended up going fifty-five miles. But, we were fit. And training. So it wasn’t a big deal.

The morning of our Vermont journey, it was forty-degrees and with wrath-of-God rain. We put our feet in plastic baggies to keep them dry. Then rode fifteen miles to the first rest area with frozen toes sloshing around rain water, realizing that Ziplocks are great for PB & Js, but aren’t waterproof.

Riding a hundred miles up and down ski-mountains was surprising not terrible. Yes, there were killer hills. But who knew there are flat parts of Vermont. We rode with a huge group from Essex, collectively raising more $60,000 and we crossed an impressive feat off our bucket lists.

Fast forward to 2013 when my friend Alicia told me she was doing the sixty-five mile leg of the Closer To Free bike ride for Smilow Cancer Center. She had trained with me years before for JDRF even though she wasn’t doing it. Solely because she is kind, she logged many miles with me and stood patiently on the other side of the road while I got off my bike and walked it across busy streets because I was too afraid to cross traffic. She also took frequent breaks so I could stop and drink water because I was too much of a weenie to let go of the handlebars to pull my bottle from its holder. I hadn’t been on a bike since my pink Schwinn with glittery ribbons and a banana seat.

When Alicia told me why she was doing the Closer To Free ride, I immediately volunteered to ride with her. I only had four months to train, but I logged many hours on my bike that summer. We rode the event with another friend and had a great day. The weather was perfect, the ride was challenging, but not overwhelming and there were thousands of people riding in honor or in memory of loved ones. I drove home that night feeling good about myself- for raising money for Smilow, supporting a friend and conquering a tough course.

That brings us to present day. Well, more like three months ago. Sarah (remember Sarah from the century ride?) said she was doing a measly thirty mile ride for The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses. She asked if I wanted to ride with her. I will fess up and tell you that I kinda blew it off. Kurt had talked about sailing to Block Island that weekend and there was a horse show that I was thinking about going to. But most importantly, I’ve gotten lazier than usual. But, I was honest with myself and Sarah, I just didn’t see myself logging the miles to train over the summer.

Problem solved. I told her via text (because I’m a big, guilty, wuss) that I wasn’t going to ride with her. Honestly, I never thought about the event again until I met up with Sarah and some other friends on Labor Day. She hadn’t mentioned the ride all summer, so I thought maybe she’d bagged it. I made the mistake of asking her if she was still doing it. And in her typical cheery, lovely Sarah way, she said yes and she’d go it alone because she couldn’t get anyone to ride with her.

This is where I had flashbacks of pedaling up ski slopes and training in downpours and logging hundreds and hundreds of miles together as we prepared for and then rode the century ride. I couldn’t bail on her now. Five days before the event, I told her I’d do it. Our friend Richard heard us talking and said he’d join in the fun. Then he sandbagged us and said his bike was thirty-years old and he barely remembered how to ride. Remember Richard in a minute or two.

I only had four days to train, so I decided it was pointless. It was kinda like how I felt about cramming for exams. If I didn’t know the material twelve hours before the test, I didn’t think it would magically come to me no matter how late I stayed up studying.

On a side note, my husband Kurt is a serious athlete. He runs marathons and does Half-IronMan triathlons and doesn’t bother to train for most of it because after nineteen years together I’ve discovered that he’s a life-like robot. A cute humanoid built of muscle and will. A few years ago Kurt bought me a trainer (the thing you put your bike on in the garage so you can still ride it in the winter, not an actual fitness-minded person) and set my bike up on it with an amazing computer program that would automatically make it change gears as if I were climbing a big hill. Needless to say, I despised the trainer and I came to think of it as a fancy kickstand so I wouldn’t have to lean my bike against the garage wall.

The night before the Hole In The Wall Gang ride, I asked Kurt to disentangle my bike from the evil trainer and assemble it. After he did so, I checked the odometer and saw that its mileage read 65.45- the exact distance of the Closer To Free ride I’d done with Alicia. You know what that meant, right? I hadn’t sat on my bike in exactly two years. Crap! Had it been that long? What had I been doing with myself? Oh, that’s right. Nothing. I’d embraced that other than riding horses, I have zero athletic ability and even more so, I’m just so lazy. I love my couch and I loathe things that are difficult and make me work hard. That pretty much crosses exercise of my to-do list.

This ride was only thirty miles and I would never be able to shake the memories of Sarah giving up an entire summer to train with me and then ride one-hundred miles in the place where people pay a lot of money to go up high mountains.

Saturday morning Sarah picked up Richard and me, and off we went. During the drive to the camp, we couldn’t help but notice how hilly the terrain had become. I’m not talking a black diamond trail on Killington Mountain steep, it was more like Mt. Everest. On the way up. I choked back my fear and told myself that it was only thirty miles. I pushed out of my mind that it’d been TWO YEARS since I’d sat on pretty, pink Ruby (I name everything. I have a suitcase named Kermit) and perhaps riding and practicing was an import part of you know, surviving.

The Hole In The Wall Camp was stunningly beautiful and it was clear that the kids it serves love it and the people who work there. There was a huge spread for breakfast (of which I could eat nothing, but that’s a different blog) and hundreds of excited riders ready to get a move on. We made friends with the woman who’d parked next to us. Not having a super-model’s body has made me very aware of those who do. I have no shame in staring at beautiful women and their fit, toned bodies. First thing I noticed about our new friend was that she had serious cyclist legs. Believe me, after almost two decades with my very own triathlete robot husband, I can spy them anywhere. While I was admiring her calves, she told us it’s one of the most challenging courses she’s ever ridden. I was about to bash my head on the side of Sarah’s car because I’m pretty sure they don’t let you ride with a concussion, when I remembered that there was also a 62.5 mile ride offered. I commented that we were only doing the thirty-miles and I wished her good luck with the longer course. She smiled wryly and said that she wouldn’t dare do the longer ride. Not here. Not with these hills. As she walked away, I saw the 140.6 sticker on her car’s back window. That’s the mileage of an IronMan.

Oh man, I thought as I put on my helmet, I’m screwed.

A route and elevation map was in our packets. The first two miles were flat. Sweet! Two down, twenty-eight to go. Then the next four miles took us on a slow climb for two thousand feet. Say what now? Did I read that right? Four miles straight up hill? As my dad used to say- you’ve got to be shitting me.

I don’t know much about physics or maps or even geography, but logic told me that if we went up almost half a mile, we had to come down, right? Isn’t that one of Newton’s Laws? What goes up must come down? Or was I thinking of Fig Newtons? Throw a cookie in the air, it lands in my mouth? So, I kept looking for the downhill portions. And looking. What I did see was that miles twenty-six through twenty-nine took us on another climb straight up hill before leveling off for the homestretch.

Like the map said, the first two miles were relatively flat. I clipped into the pedals, which I not so fondly refer to as the bindings of death, remembered which gears were which and off we went. I’ve always been a pretty strong cyclist on flat terrain (you know me and one-legged chimps. It’s just not that hard to ride in a straight line on zero elevation). We took off and I could see Richard slightly behind me. Maybe he was telling the truth when he said his only goal was to finish on his antique bike.

Well, we got to the base of the first monster climb and I downshifted into a low gear and took a breath. Then I watched Richard and Sarah and virtually everyone else ride by me like I was nailed to a tree. I wouldn’t see Richard again until the first rest stop. By the time Sarah and I pulled in there, he’d filled up both water bottles, gone to the bathroom, gotten a snack and meditated for half an hour. Somehow I wasn’t buying his humble, I’m-just-here-to-raise-money-for-a-good-cause spiel.

Sarah and I pulled into the rest stop, chatted with Richard, hydrated ourselves, and I checked my messages only to discover that Kurt had texted me a photo of Ainsley picking up rocks instead of riding her pony. Uh-oh. Clearly her snotty alter-ego, Rodafina (half rodent, half Lucifena- spawn of Lucifer) had emerged. Okay- score one for me. I might have been killing myself trying to get up these you-can’t-get-there-from-here hills, but at least I was spared the epic meltdown of a ten-year-old girl.

We got back on our bikes and Sarah noticed an odd thing. She had map app open on her phone and the mileage did not match the signs posted. Turns out the ride was five miles longer than advertised. I know what you’re thinking. Shut up and pedal, you giant pansy. Five miles on a bike is nothing. Normally I’d agree with you.

Do you remember the comedian, Richard Jeni? He did a bit about walking six miles to school, in the snow, uphill, both ways. Well, that was this ride. It was straight uphill. And then up hill. And then uphill some more. Fifteen miles into it, I was ready to flag down a support vehicle and hitch a ride. Eighteen miles in, I seriously considered throwing myself in front of one.

Being the exceptionally good friend she is, Sarah basically didn’t pedal so I could keep up with her. I loved chatting on the rare moments I could catch my breath, and we eventually finished. I’m pretty sure we were DFL (a sailing term Kurt uses- Dead F-ing Last), but we did it.

Maybe long-distance rides of yesteryear are like childbirth. Pain has no memory. But, I swear both the JDRF and the Closer To Free rides were a million times easier than this one. It was just hill after hill after bloody hill. Of course, Kurt gently reminded me that it probably would have been a little less torturous if I’d trained, even a tiny bit. Okay- Mr. Roboto. Lesson learned.

On the way home, I told Sarah that if I die tragically, I’d like her to set up a charity ride in my memory. I want it to be twenty-two miles (the far reaches of my comfort and fun zone) and on completely flat land. It can be called the “We’re Fat or Lazy or Fat and Lazy, But Still Raise Money for a Good Cause Ride”. Because it will require virtually no effort, people can even do it in costume. How about a nice Zombie Ride?

Because a Zombie is exactly what I felt like by the time I got home that night. With exhaustion and soreness barreling down hard on me, I took my gorgonzola salad upstairs and ate dinner in the tub.

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There once was a girl from Connecticut… That’s how I started the very first poem I wrote for Professor Ready’s Poetry Course when I was an undergraduate at Drew University. I only took the class because I had to- it was a requirement for my minor. Knowing nothing about poetry and having no talent, I was not looking forward to the semester.

With his gentle manner and always positive feedback, Professor Ready became my favorite- an added bonus to an otherwise difficult class, you might say. Not so much. It was a conundrum. I wanted to impress him. But with poems like the one mentioned above, there was no hope for me.

I muddled through his class, him leaving a much bigger impression on me than I did on him, graduated with decent grades and off I went into the world. Although he might deny it, I’m sure he forgot all about me and went on to focus on students with… you know, talent.

Redemption found me twenty-one years after graduation when I signed a two-book deal with a major publishing house and my first novel was named an IndieNext pick.

Wanting to express my gratitude for his support and encouragement so many years before, I inscribed a thank you note in the first copy of NIGHT BLINDNESS my publisher sent me, and mailed it to him, hoping he’d remember my name, but not the unrhyming, no rhythmed slop I turned into him week after week in the early ‘90s. Let me tell you, three-hundred pages of storytelling was like the bunny slope compared to the double black diamond killer trails with one ski and no poles of composing poetry.

A month later, I received an astonishingly lovely email from him. My publicist farms out my books to well-known novelists in hopes of getting endorsements. Talents such as Kristin Harmel and Sophie Littlefield have written beautiful blurbs. But, Professor Ready’s validation eclipsed all the other praise I’ve received.

Finally I felt like perhaps he’d forgiven me my trespass of being a terrible poet. And maybe he wasn’t just being nice, but he really did think highly of NIGHT BLINDNESS. Whatever the truth, a few months after that email, he invited me to be an instructor at a graduate-level writing workshop he created, organizes and hosts every summer called Sentences. Of course I said yes. It didn’t matter my duties, I just knew I’d love to come back to my alma mater and teach.

Uh, perhaps I should have given this a little more thought. When he sent the schedule indicating I’d be lecturing, reading, running workshops and consulting with up-and-coming novelists on their manuscripts, I realized this was the big leagues with the big dogs and perhaps my place was still on the porch with the whimpering, drooling puppies. I don’t know why I was so surprised. Drew is an acclaimed university and Professor Ready is the best of the best. No duh he’d put together a revered and coveted workshop.

Crap! Now I was going to have to pretend I know what I’m doing. Going back to my roots, I pulled out my eighth-grade English teacher’s rules of writing, and decided I could lecture and run a workshop about the necessity of breaking grammar rules to write good fiction.

Still yearning approval, I prepared a detailed outline. It was a thing of beauty- five pages of explicit notes ensuring I’d have more than enough material to keep twenty-five graduate students mesmerized. Wanting to show off a little, I sent it to Professor Ready.

Have you ever heard the live version of Harry Chapin’s 30,000 Pounds of Bananas? He tells a story while he’s performing about the trouble he had ending the song. He struggled until he came up with what he thought was a brilliant conclusion which he sang to his bandmates. They listened in stunned silence and finally one of them said, “Harry, that sucks.”

Do you see where I’m going here? Well, Professor Ready is much kinder than Harry Chapin’s guitarist, but you get the idea. With just a few weeks before the conference, I was thoroughly and completely screwed. Apparently there would be no place for me on his wall of favorite students. I know he must have one… in the basement… somewhere.

With a little help, I came up with a plan. I’d lecture about writing with our devils- protagonists’ struggles with moral transgressions. Those are awfully big words, certainly not ones in my every-day lexicon. But, I could do this. First- I’d look up “transgressions”, then I’d reread my favorite books and try to pin morally unacceptable acts on the characters.

I spent weeks reading and taking notes on every bad thing my literary friends ever did. I once again made an outline of what I’d lecture about, and the craft I’d lead, assuming Professor Ready wanted the students do a writing exercise rather than build a birdhouse out of popsicle sticks. That one, I would have been all over.

So, this is how my week went: On Sunday, when Professor Ready checked in to see if I was at the hotel yet, I responded I’d be right there… in three hours. Uh, I might have forgotten to take summertime traffic into consideration. Oops.

Monday morning I put on a dress that Kurt swore made me look smart and a pair of high heels that he warned would make me look dead after I fell down in them and broke my neck. I got to Drew twenty minutes early and found a seat with some other instructors. Turns out they were they students, and not the twenty-something hipsters I was expecting. Nope, these were seriously brilliant PhD candidates. Many of them were currently defending their dissertations, AKA completed manuscripts. Um, five minutes into it, I felt like they should be the ones teaching.

I confessed to Professor Ready that I was terrified, so he’d know I was nervous and didn’t have some terrible disease that caused profuse sweating in air-conditioned buildings. He assured me I’d be fine and caught me when I wiped out in my size nine death traps. His introduction made me sound a lot more impressive than I am which then, of course, caused me to sweat even more and maybe hyperventilate a little. I took three measured steps to the podium, admitted Kurt was right, took off my shoes and stood barefoot gazing out at twenty-five expectant faces.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. What was I going to say? What was my lecture about? Transmissions? No, not cars. Transformers? Eh, not kids’ toys. Transponders? Nope- don’t know what those are. Transgressions! Yes! Crap- what about them…

I asked the class to give some examples of characters’ transgressions from their favorite books. At first no one spoke, then one shy man with glasses raised his hand and talked about Huck Finn. Someone else offered up the folks from A Christmas Story. Several people talked about books I haven’t read yet, and magically it clicked. I didn’t reference my notes at all. We discussed why people commit transgressions, how they’re important in fiction writing and their place in moving the story forward.

Suddenly, Professor Ready stood up and took a few steps toward me. Oh no. He’s coming to help me. I’m terrible. They hate me. But, instead, he said we were at the end of the ninety minutes and we needed to wrap it up to stay on schedule. What? I’d been talking for an hour and a half? And no one nodded off or sneaked out a window? Huge score!

After a coffee break (an eloquent way of saying I needed to pee), I went off to run a workshop with half the students. I patted my bag just to make sure I had some Elmer’s glue and scissors, in case the craft I had planned didn’t go over well. Oh wait, I didn’t plan anything.

Not knowing what else to do, I asked them to write about any kind of transgression- stolen trust, lost innocence, hurtful words, anything that came to them. Then I asked for volunteers to read. Once again, I felt as if I was the student and they, the teachers. From hidden pregnancies to bullying campmates, these twelve people wrote beautiful pieces under the pressure of only having twenty minutes to do so. We discussed each vignette, compared them to great works of literature, and I offered insight and assistance where needed. The workshop led itself, or more accurately, the students produced brilliant writing and input for one another. Just a few minutes into it, a knock on the door told me time was up. It’d been more than an hour and a half, and it was time to move to the next section.

I spent the next two hours consulting with the authors of two of the four manuscripts I’d been assigned. Both students seemed genuinely grateful for my input and appeared to think it was helpful. So far so good.

After another break to hit the pottie, it was time for me to read. For as well as day one had gone, now I really was screwed. I’d completely forgotten about this and had nothing prepared. No problem, you might think. Just pick a chapter. Well, I could, except that I had seventy-five minutes to read, answer questions and sign books. That translated to reading for forty minutes. I’m a slow reader, but even I wouldn’t take forty minutes to read one chapter.

I peed super fast and had a few minutes. I opened my computer, called upon my beloved search button and tried to recall one or two words from favorite chapters. I chose three chapters that were both (in my mind, anyway) moving and meaningful. Great! Plan set… Right up until Professor Ready read the email he’d written to me after he’d finished NIGHT BLINDNESS. He referenced a chapter as being particularly well done, so the class wanted to hear it. Um, er, only one problem. The scene takes place between best friends reminiscing about their naughty teenage years.

Okay- here it goes. Let’s hope these people are not modest and don’t mind hearing about the ways these young women kept themselves entertained.

I read four chapters, including the scandalous restaurant scene. No one gasped with shock or hid their embarrassed faces. I should have known that they’re all grown-ups and this probably wasn’t the first time they’d heard these words. Once again, time went quickly and before I knew it, an hour and a half had passed and it was time to wrap up for the night.

Professor Ready asked me to join him for dinner an hour later. I’d sweated through my clothes, so I was psyched to have the time to go back to the hotel, shower and change. Being a compulsive over-packer saved me from trying to make a scratchy, white towel look fashionable.

The next day brought another workshop and two more consults. Feeling a lot more relaxed, I didn’t leave dripping sweat and was spared having to wear pajamas for the drive home.

Professor Ready told me he has twelve published Drew Alum to choose from to be instructors at the Sentences Workshop. So who knows if or when I’ll be invited back. Even if this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was well worth it. I maintain that I learned more from the students than they learned from me. While that was probably not a bonus for them or Professor Ready’s intent, I am grateful to have had the experience.

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I was upstairs when I got the call that Clarence was gone. The radio was on in the kitchen and as I rounded the corner to tell my husband, a new song came on. It was Springsteen’s Hungry Heart. That pretty much sums it up for every one of us here in this church. We all have a hunger for Clarence. To be able to talk to him one more time, to tell him that we love him, to just sit with him for a few more moments.

My dad and Clarence met the summer I was born and were best friends for almost thirty years. Their relationship taught me everything I needed to know about love and friendship-and then when my dad died, about grief. Clarence spoke at my dad’s funeral in a voice thick with tears and said that he’d never have another friend like my dad. I know my father never had another friend like Clarence, nor did he ever want one.

I knew Clarence for literally my entire life. My first memory of him was not at a concert or hearing the great saxophone solo in Jungleland on the radio, but rather it was the summer when I was five and we’d moved into a new house. Clarence had gone downstairs, then outside and got a little lost. I tottered down those green, wooden steps and offered him my hand. Together, the two of us wandered around until we found my mom and dad.

From that moment on, Clarence was always someone for me to hold onto. He was there when I told my dad I’d met the great love of my life. He was at my wedding two years later when I married Kurt. My dad was end stage by then and Clarence had done me the honor of saying he’d walk me down the aisle if anything happened to my dad before the wedding. He cradled my dad in his arms when he was too sick to get up. And then after my dad died, he held onto me when I thought the grief would kill me.

If I may borrow a few lines from The Rising.

Sky of blackness and sorrow
Sky of love, sky of tears
Sky of glory and sadness
Sky of mercy, sky of fear
Sky of memory and shadow
Your burning wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

And what a blessed life it was, not just Clarence’s, but mine, all of ours for having had the honor and privilege to share our lives with him. Thirteen years after my dad died, it once again feels like this much sadness is too much sorrow. But, finally, two old friends are back together. There is no doubt that my dad had one heck of a welcome home party for Clarence and now they’re just two old goats fishing in that big sky above us. Clarence- thank you for loving my dad for so long, and in turn loving me. I miss you and I love you.

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I promised Ainsley’s team I would never blog about them again. Turns out, I lied, because here I am once more. The last five weeks have been difficult. I’ve attended PPTs, team meetings, planning meetings, placement meetings and let’s-hash-this-out-so-we-can-move-on meetings. I’ve mouthed off. I’ve complained. I’ve pointed fingers (mainly my middle one). I’ve been downright indignant. I’ve stood firm in my convictions. I’ve not backed down. But, most importantly, I’ve been an idiot.

I’ve received overwhelming support from friends, acquaintances, facebook friends I’ve never met in person and random people who’ve found their way to my website. However, this past weekend, I was retelling the events of the last month to my BFF and she gave me a teeny tiny and much deserved bitch slapping. She reminded me that spring is high PPT season, teachers are gravely overworked, special ed. teachers might be even more overwhelmed and everyone is doing the best they can.

In thirty-five years of friendship, my BFF and I have had very few disagreements. We famously support each other no matter what. We get mad at each other’s husbands if one of us is in a mood (in other words, just because we feel like it). We hate anyone who is mean to each other’s children. I have her unconditional support, and she has mine. However, the laws of best friendom require us to tell the truth, no matter how not fun it may be. Well, last weekend she told me the truth. And I was horrified. At myself. For being such an a-hole.

I had one bad day with one member of Ainsley’s team. I’ve said countless times before that I love these people. I mean, truly, get teary at the thought of Ainsley leaving Essex Elementary, love them. I’ve written three letters to the superintendent of schools and countless emails to the principal about how appreciative and grateful I am to each and every one of them. Raising a special needs child is terrifying. Some days I have faith that my daughter will be all right. Other days, it’s nearly paralyzing thinking about her trying to navigate every-day tasks that most of us take for granted. For certain, I would have lost my mind without the people who care for and about Ainsley every day at school.

Shame on me for forgetting all the good that those eleven people have done for Ainsley and will continue to do for the next three years. Honestly, their legacy of what they have taught my child and how they have learned to help her will continue to benefit her and us for years after she leaves the school. How dare I have a total and complete (and very public) meltdown over one ill-fated meeting and an off-hand comment that was said with no malice.

After many hours of talking, listening, explaining and meeting, I finally understood the eleven-page report that sent me off the boat and to the bottom of the deep end. Turns out the author of said report is pretty sharp and knows her stuff. Many of her suggestions will help Ainsley learn better, and will aid her teachers in teaching her in more efficient and productive ways. The day after we implemented some of these changes, I got an email from her primary instructor saying she introduced a new method of pre-teaching, resulting in Ainsley thriving in a big-group setting and answering two questions in front of many of her peers. Because she has trouble with articulation and organizing her thoughts, answering questions in big groups has never been comfortable for her. Huh- so, one day into it, we’re already seeing powerful results. Did I mention I’m an a-hole?

I keep referring to Ainsley’s team, but there are so many more people who make her school days the wonderful experience that they’ve been. She has a primary teacher, a special education teacher, two one-on-one paras, a physical therapist, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a school counselor, a school psychologist, a behavioral analyst, and a principal who oversees her team meetings, PPTs and IEP. In addition to them, there are five hundred students and countless staff who go out of their ways to make sure school is a safe, happy and fun place for both my kids.

So this is the blog I should have written. The one that thanks every member of Ainsley’s team for loving her as if she’s their own- the people who always respond to my emails immediately, tolerate me when I’m out of line, meet with me when my anxiety makes it so I can barely get dressed, are patient even when I’m a cow, and who never accept that good enough is, in fact, good enough. They push through Ainsley’s walls, unravel the mysteries of the way she learns, illuminate the paths that lead to her success and are nothing less than professional, warm, welcoming and all together awesome.

Would Ainsley’s life (and therefore Kurt’s and mine) be easier if she didn’t have special needs? Probably. But, I’m not sure it’d be as complete. I don’t buy that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe Ainsley’s challenges are part of God’s plan or something that was meant to be. I think it is what it is. And while it can be frustrating, disheartening and terrifying, it is also a path that has taught me to be a better and more patient parent and certainly a better person. Would I wish these struggles on anyone? Absolutely not. But, do I believe Ainsley’s life is fuller and more blessed thanks to the people who have come to know her because of her special needs… without a doubt.

To Ainsley’s team, and I mean this sincerely- thank you and I love you.

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We all know by now that my daughter, Ainsley, has special needs. She’s bright, motivated, sweet, empathetic and kind. But, she’s also challenged academically and socially. Fortunately for her, and for Kurt and me, she has an amazing team of educators and professionals at her elementary school who help guide her through her days.

However, even the most well-oiled machine derails sometimes. Today was a big train wreck of a PPT. Kurt says he wrote the wrong date on his calendar, but I secretly think he had some divine vision telling him to run far and fast away from 108 Main Street. We have almost monthly meetings with Ainsley’s team, so when Kurt was a no show, I wasn’t concerned. I figured he had an emergency at work and I was confident I could handle the meeting solo. After six years of PPTs, it was old hat.

Yeah- it was an old, smelly, ugly fedora with a ticking ticking time bomb hidden under the feather kind of hat. After I left school, I called Kurt to ask if he’d forgotten about the meeting or had run off with a twenty-year old chippie. Then I summed up the ninety minutes simply by saying, “I yelled at two team members, then ran out of the room crying.”

This is interesting for me to write because usually the subjects of my blogs are strangers who have had the misfortune of angering me. In those cases my pieces are anything-goes-I-will-hunt-you-down-and-punch-you-in-the-face, free for alls. But, I love Ainsley’s team. I mean truly, write glowing letters to the superintendent of schools about them, love them.

One positive of today? It answered this question- Is it possible for me to want to punch even people I like in the face? The answer is a resounding yes. Nobody did anything wrong, other than me yelling and stomping out like an irate toddler. While no one stole my lollipop, one person did take my confidence that my daughter is okay.

Ainsley is her own kid. And I will never, ever, ever do anything to take that uniqueness away from her. She has a heart as big as the sky and more enthusiasm for the things she loves than anyone I’ve ever met. However, she expresses it unlike her classmates, which may cause some to think she’s different. No kidding she’s different. She’s not like them so why on earth would we try to squish her into the mold of other kids?

Let me share with you some of the punching-in-the-face moments from today.

Two boys are walking down the hall, talking about a basketball game they’re going to later that day. They’re so excited for it that they high-five each other. They’re not loud. They’re not disruptive. A teacher witnesses the exchange and smiles to herself. Fast forward a few hours. Ainsley can’t wait for the end of the day. She knows in a few minutes she’ll be released into the wild to go ride her pony. Ainsley’s world revolves around Perfect James, so she is literally counting the minutes until the bell rings. She knows she has to follow the rules in the classroom, so she waits until she gets into the hall to express her glee. She tilts forward on her tiptoes and shakes her hands. For those thirty seconds, she is unaware of her surroundings, she’s just immersed in the happy thoughts of seeing James.

According to a professional in the building, Ainsley is engaging in a behavior that must be modified because it’s not, and I quote, socially acceptable. Seriously? Not only do we push her way beyond her academic and social comfort level on a daily basis, now we have to squash her expressing her enthusiasm because she doesn’t do it right? Pardon my language, but fuck that.

It’s an interesting paradox. As parents, we pat ourselves on the back for encouraging our children’s individuality… but only if it matches everyone else’s. I’m a fairly intelligent person, but I cannot make that make sense. So here we have a kid who is most definitely not like other children (nor would I want her to be given the number of self-absorbed, materialistic, clique-ish bullies that are out there); yet we’re constantly telling her she has to cram her perfectly trapezoidal body into a parallelogramish hole. Really people?

Another example from this poop show of a meeting is that Ainsley rocks to soothe herself. I’ve never, not once, seen her do it at home which tells me it’s how she calms herself when she’s anxious. As I’ve said, school is not easy for her, and it often gives her cause for worry. Too bad, kid. Apparently rocking is another socially unacceptable behavior because her classmates don’t do it. Maybe if more kids did try to self-soothe, there would be fewer trips to the principal’s office and happier children. So, let me see if I understand this. I have an anxious child who is being told she cannot engage in the one activity she knows brings relief. Where, I ask you, will all that angst go?

Now do you forgive my evil desires to punch people I genuinely like in their pretty little faces? I’m telling you, there’s not a jury in the world who would convict me. I’ve heard of simple assault and aggravated assault. I’ll throw a new category out there- how about necessary assault?

It was only in the last twenty minutes that the meeting took such a sinister turn. Right up until the last presenter, everyone had positive reports to give on our girl. She doesn’t advance as quickly as her peers, but she’s been making steady and encouraging progress since the start of the school year. Isn’t that all we can want for any of our children? The positive feedback made the last bit that much more perplexing. The phrases negative responses and non-compliant got tossed around. I’m sorry, but if my kid is behaving this badly, I really needed to hear about it before the seventh month of school. And furthermore, why was only one team member of twelve reporting these behaviors? By the way, a negative response is her stating she’s tired instead of informing her teacher that she needs a break. And non-compliance is taking more than three seconds to respond to a request. Let us not forget that this is a kid who has trouble processing the meaning of what people are saying. As my friend, Timmy, would say, what the fuck fuck?

Circling back to the beginning of this ill-fated tale, I did return after I left the room in tears. Much to my relief, the team was patiently waiting for me. Our leader did the only wise and sane thing to do, and put an end to the PPT. I left there angry and hurt, but also with the knowledge that no matter how many folks I wanted to deck, I am still beyond fortunate to have so many people who, even though I may disagree with them sometimes, love my kid as if she’s their own.

 

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Last night I did a book signing at the lovely and wonderful Palm Beach Bookstore. While in the sunshine state for a total of thirty-six hours, friends invited me to stay with them at their condo in Palm Beach. So I booked myself a flight, hopped on a plane and rented a capable little Ford Focus at the airport. Okay- it wasn’t quite that happy. I hadn’t slept more than five hours a night for the last three days, I’d sweated through my clothes and had made the ill-fated decision to hairspray my carefully constructed curls in the wind. Rather than achieving carefree beach blown waves, I ended up with stringy, sticky hair. So, by the time I pulled up to the security gate at my friends’ place, with Kid Rock serenading me loudly on the radio, I was not pretty. Nor did I smell good.

I rolled down my window feeling full of myself, despite my appearance, because I was, after all, in Palm Beach, Florida for a book signing. In just a few hours, the store would be packed to capacity and they would almost sell out of my books. Of course, I had no way of knowing that at the moment, but it didn’t deter my good mood. That feeling lasted right until I told the guard who I was there to see. He looked me up and down, scanned my scrappy little rental car from front to back, and said, “Oh, you must be the dog walker.”

Imagine my indignation. Me- a rising star (okay, at the very least, a published novelist), all the way from the great white north, in town to inscribe books to adoring fans (or maybe local friends who’d been holding out on buying the book in hopes I’d make it down) being mistaken for a dog walker. I smiled sweetly, suddenly aware of the lettuce stuck between my front teeth, and told him that no, no, I was friends with said people and was taking up residence with them for the night. I’m all for sticking to my guns and that’s exactly what this guy did. He rolled his eyes, and said, “Well, you look like a dog walker.”

Of course I was offended. Why wouldn’t I be? And then I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. Round, red face, stringy hair, sweat stains on my armpits, porky frame, cheap car, inexpensive t-shirt. As I was taking inventory of myself, a line of cars slowly trickled in the complex: sleek BMWs and sexy Porsches driven by impossibly perfect women who looked like they hadn’t eaten since 2003. I couldn’t spy much else as I was blinded by their five carat diamonds and glossy hair. Immediately I thought of that game from Sesame Street- Which One of These is Not Like the Others? So I guess couldn’t blame the guy for assigning me a dog-walking life. My irritation was replaced by bliss as I took in the strangely calm, turquoise water lapping against the beach in front of me and reminded myself that shortly I would be catching up with old friends and engaging in one of my favorite activities- talking about my books.

Okay, Mr. Gate Guard. No harm no foul. But then I realized there was harm and foul, and it was mine. Not his. My best friend has a friend who left her obscenely high-paying job in corporate lawyerdom to become a dog walker. She lives in Lulu Lemons, walks several miles a day and does something she loves. She’s also five-foot-ten, model skinny and beautiful. Suddenly I thought I should be so lucky to look like a dog walker, or at least that dog walker.

We do judge books by their covers- both literally (An angry college student told me she wasn’t going to read my book because it was about snobby, rich people. When I asked her what made her think that, she replied that only rich people hang out at lakes.) and figuratively- this guy assumed by my shabby state that I was a dog walker. But which one of us was the bigger offender here- him for making assumptions about me or me for being bothered? Aren’t we all guilty of acting like Mr. Gate Guard? What about the girl with the platinum blonde hair, long fingernails and breasts spilling out of a tank top that wouldn’t fit on an American Girl doll who turns out to be the chief resident in the neurosurgery program at the local hospital? Or the guy who was sitting in front of me years ago who was wearing torn, canvas sneakers, paint-splattered shorts and a dirty t-shirt who, after striking up a conversation with him about his neon green shoelaces, I learned not only was a good friend of my husband’s but also a gazilionaire (he didn’t tell me that. I recognized his name from Kurt talking about him). And how about the man in the tailored suit who is a college student on scholarship?

In my defense, I don’t think I would have been irritated if his comment hadn’t been meant to be a slight. Believe me, it was: he’d perfected looking down his nose at me and used that unaffected tone of voice as if I were a fly he was trying to swat. Perhaps he shared some of the harm and foul. A job is a job. He shouldn’t have come to a disdainful conclusion about mine given my appearance and I shouldn’t have been insulted. I know plenty of people making six figures who hate their jobs and even more folks who make considerably less and wouldn’t change a thing.

Lesson learned, Mr. Gate Guard. Next year when I come back to Palm Beach to do a signing for book two, I will bring along a pink, sparkly leash and proudly own up to that noble profession.

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