Night shift


Driving past highway construction last night, had a heated conversation with the younger boys about jobs that sometimes require working when other people are sleeping.

Nope, shouldn’t be necessary, says the 5yo.

“What about doctors and nurses in hospitals?” I ask him. “Should sick people be told, ‘Sorry, no one can keep you alive during the nighttime?’ “

Him, shaking his head. “That’s a tough call. Don’t ask me that question. I’m just a kid.”


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The sports pacifist’s lament


The 5yo on Kindergarten soccer.

“Everyone says to be aggressive,” he complains. “But it would be a lot easier if the other guy just walked away from the ball.”


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Beautiful Little Nonsense #8

stomachThe 5yo had trouble falling asleep last night, haunted by a DVD we rented from the library that spooked him.

“Think about ice cream cones,” I tell him. “Don’t think about the movie.”

Him: “But my body keeps pressing the play button.”

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Beautiful Little Nonsense #7


The 6yo, eying the urn with our old dog’s ashes. “What are ashes like?”

“Sand,” I tell him.

He thinks. “Plus love.”

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Beautiful Little Nonsense #6

mazeThe 4yo is doing a maze on paper, blazing wantonly through solid lines.

Me: “Can’t go through walls, bud.”

Him: “They’re just gates. I push them open.”

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Beautiful Little Nonsense #2

Mint-leaves-2007A little “Who’s on First” with the 4yo and 6yo after their dentist appointment.

The 6yo: “Did they ask you if you like mint?”
The 4yo: “I like mint.”
The 6yo: “That’s not what I asked. I asked you if THEY asked you if you like mint.”
The 4yo: “Yes, I like mint.”
The 6yo: “NO! I asked you if THEY asked you…”
The 4yo: “Don’t tell me no! I do too like mint.”

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The Myth of the Perfect Start

The log was 30 feet up in the air, a sort of telephone pole of a balance beam. I was supposed to walk from one end to the other, holding onto nothing. The rest of the group had done it. Ten minutes had passed, and I was still frozen on the business end.

Thirty feet was not a height that would kill me, especially in a safety harness. But from the way I stood paralyzed after a series of false starts, you’d think I was walking a tightrope over a rift in the earth down to its fiery magma core.

“Just take the first three steps,” the guide called up. “You just have to make yourself start. It’s like writing the first three words of a novel.”

“No. It really isn’t,” I called down, trying to be darkly funny, but the bitter was seeping through. So were the tears.

My two younger sisters, with whom I’d traveled to this Tucson resort to celebrate a Big Birthday, had both just done it successfully. And when they reached the end, they’d each tagged the far pole and walked back, backwards. That was the victory lap, a victory I’d assumed would be mine, too. After all, I like physical challenges, I like being out of my comfort zone. What I hadn’t figured on was how much I wouldn’t like it when I couldn’t use my hands—which our guide Louis explained later was the ultimate sticking point for those who have an issue with being in control.

There were other things I didn’t like and wanted to do differently. I wanted to grasp the safety harness rising from my shoulders. No, Louis said. I wanted to kick off my shoes and walk barefoot; in my mind, the idea of my agile bare feet gripping the curved log would be like a prehensile tail. No, Louis said. The group members down below had been calling out encouragement and advice — momentum was key, they said, just get that first step going and then another, and don’t stop. But 10 minutes was an uncomfortably long time to cheer and watch someone short circuiting. And they had put away the cameras and fallen silent.

I’d like to blame it on  Continue reading

Topics: On Faith, Hope & Love, On Learning | 2 Comments

Sochi, My Worrisome Valentine

Previews - Winter Olympics Day -4I first heard about the stray dogs of Sochi via my twitter stream, when a sweet homeless Shepherd (https://twitter was posted by ABC journalist Matt Gutman. Several days later, U.S. skier Gus Kenworthy posted a photo of the litter (https://twitter he plans to adopt.

Sochi, the world learned, had a dog problem, and had contracted with sharpshooter exterminators to make sure the vermin wouldn’t be an embarrassment during the Olympics.

Amid the oddities and malfunctions in the lead-up to the opening ceremonies (yellow hotel water, and bobsledder Johnny Quinn having to break down his hotel’s bathroom door (https://twitter, the strays of Sochi became big news, fast. This was no fun and games. Until a local billionaire stepped in with funds for a shelter complex, thousands of strays were targeted for death. More evidence, it seemed, of Russia’s authoritarian response to virtually everything — from building contracts and overspending to censorship and human rights.

The dog shootings were eerily timely for me because they paralleled research for my second novel, set in 1980s USSR. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl/Pripyat evacuation, I learned, clean-up crews called “liquidators” went in to shoot the house pets that had to be left behind. The idea was to catch them before they could wander, radioactive, through the buffer zone toward other villages. Cats were wary and hard to shoot, according to interviews in Voices From Chernobyl (http://www NULL.npr NULL.php?storyId=5355810). But dogs were easy targets, as they naturally approached people in search of food and affection.

It’s been awful research, but riveting. So much of the tragedy was caused bythe government’s delay in helping its people — a mind-boggling 36 hours passed before an official explanation, and then finally evacuation from under the radioactive cloud. The Soviet Union was loathe to admit incompetence on the world stage or create panic in its citizens, and wanted to take care of things quietly, superficially. So, families picnicked in the contaminated grass while their government kept up appearances.

But long before that, the disaster was was set in motion when inferior materials were purchased to build the reactor, in inadequate supply. Then in the rush to make deadlines, the reactor opened before all its safety tests had been done. So proud the Russians were, done on schedule. So good they looked internationally, all that complicated construction finished and facilities humming.

Sound familiar?

I visited the USSR in 1989 as part of an Intourist group — the primary way to visit then, officially chaperoned by the government in its bugged hotels. And what we saw were elaborate facades hiding chaos, corruption and deprivation. We ate in restaurants that no longer bothered with menus, because they were 86 not just certain ingredients, but entire food groups. One of our scheduled side-trips flew us to war-torn Uzbekistan instead of Kiev because lo, there was a cease fire in the civil war, and that’s where Intourist wanted us to spend our hard currency. We drank champagne for breakfast, because the shipment of fruit juice hadn’t come in from Cuba. We ignored the broken hotel smoke detectors, clearly dismantled and rigged instead to bug the rooms.

2014 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony (http://beyondthemargins NULL.jpg)When you care above all else to contain the impression of chaos, chaos has a way of catching up. Sometimes it’s a missing doorknob and an oddly constructed toilet, a snowflake that doesn’t blossom into a ring. But sometimes it’s a lot worse.

I found myself squirming as I watched the Olympic opening ceremonies, physically uncomfortable as the camera panned the enormous new stadium. It seemed unnervingly ambitious for contractors who had also produced the likes of a bathroom with two toilets in a single stall. There were high wires, and elaborate soaring props. A young girl suspended Peter Pan-style in the air. Pyrotechnics everywhere. The margin for error felt very, very slim.

Then a photo of a stealthy stray appeared on my Twitter feed, a dog inside the stadium standing on a loge balcony, hanging out and watching the spectacle along with the rest of the spectators.

It was a nice spark of levity and defiance in an atmosphere of discipline and obedience.

But when it comes to Russia, I’m leery of sparks.


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First You Crawl


I went to a dance pageant recently, a holiday performance of ballet, modern and jazz with local girls age 6-16.

Actually, I have no idea how old the dancers were. Some were clearly 25, which is amazing, since I know for a fact they were in 5th grade with my son just two years ago.

What a range of emotion watching these elegant not-quite-women, the pixies with flying limbs. Some were stunning, graceful and acrobatic in their unsettlingly mature bikini bodysuits. Others were still in the throes of growing pains, coltish and vulnerable. And they knew it; you could see it in the frozen smile of a girl trying to hold her quivery leg overhead, and struggling not to drop it a half-beat too soon.

God, I felt for them. All of them: the ones flailing awkward jazz hands at the outer edge of their ability. The ones so gorgeously at ease in their skin that I couldn’t help wincing, knowing the world would treat those bodies as commodities in a few short years. And the ones somewhere in the middle, hoping their smidge of talent would blossom into something like the big girls.

Artistic growing pains. It’s so true of so many expressive arts — and yes, of writing too, only it’s the young heart and mind that are quivery and vulnerable instead of the body. There are flying limbs to rein in. Oh, the big words and emotions! Themelodramatic poems, the handwritten middle-school novel hidden under a mattress. Sentences with such inappropriate metaphors they’re like heaving bosoms in the middle of an engineering textbook. The need to SAY THE THING IN THE MOST UNIQUE WAY IT’S EVER BEEN SAID IN THE HISTORY OF THE WRITTEN WORD. So much to trip over in order to get out of your own way.

I remember my first great assignment working on staff at a travel magazine you’ve never heard of. At 22, I was sent to write about Continue reading

Topics: On Learning, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Tribute, A Grumble, A Novel in the Drawer


Lee Thornton, journalist

In 2007, when I was pregnant with our fourth child and our family was preparing for a move from Washington DC to Boston, I sneaked away from the chaos for a three-day publishing conference in New York. 

I was assigned to a group of about 15 people, all of whom had finished their first novels and were there to pitch them to editors. (In hindsight, I’m confused about why this was encouraged, skipping the literary-agent step.)  In between our meetings, we gathered as a group to hone our style on the infamous elevator pitch. 

I hit it off particularly well with one group member, Lee. She’d retired as a television reporter and had become a journalism professor a the University of Maryland, and she was whipsmart and worldly and funny as all get-out. Throughout the weekend, Continue reading

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