Why do it


In the latest litter we fostered there was a clear runt, a tiny watchful Yoda old soul, all head and twitchy ears. Even though she was considerably smaller she could run and jump and wrestle with the others. She just got tired more easily. After awhile she’d come back to sit on my lap while I worked on my laptop, crouching on delicate paws and curling herself into a space the size of a child’s handprint.

Our job was to fatten her up like her three siblings. They’d be adoptable in a month, as long as they reached two pounds. All four were eating canned food watered down to a gruel, but I’d been supplementing her diet with syringes of feline milk. “Yay, Peanut,” my eight-year-old would say when I worked the stream between her teeth and she got most down.

But it wasn’t enough. Yesterday morning she was unable to get up. I sped her to the vet wrapped in a blanket, but brought her home an hour later in a small box. When the kids came home from school I walked them to the tiny grave circled with stones. I explained “fading kitten syndrome,” the catch-all term used for the ones not robust enough to digest food well and fight germs.

For each litter of, say, five kittens, about 3.5 make it to eight weeks old. The folks at the shelter where I foster shake their heads, “there’s one in every group.” But the statistic was lost on my younger boys. They had helped raise more than 10 litters and we’d never lost one, not even the other runts. Standing under the tree looking down at the stone circle, that achievement seemed to wilt.

Why do it? I wondered, after we trudged back to the house and fed the remaining three. Really, why do it to ourselves? Set aside for a minute the altruistic pleasure of helping tiny kittens born under some bush, and raising them to be good companions. There is responsibility and worry — are they eating enough, do they have a respiratory infection, is the eye getting better? Even when it ends well, it ends sadly. I always have trouble saying goodbye.

People say you are so good, etc etc, but it doesn’t feel like anything noble. Honestly, we feel lucky to play with these furry ping-pong balls for a few weeks, watch them bounce around our rec room and collapse in a sleepy heap on our laps. I often felt like we had a secret; sshh, don’t tell anyone where they came from, or everyone would do it. The Humane Society estimates that tens of thousands of families foster pets every year. If we stopped fostering, if I decided it was too raw for us, the shelter surely had plenty of other foster families who’d fill the gap.

And if they didn’t, what difference did it make, really? There are so many castoff animals in this overpopulated world of strays and storms and hoarder homes. For every one that’s rescued, there are two that aren’t, and another two pulled from a bad place but not getting adopted. Sometimes fostering cam feel like a zero-sum game. And yesterday morning, holding a plush undersized creature taking its last breaths, can make a person wonder whether they really want to be a part of it.

That same morning, Boston woke to the news that a shooter in Las Vegas killed 58 people and wounded 500, and mourning a kitten felt a little obscene. In Puerto Rico, 84 percent of the people still didn’t have power following Hurricane Maria, and 37 percent didn’t have clean water. It’s easy to feel ineffectual when a wave of bad news pummels one day, and then again the next. It erodes your sense that small things are worth doing, even if the small things are the only measure of difference in a zero-sum game.

Yesterday afternoon an email came from the new owner of Clyde and Flynn, two of the kittens from a litter in May. The boys are six months old and behave like drunken teens at a house party, and their new owner loves it.

Flynn likes to jump so I need to keep my eyes on him, wrote the new owner Nancy, who’d lost her longtime cat a few months before. His recent discovery is jumping on the dining room table and standing up to hit the chandelier and make it sway. One day I heard a strange creaking sound coming from the hallway. There was a wooden clothes-drying rack and he’d climbed up and was and swinging from his front paws like a kid on a jungle gym. I’ve attached the video or you wouldn’t believe me… They are thriving, Nichole, and they just love people. I’m so fortunate that they had you and yours as their foster family.

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On the first morning of 2017

obamaLast night (New Year’s eve) I dreamed I was working back at the travel magazine of my 20s, and Barack Obama was the editor in chief.

The office was in a skyscraper the size of an entire city block, and I’d walk the large square perimeter of hallways with an exotic young owl-hawk on my shoulder.

We all had one—an editor had rescued a nest of them on some remote assignment. Mine was a badly behaved alpha that didn’t play well with the others. But he was mine, perched on my shoulder in his cumbersome endearing way, and it weighed on me that I was responsible for finding him a home. Once during lunch I’d tried taking him on a walk in the jungle-like forest adjacent to the building. There were similar owl-hawks in the distance and I tried setting him free, but he wouldn’t go.

That afternoon I was called into Barack’s office. He was packing his belongings, loading boxes onto the helicopter pad that extended from one wall. owlhawkGoodbye, he said. He was leaving the magazine, going to the small village in Africa where his father had lived. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, he wrote that he’d lied to his elementary school class, told them his father was a Kenyan tribal chief. Turns out it was true, after all, and he was going to Africa to assume the position of his successor. He handed me a photograph of someone who looked exactly like him in a navy blue cylinder-shaped beret.

Even though we’d only had Barack at the magazine a short while, there was disappointment and a small sense of abandonment. I handed him back the picture, and asked the only thing I thought of to put into words: if he’d enjoyed being with us.

He stared at me a long time, beyond what was comfortable. I focused on a glass cabinet of medals to avoid meeting his eye. His silence meant he thought it was sort of a silly question, and that he also knew what I was really asking: Whether he was going to be as sad to leave as I was to have him go.

He put out his arm to my owl-hawk. “I’ll take him,” he said, and it stepped from my shoulder to his forearm.

*     *     *

When I woke up it was 6 a.m. on New Year’s day, still dark. I went downstairs to write by the glow of our wobbly imperfect Christmas tree. There was a low, reverberating call from out back. Hoo-hoo, hoo. Behind our house there are 12 acres of undeveloped woodland, unusual for the suburbs, with two abandoned houses that were once a farm. We’ve seen deer and coyote, heard the fisher cats scream in the night. Later this year developers will be razing the woods to build homes, knocking down almost all the native pine and shrubs (“junk trees”) to create a more manicured cul de sac. The uncultivated woods will be reduced to about 50 feet. Sometimes my children talk about where they imagine the animals will go. Will the deer and coyote have to share a den?

Somewhere behind the house another owl answered the first and then another, a volley of airy staccatos in the dark. At this time next year there will be houses where the junk trees were, and someone else in the White House. Some things will change, some won’t. Most of us will walk our office hallways and city blocks and suburban jungles just as before, things will grow and other things will be cut back or cut down, and deer might have to bed down with coyote. I don’t know where the owls will go.



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Leaving the Martha’s Vineyard fair at sunset













My car is a glider on farm roads, up into the pinking clouds

and away



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Dirty hands

L13A month ago I started doing a CSA workshare at a local farm one morning a week in exchange for a full share of weekly produce. I wanted to get my hands on the fresh vegetables and learn a few things about growing, plus I tend to find when I put myself in new settings learning new things, I can just feel my brain expanding. The first day I harvested hundreds of bok choi, beets, turnip, radishes, lettuce heads and chard fronds, but after two hours on my knees weeding I couldn’t stop thinking of all the other things I could have been doing with my time not to mention work deadlines looming and said to myself, I CAN’T DO THIS IT ISN’T WORTH IT.

Each Thursday since then I’ve given myself over to the rhythm of the morning and brought home funky vegetables like kohlrabi and garlic scapes, and introduced my kids to hand-shelled peas and dried-on-the-cob popcorn and the world’s largest zucchini. I come home filthy and exhausted working side-by-side with the college-kid crew, feeling badass with a mini-machete until my back and knees remind me I’m old enough to be their mom and possibly their grandma.

This morning while we were cutting cilantro, a guy who’s a  history major at Dickinson asked me what L20bands I like and a Tufts OT confided her misgivings about grad school and I love being wrong, especially about new experiences.


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Cocky blooms









Second grade poetry.

“Pink peony
sleeping in the
blooming in the
garden like a

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Fowl haiku

CamChickCropMy boy palms the chick
Heat-lamp sleepy, slow blinks of
sunflower seed eyes

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Not just the facts


Notes before the interview

I was getting ready for an interview recently, a follow-up phone call for a magazine piece profiling a semi-famous person. An entrepreneur who’d started off on the completely wrong foot before finding the right calling as a television personality, and on the way, happened to become a helluva great bartender.

I love this kind of journalism. It’s real-life storytelling, all the messy and gorgeous stuff of human nature that reminds us it’s never really just the facts ma’am, it’s the facts behind the facts. How people do what they do, and what drives them to do it. The times of struggle and stagnation, and the innovation that follows. It’s the story of the Olympian and the visionary, and it’s just as much the story of the murderer and the spy. Real life is as crazy and rich as any fiction. 

At any rate, this is what my pre-interview notes look like (pic above). Sloppy, one freely associated thought leading to another, all needing to be written more neatly and put into sequence before I pick up the phone. These are the building blocks of the process, or at least my process. And it struck me that no matter how much I love technology — and oh do I, the convenience and connectedness, the smart phones and e-readers, the fitness apps and spreadsheets — the concrete thing always comes before the computed thing. First comes the spark, the action, the motivation. The legwork. Next comes the technology that organizes the action, bring the idea to fruition.

Not too long ago, my recording of an interview somehow turned itself off mid-conversation, and I discovered I’d lost an hour of material. After returning to my car and pounding the steering wheel like a raging cartoon character, I sat down and wrote out the skeleton of our conversation, everything I could remember. And then I set out to write around the lost interview, which is actually more laborious and creative than writing from an interview using quotes (which I could call back and get, later). The confidence gained from the legwork years made the loss much less of a big deal than it would have been,  younger.

Because in the end there are conveniences, but there are no real short cuts. No matter what kind of technology you have supporting you, you still have to germinate the idea, have the epiphany, put in the practice time, collect and interpret the facts, mix the drinks if you have to, to pay the rent. The technology helps us get where we need to go, no doubt about it. But when all else fails, there’s the scribbly paper. You’re the only one who can make the scribbles, and no battery fail can take that away from you.

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Snapshot of a morning

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 1.39.50 PMThe 6yo hops into my room in a tote bag, sack-race style, a beanbag chair strapped to his back.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Him, deadpan: “Living wild.”

A minute later the 8yo comes in, not wanting to go to school.

Me: (Blah blah blah)

Him, changing tack: “I don’t even know why you trust these strangers to take care of us. It isn’t safe.”

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Restoration & Sickness


Between writing projects I’m refinishing the medicine cabinet in our new house’s bathroom (rather than revising the novel).

All the toiletries are in bins on the floor: Bacitracin and Benadryl, Ibuprofens and Robitussins.

The 6yo surveys the layout and exhales, impressed.

“Wow,” he says. “We are one sick family.”



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People in our situation

keysThe banker is talking to my husband on the phone about drawing up the deed for our new house, considering the ways she might go about listing us as joint owners.
Her: “There are several options for people in your situation.”
Him: “Our situation?”
Say, Irish people who like forest green walls marrying French Canadians who prefer taupe?
Her: “Well, people who aren’t married.”
Him: “We’ve been married for 17 years.”
Her (confused): “Oh. But you have different last names.”
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