A Good Honest Horse

Sweet boy

Yesterday, I was watching old videos of my late horse, King of Harts, as he’s only been gone two weeks and I miss him. The earliest records a jump lesson we had together twenty-five years ago. My hair is long and in braids. I’m wearing my first pair of breeches, my first pair of riding boots and gloves. I’m so happy I look about twelve years old. I was thirty-nine.

Hart had just turned ten. I’d been given him to ride because he required a lot of leg and that was something I needed to learn to provide. I knew him already from cleaning his stall while he was in it. He had a habit of making me laugh by head-butting me all over the stall so he could catch a chance at knocking over the manure bucket and running out the half-cleared door. Other times, he’d rub his head up and down my trunk, pinning me against the wall. Everyone told me he scratching an itch. But I felt it was because he liked me.

The boy had quite a reputation in the lowcountry training circuit. He was a handsome lad, strong, very strong, and with a mind of his own. He was smart, talented, but willful. When he went to riding competitions, he was known to enter the jump ring and jump all the jumps with or without a rider and in the order he saw fit. He wasn’t dangerous. But he did have a sense of humor.

In that video of long ago, we’re first seen mounted up and under saddle. My husband, the videographer, asks: And who is this? Having already had my battles with that will of his, I reply: Mr. Heartache.  But that was in the early days. I had no idea what lay in store for us.

Over twenty-five years, that horse taught me joy and patience and loyalty and hard work. We had our disagreements at times and I lost quite a few. But he never held a grudge and oh, the times and sights we shared! The first snowfall in the Blue Hills, the Kiawah River levee at high tide, sunsets and mists and flocks of strange birds, coyote packs, deer, fox, the first sweet wildflowers of spring. We shared trail buddies and stable pals. The mounts of some of the best friends I’ve ever had or will have were his best friends, too.

We aged together. There was a time I figured out his human age in horse years and realized we were the same age that year and then he raced on ahead of me whether I liked it or not. I can’t count the times that happened literally while I was on his back. Once, we were galloping through a rocky wooded path all on our own and I went from two-point, with my head near his neck and my backside in the air, to sit back down on him to slow his pace, but he chose that moment to execute a flying buck, I assume out of spirit and fun. I popped right off,  landed on a pile of small rocks, and passed out. When I awoke, it was to the sight of his giant nostrils breathing air into me. It felt like he was giving me life.

Sometime over our friendship, we brokered a deal, I guess. He stopped being so willful, at least under saddle, and we became, blissfully, a team. He knew what I wanted from him and gave it. I knew what distressed him and made sure we steered clear. On the ground, he followed me, head down, wherever I walked. It could have been the carrots in my pocket.

He was himself til the end. Most of his life he spent in good flesh and with plenty of pep. It was only in the last few months that his topline caved and his ribs stood out. I wondered how he’d get through another winter and I suppose it’s a blessing he doesn’t have to try. But his spirit was still there. The last handwalk we took together, two days before he died, he headbutted me down the road for a bit. And when we turned and headed to the pasture, he clopped along with his tongue stuck out a little, which he always did, even with a bar in his mouth, when he was happy. He was thirty-five and I murmured to him that I loved my old man and thanked him for being a good honest horse.

They say a good, honest horse is one who does what he’s asked or tries hard to do it. A reliable horse. One who’s not going to get silly or hysterical and endanger himself or his rider. Hart might have been strong and willful and smart enough to think he knew best from time to time. He had a few rude habits, like the headbutting. He might try something sneaky once in a while, like drag a bale of hay by the string into his stall. He’d been known to think the person feeding him was taking too long bending over the bucket belonging to the guy beside him and pick up his own bucket in his teeth to bop the feeder over the head. But put the smallest child on him and he was a lamb. For my money, that’s as good and honest as a horse ever needs to be.




A Stranger in a Strange Land Comes Home

From the moment I land in Dallas, TX, I wonder how I’d come to such an alien place. Right away, the airport strikes me as strange. It’s a string of short buildings and runways, with at least one old fashioned control tower like the kind at Logan in Boston that used to guide my pilot daddy home to me in the ‘50s, and the whole thing is surrounded by winding parabolas of elevated highway like the landing field of a planet somewhere in another galaxy. I’m told it covers an area larger than Manhattan.

At least my driver, John Lacritz, feels familiar, standing there at baggage collection with a sign bearing my name. A good-looking gent, he answers all my questions about Dallas which granted aren’t very many (I’m tired) and stands by me at the hotel until he’s sure all the arrangements pan out.

But that ride into town. Flat, flat land as far as the eye could see and no vegetation to speak of either. No shade to break the wash of sun. A desert landscape, unfamiliar to this low-country girl whose eyes are filled daily with Spanish moss draping live oak, azaleas, palm trees, hawthorn, wisteria, marsh grass, water. My hotel is downtown but there don’t seem to be any buildings very close to it. It’s twenty storeys high or so like all the structures I see, but sits alone, by itself, in a stand of much higher buildings separated by an unnatural distance. I am disoriented. I think: wide open spaces that I love, don’t fence me in, where am I?

The concierge tells me my room’s on the 17th floor, the executive floor. I say, Oh, please, don’t put me so high up. He says: Oh no. Trust me. You want to be high up. We have the regional cheerleaders’ convention in town. . .

He’s right. I meet a Facebook friend, Carol Burrow Leos, in the bar for dinner that night and the joint is hopping, literally, with highly enthusiastic females of all ages, wearing glitter, somersaulting, legs akimbo, and every word they utter seems to be followed by an exclamation point. Mostly, though, they don’t talk. They laugh. They cheer. Loudly. Where am I, Carol? I think I landed in the center ring of a feminist circus training camp!

By morning, I’m ready for the opening reception at the Tycher Library of the Center of Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. I wait in the hotel lobby for my ride over while buses fill up with last night’s cheerleaders who likely never went up to bed and whose pitch is as fevered as ever. God bless the young.

My new drivers are Brenda and Peter Marcus who, despite living in the US for 35 plus years, have not lost their South African accents, which charms me into feeling I really have left my home and inserted myself through some miracle of time/place shift into a foreign land, especially when Brenda tells me she finds my characters Dickensian, which warms the cockles of my old heart right up. Brenda and Peter also run Dallas’ Jewish Film Festival and when I tell them my first novel, Home in the Morning, is in development for film they surprise me with the generous offer of showing it at the Festival and take down my contact info to follow up. Did I say a foreign land? I think I meant fairy land, a place where wishes are granted, dreams come true.

We arrive at the JCC, enter. I find the place palatial, vast and appointed with all the bells and whistles any community could hope for and it’s then I realize I am home. From the organizing librarian, Nina Golboro, a pretty, trim, efficient young woman who has everything in perfect control, making sure the event rolls on smoothly, to the women of the donor reception, and the book club people to whom I make my speech, everyone welcomes me and chats with me in a way that feels natural, homey. I hear a great story I have permission to use in my future presentations from Meyer Denn, the Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Education,and suddenly, I’m reminded why I enjoy the Jewish Book Network tours so very much.

You see, when we lived up North, I lived in a Jewish neighborhood with five synagogues, three kosher butchers, numerous kosher bakeries, restaurants, and caterers all within walking distance. In the old days, Brooklyn, New York had nothing on Brookline, Massachusetts when it came to Jewish life. That changed some over the decades, but still a haimische ambiance was always there, warm and familiar, permeating everything. Since I’d moved South – to an island yet, with my synagogue 30 plus miles away- I’d been happy living in my natural paradise but I miss sometimes the pulse, the comfort of Jews, of Yiddishekeit. And never so much as when I find myself somewhere, even somewhere as new to me as Dallas, in a crowd of Jewish book lovers where I feel quite suddenly, that stab of recognition: here, in this room, I am home.

I present that day to a bright, responsive crowd of about l00 souls. They listen to whatever bit of wisdom I have. They laugh at my jokes. I make up more. They embrace me. I embrace them.

Nancy Seigel drives me back to the airport and its short stack buildings without any departure screens ahead of security so that you don’t really know if you’re headed to the right gate or not until after you’re through. The ride is more of that same flat, unfamiliar network of concrete loops. But I’m with one of my people and in the back is her friend,Charlene Howell, a woman from Charleston, and because of all that, this stranger in a strange land is home long before she gets there.

At the Tycher Library

At the Tycher Library

Encounters With The Unexpected

When I left my home Monday for Baltimore’s Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life and Learning at Beth Tifloh Congregation, part of my head happily sang, On the Road Again while the other half hummed with a measure of dread. I admit I enjoy presenting my work. Over the last couple years, I’ve crafted a talk that people seem to like quite a lot, so the dread wasn’t performance anxiety. No, I’d none of that.

There were layers and layers to what was plaguing me. I’d been to Baltimore twice before and each time, the security lines for the return trip were endless. I’d wait in a stationary position for half an hour in a line that simply did not move while people around me wailed about missed flights. On top of that, there were rumors of icy rain or snow on the day of my return which filled my head with unwholesome images of spending the night trying to sleep on Gate A5 chairs. But the vagaries of air travel were not my only concerns.

I was paired to present with Sonia Taitz, most lately author of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, universally praised by Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Report, O Magazine, whoever else you want to come up with, whose curriculum vitae includes a law degree from Yale and a M.Phil in 19th Century Literature from Oxford, the Lord Bullock Prize in Writing, etc.etc.etc. You can find the definition of the etc’s at http://www.soniataitz.com. Now, I don’t even know who Lord Bullock is, or more likely was, but I’m intimidated. Her book is a memoir of growing up the conflicted child of Holocaust survivors, one critics laud as both funny and heart-wrenching. Not only that, she writes a regular column for Psychology Today.com.

Oi, I thought. Forget intimidated. This woman plain scares me. Then I note in one of my emails from Sandy Vogel, the savvy Director at Mercaz, and Debbie Liebowitz, her irreplaceable assistant, that Sonia Taitz is the opening act. What???? For me? How am I going to follow all that?

Double Oi.

Well, I get to Baltimore swiftly enough and am picked up at my hotel by Sandy Vogel to have a nice kosher Chinese dinner before the show. I chew a couple of GasX to quiet my stomach if not my nerves and off we go.

There are two women waiting for us at the restaurant. One introduces herself as Lynn, The Driver. The other, a handsome, petite woman with auburn hair and startling eyes, warmly greets me and tells me she’s Sonia. Quickly two other women enter, Debbie Liebowitz, and the brilliant book club facilitator who will be introducing the authors, a woman who’s also created stimulating question guides for readers of the texts, Halaine Steinberg. We settle into a delicious meal and along the way, the penny drops. With suave aplomb, I interrupt somebody to loudly stutter: Oh! You’re THAT Sonia? Sonia Taitz?

Despite my clumsiness, we get along like gangbusters and I learn also that The Driver is Sonia’s old friend who’s offered to squire her about, Lynn Auld Schwartz, a playwright and twice winner of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, who can be found on her website http://www.writerswordhouse.com, where she offers writing workshops, private coaching, and story development editing. This lady’s remarkably pretty too with strawberry blond hair and a perfect Renaissance face and she’s sweet and self-deprecating and suddenly instead of having new causes of intimidation, I’m beginning to feel quite at home and comfy, one of the girls, so to speak. Quite unexpectedly, I’m flying with eagles.

Eventually we get to the synagogue. I’ve visited smaller college campuses. It’s huge. It’s glorious. Think wide marble hallways and towering glass windows and doors. It’s modern orthodox. I’m accustomed to Brookline, Massachusetts’ orthodox congregations, uniformly in old stately buildings conducive to holiday cramped quarters. At Beth T’filoh, there’s space and beauty enough to imagine how high the soul can soar.

As we settle in to make our presentations, I tell Sonia it’s really not proper for me to be second. I am definitely her warm up act. After all, let’s be real here, you can’t trump the Holocaust. Not even with One More River’s Klu Klux Klan violence and historic 1927 Mississippi flood. Besides, my talk has a lot of laughs and that’d feel unseemly after what I imagine her talk will be like. She demurs. Tells me her talk has laughs, too. But whatever I’d like. I insist.

So it’s settled. I make my speech first and the crowd of 50-60 people seem to love it. Yay. Then Sonia takes the podium. And dang, if she isn’t right! Her story is full of humanity and wit and wisdom and charm and yiddishekeit along with the tragedy of the 6 million. It’s more about resilience than being crushed. I think that’s unexpected encounter number. . .four?

When I get to the airport the next day, nearly two hours early to satisfy my fears, I have another surprise. There’s no one there. I mean there are security agents galore but no passengers. My line is a single other person ahead of me. And the skies are clear and dry.

As I travelled swiftly home on a (thank God) non-stop flight, I had time to replay my last 24 hours of unexpected revelations and I decided the best one was this: Never judge anyone by their C.V. alone. It’s the person that counts.

Now, why didn’t I know that?

Mercaz Dahan Jewish Learning Center

That’s Debbie Liebowitz, moi, and Sandy Vogel. Unfortunately, Sonia and Lynn left before we remembered to take a photo! Dang!


I recently finished a new novel, Marching to Zion. I wrote it in a little over a year, maybe 13 months. They were an intense 13 months, too. I toured. I promoted. I took care of business at home. My mother died. So it feels like quite a feat I’ve accomplished, especially since in my younger years I was never such a quick study, taking to ruminating over minutiae endlessly and calling it work.

I was writing in the dark the whole 13, too. I’d started out with a concept I quickly abandoned. I turned up the drama volume early on and wondered: where the hell are you going to go after that? My husband reminded me I should follow my own advice: listen to the voice, the voice never lies. So I did. And the voice took me places I’d never considered before yielding a depth and scope that, according to my agent and publisher, represents my “finest work yet”, and “a triumph”, taking my prose “to a new level”.

Like that old penny that keeps turning up, once again my husband was right. But then as those of you who know me will agree, he almost always is.

Now here I am, pretty drained and taking some time off. There’s a strange kind of hush that happens to authors in the time between finishing a MS and getting ready for the edit that precedes publication. You know your mind’s not done with your story. You can’t push it out and start something new easily. You can catch up on your reading. Why, I’ve got at least ten books waiting for me on my iPad, but I have a feeling they’re going to wait a while longer. I’ve got travelling to do for business and family. That’ll take time. And oh my Lord, there are projects around the house I’ve simply got to get off the ground somehow. My garden’s a mess and the azaleas have budded. I’m not ready for them. I’ve got to reorganize my kitchen to make room for Mom’s china and silver that’s come to me. I should get my eyes checked. And I’ve got to get someone in for the windows, although my garden in disrepair is best seen through a scrim, so maybe that’ll wait. Oh, I want to take a nap. But if I do, I’ll be up all night. I’m left to consider that downtime isn’t downtime anymore. It’s a state of suspension, more like being under glass or boxed in jelly than resting or rejuvenating.

And when you’ve finished a novel, even after one’s editor’s had a whack, it’s not over at all. You need to sit around for a while and wonder: what was all that about anyway? Where did it come from? Why did you do it? You know, all the questions people are going to ask you anyway. I’ve been doing some of that.

I realized along the way that I’m a lot braver than I used to be. I don’t ask myself whether or not I have the authority to write about this or that, I just do it. These people that live in my head, the places they go, the conflicts they find themselves in, they just come whether I think I’m up to the task of explicating their stories or not. But I figure if they went to the trouble to surface through the mire that is my unconscious, I can do it if I work hard and listen to the voice.

And even in the downtime, the voice is whispering, whispering, whispering.

Sometimes A Survey Is More Fun Than You Think


When I was tagged for the Next Big Thing by fellow writer Soniah Kamal, I thought, o.k., nice way to self-promote. Soniah is a book critic, novelist, short story writer, and blogger extraordinaire. She’s also programming director of the Atlanta Writers’ Club. Her blogspot is: http://soniah-kamal.blogspot.com/ I figured she knows a lot more than I do about how to get a buzz going and I thought it couldn’t hurt to join up with an enterprise that’s gone global.

Then I realized I was stuck at the first question (see below). So I put it on the shelf and used the holidays as an excuse not to post for a while. Today, I can procrastinate no longer but in the meantime something great happened that changed my attitude. At the beginning of December, I tossed out a section of my work in progress. I have a deadline of March to finish this thing, self-imposed, but vital to my peace of mind. Tossing out a few thousand words represented a detour, a traffic jam, a sumbitch fender-bender between me and my chosen path to glory. So I’ve spent most of December cranky, charging away at rewrites until just two days ago, I noticed: This thing is going great again and I’m only 1,500 words shy of my goal for December! I can do that, I can surely do that over the next five days with time to spare for Champagne and nibblies on the 31st. So here goes, Soniah!

These are the questions Soniah asked me to answer about my work in progress. After that, I’ve tagged five other authors so you can learn about their Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your new book?
Tough question. Wish I knew. I think it’s going to be called Marching to Zion or maybe Fairer Worlds on High or Let Those Refuse to Sing or A Song of Sweet Accord. Problem is my publisher didn’t like my working titles the first two times around and the novels found fresh ones once the editing process started. They do like the idea of using lyrics from spirituals, so I’ve been searching for one that’ll fit my plot.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I like recycling characters from one book to the next. For an author it’s a way never to say goodbye to characters you’ve grown to love, even if you’ve killed them off. I knew I wanted to spend more time with Aurora Mae from One More River and cover the years she goes missing in that novel. But I started out with her Cousin Mags who has maybe three paragraphs of her very own in that novel and Lord, did she wind up having a lot to say. Then Bailey, Aurora Mae’s fancy man from Memphis, stepped up and that man, well, he’s hard to ignore. Next, I found myself some refugees from a Ukranian pogrom that muscled in on the action. The rest of it’s been pretty much stirrin’ the pot, stirrin’ the pot. You know, the best fiction is character driven and with that lively, curious crew, I think I’ve got the makings of The Next Big Thing for sure.

What genre does your book fall under?
I think of it as Southern historical literary.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Haven’t a clue. Movies are somebody else’s business, not mine. I’ll wait and see who Jim Kohlberg casts for Home in the Morning and see how that works!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A story of love, betrayal, and redemption set against the racial and religious divide of the American South from 1917-1939.

Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m represented by the great Peter Riva of International Transactions.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
When I’m done it’ll be about 14 months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Oh, it’s sui generis, I’m certain!

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I couldn’t tell you. It’s a compulsion.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It completes the ideas expressed in Home in the Morning and One More River. I think of the three of them as a trilogy, a consummation, even though each one has a narrative arc that’s all its own. It’s whole, it’s a stand alone, but if you’ve read the other two, you’ll say: Ah, so that’s where she’s been going. And sigh with great satisfaction.

Here are authors I’ve tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing:

Sandi Krawchenko Altner, author of Ravenscraig, 2012 Carol Shields Book Award Winner, named Best Book of 2012 by the Winnipeg Free Press. http://www.altnersandi.com

Debra Ann Pawlak, author of Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy. http://www.debraannpawlak.com

Dennis Fleming, author of the literary true crime memoirs She Had No Enemies and The Girl Who Had No Enemies and the serial memoir The Sex Life of Andy Ashling. http://www.dpressingnews.blogspot.com

Sande Bortiz Berger, novelist, short story author, essayist, author of The Sweetness and Split-Level. http://www.sandeboritzberger.

Susan Morse, memoirist, humorist, author of The Habit, http://www.susanmorse.org.

Thank you to Soniah Kamal for tagging me!

Chicagoland, Spertus Style, Traffic and The Midwest Work Ethic

Before I went to Chicago, my friend, Anthony Giacalone, told me: “Chicago is that iconic town that’s in your head when you think ‘American city’. It’s not vast and hectic like New York City, but it’s not provincial like Boston. And you can get a cab anywhere, anytime.” He was right. What a remarkable place! The architecture, like a necklace of glittering diamonds draped around the neck of sublime lake shore, stunned. When you come from a city like Charleston with its refined antebellum garden homes and walk Chicago’s wide boulevards of soaring steel and glass, you feel as if you’ve stepped through history from one era to another and maybe you have.

I have to sincerely and deeply thank the Spertus Institute, Chicago’s leading center for Jewish learning and culture, offering graduate degrees in Jewish Studies, Jewish Education and Non-Profit Management, for inviting me to the One Book/One Community program which featured my One More River this year. Beth Schenker, their program director, knows how to put a party together. We had phenomenal crowds, around eighty at one of our venues, and they were informed, engaged, and appreciative.

But the truly remarkable part of the size of the crowds has to do with Chicago traffic. Every time we stepped out of the city or tried to roll into it, the traffic beat Manhattan and Boston’s combined! The hour, the day of the week didn’t seem to matter. There were rows and rows of vehicles snaking slowly either into or out of the city virtually all the time. One of our drivers told us you could leave Chicago at two in the morning and wind up in a jam.

So how to explain the size of my crowds? I have to credit the programs Spertus offered leading up to my talks, showing the film Shalom Y’all with a discussion following by the superb Rabbi Capers Funnye and hosting a book talk by the insightful Rachel Kamin, Director of the Gray Cultural and Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. There was also provided a brilliant study guide created by Spertus’ Lisa del Sesto. Talk about warm-up acts!

Spertus put Stephen and I up at The Standard Club, a private club established in 1869 by Chicago’s German Jews, which exudes both in its structure and service a rare old world charm and attention to detail. Think marble steps, wrought iron balustrades, intricately coffered ceilings, wood paneled walls, a dining room to rival The Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge and you’ll have it about right. It’s in the financial district of The Loop and across the street from the Federal District Court, which proved convenient as Stephen has an old student, his best student from his days teaching law school, who is now a federal district court judge, Judge Sam Der-Yeghiayan, who we were most excited to see in Chicago as he’d promised a tour of the federal court, his chambers, and as a special bonus, he happened to be hearing a criminal case during our stay to which we’d been invited as observers.
So there we were, nested in the warm embrace of the old world with a view out the window of the shining, spanking new. We open the curtains of our room and across the street is an office building. At eye level, a grey-haired lawyer sits working in his shirtsleeves, files piled high around him. It’s late on Saturday night, after we’d arrived and been taken out to dinner by the Judge. “He must be preparing for court,” I tell Stephen. “Yes,” says he, with a bit of a shudder. “Reminds me of how late I’d work back in Boston. . .”

Throughout our stay, we kept checking on this hard-at-work fellow. Every time we opened the curtain, no matter what the hour, there he was, sometimes in the lone lit office window (out of hundreds), plugging away. I get up at seven on Sunday morning to get ready for the folks at Anshe Emet on Chicago’s north side, and there he is, spinning in his wheeled office chair from one end of his long desk to the other. I get back around noon and there he is, still at it. When we leave for Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard at one, we check and he hasn’t yet had a break. We’re back around four thirty, after the Bears game, and the city’s emptied out. We breathe a sigh of relief. Our workaholic’s not there, although he’s left the lights on. We head out to grab some Italian at the legendary (amongst lawyers) Villages and when we return, we check on him just for fun. He’s there! Staring at a monitor. Still in shirtsleeves. I’m thinking when he wasn’t there before, it must have been a quickie bathroom break or maybe he was that harried guy downing a pizza next to us at the bar at the Villages. Monday morning, Monday afternoon, Monday night, Tuesday morning, same story. By this time, I’m wondering: does he live at his office? A nasty divorce in progress, maybe, and a wife that’s kicked him out? No place else to go? Or is this indeed a man preparing for a very important case? Whose life and liberty depends on him? Is it a tax case that could ruin a business and family? Or a murder that cries out in the night for resolution? Whose angel of justice is he anyway?

Of course, I’ll never know the answer. What I do know is that although Stephen worked throughout his Boston legal career like a dog til ten p.m. most nights (ok, he didn’t start til eleven or twelve in the morning, so what?), this Chicagoland lawyer is the hardest working sun of a gun I’ve ever witnessed. I raise my hat and glass to him and to the values of a Midwest whose work ethic could inspire such devotion to cause and career.

Unless he just couldn’t face the traffic.

The Lonely Art, A Little Less Lonely

I’ve never been a joiner of clubs. Not since the Blue Birds, the Campfire Girls, and Horizon Club. Maybe the weight of all those beads dragged the joiner in me under at a tender age. I’ve never regretted my refusnik status. My banner is emblazoned with the old Groucho Marx riposte: I’d never join a club that would have me as a member. Never until this weekend, anyway.

Enter the Atlanta Writers Club. I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when the AWC invited me to speak on my (very) long path to publication. Who were these people? Why did they bother to gather monthly to talk about writing when everyone knows the only way to write is to sit down and do it? There’s a reason writing is called the lonely art. The first thing that’ll kill it is to have someone looking over your shoulder while you’re trying to work.

So I went there with a few preconceptions. (Always a bad idea.) I figured I’d be speaking to the young and uncommitted. While I crafted my speech, I worried they’d be too young to comprehend a couple of my cultural references and I played up my matronly status,thinking that if the young’uns could identify with me as a sweet ole mama, I’d be golden. I stressed perserverance and good luck as the keys to my success but I hoped the first quality was the one they’d remember. You know how flighty the young can be.

And then I walked into the Student Union at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody and saw my audience. About fifty or sixty writers, if my dismal ability to assess such matters can be trusted, most of whom were grey-haired, if they weren’t dyed, white, or bald. There were a smattering of people in their 30s, I think, but only a handful in their 20s. Probably young in this crowd meant 40 on average. Clearly not the group I expected.

These were serious, accomplished people. Witness George Weinstein, author of Hardscrabble Road, a Pulitzer nominee. Romance author, Nicki Salcedo, who if the sample of her work provided here http://www.8headedhydra.com/readers-life/maize is any indication will take romance to a literary level in her debut novel, All Beautiful Things, soon to appear out of Belle Bridge Books. And Soniah Kamal, whose short story available on Kindle here http://www.amazon.com/Runaway-Truck-Ramp-ebook/dp/B008NY55TG, gives one a taste of her raw, edgy take on a cross cultural love affair that takes one on a rollercoaster ride of the unexpected at every turn.

But if you know me, you know I’m used to being wrong. I sat down and listened to the preliminary speakers, a grammarian who talked above my head – I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about but maybe my frequent and intentional breaking of rules has something to do with that – the aforesaid George Weinstein who spoke on recycling and revising older work. There were awards given to the winners of a recent writing competition. And then I was up. In the end, I’m sure it was Southern hospitality in part, but the group seemed to like me. They laughed at all the right places, anyway, and their questions afterwards were cogent, incisive. They bought my book and chatted with me while I signed. Apparently, I was inspiring! Informative! Spot on!

And that was very nice to hear. I think I’ve come to comprehend why people join clubs. How good it is to hang with the like minded, focused on the same goal. I can see how these people help each other, support each other. And if only my thick-headed self hadn’t been a refusnik all those years, I like to think maybe these folks would have had me in their club. And that would have been a very good thing.

Home Improvements

My husband is a very smart man. According to his I.Q., he’s in genius territory. When I was a girl, women were just beginning to assert that they could do any job a man could do, and many of us still looked to a man to take care of them, to guide them through life’s thickets. I was no different. I sought out men who could teach me something. If they were good-looking and possessed of a degree of charm, all the better, but what I looked for was smarts. When I met Stephen, handsome, brilliant, accomplished, and with a certain odd panache, I hit the motherlode.

“This guy is better than an encyclopedia,” I’d tell my girlfriends. “You can ask him anything – I swear to God, anything – and he’ll give you chapter, verse, and exegisis!”

Honestly, before Google, there was nothing sweeter for a writer than to be able to ask from across the room: “Hey, honey! What’s the capital of Kafiristan again?” And to hear the reply: “Ancient or modern?”

Over forty years of Q&A, however, I learned the downside of life with a mastermind. He’s hardly ever wrong. When occasions of domestic discord arise, it’s a misery to always be on the losing side over matters of recorded fact. So I confess when we were standing in the Outdoor section of Home Depot that day and Stephen gravitated to the big stand-up grill with some assembly required rather than grabbing the cook ready little Smokey Joe, I felt a cheap, petty thrill.

He’s got an Achilles heel, you see. The man’s a bit challenged when it comes to mechanical perception. When he had his induction physical during the Vietnam era, he took the Army intelligence test. The test consisted of a drawing of an engine with its parts spread out and labeled by letter. The chore was to decide where the parts fit. Stephen flunked. The grunt next to him who needed help figuring out where to put his name got a 98%. It was a transformative moment for a proud young man unaccustomed to failure and the beginning of a life-long respect for the mechanically inclined.

Not that his deficiency stops him from taking on home projects. I appreciate his courage in this regard, but what I hate is being drafted into the role of assistant when I know the enterprise is going to be a long, drawn-out exercise in frustration for both of us. So before we went to Home-Depot’s check out line, I said: “You buy that monster and I am not helping you put it together. Just remember that. You’re on your own.” Himself, balancing his oversized box over the top of his shopping cart with loving care: “Gotcha.”

Box sat in the garage for about four weeks before he decided to tackle assembly. Then last Tuesday, the hour had arrived. I was upstairs at my desk trying to get some work done. I hear the box ripped open. I hear the removal of items, the trashing of wrappers, and the soft, low cry, “Oh no.”
I’m a bad woman sometimes. I start to laugh quietly. Then: “Mary! There’s at least a hundred pieces in here!”

“That’s ok,” I say. “I didn’t want to use that ‘til Saturday. You’ve got time.”

Poor guy’s down there working furiously. There’s a lot of clatter and bang, a few curse words, and once or twice: “Ouch!” Over the next four hours, more clatter, bang, curse, “Ouch!” End of Day One and he’s got the hood assembled.

Day Two. “Where the hell is the ash receiver slide? What the hell is an ash receiver slide?” Then: “Mary! I have to go to the hardware store! They didn’t give me enough wingnuts! I need six more!”

Day Three. I hear the words I’ve been waiting for. “Mary! You have to help me!” I don’t bother reminding him he promised not to enlist me in this project from Home Depot hell. I discover I am, after all, more compassionate than vindictive. In a flash, I’m at his side. Poor darling looks miserable. He hands me the 12-page assembly guide. “I can’t figure out where the charcoal grid support rods go.” I study the diagrams. “Well, honey, that’s because you’ve got the side shelf fastened where the control panel goes. That’s why the side shelf wobbles. The rods are supposed to go through those holes you’ve put screws in.”

A couple of hours later, we’ve each done some swearing. I think a couple of times I stamped my foot. We had to get the magnifying glass out to be able to follow the little dotted lines on the diagram that tells you where to stick what. But the job is done. And I hear the words that are sweetest to my ear, signifying a rare triumph over forty years of always being wrong:

“Thanks, Mary. I couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t told me how.”

In the end, a blessed occasion. Only the side shelf still wobbles. And we’ve got six left over wingnuts.