How bad is it? Well, after my hip surgery I see a fellow patient, the tall, thin elegant woman who looks like she stepped out of a salon and not an OR — and she’s using….a cane. Two days after surgery. A cane!
I’m on crutches.
We instantly compare notes on how much Tylenol (none. Yay!) each of us is taking. Holy hell….two middle-aged women, strangers in a hallway, and our competitive instincts kick right back into high gear.
I just discovered the joys of playing Scrabble on the computer. Except — excuse me?! — when the CPU is kicking my ass with words I have never heard of. Ever. Anywhere. (Wive. Wive?!)
I’m being beaten by an algorithm. Shit!
I grew up, as many of us do, in a family whose behaviors channel an almost relentless urge to be better than, whether in sports, work, creativity, acquisitions. My Dad and I are mad for antiques, and luckily we collect in different categories as I’d hate to be bidding against him; we once both bought brass beds at the same auction.
My two half-brothers, one 23 years younger, one 10 years my junior, (and I) have all been nationally ranked athletes. Sports are a great way to channel all that excess energy and zeal, as long as (and you do) you learn how to lose. Gracefully.
It’s not that I’m addicted to winning, or feel humiliated when I lose. I just like to know I’ve given my very best.
I sometimes wonder how (or if) to turn off, or modulate, my competitive spirit, but I also know it keeps me sharp.
One of the most essential elements of healing a body that has been injured, damaged or ill is to soothe and comfort the psyche, the soul of the person whose corporeal armor has, in a significant way, (even in the aid of better health), been pierced.
But it’s the piece that is consistently left out. When you leave hospital after a major surgery, you’re handed a thick sheaf of instructions, some in boldface type, all of which are — of necessity — focused on the physical.
Who addresses the needs of the soul?
Which is why, when I met a fellow hip patient in the hallway, a former dancer, a woman my age, we couldn’t stop talking to one another about how we felt.
Not our bones or muscles, but our hearts and minds.
A sense of shame and failure that years of diligent activity and careful eating and attention to posture…led us into an operating suite. The feeling of isolation, of being cut from the herd of your tribe, the lithe and limber, the fleet of foot. The fragility of suddenly relying very heavily on a husband whose innate nature may, or may not be, to nurture.
And a husband who knows all too well that physical intimacy is almost impossible, sometimes for years, when your loved one is sighing not with desire but in deep pain. When your hips simply can’t move as you wish they would, and once did. It is a private, personal loss with no place to discuss it.
I’m deeply grateful to know a few women like me: feisty, active, super-independent and all recovering, now or a while ago, from hip replacement. Every tribe has a scar, a mark, a tattoo.
I moved to New York, to a wealthy suburb filled with soccer moms, (I’m neither), in 1989. When I first married, in 1992, many of those attending were more acquaintances, with a few old friends, all from my native Canada, mixed in.
Only in the past two years have I finally — thank heaven — felt like I, and my second husband, have found a strong network of good friends. I’d always found it really easy to make friends, so was surprised and hurt at how hard it was for me here. I’d only lived in one other place that was lonelier, in a town in rural New Hampshire for 18 months, that was the roughest place I’ve ever been.
No matter what I said or did, or how many times we entertained, nada. Everyone was married, pregnant, eager to become so, or a mother. I had nothing in common with anyone I met — until the very last month after we’d decided to get the hell out and move to New York when I met Penny, a funny, warm, down-to-earth single mom in the rug store where she worked. We stayed friends for a decade.
It’s not easy making new friends as an adult, once you’ve left school and especially if you, as I have for six years, work alone at home all day.
Which is why I read and enjoyed this charming new book, “MWF Seeks BFF” by a young (28 yr old) writer who went on 52 dates in Chicago in search of new friends. She writes lucidly about the challenges and how rare it is to just click! with someone new and hope they’ll carve out room in their life for you.
As I headed into major surgery, and Jose made up a list of people who might want to hear about my progress, I realized how lucky we are now to have found so many people who genuinely care about us both.
How did I meet them?
— Freelance work. Several are people I met at professional events aimed at writers. One is a woman who intelligently and sensitively edited my work when she ran a women’s magazine.
— My husband’s colleagues. He works full-time in an office at a newspaper, a place where people are really busy. But I found a lovely new friend in his department, a fellow Francophile.
— Pool aerobics. I don’t hang out with my classmates, but seeing the same women week after week for two years has created some new friendships, even if largely limited to the locker room.
— Church. I’m not at all like most of the women at our church, but the women who have become close friends have taken the time to see past what some see as my bohemian exterior. (I’m hardly a hippie, but we don’t live in a huge house, or a house at all, and our household income is probably 30 percent of theirs.)
— Board work. Any sort of volunteer work where you have to show up regularly means you have time to get to know one another, know that you share a passion for the same issues and care enough to commit time to that cause. One of my best friends is someone I’ve been on a volunteer board with for a few years. You see one another in wholly different roles and behaviors than simply going out for drinks or a movie.
— Friends of friends. One local woman is an artist I met at a party here.
— A dinner party filled with strangers. One of my favorite women friends first sat opposite me at a fun dinner party held occasionally for 20 paying strangers at a home in Queens. Turns out her Mom attended the same Toronto ballet school and we’re both Canadian, have lived in foreign countries and both speak French.
— Team sports and classes. I’ve been playing softball for a decade with a group of men and women from their 20s to 70s, including a retired ironworker in his 70s and a 30-something pastry chef. We have lawyers, a few doctors, schoolteachers, and have gotten to know one another very well on that dusty field. Athletic pals see our sweaty, exhausted, sore, injured (and triumphant)core.
— My own work colleagues. One of my new friends is someone I met through my freelance work for The New York Times, who has since moved into another full-time position elsewhere.
— Blogging. One of my new friends is a man who also blogged for True/Slant when I did, and we quickly became mutual admirers of one another’s work. We’ve read each other’s manuscripts and I love having a handsome, smart, single guy friend to keep Jose on his toes!
My friends range in age, from 30 years younger to 30 years older. Some have young kids, some have grand-kids, some have teenagers and a few, like me have no kids at all. Maybe typical of the women I find interesting, we almost never talk about kids, but about work, the news, our families.
I entered the hospital early Monday morning for hip replacement surgery and in a very short period of time — a little over two hours — my doctor told my husband Jose, that it all went well. He even handed him a small x-ray showing the new device secure in its place.
I’m scheduled to be in the hospital for three days and the physical therapy team assigned to me hopes to have me walking down the corridor by the end of today, my second full day.
My husband was kind enough to develop an email blast list, containing the names of family, friends, colleagues, etc. This allows him to write one letter and send via the list which then goes out to our circle of support. Well wishes have poured in from Tucson to Tel Aviv to Toronto. One friend who was at the Pyramids in Egypt even wrote saying he was “sending the power of the pyramids” to me as he thought about me. Flowers have started, with one NTC friend, ending a lovely bouquet of pink, yellow and orange flowers.
My hope is that I will be posting once again as soon as Friday of this week. Stay tuned, thanks for checking in and for all your good wishes.
This morning, while it’s still dark here, we’re driving north up the road to my local community hospital to have my left hip replaced.
My husband, Jose, is taking three weeks off to stay home with me, (blessedly able to have that much paid time off and willing to nursemaid me), and a friend from our church has offered to coordinate meals and drives when he needs a break.
She, too, will be with us as she recently had bypass surgery and knows the drill all too well.
I’ve tried for weeks to wrap my head around the idea that a foreign object — the ceramic head made (je suis ravie!) in France, the rest in Warsaw, Indiana — will become part of my body.
In the United States, where 47 million people suffer (as I do) from arthritis and millions are obese or overweight (guilty), 200,000 of these procedures are done every year. It’s hardly unusual. But that doesn’t make it any less scary. My hip was destroyed, ironically, by the drug given to me in May 2010 to reduce severe inflammation, producing AVN. Beware!
So I’m thinking Broadside is doing great — zipping along, adding new subscribers almost daily (yay!) — and up to 615 worldwide.
Then I find a blog with 12,000 followers. That’s the size of my town. Gulp. Sigh.
(Hangs head in dismayed disappointment.)
I also found out this month that a dream I’d been a little excited about, a TV deal for “Malled”, failed to woo the person whose thumbs-up we most needed. Very deep sigh.
I recently sent my first pitch to Wired magazine, which if you haven’t read it, is a smart and interesting publication.
The good news? I heard back within a day or so. The bad news? No interest in that idea.
Every ambitious writer — and if you’re not ambitious, really, why waste the energy? — wants his or her work to find enthusiastic readers, listeners and viewers. Lots of them.
I see some of the shite that fills the best-sellers lists — seriously?! — and gnash my teeth and rend my garments, even just a little. But when things feel like they’re going pear-shaped (as the British would say), I seek solace in context.
I keep up with what’s happening in my industry, (i.e. publishing, journalism), and read this week that adult hardcover book sales are down a whopping 21 percent.
It’s not just me.
And e-book sales are up a staggering 123 percent; one-third of my sales, so far, for Malled, my 2011 retail memoir, have been e-books, which surprised me and my publisher, Portfolio.
I was feeling low about my sales until I spoke with a good friend who works in the industry and knows it very well. They’re fine, she reassured me.
The endless quest for a terrific agent can feel wholly dispiriting, unless you know other writers at your level in your genre, and hear their war stories. Few writers I know are 100 percent thrilled with their agent, either.
I think the smartest moves a writer can make are these:
Show up and write. As Seth Godin says, keep shipping!
Know that finding an agent is even more challenging than finding a sweetie — you need someone you like, who likes you, is smart and tough and tenacious, who has a good track record, who is taking on new clients, who rep’s the sort of genre you work in, who “gets” you intellectually and emotionally. Someone you trust enough to help shape the next phase of your career. No pressure!
Work diligently at your craft.
Know the bigger picture of what’s really happening right now in your industry, not just what you most hope for.
Talk frequently to as many publishing veterans as you can. What are they seeing and hearing? My friends now include two heads of publicity for major houses as well as a few agents and many fellow authors. Their collective wisdom helps me figure out the smartest current strategy for my work.
Have a very clear idea what you hope to achieve with your work, and by when. Do not listen only to the naive and unpublished hopeful or those who advise them. Much as I admire writer-advice blogs, they’re too often talking down, by definition. Be prepared to dodge and feint!
Reality-check your hopes against the marketplace, your skills and how much time/stamina you can bring to these projects.
Says one friend, now working on her first non-fiction book, with every writer’s dream — a pre-emptive bid from a major house — (after a year’s work on the proposal): “This business is not for sissies!”
I went off to boarding school at eight, the youngest girl there. I went off to summer camp, eight weeks at a stretch, at the same age. I saw my mother on weekends, my father (from whom she was divorced) whenever he was around, which was intermittent as he was a film-maker who often traveled far away for months for his work.
So, there you are, surrounded by a sea of strangers, whose rules and regulations — and kindness, compassion and goodwill — will make or break the rest of your childhood and/or adolescence.
So I want to try once more to begin a discussion about an issue we still refuse to examine: early boarding. It is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite or because of that we won’t talk about it. Those on the right will not defend these children as they will not criticise private schools. Those on the left won’t defend them, as they see them as privileged and therefore undeserving of concern. But children’s needs are universal; they know no such distinctions.
The UK Boarding Schools website lists 18 schools which take boarders from the age of eight, and 38 which take them from the age of seven. I expect such places have improved over the past 40 years; they could scarcely have got worse. Children are likely to have more contact with home; though one school I phoned last week told me that some of its pupils still see their parents only in the holidays. But the nature of boarding is only one of the forces that can harm these children. The other is the fact of boarding.
In a paper published last year in the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identifies a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls boarding school syndrome. Her research suggests that the act of separation, regardless of what might follow it, “can cause profound developmental damage”, as “early rupture with home has a lasting influence on attachment patterns”.
When a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system. Combined with the sudden and repeated loss of parents, siblings, pets and toys, this causes the child to shut itself off from the need for intimacy. This can cause major problems in adulthood: depression, an inability to talk about or understand emotions, the urge to escape from or to destroy intimate relationships. These symptoms mostly affect early boarders: those who start when they are older are less likely to be harmed.
It sure ain’t Hogwarts, kids!
The very notion of daily, familial emotional intimacy — whaddya mean I’m supposed to share my feelings?Feelings?! — is as alien to me, even now, as Jupiter. It’s no accident I married a man who is very affectionate, grew up in a normal family with two sisters at home and easily says “I love you” a lot.
I have only one friend who also had this experience, a man a bit older, who has some very similar emotional patterns. At best, we can tough out almost anything without sniveling or whining. At worst, we come across as (and may well be!) cold, bossy, disconnected.
Some of what you learn:
You rarely cry. There’s no one to cry to. Bluntly stated, no one cares. There’s no one offering a comforting hug or a hand to hold if you’re anxious, ill, homesick or scared. You share a room with four to six other girls, some just as miserable, whose distant parents live even further away than yours, in Nassau or Caracas or North Bay.
You rarely share your feelings. No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks. “So, how was your day, sweetie?” They check your name on a list to make sure you are present. i.e. not missing, not a problem, not a liability. Your assigned room-mates? They might hate you, or use personal information against you. Best not to offer them any ammo.
A vicious tongue. Because you cannot fight physically and cannot leave and cannot find privacy from those who are making you crazy, you learn to wound verbally. Not pretty.
Television and radio are impossibly exotic treats. This was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I got to watch television at school maybe once a week, with a bunch of other girls in the common room. I laughed really loudly — probably at a sitcom — and was admonished for not being ladylike. (You should hear how loudly I laugh today!)
Food and drink take on additional importance. Every meal, including snacks, is served on a schedule, in a pre-determined location. We were told each week at school what table to sit at. Between-meal hunger? Deal with it: sneak food out, keep some in your room. Tip: trying to carry oranges, apples or grapefruit in your baggy, saggy bloomers is not an effective strategy.
Privacy is the greatest luxury imaginable. Every waking hour, you’re surrounded by other people, some of whom you loathe and vice versa: in your bed, in the bathroom, in the dining hall, in the classroom, in classes and sports.
Your self-image is shaped by people who make judgments about you with incomplete information. I was asked to leave my boarding school after Grade 9 for being, (as I was that year), disobedient, rude and disruptive. But no one ever bothered, kindly and with genuine concern for me, to ask why. In high school, my nickname was the Ice Queen, so little emotion did I show. Go figure.
Self-reliance. Independence. A stiff upper lip. I know to make a bed, iron wool, tie a tie. (Part of our uniform.) Whistle with two fingers. Swear like a sailor. An excellent education with ferociously high standards. Tons of homework, as early as fourth grade. No boys to distract us. The automatic assumption that smart girls rule, that men are not to be deferred to simply because they expect it and the expectation that every girl is capable of, and will produce, excellence and leadership.
I just spent four days in New Orleans, my first visit back there since 2004.
It instantly reminded me of all the things I most enjoy about the places I most love. These include Corsica, Thailand and Ireland (I actually wept leaving all three. I never cry in public!), Paris, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Venice, Vermont, Savannah, Ronda, Bath, London, Mdina.
The prettiest places, for me, include a mix of these, with the best having all of them:
I love to wander streets worn smooth for milennia. Even Manhattan, a very young place in global terms, has entire blocks that feel as though you’ve disappeared into an earlier century.
It makes all the difference, whether the brilliant, scouring light of Mexico or the low, soft, slanting shafts of winter sunshine I saw in Stockholm in November. The odd reflected watery light of Venice.
This is my favorite element of all, from the rich, glossy reds and blues of European doors to the coppery-green patina of church steeples and weathervanes to the intense emerald green of backlit leaves and fields. When I tried to replicate the gentle weathered greens of Swedish walls in New York light, it looked awful. In New Orleans, I saw enormous houses painted the icy yellow and rich orange of lemon and mango sorbet, colors that would also look foolish and odd elsewhere.
Hugely important. How tall are the buildings? How embraced (or rejected) do you feel by the proximity of the houses and commercial spaces? Can you see the sky? How much of it? For how many hours each day? Do the buildings relate well to one another — or are there (as in New Orleans) huge hideous highways slicing right through downtown neighborhoods, utterly out of scale to, and dwarfing, their previous surroundings?
Might be the delicate perfume of orange blossoms in Seville in springtime or the salty air of the sea. The acrid smell of dusty ancient stone or woodsmoke from a distant fire or diesel fumes from Bangkok traffic or frying meat in a street market. The minute I stepped into Caracas airport, I caught a whiff of mold and rot, the specific smell of a developing nation.
Temple bells. Sirens. The clatter of clogs on pavement. That distinctive sound the Paris metro makes before the doors close. The whirr of bicycles flashing by in Amsterdam.
Some places are ridiculously blessed in this respect — Rio, Hong Kong, Vancouver — ringed by mountains and/or ocean. Venice’s canals. Ronda’s astonishing cliffs.
This is the biggest one for me, that when you sit still at dawn with no one around, or under the stars, it might be 1634 or 1421 or 800 B.C. You expect a Mayan or Roman or Cathar to step out and say hello. No signs, no ads, no telephones or noise or electric lights in your eyes.
I’ve (thankfully) experienced this most strongly (so far!) in The Grand Canyon, Corsica, the Arctic, Machu Picchu and Kenya/Tanzania.
I love to see how different places use materials — glass, brick, wood, stone, straw, mud, mirror, mosaic, ceramic, gilt, silver, cobblestones, cement, tile, terra cotta, adobe. Montreal has gorgeous three-story apartment houses in white limestone — which in New York, Boston and Washington are rendered in red sandstone. I loved New Orleans’ wooden homes (although I overheard a distraught woman on the bus who had to move out of her rental apartment while the entire building was fumigated for termites.)
I’m crazy for tall, mullioned sash windows, preferably with original bubbly glass — 8 panes over 8 or even 12 over 12. Tall shutters. Deep balconies and verandahs. I see this most powerfully in Paris, and other French cities. The relationships between buildings also makes a difference — think of the streetscapes of Paris and Amsterdam where a (relative) uniformity of style makes for a harmonious whole, not a nasty jumble.
Stained glass, wrought-iron fencing, balloon shades, contrasting brickwork, gingerbread, clerestory windows. Enclosed balconies in Portugal, Malta, Istanbul. The lace ironwork of New Orleans. The hand-shaped doorknockers of Malta. The curved, smoothed edges of an adobe house. One of the most astonishing sights anywhere was the chased silver altar in Arequipa, Peru that I saw in 1980 but never forgot.
My second favorite, the weathering and wearing of wood and stone by generations, centuries or millennia of use. The stone stairs in Grand Central Station. The smooth shine of an ancient brass doorhandle.