Friday, January 20, 2017

On being wrong, and the benefit of the doubt

Good morning, Americans. Good morning, world.

Today the United States follows one of the most important rituals of our government, the peaceful transfer of executive power from one individual to another. If you know me at all, you know that the recipient of this power is not the person I supported. I'm out of town today, and won't watch the ceremony.

But I'm still an American. And I'm still alive. And the distinguishing feature of Americans, if we have one, is optimism. We live in a country whose relatively short history is a narrative of improvements. In the United States, things get better. Oh, we might have temporary setbacks, we might have conflicts and disagreements and even tragedy — but things get better. More people move here. More businesses start. More people work. People live longer, live better, have more stuff. The poorest people in the United States still — mostly — have electricity, running water, refrigerators and televisions. We take all that for granted, and quite a lot of us never have occasion to learn just how rare and new it is, in human experience.

This expectation of endless improvement is what's brought us here, today, as a man with no political experience, whose financial obligations we do not know, will stand next to his third wife and promise to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He ran on a campaign that told Americans we were miserable, and that he could fix that. And he won, at least in part, because those of us who aren't miserable didn't believe the ones who said they were.

He says he'll make America great again. Nobody ever pressed him on the question of why and how America isn't great now. Over the last few months, I have asked people who've told me Barack Obama is the worst president in history: okay, I hear you, but tell me how? Show me. Are you homeless? Did you lose your job, your family, your dreams? Yes, entire industries have disappeared in the past 25 years, and more industries will go the same way in the next ten. Show me, tell me, how President Obama was responsible for that, and how he should have fixed it. What did he do wrong? How did he hurt you?

Nobody's given me a good answer. The one substantive response I've gotten is the increase in the national debt under the Obama administration. I'll concede that, for people who agree that government spending shouldn't be used to spur the economy. The problem is finding anyone serious who agrees with that statement. If you want to argue with me, go right ahead. I'll check back with you after Congress passes President Trump's infrastructure bill.

What worries me most about the incoming Administration — and a lot of things worry me — is that this is a group of people who measure success in terms of dollars, and don't understand any other measures of success. "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" becomes "I'm rich, so I must be smart." If you believe that the richest people you know are also the smartest, it's not in my power to convince you otherwise. But that is not my own measure of success.

Let's go back to this idea of improvement, of the United States being a country that improves over time. How does anything or anyone improve? By doing new things, trying new things. Does everyone get new things right the first time? Are all new things equally valuable or productive? Of course not. How do we choose the right improvements, how do we derive the greatest benefits? By making mistakes. By being wrong. By acknowledging the error, and going back to figure out how we make it right.

We have a new President who seems incapable of admitting error. If he cannot admit mistakes, he cannot correct them. He doesn't apologize because he's never done anything wrong. He can't acknowledge that his actions might harm others as they benefit him. If you can't do these things, you can't learn. You can't improve. The whole effort is self-defeating.

Some people are saying that we need to give this new President a chance, that he deserves our support for the sake of the office he holds, and that we owe him the benefit of the doubt. I'll agree with that — paradoxically — if he tells us that he knows he's going to mess up. If he expects to make mistakes, and welcomes the opportunity to learn from them. If he's willing to apologize to the people who get hurt along the way. This seems unlikely, since he's a 70-year-old man whose life has not yet taught him how to do that.

If he can't, and he won't, the American people will have to learn these lessons for themselves. We'll have to recognize our mistake, learn from it, and figure out how to do it right the next time.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Year that Was

Image result for brueghel's icarusI had so many plans for this week between Christmas and New Year's. I have manuscripts due back to clients, and a research project I'm really enjoying, and I would like to bill a few more hours before the year closes — but I am unfocused, adrift, and overwhelmed by a sense of dread that feels more rational than usual.

2016, everybody says. This terrible year. We'll be glad to see the end of it. And I nod and say, "God, yes," as if I too had a terrible year.

And then I stop myself, because I actually didn't.

The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but my own truth is that I had a pretty good year. No, that's not right: in many ways, I had a great year.

My year started in Niagara Falls with the brilliant and hilarious Lisa Lutz. In February, I got back to Maine to see my friends Beth and Cory get married, and catch up with my old trivia team and people I haven't seen since 2013. March was the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Sarah Weinman let me share her hotel room and my sisters came up to hang out with Sarah and Lisa and me. April ended with the Edgars dinner, which I attended with the lovely Northern Irish author Paul Charles and still don't believe I get to go to (actually, anybody can:, and Malice Domestic, in my own back yard.

May 12 was Max Scherzer's 20-strikeout game, which I wound up attending by myself (and in the process, discovered that I love going to baseball games alone). In June I went to Virginia Beach for one niece's baby shower, the first of two nieces who had babies this year; to Baltimore for a fantastic evening of books and steak with friends; and to New York for more books and more friends and more dinners. July was Juliet & Paul's wedding, one of the all-time greats, and more baseball, in both DC and Baltimore.

And August was the trip of a lifetime, through the generosity of my friend Megan Hills, who invited me to help celebrate a milestone birthday in Edinburgh. I'd never been to Scotland. Now I've been to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I can tell the difference between highland and lowland malts (I prefer the lowland). I've been to the Edinburgh Tattoo, which everybody ought to do if they can. I went to Dublin, where I'd also never been, for a weekend with Claire and Zach, and made a visit to Belfast in the company of John Connolly and the legendary Joe Long. I got to go to yet another wedding in Dublin, celebrating Bob & Leon's long relationship, and had more dinners with dear friends I hadn't seen in much too long.

September was Bouchercon in New Orleans, with the mighty Judy Bobalik; Virginia Beach for my father's 75th birthday; and Fall for the Book at George Mason. October was a week at Rehoboth with Claire and Zach and friends and board games, and yet another trip to New York. November was a Thanksgiving with Chris and Claire and Zach and the Beas, all together under one roof for the first time in a couple of years, and December included a trip to Raleigh for yet another wedding celebration, with Jen and Lek.

My personal tally for 2016 is four weddings, two new babies in the family, and no funerals. The friends who went through cancer treatments this year are all still here, for which I fervently thank them. I saw a lot of good baseball, some great theater and music, and some so-so basketball, most of it in the company of friends, and much of it through their generosity. I read some excellent books and had some very good meals. I had clients who paid me to do fascinating work. I am profoundly grateful for all of these things, and the world's sorrows shouldn't overshadow that.

2016 was a hard year for a lot of the world, and for many of my friends. 2017 may be harder, and I will not be surprised if it's a lot harder for me. But for now I am trying not to feel guilty about being the ploughman in Brueghel's Icarus. It's enough that I'm aware of it, and that I look for ways to pay it forward.

My resolutions for the new year are to pay more attention to the good things, to hold my friends and family close, and not to let externalities distract me from the things I value most. Oh, and to get my reading totals back up above 100 books. I spent way too much time in front of screens in 2016. We might all be better off getting back to analog next year.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What We Do Now

What do we do now?  

Three different friends texted me this question late last night, after I had turned the TV off; after I had said goodnight to my housemate, who insisted things might all look better in the morning; after I had tried to go to bed, listening to the Pray As You Go podcast and clutching my smartphone.

Last night I had nothing to tell them. This morning I'm thinking about at least two other times in my life when I looked in the bathroom mirror and thought: I have no idea how I'm supposed to get on with the rest of my life. How do I do this? 

This is what I did then, so this is what I'm doing now:

I brushed my teeth.
I washed my face.
I made a list of small, essential tasks that feel manageable: 1. Renew my ACLU membership. 2. Put away my laundry. 3. Clean my bathroom. 4. Figure out next week's trip to New York.

I'll add more things to that list as I go, and take what satisfaction I can in ticking things off. I will pretend to feel normal — I will pretend to be "normal" — until it's no longer pretending.

The terror we all live with, past the basic needs of food, water and shelter, is that someone will tell us, "You're not welcome here." Half the country told the other half that last night. I'm seeing a lot of posts on social media this morning to the effect of "this happens every four years, get over it," but that's not right. This is something new in my lifetime. The winning candidate didn't give us an inclusive, optimistic vision for the future; the best he could do was offer to rid us of whatever was scaring us.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm a college-educated white woman who supports herself. In the world of our President-Elect, I'm negligible — fat, unattractive, annoying and probably another "nasty woman" — but I'm not The Enemy. I'm not The Other.

But too many of my friends, in this new world, are The Other and even The Enemy. They're gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. They're immigrants. They're people of color. They have families formed by adoption and love rather than by blood. They do good work through government agencies that may not exist six months from now. They live with pre-existing medical conditions they may lose their insurance for. They live and work in the inner cities, in places our new President-Elect describes as lawless jungles.

Last night, half the country told my friends that they can't be sure of their welcome here. That this is not their home. But this is their home, and this is my home and this is your home and for God's sake — literally, for God's sake — isn't that what America is supposed to be about?

This is still our home. The important, essential thing for all of us to do in the weeks and months ahead is to remember that and to behave that way. Say hello to your neighbors. Offer help to people who look like they need it. Volunteer. Join up. Speak out. Today, right now, look up the names and addresses of your Representative, your Senators, your local lawmakers and send them a note to say, "Here's who I am, here's what I care about." Seriously, introduce yourself. That's what I plan to do this morning.

We still have a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It has not perished.

These are organizations that can use your money in the months ahead:

American Civil Liberties Union
Matthew Shepard Foundation
National Council of La Raza
Planned Parenthood
Southern Poverty Law Center

Hug your friends and family. I leave you with the wisdom of Lou Reed:

What's good?
Life's good
But not fair at all.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


I've only recently come up with a good answer to the question, "What do you do?" That answer is, "I help people say what they mean." That's a big net that includes editing, writing, public relations and more — but it starts with listening, reading, and paying attention.

The "paying attention" is often the hardest part. As we gasp to the end of campaign season, I'm so distracted I feel hunted. Thank God I have stacks of books to retreat to. I'd have been very happy as a medieval monk, spending a month illuminating a single page.

It's November 6, and I've read four books of my 30-book challenge. The fourth book counts as both a reread and a book for work, which I'll explain below.

Book: TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis (1968) 
Format: Trade paperback
Owned Since: October 2016

How had I not read this book before? It was on the "supplemental reading" bookshelf of my fifth-grade classroom at Baylake Pines Elementary, I'm sure, along with Julie of the Wolves and Across Five Aprils and Where the Lilies Bloom and Island of the Blue Dolphins. Why didn't I read it? Did I assume that because it was a Western, it wasn't a book for girls? I am disappointed and indignant with my 10-year-old self, and can only imagine how different my life might have been if I'd read this book at a time when Mattie Ross could have been my role model. The 14-year-old narrator of this book pays attention to everything, has an opinion about most of it, and tells it all with every confidence in the reader's interest. Hell, it's not too late for her to be my role model now. Many thanks to Tommy Pluck for sending me this book.

Book: I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS by Pearl Cleage (2001)
Format: Trade paperback
Owned Since: October 2016

Last month I was part of a Facebook round-robin book giveaway that caused some anxiety and consternation among friends who groused about it being yet another stupid pyramid scheme. Well, yes, it was. But I got more than two dozen books out of it, and have since sent a couple of boxes of books off to friends who weren't as lucky, and have already read two books I would not otherwise have picked up. This was one of those books. Pearl Cleage is a playwright whose first novel, WHAT LOOKS LIKE CRAZY ON AN ORDINARY DAY, was an Oprah Book Club pick. I haven't read it, but this novel, her second, is set in the same world. It too is told in the first person, by Joyce, who runs a community center for at-risk teenaged girls and mothers in Idlewild, Michigan, which was a premier resort for the African-American community in the era of Jim Crow. Joyce is a widow striving to live a free life; I WISH I HAD A RED DRESS is a lovely book about how she manages to find new love and help her girls become independent women. I do wish I'd read the first book first, but it wasn't essential for this story.

Book: A TIME OF TORMENT by John Connolly (2016)
Format: PDF
Owned Since: October 2016 as is

It has been my privilege to work with John Connolly for several years now, offering general assistance and obnoxious advice on his extraordinary range of projects. A TIME OF TORMENT is the 14th novel to feature his tormented detective, Charlie Parker (or 15th, if you count the novella "The Reflecting Eye"). This read was both a re-read and for work, as I proofread the galleys for the UK paperback edition, to be published in February 2017. This is a series that continues to evolve in marvelous ways, and as familiar as I was with the story, it still gave me chills. (And a running joke about bathroom keys actually gets funnier every time I read it.)

Proofreading is not like other kinds of reading. It's more like sifting rice through a sieve, looking for stones. In fact, if you let yourself be drawn into a story while you're proofreading, you miss things. If you're paying attention to the story, your brain skims over mistakes and sees what you expect to see. Proofreading requires tricks, especially when it's a text you've seen several times, as this one was for me. I went through it forward, then I went through it backward. I moved from chapter heading to chapter heading to make sure the numbers were sequential and none were skipped. I searched for one particular character name that I knew had been misspelled in the galleys of the hardcover (where we did catch it).

It is almost impossible to publish a 125,000-word novel that is entirely free of errors. Some readers get indignant about this, and I share that indignation in the rare cases where it's obvious no one edited the book at all (a Southern literary novel I read last year, for example, where the main character mysteriously became ten whole years younger between one chapter and another). The goal is perfection, of course; but two or three typos in a 125,000-word book is an error rate most airline pilots would be okay with.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Book 1: ANNE FRANK: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife ANNE FRANK, The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (2009) 
Format: E-book
Owned Since: March 2015

E-books are not my preferred reading format. Batteries die, which is incredibly frustrating, and I hate reading on my phone. But I get at least two daily emails notifying me of cheap e-books, and at least once a week I click the "Buy" button. The Kindle app and the iBooks app are both loaded to both my iPad and my iPhone, and I'm afraid to tally up the number of unread books in my virtual libraries. They're all books I want to read, and I tell myself I'll get to them eventually.

Francine Prose's ANNE FRANK was one of those books. I'm glad I finally got to it. It should go without saying that no one should read this book without reading some edition of Anne Frank's diary first, whether that's THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL, originally published in 1947 (but not in the US until 1952, for reasons Prose explains), or the revised/expanded DEFINITIVE EDITION published in 1995.

I first read the original diary when I was ten or eleven — that would have been fifth or seventh grade — and while it was on a couple of "suggested reading" lists for classes in high school and college, I never took a course that taught it. I've never seen the theatrical adaptation, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett; and my own mother warned me off the 1959 film version, even though Shelley Winters won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs. Van Daan. I've reread THE DIARY several times over the years, and always felt a need to preserve that experience as mine, personally, without any outsiders telling me what to think of it or how to feel about it.

Francine Prose's book was an exception worth making. She gives us Anne Frank the teenager, Anne Frank the writer, Anne Frank the legend and ultimately Anne Frank the industry, walking us from Anne's own determination to be taken seriously as a writer through the wonderful and strange long-term effects her work has had around the world. Prose looks closely at the nature of memoir — as Anne's book ultimately was, since she rewrote the earlier entries herself over the last year of her life — and the difficulty of separating the writer from the work, even after the writer is gone.

Writing is a deeply personal act that creates something separate from the writer, something intended for strangers to read and react to. A writer can't always anticipate a reader's reaction, and certainly can't control it; and yet that writer-reader interaction is so intimate that the better the writer is, the more the reader feels he or she knows the author, and possibly someone the writer knows the reader as well. (See: Stephen King's MISERY.)

We can't know Anne Frank, but Prose shows us how the very action of writing her life down changed her. Measuring things, naming things, changes them; it's a fundamental law of the universe. Anne Frank would have changed more as she found new things to name and measure, and it's still a gaping wound in human history that she didn't get that opportunity.

One problem with reading is that it leads to more reading. A casual reference to Carson McCullers and her husband reminds me that I know almost nothing about Carson McCullers — I had not even known she was married — and makes me think I really ought to read something of hers beyond A Member of the Wedding, which I disliked when I had to read it in seventh grade. I also remember that Flannery O’Connor hated McCullers’ last book, which leads to the thought that I really need to reread The Habit of Being. If I read McCullers, which one should I read?

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

NaNoReadMo: 30 Books in 30 Days

Many people I know are starting National Novel Writing Month today. To them I say good luck, God bless and — how many books have you read lately?

At one point in my life, when I commuted by bus and Metro, I regularly read more than 200 books a year. Even after I started driving — and then even after I started working from home — I regularly read more than 150 books a year. Working at The (late, lamented) Mystery Bookstore boosted that number, but I've always been open-minded about where my books come from: bookstores, libraries, publishers, friends, Goodwill and yes, even Amazon.

Last year, for the first time in my adult life, my reading list didn't break 100 — and that was even after I let myself count everything I'd read for work, including galleys I proofread and manuscripts I edited. I topped out at 99, with an advance reading copy of the delightful BE FRANK WITH ME by Julia Claiborne Johnson. (Read it, it'll make you happy.)

This year my pace is even worse: I finished my 73rd book of the year, Thomas Mullen's DARKTOWN, yesterday, and again that list includes proofread galleys and edited manuscripts. If I keep reading at this rate, I won't even break 90 by the end of the year.

What happened to me? I got a smartphone. Apps now fill the waiting time I used to spend reading. Waiting for a bus? I'll check in with my virtual pals on Nats Twitter. Stuck on the Metro? Let's level up on Candy Crush. Train to New York? Somebody linked to a great article in The Atlantic . . . and am I caught up on the Wittertainment podcast?

I'm frittering my reading life away, and this year in particular the election news has become a malign drug. I know who I'm voting for. I know her adversary is a candidate of unprecedented venality and ignorance. I don't need to be any better informed about that person than I already am, and it's literally giving me nightmares.

So for the month of November, I'm changing course. I'm retreating into words on the page, and the goal is to read 30 books by the end of the month. That's a lot, but it's doable if I stay off social media and allow myself a few semi-cheats:
  1. Three of these books can be work-related (galleys I'm proofreading or manuscripts I'm editing)
  2. Three of these books can be re-reads
  3. A book longer than 500 pages counts as two books (I'm making this exception specifically for James Michener's TEXAS, which someone sent me as part of last month's book swap)
  4. Three of these books can be young-adult or children's books
I'll keep track of my reading here. Please keep me honest if you see me hanging out on Twitter or Facebook. I'm not asking for reading recommendations, because I have more than 30 unread books on my dining room table right this minute. (Apologies to my housemate.) If you've read any of the books I post about here, please do leave your thoughts in the comments section. Half the fun of reading is being able to talk to other people about what you've read.

Onward . . .

Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Letting Go

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
So many things seem filled with the intent 
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.  

It’s human nature to hang on. I’ve never been an accumulator of things, and I’m actively stupid about money, but that does not seem to make it any easier to let go. I made Dizzy, my dog, live too long in pain and confusion because I was too sad to let him go; delaying the sorrow didn’t make it any easier, and might have made it worse. I’ve stayed in jobs too long. I’ve lived in apartments too long. I’ve kept trying in relationships where it was obvious to everyone but me that I was wasting my time. I can look back on all these situations and see exactly where I should have walked away, but each new situation is just as hard as all the last ones were.

Last weekend I tagged along with friends to the House of Broel, a unique New Orleans structure that combines an events hall with a dollhouse museum and an exhibit of designer dresses, in a Garden District mansion that was built and expanded before The War. House tours are available by appointment only, and conducted by the home’s owner, Countess Bonnie Broel — the “Countess” is a legacy from her father, who fled Russia during the revolution.

Countess Broel is a small, glamorous, brisk woman of a certain age who distills everything that’s great about New Orleans, and possibly everything that’s great about Americans. She used to live in the House of Broel, and she used to run a couture business from its first floor. Her husband left her just before Katrina, and Katrina wiped out her business. She moved to the property’s carriage house, created a family foundation to preserve the home and its collections, wrote an autobiography and is now selling three of her dollhouses in order to protect the property after her death. She is energetic and gallant and shows no outward sign of mourning the three dollhouses for sale; she cares only that they bring in enough money to justify their loss.

The dollhouses are extraordinary. The website says they “must be seen to be believed,” and that is the literal truth. No description could do them justice. Constructed over a period of fifteen years, they are full of painstaking detail: miniature furniture, rugs, artworks, knick-knacks, and beautifully costumed figures who live imaginary lives in their rooms. Countess Broel told us that she’d begun creating the dollhouses as a project with her young son, and then become — well, she might not have used the word “obsessed,” but that’s the word that seems to fit.

The masterpiece of the dollhouse collection is a vast recreation of a Russian dacha that runs along one full wall of the second floor’s hallway, and stands at least ten feet high. The Countess said she had wanted to imagine what her father’s life had been like before he left Russia, and the result is a combination of Tolstoy and the Arabian nights, topped by an attic observatory with a tiny telescope and astrolabe.

The collection moved me, and the thought that the Countess is starting to sell it off moves me even more. The dollhouses represent so many possible lives, so many imaginary homes that are permanently luxurious and happy, never deserted and never torn apart by storms. But she seems content with her decision, satisfied with the thought of trading these precious creations for something that matters more to her.

This is what I focus on, what is directly relevant to me at this point in my life, as I too contemplate letting go of some things: what, if anything, am I trading those things for? As I let go, is it loss, or is it more like a trapeze I relinquish so I can grab on to the next one? Does letting go of one thing mean I get to keep something else, and if so, what might that be?

I don’t mean to be cryptic, only to find the universal in some specific questions we all eventually have to wrestle with. I’m grateful to Bonnie Broel and her collections for giving me a prism through which to consider them. And I wonder what my own dollhouses might look like.

Photo from the House of Broel Dollhouse Museum Gallery.