The Book – an update

Lots of things are happening behind the scenes in my writing world, which is why I’ve been scarce lately and haven’t been chattering on about all the exciting things happening in the world of physics, such as the solar flare that may/may not be cause for concern, or the fact that in just TWO MONTHS you can start submitting your application to be one of the original Mars colonists, or the fact that Google just BOUGHT A QUANTUM COMPUTER and forgive me for shouting but I think my head just exploded.

Anyway, here’s what’s been keeping me busy.

As you may know, since January of 2012 I’ve been working on a book manuscript of my Grandma’s story. It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve had to squeeze book work into the few hours a week my littlest is at preschool, plus evenings and weekends at the library (plus one trip to my favorite monastery.) Since I’m writing about events that happened a century ago and I’m bullish about factual accuracy, the project requires a ton of research. Continue reading

Ebert, Art, and Life after Death

The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.

The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.

In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.

Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.

There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.

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Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.

And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.

Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.

The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:

They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.

The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.

Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”

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Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.

As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.

And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.

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I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.

And I am grateful.

Hear Them Roar – Women of the 2012 Olympics

Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.

Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.

But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.

After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.

Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.

Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.

That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.

Image courtesy of People.com

Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.

Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.

And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.

That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.

Image courtesy of The Washington Times

Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.

Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.

Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.

These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.

Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”

Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.

And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.

Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.

I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.

Photo courtesy of Bleacherreport.net

Whatchoo talking ’bout, Hilary?

I don’t usually do opinion pieces on this blog, for a variety of reasons.

Nevertheless. When one begins to fear that a significant percentage of the populace has lost their ever-loving minds, one feels obliged to speak up.

In the byte heard ‘round the world on Wednesday, Hilary Rosen, a democratic “strategist” who was being interviewed by Anderson Cooper, stated that Ann Romney, the wife of one of the wealthy politicians lobbying for the Republican presidential nomination (a woman who happens to be the mother of five children), had “actually never worked a day in her life.” Continue reading

Huhns in Space

As you may have heard, that intrepid man-about-town Richard Branson has developed a spaceflight program for civilians, Virgin Galactic. Anyone who can cough up $200,000 is now eligible to venture into the great unknown. (The latest person to sign up was Ashton Kutcher. Don’t ask me; I have no idea.) (Side note: is anyone else concerned that nearly every member of VG’s official “Team” is touted as a leader of business or finance? Shouldn’t someone working on this program have, I don’t know, worn a space suit at some point in their lives?)

Anyway, you would think Virgin Galactic would be a perfect fit for my brothers and I, because even before we discovered we had an honest-to-God astronaut as a cousin (that’s him on the right, in the picture below), we were utterly transfixed by everything having to do with outer space. Astrophysics. The Final Frontier. Light years and black holes and strings, oh my.

And astronauts are frickin’ rock stars to us. Continue reading

On (Attempted) Writing

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Last week, I started reading Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi. And, jeepers creepers.

This is by far the best sports bio I’ve ever read. Andre’s story is incredible, better than fiction. (The man hates tennis with a passion, always has. The reason he wound up doing it is heartbreaking.)

To write his story, Andre had the good sense to employ the Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, the writer’s own exquisite memoir. According to the end-notes of Open, Moehringer moved to Las Vegas so he could work on the book full-time, meeting with Andre every day (for hours.) He also employed a research assistant and a fact-checker.

And it still took him two years to write the book.

This is the norm: the best and most successful authors pour thousands of hours into their projects. Laura Hillenbrand, author of the fantastically good (and wildly popular) Unbroken, which is still atop the hardcover bestseller lists more than a year after it was published, went nine years between her only two books – and she writes full-time, has no children, and, due to a chronic physical condition, rarely leaves her house. According to his memoir My Reading Life, Pat Conroy used to leave his small children for months at a time; he’d move to foreign countries to write in solitude. Even Stephen King, one of the most experienced and prolific writers in America, can spend a few years working full-time on a single novel. Continue reading

Changes – Mommyish

In 2006, my family changed dramatically – not just once, but twice.

That April, at the age of 35, I gave birth to my first baby, a beautiful boy who stole my heart and completely upended my life. That whole first year was a blur of broken nights, and days spent sitting on the couch in a daze, nursing my son and trying desperately to piece together exactly what I was supposed to do during the next five minutes…and then the five after that…and the five after that.

I was still in a saggy state of confusion when, less than three months after my son’s birth, my brother told me some startling news he’d just learned. He laid out the details matter-of-factly as I sat, gaping.

A couple of weeks ago, after posting my Grandma’s story on their website, the editors of Mommyish asked me to write a piece for them, about how it felt when I first learned the news. I hope you’ll join us here for the rest of the story…