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Lake Winnipesaukee or the Gulf of Finland? Hint: there is a noticeable lack of mountains in the background as well as boaters ignoring the no wake zone.

Friends and I sometimes joke that we don’t always see the point in traveling, because we’re lucky enough to live in New Hampshire. We have lakes and mountains, summer and winter sports, good food, good beer, and good music. Why go anywhere else? And yet I am thrilled to be here in Finland–why? I have to admit it might have something to do with feeling as though I’ve found New Hampshire’s soulmate, particularly now that I’ve headed to the north country of Rovaniemi, Lapland.

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Yep, plenty of lumber in Lapland (northern Finland), but this is spruce, not pine.

But it’s not just a mutual affection for hiking and hard rock, sensible footwear and plaid. It’s also a shared self-deprecating and somewhat dark worldview that comes from living in a land where winter all too often overstays its welcome.

For example, one of my favorite new Finnish words I learned from one of my favorite new Finnish blogs is morkkis or moral hangover. Its the feeling you have when something you did the night before makes you so embarrassed you regret your whole existence. There’s also a terrific Finnish cartoonist, Matti, who’s created a series of Finnish Nightmares, which usually involve such horrors as salespeople who insist on asking if you need help or strangers who smile at you and try to make small talk in an elevator. These are my people.

Below are just a few other significant ways I’ve found Finland so simpatico with New Hampshire. . .

Brake for moose! We revere and respect our wildlife even when they stop traffic. I must say reindeer are much less skittish (or more foolish?) than white-tailed deer, perhaps because they’re herding animals maintained by the Sami people and so less afraid of humans. On a one-hour trip in the north country, you can expect reindeer to block the road at least 3-4 times, and they are not in a hurry to move. In NH we flash our brights to warn drivers there are cops ahead–here, it’s the sign for reindeer in the road.

We love our dogs! Dogs are everywhere here, big and little. A few more corgis and dachshunds than black labs, but LOTS of huskies, plus some beautiful shepherd varieties that are unique to the Nordics. One big difference? Unlike America, dogs here are welcome in more places, like cafes, shopping malls, and public transportation. Oh, to be a dog in Finland.

We also love motorcycles, even though you can’t drive them most of the year, four-wheelers (which are street-legal in Finland!), berry picking, fishing, and drinking a little more than we should. Why haven’t we gotten together sooner? Why aren’t there direct flights from Manchester to Helsinki? It’s never too late . . .

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Hello from Helsinki!  It took about twelve solid hours for Emi and me to get from New Hampshire to our little apartment on Helsinginkatu Street, and once we had some much-needed shut-eye, we headed out for supplies.

We began at the open-air Hakaniemi Market, about a 10-minute walk away; markets like these are scattered throughout the city and are generally open at least a couple times a week. A few stalls are creperies and cafes, a few sell knick-knacks and souvenirs, and the rest sell bread, cheese, and the most delightful produce.

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My first discovery, which you can see here nestled between berries and sugar snap peas, is that my favorite mushroom, the chanterelle, is considered the national mushroom of Finland. The wonderfully mild and delicate chanterelle can be foraged from New Hampshire forests, but they are rare–I still remember the one time I found a tiny cluster while hiking in North Sandwich near my friend Holly’s cabin. Hadn’t seen them in the wild before, haven’t seen them since.

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So I usually forage for chanterelles from my favorite mushroom hunters at the NH Mushroom Company when I get up to the farmer’s market in Tamworth, and their rarity means they tend to go for more than $20 a pound. In Finland they cost half that, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Even better, I discovered that research is underway at Aalto University in Helsinki to cultivate chanterelles, a feat previously considered impossible! NH Mushroom Co., will you please try next?

It was when I checked out the S-Market grocery store without the consult of my linguist daughter, that imagesmy illiteracy in Finnish took its toll. Buying produce, bread, and cheese is fairly straightforward; what you see is what you get. Walking the aisles of the S-Market, there was a smattering of English, but more often I was relegated to deciphering the pictures on the package or the etymology of the words, with limited success. As my linguist daughter could tell you, this has much to do with the fact that, unlike English, Finnish is neither Germanic nor Latinate so there’s not a lot of overlap. Here’s the start of my market basket:

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I started off easy: the puddings were English, the salad container had pictures of cuke slices, and I picked out the word risotto on the middle package, so I figured I’d be okay. And with the exception of the risotto also containing lemon and chicken (thankfully I’m not veg) and the cuke salad being pickled rather than fresh, I was okay. With the below items however, I went slightly awry.

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The top left package has a tasty picture of what I thought was some version of pad thai–rice noodles, peas, and little chunks of tofu in what I imagined would be a savory fusion-type tomato sauce. However, the box contained only tofu chunks, with some kind of Italian-based seasoning as far as I could tell. Emi figured the picture was a suggestion of what one could make with the little basil-infused tofu bits.

And no, the bottom left package is not butter, but some butter-type product, which, if I hadn’t been so jet-lagged, I might have known due to the fact that butter does not have those healthy Omegas, just good ole butterfat, which is why I like it. Actually, though, it’s pretty tasty–much better than any margarine I’ve had. Any guesses for bottom right? Pita bread? WRONG. It is fried cheese with a tiny container of cloudberry jam, which I might have suspected since I did buy it from the cold case, though the cold case was directly across from the bread! So close and yet so far away!

For the rest of our stay, whether in the grocery or the cafe, I plan to cultivate a healthy anticipation for the unknown and play Finnish Food Roulette. Just this morning, Emi and I had breakfast at the Cafe Cardemumma where the only word on the menu I recognized was latte (other than cardemumma, of course, which I sincerely hope is cardemom). So I ordered a latte, then pointed to one of the three specials, not quite brave enough to sound anything out.

WP_20130606_004“Oh, I’m sorry,” the barista said, brilliantly intuiting I spoke no Finnish, “we’re all out of the porridge.” Ah, porridge, I thought, that’s what that was. I pointed to the next special on the list. “Omelette?” she said. “With?” “Ham?” I said, “cheese?” “Both?” she asked, and I panicked. Was it improper to order more than one filling for an omelette in Finland? Was I over the top? “Yes?” I said meekly. “Okay then,” she answered, then took Emi’s order of salmon quiche (quiche is quiche is quiche no matter what language you speak apparently).

Our breakfast was delicious, the latte the best I’ve ever had, in part due to my gratefulness at the barista’s kindness and complete lack of condescension at my ignorant American helplessness. Emboldened by the wonderful food and invigorating latte, I tried out my first Finnish word on her when we left. “Kiitos,” I said. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

My latest on the Ploughshares blog:

hobblebushtypecaseHobblebush Books, founded in 1991 by author, editor and publisher Sidney Hall, Jr., is a small press in southern New Hampshire known best for its Granite State Poetry Series and its eclectic list of prose titles. While its poetry series only publishes authors who live in or have a strong connection to New Hampshire—most recent titles are the dark and playful Talismans by Maudelle Driskell and Falling Ashes byJames Fowler, a collection primarily of haiku and haibun on “war and love and the rest”—prose offerings are slightly more wide-ranging.

For prose at Hobblebush you’ll find Poor Richard’s Lament, a fascinating novel by Tom PRL_DJFitzgerald exploring the what-if scenario of Benjamin Franklin plunked into the twenty-first century; you’ll discover Creating the Peaceable Classroom by Sandy Bothmer, a wellness guide for educators, parents and students; and finally, you can pick from an assortment of memoirs that take you anywhere from the top of Mount Washington to the ports of New Orleans and Nova Scotia to the plains of East Africa.

For the Ploughshares blog, Sidney Hall, Jr. discusses Hobblebush’s mission, acquisitions, and its increasing public presence in the region (let’s just say they have a reputation for throwing great readings).

Click here to keep reading. . . 

Free Preview!

December 1, 2012

Unknown-5In case you didn’t already know, writing and revision can be endless, but after a little crisis of confidence a  year-and-a-half ago, I decided to revise further rather than send out too soon, killing countless trees in search of a first final copy. But the manuscript is officially now out with publishers–and if you think writing takes a long time, it’s nothing close to how long book publishing takes. That is, unless you’re writing a tell-all book about a celebrity already on her 14th minute of fame or you’re a reality star on her 14th minute of fame and you have to get that beauty book/self-help book/cookbook/YA novel out before no one remembers or cares who you are. Unknown-8

images-17So, as I wait to find out the book’s fate, I thought I’d share a link to the Winter 2012 Ploughshares magazine, which has published a chapter of the manuscript. You can think of it as a free preview . . . . I’ll have one more preview chapter appearing in the new online magazine 1966, and then I hope I’ll be able to say you’ll have to buy the book to find out the rest!

This chapter is about The Miracle Worker and about body image and about the lovely and mysterious Heather, but primarily it’s about how quiet and secretive the culture of northern New England is.

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Maybe it’s the climate, maybe it’s the careful conservative natures that seemed necessary for survival, but more often than not northern New Englanders never reveal our deepest fears and desires, and we certainly don’t reveal our secrets. As I write in the essay, “What I believed to be true was true—if you don’t say something, no one will ask you. If you don’t ask—and you hardly ever ask—no one will tell you anything.” Hope you enjoy; I’d love to hear your feedback.

“Heather, 1984” 

 

 

I recently was asked to contribute a brief bio for my upcoming high school reunion, and while I have been working on a memoir for more years than I care to admit, may I say that I look forward to writing things like this about as much as I’d look forward to writing a yearly Christmas letter, where every statement seems to require an exclamation point and all news is good news.

I revel in good news—don’t get me wrong—I love the joy of graduations and state championships and blue ribboned art projects, I love new jobs and new babies and new driver’s licenses and straight A report cards. But I also love the truth of life—bad backs and fender benders and midlife crises, the smaller triumphs of finding a great pair of jeans at the thrift store or picking five bucks off of the sidewalk.

And most of all I love revelations, like figuring out that croissant is the French word for crescent because the pastry is shaped like the new moon, or determining that four-year-olds can still be amazed by the fact that red paint and blue paint make purple, or finally decoding that The Clash aren’t singing “stand by me” in their song, but instead “you didn’t stand by me,” a discovery that just makes you want to lie down on the floor and cry because true disappointment really does hit you lightning-quick that way.

 

 

So while I was unable to bring myself to write a proper bio, I was able to submit this small paragraph for my Gilford High School Reunion Booklet. There are no exclamation points or pieces of actual news, but everything below is completely true:

Katie Flaherty–Gilford Middle High School–What Has She Been Up To?

Over the years I’ve stuck my nose where it didn’t belong, acquired sunburns and poison ivy in uncomfortable places, walked my dog, wondered how the heck I got here, complained about my co-workers, yelled at my kids, ate squid tacos and tongue tacos and tacos al carbon and more Grape Nut ice cream than I could ever measure, drank too much coffee and wine and Diet Coke, ignored surgeon general’s warnings, finished all my vegetables, believed God was my DJ, camped on the beach, fell asleep on the couch, watched bad TV, danced the Polka, put pennies on railroad tracks, read cheesy books and great books and annoying books and far too many books I wish I’d written myself, been shocked and jealous and panicked and pathetic and proud and devastated and deliriously happy, been a sucker for the corporate ploy, plucked my furniture from the city dump, saw great bands and crappy bands and bands that were somehow both at once, went to the opera and wondered what the heck the hype was all about, been underpaid and overworked, demanded my money back, had my heart ground to dust on the sidewalk and then swept up and put back together, had poppy seeds and parsley and popcorn stuck in my teeth, drooled on my pillow, cried at the movies, got blisters from new shoes, and hugged my kids, grateful still to be here in this world.


As I look forward to what 2011 will surely bring, I figure it all kind of comes down to Rejection and Acceptance, whether you’re a writer or not, so here’s a little advice on how we all can handle it. And yes, it’s all pretty obvious, treacly-type stuff, but that’s what New Year’s is about, no?

Rejection.

We all know it’s coming in some form or another this year, and it will happen more than once. A joke you tell at a party will be met with stony silence, an outfit you put on will get the eye-roll from your twelve-year-old daughter, the job you apply for will go to someone less-qualified but better connected, and, of course, the book you may have put way too many hours in writing and fine-tuning and carefully mailing out will be returned after too many agonizing months with a brief note saying it was good but not good enough, or good but not good for us.

I know rejection is coming for me from someone, somewhere, even if acceptance might follow soon after (and oh boy do I hope so). And while it can be good to bolster your spirits with those dreams of eventual acceptance (or dreams of gut-busting laughter at the next joke you tell, or your twelve-year-old daughter saying, “Yeah, I guess you look okay,” instead of  “I guess you look o-kay,” or getting that call with the salary offer and start date), it’s important to be prepared for the alternative. So here’s some advice I acquired this year or over years past. Read, learn, then perform.

  1. 1. Tell the truth (at least some of the time) when someone asks “How are you?” Answering that question honestly this year helped me find a new house, get half a sandwich every now and again if I forgot to bring my lunch to work, and good advice or a listening ear whenever I really needed it.
  2. 2. Share your lunch. Have dinner together. Go out for breakfast. This advice is inspired by my friend Megan who, by design, will bring to work too much leftover orzo pasta or rice and beans and insist I help her finish everything. In return I bring in the extra-large carton of Goldfish crackers every other week, the thermos of coffee every day, the occasional pot of hummus with carrot sticks. Friends share their problems, friends share their good news, but it seems when friends share food (or coffee, or the occasional well-crafted cocktail), that’s when the conversations last longer and mean more.
  1. 3. When necessary, lie down and have a good cry. It does wonders.

 

 

 

Acceptance

There will be good news too, even if it’s just that your kid didn’t catch the lice or the pink eye running rampant through your school or that you somehow missed getting the flu this winter. Even more than that, there will be that special day you break 100 in bowling, you get the good parking spot at the beach with an hour left on the meter, and, finally, you’ll get the word you’ve been hoping and waiting and longing for. Whatever that might be for you. What do to then?

  1. Tell your friends. We need to hear good news, even if, or perhaps especially if, it’s not our own.
    It not only gives us hope, makes us think that maybe our turn is next, it makes us happy.
  1. 2. Be grateful. You know you didn’t do it all by yourself—say thank you. Or buy someone lunch or a coffee or an ice cream cone.

3. Remind yourself that acceptance sometimes means accepting help—don’t be too proud!

4. Celebrate! Dance around in your living room. Get dressed up and go out. False modesty doesn’t suit you.

So those are my words of wisdom for 2011, and I suspect I’ll have to go back and re-read this blog a time or two as I enter the hard year of finding out whether or not my book is worth the paper it’s printed on, plus the toner cartridge I emptied printing it out, not to mention all those long hours I could have spent watching television or perfecting my batting stance or learning how to needlepoint. . . but I have all of 2011 ahead of me—maybe it’s time for a few new resolutions while I work and write and wait for the mail to come. Happy New Year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately, and not just because I’m supposed to be at an ending now myself, what with the revisions I finished during my stay at the little cabin in New Hampshire and my goal to send this manuscript out by the end of October. But instead of packing everything up, working on cloying cover letters to editors and agents in this past month, and dropping that stack of manila envelopes at the Post Office like I was dropping raffle tickets into a bucket at a church fair hoping to win the grand prize, I have instead become obsessed with my last chapter, worried that my book finishes like a lousy pop song with a cheap, slow fadeout, a sound engineer just turning the dials to zero because the band couldn’t come up with anything better. Who wants that?

My fixation on this last chapter is complicated by the fact that I’ve recently determined everything I thought my book was about—sex, boyfriends, best friends, and all we have to unlearn once we finally leave high school—was slightly off base. All of that is still there—the boys, the best friends, the awkward adolescent fumbling—and I still like what I’ve done so don’t get me wrong, the book’s great, you’ll love it, it’ll be the best twenty bucks you’ll spend. But I’ve had some revelations these past few weeks and while I won’t reveal the specifics—that would be like giving the ending away—I will tell you what brought me to this discovery.

Last week I went to see a former teacher of mine, Ted Kooser, give a poetry reading in Concord, New Hampshire where he’d come to accept the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon American Prize in Poetry. To say that Ted was my teacher is a bit of a stretch since all I really did was sit in on an introductory poetry class he used to teach once a year at the University of Nebraska (I went to school there for about ten years in an attempt to prove the theory that if you threaten never to leave school someone eventually hands you a degree or two if only to get you out the door). So after that class ended, I’d occasionally fax a poem I’d written to the insurance office where Ted worked and he’d write down suggestions and make corrections and fax it back to me at the office where I worked, and I’d do my best to incorporate his suggestions before filing it away in my notebook. And yes, I would love nothing better than to scan and post one of those faxes here on this blog, but after spending about two hours hunting through various boxes and notebooks in my house looking for something I know I’d never throw away, I remain empty handed. Sigh.

Anyhow, though I am not, nor have I ever been a poet, Ted was a generous reader just like he is a generous writer and he humored me during this experimental phase in my life.  Since that time I haven’t written a single poem, but Ted has written a lot, and he’s done a few other things as well like become the U.S. Poet Laureate, win the Barnes & Nobel Discovery Award, and win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Hooray Ted! In reading Ted’s award-winning books over the years and delighting in the fact that he was finally getting recognized, I also continued to learn from his writing—about focus, about revision, about cutting out the fluff—and I was excited to go see him in my home state of New Hampshire. A major plus for the night was that I attended the reading with my kids, Joe and Emily, my parents, and two of my favorite Nebraska alums, poets Liz Ahl and Sandy Yannone.

 

Me, Liz and Sandy, so so happy because we just had a mini-Nebraska reunion with Ted!

 

But back to the reading. Ted gave kind of a greatest hits performance as he read a range of poems he’d written over the past several decades, and, ever the teacher, he spoke in-between about what stories or images he drew from in order to create each composition. Ted has always been a wonderful storyteller, whether in front of an audience or just in conversation, but last week he seemed more contemplative to me—or perhaps just exhausted from the long trip to New Hampshire from Nebraska—and there was one point where he stopped for a few seconds in-between poems, deep in thought, before saying, “I think I’m an elegiac poet. I think that most of my poems are elegies. . . and when I write a poem about someone—my mother, my uncle—I lift them up, for a brief moment, into the light. You need to do that too—all of you. Whether you’re a writer or not you need to write something—anything—about your Uncle Ed or your mother or your brother, and then you need to put it in a drawer and leave it there for someone to find. Then when someone finds it and reads it, years later, for that brief moment that person has been lifted into the light, no matter how long they’ve been gone.”

So yes, the tears flowed after that, much to the embarrassment of Emily who had the misfortune of sitting next to me. And what’s so beautiful about this idea is that Ted doesn’t mean just writing about people who are long gone, but also about people who are still living, and he doesn’t mean just writing about the grand and life-changing things those people have done, but instead about the small and the everyday—going to a garage sale or taking the dog for a walk. That elegiac spirit is in every moment Ted writes about—his wife washing her hands at the kitchen sink, his father snoring through the night, his own moment on a park bench in a small Nebraska town. Ted’s poems are a testament to a life spent just paying attention to and appreciating the everyday, rather than waiting for something remarkable and earth-shattering to happen. His small poems about screech owls and abandoned farmhouses and his mother making oatmeal on a cold winter morning are a testament that the everyday is remarkable if only we could stop for a minute and take stock. 

So that’s where I am today. Obsessed with endings, both real and artificial—the ending of a book, the ending of a chapter, the ending of a marriage, the ending of a way of life that no longer can exist—but thanks in part to Ted, thanks in part to all of the people I went to Ted’s reading with as well as the friends I have who could only be there in spirit, I am reenergized with finding the remarkable in the everyday, as well as in a small, humble book I hope to drop off at the Post Office by the end of October.

For another ending, below is a clip of Ted reading one of his poems–he read this in Concord too, and it made me cry too (again, apologies to Emily).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS3ztwm125Y

1. Spent a lovely couple of end-of-summer weeks in a cabin in New Hampshire where I somehow managed to blow through the revisions on my book. I was amazed at how much work I was able to do when, for the first time in my life, I had the luxury of working like writing was a real job (though sadly I received no paycheck).

2. While I only had two weeks and not two years like Thoreau had when he wrote Walden, I did feel a little Thoreau-like in my cabin in the woods, even dusting off my old flute and playing for the birds . . .  (and yes, any bad  “Kate’s flute playing is for the birds” comments would be entirely appropriate here).

3. Other than tidying up what I hope will be the final major edit of My Brief History, I think the other great accomplishment of the trip was convincing my dog Charley to take the great leap and go swimming. Charley is part-Lab, but he only inherited the “likes to jump up on people” Lab gene and has, until now, been completely terrified of any water that’s not sitting quietly in a bowl next to his food. I have to say I was proud of both of us.

How Charley usually looks when he gets too close to large bodies of water.

4. Went to Gilford Old Home Day and fell into the trap of telling the kids “Back in my day there were no fireworks, no climbing wall or fried dough or rock bands playing in the grandstand and still we had fun,” though I strongly suspect that wasn’t really the case. Was pleased to see one band in particular—Rick Page and The Round-Ups, which you can hear for yourself at http://www.myspace.com/rick1page1. I thought they were terrific though I admit I may be a little biased because I was in Rick Page’s first band—a.k.a. the Gilford Middle High School Band . . .

5. Wondered for a minute whether I might deduct my New Hampshire stay on my taxes by claiming it as research for my book, in part because I ran into a handful of people I hadn’t seen since high school and was quickly able to determine that my characterizations were right on . . . would love to hear from any accountants out there if that might count as fact-checking or not.

6. Managed a field trip to the Weirs, which I attempt at least once a summer if only to make sure the neon sign is still there and the Drive-In Theater is still open. (Yes to both). Also learned the disturbing information from the coin-operated animatronic fortune-teller on the boardwalk that my lucky color was pink just before her recorded voice began endlessly repeating, “Fortunes out. Please report to arcade attendant. Fortunes out. Please report to arcade attendant.”

However my luck changed when I discovered the end-of-season $2 sunglass wall at the boardwalk T-shirt shop, where I bought a pair of rose-colored glasses—and yes, life did immediately look better, so maybe my lucky color is pink even if I appear to currently be out of fortunes—and I found a pair of fab white bigger than Jackie O. shades that I now wear everyday out on the playground with my students since summer is over and school has begun again. . .

7. Had a chapter of my book published this fall in Prairie Schooner, a literary magazine I worked for ages ago. Prairie Schooner published Chapter 3 of the book, which I re-titled “Method Acting” because “Chapter 3” sounded a little lame. I’d summarize it for you, but then you might not care about reading it, so I’ll leave it a mystery. I was inspired by a large portion of the rest of the Fall 2010 Prairie Schooner, which is a collection of tributes to the magazine’s editor—my former boss, mentor, and friend, Hilda Raz—to honor her retirement. Hilda Raz is one of the main reasons that today I write more than just grocery lists and notes to Joe and Emily’s teachers about early pickups for dentist appointments, but rather than go on at length about Hilda’s attributes myself, I will instead include the most succinct and witty tribute, written by my friend and one of my favorite writers, Erin Flanagan. I will end this post with her words:

What I Learned from Hilda Raz

by Erin Flanagan

Strong glasses demand attention. Do not let people you don’t respect tell you what to do. Always carry an extra pair of underpants in your purse when you travel. Listen to your instincts. If you throw a dinner party and find a spider in the salad, pluck it from the greens and make a literary reference that will leave your guests charmed. Love your children fiercely and honestly. Surround yourself with brilliant friends. Survive. Listen to what an author is trying to tell you no matter what she is saying. Call first thing in the morning to keep people on their toes. Follow your heart, that nebulous device.

What I failed to learn from Hilda Raz: how to imagine Prairie Schooner without her.

Reprinted from Prairie Schooner, Fall 2010, by permission of Erin Flanagan

It’s the body image blog, inspired in part by the fact that it’s bathing-suit season, inspired in part by the fact that the other major suggestion my editor-friend made re: my manuscript My Brief History of Sex Education had to do with the fact that I rarely describe my body in the book, an omission she apparently thinks leaves the book wanting.

Me in my favorite sweatshirt in the offseason.

It made me realize that perhaps I write like I used to dress in high school only I hide behind words now rather than clothes. In high school I used to go to the beach and disappear beneath a giant orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup sweatshirt, size XL, that my grandmother had gotten free through the mail after sending in about 100 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrappers, 89 of which I had eaten myself, which may have been why I felt compelled to wear the sweatshirt in the first place.

Heart attack in a jar.

At school I wore a wide variety of oversized clothing, especially toward the later years—the years after I quit playing basketball and field hockey and before I realized that when you’re no longer playing basketball and field hockey you really shouldn’t be eating a half dozen cheese, pickle and Miracle Whip sandwiches every day for an after school snack.

So my daily wardrobe consisted mainly of clothes I raided my from my grandmother’s closet—think comfy wool cardigans and big shirts in silky fabrics or blue chambray, a curious mix of Bea Arthur in her Golden Girls era and pretty much anything Katharine Hepburn wore after she turned 60 or so. I enjoyed spending my day wearing something big and soft that smelled like a comforting mixture of baked goods, talcum powder, and Jean Naté perfume, but I’m not sure I made much of a fashion statement.


When I wasn’t wearing my grandmother’s clothes, I tended to look like Boy George only not as cute if only because he did a much better job than I on hair and makeup. For this look I alternated between black leggings and a collection of elastic-waist skirts my grandmother sewed from a stack of Polynesian-themed fabric she had piled in the recesses of her closet, over which I wore tablecloth-sized scarves and tuxedo-shirts I’d bought at the Arrow outlet store on Weirs Boulevard in Laconia, New Hampshire or my favorite accessory, my London Fog black raincoat which covered me almost head to toe.

And no, I can tell you that smoking does not help you lose weight, unless you consider the fact that you lose pretty much all your weight after you die of lung cancer.

Really could have used this back then. . .

What was the point of these fashion choices? In part they were due to the cheese, pickle and Miracle Whip sandwiches and in part they were due to adolescent insecurity; I liked to believe that the larger my outfits were, the smaller I would appear. I’m pretty sure, however, the only thing that looked smaller was my head, a la David Byrne in his Stop Making Sense phase. But boy would I have loved a suit like David Byrne’s—with a suit that big I could probably have disappeared entirely. And isn’t that what we all want when we’re teenagers?

David Byrne is probably thinking about high school. . .

So is my manuscript is lacking because I don’t share these body image anecdotes? I have to admit perhaps. In my discussions with various agents and editors this year (and no, no one has yet swept me up and whisked me off to publishing heaven yet, but I remain hopeful and hardworking), many have said my book would do well as a memoir for young adults, and girls in particular would better connect if I were more open about these body issues—issues that affect all women, however perfect or lovely we truly are, however beautiful we appear, from the inside or out.

And as I think back to my own absurd ways of dealing with the insecurity I felt about my body back then, it wasn’t hard to immediately recall all the silly things my girlfriends did in high school as well. Below is the briefest list of girls I’ve known and the insecurities they suffered through in high school:

A girl who wore long johns beneath her jeans because she thought her legs were too skinny. She also wore a huge sweatshirt at the beach like me, but in her case she wore it because she also thought she was too flat-chested and was always afraid her lack of body fat would make her lips turn a noticeable blue.

A girl who also thought she was too flat-chested and would stand in the mirror and jump up and down every day, hoping against hope that one day she would be able to see her chest “jiggle.” Although I was unable to witness the breakthrough myself, I can happily report that she said she was eventually successful.

A girl who, convinced the light golden fuzz on her arms turned her into a girl-illa, shaved her arms as well as the rest of her body. All I can say is that I think women already have to shave enough parts of our bodies and that arm stubble is weird and I really hope she doesn’t do it anymore.

A friend who used to borrow her mother’s girdle because she thought she was fat until one night her boyfriend put his arm around her and squeezed, then squeezed again, then asked, “What the hell is that?” and she lied and said it was a back brace and then never wore it again.

These are just the silliest examples, the light-hearted examples—discussing how easy it may have been to develop a full-fledged eating disorder (in the ‘80s the simplest way would be to catch a few choice episodes of Oprah, many of which could basically serve as how-to manuals) I won’t even begin to touch on. But I think, again, my editor-friend is right. More work, but it’s worth it. No more hiding behind my muumuu of words . . . time to strip down and reveal all.

And as I finish this final blog of the summer—yes, September is upon us even now—I want to encourage any of you who are enjoying these infrequent posts to subscribe to my blog. As you can tell I do not overwhelm you with the banal minutiae of my day—I promise no blogs about what kind of breakfast cereal I prefer or which shampoo best cures my nagging dandruff issues—but if you like what you’ve read so far, click on the button way down at the bottom of the blog and add your email to my list. It will keep you posted (better than Facebook even), on when I post something new. Plus it’s free—and what is there left in the world that’s free, other than love and the common cold?

The blog has been quiet for a while and it will remain so at least another week, because I’m so busy wri–no, wait a minute, I’m not writing. I’m on vacation, not doing much of anything constructive though I tell myself I’m in a hunting and gathering stage for the next project whatever it is, which is pretty much what I always tell myself when I’m not actually getting any work done.

I’m also still mulling over necessary revisions, especially the suggestion from an editor friend of mine that I include more of my parents in the book. “They were around, right?” she asked. Yes, of course they were but as I write in My Brief History of Sex Education, they took on the characteristics of adults in all those Peanuts holiday specials I used to watch on TV.

My parents were there for me and I could depend on them without reservation, but I don’t really recall what they looked like, their voices were garbled and indistinct, and I barely remember a word they said. Though they weren’t absent in real life, I think for the purposes of the book I decided to take the fairy tale approach (kill the parents or at the very least the mother, so the main character can be fierce and independent and do her own thing). I’m reminded of this setup almost every time my daughter begins a book and tells me, “Hey Mom, guess what? They killed the mom off in the beginning again–now everyone gets to have fun!” Delightful.

But I admit that my parents are conspicuously absent from my book, My Brief History of Sex Education, even though they weren’t absent in real life. So as I enjoy my vacation with my own kids, knowing full well that whenever I talk to them they are thinking to themselves,”I see your lips moving, Mom, but I have no idea what you’re saying,” as if our conversation were being held underwater or across a vast, wide chasm complete with dramatic hand gestures that usually do more to confuse than clarify, I will do my best to remember how my own parents involved themselves in my life way back when, in those years I rarely paid them any attention.

In the meantime, a bit of news that’s uplifting, especially when my pen has been temporarily put down. A short essay of mine, “Fast Forward” was just published in You Must Be This Tall to Ride, an online journal of stories about childhood and adolescence. It originally appeared in this blog so you may have read it already, but for those of you who haven’t here’s the link.

www.youmustbethistalltoride.net