A Thanksgiving special.
Amazon is offering the Kindle version of my new novel – SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM – for just 99 cents.
Offer ends Thursday night.
The novel, set in a suburban high school in 1969, is a nostalgic trip for those of us of a certain age. And it’s fun for the young adult reader too.
If your sister did something dangerous, and you adore your sister, would you do it too?
Here’s the link: SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM
This week the carpenter came to do some repairs.
The dogs did their typical thing. Theo was all over the carpenter, insisting on attention and constant petting. Henry stood four feet behind the guy, barking his silly protective head off.
Which one was annoying?
Both, of course.
Too much love gets in the way of getting any work done. And too much suspicion is unnerving and just as distracting.
“Control yourself!” I said about 700 times.
I am very big on control.
I have not been an emotional person since I was ten. Before that time, I cried and whined about everything. My sisters can attest to that.
And good excitement was also almost too much to bear. My mother had to carry a change of underwear for me at all times. She can attest to that.
But I grew up, and I discovered that being in control felt good. I may not have been able to control any given situation, but I could control my reaction. No screams, no tears, no more hysterical laughing until liquids poured out of all my orifices. (Too much? Sorry. I guess I went overboard about not going overboard.)
But now that I am old, I am finding that I regret my self-control.
Years ago, I heard someone describe me as cold. It surprised me. I thought I was warm, but reserved.
I’m good in emergencies. Unflustered by mistakes. Calm in times of fear. Composed in times of sorrow.
My control has served me well.
But I don’t want it anymore.
No instead, I would like – once in a while – to be an emotional wreck.
Because the question I now ask myself is, how have I – or my family – or the world – benefitted from my stoicism?
Oh, I can think of one emergency when a co-worker fell hard on a slick floor, where I was the coolest head in the room and I dialed 911, and calmed everyone else down until the EMTs arrived. That was decades ago. I guess I am ready to do that again if the need arose.
But who did I help by not crying when my father died?
Or by not having any wine at my own wedding?
Or by saying, ‘it’s okay,’ when I lost my job?
I have not hugged or kissed my mother since March. I was never a demonstrative person, but now that I cannot safely kiss her, it is excruciatingly apparent that I should have done so at every opportunity. How I hope there will still be a future where hugs and kisses are welcome. I will not be stingy any longer.
And my laughter! I laugh easily – there is no doubt about it. I find so much of life funny. But I have tempered my amusement too much. I want to howl with laughter. I want to laugh till my sides aches – till tears run down my face – until I am gasping for air. And I want to laugh out loud every day. No polite teehees. Let me shriek.
I want to get furious. I want to swear and scream and march in the streets. I marched in protest against the Vietnam War. Fifty years ago. And I took a small, unassuming role in the protests against the Iraq war fifteen years ago. It seems unfathomable to me that I have tempered my outrage now. I need to get mad when it is appropriate to be mad. I deserve to be angry.
I need to cry.
I wrote above that I did not cry when my father died. That is not quite true. When getting dressed for the funeral, I could not find my beautiful pearls. I tore my drawers apart to no avail. And finally exhausted, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom in my sedate black dress and sobbed my heart out. For ten minutes. Then I got up, searched more calmly and found the necklace, and went to the funeral.
I was composed at the funeral.
I cry now that I did not cry then.
Someone (many think it was Dorothy Parker) once said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.”
That’s not me.
I love writing. The part I hate is … well, every other part.
Editing – grammar, spelling, punctuation. Formatting, covers, blurbs. Proofreading, followed by more editing.
And, oh my God, the horrible waiting in between each step.
But eventually, finally, I have a book.
And then I love writing AND having written.
My new novel is SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM.
Set in 1969, it’s a coming-of-age story. Seventeen-year-old Jackie LeBlanc thinks her sister Jeannie is the coolest person on the planet. Jeannie is beautiful and brilliant, and Jackie wants to be just like her. But Jeannie has been keeping a terrible secret.
The book is geared toward the Young Adult (YA) genre. But set in 1969, it’s chock full of pop culture references, and so women of a certain age (that is, old like me) will also find it a fun reminiscence.
Here’s an excerpt from SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM, as Jackie considers her options for a prom date:
… I set my sights on John Elliott. He had lots of good things going for him. He had the kind of name you could marry, for starters. He was one of the few boys in the Artists/Writers category. He was a collage type of artist, and mostly I thought his work was pretty bad, but he had let his hair grow quite long, and that was nice. He had wire rims too. They sort of sat on his face crooked, but I figured I could fix that in fifteen minutes with a warm light bulb and some pliers. …
Phil, in Algebra II, was smart and nice. But as president of the Math Club, he liked equations quite a bit more than anyone would consider normal. He actually giggled when the teacher put a long, tricky one on the board.
There was Gary in my homeroom who was extremely good-looking, but he had this defect in his diaphragm that caused chronic hiccups. He’d even been written up in a medical journal. We were all used to him, but slow-dancing might be an issue.
Larry, in French, was normal in every way, and he was at the top of my list right after John Elliott. But all he did in class was stare longingly at Angela Jeffries. He never spoke to her. I got so frustrated after only four days that I took him aside and said, “Angie really likes you. You should ask her out.” And he did.
In History class, Keith Edelson was on my list. He was related to me in some indecipherable way, but I was okay with that. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were distant cousins. But as distant as my blood connection to Keith was, through some weird fluke of genetics, he looked unnervingly like me.
I smiled at a lot of guys I didn’t really know. Mostly they looked away uncomfortably, like you do for a crazy person, so I adjusted the wattage on my smile.
The week of concentrating on the top of my list was almost over. John Elliott didn’t pay me too much notice, but he was my best bet. I made sure I complimented his work every day. It was difficult. His best piece that week was a collage of worm photos.
It depressed me to think of what the bottom of my list was like.
I also started to think about whether any of the boys had similar lists, and where I might fall on their rankings. That depressed me even more.
SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com.
Here’s the link: SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM
Louise Gluck has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I am familiar with the name. I had to re-familiarize myself with her poetry.
Life moves from poetry to prose.
In high school and college, Poetry saturated me.
I have been searching for a better word than saturate. But that’s the one. Poetry surrounded me and filled me. I read it. I wrote it. I spoke it.
Oh, and I won prizes. Not like the Pulitzer Prize, like Gluck has won. And not the Nobel Prize, which she has now won. No. Just little prizes. Just enough recognition to encourage my flightiness.
That’s what it was. I guess – Fantasy. I remember after winning what was considered a prestigious award in college, I excitedly called home. I informed my mother in thrilling, immodest words, that, once again, I had been recognized for my poetic endeavors. After a polite pause, she said,
“I was just reading the Hartford Courant, and I didn’t see a single Help Wanted ad for a poet.”
Mom, as usual, was correct.
Poetry was my past and present. But not my future. With a degree in English, I intended to go on to graduate school. To live in an attic, surrounded by books. To discuss literature over coffee. To always be walking distance to campus.
But I had no money. Poets do not make money. My prestigious prize was fifty dollars.
Sure, Louise Gluck, in winning the Nobel Prize, also wins over one million dollars. But she’s 77. She probably could have used that money fifty years ago. The monetary value of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature is $15,000 – it was probably less 27 years ago when Gluck won. The National Book Award, which she won in 2014, is another $10,000. And she was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2003, which earned her a salary of $35,000 plus travel expenses.
I took a job in 1974 after college, with the sole intention of saving money for graduate school. But there was no money to be saved. There was, however, an opportunity to go to school on the company’s dime. They weren’t looking for a poet, however. They were looking for an accountant.
But school is school, and I liked school. I went. I got my M.B.A., and over the years, a terrific series of promotions and raises. In 2003, when Gluck received $35,000 as Poet Laureate, I made several times that much as a financial executive.
Which was a good thing, because I am not in the running for a Nobel Prize.
It is a shame really.
Not that I will not win a Nobel Prize. That poets are poor while people who sell antacids and advertising and stock portfolios are rich.
But a life of Poetry is a pretty good life, I think.
Congratulations, Ms. Gluck.
I wished I lived now within walking distance to campus.
From “The Untrustworthy Speaker” by Louise Gluck
I confess. I like computer games. I do crossword puzzles and play Gin and Cribbage and even the dreaded Candy Crush.
A few years ago, I played a lot of online Scrabble. But after a while, I got very frustrated with all the cheating. I knew that some of my competitors were using apps that built words for them. It annoyed me, so I solved that problem by playing timed games. If you have just 60 seconds to play a word, you have a lot less time to find answers through an app. But the timed game was not enjoyable, because I found myself stressing over the seconds ticking off on the clock. A game is supposed to be fun, not nerve-wracking. So I gave up Scrabble.
Cribbage is timed (at least the version I play), but the time is more than adequate, so not anxiety-producing, and no one (I think) has a side-tab opened telling them what to play.
Earlier this year, I found a daily “event” on Microsoft Solitaire. They have a “competition” each day, consisting of between 5 and 30 games of their various solitaire offerings. Different games, different difficulties. It’s a timed competition, but you are playing against the clock, not other people. The clock didn’t bother me too much – I just wanted to do my best.
Ah, but then. When I started to do well, I DID want to do more than post a good time. I wanted to post the best time. I wanted to WIN!
About 500,000 people play this event every day. You may ask, how in the world would you ever win against half a million people? But you are not actually playing against everyone. From what I understand, the game parameters match 100 people at a time – people who start around the same time you do. Well, a 100-person competition isn’t daunting. Everyone has a chance to do well. You might just win.
And the more I played, the better I got, of course. That is the nature of sports and games: Practice, practice, practice. From scoring in the top 50, I quickly moved up to the top 25. Now I regularly score in the top 10 – and have, on a couple of occasions, come in first, second, or third.
(Just FYI, you can find out how you fared against the entire community… but that may make you a little depressed. To come in 76,010th is not exactly ego-enhancing, so I just skip that part.)
But it feels great to come in first of 100.
And what do I win?
But I am a very competitive person, because I really love to win, and I really hate not to win. Even if the prize is Nothing.
Something interesting happened last week.
I scored well – I was sixth.
As usual, I scanned the folks who had beat me. I like to see whether 10 seconds or so would have made a difference. To see how much I need to shave my time for next time and perhaps place higher.
And what I saw confused me. The people ahead of me were a few seconds better. Not a surprise. The number two guy was better by a whole minute. Very good, Mr. Whoever!
But the guy who won? He finished in 16 minutes. That person beat me by fourteen minutes. This competition was 20 games. I finished in half an hour. – about a minute and a half per game. That’s very good. But Winning Dude? To finish 20 games in 16 minutes – just over 45 seconds a game! And there were three very difficult games that were part of the 20.
Although I’m competitive, I’m also a very good loser. “Good for you!” I always say, and mean it. (Even if under my breath, I am saying, “I should have played better – I’m so mad at myself.”)
But after being in awe of the winner’s skill, I started to have my doubts. How can anyone play that fast, when I played extremely well, and couldn’t have come near that score? I don’t mean to be a sore loser- but… but…How can this jerk have won?
And so I started doing a little detective work. I love detective work. My name is Nancy and I grew up wanting to be Nancy Drew. And Google has made good detecting so easy.
I googled: Can you cheat at Microsoft Solitaire Events?
Yes, you can.
Some folks play under more than one name. (I don’t even know how to do that – that’s how naive I am.) They play under an alias or two and learn the solutions and make notes. Then they sign in under their “game-wizard” name and play all the correct and perfect moves. And they win.
It bewilders me.
I like to win. Even if the prize is nothing.
But how much satisfaction is there in winning nothing by cheating?
I cannot even imagine getting any satisfaction at all if you didn’t play fair. I plagiarized a story when I was eleven, and I still feel bad about it. In college, a professor gave me partial credit for an exam question I totally screwed up – because he liked me. And from then on, I stopped trying to be Teacher’s Pet, because getting a grade I didn’t deserve sucked.
Oh, I understand the pleasure of sheer luck – the scratch-off lottery ticket that nets you $10. Any type of windfall is fun. A surprise that feels good.
But the real satisfaction in winning is the feeling of accomplishment. That you did something. That you succeeded. That you EARNED it. Not that you fooled everyone.
I briefly dated a guy who lied to people about trivial things, like his middle name or where he worked. I asked him why he did that, and he said that he enjoyed getting away with it. I guess he felt superior to people he could fool. I lost interest in him after that.
I am thinking that this old college boyfriend is probably the dude who is winning at Solitaire.
We grieve for folks
we never met
when we know
they lived their lives
when their souls were so bright
they lit the path
for your own soul
to find its way.
Thank you, Justice Ruth.
My high school sweetheart died last week.
Sweetheart is the perfect way to describe Greg. He was sweet and all heart.
The suddenness of his passing (a heart attack) left everyone who knew him with a hole in their lives that they were unprepared to accept.
Less than a year ago, my graduating class attended our 50th high school reunion. Greg had taken the lead in organizing the event, and as emcee, we all could see that he was still as sweet and gentle as he was fifty years before.
Greg was a Spanish teacher – who decided to become a teacher at the age of fifty. From the outpouring of love from his students on his social media page, he was as beloved as a teacher as he was as a classmate.
Back in the 60s, I was a self-conscious and insecure teenager. (I know, I know… like most teenage girls.) I had dated a little, but was hardly sought-after. So at 17, Greg was one of my first boyfriends. He was kind of an accidental boyfriend. I started out not very interested. I had a crush on another boy. I tried my best to let John, my crush, know I liked him. But looking back, I have no idea whether I was obvious and he was oblivious, whether he just didn’t like me, or whether I was a complete failure at flirting.
But in the meantime, there was Greg.
A group of kids from my church went on some kind of hayride – my memory must be failing me because it was Spring, not Autumn, but that’s what I remember – and sitting on the hay on the truck, Greg asked me to the Junior Prom. I didn’t want to say yes. I wanted to wait to see if John would ask me. But I am nothing if not practical. And there were multiple practical reasons to say yes:
- His cousin was dating my best friend, Karen.
- If I said no, and John (or anybody else) did not ask me, I would be sitting home instead of wearing a beautiful gown and white gloves.
- If I said no, and then John did ask me, I would feel awful anyway, because it would just be mean of me. I couldn’t see myself turning down a nice boy and then saying yes to someone else. That would hurt Greg’s feelings. And it didn’t seem fair.
- I didn’t know how to say no.
- Greg was nice. Really nice. Maybe I could like him.
So I said yes.
My oldest sister was getting married in a month, and my parents had already spent a fortune on the wedding. So although my mother offered to buy me a new prom dress, I just didn’t feel I could add to their expense. But my sister had a bridesmaid’s dress from my cousin’s wedding a few years before. It was a bit short, but it was pretty, a light green overlaid with gorgeous white lace. I decided to wear it.
My short Twiggy hair was all wrong for a formal dress. so I went to a salon to see if they could dress it up. It was a horrible mistake. I came home in tears – as ‘bouffanted’ as a backup singer for the Shangri-Las. Mom managed to tame it down somewhat, so that I looked like the white girl version of Diana Ross.
I told myself it didn’t matter. But I felt bad. It was my Junior Prom. I wanted to be beautiful. I didn’t even like Greg that much, but it seemed rude not to look nicer for him.
We double-dated with my best friend and Greg’s cousin. To go to my first formal dance with a nice boy and my best friend took all the anxiety out of the event.
We ate in a fancy restaurant, feeling very grownup. We complimented our friends about how beautiful we all looked. We danced every dance in our fancy clothes in the high school gym. I forgot about my too-short dress and my terrible hair.
We were both sweet, innocent kids and kissed a sweet, innocent kiss at the end of the evening.
We had wonderful time.
There was no great romance. Greg and I dated for a few more months, but just gradually fizzled out. We stayed friends for fifty years, and that certainly means that Greg was the perfect date after all.
I have a new novel coming out before Christmas. It’s set in 1969 and the main character is seventeen. She badly wants to go to the Junior Prom. Her idea of a perfect date is based on her adored older sister’s experience. This is how she describes her sister’s Junior Prom:
Jeannie was asked to the Junior Prom by this very ordinary guy, Walter Brooks. Walter had Buddy Holly glasses and he was about two inches shorter than Jeannie. She thought he was nice, though. They had been to the movies together twice and she said he was smart and kind. She told me that the Junior Prom is usually everyone’s first formal event, and that it was important to have a sweet memory of it for when you got old.
I’m old. I have a sweet memory.
I need hero protection.
To get me through this pandemic and these divisive insane times, I have been painting a series of portraits of people I admire.
I call them my Hero Portraits.
My first few portraits were relatively easy picks. They are people for whom my belief is so strong, my confidence in their goodness so unshakeable, whose moral center is my own aspiration.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Jimmy Carter. Jane Goodall. Eleanor Roosevelt. Albert Einstein. Malala Yousafzai. John Lewis. President Obama. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Amelia Earhart, The Dalai Lama. Rosa Parks. Anne Frank.
I have also added portraits of people I believe have given to the world in ways that are perhaps not historic, but nevertheless important:
Mother Teresa, Billie Jean King, Danny Thomas, Michelle Obama, Greta Thunberg, Helen Keller. And a Covid-19 nurse whose family and friends wanted to recognize the significant contributions and the enormous bravery of everyday people in traumatic times.
My favorite portraits are not necessarily the people I admire most, but rather the portraits that captured what I wanted to capture.
The power of Dr. King:
The shy but confident audacity of Rosa Parks:
With Anne Frank, I wanted to emphasize how young and innocent she was. So many of the old photographs look dark and tragic, but to me, Anne was, above all, a hopeful little girl.
And I want to continue.
There are a couple of people on my list that I am sure of: Mahatma Gandhi, Marie Curie, and Muhammad Ali will be coming up next.
But then it gets complicated.
Do I add people I admire but have grave flaws? Do I add folks that are not particular favorites of mine, but have enriched the world? How about my childhood heroes? What about artists and writers?
Some who might fall into this category are John and Robert Kennedy, Princess Diana, Mark Twain – and even Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn. There are more – Winston Churchill and FDR come to mind.
But here is my biggest fear: That my choices will disappoint me.
When I was a kid, I adored the Kennedys. As I grew up, I learned that Jack and Bobby were far from perfect. But didn’t they leave the world a better place, despite their personal failings?
In choosing contemporary heroes – Greta Thunberg is probably the youngest of my current-day heroes – I run the risk that they won’t live up to the world’s expectations. To my expectations, to be honest.
I worry that my heroes will be exposed as frauds, or they will be seduced by fame and money. They may have a dark side of which I am unaware.
They may hurt me.
Ah, but isn’t that the risk we all take in loving people – whether we love them as heroes or friends?
To view human beings as heroes is a terrible, wonderful risk.
All I can do love them now, and if they disappoint me in the future,
take comfort in the knowledge that I loved them for a time. That for a while, they gave me hope.
*I have set up a tab in the menu at top where you can see all my portraits.
As I was trying on outfits the other day – for God knows what reason, I have nowhere on earth to go – a sweet memory surfaced – also from God knows where.
I attended a parochial grammar school, where I wore the typical Catholic school uniform. Navy jumper, white blouse, little navy bowtie. Oh so cute, but so boring.
I was ecstatic to enter high school so I could dress in real clothes. I had what I thought was an unparalleled sense of style. I knew I didn’t want The Patty Duke Show kind of boring. Or the Beverly Hillbillies’ “keep my pants held up with a piece of twine.” And that was pretty much the limit of this unparalleled style.
I had a sparse wardrobe, except for white blouses, of course. I also had a sparse budget. I had a couple of hand-me-downs from my sisters, but I was skinny, and although they were slim, they were not as slim as my skinny. Everything hung poorly on me. I was given some beautiful things from a family friend, who was gorgeous, skinny, and rich. But they were a little too grown-up for a 14-year-old. I didn’t really need tweed double-breasted blazers.
But I managed to get through my freshman year with two skirts, three sweaters, and all those white blouses.
My parents moved across town after that first year, and I switched to the rival high school. I wasn’t sad to leave the old school behind. I desperately wanted a new start. And a better wardrobe.
I had a little money saved up from babysitting, and I begged my Mom to take me shopping before the start of the new school year. She agreed to match my savings, which was fantastic. But there was a condition attached. She would reveal her terms at the store. And I had to agree beforehand. Doubling my money was worth the risk, given that my mother was quite stylish herself.
We went to a store that carried junior sizes. The clothes were stylish but not outlandish – of course, in 1966, ‘outlandish’ was pretty tame anyway. The store carried mostly A-line skirts and matching sweaters. That’s what most of the girls wore most of the time. The stylish girls just had better matching skirts and sweaters. Add a little Carnaby Street (think Beatlemania) and you can visualize the store.
My mother then gave me her condition:
Choose an outfit from a mannequin.
The whole outfit. Skirt, shirt, sweater, jewelry, even knee socks or tights, if the mannequin wore them.
Here was her rationale: I had one year of experience putting together an outfit. But this store was a chain department store – they had professional window-dressers. Real stylists.
“You can pick any display you like – so you still get to choose,” she said. “But you will also be certain that you are getting a terrific outfit. Experts chose it. And you are not an expert. So rely on someone who knows. Eventually you will develop your own sense of style, and you’ll be able to trust yourself.”
I chose a skirt in a heathered green wool, with a matching Fair Isle cardigan (you may not know what that is today, but they had a pattern along the yoke, and a pale yellow button-down shirt. And a charm bracelet.
I wore that outfit once a week for three years.
And used that shopping method for many more years than that.
There’s a point to this story that is more than fashion sense.
You are not an expert in everything.
And you do not have to be.
You are not a sheep if you listen to experts.
It can be a pretty smart move.