Monday, January 26, 2009

40 under 40

Saturday, and it's your 40th. You wake up to breakfast in bed, and two kids who think that birthdays are the coolest. thing. ever.

You don't mind the thought of being 40. In fact, you -- the wiser, more relaxed, more experienced you -- are actually looking forward to it.

(Oprah claims she hit her stride when she reached 40.)

(Which is all the more reason to jump in with both feet. Right?)

You're not much of a list maker, but at this junction, maybe a little shorthand recollection is a good idea. Like a mental measuring stick. Or a protractor. But not the metal kind, like you buy at Staples. The kind you're thinking of is the one you made with your hand, as a kid. You know, where you planted your thumb on the anchor point, then used your index finger to estimate your calculation.

This list is like your hand protractor: Start right... there. No -- over just a bit. There! Put your thumb right there. Perfect. That's your starting point. Now, hold your thumb steady and with your index finger, draw an invisible circle, as far around as you can make it go. That's right. Inside that invisible circle? That's what you've done, as well as what you've left undone. And from here, you can begin to plot out the next 40.

Here goes.

In your first 40 years...

1) you married one man
2) had two children, two businesses
3) and three mortgages
4) you closed one of the businesses after reaching your financial goal
5) you found an investor for the other business to help take it to the next level
6) just before Lehman Bros. collapsed, forcing you to put fast-track growth plans on hold
7) you did not go to kindergarten
8) except for that first day, when you decided that you'd rather stay at home and play with your little brother
9) but did eventually attend 10 different schools by the time you graduated high school
10) you grew up in a military family (hence number nine, above)
11) with five brothers
12) and three sisters
13) lived on Guam (number 10, above)
14) as well as in Oxford, England -- your choice
15) visited 28 or so states, at last count
16) and traveled abroad to Poland
17) and Portugal
18) and were asked to go to Paris to serve as editor-in-chief for an American youth magazine, an offer you declined because you were in love (see number one, above)
19) you played bass in two bands
20) wrote six screenplays
21) one of which has been optioned three times
22) two of which were developed by the A-list prod. co. responsible for Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You, among others
23) published articles in magazines and newspapers, and on the Internet
24) have been featured in Writer's Market -- a New York Times annual bestseller for aspiring writers
25) the same publication you have used since forever to pitch articles (see number 23, above)
26) you began writing your first novel, which you hope to pitch this spring
27) corresponded with Elie Wiesel on the subject of your novel, before it was a novel
28) wrote a two-act stage play
29) and helped to launch four grade school musicals
30) with the fifth one on its way
31) you studied to be a Third Order Dominican
32) before becoming completely disillusioned with organized religion
33) which actually strengthened your faith
34) you buried father-in-law
35) and, 14 years later, your mother-in-law, though not with your own hands
36) you started a chapter of Amnesty International in high school
37) and are still an active campaigner
38) you also stood out in the snow with your husband and two small children to protest, pre-invasion, the Iraq war
39) worked with Bobby Shriver
40) and cried like a baby when Barack Obama won the presidential election (!)

Okay, so. Fair enough. A good start. But it's nowhere near what you want to accomplish before you die.

Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work. Because you're expecting big things from the next 40 list, the 40 Over 40.

Tick, tock.
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Saturday, January 24, 2009

hello, world

A handful of postings into this thing, and already the world is stopping by to check it out. Hello Canada, Spain, Singapore. Israel. The United States. The world at your fingertips.

(Israel? Really? How cool is that?)

This blog is changing things for you, bringing life into a more vivid perspective than you could have imagined, back when you started debating this entire undertaking.

Now, you consider things events situations more, you turn them over in your hand, look at them from every angle, take them apart, just to see how they work. And then, you try to put them back together on the page. To write about them in such a way that they will engage inspire encourage others. Whoever might be stopping by for a few minutes. To catch up. To size you up. Or debate you, challenge what you've written.

(What, if anything, will it mean for you, and how you approach this blog, knowing that you have readers from places as intriguing as Israel, among others?)

On the best of days, you write with a cup of coffee at your side. Peet's is preferable, but Starbuck's is closer. Whatever, you'd like to think that somewhere on the other end of this connection, whether just down the freeway, or to the north, or as far east and west of here as you can imagine, someone else is sipping a cup of their own coffee, looking over your shoulder as you take things apart.

(Only this: That you stay true to your integrity as a writer. That you stay present, noticing, taking notes. And that you be gracious and grateful. Always grateful.)

Hello, world, it's a song that we're singing. Come on, get happy.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

sexy boots (no line on the horizon)

Satellite radio in the car tuned to a pop station in the U.K., where you know the new U2 single will be on heavy rotation today, you wait for it: "Get On Your Boots," the first single from U2's newest offering, No Line on the Horizon, which has been four years in the making.

You wait for the song, then you wait for your impression of the song. It's been a long time, after all, and you want to savor the experience. Want to mark the date time place that it happened to you, this go 'round.

You've been with the band since just about the beginning. A freshman in high school is about as far back as you can remember understanding that it would be their music that made up the soundtrack to your life, but it could have been before then. Anyway, high school, and your sister discovered them first, gave a copy of the Boy album to Todd Gardner for a listen. He returned it a few days later with a "meh," and a shrug of his shoulders. You bet he's a die hard fan now.

So many years on, and you want it, this new album, to matter just as much as every other one before it has. Because U2 has always been the music in you, and you're afraid that if they don't matter anymore, then one of a few things has happened: They've either run their course (unthinkable), you've moved on (unimaginable), or you just don't care like you used to. Which, if you think about it -- if they've always moved you, have always been the back beat to your experiences, the metronome by which you mark your memories -- is kinda sad.

Because where are you then, when the soundtrack to your life goes mute, or stops playing altogether?

In "Get On Your Boots," you hear some familiar U2. It's not apparent at first, and then it is. Also some Beatles references? Maybe? The rest... you're not sure of yet. You'll take your time to make up your mind.

What you do like, at first pass, is this:

Women of the future/Hold the big revelations, and this: You don't know how beautiful you are, and this: Let me in the sound.

Which is exactly what you are wanting to happen, too.
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rain, dry spells, and empty wells

Rain moves you. Makes you want to create. To sit in your office, classical music on the iTunes, and write. Something profound. Poetic. Something that might move others, just as the rain moves you.

Rain features heavily in works of longing reaching redemption.

(Does this, by extension, mean all of your stories take place on rainy days?)

Songs about rain abound. Songs about singing dancing walking in the rain.

In movies, epiphanies happen in the rain. So do break ups, make ups.

(Yes, come to think of it. Or, a good many of your stories, or scenes within them, anyway.)

Rain evokes place, the poetry of places discovered, or yet to be. Maybe that's what makes the Irish, with their rains-every-day island, the poets that they are, or were. Yeats. Joyce. Swift. Wilde. And, following in their footsteps, Frank McCourt, U2. Even Lennon and McCarthy, both of whom were Irish grandsons. However they express it, whether through song or story, they are all, in the end, poets.

There are others, of course. Many others. Too many, after all, to count.

3pm on a Wednesday in SoCal, and you're waiting for the rain. Waiting for the inspiration that will come with it. Waiting to create. Bernstein wrote, "Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time."

This is your rest of the time. This is your approach, what you use to jump-start the muse, maybe, if she exists, and if she's amenable to being jump started. Which you doubt.

But it's rare when it rains in this part of California, so you know to take Bernstein's observation to heart. Because most of the time, it's a desert out here. Dry and arid and... yeah. Dry. Which means that, if you're waiting on the rain alone, your well of inspiration's gonna run dry, too.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

piano lessons

Thirty years ago, you took piano lessons. You don't remember how long you kept it up, or if you were any good (except that your teacher told you you had "obedient fingers," for what it was worth), only that you approached the piano like you approached everything back then: with lists and schedules and the expectation that if you just applied yourself enough, and were disciplined enough, you would succeed.

For better or for worse, you use that approach to this day.

Working now on a piece of fiction about a young girl first setting out on a career in classical music, you are challenged to capture the essence of the piano lesson on paper, to evoke what it is like to not just play the instrument, but to experience it at the most basic level, where the senses are engaged. To place the reader on the piano bench, sheets of practice music at the ready, hands in position.

Your first pass at that exercise looks something like this:

For her, the piano was an experience, something that was to be played and listened to, yes, but also understood on a tactile level — inhaled and stroked and consumed with the eyes. Finally, it was something that evoked memory and place, and longing and struggle and mastery, such that in the end, the entire experience was complex and complete, and infinitely satisfying.

She loved the high polish of a grand piano, loved that her image was reflected before her as she played, herself but not her Self, her emotions and expressions and clumsy and perfect fingering all mirrored back to her simultaneously, as though the experience was worth double the expression.

She loved the feel of the keys under the pads of her fingers, the cool of the ivory, long and flawless and weighted to precise specifications, and the shorter, angular black keys that her fingers sought out without assistance from her eyes, sliding over the front or side of each as she played them.

But most of all, she loved its smell, the warm, dusty, secretive scent that was immediate and intimate. Enveloped in an olfactory experience that was at once earthy and synthetic, she felt the world to be — literally — at her fingertips.

There was the intoxicating smell of coated veneer and zesty furniture polish that lingered in wood knots and felt fibers and the grooves of tightly-wound piano wire.

There was the warm and musty scent of felted wool, and the robust combination of a forest of wood from which the body of the piano, from legs to ribs, was constructed — spruce and maple and birch and walnut and sugar pine — as rich and comforting, as earthy and edible and elemental as anything she knew.

There was the tang of metal, of brass pedals and iron piano wire, heavy and solid and sustaining, like the depths of the earth from which they were mined.

And so it goes.

When you were ten, your mom drove you once a week from northern Marin into San Francisco, where you took lessons at the Flood Mansion on Broadway, in Pacific Heights. Twenty-nine miles and some change, each way, covering the entire length of one county and venturing well into another, to sit in that glorious building overlooking the Bay and wait your turn with the metronome.

Back at home, schedule in hand, you practiced your scales and Bach movements and the Beethoven etude (the one he composed for his wife), but with the mute on. Always with the mute on. House rules.

Looking back, you wonder at the lengths (driving to the City) and limitations (practicing with the mute on) involved with this time in your early development, and wonder if you don't unintentionally impose the same opposing conditions on present day aspirations. Could it be that you still set out with the best of intentions to obtain, experience, absorb at the highest level, only to put a damper on things in the in between times, when discipline and practice and just showing up ultimately serve to bridge the distance between dream and reality?

And if you believe that the world rests at your fingertips, then it certainly must be time to reconfigure the old approach, to not only cast your intentions as wide and far and high as you might dream, but to also ease your foot off the mute pedal so that you can experience every clumsy and perfect note you play con affetto — with emotion — and out loud. Very much out loud.
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Friday, January 16, 2009

firsts (the second part)

With the third trimester came the count down, the impatient toe-tapping, the ready-to-be-done feeling that kept you up at night, too uncomfortable to sleep in any position. Even though you were exhausted. Even though you knew you would be even more exhausted after it was all over.

You remember your first contraction, the slight ping of discomfort, and the nerve-wracking watching of the clock, waiting to feel something — anything — that might resemble another one. You didn't know. You had no idea that when the birthing process started in earnest, there would be no second guessing, no wondering if what you were feeling was curry-induced heartburn, or It.

You remember the day your husband purchased a beeper so that you could be in touch immediately. And you remember how, over time, as the baby growing inside of you made a big show of dropping into position, and then... nothing, not for another two weeks, you developed your own beeper shorthand — shorthand you use to this day, fifteen years on — exchanging numeric pages only the two of you could interpret.

You remember your first trip to the hospital when you were sure the contractions were for real this time, and the crushing disappointment you felt when they sent you back home with a checklist of signs and symptoms, and telephone numbers to call when things got serious. You remember your last visit to the OB, where you told him you were too tired to carry this child anymore, and begged to be induced.

And so you were, and so she came into the world in the middle of November on a crisp, cool day, a day much like the one some forty weeks earlier when you first began to grasp how complex the simple equation "two plus one is three" can be.

You'd think you'd remember more of the birth itself — the Pitocin, the hours of labor, the fact that you squeezed your husband's hands so tight with every contraction that he had to remove his wedding band. And while there are moments like these that stand out, what you most remember is the first time you held her, the first time you saw that swath of jet-black hair and her perfect, beautiful face. You remember wondering at how tiny she was, and how, just minutes after being born, she grabbed hold of your index finger with one hand, and held on tight.

And you remember the look on your husband's face as the nurse handed the baby to him, and how he cradled her in his arms, and rocked gently, back and forth, whispering her name, "Johannah."

Johannah would bring a world of firsts. Fifteen years on, and she still surprises. Now more than ever, as her next round of firsts looms (first car, first boyfriend, first prom, first job), reminding you of your own similar firsts (and how can it be time for her to experience these events, when it seems that you only just left them behind?), you feel a little out of control. You're not yet confident you can pull it off, this next phase of firsts, and you want time to feel your way.

Just like you did on that first day.
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Monday, January 12, 2009

firsts (the first part)

There are many firsts in a life, of course. Some you'd just as soon forget, but most that you are happy to remember.

Like a first kiss. Or the first time you saw the man that would one day be your husband. Or the day you first realized that you were carrying a child.

The first time that happened, you were still a student at the University of San Francisco — an older student (at 24) paying your own way through.

You had purchased a pregnancy test at a drug store near school, then taken it in a pink bathroom stall in the women's on Lone Mountain. Where you alone saw the pink line of confirmation, the pink line that drew the line between your then and your now, and all of your tomorrows. Little did you know that pink would be a recurring theme in the days and years ahead.

After, climbing the steps to your Logic class, you stopped on the landing, oblivious to the other students rushing to get to their next class, aware — very aware — that your life had suddenly, instantly, and irreversibly changed. Forever.

The confirmation came from the doctor's office a few days later, and when you called your husband, you broke down in tears. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. You two had it all planned out. You wanted a few years together, to be a couple, to be 20-somethings, to just... be. You weren't yet confident you could pull marriage — let alone parenthood — off, and you wanted time to feel your way.

Six months into saying "I do," and did you ever.

You picked your husband up early from his office downtown, the January sky an electric blue above the canyons of tall buildings in the Financial District, and cried some more on the drive back home. "We'll be okay," he kept saying, overwhelmed and excited and scared to death. "This is a good thing."

And you were, and it was.

You remember the first trimester, the nights when you fell asleep as soon as your head hit the pillow, the morning when suddenly, your favorite pair of jeans no longer fit. You remember the first ultrasound, where you and he saw something that resembled a baby, and heard the heartbeat. That unforgettable, underwater sound that let you know that life was growing thriving becoming inside you.

You remember the second trimester, the time when the secret you and your husband shared was visibly, officially, out of the bag. You remember the first time you felt your child kick, on a plane from San Francisco to Louisville, to attend your father-in-law's funeral. You remember the first pang of regret that someone close to you, someone whose own DNA would be replicated in the child you were carrying, would not be there to share in this new life, to watch it grow and thrive and become. You remember looking down at your swelling belly, seven months into the process, and wondering out loud how you were ever going to get that child out.

Firsts (the second part), next blog.
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Saturday, January 10, 2009


It's impossible to take it all in.

The Getty Villa, Malibu, at the edge of the continent. It's a perfect day — remnants of fog from the ocean, but mostly flawless blue sky, and warm, mid-70s warm — and you and a handful of other visitors, plus the docents, have the run of the place.

You can't possibly take it all in. No matter how you try, there's just too much there to gorge the senses on. You have your limits.

The first indulgence, the obvious one, is the antiquities collection: The David. Athena. Jewelry and pottery shards. Maybe it's the energy of the archetypes that overwhelms you, their power and promise, resonating in you. We all respond to archetypes, some harmonizing with us more than others. They are part of our collective story, the one that reminds us we are both human and divine.

But more than the collection, you are intrigued by the architecture, the flesh and bones of the place. At the Villa, the wall sconces and marble columns and color palette are every bit as engaging, and you understand that nothing less than this would do to hold such massive works of human achievement.

In earthen vessels, wealth untold.

A temporary installment, the work of pop artist Jim Dines, holds your attention for almost as long. There are the wooden sculptures of the Greek statuettes of dancing women, painted wood female figures Dine has reinterpreted from his vantage point. And there is the sculpture of the poet's head, massive in the center of the room, every feature and flaw writ large for inspection.

But it is the poetry on the wall that catches your attention, the charcoal inscription of the verses of "The Flowering Sheets," in Dines' own hand, read on a loop in Dines' voice, that stops you. So you stand among the sculptures, diminutive next to the dancers and the artist's head, and read along with him, getting into his brain, thinking his thoughts, seeing things through his eyes.

It still hasn't settled in yet, the experience. And there is more to experience that you had to leave behind. Like after a decadent meal, in which you push the plate away reluctantly, knowing there is more to savor, knowing, too, that one more bite will ruin the entire evening. You leave wanting, until you realize that you already have it all.

Next time, when you've cleared some space and made room, it'll be there. Apart from sharing his collection, Mr. Getty has also shared something of equal value to you: The realization that great wealth is possible. The understanding that money is not, as you were led to believe, the root of all evil, but, in fact, a blessing. And the dawning idea that you have some major reconstruction to do — the excavation of a few deep-seeded beliefs, the installation of others that will better serve you, down the road — if you are going to be able to take it all in, to house the wealth of treasure you're only just beginning to awaken to.
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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

very much alive

His mother passed away in August.

After living with a cancer that started in her breast and would eventually make its way into her bones, and, ultimately, the space between her bones, she was dying of cancer very quickly, and you and the rest of the family had left only a space of weeks. Weeks in which to assemble and remember and plan. Weeks in which to come to grips with something you knew was on its way, but weren't quite sure how it would look when it finally arrived. Weeks in which to celebrate one life, and, by extension, every other life that flowed from it.

Now that she is gone, you know what happens after you die. You live. You love. You look after those you have left behind.

His mother is very much alive.

You see her name in the label on a jacket in the chair next to yours, saving a seat during intermission at the theatre where her granddaughters were performing, and you know she is there. She watched them dance as little girls, laughed like a little girl herself when they would wiggle and squirm on her knees in time to music, long before they could stand on their own, let alone dance. She is watching them still.

You see her in the ladybug that lands on your shoulder and stays a while at the precise moment when you are missing her, and you know that this is her way of winking at you, letting you know she is there. You get it, because when she was healthy, she would visit nursing homes dressed as Ladybug the Clown. It was her way of staying in touch with those who might otherwise find themselves alone. She still stays in touch.

And you see her in the legacy she left behind. Growing up, she did not have it easy. While the world outside struggled through the Great Depression, her little world was ruled by a woman whose own arguable great depression raged, undiagnosed. But, to the extent that she could, she left both depressions behind, choosing instead to raise her six children in a world of creativity and spontaneity and laughter. Mostly laughter.

This legacy, it's very much alive in her youngest son, your husband. You see it in the way he treats you, the way he treats your daughters. Before you knew his mother, you sensed her legacy. You saw signs of it in the bond he shared with her, a bond made of respect and friendship and love, a bond unlike any other you had seen between a mother and son. Sensing this in the early stages of your relationship with him, before children and mortgages and the day-to-day details that come with putting a new family together, you knew you were going to be okay with him.

She was not perfect, and you often butted heads. She introduced your children to Ho-Hos and soap operas (and the occassional soap opera ho) at a time when you would have preferred to curb their intake of sugar and mainstream media. But none of that matters now. What she gave to them, the time she spent with them, that's what lingers. That's what they miss, what you miss, too, as they pass their first Holiday season with her not here, at least not in the old sense.

In the new sense, you know -- they know -- she is here. Eckhart Tolle once noted that the opposite of death is not life, but birth. Life goes on. Her life goes on.

She is very much alive.
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Monday, January 5, 2009

why do you write?

You write because it's one of the few productive things you can do in bed, without reproducing.

You write because you love words, the shape of them, the way they fall on the page, with left-justifieds and ragged rights. You love the shape of the letters within the words themselves, like how the 'd' and 'b' in "bedbug" stand back to back, mirror images of each other. You love the incongruent pairing of words, like "horseradish." And you love words that sound like what they mean, like "tintinnabulation." Especially "tintinnabulation."

You write because you want to find the through line of your own life story. It's like a big, messy ball of yarn at this point, your through line, a ball that will demand your full attention at times when you wrestle with the tangled and thread-bare parts. At other times, the yarn will give way with a simple tug, and it will be easy to see where it begins, and where it ends. But more often than not, you'll be wrestling and detangling. Writing is that unravelling process that helps you tease out the knots. If you're patient, what you're left with, the through line, can then be made into something of value. Something for yourself that you can use to keep warm, or something for someone else, to be given as a gift.

You write because you remember. You remember that sixth grade paper, the one where you wrote a morality story about two characters named Choosey and Chances, the one Mrs. Rushton awarded an A +++ with big red, enthusiastic letters. You remember your eighth grade teacher, Ms. Nu, the one who was in love with Carl Yastrzemski, the one who encouraged you to enter an essay contest commemorating the anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. And you remember two college profs who encouraged your talent (Dr. Leiva) and challenged you to do something with it (Dr. Alyeto). You remember, and you honor them with your writing.

You write because you don't want to take anything for granted, the day-to-day details, the life-changing events. You want a record. Something to jog the memory down the road, something to show for the minutes and hours, the days and weeks and months, the years that you spent breathing and taking up space, also loving and giving of yourself.

You write because it's mostly hard to do well, and you love a challenge, but also because you love those rare instances when the page opens up for you, the words come, of their own volition, and line themselves up -- a perfect assembly of left justifieds and ragged rights, and all shapes and sizes and manner of words this consists of.

Most of all, you write because it keeps you sane. It keeps you on an even keel. It makes you a better wife/mother/human. And considered from this perspective, you write because you have to.
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sleeping pill

She is like a sleeping pill.

He leaves the bed every morning at 5:45, throwing back the layers of duvet and afghan and top sheet, inadvertently inviting the biting cold in. He's good about it, though. Before he hits the shower, he'll make sure the duvet and afghan and top sheet are all back into place, make sure that you are warm and safe until it's your turn to face the morning chill.

5:50, and the shower is running. This is what must wake her. The sound of the shower, or the fan he turns on to whisk away moisture that, if left to cling to the marble and glass, will encourage a colony of mold to take up residence. The fan is necessary, but loud, and it's probably what stirs her from her underneath her own duvet, in her little bed at the other end of the house, what sends her running through pre-dawn darkness down the carpeted hallway.

Now it's her turn to throw back the covers, but you don't mind. She is like a sleeping pill. Spooning you with one arm wrapped across your waist, knees tucked up into your wheelhouse, she is warm and soft and delicious, and within minutes of the interruption, you drift back to sleep, knowing that this next hour will be the best of the night.
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