Unconventional

Political conventions have always been noisy, chaotic affairs that got on my nerves. Held in mammoth arenas with thousands of crazed politics addicts, all dressed from head to toe in red, white and blue sequins, everyone trying to look more outlandish than the next person, and the end result is everyone looks the same: nuts. The TV cameras zoom in on the flashing donkey hats, glow-in-the-dark campaign buttons, and the placards with cheesy slogans. It all has the feel of a circus run amok.

The screaming is constant, while journalists interview people on the floor, having to yell to be heard, even though they’re standing side-by-side. It’s like trying to have a conversation at the top of your lungs while the band is playing in the noisiest bar in town. It’s exhausting, even to watch. For someone like me, who struggles with anxiety that has intensified over the last four years, a conventional convention only adds to the feeling that I can’t catch my breath and my body is about to fly apart.

This year is very different, thank God. Forced to go virtual like the rest of life, it’s actually been quite meaningful and a pleasure to watch. The speeches have been shorter and informal, as if I’m sitting with the speaker in their living room and they’re talking just to me. The states’ roll call Tuesday night featured representatives from each state in a setting that characterized that state’s environment and culture. It was so cool to be reminded of the vast diversity of America, while getting an intimate glimpse of our fellow citizens and where they live.

Michelle Obama’s speech Monday night was heartfelt, urgent, and motivating. Gabby Giffords, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, the Clintons, Speaker Pelosi have all delivered powerful messages. President Obama’s speech last night was outstanding, as I’d expected. The nostalgia and longing for a statesman in the Oval Office almost made me cry, but his words gave me a glimmer of hope. Maybe it is possible that one day, this country’s highest office will once again be held by a normal person who doesn’t make me deeply ashamed to be an American. Fingers crossed, ballot ready.

I can only assume that the Republicans will do something similar with their convention next week, though I won’t be watching. I’ve heard enough lies and vitriol in the past four years to last a lifetime. And I can’t imagine that the My Pillow guy or Kid Rock will have anything quite as compelling to say. In this of all election years, I do NOT have hear both sides to determine for whom I’m voting.

 

Casting the movie

GB as MattLet’s all take a quick break from poring over depressing news apps and have a little fun.

Have you ever been knee-deep in a novel and found yourself casting the movie in your head? Deciding which of your favorite actors would be perfect playing the part of each main character?

It’s an old Hollywood legend that when Margaret Mitchell was writing Gone With the Wind, she wrote the character of Rhett Butler with actor Clark Gable in mind. While that’s an interesting notion, I’m not sure it’s accurate. GWTW was written in the 1920s and was published SH as Mattin the mid-1930s. Gable, who was born in 1901, was just another bit actor whose career was barely getting started in the 1920s and in Hollywood in the mid-30s. At that early stage, he did not yet have his close-clipped mustache for which he and Rhett Butler became famous. In reality, it’s unlikely that Mitchell even knew who Gable was while she was writing the book.

So here’s what I want to know: If you were casting the movie version of Shaman, who would you want to play the lead roles?

As I was writing Shaman over the years, I actually did have NA model as Degana male actor in mind for the part of Matt. Back then, I based Matt’s physical appearance on Scottish actor Gerard Butler. I pictured Butler’s smoldering looks, his tall, well-built physique, his green eyes and dark hair that has a bit of curl to it when it’s longer. Of course now, Butler would be too old for the part of Matt. Matt has been frozen in time for years, while Gerry Butler has aged, and not particularly well, to be honest.

Consequently, I’ve had to cast a new Matt. Having recently been swept up in the Outlander tidal wave, I’ve settled, for now, on Sam Heughan, the Scottish actor who plays Jamie Fraser (what’s with me and the Scots?). But it’s a scruffy, dark-haired version of Sam who’d be right for Matt, not the clean-cut, clean-shaven, blond and VD OS as Daisybeautiful version of Sam. The character of Jamie in Outlander has red hair. Matt is not a redhead, and he’s definitely NOT blond (my ex-husband was blond, ew!). The character of Jamie usually wears a kilt; Matt, not being Scottish, never does (sorry, Bri).

A spotless Sam Heughan would make an attractive woman; Matt would not. Matt is handsome, but he’s not beautiful. Going for rugged here. But let’s not take that too far. When Jamie Fraser is wearing a shirt that was probably DC as Carolinewhite three weeks ago, but is now grayish-brown and soiled and looks like it smells bad (take a shower, dude!), that’s not Matt either. Matt is clean, but he’s not prissy. He’s a little weathered, but he smells good. (By the way, most men underestimate how important it is to smell good. And by that, I don’t mean you should marinate in cologne overnight like a brisket. A big part of smelling good is subtlety. The occasional whiff on a breeze, not a heavy fog SJ as Emmathat stings the back of the throat and makes one cough. Restraint is key!)

But I digress. Back to casting. Degan’s role would be trickier in terms of popular actors that we all know. She’d probably have to be played by an actor who is currently not well known. Maybe the part of Degan would launch the career of a young, unknown Native American actor. I picture Daisy as a Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer type. The dignified, compassionate, no-nonsense backbone of the Tyler family and surrogate mother to Matt and his sister.

Speaking of Caroline, someone like Dove Cameron could play her. She’s got the “Caroline look,” though if you were to ask me what that means, exactly, I couldn’t tell you. As for the other blonde in the book, the ever-scheming and self-centered Emma, Scarlett Johansson could do her justice. She’s always struck me as someone who can be likable one moment and hateable the next. Much like Emma herself.

Surprisingly, I haven’t really thought much about Jon, or Matt’s parents, Kathleen and Adam Tyler. So I’m completely open to suggestions on those. On any of these choices, really. Now it’s your turn! Who would you cast in the leading roles of Shaman?

 

Writing sex scenes

I’ve always loved reading romance novels. Historical romance in particular, for some reason, though I was never that interested in history in school. Maybe if history textbooks were written like an historical romance novel, history class wouldn’t be so boring.

When it comes to romance novels, there are two types of authors: the ones that lead the couple right to the brink of sex, then end the scene or the chapter and go on to something else, leaving you, the reader, to only imagine what happened next. Those authors are called “evil.”

The other type of author is the one who takes the couple to the brink of sex and dives right in, with you, the reader, along for the ride (so to speak). These are the authors who describe in detail what happens between the two, until the climactic end where everyone — including you, the reader — is spent. Those authors are called “generous, courageous, and just all-around wonderful.”

As a reader of romance novels, I decided early on that if I ever wrote such a book, I’d be the second type of author. I would never slam the bedroom door in my reader’s face. I’d invite them right in.

“Please come in, dear reader, make yourself comfortable in this chair beside the bed. Here, have some popcorn. Enjoy the show!”

Writing sex scenes can be fun, as long as you keep in mind the Golden Rule of Writing Sex Scenes: Make sure that everything you have your characters doing is physically possible for the human body to do. Beyond that, you just have to picture it in your mind, like choreographing a dance. Then you describe it in words, step by delicious step. It helps to have a fertile, inventive imagination.

There are several sex scenes in Shaman, but if not for my editor, the final sex scene between the two main characters would never have happened. As she was editing the second half of Shaman, she told me: “Before this book ends, your readers will want to see these two have sex at least one more time.”

I groaned. “Ugh! Do I have to? I’m exhausted!” I was so far down the home stretch of finally getting this thing finished and published, I just wanted to be DONE! The last thing I felt like doing was writing yet another sex scene.

I wondered if I couldn’t just insert a reference to Chapter 13, as in “For this chapter’s sex scene, please refer back to pages 134-146, author is tired.”

Of course, I knew I couldn’t do that, so I gathered what was left of my tattered stamina and wrote the final sex scene of the book. I was actually surprised at how well it turned out. I don’t think you can tell I was faking it.

Since Shaman’s sequel, The Passage, is also an historical romance, I know there will have to be sex scenes in it. I have my reputation as an author to uphold, after all. I don’t want to get slammed over into the “evil” category with all those other wimpy “no sex for me, thanks” authors. Even though it’s been years since I’ve written a sex scene, I expect it’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back to you. Much like the act itself. No matter how long it’s been, you don’t forget how to do it.

 

Talk about luck!

How many Outlander fans do we have out there? If you’re not familiar with Outlander, it’s a show that originated on the Starz network in 2014 and is also on Netflix. Based on a series of eight (so far) novels by author Diana Gabaldon, it’s the story of a British woman who, in 1946, unintentionally travels back in time to 1743 Scotland and finds her soulmate in a strapping, handsome Highlander warrior who’s so hot he’ll singe your eyebrows if you sit too close to your TV screen. The novels, as well as the TV series they spawned, are considered multi-genre, meaning they are historical romance, mystery, adventure, and fantasy.

Gabaldon, an Arizona native, was a marine biologist before she quit her day job to write full time. She was working on what would become the first Outlander novel “just for practice, to learn how to write a novel.” She never intended to show it to anyone. Eventually, she decided to post an excerpt on a scientific intranet site so a few of her marine biologist colleagues could read it. Well, lo and behold, one of her colleagues was so impressed that he passed it along to a friend of his who just happened to be a literary agent. Gabaldon’s story quickly sold and she was signed to a publisher based on this unfinished, first “practice” novel, plus two still-to-be-written sequels.

Geez Louise, talk about luck!

The first Outlander novel was published in 1991, and over the years, as subsequent books were released and the series grew in popularity, several attempts were made to come up with a script for a movie. However, despite multiple accomplished screenwriters in Hollywood trying their hand at writing an Outlander movie script, Gabaldon couldn’t bring herself to sign off on any of them. She felt a two-hour movie could not do justice to this sweeping, multi-book saga, so she rejected one script after another.

While I completely agree with Gabaldon that a two-hour movie could never adequately tell this epic story, I can’t get over the fact that this first-time author had the cojones to reject “multiple” attempts by “well-known” scriptwriters in Hollywood to turn her story into a movie. You better believe that if Hollywood came calling for Shaman, I’d be so star-struck and blinded by bended-knee humility and gratitude, I’d sign off on an animated musical starring Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Having watched a few interviews of Gabaldon, I can say she has a level of … well, let’s be kind and call it “confidence”… in her work, and given the passionate worldwide popularity of Outlander, I can see why. It is a captivating story. But knowing how the series was birthed, it’s also a story of an author’s wildest dreams coming true. For every Outlander success story, there are literally thousands of writers whose novels are just as enthralling, with characters who are just as complex and memorable. Unfortunately, most of these stories will never see the light of day beyond the author’s family and friends. Another reason why writing is, at its core, a labor of love.

 

Meh…

Thinking back on all the misconceptions I once had about writing a book and getting it published, I sometimes have to laugh.

It took me decades to write Shaman. I’d peck out a couple of scenes, then put it away for months or even years, and live my life, barely thinking about it. But sooner or later, my characters would come tapping on my brain and say, “Hey there, remember us?” And I’d pull out my files and grind out another scene or two.

Unlike some novelists, I did not use an outline by which to write the story. Some writers swear by the outline method. They map out the entire book from beginning to end and follow it as they write. I’m more a “write by the seat of my pants” kinda girl. Having an outline for a novel is like having an outline for life: You can plan all you want, but if your characters decide to go in a different direction, you have no choice but to tag along and type what they say and do. It’s how my creative process works.

I’d heard that “if the story is good enough, the book will sell itself.” So once my manuscript was finished, I assumed others would love my characters and my story as much as I did. HAHAHA! What a joke! I attempted to go the traditional route by trying first to sell my book to an agent, who would then sell it to one of the big publishing houses. HAHAHA! An even bigger joke! I sent the typical query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters to dozens of agents and, of course, got rejections or no reply at all. This process took months and was so time-consuming that I finally decided if I wanted to see my book in print before I was too senile to recognize it, I’d better self-publish.

For a self-published author, all marketing and PR is do-it-yourself. Since Shaman was not picked up by even an agent, much less one of the large, traditional publishing houses, I did not have a team of marketing professionals behind me, scheduling interviews, book-signings, trade show appearances, guest spots on celebrity talk shows, blah, blah, blah… I spent hours networking and scheduling as many interviews and book signings as I could, which, as a new, unknown author, wasn’t much.

I was excited for my first book signing. I’d seen book signings on TV and so imagined people lining up to meet me, talking about how my story had impacted them, as I signed my name to their copy and thanked them for their support. HAHAHA! Not exactly. I usually sat at a table beside a stack of my books, listening to crickets, bored out of my mind, watching the clock drag slowly through the allotted time till I could pack up the exact number of books I’d brought and go home. If I sold even one book during a five-hour book-signing, I considered it a successful day.

I snagged a spot in one of the book signings regularly held at Turn the Page Bookstore in Boonsboro, Md. As is the norm for a Nora Roberts event, the place was mobbed by literally hundreds of passionate fiction fans. I was sure I’d have more success given the sheer number of attendees, if nothing else. I sat among the other non-celebrity authors with my usual stack of books, flanked on both sides by novels with nearly naked people on their covers. Their stacks sold out quickly, while I sold a grand total of two copies of Shaman the entire time. It was embarrassing.

After a few more similar experiences, I vowed never to do another book-signing, as they represent only disappointment and mind-numbing boredom to me.

I found that speaking to book clubs is much more interesting. A book club in Frederick, Md., had contacted me to request that I join them for their monthly luncheon meeting at a local restaurant so that we could discuss my book — which had been the club’s selection the previous month — and the members could ask me questions. When I first saw the email invitation, I thought, “this has to be spam.” But once I determined it was legit, I was thrilled! They even said my husband could join me, so Marcus and I drove to Frederick to meet them. Everyone was so welcoming and excited that we were there. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch in a private room of the restaurant, then over dessert, the club’s president brought the meeting to order and, following a brief introduction of me to the group, opened the floor for questions.

Directly across from me sat a tiny lady who was 90 years old if she was a day. Her hand popped up.

“Yes, I have a question,” she said, leaning forward to look me in the eye. “Have you actually done all the things you describe in Chapter 13?”

I just about fell off my chair. Shaman is a romance novel and Chapter 13 has become infamous among those who’ve read the book. Everyone in the room burst out laughing, including me, and it took a moment to compose myself enough to answer.

“Not all,” I finally choked out.

That afternoon was easily the most fun I’ve had talking about my book. It was a rare experience and one for which I am still so grateful. Some authors are born marketers and have no qualms about mentioning their work in every conversation. I’ve never been comfortable doing that; I never assume anyone is interested. But if someone else initiates the topic of my writing, it’s like asking to see pictures of my kids or grandkids.

In fact, in many ways, bringing a book into the world is similar to bringing a child into the world, except for me, the whole affair was much longer than nine months. A book birthing requires a lot of planning, anticipation, preparation, hard work, and money. The difference is, when an author’s “baby” finally makes its big debut, the reactions of even close friends and family may well be: “Meh…” Nobody wants to be told they have an ugly baby; it stings. The experience definitely makes you appreciate those friends and family who are as excited about your baby as you are (God bless you, you know who you are!). And it’s extra gratifying when complete strangers let you know how much they enjoyed the result of all your labor.

 

BIC, FOK

Well, it took a global pandemic and a months-long quarantine to get to this point, but eight years after the publication of my first novel, Shaman, I have resumed work on its sequel.

So my mantra these days is: Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard. BIC, FOK.

When I first started working on the sequel a few years ago, I had cleverly titled it The Journey because my characters, like, you know, travel and stuff. But with a nod toward making meaningful progress this time, I’ve rechristened it The Passage because… I just like that title better.

Writing a novel is a long, grueling process and if it’s not a labor of love, it’s difficult to muster the stamina to complete.

For most of the time while I was writing my first novel, I never told anybody about it. In fact, it was a long time before I could even refer to what I was working on as a “novel.” I felt silly. Who was I to think I could write a novel? My husband and I were together for several years before he even knew I was working on anything. I was too embarrassed to reveal that to anyone. If they knew, they might want to — gulp! — read it.

Sharing your writing for the first time with anybody, even someone you trust, is difficult. It feels more personal than sharing your diary. It’s like standing in the middle of a crowded room, stark naked, and turning around slowly.

One day, on a whim of reckless bravery, I gave a few pages to my husband to read. Trying to keep from hyperventilating, I waited patiently while he read. When he finished, he pronounced it “really good!” and I was immediately suspicious that he was “just being nice.”

“Sure,” I told him, “you have to like it. You’re my husband.”

But I was as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Did I dare allow myself to believe it might really be good? At that point, my husband became my biggest supporter. My alpha reader.

Along the way, I was blessed to have the support of two fellow writers as well. The three of us formed a small critique group and my partners motivated me to keep writing as they offered feedback and suggestions on how I could improve my story. In fact, a scene in Chapter 4 — when Degan sees Matt’s Union Army coat in his armoire and has a typical PTSD reaction to it — was suggested by one of my critique partners. Large portions of my story bear the fingerprints of other writers.

There were also naysayers. A critique partner in another group bemoaned the futility of trying to write a novel, as well as the competitive nature of writing. “If you go into any bar and ask who is currently working on a novel,” he said, “at least half the people in the room would raise their hands.” His point was (I think), who are we to believe we can write a novel and get it published? Another writer told me that our chances of getting our novels published were “Slim to none and Slim just left town.”

When I heard those discouraging comments, I knew they were right, to a degree. But I had the strong urge to put those comments aside and not allow them to dictate my path. I believed my story needed to be told, the way only I could tell it. My characters deserved to see the light of day. So I kept plugging along.

I joined another critique group whose members were all seasoned, professional writers. One writer in the group had been nominated for a Pulitzer, twice! Intimidating? Absolutely. And yet, there I was with my little story, still believing that my characters deserved to be there and have their story told. After reading the first chapter or two of my material, one member advised me to give my main character, Matt, a dog. He said, “If he’s got a barn, he would have a dog.” Really? Since when does a barn equal a dog?

A rule of this particular group was that we were not permitted to “argue” with anybody’s comments or explain any questions about our stories because, their reasoning went, if an editor is reading your work, chances are you will not be present to argue your case or explain what you meant. In theory, your writing should be clear enough that an editor will not have to question anything.

While I understand that theory and, of course, I followed the group rule, I always thought it was crazy. In my experience, the best critique groups are those in which lively discussion is permitted. Ideas are exchanged best that way and suggestions can be honed and crystallized through the process.

In the end, I did not give Matt a dog. Pulitzer nominations or not, no one knows my characters better than I do.

So now, the story continues. Since I already have about 10,000 words of the sequel done, I’m not starting from scratch, but I still have hours of research ahead of me. And thinking. Lots and lots of thinking. Thinking about scenes, reactions, dialogue, character arcs, foreshadowing, tragedies and joy. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, I’m feeling (mostly) excited!

Next time: The truth about book signings and the pointed question a 90-year-old fan asked me about the sex scenes in my book.

House arrest

Yesterday I trimmed my husband’s hair. Our salon, like other non-essential businesses, has been closed for a month. I was more nervous than he was, knowing how particular he can be about his locks. He was strangely calm and calming, telling me to relax and not worry about the outcome. This was just the latest in a decades-long confirmation that I married up the second time around.

Among the revelations that have resulted from our collective experience of the last month or so, we can now add to the list of important questions to ponder when considering a lifetime commitment to another person:

Is he or she someone with whom you could be quarantined indefinitely? Without losing your mind or your life?

Financial solvency, spirituality, child-rearing philosophy… all important, sure. But spending what amounts to house arrest together day after day, week after week, provides the best circumstance to help you determine if you made the right decision in choosing your mate.

I can tell you, for me, the first time around? I would never have made it this far. Not even close.

My first husband commuted an hour each way for his job. Early in our marriage, a snowstorm made it impossible for him to get to work for two days. I thought I would go mad. Just two days. That was way more than enough.

He worked four 10-hour days, a Tuesday through Friday schedule, and so was off on Mondays. I made sure I was always working on Mondays. Holidays that fell on Mondays were the pits. When he traveled for business, I would take some vacation time so that I could stay home and enjoy being by myself in our house, relaxed and free and doing what I wanted.

Recently, I saw a meme that said: “If you’re having a hard time with stay-at-home orders, remember, someone somewhere is quarantined with your ex.” My reaction was reflective and measured: “GAAAHHHHHH!”

Suddenly, house arrest felt like a wild dance party. It’s all about perspective, right?

It’s also about being married to and quarantined with your best friend. We’ve been happily spending most days together for years, so for my current husband and me, this past month hasn’t been much different from our normal life.

I feel for people who are quarantined in the cage of a toxic marriage, especially given that divorce proceedings have been deemed “non-essential” by the courts, with no end in sight. Given the fierce battles my first husband and I used to have over everyday annoyances, I don’t even want to think about how we would have handled being stuck together for a month or more. One of us would have been in jail. Probably me.

By the way, hubby’s hair turned out great. Sorry, not taking appointments right now. This salon has a strict one-client policy.

 

For Mom

Tuesday, April 7, is my mom’s 83rd birthday.

I believe birthdays should be celebrated. It’s the one day of the year that is completely yours; your own personal holiday. From the time you wake up on your birthday, to the time you finally drift into sleep after a day of partying and doing only those things which bring you real happiness, your birthday is a Special Day! I even like to observe half-birthdays. Why wait a whole year to mark the momentous occasion of your entrance onto the stage of life?

As with everything else this year — in the bizarre Twilight Zone that 2020 has become — holidays, including personal ones like birthdays, have been sidelined. Pushed to the back burner. A mere blip on the calendar compared to commemorations of the past and certainly wild, swing-from-the-chandeliers events of the future.

Having inherited from Mom my love of finding reasons in life to celebrate, it’s beyond strange that this year, we have nothing planned. We’ll be spending her special day apart, quarantined at home. I know the world has much bigger problems, but for me, not being able to celebrate my mom’s birthday with her, in person, feels enormous.

So I’m honoring Mom this way…

She’s the youngest 83-year-old you’ll ever meet. Quick-witted and scary-smart, she can converse intelligently with anyone. She’s endlessly resilient, quietly strong of character, upbeat, and kind. She loves and defends fervently, pragmatically accepting the bad with the good in family and friends.

Her packed social calendar rivals that of any society matron. Lunches with friends, Bible studies, volunteering to drive neighbors to doctor’s appointments, she’s always there. But it’s her ladies card club that meets biweekly that is, by far, her favorite activity. The thrill of competition pales next to the fun of the often-R-rated banter that flies across the tables. Mom keeps up with it all.

While she navigates a social schedule that makes me tired just hearing about it, her solitude is just as precious to her. Difficult crossword puzzles, voracious reading, and computer card games keep her engaged. At home, her closest companion is her iPad.

Last year, she decided she needed to purchase a walker to provide her greater stability than her cane. But she also wanted an iPad. Reluctant to spend the money for both, she chose the iPad. Now it’s rarely out of reach. It’s how she watches reruns of Blue Bloods (big Tom Selleck fan) and NYPD Blue (big Jimmy Smits fan). It appears strong, handsome men in law enforcement have made a police groupie of my mom.

Amazingly, Mom still remembers most of her high school French and can rattle off complete sentences in French when the mood strikes her. Way ahead of her time, she was born in an era when women were not afforded the luxury of a selective mindset when it came to… well, just about anything. In career and marriage, women of the first half of the 20th century were restricted, practically enslaved. With an IQ at genius level, my mom could have pursued any career she could imagine. She wanted to be a farmer’s wife. So she left college after her freshman year to marry a dairy farmer, embarking on a life of hard work seven days a week. “It’s not a good living,” she has said many times, “but it’s a good life.”

Nowadays, she lives independently and is fiercely protective of her autonomy. “Freedom” is her mantra. She loves being able to jump into her beloved Honda CRV and go anywhere on a whim. The local drive-thru for a root beer float, the local Walmart for some household necessity, or to meet my husband and me for lunch at Olive Garden.

Known far and wide for her lead foot, when we part after lunch, I tell her to “drive safely,” or as she told me when I was a teenager: “Drive like you have some sense.” She flashes me a mischievous grin. “Oh, I will,” she assures me, and I know she has no intention of doing so.

Below is a short piece I sent Mom not long ago, for no particular occasion. When I saw this online, there was no attribution, so I don’t know who wrote it, but I love it:

**
“Your mother is always with you. She’s the whisper of the leaves as you walk down the street, she’s the smell of certain foods you remember, flowers you pick, the fragrance of life itself. She’s the cool hand on your brow when you’re not feeling well, she’s your breath in the air on a cold winter’s day. She is the sound of the rain that lulls you to sleep, the colors of a rainbow, she is Christmas morning. Your mother lives inside your laughter. She’s the place you came from, your first home, and she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love, your first friend, even your first enemy, but nothing on earth can separate you. Not time, not space… not even death.”
**

Happy birthday, Mom. We’ll swing from the chandeliers when all this is over.
Here’s to many more celebrations in your honor.

 

Incomparable Osilda

It’s not often you meet someone who embodies completely the grace and elegance of royalty, while remaining personable and endlessly kind toward everyone in the room.

I met such a person in my Brazilian sister-in-law.

The first time I met my husband’s oldest sister, Osilda, I was quite nervous. My husband had talked glowingly of her, and I could tell the first-born of the family had been secure on her pedestal from day-one. And all that I knew of her justified her lofty position. I’d heard stories of her early life, how she’d somehow survived unspeakable tragedies, faced overwhelming obstacles and succeeded, her spirit intact. I had seen photos of her entertaining in her posh apartment in Rio, looking every bit the sophisticated Brazilian goddess, elegantly dressed, serene and lovely. I wondered what she’d be like in person, and what she’d think of me.

We met, appropriately, in Manhattan. She and her husband traveled regularly from Brazil to New York City to enjoy the shopping, restaurants, and culture. My husband and I met them in the city and they invited us to join them at a favorite little French restaurant of theirs. The place was dark and intimate, tucked into a quiet neighborhood not far from our hotel.

Osilda was pleasant and charming, smart and witty. I noticed immediately the great respect she had for her husband, and he for her. An excellent conversationalist, she spoke and listened in equal measure. She even ordered her dinner in French. She put me at ease, and I found her to be immensely likable. At just five feet tall and maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, she was tiny in stature and larger than life. Later, I told my husband that she reminded me of Eva Peron, Argentina’s legendary first lady.

This having been our first meeting, I sensed that Osilda was wise enough to watch and listen, even while she cordially got to know me. She would never have sacrificed civility for bluster, but wouldn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. I knew that if she didn’t like me, she would state her case courteously but firmly.

Turns out, she approved! In our subsequent meetings at family gatherings, I grew to love Osilda and looked forward to spending time with her on her much-too-infrequent visits to the U.S. She and her husband would fly to Miami where my in-laws lived and stay for several weeks at a time. No matter the length of stay, Osilda never wore the same outfit twice, and every day carried a different Prada bag to match. A tiny woman, she always wore large, dramatic statement necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings. She would glide across a room in her beautifully ornate, platform sandals, bracelets clinking, an air of cosmopolitan calm in her wake. It seemed she could converse with any person on any topic, being widely read and aware of the world.

For my 40th birthday, my husband took me to Brazil where we visited Osilda and her family on their sprawling estate high in the lush mountains near a town that’s a three-hour drive north of Rio. Later, at a bright and cozy restaurant in the town, we chatted and laughed over wonderful Brazilian food and drink, which included Brazil’s national cocktail, caipirinha, which, when made properly, is simply too strong to drink. I took two sips of mine and as my throat burst into flame, I promptly set the glass back on the table. Osilda must have seen the look on my face, as she handed it to the waiter and said in Portuguese, “She can’t drink this, she’s American.”

There was a tolerance and an openness about Osilda that extended to everyone. I’ve never met anyone more gracious. Had geography allowed, I think Osilda and I would have been good friends.

Now, it’s more than geography that separates my beautiful sister-in-law from those who love her. Osilda passed away in November 2013. Her loss was a deep blow to our family, and even though we seldom got to see her, I still miss her. I miss seeing her enter a room and immediately own it, effortlessly commanding respect because her self-possession was unflappable and as natural as breathing. I miss her intellect, her clever humor, her wonderful stories, her wise and balanced perspective.

Graceful and indomitable, Osilda will always be an original. I learned a lot from her. Her platform heels left indelible footprints on my heart. Her essence and memory remain.

 

No kids no regrets

During a conversation about the merits of exercise in general, and running in particular, a friend of mine once said: “Runners never look happy.” Which I realized was true. When I drive around, if I see a runner on the side of the road, they never look like they’re enjoying themselves. In fact, with a tight grimace and clenched fists, they look kind of miserable. So when I think of running as a form of exercise, I think, “No thanks, doesn’t look like much fun.”

I could say the same for parenting.

Now, before your hackles go up in defensive alarm, let me say that I don’t dislike kids… exactly. I’ve been around kids lots of times and lived to tell about it. I just like knowing that when I’ve had my fill of the little darlings, I can get away from them. Many people with kids are beyond thrilled and say they would do it all again. Lots of parents describe their children as their greatest accomplishment, life’s most treasured gift. But I’ve rarely seen anyone look like they’re actually enjoying parenting. If it’s so rewarding, why do parents look so miserable?

I’ve never had children. I’ve never wanted to have children, and have never felt a maternal longing for them. And honestly, the parents I’ve observed in various settings throughout my life have only reinforced my conviction that parenting is not for everyone, whether they have kids or not. I guess some people don’t realize they shouldn’t be parents until after they’ve had kids and at that point, they’re stuck. It’s not like you can return them to the store. “I’d like my money back. It doesn’t fit.”

When I was a teenager, if I even mentioned having children one day, my mom would cringe and discourage the idea. Unlike most moms I knew, she was never in favor of becoming a grandmother. Early in our relationship, my husband and I decided to move to Florida. I called my mom to tell her I had some news. When I told her we were moving, she let out a big sigh of relief. “Oh thank God! I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant.” So moving a thousand miles away: good; having a baby: bad. Got it.

A friend once told me she never wanted to have kids until she had them. Then she realized it was the best thing in the world. She said, “it’s like going through life never having tasted chocolate. You can’t appreciate what you were missing until you get it.”

That may be true. But the moms and dads I’ve seen look ragged, exhausted, overwhelmed, defeated. They never talk about the pleasurable, fulfilling aspects of raising children; they seem to complain only about the struggles, the frustrations, and the bottomless, gut-wrenching worry. They say, “Oh, being a parent is the best, I wouldn’t trade it for anything!” while they’re barking commands at their heedless child who’s running around like a screaming banshee demolishing everything in its path. I’ve spent time — a mercifully short time — with toddlers who were having screaming meltdowns every five minutes because a minor expectation wasn’t met. Like raging PMS for the pull-up set. Um… no thanks.

I don’t do well in noisy chaos. I find clutter, filth, and rampant disorganization to be tremendously anxiety-producing. I function best in a calm, clean environment where I can hear myself think. I’ve never found anything remotely appealing about the prospect of sacrificing my body or my mental health for the sake of giving the world just what it doesn’t need: yet another human. I don’t want to be a hollow shell of my former self, forfeit my identity, and join the “I can’t even remember what a good night’s sleep feels like” club.

As kids get older, “it doesn’t get any easier!” many moms have told me. “The worries just get bigger.” Problems at school, unsavory friends with their sketchy influence, the menacing maze of the internet. As pre-teens begin to individualize and rebellion blossoms, emotions are hopelessly out of control. The young brain — which won’t reach complete development for another 10 years or so — struggles to manage a body and a world gone mad. Driving, dating, and sexual awakening combined with the unshakable twin beliefs in their own invincibility and lack of accountability.

All of the above if things go as expected. What about when your kid gets some sort of heinous disease and you’re living at the side of a hospital bed for days or weeks on end watching them suffer? Or your kid starts displaying signs of mental illness by punching holes in the walls and destroying all the furniture? You turn to experts in the mental health field, but there’s only so much they can do and your kid won’t take the medicine anyway, so you’re screwed. All you can do is barricade yourself in the bathroom and pray for a miracle.

No, no, no, no…. No thanks. I’ve seen it all and I am not interested. I’m quite content to watch it all from afar.

In her silky southern drawl, my sister-in-law used to say, “I wouldn’t trade my kids for a million bucks, and I wouldn’t give you two cents for another one.” Except for that first part, ditto. For me, not having children was a deliberate, conscious decision that I’ve never second-guessed. And as often as I’m reminded that it was the right decision for me, I wonder if given a do-over, others might make the same choice.