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Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

My baby, she wrote me a letter

In behavior, culture, design, domestic life, life, love, Style on March 11, 2012 at 12:06 am
English: Postal card mailed from Washington, D...

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When was the last time you wrote — (yes, by hand, using a pen) — a letter or note on a piece of paper, let alone chose a lovely card or piece of quality stationery? Foolscap, notebook pages, the back of a receipt or a Post-It note do not count!

Did you put a stamp on it and mail it to someone: a business associate, a former professor or mentor, your sweetie or mom or nephew or former college room-mate?

When was the last time you received a card or letter and ripped open that paper envelope, wondering who had been so thoughtfully old-school to choose it, write it, buy a stamp, find your mailing address and, in time for an occasion, send it to you?

Here’s a recent op-ed in The Guardian making the same argument in favor of paper-based communication:

A letter is a letter no matter whether it lands on the doormat or pings into your electronic inbox.

Actually, though, there is a difference and it is one that worries historians like myself who spend their days combing the correspondence of ordinary people written 150 years ago. The protocols that govern letter-writing mean that even the simplest of communications come packed with extra bits of information that never make it into an email. “A … letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay,” Saul Bellow once wrote – and while most peoples’ communications don’t quite match up to these exacting standards, they do strive to do more than simply arrange where to meet tonight, FYI, or chortle over last night’s debauch down the pub, WTF. Even the most listless letter-writer generally includes a bit about how they are physically and emotionally, a snapshot of their recent activities, a nod towards future holiday plans and a final comment on the state of the nation.

To a historian this stuff is gold dust. For buried away in the interstices of the most apparently banal note you will find all sorts of data, not just about how people lived, loved, ate and dressed a century ago, but – and this is the important bit – what they thought and felt about it all. Letters are a prompt to reflection and what cultural critics call “self-fashioning”. Put bluntly, we get to know who we are and what we think by writing about it to other people.

I recently had major surgery and cannot adequately describe the pleasure, comfort and moral support I got from the many cards and notes I received, whether slid beneath my apartment door by neighbors, sent from old pals in Canada or mailed by members of our church.

(I loved getting e-cards, too.)

But, years from now, when I sort through my papers — literally — these pretty, physical, time-specific memories will fill my hands: Valentine’s, birthdays, weddings, condolence, congratulations.

Here’s a link to 30 gorgeous modern thank-you notes, from one of my favorite daily blogs, Design Milk.

Especially at times of sorrow and stress, a thoughtful, personal note on lovely paper is an air-borne hug.

Here’s a great story from NBC Nightly News about why sending cards matters so much.

And a year-old blog devoted to saving the use of snail mail.

Writing a novel? Here’s a fascinating argument by one writer why writing letters is so beneficial to writers of fiction.

Mail one today!

Ten lessons new authors learn (usually the hard way)

In books, domestic life, life on March 9, 2012 at 3:13 am
Novels in a Polish bookstore

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There are few moments more exciting than finally selling your first book. I still remember the shock and awe, in 2002, the day I knew I was going to finally become An Author, after a scary meeting in a boardroom at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Simon & Schuster. I had walked down a long, narrow hallway whose both walls were covered with framed covers of their best-sellers, thinking I am not worthy

Could I join them?

Having published two non-fiction books, so far, and hoping to write many more, here are some lessons I and many fellow authors have learned along the way:

Finding an agent is sort of like dating, but without the flirting and cocktails. Before you can sell your book, you need an agent to read, edit and prepare your proposal before sending it around to the selected editors s/he knows. But making that match isn’t easy. You may love them and want to seal the deal, but they’re too big or too busy or only handle YA material. The best way to find a good fit is to ask your author friends about their agents.

After working with your agent, you may have to fire them. The process of selling a book, or multiple books, (let alone TV and movie deals, first serial rights and other details), is emotionally trying enough. After spending a few years working together, you may never want to deal with this person again, or they with you. It happens.

Your first advance payment is going to take weeks, if not several months to arrive. Decide how you’ll handle this: savings? Freelance income? A grant or fellowship? Teaching? Or maybe you’ll wait til it’s in your bank account to get started. Just don’t expect to start living on it right away.

Your advance is going to be slivered into a long, drawn-out process that means you’ll need many other sources of income. You’ll be lucky to get 1/3 up front, more likely one-quarter. The final payment can come as long as a year after publication!

You’ll be working closely with an editor you know very little about. It’s the most bizarre thing, like an intellectual blind date. Have a long lunch or two, if possible to get to know them and let them get a feel for who you are.

You’ll probably need to hire an assistant and researchers — and pay them from your advance. Few of us can do it all. On my first book, about American women and guns, I used four researchers, (all, thank heaven, volunteer), without whom I could not have gathered the material I needed on time. On my second book, a memoir of working retail, I worked with two others, neither of whom I ever met, both of whom came to me through writer friends’ recommendations.

Managing your researchers will take time and energy. Most writers are used to doing it all, all the time. Deciding what help you need and managing others efficiently is a new skill you’ll be learning — on a deadline and your dime.

Plan for illness, family drama and other interruptions. Once you’ve signed that contract, having promised 100,000 words within 12 months, life may well interrupt. Build a few extra weeks or months into your research, writing and revision schedule to allow for the inevitable and unpredictable.

You’ll need breaks! Writing a book is my favorite thing to do, but it’s tiring. Like any other form of work, you’ll need breaks, maybe even a vacation, if only a few hours each week far away from the computer or library.

Be prepared to be lonely. Writing is not a shared, communal activity. It means withdrawing, physically, emotionally and intellectually, from your friends and family for a prolonged period. You may need to travel to do research, or simply bury yourself in documents, books and interviews for many months — and that’s before you even start writing. No matter much you’d rather play Wii with your kids or cuddle with your sweetie, that book isn’t going to write itself…

Anything you’ve learned you want to add?

Am I pretty? Really? You sure?

In aging, beauty, children, culture, domestic life, family, Fashion, news, parenting, women on March 7, 2012 at 3:34 pm
Girls

Girls (Photo credit: Jungle_Boy)

I want to move to another planet, preferably one about 12,000,000,000,000 light-years away from this one — where all people do is focus on women’s appearance.

Rant alert.

I sincerely, truthfully, non-provocatively do not understand this utter obsession with the skin/breasts/hips/hair/legs/waists/lips of girls and women and why it matters a damn to anyone beyond their physicians, whose job it is to help us stay healthy. Yes, I am fully aware of the media, cultural pressure, blablablablabla.

Do we not — ladies? — have our own minds?

Here’s a recent piece from Time on the sad, sorry, miserable trend of teen girls staring into their webcams and begging total strangers to tell them they are physically appealing.

This makes me want to throw furniture.

It makes me want to grab every one of these girls and ask: “Seriously?”

It makes me want to ask their parents what the hell is happening in their home that their young girl-child is so desperate for 1) attention; 2) validation; 3) validation from total strangers; 4) has no idea that predators love this stuff.

I grew up with bad skin into my mid-20s, rarely wearing make-up because I didn’t want to attract attention to my looks. I was thin and pretty enough to have tons of college boyfriends.

But I never — thank God for the 1970s, when I came of age and Ms. magazine was flourishing — spent a ton of energy freaking out all the time over my looks. I was smart, educated, confident and talented and knew that was what I really needed to get going professionally.

Yes, being pretty helps. I get that.

But pretty-and-shallow, pretty-but-stupid, pretty-and-mean, pretty-and-lazy — won’t get you too far.

Our skin will mottle and wrinkle, Botox and surgery be damned. Our breasts will change shape, size and altitude. (Sherpas no longer necessary!) Our bones may become more brittle, our gait a little slower.

But our hearts, minds, intelligence and courage need never flag.

There is no woman uglier — on my perfect planet — than one lacking compassion.

Are you as appalled by this insanity as I am?

When a writer writes you back…

In behavior, books, children, culture, education, life, work on March 6, 2012 at 1:03 am
English: Ray Bradbury autograph.

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Have you ever written to an author whose work leaves you a little gobsmacked?

I did — first when I was 12 and at summer camp for eight weeks in the wilds of northern Ontario. I was deeply into American science fiction author Ray Bradbury, loving his The Illustrated Man and other collected stories. I needed to tell him how great he was! So I wrote him a letter, care of his New York City publisher, Ballantine.

Imagine my shock and delight when, within a week or two, I received a pale blue personalized card (which I still treasure!) from Los Angeles, hand-signed by one of the nation’s greatest writers, author of Fahrenheit 451, among many other classics. I had begged him to “please keep writing!” and he assured me that he would.

The card had his return home address. He was real!

It is hard to over-state the effect this speedy and generous gesture had on a young girl who lived to read and, even then, was winning prizes for her writing. That someone so famous and well-respected would even bother to read mail, let alone answer it personally…

So, at 20, I did it again, writing this time to John Cheever, another national legend (much more popular in the 1980s), praising his odd but moving novel, Falconer. I loved it. (The New York Times called it “one of the most important novels of our time.”) My enthusiasm, then, was hardly unique to me, some random young woman in Toronto.

He, too, wrote back promptly on personal stationery — he lived in Ossining, New York, a suburb about 30 miles north of Manhattan.

Traveling alone through Europe, reading his collected short stories, I kept encountering a phrase I did not understand: “to shoot one’s cuffs.”

So I wrote him back to ask what it meant. (Let me explain I was: a) on the road b) alone c) in Portugal where no one spoke English d) Google had not been invented!)

He answered again.

The world is a small and odd place for writers. His daughter, Susan Cheever, another writer, praised my first book — and I met his son, Ben, another author, last fall at a local library event while promoting my second book.

I now live a 15-minute drive south of Ossining.

Last week, a 12-year-old girl living in a midwestern city wrote me a letter — first introduced by her father (both of them total strangers to me) — asking if she might interview me by email for a class project on bullying; she’d found my USA Today essay on it.

Of course, I said, replying immediately. I gave her a long, detailed and personal answer to her thoughtful questions.

Classmates now see her “as rock star”, her Dad told me, for having gotten a twice-published author to help her out.

I was 12 when I first reached out — and felt the firm hand of a fellow writer, far, far away from me in age, accomplishment and geography meet me in return.

How could I not?

Have you ever written to someone whose creative work you admire?

What happened?

How great is it — really — living alone?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, news, seniors on March 4, 2012 at 12:35 am
English: Young Lady With Older Gentleman At A ...

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If you’re living alone, or unwilling to re-marry, and in your 50s or older, you’re part of a trend in the U.S, reports The New York Times:

more adults are remaining single. The shift is changing the traditional portrait of older Americans: About a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970, according to an analysis of recently released census data conducted by demographers at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio.

Sociologists expect those numbers to rise sharply in coming decades as younger people, who have far lower rates of marriage than their elders, move into middle age.

Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State, said the trend would transform the lives of many older people.

The elderly, who have traditionally relied on spouses for their care, will increasingly struggle to fend for themselves. And federal and local governments will have to shoulder much of the cost of their care. Unmarried baby boomers are five times more likely to live in poverty than their married counterparts, statistics show. They are also three times as likely to receive food stamps, public assistance or disability payments.

This is serious stuff, and an issue I’ve recently tasted firsthand.

I had major surgery in early February — enough of a financial challenge for someone self-employed with no paid sick or vacation days and a monthly four-figure overhead to meet. I came home from the hospital after three days, unable to bathe, dress, cook or clean the apartment. Simply trying to sweep our tiny kitchen floor, a week later, sent my pulse racing.

A physical therapist and nurse came to our apartment several times a week, hugely comforting to know I was healthy and recovering well. But the most minute of daily tasks were overwhelming for several weeks — without the physical help of my husband, and his infinite kindness and gentleness, it would have been impossible.

I lived alone for much of my life, ages 19 to 23 (when I lived with a boyfriend), ages 24 to 30 (when I settled down with my first husband), ages 37 to 43 (after my divorce, with no children.)  I generally enjoyed my privacy and solitude, had plenty of friends, work I liked, a small black terrier for company, and never worried much about it.

That all changed with my first orthopedic surgery, in January 2000, followed by another (both minor knee operations) within the year. For the first, I was single, and another single friend came all the way up from Manhattan in a blinding blizzard — even climbing our steep hill after the taxi gave up — to be with me. I got meals delivered by my church for a few days, then my father came from Canada to stay with me for a few more days.

I needed help for quite some time. Trying to simply buy groceries on crutches — which I’ve now done many times — is no picnic!

Being alone? Not so alluring, suddenly.

My mother, who lived on her own her entire life after her divorce from my father when she was 30, is now in a nursing home. It was clear to me on my last visit that she wasn’t going to be living alone much longer, for a variety of health-related reasons. Like me, she is — or always was — fiercely independent.

Unlike many women her age, though, she was fortunate enough to have the financial means to remain that way.

Old age is a rough ride for many of us, especially women who do not have pensions to rely on, or adequate savings or Social Security payments. Those of us who never had children, nor who have families that are either emotionally or physically close to us, willing to help us shower or buy our groceries or change our dressings, have to have very good friends, or someone we can rely on.

Who’s going to step in? Who’s going to pay for it?

The Times — somewhat confusingly — also recently published a piece that’s a paean to the glories of the single life — great if you’ve got lots of cash, consistently terrific health and/or a wide, deep network of supportive friends and family nearby. Few of us do!

A new book extols the virtues of the solo life, but also raises some of these questions.

What once looked like a seductive form of privacy and independence can quickly change form into something much darker and more frightening.

Do you live alone right now?

How’s it working for you?

The war on women escalates: Rush Limbaugh calls law student Sandra Fluke a slut

In news, politics, religion on March 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm
Français : Différents types de pilule contrace...

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If you live anywhere beyond the United States — as many of you do — thank your lucky stars if you’re a woman who cares about reproductive rights.

Ba-boom!

That’s the sound of freedoms cracking and crumbling under constant, daily, escalating barrages of laws proposed, amended and passed restricting our rights to abortion and birth control.

And, hey, whenever politicians pause for breath, right-wing radio show talk hosts like Rush Limbaugh are eager to pick up their cudgels and start beating women bloody with their verbal abuse.

Like this:

What does it say about the college coed Susan [sic] Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.

The johns, that’s right. We would be the johns — no! We’re not the johns. Well — yeah, that’s right. Pimp’s not the right word.

OK, so, she’s not a slut. She’s round-heeled. I take it back.

Women in the United States are living in the most toxic era I can remember since moving here in 1988. We joke nervously on Facebook about when burquas will be required.

But it’s not funny.

Thank God, on April 28, women will be marching in Washington D.C. to make our voices audible — and our bodies visible — above the misogynistic and appalling din of the religious right and the politicians they fund.

It’s become so bad that one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, a woman who supports the right to abortion, Olympia Snowe, will not be running again. Like all of us, she’s fed up.

Reported The New York Times:

“Everybody’s got to rethink how we approach legislating and governance in the United States Senate,” Ms. Snowe said in an interview on Wednesday. She shook her head at how “we’ve miniaturized the process in the United States Senate,” no longer allowing lawmakers to shape or change legislation and turning every vote into a take-it-or-leave-it showdown intended to embarrass the opposition.

The vote set for Thursday, framed as a choice between contraceptive coverage and religious freedom, was not the reason Ms. Snowe made her announcement, she said. Her retirement decision was bigger than any one vote. But people familiar with her thinking say the re-emergence of such hot-button social issues helped nudge her to the exit.

Georgia Chomas, a cousin of the senator who described herself as more like a sister, said social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Maine were hounding her at home, while party leaders in Washington had her hemmed in and steered the legislative agenda away from the matters she cared about.

As I posted last week, the American economy remains in the toilet. Having officially left Afghanistan, remaining American troops are being targeted there and killed by people we’ve spent billions trying to help.

Women’s rights look like the easiest, softest next target. Women have become complacent, people tell me, persuaded that the battles of the 1970s are long-over, our freedoms won and secure.

I think not!

Aux armes, citoyennes…formez vos bataillons!

One (slow, halting) step at a time

In aging, behavior, Health, life, Medicine, women on March 2, 2012 at 12:06 am
English: Walking with the parallel bars

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There’s a new sound in my life — the click, click of my sexy French crutches — as I learn to walk normally again after two years of 24/7 pain and a gait so altered I started to look like Quasimodo, that ruined my shoes and swelled my right foot and increased the diameter of my right calf by an inch from overcompensation.

It’s been almost a month since my hip replacement, and I’m learning to trust my body again. It feels really good to stretch, to break a sweat and (yay!) to reach my toes.

“Patient”  — the adjective, not the noun — is not my most obvious quality. This recovery, from full hip replacement, includes dire warnings about doing too much too soon and how not to push it. More is not better. But you don’t know you’ve done too much until…

Daily, I circumambulate our apartment building and garage in warm, dry weather and our apartment building hallway, where 12.5 laps equals a mile, when it’s wet or really cold. My goal is a daily mile, only after which do I get to shed my $38/pair white surgical stockings I wear 23 hours a day to prevent blood clots.

Physical therapy, three times a week, (and $60 week in copays), is slow, incremental, dull, repetitive — and utterly essential to a full recovery.

When I met my surgeon, I handed him a list of a few of my many sports, and asked how soon I would be back at them. My softball team, having missed me for two years, keeps asking when I’ll return. I’m hoping within six months; friends my age (and much older) who’ve had this procedure have since climbed the Great Wall, hiked Guatemala and climbed four flights of stairs without trouble.

I’ve had to recuse myself from real life for a while, missing a friend’s book party, unable to get to my regular hairstylist in Manhattan, a 45-minute drive or train/cab away, closed off from movies, concerts and anything that would require me to sit more than than 60 minutes at a time I’m allowed.

Maybe because I did a silent 8-day retreat last summer, I’ve really appreciated a time of peace and quiet, of reflection and withdrawal. For weeks, I had to rely fully on my husband for the simplest of tasks, from helping scrub me in the shower, (after an 18-day wait!), to putting on my left sock and shoe, counting out my 10 pills a day, cooking.

I miss his companionship since he returned to work this week, leaving home at 7:30 and only returning 12 long hours later after his commute.

Soon, I hope, I’ll once more be my usual blur.

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