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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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In the words of the pop singer, Meredith Brooks, “I hate the world today.” Which is odd because I’ve been sitting alone in my housesince the kids got on the bus. I’ve exchanged some emails, had a lovely chat with a super helpful sales agent (he restored my faith that customer service is not, in fact, an oxymoron), put away some laundry and wrote a whole bunch.

What’s there to be grumpy about? NIGHT BLINDNESS is in bookstores and selling well, SCAR TISSUE is all but done (just waiting to hear back from my editor). The first draft of book three is complete and I started book four. And, I have a job where I don’t have to leave my house and get stay in my jammies. Although it’s miserably cold outside, I’ve been inside  since waving goodbye to my kids as they happily filed onto the school bus and found seats with their friends.

So what’s my problem? I could tell you, but it’s stupid and petty and I’ll get over it. The real issue is that as of three twenty three this afternoon when my kids get home, I’m going to have to be happy. Just suck it up, you tell me. Well, I wish I could. But, despite being told by an “expert” in the field that Ainsley cannot pick up on social cues, she is the most empathetic, tuned-in person I have ever known. If I’m in a bad mood, but smile and hug her when she comes home, even before I speak, she will ask me what’s wrong. I’ll give the “expert” this- Ainsley might sometimes ask why I’m sad when my real emotion is one of murderous annoyance, but the kid’s pretty sharp.

My foul mood has nothing to do with my kids. So I will be genuinely happy to see them. But, they’re both extremely perceptive, so at some point in our twenty-seven minute drive to the ponies, I’m going to have to answer them when they ask what’s wrong. Coop is ten and Ainsley is nine, so I have to watch my mouth. They’re pretty cool kids. They’ve heard every curse word known to man and a few that my dad made up. They actually converse back and forth with adults. But, I don’t think the answer to, “What’s wrong, Mommie?” should be, “I f***ing hate people, sweetie.” So, for their sake, I will sing along to the radio and put on a smiley face that they will know is complete BS.

It’s everybody else who I will encounter today that is bringing me angst. For example, I know the second I’m a bit short with someone over four and a half feet tall, I’ll get the third degree. You may have read enough of my blogs to know the following about me- I’m not nice enough to make things up so that  others feel good about themselves. That statement, of course, excludes my children. For them, I would do anything- including chit chatting with the skinny, pretty moms in this town who I never call by name because they all look alike to me. Oh- the things that must be done to score playdates. But, if a grown up asks what’s wrong, and I tell him or her that I’m grumpy, why can’t we just leave it at that? Suffice it to say, if you’re the reason I’m pissy, you’ll hear about it. If you just happen to be in the same general space as me, then could you please leave me alone?

Does anyone respect the completely insincere phrase “I’m fine”?  Everybody knows that whoever says they are fine most certainly is not. But, we should all know by now that “I’m fine” is also code for “Please leave me alone before I bite your f***ing head off.” My philosophy- if I tell you I’m fine, even if it’s clear that I’m not, I cannot be held responsible for my actions if you continue to poke the bear by asking said furry, grouchy animal what’s the matter or telling the beast with the killer claws that she doesn’t look fine. Take if from the bear- move on.

Would it kill the world to take a page from Kurt’s book? He always tells me I don’t even have to talk. My expressions say it all. He can tell before he opens the garage door if the answer to any question he might ask is going to be, “I’m fine.” In that case, he bypasses speaking to me altogether, fills a plastic Dora cup with wine straight from the box, sticks a bendy straw in it, opens my office door just wide enough to fit a plastic Dora cup through it, slides it in, closes the door and tells me he loves me through the safety of an inch and a half of wood.

I’m not asking the chipper moms on the playground to drive around with alcohol in their cars. Nor do I want the after-school activities people to give me a wide berth. All I’m asking for is the right to be silently grumpy without having anyone trying to fix my bad mood or worry that they caused it.

And once again, I am reminded why I’m a writer. After taking a fifteen minute break from novel number four to get my ya –yas out (as Ainsley would say), I feel so much better. Although writing doesn’t bring me wine the way my unbelievably kind and tolerant husband does, like him, it always makes me feel better. So, for now, the bear has gone back into hibernation.

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Being a novelist, I work from home, usually in my pajamas with a cat on my lap and Van Morrison playing in the background. I know- I’m very glamorous. When the tiny black letters on my screen seem like they’re melting together, I know I need a break. Sometimes I take a walk (to the refrigerator). Other times I fold laundry (not really). But, usually, I’ll surf on the Internet for a few minutes where I inevitably find articles written by cheerful, pretty moms wearing flowered capris and pink sweaters tied around their shoulders.

It’s the morbid fascination similar to slowing down to look at an accident that makes me click on those pages. I know what I’m going to get, but I can’t stop myself: How to create my own Thanksgiving Day Mayflower replica centerpiece made from two-thousand tiny twigs plucked from the expertly manicured trees in my yard or maybe someone named Betts will explain the forty-seven easy steps to assembling personalized, embroidered throw pillows that my perfectly well-behaved children would never dream of throwing at each other. If I get really lucky, I might stumble across a self-proclaimed super mom demonstrating how quickly and painlessly she and her seven superior offspring produced sixty-six hand-painted place cards for the sixty-six delightful guests they’re having over for a delicious and nutritious Thanksgiving cage-free, sugar-free, homemade, artificial-free, taste free, cardboard dinner.

I get it- genetically engineered, mammoth vegetables probably aren’t good for us. Sugar makes us fat. And too much sun will be the death of us all. But really? I can’t trot down to HomeGoods with fifteen dollars in my pocket and pick up a cute centerpiece that will last for more than one day? Do I need to spend all my extra time when I’m not writing, blogging, cooking, chauffeuring to playdates and cleaning pony tack learning calligraphy for the formal, sit-down brunches I will never host? Okay- let me stop right there. I am not super mom. And when I’m not writing, blogging, cooking, chauffeuring to playdates and cleaning pony tack, sometimes I like to do, wait for it… nothing. I don’t want to be covered in glitter and cutting out tiny pieces of felt when I’m not busy doing something that absolutely has to get done.

Truth be told, I might have a minor case of sour grapes. I’d love to convert extra toilet paper tubes into Independence Day rockets. It’d be fabulous if I could use a glue gun without cementing my fingers to the table (thank goodness for nail polish remover). My kids would be thrilled if I could stencil a mural in their bedrooms (okay, that one might be a lie). I’d really, really like to be handy enough or talented enough or determined enough to accomplish all the tasks that Perky Piper not only blogs about but also does on a regular basis. But, I’m just not that… that.

While the creators of just about every mommy blog I’ve ever read are making adorable handmade invitations for holiday parties, I’m sending out evites for another Streckerfest Free For All. My idea of fun is not to crack a rib while I stuff myself into a pair of Spanx and then put on my fancy dresses for my fancy friends. For any gathering that happens during warm weather, we fire up the grill and have a barbecue in the backyard. Shoes and nice clothes are not permitted. For Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Super Bowl, we pretend we’re outside and cram as many friends as we can into the gathering room, throw a turkey in the oven or a pot of chili on the stove and eat on ottomans, couches and the floor.

Carefully painted eggs lovingly shaped into the circle of life have no place at our Easter cookout. The only tablecloths I break out on Mother’s Day are cheap plastic ones I throw down so the kids can paint, um, each other without making too much of a mess. Thanksgiving is loud, messy and sooner or later we all lie on the floor and unbutton our jeans to make room for dessert. We’re not fancy people. And at least in the craft department, I most certainly am not a do it yourselfer. But, if Perky Piper and Blogging Betts peered in our window on any given holiday or a random weekend, they’d spy a Streckerfest Free For All in full force- happy messy kids, adults in comfy clothes and all of us spending quality time with the people we love the most. I’m pretty sure my family would take that over a hand-trimmed topiary nativity scene any day of the week.

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I get asked a lot what inspired me to write NIGHT BLINDNESS. I am truthful in my answer when I explain my father was terminally ill and I began writing as a way to work through my grief. What I have not said is that I needed to write this book, both as a way to honor my dad and to have something to hold on to. Writing was a life preserver in the deep end of the ocean, oxygen in an airless space. Although the end product is an entirely different novel than what I began in a dimly-lit hospital room in Baltimore, every word I wrote was for my dad.

People say it’s not healthy to hold on to the dead and sooner or later, we have to move on. I will never let go of my father. Waking every morning and knowing it may have been my last with him was like being trapped under a thousand pound boulder. It crushed my lungs. It was impossible to breathe. Worse than that, I didn’t want to. I was staring down the barrel of life without him, and there were times when it was just too much. Writing NIGHT BLINDNESS gave me an outlet for my grief, something positive to focus on. Hospitals, MRIs, steroids, surgeons, radiation oncologists and the swift knowledge that my dad, who was fifty-eight when he was diagnosed, only had months to live consumed me. It literally ate me. I lost a scary amount of weight. I kept getting skinnier and just didn’t care. The great love of my life proposed and while I didn’t quite say no, I definitely didn’t say yes. I was going down and I loved him too much to take him with me.

The problem with grief is that there’s no getting away from it. All I could do was hold onto the helm and weather the storm. While this tempest will last forever, perhaps it has taken on a new form, the way rain turns to snow. One’s not better than the other, they’re just different. As my grief began to morph from one shape to another, I found I could breathe a little. So I started writing again. This time it wasn’t with the sole intent of outrunning my grief for one more day. Now I was able to say goodbye and thank you to the characters who had held my hand and sat with me when all I could do was cry and throw shoes at the wall. I wrote about what I felt for my dad. I paid tribute to him by creating a love between father and daughter that was so huge, it needed to be told. I wrote about family and love and regret and lost chances and the haunting question, what could have been? I will never let go of my dad. But, now, moving forward, I have created something for him, for us that I will keep with me.

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I don’t recognize people and it’s not because I’m not observant. I pay close attention to my surroundings, as every situation has the potential to end up as a scene in a book. My memory is freaky good. I know what you’re thinking- how good can it be if I can’t identify people I’ve met before? Let me demonstrate. I remember the day I got my driver’s license (August 25th, 1987) was a Tuesday. I can recite all thirty-two NFL teams and their starting quarterbacks (go on, quiz me. I dare you). I remember the Friends episode from 1995 where Brooke Shields licked Joey’s hand at dinner (that one might have stuck with me because there are a few special people I’d like to lick. And if Brooke’s character, Erika Ford, can do it, in a restaurant, in a burgundy dress, there’s hope for me). I wasn’t kidding. My memory rarely fails me.

So why don’t I recognize people? I wish I could tell you. It’s extremely inconvenient not to be able to retrieve someone’s name or even know who they are. It makes introductions awkward. Small talk is difficult when I can’t figure out if I know the person from my kids’ school or riding or maybe through a friend of a friend.

But, like many others with deficits, I have developed coping strategies. If someone who seems to know me is wearing breeches and boots, it’s a safe bet they’re from the horse world. If they are super fit and extremely bendy, he or she is probably one of Kurt’s friends.

So when I ran into a woman in the parking lot of Essex Elementary School, I banked on her being a fellow parent. She clearly knew me, as the first thing she said was that she’d seen me on TV. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t recall her name or exactly who she was. But, I definitely knew her… from somewhere. Unfortunately, after our initial greeting, she dove straight into critiquing me.

The more she talked, the less convinced I was that she was an EES parent. We have a great group of kids and an equally wonderful bunch of parents. I couldn’t imagine one of them would tell me I might want to try wearing make-up next time I’m on TV and that I was fidgety. Although, come to think of it, a different woman who is very definitely an EES parent informed me that she was too busy to come to my “little book thingy.” She was referring to the launch party for NIGHT BLINDNESS where more than two-hundred people turned out to show their support. Crap-could they have been the same person? That’s another thing that happens, everyone looks alike to me. Imagine sifting through a shoebox of out-of-focus pictures, in the dark, trying to identify the people in the photos. I’m not being flippant here. It’s slightly terrifying when I’m talking to two people who I know share no physical similarities, but they still look the same to me.

So, we chatted for a few minutes about how she watched my Fox interview in the middle of her daily two hour run on the treadmill. Lord knows I’m no super model, but this lady might need to rethink her workout regime if this is what she has to show for twelve miles of running every day. Anyway, she checked her watch and informed me she was late. Kudos to you, mystery woman, for using my method of escaping people who I am mentally done talking to.

It was only after she was safely inside the school that it clicked who she was. I always say I’m impossible to offend unless you are mean to my kids. While this twinkie wasn’t overtly nasty, she did grossly underestimate Ainsley. In my book, that’s a much bigger sin than unkind words. I briefly thought about trying to catch her in the foyer and punching her in the face. There’s not a jury in the world who’d convict me if they knew what she’d done. But, alas, the door closed behind her and she was gone.

Had I known who I was speaking to, I might not have been so sweet. Even after she pointed out my lack of looking like a girl on TV, I continued to smile and play nice. Small town living has taught me that everyone knows someone who knows you and most of the time, Kevin Bacon has nothing on us. Never mind six degrees of separation. It’s bordering on an incestuous two degrees. So, I held my tongue and missed a perfect opportunity for payback. So for once, whatever disconnect is going on in the facial recognition part of my brain worked to my advantage. It kept the woman’s nose intact and my arrest record clean.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to the ridiculous belief that everything happens for a reason. It’s a cop out at best and a scapegoat at worst. But, perhaps something good finally came out of me never knowing who the hell I’m talking to. If I’d broken my hand rearranging her face, typing this blog would have been challenging.  And, the principal who is a good guy but also a mandated reporter would have felt obligated to call the police. That might have put a damper on our morning drop-off pleasantries.

So, in the spirit of being able to chat at the front doors of school without the ugly scars of handcuffs reminding me that it’s not polite to assault people, it turned out okay that I didn’t recognize that woman until it was too late. But consider yourself warned, treadmill lady. If we cross paths again off school grounds, I’m pretty sure I’ll remember you. You and your nose might want to run far and run fast.

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The other night I had dinner with one of my oldest friends. This is a man I’ve known since I was sixteen. Needless to say, he’s been around for some pretty big events in my life- college graduation, marriage, babies, and a few career changes.

I haven’t seen him in more than a year, so I was excited to share with him yet another milestone, the news of the release of my debut novel, NIGHT BLINDNESS. This is kinda how it went:

Me: My debut novel was published a few weeks ago. I still can’t believe this is real.

Him: What makes you think you’re a writer?

Me: Uh, I signed a deal with one of the biggest and best publishing houses in the country?

Him: Well, I’ve never seen you write anything.

Me: You’ve also never seen me poop. Doesn’t mean I don’t do it.

Him: (scoffs) I guess since you don’t have a job now, this will be a good hobby.

Me: (gulps the rest of my drink) Excuse me, Mary? May we please get another bottle of wine over here? And a straw?

Don’t get me wrong, this man is a good soul. He’s exactly the friend I would call if I ran out of gas at three in the morning. Or landed in the pokey for assaulting someone who insulted my children. Or my career. That is one of the reasons I was baffled that he was so dismissive of something for which I’ve worked so hard. It was my good upbringing that prevented me from telling him how much my advance was. Or how rare it is for a debut novelist to get signed for two books. Or that my novel went to auction and five houses bid on it. Or that about one in a hundred thousand people who submit manuscripts to agents end up getting published.

What, I ask you, would have been the right thing to do here? My first instinct was to tell him to shut the F up. But, I was pretty sure he was going to pay for dinner, and I do love a free meal. My second thought was to defend myself, my writing and my career (if this is a hobby, I need to stop working so hard). But, I was afraid that would validate his perception that writing isn’t a serious sport. So, I kept my yap shut and took his unwarranted and completely surprising abuse.

In twenty-seven years of friendship, this guy and I have never exchanged cross words. True- we only get together about once a year. We have horses in common. So, our dinners usually revolve around chatting about which shows I’ve been to, how our mutual friends are doing and me showing him endless pictures of my kids (in case he missed them all on Facebook). He is sweet, funny, and genuine. It’s never been in his character to be mean.

So what should I have done with him? In a very un-me move, I decided to let it slide. Don’t worry, I’m not going rogue and dipping my toe in the nice pool. Yes, my friend said cruel things to me, but he said them in such a lovely tone, while pouring an overpriced bottle of Italian cabernet, it made me think that he had no idea just what a penis face he was being.

While keeping quiet was the magnanimous thing to do, I’m not sure it was the right thing. It’s been almost a week since our dinner, and I’m bothered enough to write about it. Clearly my feelings are still hurt. I can’t say for certain that if I ran into said friend on the street, I would be pleasant. At this moment, I’m totally okay with not seeing him again for another year. So perhaps if not the right thing, maybe the healthy choice would have to been to tell him how I felt. I learned in graduate school that no one can make me feel a certain way, in fact, I choose to feel or react the way I do. In the spirit of making my advisors proud, I will own feeling insulted. I will also own feeling like a fool for not telling my friend to F off while I had the chance

Like I said, we are close enough that I will get over this and he will be none the wiser. But, I will continue to wonder if it would have been a better choice to get my ya-yas out while I was trying to figure out how to turn the bottle of wine and my straw into an IV. No doubt seeing the look on his face after politely asking him to shut the F up would have been worth any uncomfortable moments that may have followed. My friend is a good enough sport and a nice enough guy that he probably would have been shocked, then laughed and finally apologized.

Most of you probably think that I did the right thing by showing rare restraint. However, after much mulling over of the subject, I’ve come to believe that I was wrong by not telling my dinner companion exactly how I felt. True- I could have worded it in a softer way than what I was thinking, but that’s not really my style.

However, while taking a break from writing this to check email, I discovered that NIGHT BLINDNESS has been selected by the Indie Booksellers to be an IndieNext pick. This means even more exposure for the product of my so-called hobby. Perhaps I’ll have to mail my friend some of the fliers so he can see where my frivolous use of time has gotten me. And if that doesn’t impress him, perhaps the next time he’s rude, I will tell him to shut the F up.

 

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