Sunday, April 28, 2013



 I just finished reading Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE (Little, Brown, 2013).  And even though it's being reviewed everywhere, including in today's New York Times Book Review, I have thoughts about it too, and isn't sharing thoughts what blogs are for?
     I'd previously read Atkinson's STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, and found it weirdly compelling, and I was fascinated by an early review of the current book, so I went to an uptown Barnes & Noble in New York on April 17th to hear the author read an excerpt of it and to get my newly-purchased copy signed by her.  After the reading, I actually had a dialogue with her that lasted perhaps 20 seconds.  I told her as she signed my book that I had a feeling she'd be incredibly charming, and that I'd been right.  She replied, "I'm not really that charming.  I'm going to go back to my hotel room and - " and here she hissed and made a feral gesture with both hands, like a lion extending his claws.  We both laughed, and I said, "Yes, but we [the audience] don't know that!"  Yes, Kate Atkinson and I shared a moment.
     The fact is that Atkinson was (is) incredibly charming.  Someone asked her at the reading if LIFE AFTER LIFE was about reincarnation, and she furrowed her brow and answered that she never knows what to say when people ask her that, because after all, isn't the essence of reincarnation coming back as someone else?  Which led her to share with us, in her delightful dotty/brilliant style, that her mother had died in December, which had prompted Atkinson's young granddaughter to ask, "If Nanny comes back as an animal, can we keep her as a pet?" and to confess that she herself found that prospect absolutely terrifying (as a result, Atkinson seemed to hint, not of her own fear of reincarnation, but of her fear of her mother in any form).  Evidently this then led to a family discussion of reincarnation, during which that same granddaughter (or possibly a different one?) announced that if she could come back, she would like to do so as chicken pox, "because then I'd always be warm, and I'd always have friends."  And to me, it seemed perfectly right for Atkinson to have exactly that kind of granddaughter.
     So, about the book.  It is not, as Atkinson accurately pointed out, about reincarnation, because although Ursula Todd does repeatedly return to life after she dies, it's always as herself, and always into the same circumstances, although she never ends up quite the same twice.  It's disorienting at first to read of a baby who dies immediately after her birth in 1911, strangled by her umbilical cord because the doctor couldn't get there in time, only to next see her rescued from that same circumstance by that same doctor, who this time managed to beat the snowstorm.  But you get used to this sort of time travel after a while, and after a longer while, you begin to discern a pattern.  Each time Ursula survives an incident that had previously killed her, a fog lifts for her infinitesimally.  Little Ursula, a child at Fox Corner again and again, doesn't know about any of her past experiences, but she eventually begins to recognize events and places that she has no reason to recognize; to develop a sixth sense about people and neighborhoods and days like Armistice Day in 1918; to suffer inexplicable terrors at certain junctures, that cause her to act in slightly different ways than she might otherwise have.  So, although at first Ursula stumbles through her life as blindsided and infuriated and tortured by circumstances as the rest of us, she is very, very slowly given opportunities to learn.  To, in Atkinson's words, "get it right."
     Once, on her sixteenth birthday, Ursula, feeling completely powerless, is raped in her own house by her older brother's visiting friend.  Her mother, unaccountably, blames her and ceases to love her, and Ursula 's ensuing loss of self-respect leads her later in that particular life into alcoholism and an abusive marriage.  On her next sixteenth birthday, Ursula stops the would-be rapist in his tracks by punching and kicking him.  Never again does she have a drinking problem.  Never again does she subject herself to emotional or physical abuse.
    Time and again, Ursula lives through waking nightmares - in particular, the London Blitz, which mars each of her adult lives no matter what she's done in the previous ones.  But if it weren't for the
nightly bombing raids and her eventual role as a witness to them, Ursula would never have learned of her own courage, stamina, power.  She would never have been able to finally carry out the deed for which she ultimately realizes she had been born.
     TIME AFTER TIME is prefaced by quotes from Nietzsche, Plato, and one Edward Beresford Todd, the latter being Ursula's beloved, irreplaceable younger brother, who says: "What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right?  Wouldn't that be wonderful?"   Yes.  It would be.  It is.  As wonderful as it is to learn that an assassination can be committed not out of hatred and rage, but out of self-sacrifice and love.  As wonderful as it is to come to know Ursula and to watch her complete her circle.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


     The show closed on Sunday, but don't you worry - Rania will be back soon in another show, and one of these days she's going to be a star!  And I'll be able to say I knew her back when....


Sunday, April 14, 2013


     I, too, am alarmed by the exponential increase in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder among our children.  I, too, wonder whether all of those diagnoses are valid, or if they're just being handed out as the easy solution to every kid with too much energy or too little ability to focus.  I am, however, certain of one thing, and that is that my own ADD diagnosis, first given to me when I was already middle-aged, is spot-on, and that the medication I've been taking since then has vastly improved my quality of life.
     When I try to describe my pre-diagnosis adult life to anyone, I always come up with the same image: a constant battle between me and time, with time always coming out victorious.  I often felt like Alice in Wonderland, continually astonished by the way time operated.  I had no idea how long it took to get from one place to another or to accomplish any task.  I was always stuck guessing, and more often than not, I was guessing wrong.  Something was off, but I didn't know what, and I didn't know how to fix it.  At some point every day, I was in a state of confusion and rage as a result.
     It's infinitely better for me now.  Time is a beast that I've learned to tame, at least most of the time.  I've learned other techniques, too, like making lists and keeping meticulous calendars.  It's been years since I've come up against having scheduled two incompatible things for the same time slot, and not finding it out until almost too late.
     But I still have ADD, and one of the times it manifests itself is when I'm writing.  I wrote my first two books in linear fashion, because I didn't know any other way to do it.  It was a very, very difficult process.  Partway through my third book, when I was hopelessly stuck and it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to move on, I tried something different out of desperation.  I skipped the part I was stuck on and went on to write something else.  Eureka!  It worked.  Next time I got stuck, I tried it again.  I started trying it even when I wasn't stuck, but an out-of-place inspiration had leaped into my head.  It worked then too.  By the time that book was done, linearity and I had irrevocably divorced.
     Here's the crazy way I write now, the way that fits my brain's contours like a wetsuit.  When I've thought enough about a story that I'm ready to begin putting something on paper, I put something on paper.  Maybe it's a paragraph, maybe it's a page or two.  I just put it down without worrying about where it belongs in the story.  Next time I have another idea, I put that down too.  If I know whether it comes before or after the part I wrote first, then I put it in the right place.  If I don't know, then I just put it anywhere.  I proceed in this fashion, chunk by chunk by chunk.  Eventually, I have enough chunks to be able to start dividing them into chapters.  Once that's done, the process remains essentially the same, except now I have jumping-off points for my ideas.  I keep filling in the missing parts until what's on paper is almost a book.  Once that happens, I read through the whole manuscript, and when I find that a chunk is missing, I enter a line of asterisks where it should go.  When that's done, I count up the lines of asterisks -there are probably ten or fewer at this point - and I make a list of what pages they're on.  Then I start filling those chunks in, once again jumping around between them at will.
     So I could say that right now I'm almost done with my first draft of IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY?  Or, more accurately, I could say that I have one and a half chunks left to fill in.  One is on page 91, and the other is on page 150.   Any way you count it, I'm in the home stretch, and I'm feeling my own special ADD kind of joy.
     And I guess the moral of my story is: don't let anyone tell you how to do what you were born to do.  Figure out the way you need to do it, and just keep going from there.  Have the courage to find your own magic.  It's out there waiting.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

My Secret Admirer

     My blog seems to have a new follower in Germany. Maybe more than one? I'm flattered. Whoever you are, you're invited to come forward! Leave a comment! I don't bite! All I do is reply.



     Let's suppose you're almost done with the first draft of an upper-middle-grade novel about a boy who opens a comedy club in his basement. Let's further suppose that you want to add in one more amazing, funny act that takes place in the club, and that you're racking your brain to think of something entirely original.
     Eventually, you come up with an idea: a blind stand-up comic. You google the idea before you start writing, just to see if by chance there are any real blind stand-up comics.  Guess what?  There are.  You think of proceeding with your idea anyway, but then you realize that what's different about a blind stand-up is that he or she would talk a lot about the humorous side of blindness, and that's not what you have in mind.  So you think some more.
     Finally, you think you've got it: a blind magician.  It seems like a natural winner, and there can't possibly be any of those, can there?  You return to Google.  Yes, there can be, and yes, there are.  Several of them.
     You decide to face the truth.  You will never come up with a wholly original idea, because EVERYTHING has been done before, dating back to the Bible.  The best you can hope to do is deal with the concept in a wholly original way.
     Of course, what this experience of mine really signifies isn't that there is no such thing as a new story.  What it really signifies is that one area in which modern societies have made incalculable strides is broadening the range of possibilities for people with disabilities.  Blind people ski, climb mountains, practice law and medicine.  So why not stand-up comedy?  Why not magic acts?  Why not anything at all that sighted people can do?  I know there's still a long way to go before people with disabilities have opportunities equal to those enjoyed by people without disabilities.  But it's one area where real, tangible progress is being made.

     I love the teenage blind magician I've created, because she turns the tables on the audience, gently mocking them for their misperceptions.  I hope you get to meet her soon - I'm pretty sure you'd love her too.

Monday, April 1, 2013


     I think that my son's recent Facebook post may not have been openable from its link on my blog, so I'm just going to reproduce the whole thing here, because I think it's important.  Ahem:

        I realize that as a white, straight male, I will never really be able to understand
        the daily indignties that people who are "different" from me have to suffer
        on a daily basis. Growing up, I never had to worry that I wouldn't be able
        to marry the person I wanted, and I can't imagine what it would feel like
        to have people I've never met discuss the validity of my feelings.

        I know that one day, we will all be able to marry the person we love, and I
        know that my children won't be able to understand why gay marriage was
        once illegal. In the meantime, all I can really do is hope that five unelected
        officials can cobble together some type of consensus that "equality before
        the law" is more than an empty phrase.

And I always thought I couldn't be any prouder of him. Shows how wrong a mom can be!