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Monday, June 28, 2010

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Ordinary Lives


Houston artist Kirsten Ufer made this beautiful print that hangs above my desk. It was part of the Mom 2.0 Summit auction to benefit Haiti, and I bid on it thinking I would give it away to a reader, but it turns out I'm kind of greedy, and I had to keep it for myself. My preshus.

The text on it is a quote pulled from a piece of mine that appears in Kirtsy Takes a Bow, an anthology of womens' voices online. (In spite of being greedy and all, I can't seem to hang on to a single copy of that book. I keep replacing mine, only to give it away.) The quote is, "Life is rich and interesting and full of story. It's okay to write it down."

I wrote that in response to a snide comment I read in print about women who write about their lives and publish it online. You've all seen or heard some variation of it. What makes you think your life is worth writing about? Who do you think you are? Why should anyone care? Etcetera.

The thing is, those are interesting and valid questions when they're not hostile. In the course of introductions a few nights ago, a friend mentioned that I had a book coming out. The guy wondered what it was about, so I gave him the short answer, which is that it's a memoir about family life.

"Why is your story important?" came the question. In another tone of voice, it could have tripped my defenses, set off the mental alarms that warn, "ATTACK! ATTACK!" But his expression was sincere and interested. He wasn't trying to be the provocateur; he was just curious.

The answer came so quickly and easily, it sent lightning along my spine. I don't think it came from me at all. At least not the me that sits in the control booth behind my eyes.

"For the same reason yours is," I told him.

I try to keep a lid on my expectations of this book. Now that it's written, my attitude toward it is that of a mom, sending her grown child off into the wide world. Good luck, let us know how you're doing. Send money when you find work. Its success or failure is largely out of my hands now.

The book is about belonging, about becoming a family. It roughly covers a ten-year span. When Patrick read the manuscript in full for the first time, he said he couldn't believe how much we had lived through in those ten years. Nor could he believe how much didn't make it into the book. Not just trivial things, either. Big stuff, whole chapters, left out because there wasn't room, or it simply isn't time.

Life is epic. Mine. Yours. It begins with birth; it ends with death, and in between is a hero's journey: love, agony, comedy, horror, struggle, victory, defeat. There are no ordinary or extraordinary lives. There are only ordinary and extraordinary storytellers.

If I could ever be counted among the latter, may it always be in service of the former. Because what matters most to me, what will make my book "important," is not whether the critics are impressed, or the academy, or even other writers I admire. What matters is that it makes people believe that their own story--told or untold, written or unwritten, published or unpublished--is just as important.


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Friday, June 25, 2010

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The Plan

Bobby and Kiki in front of the shipwreck S.S. Effie, Newfoundland, c. 1977

When we were about fourteen, my friend Bob and I hatched a plan. We'd finish growing up, sow our wild oats, then settle down and marry each other. It made perfect sense. We met as toddlers, when his father hired mine to teach school. Our homes were 200 hundred miles apart, but our families became intertwined, root to leaf. We visited often, went camping together in the summers, and came to regard each other's extended families as extensions of our own. We were pre-schoolers who played Legos together, children who combed beaches together, teenagers who lay on the floor and listened to Pink Floyd records together. For a semester, we were college students together, goofing off in art history class. "Got a ziggurat?" Bob would whisper in the middle of a lecture, cracking me up. No one has ever been able to make me laugh as much. We share the same wacky sense of humor. Anyone listening to us talk, or reading the letters we faithfully sent back and forth, would probably think we were baked. But we didn't need to be to get each other's jokes. We get each other.

We reminded each other of The Plan often, especially when one of us was dating someone the other thought was All Wrong. Which was usually.

If this were the treatment for a movie script, it would be clear to reader by now that we were actually madly in love. Except that we never were. Once, when we were about sixteen and eighteen, and briefly between boyfriends and girlfriends, we kissed, just to see if we might be. We were both completely weirded out. I get weirded out just remembering it. It's like confessing that I kissed my brother. Which, of course, was exactly what it was. Bob is the older brother I always wanted. And always had.

The Plan never came together. As I was to learn the hard way, you can't base a proposition as utterly mad and impossible as marriage on rational sense, anyhow. I was married, then divorced, then married again, and had three children, while Bob had one long-term relationship after the other with women who were probably nice enough, but to me seemed All Wrong.

Until Tonya. Within 24 hours of meeting her last summer, I pulled him aside, and said, "This one." I was prepared to threaten him with a safety pin if necessary (I pierced his ear with one when we were teenagers, in an excruciating and highly unsanitary operation) But he was way ahead of me. They'll be married tomorrow.

It's so wrong that I can't be there in person, but it's just the way it is. Besides, I would probably just freak the bride out with crazy, had-to-be-there reminiscences and inside jokes that make no sense whatsoever. Better to save that sort of thing for after the wedding, when it's too late for her to back out. We have the whole rest of her life to catch up.

Welcome to the family, Tonya. I know everyone in it feels the way I do: this one. Bob, my friend, my brother, you're in my heart and soul always. Joy to you both, all the days of your lives.

I love it when a plan doesn't come together.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

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Language of Love


"You want to go to the grocery store with me?" I ask my youngest.

"Only if I can eat some cheese!" he says, with the shrewdness his brothers might negotiate for Cheetos, with their day-glo coating of "cheese-flavored" dust, more closely resembling deforestation agents than actual cheese.

But he means real cheese--not the imitation of its flavor by chemists who've evidently never tasted real cheese, not the vinyl textured processed kind, or the rubbery, bland ropes of it packaged for kids as string cheese. He means the cheese that is found on the opposite side of the supermarket from the dairy case, over by the deli, where tiny cubes of expensive, imported cheese are set out for sampling with frilled toothpicks. Crumbly, stinky, rind-skinned, glorious cheese.

This one knows the way to my heart is through his stomach. His brothers, raised at the same table, offered the same foods, wrinkle their noses at anything stronger than the little red wheels of Babyel -- baby cheese, a friend from France calls it. Pablum. They wrinkle their noses when something unfamiliar is set before them at the dinner table, or when they wander through a cloud of spices in the kitchen. Even his father, at 46, regards new dishes with an unconscious expression of suspicion. Not this one. He climbs up on the kitchen stool and breathes deep.

"What's that good smell?" he asks, as I fold dressing into boiled potatoes for salad.

"Fresh pepper," I say.

He inhales again, eyes closed.

"What else?"

"Dill weed, lemon juice, horseradish," I tell him, as if this were a Bible lesson, and I were teaching him names of the disciples.

At the grocery store, we discover that all the cheese samples have been eaten. My budget is tight this week, and no amount of pouting would move me to add an off-list bag of chips or candy bar to our cart, but I console him by offering to buy a wedge of his choosing. He chooses an apricot-colored "Thousand-Day" gouda we've never tried. It costs twenty dollars a pound. We leave with a four-ounce piece, wrapped in cellophane. Edible gold.

We don't even wait to get it home, but eat it in the parking lot, making ecstatic cheese noises, the conversation that needs no words, speaking each other's language.


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Friday, June 11, 2010

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Reputation: Safeguarding Your Equity in Social Media

I don't like to blog too much about blogging anymore. The focus of this journal is life, not the lens through which I observe it. But I'm still passionately interested in the evolution of this medium, and I do love a lively conversation about it. There's one going on right now at Liz Gumbinner's site, which has become a go-to source for great commentary. I've come to think of Liz's site as a favorite trade journal. Blogher, my advertising network of choice, is another.

The piece is in response to a recent post on Blogher that seemed to suggest it's a blog-eat-blog world out here. I read it when it came out, and as I wrote in Liz's comments, I thought, I must be on some other internet. It hasn't been my experience, nor has it been Liz's. The gap in perception reminded me of the complaining that has become kind of a tradition after each annual Blogher conference. There are always those who have had such a miserable time, you have to wonder if they were at the same event as everyone else.

That horse has been pretty well beaten to death by now, and I won't whip it again here, except to say, above the bottom three tiers of the human needs pyramid, people pretty much get to create their own reality. It kills me to see people entering themselves in a contest in their own minds, and then declaring themselves the biggest losers. Please don't do ever do that to yourself. If you are new to blogging, or to conferences, or really, just about anything, don't set yourself up for a terrible experience with unrealistic expectations and unfair comparisons. Don't exhaust your spirit trying to break into established social media networks. Work on building a new one instead, and don't use the popularity contest as your blueprint. Reach out, not up.

Some sabotage themselves by completely overlooking the social part of social media. As I said in Liz's comments, relationships are what make this world go 'round. Yes, there are some schemers, cutthroats and cheaters. But this is one sphere in which karma is accelerated. I wish we talked about reputation half as much as we discuss brand. Think of traffic and followers as the stock portion of your social media portfolio, and reputation as the bond. A good reputation is not as thrilling as thousands of hits or followers. There's no site meter to track credibility, honesty, kindness, generosity or reliability. And yet those assets are the equity that will sustain you over the long haul. They may not be what advertisers look at (though they should be), but they are what your peers in social media look at when deciding if it is safe to invest in you.

I am the last person in the world qualified to preach on manners. I am absent-minded, frequently pre-occupied, and sometimes just plain thoughtless. Nobody's perfect, and I don't expect perfect behavior from anybody. But in social media, in particular, because there's not much else to go on, good behavior matters. Certain things raise a flag with me. Play the victim much or attack others with your tweets? Flag. Passive-aggressive updates? Flag. Repurpose something I shared with you, and don't mention its provenance? Flag. Quick to take offense where none was intended? Flag. Defensive? Testy? Catty? Flag, flag, flag. (No flags for unfollows/unfriending by the way--everyone gets a pass on that with me. I assume you have your reasons.)

Not one, or even a couple of those kinds of things gets a conviction in my book. But string more than couple together, and they make me go hmm. In the big, little town that is social media, even a small-time blogger like me, with readers in the hundreds, not thousands, can have some influence. Not to break or make a career; no Colbert bumps here. I can't convince anyone, no matter how much may they like me, to create an opportunity for someone where none exists. But sometimes, even a small-time blogger like me can help connect people with an opportunity that does exist. And enough mental flags around a name will keep me from suggesting it. Not out of retribution; but out of vigilance for my own reputation.

It seems like all this would go without saying. I'm sure for most it does. Yet everyday I see people throwing away goodwill, damaging their reputations, and draining their own social equity in ways that their site meter will never reveal to them. Opportunities missed that they'll never know were so close. Maybe the very kind of opportunity they were scrambling toward over somebody else's back, or spewing jealousy about.

And I hate that for them. Because believe it or not, most of us want each other to succeed. If this is a contest, it's a relay race on field day. Plenty of prizes for everyone, and nobody wins on their own.


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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

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Your Blurb Here


When I was a kid at St. Gerard's Elementary School, I had to go door-to-door once a year schilling pencils or chocolate covered almonds to raise funds. I'm still not sure what the funds were being raised for, since in Canada, unlike in the U.S., "extras," such as teaching materials, are included in school budgets, as part of their socialist brainwashing scheme. We did have a pretty fancy set of velvet stage curtains, though, through which I gave my star turn as Lucky, the Christmas Elf. Maybe the pencil and candy money got us those.

I didn't care if it was going to build a stairway to heaven. I hated being forced to sell stuff, and I hate it when my kids are expected to do the same, especially when the pressure to do so is packaged as a FUN-WIN-NEAT-PRIZES competition. If I can, I just write a check. If I can't write a check, I'll try to give some time. If I can't do either at the moment, I trust that I can make up for it down the line.

I was thinking about those damn pencils this morning, as I contemplated the unpleasant task of soliciting blurbs for my book. My manuscript is at the copyediting stage, and my editor says it's time to start thinking about marketing. I'm to fill out something called an Author's Questionnaire, which I imagine will go like this:
Q. How many famous writers are you best friends with?

A. None.

Q. How many authors do you know who would not mark your email "spam?"

A. I'm afraid to find out.

Q. How many near relatives (by blood, adoption or marriage) do you have who occupy powerful positions in media?

A. Does editing the annual family newsletter count?

Q. What makes you think anyone is going to read this book, anyway, you big loser?

And so on.

To get my mind off it, I decided to answer a bunch of reader emails that I've very rudely and shamefully neglected to acknowledge in a timely manner. I read each one as I received it, but reading them all together was so wonderful. If you've ever taken the time to reach out to a writer and tell them you appreciated their words, please know it was a beautiful gift, even if it does go unacknowledged in direct terms. I keep all such emails in a folder called "moral support," and I must have hundreds of them by now. I'm not naive about the business of blurbs; as a reader, I look to them myself to help decide if a book is up my alley. But I wish I could use the kinds of messages I read today to adorn my book cover. To a stranger in a bookstore, they might not mean as much as the recommendation of a big "name" author, but they mean as much, and even more, to me.

P.S. If you are a famous author, are close personal friends with one, or are owed a large sum of money by one, I'd love to send along an advance copy. I'll even throw in a box of pencils.


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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

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If you are ever in danger of taking yourself too seriously, may I recommend you get together with some of the funniest, smartest, shiniest people you can round up on a weeknight, and head straight to your local karaoke bar.

By all means, pretend you are only going in your capacity as cultural observer, if it helps get you in the door. Insist to your cohorts that you don't sing. It will only make it all the more amusing when you are shaking them down later for cash with which to bribe the DJ into letting you take the stage for a fourth time, because OH MY GOD WE HAVE GOT TO SING ABBA.

I promise, the next day, you'll wake up 1000 lbs lighter, miraculously cured.

Of my four performances, one was a solo (Stay), one was singing back-up (S.O.S), and two were duets with my girlfriend Amy's husband. We killed with Summer Nights (where "killed" means "did not disgrace ourselves"). Then cleared the entire front row of tables out with Don't Go Breaking My Heart. If I should ever happen to go on book tour, I'm bringing him with me.


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