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Archive for the ‘On Life’ Category

Act Your Age

12002220_979662202072215_1317836556402165806_nI’m illustrating this post with one of my favorite Facebook memes—the caption, in case you can’t see it, reads “I don’t know how to act my age. I’ve never been this old before.”

To me, that sums up an ongoing struggle for a lot of us. Once upon a time, particular ages came with instructions. When you hit thirty or forty or fifty or sixty, you were supposed to look and behave in a certain way. And everyone knew what that way was. If you didn’t fulfill these expectations, you got a lot of social disapproval and a reputation as an eccentric.

But now the whole concept of age is undergoing a sort of revolution. Part of this phenomenon is the result of that great bump-in-the-python known as the Baby Boomers. From the time we were born, our sheer numbers have changed the dynamic around us, and now it’s happening with retirement and aging. But I don’t think this new view of aging is entirely due to the Boomer influence.

More often than not these days you reach a particular age and find yourself at sea. You remember your parents or grandparents being this old, but somehow you don’t feel the same. You’re simply not interested in orthopedic shoes and shapeless black garments, let alone silver hair (is there anyone out there who actually has the hair color they were born with these days?). Tradition tells you one thing, while popular culture tells you another. So are you supposed to act the way you feel or the way someone your age acts according to convention?

Just to make this whole matter that much more confusing, a lot of famous people no longer look and act like we expect people “of a certain age” to look and act. Rosanne Cash is 60. Bonnie Raitt is 65. Meryl Streep is 66. Susan Sarandon is 68, and so is Emmylou Harris. Helen Mirrin is 70. Blythe Danner is 72. Joan Baez is 74. Lily Tomlin is 76. Jane Fonda is 77, Vanessa Redgrave is 78, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are 80, and Sophia Loren is 81. All of them are still working, and none of them has taken to her rocking chair with an afghan and a tabby.

So we’re back to the basic question: how do you act your age these days? The answer, so far as I can tell, is you act the way your age feels to you. There are some things I no longer do. I don’t wear heels anymore because I figured out what they were doing to my back (actually I stopped wearing them many years ago, but now I find even moderate heels uncomfortable). I’d rather wear leggings and tunics than dresses, so that’s what I do. I have no idea whether this goes with my age or not, and I don’t much care. But the don’t much care probably does have something to do with my age—one of the many benefits of getting a few years under your belt.

I don’t talk about age much myself, largely because I hate being put into boxes, and age is definitely one of those. I’ve found that when people know your age, they tend to attach a set of expectations to you. But I find the occasional media assumption that everybody past forty would like to be young again (as in this popular series) somewhat naïve. Each age has its own pluses and minuses. And these days many of us are trying to find our way through both.

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Serpent GardenSo I discovered this new-to-me author last week: Judith Merkle Riley. Her historical novel, Serpent Garden, is set in Tudor England and France, and it’s an absolute delight. Riley juggles multiple points of view, a complex mixture of historical fact and conjecture, ingenious details of her period setting, and a whiff of the supernatural. All this plus an engaging first-person narrator whose love story bounces along happily.

After reading the first part of Serpent Garden, I did what I usually do when I find an author who grabs my interest—I went to Amazon to find what other books she had available. There were six more novels, three of them a YA trilogy. Interesting. I wondered what she was currently working on and looked for her website. And this is where things started to get, well, strange. Her website consisted of a single page, a list of her six novels with links to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Given the number of positive reviews Riley’s books had from major sources like Kirkus, I was amazed. Why didn’t she have a more developed website?
Then I happened to glance at the short bio for Riley that was posted on Google. The most important information was right there at the top, her birth date and her death date. Riley died in 2010. I had two reactions to this news: I was saddened, first of all. But then, selfishly, I was stricken by the thought that six novels was all we’d ever have.

We readers are voracious, and we always want more. Once we discover a novelist we like, we keep demanding product. Some writers, like Grace Burrowes, are remarkably productive, giving us book after book to feed our habits. Some, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, work more slowly, so that each book becomes a kind of event.

And some authors simply opt out. Julia Ross wrote wonderfully ornate historical novels a few years ago, including The Seduction, Clandestine, and Games of Pleasure. But after several years of turning out one novel after another, she hit the wall. She simply couldn’t write anymore, as she herself explains. Another of my favorite writers, Judith Ivory, simply disappeared after a bout of ill health.

So are we readers at fault when writers go missing? Nope. But it might be a good idea occasionally to think about those writers whose books you depend on. Maybe they need a little encouragement, or even a little gratitude. So please Sherry Thomas, Joanna Bourne, Loretta Chase, and Mary Balogh keep writing—I love everything you’ve done. Please Anna Cowan, write a second book: Untamed was awesome. Please Karen Rose and Tess Gerritsen keep bringing those thrillers out, even though writing them must take a toll. And oh, Jane Haddam, please don’t stop. I need my Gregor Demarkian fix each year.

And Judith Merkle Riley I wish I’d found you a few years ago. I really wish I could have told you what a wonderful writer you really are. Now all I can do is leave a review on Amazon and feel sad.

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billionaireBillionaires are in. If you go to Amazon and search for “billionaire” and “romance,” you’ll find a hundred pages of titles. Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the most prominent of these books, but there are lots of others, and the trend has been around for years. I remember reading Christina Dodd’s Just the Way You Are in 2003, and it was far from the first. It goes without saying that these billionaires are all young, handsome, and darkly attractive—although they usually require the transformative power of love to become decent people.

And it also goes without saying that this whole trend is based on extremely shaky foundations. Even a cursory reading of the news turns up billionaires who mistreat their employees to enrich themselves farther, who engage in fraud to enrich themselves farther, and who are just generally jerks. And the idea of the physically attractive billionaire is easily exploded (see: Trump, Donald—or rather, don’t).

Moreover, romance is the only pop fiction genre that seems to have this love affair with the very rich. In thrillers and mysteries, the mysterious billionaire is more likely to be the villain than the hero. And the vicious global conglomerate is a long-standing tradition in science fiction.

So why do we hang onto this convention when it’s so obviously a serious distortion of reality? One answer, of course, is that we’re in the fantasy business here. Most of us probably know that the very rich aren’t famed for the charm and grace, but we really wish they were. In the more ideal romantic society, money would only be found with the honorable. Moreover, we also cling to another fantasy: that wealth doesn’t buy love. The billionaire hero in most of these books has to be schooled by the poor but honest heroine. And once he’s found this noncommercial love, he becomes that ideal super-rich guy who uses his money for good. Sometimes you really wish a man like Richard DeVos or Rupert Murdoch would read a few romances. Then again, they’d probably find them comic.

Still, I’ve managed to avoid the whole billionaire hero business in my own writing. A couple of my heroines, Docia Kent Toleffson and Deirdre Brandenburg, were wealthy (and a fat lot of good it did them). But like other writers, I usually reserve rich guys for villains. Then again, I write contemporary romance, where middle class heroes and heroines are a long-standing tradition. If I were writing regencies, for example, I’d probably be churning out honorable dukes with the best of them.

Like I said, we’re in the fantasy business. Just as long as we don’t let fantasy shade into our view of the real.

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Yeah, It’s Legal Here

RockiesSo I live in Colorado. I’ll now pause for the obligatory pot joke. It’ll probably be some variation on “Rocky Mountain High.” At this point, trust me, Coloradoans have heard every possible variation on the “Rocky Mountain High” joke. If we laugh, it’s because we’re basically polite people.

Two years ago, in 2012, Colorado voted decisively to legalize marijuana. It took a year for a legislative committee to work out the regulations that would govern pot sales, and not all cities allow it to be sold. However, in Denver and Boulder (the two cities I’m closest to), pot sales are legal. Out of state people are always asking me how pot has impacted our way of life, and if Colorado has changed now that pot is legal. My answer is the same to both questions: “It hasn’t.”

I should qualify that by admitting that the state has received a fair amount of revenue from marijuana taxes (around six million dollars for June 2014 alone) and that money should produce some results eventually. But immediate effects have been nil.

And the inevitable follow-up questions. But don’t people smoke pot at public events like festivals? Probably, but it’s not obvious and not a problem from my point of view. Aren’t you afraid of being hit by a driver who’s smoked pot? I’m a lot more afraid of being hit by somebody who’s texting his girlfriend, since the statistical chances of that are a lot higher.

We Coloradoans are sort of tired of this topic, to tell you the truth. We understand the novelty of it all, but the jokes are no longer funny and going over the same topics again and again is monotonous. So here are some things we can talk about instead.

  1. The scenery. The Rockies are just as majestic as ever, and most of us are willing, even eager, to talk about them and give you some ideas for places to visit.
  2. The weather. It’s gorgeous at this time of year. And even in the winter we have more sunshine than clouds. Even our snow is pretty.
  3. Sports. Denver is the most sports mad city I’ve ever lived near. There are pro teams for everything from football to lacrosse. Not everybody can talk about sports with equal enthusiasm (I’d run out of things to say pretty quickly, for example), but we can usually sustain at least a short conversation.
  4. Fitness. Colorado is legendarily one of the fittest states in the union. Ask many of us for advice on running, riding bikes, skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, etc., etc.,etc., and we’ll happily babble on for several minutes.
  5. Food. The Front Range is foodie heaven. Farmer’s markets everywhere. Great restaurants. Just ask. We’ll tell you all about it.

So you see there are lots of things we can talk about that don’t involve marijuana. It just takes a little thought. And please, I beg you, spare me any jokes about how pot makes thought difficult. We’ve heard all of those too.

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51ZzYBP1xQL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: A Life isn’t likely to make many fans among those who adored Walk the Line when it came out a few years ago. Among the many less savory facts Hilburn passes along, you learn that Cash was never able to entirely kick his addictions, going on and off pills until the end of his life. In addition, his marriage to June Carter, usually held out as a model of spousal devotion, wasn’t exactly smooth going for either of them. In fact, more than once they came close to breaking up. And yet Hilburn’s work had the support and participation of both the Cash and Carter clans, and his cover blurbs include a very positive one from Rosanne Cash herself. So what’s up? Why would family members want a book that shows the family patriarch in a less-than-glowing light?

My guess would be because an honest portrait of Cash is more interesting than the usual country hagiography. Hilburn’s affection for Cash is clear—he’s a former music writer for the Los Angeles Times, and he knew Cash from his glory days. Unlike the Hollywood screenwriters who came up with the “feel-good” version of Cash’s life for Walk the Line, Hilburn knows that there are no easy answers to the question of what makes an artist great. There were times when Johnny Cash was a lousy human being, and there were times when he was a transcendent human being, much like the rest of us. And out of this roiling mixture of good and not-so-good, Cash was able to create some spectacular, enduring music.

When I finished Hilburn’s book, I felt drained, but I also felt like I wanted to listen to a lot of Johnny Cash, not just the songs I already had, but the ones I had yet to hear (including the several albums he recorded with Rick Rubin at the end of his life). I had a new appreciation for the complexity of his music and the maelstrom of his life that produced it.

And I think perhaps that’s the problem with our preference for the “feel-good” version of some famous lives. It’s comforting to think that Johnny found June and all his problems were over. We want to believe that other people’s marriages are perfect even though our own demonstrably are not. But that point of view downplays how difficult it is both to be a functioning artist and to have a functioning marriage. I write fiction that emphasizes happy endings, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware that those endings are a lot more difficult in “real life.”

The thing is, though, Cash’s life does have a “happy” ending, or at least a satisfying one. At the end, his work with Rick Rubin produced some of the best music he’d ever done, and he left Rubin with a treasure trove of songs to be gradually released. Of course, this artistic triumph was accompanied with failing health, financial problems, and the death of the wife he’d come to cherish although he didn’t always treat her well. But that’s the way life is—triumph mixed with disaster, good times and misery.

We fiction writers get to shape our events to our own specifications, but biographers don’t have that luxury. It’s to Hilburn’s credit that even within the tough strictures of reality, he still manages to come up with a treatment that leaves me feeling both exasperation and admiration for Johnny Cash. He was real, and that’s enough.

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M&P1I’m not much for reunions. I’ve never made it to my college reunions because they always seem to take place on my wedding anniversary (hubs and I tied the knot right after graduation) and rural Iowa is not exactly the ideal place to celebrate your wedding. I made it to one of my high school reunions and decided I didn’t need to go to any more. When the invitations went out for this year’s reunion, though, I contacted my best friend from high school to see if she wanted to go. She was enthusiastic about getting together, but equally lukewarm about heading off to Wichita, Kansas.

Well, said I, does a high school reunion have to take place at high school?

Which explains how I ended up in San Diego last week. My friend Peg and I decided to have our own ad hoc high school reunion in a place that would be more fun to visit than Kansas in October. Peg’s from Arizona and I’m from Colorado, so California was fairly close for both of us (plus I prefer flying west to flying east—far more fun to gain an hour than to lose two). We ate a lot of sea food, drank a lot of wine (me) and martinis (Peg) and generally had a great time. So what did I learn?

1. “Hop on, hop off” trolley tours are the best. In a place like San Diego where there are lots of attractions spread out around the area, a trolley tour can save you a lot of time and let you take sight-seeing at your own pace (as long as you’re back on the trolley before five). Thanks to the tour, we got to see Coronado, Little Italy, and Old Town, as well as having a nice long trolley ride to let our feet recover from all that walking.

2. If you see a farmers market while you’re on vacation, by all means go. I’d already discovered this in the Western Colorado tour the hubs and I took last month, but I discovered it again in San Diego. California farmers markets are strange and wonderful from a Coloradoan point of view. Lots of olive oil. Far fewer custom meat purveyors (no Berkshire hogs—a staple of Colorado farmers markets). At least I couldn’t load up on produce this time, but I could sure admire it.

3. The Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography is so worth a visit. They have leafy sea dragons. Leafy sea dragons. I would have stood next to the glass and watched them for hours if I hadn’t also been surrounded by shrieking toddlers. I got the T-shirt, though.

4. Balboa park is simply amazing—I know of no other city park like it. Museums, gardens, an outdoor organ amphitheater (we heard the organist practicing). The Mingei Museum is not to be missed. They had a chair exhibit, which sounds weird, I know, but which was actually sort of great. We spent an entire day in the park, but as we were leaving we were both noticing things we’d missed. Sometime I’ll walk down Palm Canyon, so help me.

And yes, we did drink a toast to Wichita High School East. Several of them, in fact. I can’t wait for my next high school reunion. I’m thinking Santa Barbara this time around!

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Unhappy WriterI work at home, which means I no longer need a career wardrobe. In fact, when I’m writing, I usually stick to yoga pants or exercise shorts with T-shirts or tanks, depending on the season. Now here’s the thing—this is not what you’d call my “public” wardrobe. I wear it around the house and for doing very minor tasks like walking to the mailbox. I don’t wear it when I go out on errands. On the other hand, occasionally people come to the door while I’m working, so occasionally somebody from outside my immediate family sees me in my grubbies.

Recently, it was the guy from the lawn service, and his look told me immediately that he found my wardrobe choices a little…questionable. However, short of sitting around in my best togs on the assumption that I might have a gentleman caller, I don’t know what I could have done to make him any happier. This fact, in turn, led me to consider the whole question of judging other people’s appearance.

You may be familiar with the People Of Walmart web site. It’s a collection of snapshots of actual Walmart customers who are dressed in somewhat “colorful” ways. In fact, a lot of these people give rise to an automatic “What were they thinking?” Few of us, I assume, would show up in public with several inches of buttcrack on view.

On the other hand, I’ve seen pictures of older women in bathing suits with snarky comments that made me want to grab the photographer by the throat. The idea that only babelicious young things should be able to go swimming is at best annoying and at worst an assault both on the elderly and, in many cases, on women in general.

So here’s the thing I’m wrestling with—who gets to make this judgment? Is it fair to snicker at people in the Walmart pictures? Why should some of us become arbiters for the rest of us? Yeah, in reality, I try to at least look decent when I venture into polite society. I don’t wear anything that’s going to offend the sensibilities of most viewers. But do those viewers actually have any right to demand that I dress in a fashion that meets their standards? And what if those standards include putting every woman over forty-five into a Mother Hubbard so that younger people don’t have to be offended by reminders that bodies change as you age?

I don’t have any answers here. I guess I’m arguing for tolerance of differences, but that doesn’t mean I want to see people stuffed into clothes that are several sizes too small and that reveal generous sections of their anatomy that nobody wants to see. But the thing is, you can’t make people not do this, and to some extent it’s not your job to try.

And so we blunder on, trying to hit some kind of sweet spot between looking like you’re dressed for a royal wedding and looking like you’re living in a cardboard box. Just don’t get me started on Jersey Shore (look away, please, just look away).

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