Category Archives: Book Club

Distraction Dilemma: Breaking, Breaking News

 

 

As I drove out of the supermarket parking lot yesterday, I congratulated myself. Proud that I remembered to bring my groceries with me!

Years ago on a nice spring evening, a Thursday, I exited the same supermarket parking lot minus the eight bags of food and drink items I had just purchased.

Back in the days when my daughter was on the crew team at her high school. Moms (always the moms, let’s be honest here) took turns hosting the team on the Friday nights before Saturday morning regattas. We put on big spreads which, if memory serves, mostly featured some kind of pasta casserole, bowls of salad and buckets of garlic bread. I’m sure there must have been a vegetable side dish and dessert too.

On that Thursday before my turn at hosting the team dinner, I drove after work to the supermarket nearest my house with the “Crew Dinner To Buy” list in my purse. It was dinner time – I was hungry, I was tired, so was everyone else. My body may have been at the store – but my mind was still downtown – at the law firm  – too many client matters remained on that “To Do” list.  I walked up and down the aisles, pulling the items for the anticipated bunch of carb-craving teen athletes in a semi-automated fashion.

The check out lady smiled as she scanned my purchases – having a big party? Yes, I probably said. I paid, left the store and steered the overflowing cart outside the store and left it in the “pick up” area against the silver bars en route to the parking lot.  My intent must have been to get into my car and drive around to the pick up lane to retrieve the eight bags from the cart.

But instead I drove home. Two miles away.  I pulled into my driveway. Still thinking about work, I am sure. Knowing I had emails to check and a project to complete. Parked. Then opened the trunk to find it empty. Because I had left all of the bags in the cart in front of the supermarket. A swear word was likely emitted at that point.

That is the last time I recall being as distracted as I have been in recent weeks.

I did drive right back to the store. Luckily, the cart was where I had left it 10 minutes earlier, I put the bags in the trunk, drove home, took the groceries out, unpacked them, made dinner for my family, caught up on work  – and then hosted the crew dinner the next night. You know the busy/working/mom drill.

I no longer work downtown (still a mom though, and now a grandmother too, just for the record so you can tell that maybe through increased age alone, I’ve earned the right to have distracted moments.)

But now I am distracted much of the time. No longer by lawyering. Or by my kids. Or by my husband. Not by events on my calendar. And I do not have a sudden onset of ADD nor any neurological problem (I get checked.) No, my distraction comes from my own inability to focus for more than 10 minutes without having an insistent craving to turn on the news.

So I do. I check my twitter feed. I look up news alerts. I listen to the radio. I have the TV on in the background. All for fear of missing some new crisis that might have happened while I was doing the laundry or taking a shower.

The crises keep erupting, one piling on top of another, breaking news breaking into new breaking news, breathless reporters and chatty commentators. And yes, I could turn it off. Yes, I should turn it off. But I keep checking for updates.

Last night at book club we talked about this. A few of my friends are not as dominated by the need-to-know-now as I am. Lucky them! Others seem to be able to stay in control of their news needs. I’m jealous.

Part of my problem is I am less busy in the summer. I’m not taking a writing class this summer. With the end of the school year, my college-advising volunteer projects have slowed. Fewer meetings, a lighter schedule, more unstructured time.

Anticipating this summer lull, I created my own structure. A big project.  My Work-In-Progress. I am writing a novel. Writing at least four days a week.  The plan is to complete the draft by the end of August before fall semester begins and I am back in the classroom (with homework.)

What’s my “WIP” about, you ask?

A working mom, a lawyer, with two kids (how creative to use my own life as inspiration!?) dealing with friendships that go awry, possibly unscrupulous clients and unexpectedly competitive colleagues.  I even wrote an outline. And I’ve already written 50 pages – 15, 556 words, to be exact. Only 64,444 more words to go!

If only I could be more disciplined. More disciplined and not as susceptible to distractions. Like I once was as a law firm partner. Busy, busy, busy. Far too occupied to fret about possible news of ultra-scary national and world events.

Or maybe that was a less complicated time when breaking news didn’t break every ten minutes. Focus, I keep telling myself. Look away from the media. But it is difficult. Distraction is my biggest dilemma this summer.

I am certain I am not alone in feeling this way.

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Filed under Book Club, Communications, daughters, Law firm life, Lawyers, Social Media, Women, Working Moms, Working Moms, Working Women, Writing

Boomer Learning From Millennials: Lessons From a Fiction Writing Class

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do know who Beyoncé is; I want to state that from the outset. I may not be familiar with all of her songs or videos – but yes, I know what she looks like and that she is a famous singer/songwriter.

What I did not know was that a recent politically themed skit I saw on TV ( a funny, IMO, take on Mr. Tangerine Man) on “Saturday Night Live” was meant to be a parody of her Lemonade video.

Missing out on current cultural references? Yup, it happens often as we get older. But so – thankfully – does an appreciation for the different perspectives that come from being able to study with people of different ages.

There are eleven students in the “Techniques of Writing Fiction” class I am taking this fall at JHU. Perhaps half are under the age 35. The very nice young man who sits to my left in class listened to me patiently the other night as I fumbled to describe the SNL skit. He turned to me and said, “Oh, you mean the skit that was the parody of the Lemonade video?”

I laughed, pretending that I had known all along about Beyoncé and the video reference. I’d like the younger students in my class to think I am culturally au courant but I’m sure they recognize that I am not.

But I do enjoy being around the 20 and 30-somethings because of the perspectives they have. Not only their outlooks on life, but how through the lens of their experiences and age (or lack thereof?), they offer up unexpected interpretations of the stories we read for our class homework.

Last week one of the assigned readings was the classic “But the One on the Right” by Dorothy Parker, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1929 (and no, I was not alive in 1929.)

It’s an interior monologue of a woman of a certain age who is purposefully seated by her hostess at a formal dinner party with the intent to entertain the known-to-be boring man to her left.  “We can stick him next to Mrs. Parker – she talks enough for two.”

The dull dinner companion likes to discuss each course of food as it is served. Yes, they both like soup. The fish course is fine too. He and Mrs. Parker disagree on the potatoes, but return again to a shared admiration of cucumbers. All the while Mrs. Parker is gulping down wine and wondering how more enjoyable the evening might be if she only she could talk instead with the seemingly more attractive man seated on her other side, who ignores her throughout the multi-course meal.

I won’t ruin the end of the story for you; it is well-worth reading.

I laughed aloud at the Dorothy Parker story, enchanted by her writing. The droll inner thoughts of a sophisticated older woman who implies she’d rather be happily cleaning her bureau drawers at home than be forced to be out in polite but terribly dull company. It rang true to me, having been at many parties stuck with an uninspiring conversational companion. Or two.

One of my younger classmates did not find the story the least bit humorous. To my surprise, she saw the narrator as a lonely and sad older woman.

Another homework assignment was to read a more contemporary, prize-winning writer, an Egyptian-born, Sudanese author named Leila Aboulela, who writes about identity, migration and Islamic spirituality. In her story titled “The Museum,” a young Muslim woman from a well-born but now struggling family in Khartoum comes to very cold Northern Scotland to study statistics in an unexpectedly rigorous graduate school program. Anxious about doing well in her studies, she falls under the unwilling spell of a smart but unpolished Scottish fellow grad student who is attracted by her exotic background.

Again, I won’t ruin the story for you; it also is beautifully written.

I was captivated by Ms. Aboulela’s main character, Shadia. Her straddling of two cultures reminded me of my own days in a small, 100 person graduate student program, half of us, like me, from the U.S. and half of us from other countries. I probably was not as culturally sensitive as I might have been to my own foreign student classmates back in the 1970’s.  Maybe filtered through those memories is why I found Shadia such a sympathetic character.

A younger student in our class totally disagreed with me. She thought Shadia came across as arrogant and selfish.

Is it odd that I find these classroom discussions so exhilarating?

We read the same words, the same stories, the same fiction, yet each of us interprets meaning so differently. In my suburban home-town book club, we also read and share thoughts about what we read, but we are a group of similar-aged women of similar backgrounds. Our discussions are, dare I say it, not quite as exhilarating.

Kudos really to the younger students in my fiction grad school class who are opening my eyes to what I am reading, who force me to pay attention, to acknowledge that what I perhaps think is the correct understanding of a story may not be the only way of understanding it. Diversity, differences, making me think about what I am reading – and what I am hearing from others. A good lesson to apply to the rest of life. Perspectives should always enlarge, not narrow, as we get older. I may even get to like Beyoncé yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Book Club, Books, Communications, Education, Reading, Women, Writing

Put 16 Women in One Room for Four Days…

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When was the last time you got to do something you LOVE for an extended period of time?  Just for you. Totally indulgent. No outside responsibilities. No interference.  Single focus.

Luckily, I had that chance last week. I participated (with a great deal of advance trepidation) in my first-ever Writers Retreat. Held at a woodsy conference center next to a summer camp about two hours from DC, it featured:

  • 16 Women
  • 11 Hours of Writing Per Day
  • Four Days
  • Three Teachers
  • One Conference Room

Sound like fun yet?

Factor in:

  • No TV (missed my favorite detective shows)
  • No Laptops (required to write by hand in old-fashioned black and white composition notebooks)
  • No Good Food (with apologies to the conference center, but the fare was, trying to be polite here, mediocre at best.)
  • No Husband or Dog to sleep with at night (how would I manage without them?)

Not only did I survive, but I thrived. I filled an entire notebook with pages of hand-written memoir, fiction and poems.

O.K., no agents have popped up sending me urgent “must publish you now; please contact us immediately” text messages. But for the first time – ever, I think – I was in a situation where all I had to do was write –  and the hours sped by.

Totally a new thing for me to be doing what I love in a concentrated fashion minus the daily pull of Twitter (my admitted addiction), Breaking News (addiction #2) or the six-days-a-week excitement of waiting for the mail to arrive.

I returned from the retreat on Wednesday evening, aglow with my creative efforts, wanting to immediately share what I had written with my husband. He listened to one short poem, patted me on the shoulder and asked “What should we have for dinner?” Back to reality.

Part of that reality will be trying to replicate the setting of the retreat to motivate me to write more often and in a more disciplined fashion. Interruptions tend to find me. Why not empty the dishwasher, I might tell myself, instead of starting on a new writing project?

Another thing I will miss from the retreat is having collegial listeners. Listeners who actually hear what you are reading aloud (unlike my husband who – love him dearly – is a semi-attentive listener, at best.)

The collegiality of a writing group is something I did not expect when I signed up for my first, post-law-firm-life writing class in 2014.

Unlike college or grad school, where you write an essay or term paper and submit it to the teacher for review and grading, in a writing workshop you have to (well, I suppose you don’t “have to”) share what you’ve written with all of your classmates too. Prepare to be asked to read your work aloud to a roomful of listeners. Speak up, bare your soul, take the comments bravely. Everyone is supportive of you and you of them. There is zero competition. ( Wholly unlike law school, I have to say.)

A retreat amps up the writing class setting to a new level. An intimacy evolves when you sit around the same table for four days.  There you are pouring out your guts on paper and then you have to share your writing with people you have just met. You have no idea how they will receive your words. Or what they will think of you for having written them.

It isn’t a process for those prone to jealousy. Maybe the other women at the retreat didn’t feel the latter sentiment, but I did. Some of the women in that conference room are actual PUBLISHED writers. They write beautifully. They can create fully developed fictional characters out of thin air. How did they come up with that imagery in response to a prompt where we were given 20 minutes to write?

I nodded my head in admiration. I was not shy about giving praise to my “fellow” writers. They said some nice things about what I wrote and also offered constructive (thankfully) criticism.

I did not walk away (nor did I expect to) with 15 new best friends. Some of these women I will never see again. Some I may see (If I am invited; fingers crossed) to participate in next summer’s retreat. Perhaps a few of them I will see before then.

Going to this kind of retreat may not be your idea of a good time. I wasn’t sure it was mine before I went. I was describing it last night to my book club friends gathered in my living room and several of them stared at me as if I had taken a swift leap from reality.

Which I had. Which is the whole point of a retreat. Which is why you can’t replicate the setting at home. Won’t stop me from writing, though. Won’t keep me from having to empty the dishwasher either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Book Club, College, Communications, Female Friends, friendship, Husbands, Reading, Talking, Women, Writing

Guilty Pleasures of the Non-Edible Sort: Books, TV and Becoming a Writer

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I am NOT going to discuss the many guilty pleasures we enjoy in the food world (fyi, crispy tortilla chips and home-made guacamole tops my list. )

No, I want to talk about a bit about those guilty pleasures we have of the non-edible variety.

Guilty pleasures that we devour by reading or viewing. Those little pleasures that we try to keep secret from our friends (and spouses) for fear they will think less of us. How can we be perceived as the thoughtful, literate and intelligent beings we know we are if we occasionally indulge in reality TV ( GUILTY)?

My mystified husband when he comes upon me watching DVR-recorded reality TV asks:

Why do you like to watch those dumb house buying/selling shows so much?”

I hit the “pause” button and/or change the channel but I don’t answer him.

They are such different fare than my usual diet of news/talk shows or British detectives on PBS. But I find real-estate-related reality TV fascinating. And many people (excluding my husband) do too, I’m sure.

For who doesn’t like to peer into a wealthy person’s over-the-top master bedroom? Or laugh at the frequent complaints of a prospective buyer that an L.A. swimming pool is just too small? Or wonder why so many Americans never understand why all European apartments don’t come with granite counter-tops and giant refrigerators?

Why does a “guilty pleasure” make us feel so guilty anyway?

My in-the-know daughter reassures me that these days it is acceptable to have cultural tastes that are both “high” and “low.” So I am in the norm (normcore?) by liking to watch TV at both levels.

But this high/low concept may not apply equally well to my tastes in books.

I am an avid (rabid, really) but picky reader. I have no problem putting a book down very quickly if it is not well-written. Its’ characters must be well-developed, the sense of place strong and the story arc clearly organized to hold my attention.

I’m a fan of the classics, love Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. And I pounce on any new books by contemporary female authors such as Julia Alvarez, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ann Patchett, beautiful writers all.

But I do steer away from the impenetrable books that sometimes top best seller lists and garner much reviewer praise. Sometimes I think book reviewers assume that the more difficult the book, the better.

When I read a book that is both well-written and enjoyable, I wonder – Has that become a guilty pleasure too?

Perhaps I am a tad over-sensitive because I have been trying to fashion a second career as a writer. I take classes, read books on the craft of writing and write every day. I continue to write non-fiction essays and articles about young adult mental health and parenting.

But what’s new this fall are my experiments with fiction. What we called “creative writing” in the old days. Writing a series of short-stories. Creating an outline for a possible novel.

The fabulously supportive women in my writer’s group cheer me on. Yesterday they told me I have “found my voice.” Which is great…

BUT. There is always a but. They describe my fiction writing voice as accessible and friendly. But not literary like my favorite authors. My descriptions are not lush, my prose is not lofty. Sigh.

I expect that when (“when” and not “if”) I publish my first short story or book, a reviewer will place me in the genre of “relatable” fiction –  as in “chick lit” for older women who are no longer chicks and perhaps never were chicks.

Yes, if I am lucky, my writing may fall into the category of being someone else’s guilty pleasure. Just like guacamole and chips or (at least some) reality TV. Ms. Faulkner I shall not be – but likely not Ms. Fluff either.

So please – feel free to indulge in whatever your own reading or viewing pleasures may be, and let’s lose the guilt, shall we?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While I ha developing a voice, relatable, not impenetrable. the more you don’t understand something doesn’t mean the better it is.

 

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Filed under Baby Boomers, Book Club, Books, Communications, Female Friends, Reading, Retirement, Second Careers, Semi-Retired, Women, Writing, Young Adult Mental Health

Why I am not a Blonde, with Bangs, nor look like Meg Ryan

hairstylist_cutting_bangsI am a truth-teller.

So I like it when people tell me the truth.

Except for my hair stylist, Katie. I have created a special exemption to the truth-telling rule just for her.

Katie does a terrific job with my hair. She also thinks I am funny. She asked that I not tell her my stories while she has her scissors in hand because I make her laugh too much. How great is that?

But even better is that Katie understands that the unvarnished truth for a female client in her early 60’s may not always be the best way to go. Tactful but direct, that is Katie.

She handles my FAQ’s with ease.

1. “Should I get bangs?”

I ask Katie this same question on nearly every visit. I am pretty much obsessed with my forehead. When I look in the mirror my wide forehead beams back at me with over-sized prominence. Approximately 5 minutes of every appointment are taken up with a discussion of what to do to minimize my forehead. With me often suggesting that soft, feathery, to-the-side bangs would be just the ticket.

Katie disagrees.

Last year when Michelle Obama made national hair news with her new wispy bangs, I took to pestering Katie even more than usual about getting bangs cut.

She looked at me in the mirror and said kindly, but firmly:

“Nancy, I want you to like me. You will not like me if I cut bangs for you.”

Even though I very much want Katie to like me (and after all, Michelle Obama did ditch her bangs after a few months), I can’t get off the subject of my forehead.

So I keep asking for bangs. On a recent visit the ever-patient Katie showed me her hand – then spread her fingers across my forehead.

“See, Nancy, I am measuring your forehead. It is about 3 1/2 fingers wide. If you had a 4 finger wide forehead, I’d consider bangs. If you had a 5 finger wide forehead, we’d definitely do bangs. You are only 3 1/2 fingers wide.”

Scientific evidence.  No bangs for now.

2. “How will I look if I stop coloring my gray hair?”

I have been coloring my hair since my 40’s, maybe even since my 30’s. I got my first gray hairs in law school. (go figure!)  Coloring my hair back to its earlier brunette incarnation has been a constant.

Now that I no longer have to show up at the law office every day, maybe the time has come to let Mother Nature do her thing.

How would I look with all gray hair?

This is a slightly tricky question which Katie gracefully evades by pointing out that my natural hair color is by now actually all white, not gray.

Lovely!  I am not only getting older but now I have white hair, not gray.

Then I think,  maybe I could be a blonde?

How far is white from yellow on the color wheel anyway?

I could be a blonde! My husband will be thrilled.

Before I get too excited, Katie looks at me in the mirror and tells me that blonde is not going to happen.

I am going to stick with brunette for awhile longer.

3. “Will you cut my hair short in the summer?”

Every summer I look with jealousy at women with cropped hair. It looks so modern and fresh. The wash-and-go look has never worked well for me. Perhaps if I cut it all off, I can join the hip crowd that is liberated from the electronic tether to their blow-dryers.

Katie side-steps this question as well. She points across the street, where a very popular place called “DryBar” recently opened up.  Blow-outs only, no hair cuts. And free champagne!

Women pay $40 just to get their hair blow-dried in a number of styles including the “Straight Up”, the “Manhattan” and the “Cosmo”.

My hair is stick straight, I grew up about an hour from Manhattan and I once drank a Cosmo.

So I will stick with Katie’s subtle hint that I not go back to the pixie cut I loved as an 8 year old.

4. “Can you make me look like Meg Ryan?”

Ever since I saw “When Harry Met Sally”, “You’ve got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle” (movies I admit I could recite line by line, so many times have I seen them),  I have wanted to have my hair cut to look like Meg Ryan’s.

Tousled, shaggy, seemingly effortless. It was an iconic look.

One that my straight, fine hair was never going to emulate.

But I am nothing if not persistent.

“Katie, can you just cut a few layers, wave it a bit and see if I come out looking like Meg Ryan? C’mon, let’s try. How awful can it look? I just want to try it once.”

Katie, who has heard many, many clients before me tell her they want their hair to look just like a celebrity’s hair, avoids this question entirely.

Instead she changes the subject. “What are you reading in your book club, Nancy?”

Point scored for Katie.

5. “Do eyebrows eventually turn gray (or white!)?”

After I see Katie, I venture to the back of the salon to see the young woman who does my – let’s call it, “facial” waxing. Soft-spoken Sherry casually mentions that a single eyebrow hair is completely white. I had noticed this myself but had been avoiding its significance. Instead of plucking it out, she suggests that she can tint it darker. O.K., by me, you’re the expert.

Then, wait , it occurs to me that this could be a glimpse into my eyebrow future.

“Sherry, when women get older, do their eyebrows also turn totally gray – 0r in my case, white?”

“Not always” she says politely.

“Is that the truth?” I ask, seeing her try not to smile.

Sherry laughs, “No, it’s not. Do you want the kind answer or the true answer?”

“The latter, please.”

“Your eyebrows will eventually turn the same color as your hair.”

Yay, something else to look forward to! White eyebrows to match my hair.

 

Photos of my latest hair cut are available upon request-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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