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The Theft

I was on my way downtown to an important meeting at American Pen when the rain started. I was on my favorite bus—the #5—which is never very crowded even at rush hour. I can always get a seat and have a good 45-50 minutes of reading.

It was just about 5 :30 when I boarded at 72nd Street and Broadway. I settled in to one of the back sideways seats and took out my Kindle. I am in the midst of a book by Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine,” and it’s hard going. I was immersed in the struggle to grasp difficult concepts. Then I needed a break and switched to Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” I recently downloaded 21 books by Wharton for .$99. I read Wharton often in between other things. Her prose is clear and strong.

It had been raining on and off for days but now the rain started again in earnest, big, sleety rain, sheets of rain, with thunder, lightning and a high wind. The bus driver announced that the last stop would be 14th street; we’d have to catch another bus if we wanted to go further. Everyone groaned. Was the bus disabled? Was there flooding? No, the bus was ahead of schedule or behind schedule, something like that.

Everyone gathered their belongings. I closed down the Kindle, put it in a plastic bag and then into my briefcase. But where was my umbrella? I had put it right under my feet knowing I would need it as soon as I got off the bus. It had been raining for days, the humidity was 100% , and usually breaks at the end of a New York summer day.

Well, my umbrella wasn’t there. I thought, now this is really something. Did someone take it? I got up, looked all around. No, it hadn’t rolled anywhere. And then a woman across the aisle said that yes, she’d seen a man next to her eying my umbrella and he had scampered off the bus at 23rd street. “Imagine that,” I said with typical New Yorker equanimity. “He helped himself to my umbrella. I’m glad it wasn’t my wallet or my Kindle. And all because I was so immersed in READING.”

The woman laughed and told me to be more careful. We both got soaked as we slid off the bus into a drug store to wait out the storm. I took the opportunity to treat myself to a big, heavy $8 umbrella. It’s more than I usually spend but I deserved it.

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The Lay-Off

The woman standing in front of me at Port Authority Bus Terminal was dressed elegantly in a black suit with a long jacket. She was very tall and thin and could see over the heads of all the people waiting to buy Trailways tickets. The line was very long, there were only two cashiers; I had already missed my bus. There would be another and one after that. Still, I didn’t relish hanging out at the station, Kindle2 notwithstanding.

The woman was carrying a piece of paper but did not have any bags. She looked at the paper now and again, shifted from foot to foot, and then she turned around and looked at me. I noticed that she was wearing pumps and that these pumps were more like slippers than protective city shoes.

“I’m here to get my ticket for a 5 a.m. departure tomorrow morning,” she said. "I didn’t want to take a chance that I would miss my bus. My aunt is expecting me. She insisted I come up. I haven’t been feeling well since I got laid off.”

“I’ve already missed mine,” I said, not responding to news of her bad luck, ignoring this news, in fact, which is so very easy to do. Then I felt bad—the woman was reaching out, trying to connect, so I continued on a more personal note. “I usually take my car but my husband needs to use it today and I couldn’t wait to get upstate. I’m going to be dog-sitting this weekend.”

“Oh, please, go in front of me,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. I got this “ticket” online but I still have to stand on line here to get the real ticket. They don’t scan e tickets on embarkation though they sell them on their site. I don’t get it.”

She looked distraught. Her face was drawn, almost emaciated, with bright amber eyes free floating over high, lightly blushed cheekbones. Neither her gaunt face nor the intense angry timbre of her voice matched the hauteur of her elegant suit and posture.

I had the impression she was relieved to have found a kindred spirit in me, someone with equally deep and persistent laments. She had misread me—I had no laments at that moment—but the journalist in me remained mostly silent and the Buddha in me remained attentive, kind and calm. In the end, I forced myself to hear her story.

Like so many these days, it wasn’t a happy one: The lay-off from the cosmetic company she’d worked for for twenty years was sudden, though expected. Good severance package but she was over fifty and worried that she’d never get a comparable job again. And she’d left so many friends behind, a daily routine, purpose.

“Beyond the general economic down-turn, what led to the cut backs?” I asked.

“Well it was that, of course, but also a change in women. Nowadays they aren’t so interested in cosmetics. A bit of lip gloss and that’s it. The company didn’t keep pace with those changes. We’ve been around too long and had some old-fashioned ideas.”

“Beauty from within these days,” I said. “Exercise, diet.”

“That’s it. I follow the regime myself. I should have known the company would fall apart on old ideas."

“You don’t wear a lot of make-up,” I ventured.

“No, no I don’t.”

The line inched forward. A couple of children were restive and squawking. I was certain that everyone would have preferred to be traveling some other way. The station had been swept clean of homeless people under Guiliani’s zero tolerance administration but it was still sooty and it smelled.

“It’s a hard time,” I said. “I wish you all the best.”

“Thank you,” she said, and smiled.

“Maybe you’ll be able to write your story one day,” I suggested. It sounded lame in the circumstances but was an offering nonetheless.

“Well, as a matter of fact I’ve started,” she said. “I even have a title.”

I confess I was a bit surprised. For some reason I didn’t think this successful business woman was particularly self-reflective. I was wrong. She had figured out for herself that writing may help her transition from one phase of her life to another, not therapy but therapeutic, and perhaps even marketable.

I gave her my card and we agreed to keep in touch. I told her about my workshops and invited her to attend.

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Portals and Platforms

I went to Scandinavia House on July 8th to attend an Author’s Guild symposium on the children’s book market. I’d written a story with my daughter and was curious. Would this be another market for my/our work? (She’s an artist.) Is the story we’ve written—and an idea for a series with the same character—strong enough to market in the current recession?

Mid-summer, a cool evening, the room was packed to overflowing with authors and illustrators, mostly well published, established, some hoping to get published and established, all wondering what’s next in the publishing industry in general and the children’s book market in particular.

On the panel: two authors, David Levritas and Lisa Desimini, B&N representative Kim Brown, and literary agent Marcia Wernick, all disclaiming—no surprise in the fast changing electronic world—any fore-knowledge of what the industry (or their careers, by anxious implication) will look like even a year from now.

The current—as of today only—buzz words: platforms and portals, price resistance, dystopian fiction, aspirational novels (teens read “up”), tactile quality, collectibles, young middle-grade (how old is that exactly?), creative packaging, gatekeepers (aka agents), tweens (what is that exactly?), podcasts, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, delivery options, and so on and so forth.

Well moderated by Guild member Rachel Vail, the discussion was both enlightening and humbling. Only during the Q&A did someone suggest that this particular segment of the book industry was moving a bit slowly into the electronic age. They are, for example, still insistent that a book be agented even though agents as gatekeepers do not necessarily have the keenest judgment about upcoming “trends,”(who does?) and they—publishers and agents alike—refuse to look at already digitized self-published work even if it has an ISBN and is selling on amazon.

So where are we? The answer: it’s hard to say. The only solution to the uncertainty is to keep working at the art and craft of writing. A good story well told is, in some respects, recession-proof and will always find its genre and its market.
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The Great Gatsby

I read F.Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” once a year, usually in the summer. I don’t remember when I began this literary tradition for myself, one summer more than likely as the story is set in the summer in a familiar setting—Long Island—in the 1920’s long before air conditioning. The ambience is sweaty and languid. Passengers on the train stick to the straw seats, a hot wind blows into the Buchanan house igniting the characters’ turbulent lives. Every page has a passage or turn of phrase to admire. And I always find something new: a foreshadowing I had missed, a plot connection overlooked. This time round was no different. I had downloaded the book onto my Kindle2 and read it straight through in a couple of hours. Where was I? On a bus, in the train, in the park. No, none of the above. I was in the book, a guest at Gatsby’s party, talking with Nick Carraway, the endearing peripheral narrator just turned thirty, on his overgrown front lawn about what had transpired in his neighbor’s house and berating him—how could you Nick?—for accepting Tom Buchanan’s invitation to go to the city to meet his ill-fated mistress. (Of course he had to accept this invitation, however seemingly callous. He is, after all, the person who tells the story and has to be in every scene in order to tell it.)

I also know that the book is not perfect. A masterpiece, yes, but not perfect. There is a paragraph that slips from past into present tense I had never noticed before, another that lists by name all the people who attend Gatsby’s parties that summer and goes on much too long. These flaws jumped out of my Kindle screen in high relief then disappeared with a click onto “next page.” The arc of the characters’ decline and/or evolving self-knowledge remained strong. The story and the writing have enormous force. Fitzgerald was writing his heart out.  Read More 
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A Writer in Las Vegas

I write to you, dear reader, from a strange but not particularly exotic location: Las Vegas. My husband, a tournament table tennis player, is competing in the US Open. I promised him and myself I would be a cheerleader this year. It’s a gala international event, one I have never attended before. But I am nearly at the end of the revision of my murder mystery and felt slightly frustrated by the interruption of packing and travel. This is not new; writers are always complaining that “life” gets in the way of the writing. I have my antidote: I keep working as I travel, I keep working if I have company, I write every day if only in my journal and notebooks. Writing, as Ernest Hemingway said so succinctly, is a “moveable feast.” And so I have brought: notebooks and fine-tipped pens that don’t leak in airplanes, my computer, my cell phone and my Kindle2. And I am spending some of the day away from the tournament hoopla alone in a room on the 25th floor of the Hilton—a modest hotel by Las Vegas standards—that is wi-fi’d and has a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. The room, where I watched the sun rise this morning, has become my atelier for three days, and my writing routine—once I fully recover from a long, difficult travel day—will be similar to the writing routine I make for myself anywhere: early morning reveries, work-out, write, revise, surface from solitude, hang out with friends and family, have some fun, read, nap, swim, write some more, talk to people, ask questions, listen, record their stories.
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