Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Seeing our kids

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I took my 13 year old to get a haircut yesterday. He'd turned into something resembling an unkempt lion lately (as opposed to the kempt ones, I guess). Seriously. You see the picture. Tell me I'm exaggerating. I could barely stand looking at him, love him though I do. I just kept thinking, "This is wrong. He looks awful. My kids shouldn't look awful. They should look like I care, like I'm paying attention, like they belong to me!"

Sigh. I felt like my father.

The summer after I got married, my husband and I went to Utah to visit my brother and sister. We met up with my parents and traveled with them for 10 days. I got to do all the touristy things I never did while I was in college there and without a car, and it was a great trip. Along with Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park and the Alpine Loop, I will always remember how my father couldn't look at my brother.

Sean had grown his hair long--not quite shoulder length but long enough to stand out in Utah. He had a goatee as well and was working on learning Hootie and the Blowfish songs on his guitar. It was some kind of reckless-musician stage, I guess, and the chance to stand out in an otherwise monotone culture. I wasn't crazy about the hair, and my father really wasn't crazy about it. In fact, he couldn't look at Sean. At all. So he resorted to bribing. He knew Sean wanted a nice cowboy hat (I'm not sure how the accessory fit with the style, but no one asked me), so he told him he'd buy him one . . . IF Sean cut his hair.

So Sean did. And Dad, on seeing him the next day--on actually looking at him--grinned his dimply-est grin, threw his arms open, and said, "My son!" Then he bought him that hat.

I've been thinking about that moment and about how hard it is for parents to not just see their kids grow up and to lose control over such minor things as when those kids get haircuts, but to not recognize them anymore because they can't see themselves in their children.

When Simon was little, he looked just like I did when I was his age. Up until he was three, our pictures were almost impossible to tell apart. And I loved that because when you become a parent, you lose a little (or a lot) of your previous identity. After Simon was born, it was months before I could have a normal conversation with anyone again. Forget normal: I didn't even know how to have an abnormal one. I felt like I'd become suddenly mute and had no idea how to be a mom, no idea how to take on that role and claim or reclaim anything resembling a personality. It was like I had to start from scratch, and those months, while wonderful in the glow that comes with a first child, were also horribly uncomfortable for me. I was lost.

Of course, I "came back." But I came back different. I came back as someone who had to empty herself out literally and figuratively so I could make room for this fat little baby and all the challenges and joys he would bring into my life--challenges and joys I'd previously been unable to fathom.

So to be told, "Wow! He looks just like you!" was a relief. "Phew. Okay. Oh, thank goodness. I'm still here. See! His eyes? His curls? Mine." And then I could more fully pour myself into my new role because I recognized this little boy. He wasn't just a part of me: he was me.

With each of my other children, I quickly learned to find myself in them as well. Owen has my round face. Emma has my smile. Ivan has my nose. And those are just the physical characteristics I see. I recognize my personality traits in them as well, some of which I'll have to eventually apologize for.

Halfway through the cruise we took last week, one of the men at our dinner table pointed to Simon and then Ron and said, "Boy, does he look like his father." I kept my smile pasted on and nodded. "Really? You think?" But it was like a punch to my gut. I wanted to say, "No! He looks like me! Here, let me show you the pictures."

But he doesn't so much anymore. He's a good four inches taller. His feet are a man's size 11 to my women's size 7. His face is becoming broader. And his hair . . . It's long, blond, and curly to my short, straight, and red. Even after yesterday's haircut, it's still long--kempt now, but long.

I still throw my arms open and say, "My son!" every time I see him, although I do it silently so I won't embarrass him much more than I already do. And I look really hard--when I can see his eyes--to make sure I'm still in there somewhere.

But I know, more importantly, I also need to see him.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Sunday, March 28, 2010

I watched a movie called "The Vanishing" years ago and it still haunts me because of one scene alone: a woman is buried alive. I'm not truly claustrophobic, but I can't stand being held down or stuck in a cramped, confined place. I sleep with my feet out from under the covers, even when it's cold. If my husband sits on the bed while my legs are under the covers, I completely freak. Completely. When I was a kid, I remember (though barely), my older brother putting me in a box and swinging it around while I screamed and he laughed and laughed and laughed. Soooo funny to terrorize younger siblings. I blame my claustrophobic leanings completely on him. (He's also the one who killed my pet rabbit, Mr. Fluffy, while forcing me to watch, but that memory is another post entirely. And no, rabbit does not taste just like chicken! It tastes like RABBIT!) (Oh, and that "game" you play where you lick your fingers and slap someone's forearm until welts appear? Also not fun, okay, Danny?)

Where was I?

Oh... so, yes, the movie disturbed me and continues to. Keifer Sutherland starred in a remake that wasn't nearly as haunting, perhaps because it was in English. Subtitles make everything more frightening, don't they?

This past week, my fear of cramped spaces was put to the test on a cruise ship. Granted, no one held me down or shoved me in a box or killed my pet rabbit (oh, wrong fear . . . sorry), but being on a boat in the middle of the ocean without a whole lot of open space that doesn't end in drowning? Close enough for me. I've been spelunking and loved it (okay, so mainly I love saying that word: speLUNking), but I knew I could exit the cave and, voila, room to run and roam.

Here's what I realized (among other things): I'm not a people person. Okay, so it wasn't so much a realization as a reminder. I like people--in small doses and preferably with more clothes on than a too-small g-string (which they all are, people!!) or a speedo. I like a few people at a time, sprinkled throughout my day or week for flavor so I can get to know them, talk to them, learn about them. I don't like them heaped onto my plate all at once, which is only a recipe for heart disease, because, seriously, my blood pressure is insane when I'm in a crowd.

And I like watching people. They fascinate me. But I don't likebeing watched or noticed. The idea of being invisible is really cool to me. I wouldn't follow you into your bathroom or watch you get dressed. I'd just, you know, pay attention to what you eat or how you talk or whether you bother smiling when no one is around or how many times you roll your eyes when you think no one is looking. Creeped out yet? Sorry. Maybe one of those two-way mirrors would be better, huh? Less frightening even with the subtitles?

I even love people: my friends, my family, Robert Downey Jr. And I'd happily hang out for days on end with any of them . . . just not on a cruise ship. Because, really, we all need to get away from each other now and then, don't we? Be honest. And if we're limited to eight stories and 855 feet from end to end, we're going to feel a little cramped--especially if we're not drunk or at least a tad tipsy or eager for 3000-calorie meals four times a day.

I'm not slamming cruises here or people who go on cruises and love them. And I didn't hate my vacation, so I'm not asking anyone to wail for me: "Yes, poor Bobbie; she had to endure a 5-day cruise to Mexico with her family."

I simply would rather not be buried alive--or at sea--particularly if I'm still alive.

(And just pretend I'm not watching, okay?)

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Thursday, March 18, 2010

I was telling a friend recently about a memory I have of my father helping me with a school project. My fifth-grade class had read 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and my dad used his woodworking tools to carve a submarine. I painted it silver, and then I used yarn to fashion a giant squid, braiding each of its tentacles. I don't recall what my teachers or classmates said about the project, but I vividly recall the attention my dad paid me for those hours.

As a mom who works from home, I often feel guilty about the time I spend with my kids while I'm distracted. Yes, I'm here when they get home from school, but if I'm in the middle of a rush editing job, I'm not always able to close the laptop long enough to look each of them in the eye and ask, "How was your day?" and then, more importantly, to keep looking them in the eye while they answer. I know their memories of me as they walked in the door will be of me sitting in their line of sight, right here at the counter in the kitchen, typing away. I won't be the mom who had their snack ready and then sat with them at the table while they prattled away about recess politics and senseless homework assignments.

Could I quit working and be that mom. In theory, yes. But would it change my relationship with them? Make it stronger? Make them more well adjusted? No. I really don't believe it would.

My father and mother were busy all the time. All. The. Time. They owned their own business and each worked more than 40 hours a week and were tired when they got home, where still there was more to be done: cleaning, dinner, home repair, yard work. And I was busy, too: homework, piano practice, my own chores, a social life their own schedules couldn't afford them. I never thought to "miss" them, to wonder what my life would be like if my mom was more "milk and cookies" and my dad more "how are the boys treating you?" I was fine--completely fine.

I still am.

And I appreciate those memories of undivided attention I recall. I'm sure there were plenty I don't recall, too--ones I bet they do.

My guilt, I realize, isn't for my kids; it's for me. They'll remember I was here, just as I remember my parents were "there." They'll know I loved them, just as I know my parents loved me. If anything, my own children will remember me asking too many questions when I did have the time to pry. They'll remember me telling them to put on a different shirt or some deodorant or to write that thank-you note or to watch how they speak to each other.

And they'll remember, I hope, the moments of undivided attention I gave them. And I hope those memories will be as sweet to them as my memories of those moments will be . . . sweet, to me, but never enough.

Friday, March 12, 2010

First crushes

Friday, March 12, 2010

My biggest crush in seventh and eighth grade was on a boy named Kevin (last name forever withheld to protect the innocent). I liked him for no other reason than that I thought he was cute.

When you're a 12- or 13-year-old girl, what other reason can there be? You don't (or didn't in "my" day) hang out with the boys at lunch. You don't shoot hoops in their driveway after school. You don't find yourself drawn to the fascinating and insightful comments he made in class about Lord of the Flies. You simply see him in the hall or sitting hunched over his desk and you think, "That's the one for me."

And then you stalk him.

I didn't exactly stalk Kevin. I just looked for him . . . and watched him and put his initials on my legs using stickers when I lay out in the sun. And I called him. Once.

His mother answered the phone and told me, quite, uh, forcefully, that girls should never call boys. I don't even recall if he came to the phone after that or if I hung up, mortified and humiliated.

He did, however, become my boyfriend for about two glorious weeks, during which time I saw him outside of school once. He came to a friend's party to say hi after a baseball game, and all I remember is how much he smelled like a boy: sweaty and gross.

A few days later, he went back to his old girlfriend and I moved on to my next target, er, crush.

Looking back, I don't know if I can call any of my early-teen crushes 'crushes.' I think obsessions is the more truthful word here if we're being truthful--and since it's been 20-some years since then, I think I'm okay with being truthful.

See, (being truthful again) once you actually do sit by that boy in lunch or shoot hoops in his driveway or listen to him speak up in class, you get over the 'crush' about 99% of the time. "He talks with his mouth full of food? Disgusting." "He stinks when he sweats? Nasty." "He didn't understand that the conch shell represented civilization and order? Please." That's how life goes. Most things look better from a distance and are more appealing in theory than in actuality. The only two things that are better are staying in love with the person you fell in love with, and being a parent.

My oldest is 13 now, and he's hit the stage where the girls are calling him . . . and texting him and hanging outside our house on a Saturday night hoping to catch a glimpse of him. And they're crying when he gets his hair cut. And he's clueless. I don't mean he's humble, because humility implies overcoming pride. I'm saying he's seriously clueless.

Over the course of four days recently, he received (primarily) and sent (well more than a handful) a total of 615 text messages to several girls (all of them friends with each other). My husband and I had to have a little pow-wow with him and explain the concept of limited texting and massive overages and college funds.

He got it. He understood. Since this little pow-wow three nights ago, he's sent one text (I keep a close watch on the account now). He's a good kid who, even at 13, doesn't want to upset his parents. Or upset them too much, anyway.

More than having a little chat with him, however, I wanted to have a little chat with the girls--and not the kind of "chat" Kevin's mom had with me. What I wanted to say was, "Sweeties, he stinks when he sweats, and sometimes he talks with his mouth full, and he hated Lord of the Flies."

I absolutely believe my son is wonderful and smart and funny and good-looking and kind. But he'll get even better with age.

And so will the girls.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is that your real voice?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I worked as a campus switchboard operator in college. We were never allowed to give our names out, only our employee numbers. So I was surprised the first time someone called and knew who I was. "How did you know?" I asked. "Because I know your voice." This was a guy I hadn't spoken to in more than two years, and we'd only been casual acquaintances in the first place.

Around this time, I made a phone call to a friend. His roommate answered the phone and then called out, "It's for you! It's Bobbie!" When my friend came to the phone, I asked how his roommate knew. The roommate's answer? "Because she sounds like a young Katherine Hepburn."

Since college, I've had people ask me all the time what's wrong with my voice. Almost ten years ago, one guy I'd barely just met kept insisting, "No, really, what's wrong with it?" every time I told him, "Nothing. This is my voice." He wouldn't let it go. We were at a dance, and the music was loud, and I'd been talking all night, so it was more strained than usual, but it was still mine. Nothing was wrong with it. Nothing.

I dropped my son off at preschool today and one of his teachers said, "It sounds like you're coming down with something." "Nope," I said. "This is my voice."


I'm about 24,000 words into Basement Princess, my current manuscript, or my WIP for you other writer types out there. And it's my first foray into paranormal romance. My previous stories have been young adult (if you don't count my first manuscript, and please, don't count my first one). My talented and wonderful crit partner Brigid Kemmerer told me before I started BP that maybe I should be writing for adults instead of young adults. She quoted from a blog post over at Uncreated Conscience:

There is a YA voice and an adult one, and even if stories overlap, the adult voice has a sense of scope. What makes YA compelling as a read is its immediacy; a young person cannot write of him/herself from any perspective aside from “now” and “later”. With a YA voice, the past is less present, the present looms like a storm, and the future ever just out of reach. With an adult voice, there is a sense that the future has come to pass, the past is present, and the present encompasses all that has been and all that will be.

Brigid pointed out that perhaps my voice was more suited to adult fiction. (She said it much better and much more flattering than that, which is why I love her so much.)

And I'm believing her, because BP feels right and natural and I'm enjoying writing it more than I've ever enjoyed writing before.

I've never had an agent tell me my voice wasn't believable. I haven't had one say over and over, "No, really, what's wrong with it?" So I don't think the issue is believability. I think the issue is whether I can tell the story that suits my voice rather than suit my voice to the story. It's the latter than can strain it.

Or, as Katherine Hepburn said, "If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased." Simply be authentic.

And now off to my writing--and to add "The Philadelphia Story" to my Blockbuster queue.

*black and white studio headshot from Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1961

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Get to the point

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I was in the mood for popcorn last night, and since I don't like the microwaved kind, that meant making my own (stovetop with a little oil and a lot of butter and salt). But since it's a bit of a production, I always feel like popcorn requires an accompanying event: a dvd, the label "dinner," the "So You Think You Can Dance" finale.

So we rented "G.I. Joe" to watch with the older two boys, and then sat down with the popcorn and cheese and diet 7-Up.

And I fell asleep at the big action scene toward the end.

"Get to the point, already!" Right?

I know I ramble. I know I talk a lot. I know I have a story to preface every story. I had a roommate in college who asked me a question and then interrupted me before I could finish answering it. When I called her on it, she said, "I know. But you just take so long." I know. I do. I do.

I've gotten better at avoiding segues and non-sequiturs in conversation. But I like stories--not just my own but other people's. I was fascinated by an old friend of Ron's who came to dinner a couple of months ago and told us about problems he'd been having for years with his vision that had been misdiagnosed since he was a child. It had become debilitating, causing physical pain throughout his entire body that left him lying on the floor in his office some days, unable even to function. And then he met a doctor who told him he "simply" needed to relearn how to see. He now has his life back. I like stories! And everyone has them. Everyone has experienced something I haven't. Lots of somethings, in fact. I mean real stories, stories that changed them, stories that taught them, stories that are worth telling and worth being heard.

While I was watching the movie last night, I was bothered by more than the cliche writing. I was bothered by how the screenwriter didn't let me know the characters' stories. Sure, he had a lot of awkward flashbacks, but none of them got to the point. They didn't tell me anything about the character. They stopped mid-story and then we were back in the present again, wondering how Ana had become such a thoroughly detestable person. I hated her. Bad guys don't have to be likable, but they have to be presentable. She was neither.

When the writer finally got to "the point" and finished telling us the story, I didn't care anymore. She wasn't sympathetic, even knowing her memories had been stolen and her mind controlled by the brother she thought was dead. It. Didn't. Matter. There was no time left to root for her . . . and I was nearly asleep from an overload of salty popcorn and soda.

But I couldn't root for the good guy either. Duke loved Ana and couldn't kill her even when she was trying to blow him up in a hundred different ways. He didn't need her back story, which ended up making him unsympathetic as well. He was the good guy, but I didn't end up caring who won the final battle. I mean, how can you cheer on a guy who loves someone for no reason at all except that he used to love her? That doesn't make him heroic or chivalrous or romantic. It makes him a little sick.

I read a suspense novel recently by Bill Cameron called Lost Dog. I don't generally read much suspense, but I've been following the author on Twitter because he makes me laugh. So I figured I should give one of his books a shot. Once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. The main character was far from perfect, but I understood him. And the villain? I cried at the end because I understood him, too. I never rooted for him; that's not the point of creating a sympathetic antagonist. But I did ache for him. He was real and human and had a story that was there almost from the beginning. Cameron didn't wait until he was nine tenths of the way through the book to say, "Oh, by the way. Here's why this guy has done this."

A few days ago, I read My Name Is Mary Sutter. It doesn't come out until May, but put it on your reading list now. It's the story of a midwife during the Civil War who wants to be a surgeon. I don't remember the last time I read a story whose main character was so . . . tangible. Again, she wasn't perfect, but she was one of those characters that you just wanted to succeed--that you liked and admired and wanted to meet from page one.

Every character--good or bad, main or minor--needs a story in order for us to be engaged in the larger story. Your readers like stories. That's why they're called readers. And you can't wait too long to get to the point. Otherwise, the reader's going to interrupt you with a heavy sigh and "I know. But you just take so long." Or she's going to fall asleep and figure it's not worth rewinding to what she missed, because, really, she didn't miss anything at all. The writer did.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Forever Four

Thursday, March 4, 2010


My four-year-old turned five yesterday. Can I still call him my four-year-old? Can we just say that his age changed, but that's it?

I took it well--eventually. But the night before, I cried. I admit it. I'd been in a crappy mood all evening, and when Ron finally braved the waters to ask me what was wrong, I realized it was preparing myself for March 3. I've had the kindergarten paperwork for weeks and just haven't gotten around to taking it to the school. It's not like I pass it every single day or anything. I've been busy though. Really busy. And in denial.

So I finally took it by yesterday morning with the little guy in tow. I handed it over with only minimal effort on the secretary's part to pry it from my white-knuckled fingers. "Full- or half-day?" she asked. "Full. I think. I marked both and then crossed out the half." I didn't go into my explanation of why we chose full day, of the time I spent researching what would be best for him and his personality. "Full," I repeated. She smiled. "Call me if you change your mind." Then he and I spent the day together: library, Starbucks for chocolate milk and a cinnamon roll, reading and reading to him, lying down with him when he wanted to take a nap because he wasn't feeling well, reading my own book on the sofa opposite him and watching him sleep, taking him to the toy store. We had pizza for dinner at his request and then cupcakes for dessert. A perfect day.

My mother always says, "It's better than the alternative" when I complain about my kids getting older. But she also says, "It goes too fast. I hated sending each and every one of you off to that first day of school. Hated it."

The funny thing about her saying that is that as I was growing up, I never saw my mom as being particularly sentimental. She was busy all the time--busier than I am now with half as many children as she had. I felt loved and safe. But I never felt doted over, nor did I necessarily want to feel that way. That's what my Grandma Effie was for, and my sister who's fifteen years older than I am. But Mom? She was there to make sure I didn't kill my little brother, and to make dinner in the twenty minutes she had after coming home from work, and to take me shopping for clothes at the start of the new year, and to take me to the doctor or to a friend's house. Where is there time for sentimentality in any of that?

The thing about being a mom is that it's incredibly busy. Even when you cut life back to its basics it's busy. And it feels even busier because you want to watch every single minute of it as it happens and then again in slow motion over and over again. And again. So it's always going to go by too quickly, always going to be gone in the blink of an eye because it's impossible to slow time down to the pace that a mother's love finds satisfactory . . . because that pace simply doesn't exist.

I have several Moments in my kids' lives that I've pressed into my brain with a branding iron. And I love them--the moments and my kids--more than is sane some days.

Last night, my thirteen-year-old asked if I was going to miss the four-year-old birthday boy. I said, "Yes, just like I miss the four-year-old you." He didn't know what to do with that. Too sentimental a statement coming from a mom still busy being a mom.

But when he's forty years old and is watching his four-year-old blowing out his fifth birthday candle, he'll know what those branding Moments are like. And maybe he'll remember that time his mom got all sentimental on him. I will.

Happy Birthday, my forever four-year-old, no matter how old you insist on believing you are.