Category Archives: Writing My First Novel

I’ve Moved!

Click here for the same blog, exciting new address!

Anyone remember the Jeffersons? Sammy Davis, Jr.? Put them together and you get:

Nope, I’m not a published author yet, but after blogging on my own for two years, I celebrated my 70th post by pitching this blog to Chicago Now, which is Tribune Media Company’s online community of Chicago-area bloggers. I pitched RIDING THE WAVES via Chicago Now‘s online pitch form and heard back the same day. My blog was accepted!

So what does this mean?

It means I keep doing what I’m doing, but I might do it with a little more spring in my typing fingers. I’ll keep writing about RIDING THE WAVES, but now, I may have the chance to share it with even more readers. It means I’m sitting up a little straighter (which is great…I tend to slouch).

It means that Chicago Now believes my writing deserves a shot at something a little broader, a little wider-reaching.

It means I might get to connect with some new readers and possibly hear back from them.

These are all great things.

When I first began blogging in January 2010, I hadn’t a clue what to write about, so I searched for inspiration everywhere. In the process of doing so, I formed an unconscious habit of seeking inspiration; not only did that help me become a better writer, but it also grew me as a person. I’d ask people what motivated them to do inspiring things and investigate how certain situations came to be. I constantly pondered how I might incorporate many of the inspiring stories into my own life.

Some of my most “popular” (meaning “widely-read”) blog posts have ranged from my children’s entrepreneurial behaviors (How A 12-Year-Old Shags An iPad) to the suicide in a nearby park (Nichols Middle School Bomb) to the worry I felt when my husband and son sailed through the same storm on Lake Michigan that killed two fellow sailors (Trying Not To Cry) to an interview with a guy formerly known as Barry (How I Got To Interview The President Of The United States). Each of those posts serves as a distinct mile-marker on my newly-discovered writing journey. I’ll always remember how those events moved me so deeply that I couldn’t wait to write my feelings about them. Whether they made me laugh or cry or shake my head in disbelief, they each inspired me to sit, breathe, write and exhale.

Expanding my blog to a potentially wider audience on Chicago Now feels a little scary, but then so did talking to President Obama. What I’m telling myself as my blogging branches out is exactly what I told myself when the camera lights went on during the Obama Hangout: It’s just you & the person in front of you.

When I spoke with the President, I didn’t let myself think about anything other than the fact I was talking to a guy who used to live in Chicago. When I write my blog entries, I always try to write as if I’m talking to you directly…not to a slew of readers who may pass one of my posts on to someone else. The only way this works for me (and the way I keep my head fastened on tight) is to write with an honest focus, just to write what I’m thinking — as if I’m talking with a friend over coffee. It’s essentially a stream-of-conscience style, but that’s how my mind works. I’m pretty simple.

I hope you’ll visit my new site on Chicago Now and continue reading RIDING THE WAVES. And, if you’d like the latest posts delivered to your inbox, just put your email in the subscription box.

You’ve been with me from some of my earliest posts, and I’m grateful for the support, the comments and the encouragement. Thank you for RIDING THE WAVES along with me. This is getting pretty fun!

Click here for the same blog, exciting new address!

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“Don’t Lie to me, Mom! I know you’re Santa!”

It’s almost the end of February, and, as is the custom in my house, there are only two or three straggling remnants of Christmas left to put away: The green, plaid dishcloth with snowflakes; holiday doormat; and the silicone ice-cube tray with Christmas tree shaped cutouts. Once they find their way to the basement, the house will finally be completely sanitized of the holiday spirit.

However, in a way, it already happened:

My eight-year-old son sat next to me at the table last night, working on his homework while my husband and I ate our dinner. Our 14-year-old son stood nearby, trying to engage us in a discussion about his inaugural shave that morning. As I tried to eat my salad and NOT think about baby hairs and peach fuzz, my head swung back and forth between the merits of his Gillette-Power-ProGlide-Core-Infusion-Venus-Flytrap razor blade and answering our 8-year-old’s homework questions. Naturally, I felt like I was at a tennis match.

“Oh,” I announced suddenly. “Someone please remind me…I need to send that ping-pong table back.” Had my 12-year-old daughter been there, she’d have popped up from the table and written the reminder on the magnetized memo pad we keep on the fridge for just such spontaneous thoughts. However, she was practicing piano.

The eight-year-old gave me his “why are you such a crazy lady” look. I’m used to that look — especially from my tween daughter — so I just kept right on talking.

“When I took the ping-pong table out of the box, there were pieces flying everywhere. I don’t think they drilled the holes right. That’s probably why it sags in the middle.”

My husband dipped out of the 14-year-old’s follicular analysis and added his own brilliant assessment of the ping-pong table: “Totally cheap,” he said.

Again with the stare from the eight-year-old.

“What?” I said, expecting my youngest child to point out, as he’s prone to do these days, that I’ve interrupted him.

“But..I thought Santa brought the ping-pong table,” he said. Blink. Blink. Sniff.

“Oh,” I said, sitting up straight, realizing I’d blatantly blown my cover. “You’re right. Santa did bring it.”

I attempted my best eye roll (the one that screams “You know me…there I go being an idiot again”), then quickly turned back to the parmesan shavings in my salad. I wanted desperately to turn back time and erase my thoughtless comment and tune back in to the morning’s shaving play-by-play.

“Mom?” the wise, young one said, tugging on my sleeve. “Santa brought the ping-pong table, right?”

Don’t let this moment happen, I thought. I’m not even ready to think about the impending facial stubble on that one, let alone stumble through a come-to-Jesus talk about how I’ve been fabricating the existence of an obese visitor for the last eight years of this one’s life…

“Absolutely, Buddy,” I said, waving my fork with the nonchalance of an heiress. “Santa brought it.” Ugh. He knows.

I tried hard not to think of the perfect Christmas morning we shared just 8 weeks ago. After the five of us opened all the presents in the living room, I’d asked the eight-year-old to run down to the basement for a fresh roll of paper towels, knowing he’d be the first to find the Sharper Image foldable ping-pong table sitting in the middle of the basement, assembled and ready with a huge red bow on top. I tried not to think of how he screamed from the basement, “OH! MY! GOD! You GUYS! SANTA LEFT US A PING-PONG TABLE!!!”

“What?” I yelled from the living room in mock shock.

“There’s a ping-pong table?” the twelve- and fourteen-year-olds shouted, running toward the basement stairs.

“There is not a ping-pong table!” my husband yelled, winking at me and handing me my coffee cup.

“IS TOO!” the eight-year-old yelled. “Santa left a ping-pong table!”

The four of us reached the basement stairwell, cramming our necks down to see the eight-year-old walking slowly around the miniature ping-pong-table. He didn’t even notice the garbage can I’d strategically placed underneath it to keep it standing upright; that “foldable” ping-pong table was a piece of crap from the second I pulled it out of the Sharper Image box.

“This is AWESOME!” my young son yelled.

“Wow, Santa must really think you’ve been a good kid this year,” my husband said.

“Ahem,” I corrected. “My guess is, Santa brought this for all the kids,” I said. The two older ones looked at me with knowing sideways glances, smiling. “Who wants to give it a try?”

“I found it!” the eight-year-old shouted, then immediately realized how that sounded. “I mean, can I be one of the players?”

“You sure can,” I said, taking a paddle. “I’ll serve it to you.”

My son’s sternum was only a paddle’s-width higher than the top of the table, but he stood as tall as he could, ready for the first serve of the first game on the new present from Santa Claus. I bounced the hollow white ball on my end and tapped it lightly toward his side, but it hit the net — which promptly popped out of its flimsy housing and crumpled on the table. After a frustrating minute of rigging the net so it stood back upright, the timer on the oven went off — the Christmas morning casserole was ready. I attempted another serve, and as the ball bounced to the eight-year-old’s side of the table, his swing came from above (rather than the side), nearly crushing the ball flat on the table. His two older siblings gasped in horror (as only older sibs can do with such dramatic flair) at his gross misjudgment of ping-pong form. The eight-year-old shot a death glare at the older two, placed his dimpled hands on the table and pursed his lips together…but as soon as he put his weight on the table, the garbage can shifted and the table began to collapse.

“Breakfast!” my husband announced, heading up the stairs to turn off the timer.

__________________

Never mind that after Christmas morning, the ping-pong table was used exactly two times. Never mind that it’s been in its folded-up position next to the furnace for almost two months. Santa brought it, so it’s awesome; its delicate (a.k.a. junky) construction has been respected in all its Santaliciousness.

And now, at the kitchen table, in a moment of careless task-mastery, I’ve blown that Santaliciousness to bits, watching it flutter away like weightless bits of charred paper floating up a chimney.

“Dad?” the eight-year-old quivered at the table next to me last night. As my husband continued listening to the Mach IV revolution that occurred on the teenager’s upper lip that morning, he held up a finger, signaling the universal parenting sign of, “I’ll be with you in just one sec.”

“Dad,” he repeated louder, undeterred in his quest to uncover the truth. “Did you buy the ping-pong table?”

Imagine this slow-motion scene unfold:

I open my mouth to say to my husband, “Don’t answer the question!” just as he turns and says to our younger son, “Nope.”

Oh thank you God.

“Your mom bought it,” he finished. “I think she got it at…Hammacher Schlemmer, right?”

I sit frozen.

“No?” he asks, looking at me quizzically. “Was it Brookstone?” he asks, tilting his head.

I stare, shaking my head left to right, eyes closed and my mouth slightly open as he hammers the nail in deeper. “Oh wait,” he declares. “It was Sharper Image, right?”

Before I can say a word, the eight-year-old is off the stool and out of the room. I hear his little body take a flying leap toward the living room couch, knowing exactly how he buries his face in the cushions when he’s truly upset.

“He’ll be fine,” my husband says, looking slightly nervous. We both knew that was that.

Santa was no longer.

“Oh no,” I said with a heavy sigh.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Don’t worry about it? He just figured out Santa’s not real!” I hissed. “We need to go talk to him.” I know I sounded hysterical…because I was.

I’d been through this before with the fourteen-year-old, and it did not go well. He’d learned the truth about Santa when he was 9. Here’s how that went down:

Nine-year-old: Mom, I know Santa’s not real. You don’t have to lie anymore.

Me (wondering how these kids always throw me the curveballs and heavy-duty emotional stuff when I’m alone): What do you mean, Honey?

Him: Don’t lie to me, Mom! I know you’re Santa!

Me: What do you mean? (Who told him? This is my first kid. I’ve never done this before. Did I even know the truth at his age?  Should I tell him the truth or maintain the facade? Will he tell his younger siblings? Why doesn’t my husband get stuck with these questions?)

Him: I want the truth. (I check his expression and determine he’s ready for the truth)

Me (once I hear the word truth, I spill my guts): You want to know the truth?

Him: Yup.

Me: Okay. (Here goes nothing) I think you’re finally old enough now. I still believe in Santa, and so does Dad, but we’re the ones who get all the presents.

Him: I knew it! Get out! You’re a LIAR!! LIAR!! LIAR!!

Me: But… (guess I misinterpreted his expression. He’s definitely not ready)

Him: You’ve been lying to me my whole life! I bet the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are all fake, too!

Me: Well, they’re not technically lies. They’re all about the spirit of —

Him: And the Nap Fairy’s probably fake, too, right?

Me: (I clench my jaw. My mother made up the Nap Fairy as a way to get the grandkids to go down while she watched them. Sounded great at the time. Who knew?) You know, what, honey? Let’s–

Him: GET OUT NOW! You’re such a LIAR!!

So, that’s how it went down with the teenager back in the day. Thank God our daughter’s reaction was different. At 8 years old, as I tucked her into bed, she’d asked me, point-blank, if Santa was real. I braced myself for impact and answered, point-blank, “No, he’s not.” Her reaction was sheer glee.

“I KNEW it!” she’d squealed with giggles, then ran off to write a story about it.

Last night, I walked into the living room and sat down on the couch next to my grieving son. His entire body faced the back of the couch, away from me, from the fireplace — where we’ve always laid out the cookies and the milk and the notes for Santa and the carrots and the water for the reindeer — and from the lies. My husband lingered in the kitchen, wiping down the counter from dinner (not just because I’m horrible at that job, which I am, and not because we’d left a huge mess, which we did not); who could blame him for keeping clear of the emotions in this living room?

This is the moment we’ve never discussed as parents: our youngest child asks if Santa is real…and wants to know if his parents and his siblings are all in on the whole charade. It’s all so heartbreaking. Why did we ever think this was a good idea?

Gently, I nudge his back. He jerks away, shaking off my contagious, dishonest arm.

“I still believe,” I say, meaning it.

He turns toward me with tears on his bright red cheeks, his head slightly sweaty from being buried in the couch cushion. I know he’s ashamed of his anger, ashamed of not figuring it all out sooner, ashamed of being mad at a mother who loves him. I see this confusion in his eyes, especially when he says, “What do you mean, you still believe?”

“I mean, I believe in Santa. I’m 43 years old and I believe in him. When I was your age, and I found out my parents delivered all the gifts…that Santa wasn’t the one who came…I was sad, just like you are. But then I learned it’s okay to still believe in him, even when he’s not here. Because Santa’s here in spirit. That’s the truth.”

I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t turn away from me. Thankfully, he did not.

We moved the screen away from the fireplace. Left a trail of coal. Cleared out the cookies and the food for the reindeer. The note was for the eight-year-old and his two friends, who'd collected money for the big man, hoping for more presents...

As my husband takes a seat on the couch, my son says, “So it was always you guys who moved the fireplace screen?” My husband props his feet up on the coffee table and looks to me.

“Yup,” I say, scrunching my nose with guilt. As our son continues to pull at our heartstrings, the Santa myth keeps unraveling, breath by breath.

“So those presents that said, ‘To Nate From Santa’ were really from you guys?” he says. I think I see a tear.

“Yes,” I confess, looking him in the eye. Wait, that’s not a tear. It’s more of a glint. Could he actually be glad to know what’s been going on?

“If you really think about it,” my husband says, “it’d be awfully hard for a fat man to squeeze down this chimney. Just look at it.” He points to the shallow space in the hearth where the coal basket sits. This house has a narrow, coal-burning fireplace, de rigueur when Queen Anne rowhouses like this one were built. “He’d have been stuck for sure, don’t you think?”

Our son pauses in thought. “What about all of our Christmas cookies? And the milk? And the carrots for the reindeer?” He’s definitely not mad; more like something halfway between curious and WTF.

My husband raises his hand, admitting his complicity. “I ate all the cookies,” he says, rubbing his belly. His broad smile is an older version of our son’s, whose smile I’m still hoping to find tonight.

“You ate the carrots, too?” the boy asks us.

“No,” I say, “but we fed them to the rabbit.” I shrug my shoulders, hoping his eight-year-old heart understands we did this all out of love. Monsters don’t feed carrots to rabbits on Christmas Eve, right? He’s got to know that.

I watch my boy as he thinks and, in this moment, I am unsure if more tears — or acceptance — will follow.

Just then, the smooth-lipped teenager strolls into the room. “What’s up, li’l rider?” he says to his little brother.

With a stony-eyed look on his cherubic face, the eight-year-old announces, “I know everything.”

“About what?” the hairless wonder asks.

“About Santa,” poker-face says, pointing to his father and me.

“Oh, Dude. I kind of remember when I found out! I kind of–”

I remember when you found out,” my daughter says to her older brother, cracking her knuckles as she walks into the living room. “You were sooooo upset!”

“I was?” the teenager asks, looking to me for confirmation. I nod as his sister continues.

“Yes, you were,” she says, arms folded across her chest. She looks at the younger brother — whom she claims to despise — and winks. “He cried so hard!” she says, pointing to the teenager. The younger brother sits up straighter, stealing a sideways glance at the older brother he idolizes.

“You cried really hard?” the young one asks incredulously, covering his mouth with his hands.

“Like a little baby,” the sister reports — as if she’d been there herself (which she most certainly was not). She’s heard me tell the story many times, particularly when she’s been tempted to tell her younger brother the truth about Santa. I’d remind her how devastated her older brother had been, and that it was important not to ruin the magic of Christmas for her younger brother.

The moment has arrived. Each of my children are now aware there is no Santa Claus. The “secret” is out, and I’m shocked at the relief I feel not to carry this non-truth any longer. In fact, I’m shocked my third child still believed in Santa until he was 8, though I suspect he wanted to believe as much as I wanted him to.

Such a rare moment. This is where the true magic is.

It’s in moments like this that I try to find the collective good that comes out of life’s toughest situations. For instance, all three of my kids were gathered in one room, engaged in a non-combative manner. In that moment, they were connected by a common thread (granted, that thread was the “lie” I’d been telling for 14 years running, but still…).

I still believe in the magic, the emotion, and the spirit of the season, and I hope my children will embrace these emotions, as well. And that’s the truth.

“That” Google+ Hangout – How I Got To Interview The President Of The United States

President Obama waves to my children on the first, live-streaming Google+ Presidential Hangout.

On Monday, January 30, 2012, I was one of 5 Americans chosen to participate in the first ever, all-virtual interview with The President Of The United States.

Several people have asked me how I acquired a direct Internet connection from my home to The White House, and, while I may never know the specifics, I can at least offer a glimpse into one whirlwind week of my life that began with a simple question and ended with an answer from Barack Hussein Obama in my dining room.

Monday, 1/23/12

Three days before I was scheduled to fly to New York City for a writers’ conference, I sat in my home office making the last of the edits on a children’s novel I’ve written called MY LIFE AFLOAT.  I dread revising, so when my smartphone lit up with a new email, I gladly opened it. Here’s part of what the email said:

What would you ask President Obama?

Tomorrow, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address at 9:00 p.m. ET. During that speech, he’ll lay out his vision for an America where hard work and responsibility are rewarded, where everyone does their fair share, and where everyone is held accountable for what they do.

There is a range of ways to get involved with this year’s State of the Union address.

Immediately following the President’s speech on Tuesday, be sure to stay tuned to WhiteHouse.gov/SOTU for a live panel featuring senior White House advisors answering your questions about the speech. Then, on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, a group of policy experts and advisors to the President will sit down for Office Hours on Twitter — discussing the issues that matter to you and your community.

Finally, on Monday, January 30, President Obama will join the conversation in a special Google+ Hangout, a live multi-person video chat, from the White House.

Participating in the Hangout is easy — just visit the White House YouTube channel to submit your questions and vote for your favorites between now and January 28. A few participants will be chosen to join the President in the Google+ Hangout to ask their questions of the President live!

I really liked the opening of that last paragraph. “Participating in the Hangout is easy”.

Why not? I thought.

I opened a new window on my computer and filled in the required information to submit my question to The President. My novel’s protagonist, 12-year-old Maeve, was still on my mind.

What do I want to ask The President of The United States of America?

I could ask what it was like growing up in Hawaii. What was it like at Harvard? What’s the hardest part about being a parent? Does your mother-in-law still live with you…and how’s that working out? What’s your favorite food? Do you ever feel overwhelmed? How do you manage all the issues flying at you (seriously…how do you do it, because I find it difficult to cram in ONE load of laundry and a dinner plan for my family, let alone make time to get my hair cut and my dog’s nails trimmed. And, oh, God, the rabbit’s out of food…again. And while I’m at it, why does your field trip cost $4? Who’s got four singles lying around at nine o’clock at night? Just make it $5 for crying out loud).

Nah, I thought. I can probably find the answers to most of those questions somewhere

I looked at my minimized screen…and saw Maeve waiting for me. I had to get back to her. The guilt was beginning to eat at me, especially since the edits were nearly done. I couldn’t wait to get to New York to share my manuscript with prospective agents and editors. Last year’s conference was less than successful, and as my mother keeps insisting, “2012 will be your year!” MY LIFE AFLOAT’s target is kids 8-12 years old, about one girl’s life becoming unanchored when both of her parents lose their jobs.

Just write something to The President, I thought. Nothing came.

This is a waste of time, I thought. And so classic of me. I’m avoiding doing what I ought to be doing. I really just need to get back to Maeve.

And then, thanks to Maeve, my question became crystal clear.

In my novel, she writes to The President, asking for his help to find her parents new jobs.

Now I know my question.

As the life she once knew drifts away from her, Maeve tells The President she’s scared, especially when she sees her parents fight and especially when she sees her father cry. And so, I channeled a fictitious, 12-year-old girl I’d made up three years ago to help me craft an interview question for The President of the United States of America. It sounds corny, but I cannot stress this enough: Maeve’s words literally flowed through my fingers and onto my keyboard. I didn’t even think as I typed. I wasn’t worried about my question being picked, and I didn’t need to know how many people voted on it. All I knew was that I spoke for a child in America silently struggling in our economy, a child who needed to be heard.

Here is the question I submitted:

What can you say to children whose parents are struggling financially? What hope and encouragement can you offer children when they see their folks…

…worry about health coverage?

…struggle emotionally?

…search for work?

…show signs of giving up hope?

tinywolf1 [My YouTube channel name]

Evanston, Illinois

That was probably plenty. It was time to get back to my own writing. But…wait. What’s this? An option to add video to my question? Well, you know, visuals always help tell a story, right? At least, that’s what I told myself.

As I turned on my webcam, I realized I hadn’t even brushed my hair or changed out of the sweatshirt I’d slept in, but I was hell-bent on avoiding those revisions.  Plus, who really even looks at these things, right?

Thursday, 1/26/12, 12:36pm

What happened: I was an hour away from leaving for the airport for my conference in New York. Still making edits on my manuscript. Still packing. My smartphone lit up again, and this time, the email was from Google:

Hi,

Thank you for submitting a question for th YouTube Interview with President Obama on Monday, January 30th! As part of the interview, we are incorporating live questions asked from Americans directly to President Obama via Google+ Hangout.

We’re interested in speaking with you to gauge your interest and availability for speaking with the President live on Monday at 5:30EST/2:30PST. Please call me at xxxxxxxxxx at your earliest convenience. We are planning to select participants by tonight, Thursday, January 26th. Please let us know the best phone number to contact you to discuss the opportunity further! Thanks again!

Best,

Ria

Google Marketing Team

What I did: I called Ria and left a voicemail with my mobile number… and felt my heart begin to race.  I emailed my husband with the news. He’s an attorney who constantly jokes that he can’t wait to retire once my book is published (and for the record, he actually enjoys his job). His response to me was, “Very cool. We’ll keep our fingers crossed. Could be a great tie-in with the book.”

What I thought: Even if they don’t pick me – which they probably won’t – it’s nice to know someone actually reads these things. Oh great! This means they saw the video of me in my pajamas.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 1:00pm CST

What happened: Three minutes after I leave the voicemail, my cell phone rings. It’s Ria. “Tell me more about your question,” she says. Did she say she was from The White House? YouTube? Google? Is this for real? I also wonder how many thousands of people are also receiving this same phonecall. As a former advertising exec, I think, “What a brilliant direct marketing plan they’re executing, creating excitement about this Google+ platform they’re rolling out!” Ria asks how I came up with my question. I tell her about my novel, and how my main character’s world turns upside down when her parents lose their jobs. The parents use words and phrases that make no sense to my main character, like foreclosure and layoffs and crisis. She’s confused and scared, wondering when her life will go back to normal.

We talk for 10 minutes, then Ria asks if I’d be willing to participate in a live event with some other Americans — and The President — on Monday, 1/30/12. “Absolutely,” I say. “I’ll be back from my conference by then.” “Oh,” she says, “we’d also need someone at your home on Sunday, 1/29, just so we can make sure your Internet connection works. Do you know what sort of bandwith you have?” “Well,” I said, “I think it’s a pretty fast speed, but…” “Not to worry about that just yet,” she says. “We’re still considering candidates, but we’d like to make a decision within the next 48 hours. Is this the best number to reach you when you’re in New York?”

What I did: I think I sounded calm on the phonecall, but when I hung up, I immediately called my husband at work. He was in a meeting so I left a message. I then called my parents, told them what was happening, then burst into tears. “I told you,” my mother said. “This is going to be your year.”

What I thought: It’s very flattering, but let’s be real. They’re not going to pick me.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 2:45 CST

What happened: I was so frazzled from the phonecall that I told my taxi driver to drop me at American instead of the United terminal at O’Hare. When I tried to print my boarding pass at the American self-serve kiosk, the agent told me I needed to go to United.

Are you kidding me?

As I took off running toward the tram, my cell rang again. “Good news,” the nice Google lady said, “and congratulations! We’d like to include you in the group of interviewers. If you’d like to do it, I’ll have someone else call you with all the details, but let me give you his number, just in case.”  I knelt down on the floor to write the details…probably a good thing because I hadn’t stopped to eat all day and I was suddenly feeling dizzy. “Oh,” she added, “please keep this confidential. You can tell your immediate family, of course, but no one else.”

According to The White House YouTube channel, when the question submission period was over, 228,100 people had submitted 133,158 questions and cast 1,630,112 votes

What I did: If I was frazzled before, now I was out of my head. I’m going to talk to The President. I stepped onto the next tram without even checking where it was headed, and instead of speeding toward United, we went in the opposite direction to the International Terminal.  I got off, switched trams, and quickly spoke with my husband who was as shocked as me.

What I thought: This isn’t happening.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 4:15pm CST

What happened: My phone rang again as I stepped off the tram. I noticed I had 25% battery life on my phone and – oh no, I don’t think I remembered to pack my charger! Andrew from Google Product Marketing introduced himself with some serious details. “I’ll be emailing you a confidentiality agreement. I need you to fax it back with your signature.” “Okay, but I’m about to get on a plane,” I said. “Oh,” he said, sounding disappointed. Just as I suspected, I thought. They need a live person with a signed commitment NOW. Here’s where he’ll say THANKS BUT NO THANKS. “That’s okay,” he says. “When you get to New York, can you fax it to me?” “Absolutely! Thank you so much,” I say, adding, “This just feels like it’s all a dream.” “I understand,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting. Another woman I just spoke to calls this a chance of a lifetime,” he says, and I couldn’t agree more. I hang up the phone shaking.

What I did: Went through security, looking at every person with an entirely different perspective.  I want to tell someone. I want to pull the stingy-looking guard aside and say, “Guess who I might talk to in 4 days?”

What I thought: Is this really happening? I think this might actually happen.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 5:00pm CST

What happened: I crawl through security, only to realize I have 5 minutes left until takeoff and that I need to get all the way over to Terminal C. I skip the escalator and hit the stairs running. Once I get to the bottom, I skip the moving sidewalk and run the length of the hall. I haven’t run in months; after a sprained ankle last summer, I’ve had nagging pain ever since, but now, I don’t care. I feel like I have unlimited energy and, as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue plays in the terminal, the colorful, Chihuly-inspired neon lights flicker above my head. I think back to when I used to work in advertising at Leo Burnett, in the 1990s, when the agency unveiled the Rhapsody in Blue campaign for United and how excited everyone was. It had been an incredible accomplishment to buy the rights to a Gershwin song for TV and radio spots…yet I was the one who was blue. I’d been miserable and depressed, hating my job because I wasn’t fulfilled creatively (and because I truly sucked at it. No joke.). Now, here I am, running down the very terminal featured in those ads, fueled by amazement and gratitude that I’m running toward a plane to get me to a writers’ conference, all while carrying the secret that something I wrote is worthy of a Presidential interview.

What I did: I bolted up the stairs (skipped the escalator again…too many people) and dodged rolling suitcases and strollers…only to arrive at Gate C26 to see the monitor read: FLIGHT DELAYED.

What I thought: Thank God. At least now I can eat.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 10:40pm EST

What happened: After United switched my departure gate 2 more times, I finally flew to New York. Arriving at my hotel after 10pm local time, I dumped my bags in my room then headed to the Business Center to print and fax the confidentiality document that Mr. Google emailed earlier.

What I did: Got to the Business Center and realized I’d need my credit card to use the printer. Went back up to my room, cursing under my breath.

What I thought: It’s so late…they’ve probably given up on me at Google and picked someone else who already faxed in their agreement. I’ve taken too long, and they’ve picked someone else.

Thursday, 1/26/12, 11:03pm EST

What happened: After printing, signing and faxing the document, I went back to my room, hoping to order room service and finalize my manuscript — but room service ended 3 minutes ago.

What I did: I grabbed a roast beef sandwich from the lobby, got back to my room and received an email from Mr. Google saying he’d received my fax. I was now officially one of “the 5”. I put on my pajamas and finished my edits, typing the words THE END at 4:25 a.m. I emailed copies to my family and a copy to an agent I’ve been crossing my fingers about, then climbed into bed.

What I thought: I’ll be lucky to get 3 full hours of sleep tonight… but in 3 days I’ll be talking to The President.

Friday, 1/27/12, 9:00am EST

What happened: I attended conference meetings all day, then took my friend and former Evanstonian Alison Cherry to dinner to celebrate her debut novel’s contract, then stayed up till 2:30am reading about and thinking of Barack Obama.

What I did: Began to freak out quite a little bit.

What I thought: This is actually going to happen.

Saturday, 1/28/12, 1:00pm EST

What happened: More conference meetings, including listening to Henry “The Fonz” Winkler (who’s now a children’s author) speak brilliantly about being yourself and writing what you know. Met the 2012 Newberry winner, Clare Vanderpool, in a breakout session led by an editor I’ve admired for a few years now. During the session, I sent the editor an email query, hoping she’ll want to see my manuscript. I took a lunch break and walked around Grand Central Terminal. I swear I felt the pulse of New York and America at that time. I sampled some cambanzola cheese with honey drizzled on top (wanted more but didn’t dare beg) and stood in the terminal wishing I could scream that I’d be speaking to The President in 48 hours. Went back to my hotel room to pack.  Received a call from the moderator of the Google+ Hangout, Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of community partnerships. He asked me to say my question, and I did, making sure to add the backstory that the other Google folks wanted to know. “That’s a great question,” Steve said, “and it took you about 3 minutes to say it. We’ll need you to shorten that to about 30 seconds on Monday.”

What I thought: I talk too much. They’re going to fire me.

Saturday, 1/28/12, 4:00pm EST

What happened: Said goodbye to some conference friends and made a point to thank Lin Oliver, the Executive Director of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) for giving the event such a warm, familial vibe every year. She noticed I was leaving early and said, “You’re heading home? Everything okay?” I wanted to tell her why I was heading back. Instead I just said, “Yeah, I think everything’s going to be okay.” I would have loved to whisper to her, “I get to talk to The President, and my protagonist made it happen!”

Later, I received an email with the contact names of two women scheduled to arrive at my house on Sunday morning to set up for the technical setup: Whitney from Google (to help me understand Google+ and answer any questions/concerns) and Carolyn from Pixelcorps (to set up the equipment necessary to link directly to The White House). On my way back to Chicago I had a layover in Washington  D.C.  As pathetic as this sounds, I spent an hour in the airport gift shop buying ridiculous and overpriced White House souvenirs, including Obama t-shirts for my kids and a $9.00 roll of toilet paper with the White House logo printed on every sheet.

What I did: Tried to keep my sense of humor at any cost so I wouldn’t lose my mind.

What I thought: This is really going to happen.

Sunday, 1/29/12, 10:00am CST

What happened: Whitney from Google showed up at our house an hour early, direct from Iowa and just as excited as me. Carolyn from Pixelcorps arrived soon thereafter, having flown in from either San Francisco or Toronto (I honestly can’t recall) with a 70 pound rolling case of equipment (monitors, modems, microphones, headphones…). I practiced and edited my question with Whitney so I might fit it into the 30-second window Steve Grove mentioned earlier. I found myself alternately shaking, laughing, crying and feeling completely exhausted and out of control. Carolyn set up her equipment quietly, no doubt wondering to herself how she drew the short straw for this assignment at Wackadoodle Central.

I’d already set up a Google+ account while I was in New York (just to try and understand what the platform was). Whitney gave me a quick Google+ primer as to how it works (easy) and how it differs from Facebook (even though it looks very similar, its capabilities strike me as further-reaching). We even joined a live Hangout, just so I could see what it might feel like with The President. Sometime around 1pm CST, all the participants (minus The President) then had a live technical run-through to understand how to ask questions with microphones snaked up our shirts and earpieces jammed into our ears. The 4 other people who’d been chosen seemed as nervous and excited as I was.  After our “tech check”, we all came to learn that lots of Google folks had also tuned in for our live technical runthrough…and that they were happy with how the Hangout worked.  It must have felt fantastic for the Google folks who’d created the platform to see it in action for such a unique event, and I’ll confess that it felt fantastic to receive the Google folks’ thumbs up, especially since none of the 5 of us had ever done something like this.  After the tech check, someone in P.R. from Google HQ called my house to say she’d watched the tech check and loved it…then asked if I’d be willing to talk to the press at some point. “Of course!” I said. I’ll admit I felt like a P.R. whore of sorts (yup, I said it), but I’m not gonna lie: I’m a taxpaying citizen in a capitalist society and I have a book to bring to market — a valuable story that only I can promote until someone agrees to help me do it. After the P.R. phonecall ended and the equipment was packed up, I drove Whitney and Carolyn to the Hilton Orrington Hotel in Evanston and looked forward to tomorrow.

What I did: Wondered how I’d gotten here, with a dining room full of (lovely) strangers and equipment and nervous energy and excitement. When the tech check was over, my body was physically exhausted. I’d been tense the entire time (45 minutes). My husband had taken the kids out for the day, and when they came back, I loved how “normal” things felt.

What I thought: Tomorrow’s the day.

Monday, January 30, 2012, 9:00am CST

What happened: Took my youngest son to school and, as I said goodbye, I whispered, “Later today, when you get home, The President of The United States will be talking to us in our dining room. He’ll be on a monitor…but still.  You’re the luckiest 3rd grader in America today. You know that, right?” He walked into the classroom with a proud smile on his face (later he confessed that he’d whispered the news to two little girls in his class, which doesn’t surprise me in the least). The team showed up at my house while I was at a school meeting and while they set up, I searched all over downtown Evanston for a buttoned-down shirt. I finally found a black one at The Gap and a white one at Anne Taylor Loft. I stopped by Panera Bread to get bagels for the team, then drove around my neighborhood for 30 more minutes, practicing my question for The President aloud in my car. “Hello, Mr. President.” “Good afternoon, Mr. President.” “It’s a pleasure, Mr. President.” “This is crazy, Mr. President.” “’S’up, Mr. President?” When I got back home, Command Central was fully up and running in my dining room. After checking to see how my newly-purchased shirts looked on camera (unfortunately, neither one worked with the microphone, lighting in my house, etc), I settled on a pink top I already had in my closet.

What I did: I practiced and tweaked my question, then went over it, and over it, and over it. At 1pm, I walked to the middle school to pick up my older son. It was a gorgeous, warm, sunny January day, and I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I needed to walk off some stress. I signed my son out of school and we walked home.

What I thought: Only 2 ½ more hours to go.

Monday, January 30, 2012, 3:15pm CST

What happened: I had no idea how “ready” we all needed to be for a meeting with The President. The Google+ Hangout was scheduled to begin at 4:30 CST, but I was sitting in my chair in front of the monitor, dressed and ready with my microphone on and earpiece in by 3:15pm CST.  We did rounds of sound checks to make sure all systems were go, then had a 10 minute bathroom break , as they call it in the biz, a “bio break”) before settling into my chair for good. Thank God for my parents. They came over to help corral kids and watch from the sidelines. They were on my left, just off camera. My kids were off camera to my right, lined up like little ducklings. What I hadn’t realized was that none of them would be able to hear the Hangout. While I had an earpiece in one ear and Whitney & Carolyn shared a set of headphones, my parents and my kids had to remain completely silent. I give all of them, especially my kids, all the credit in the world for sitting for 45 minutes before the interview AND for the full 50 minutes of the Hangout in statue-like silence. Aside from a few moments of uncontrolled giggles and a few elbows in the ribs, they sat at attention without a sound. Every telephone in the house was unplugged. We’d also taken the doorbell button off the side of the house so no one — including any unexpected UPS drivers or neighbors — would ring the bell and interrupt the interview. We closed all the shades so the news crews wouldn’t peek in. Please, I thought to myself, do not let Comcast High Speed Internet fail during this interview. If it does, I don’t care what the commercials say: I’ll switch to a dish in a heartbeat. I should also mention that our 100-pound yellow lab spent the day at a local daycare called Rex’s Place where the owner’s dog, Rex, happens to be a Portuguese Water Dog, just like the Obama’s dog, Bo.

What I did: The Hangout with The President began at precisely 4:30pm CST, and for the 20 or so minutes leading up to that time, the 4 other interviewers and I sat in our chairs, our senses heightened by equipment and anticipation. There was a woman from Texas, a med student from Chicago, an entrepreneur from New Jersey and a high school student and his classmates from California. I was shaking like a leaf, and thank goodness the high schoolers served up welcome comic relief. They made faces, teased each other, churned imaginary butter in their chairs and got us all laughing. We asked each other questions about when we’d each learned we’d been picked, which was within a 24 hour period. Once The President came on camera, however, the 5 of us fell silent.

What I thought: As we were about to begin, I looked at The President and thought to myself, Just remember. He’s a regular guy from Chicago who’s got kids and a job to do. I get that. I also wondered if he might be a little nervous, too. After all, this had never been done before…

January 30, 2012, 4:15pm CST

What happened: Steve Grove, our moderator, kicked things off, and from the beginning, The President seemed happy to be there. As I looked into the monitor, I could see the 7 small boxes across the bottom of the screen…and I realized that my small box was directly next to Barack Obama’s. Unbelievable. After brief introductions, the questions began. I thought The President answered them thoughtfully, though not always succinctly (I can totally relate; refer to Steve Grove’s comment earlier, suggesting I shorten my question to 30 seconds from three minutes). I also couldn’t imagine being put on the hot seat like that, especially since the five of us had the opportunity to respond to The President’s answers.

What I did: With my parents to my left and my kids on my right, my husband at the office watching on his computer and Whitney & Carolyn across my dining room table staring at their own monitor and sharing a set of headphones, I tried focus only on the interview itself. Since my family didn’t have any way to hear the goings-on, they sat patiently, watching the entire Hangout in complete silence. I give them all – especially my children – a tremendous amount of credit; they hardly moved a muscle and kept perfectly quiet throughout the nearly hourlong conference, hearing only occasional bursts of my voice as I introduced myself, asked my questions, and said goodbye at the end.

What I thought: Was I nervous? Absolutely. Was I shaking? Like a leaf. Was I scared? Not as much as I thought I’d be. I think a face-to-face interview would have been far more intimidating. I think an interview without 4 other Americans and a moderator would have sent me into cardiac arrest. The controlled distance I felt with a monitor between us helped calm my nerves. I also reminded myself he’s a human being, just like me. During the interview, I tried something I did during my wedding reception: taking mental pictures throughout the experience. Even though chances were good I’d get to see the whole Hangout on YouTube after we wrapped up, I just wanted to remember what it felt like, being face-to-face with Barack Obama. I knew today’s experience, like my wedding day, would pass in the blink of an eye, so I wanted to make sure to stop every now and then to take a mental snapshot of what I saw, felt and heard.

What I saw: I never once took my eyes off my monitor during the entire Hangout. My eyes zeroed in on either the screen itself , or on my one-page, typed question which I clutched (just in case I forgot it). I saw The President look directly at me through a webcam. I watched my children wave to The President as he waved to them.

What I felt: I told myself not to be overwhelmed by it all, and I somehow managed not to let myself think of the things my mind wanted to consider, like, “Is George Clooney watching this?” “Why did I pick this pink shirt?” “How on earth did my question make it?” “What about all the other questions submitted? Will anyone address those?” I felt grateful to have my mom and dad at my side and my kids witnessing this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I knew my husband was watching at work and I wondered if he felt as humbled by all of this as I did.

January 30, 2012, 5:30pm CST

What happened: The minute the interview was over, our friends stopped by to congratulate the kids and me on the interview. I was so happy with the way everything turned out, especially having the opportunity to let the kids say hello to The President, but it was such a relief being finished.

Or, at least I thought I was finished.

The knocks at the door and the telephone ringing didn’t cease until close to 10pm.   Family, friends and local media wanted to hear about the experience, and I was more than happy to oblige them. My husband had posted the Hangout details on Facebook the minute the event began, and when I went to check out my page, I couldn’t believe all the traffic. I hadn’t appreciated how many people would tune into something so unique, but I quickly realized it was a lot.

What I did: Once the interview ended, I brought out a bottle of wine to toast the team for surviving the experience intact. Earlier, Carolyn had pointed out that our team (interviewer/Google representative/producer) was the only all-female group…even more reason to be proud!

As the first glass was poured, the ABC affiliate showed up, then CBS, asking for interviews about my takeaway from the experience.

What I thought: I thought the live stream interview format worked without a hitch. Seven of us (including the moderator and The President) got a chance to talk about a wide range of topics with Barack Obama. I’d anticipated he’d extol an attitude of continued hope, but I liked the tangible examples he used to make many of his points (for instance, when I asked about how we can create a new financial narrative for today’s children, he mentioned an initiative for financial literacy already in the works. I just hope it comes out as soon as possible). One regret I have is not following up after my question. I’d wanted to ask The President why The White House doesn’t have something actionable for children, like a button on the The White House website for kids, or, at the very least, a list of resources for parents and caregivers to help facilitate tough discussions about finances and economic struggle. I was happy to hear about the financial literacy initiative, so I didn’t want to take up any more of his time, but why must I always be so accommodating???

Post Interview…

For anyone who writes, you know how your characters can inhabit you in powerful ways. In the case of Maeve Sarah Winters, the protagonist of my children’s book, I can say without a doubt that she spoke to The President on Monday as much as I did.

The phonecalls and requests for interviews about the Presidential Hangout have continued, as well as the joking comments from friends and family that I’m now famous. The truth is, all of the media attention will go away. I’ll still need to schedule oil changes, pick up after my dog and remember to buy hay for the rabbit. The experience was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for my family and for me, but I hope it will always serve as a reminder that even the smallest voices need to be heard.

My Cloak Of Invisibility

I’m at the final stage of editing my children’s novel. I should have been done long ago, but I’m a recovering perfectionist and I saw how rejection killed my spirit at a conference in New York City last January. I’m also a wife, a mom, a semi-regular columnist and a woman who’s trying to do way too much. Like many writers, I’ve come to realize that the long sought dream of shutting myself in an office to write doesn’t materialize as often as one might think. I hear there’s an invisibility cloak in the making, like the one from Harry Potter, and I’d like to order one.

In addition to writing my first novel, I’m trying to keep track of a dog, a rabbit, a houseful of painters working on three floors of our home, groceries, dry cleaning, music lessons for three kids, my own exercise and sleep, critique group meetings (missing those far too often), staying in touch with friends (and often doing a lousy job of it) and family (not successful there either, I’m afraid).

The worst part is, Halloween‘s approaching. I’ve been hiding costume catalogs from my kids because I just can’t take one more thing right now.

I’ve thought many times that I might have ADD. If I had the time, I’d get diagnosed.

Yesterday, I was so proud of myself for heading to a quiet office to edit for several hours. As I drove to this little beacon of solitude, I felt guilty leaving my husband and kids on a gorgeous Saturday. What a perfect day for the beach. Skipping a day of Indian Summer in Chicago is as wrong as ordering a pulled-pork sandwich on a cell-phone during a bar mitzvah.

What I’ve learned is that writing a novel you care about (is there any other type?) takes longer than you’ll ever imagine. You live and breathe your characters. You look at the world through their eyes. When you love your characters, you know never to force their words or actions, lest they appear on the page as anything less than authentic. As a reader, you want the author to stay out of the way so the characters and setting and plot and movement all work in tandem to transport you into another world.  The ironic challenge as a writer is to inhabit your work so completely that you actually make yourself completely invisible.

I’m riding the waves of this journey. The trough I’m in right now feels so deep and dark. The revision and editing process is “the best part” for some, but not for me. It’s hard. It’s cumbersome. It’s tedious.

It’s also necessary.

I’m declaring now to anyone reading this: the revisions will be complete by the end of this month and the manuscript will be in the hands (or on the screens) of multiple agents before Halloween. This might mean my kids’ will be mummies wrapped in toilet paper this year.

I hope someday they’ll forgive me.

How Does A Book Get Published?

You know you’re in trouble when an article about a writer’s path to publication brings you to tears, especially when you’re on a United flight from Chicago to Boston, in the middle seat, and you don’t know the people flanking you.

You also come to realize, once again, that you are a writer.

I just finished Keith Gessen’s powerfully written piece on his friend Chad Harbach’s 10-year journey to bring a debut novel, THE ART OF FIELDING, into the world. Gessen’s article, How a Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding  (Vanity Fair, October 2011), is outstanding. Some critics claim its focus is too narrow and only describes publishing from the viewpoint of the educated and privileged, but I feel privileged to read the inside scoop on this rapidly morphing industry.

Who needs to read the article? Let’s see:

Novel writers

Beginning writers

Anyone wondering how publishing works

Disillusioned writers who doubt they’ll ever be published

Anyone curious about eBooks and digital media

Someone considering a career as a literary agent or an editor

Why did I love it? Gessen details his friend’s path — beginning in Racine, Wisconsin, and rising to the top of the international publishing world – with such an honest and engaging voice that it felt like he’d written the piece specifically for (the anxious, unpublished, full-of-self-sabotage person that is) me.

Harbach worked on his novel for 10 years and received countless rejections. Many of his friends, including Gessen, thought he’d be better off moving on to another project. Time and countless distractions took him away from his novel, yet those very elements helped round out the final product.

It’s fascinating to read all the behind-the-scenes activity in the world of publishing, particularly the emails exchanged between Harbach and his soon-to-be agent, Chris Parris-Lamb just after the latter finished reading the first 250 pages of Harbach’s manuscript. I realized I’d been holding my breath while reading the agent’s emails. His enthusiasm for the project is what every debut novelist hopes for: an agent who unequivocally gets it, who promises to care for and protect your manuscript as if it’s his own, who feels honored to represent you.

I cut the emails out of the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair and copied them here for you. The first was sent after the agent read the first 250 pages. The second was sent once he finished the book, the next day:

The emails I dream of receiving...

I’m not naïve; the chances of receiving emails like this from potential agents are slim to nil, but just reading the account of how a passionate writer kept going, kept the faith, and kept improving his manuscript until he felt it was right…well…that’s the stuff that keeps me going when it just feels too hard.

It’s also reassuring to hear what industry insiders say about the changing face of publishing. Yes, eBooks are thriving, but as Amazon’s VP of Kindle content told Gessen, “The only necessary parts of the business are authors and readers.  Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting those two groups.”

I’d highly recommend the article to anyone who’s in – or looking to enter – the worlds of writing or publishing. It may not make you cry, but it’s guaranteed to demonstrate how a writer’s dreams can really come true.

Real Men Wear Eye Masks

My husband and I don’t see eye-to-eye on our bedtime routine. He’s a light sleeper, early to bed and up at the crack of dawn, while I’m a night-owl who journeys through magazines, web pages and episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians every night in bed.

After twenty years of marriage and conditions like these, you’d think we’d have a Lucy-and-Ricky sleeping arrangement, yet somehow, he puts up with my nightly meanderings and I…well, I sleep so soundly that I don’t even hear him move around in the morning.

Still, he’s gotten the short end of the stick. He’s tolerated my bedside light left on all night, the click-click-click of my keyboard, and the brain-jarring volume of late-night commercials for acne products. How does he cope?

He turns on his side and puts a pillow over his face.

Between the two of us, I’m the one who deserves the smothering, but somehow, he understands my basic needs: a shared bed, a scan of my latest books and gossip rags, a nightly glimpse into Hollywood’s latest train-wreck-to-be and no judging.

He’s a good man, and I try to remind him of this (when I’m not complaining or bitching or stomping) but he knows I’m a good woman, too.  After all, he sails.

He sails a lot.

When we first met in college, I thought his little “obsession” with sailing was as adorable as the Laser II sailboat he so desperately wanted. When he acquired one after graduation, we sailed together every weekend in northwest Illinois on a lake where his paternal grandparents’ had retired.

They’d welcome us every weekend, always asking about our shiny new jobs and our dreams for the future. Then, they’d shoo us out for a day of dinghy races, followed by cocktails at 5 and dinner at 6.

An oil painting hung in their living room. I never paid much attention to it, since I was more interested in his grandfather’s extra-short finger (was it an accident in high school wood shop or a World War II wound he’d never tell us about?) and the hallway rug (which actually hung on the wood paneled wall) depicting a scene of wild horses. I loved my boyfriend’s grandparents, but they just didn’t strike me as horse people.

Many years later, after we’d married, had children and sold the Laser II, the oil painting made its way to our own house. My husband’s grandparents, now my children’s great-grandparents, passed away within three days of one another. My husband asked for only two things from his grandparents’ estate: the oil painting and his grandmother’s old typewriter.

For the first time, I really looked at the painting, which shows two sailboats rafted together in a harbor. Neither boat looks fancy. It’s obvious they’ve endured scuffs and scratches. Yet they fit together. Their colors, though muted, seem to complement one another beautifully.

We hung the painting in the front hallway of our house, an older, dusty Victorian rowhouse near Lake Michigan. The painting was the first real piece of “art” we’d ever owned. The typewriter is on the upstairs hallway table. Everyone who passes it feels a need to touch its keys, which I love.

My husband and I watched in amazement as our schedules grew increasingly crowded with activities like soccer games, school picnics and parent-teacher conferences. Finding the time to sail under these conditions (not even factoring in weather and moods) proved challenging. My husband realized that the only way to address his sailing addiction and keep our marriage intact was to find a boat large enough to allow our family of five to sail together. He found a used Beneteau and researched harbors on the lakefront. Her name was Allegro, which means moderately fast in Italian — perfect for the nervous wife who was skeptical about taking little children on a bigger boat.

We’d drop her into the chilly Calumet River waters in late May, sailing her north to Monroe Harbor where she’d be moored for the season; five months later, from the darkened waves in late October, we’d haul her out for another Windy City winter.

Each and every year, the sailing days between Allegro’s drop-in and haulout warmed my husband’s heart like nothing else on earth. I was stunned to learn I had to compete with a fiberglass hull for his attention, but as most sailing widows know, we simply cannot judge.

My husband once said, and I’ll never forget this, “I’d take horrible weather on a sailboat over a gorgeous day on land any time.” I looked at him like he was crazy, but he couldn’t have been more serious. At that moment, I came to understand and appreciate his needs. He is a sailor.

True, Chicago’s sailing season is as short and intense, but it’s the seven months out of the water that really test my nerve.  The winterized boat’s equipment makes its way into the house — things like sails, cushions, mildewy pillows, pots and pans, first aid equipment and electronics I hadn’t known we owned. My husband makes trips to the boatyard to fix, repair, measure, tinker and refine. He returns somehow restored after every journey to visit her. I’m told by the boatyard owner he refers to me as The Admiral, especially when it comes to his inevitable purchases for his lady. It’s a nod of respect I believe I’ve earned as a sailor’s wife.

When my husband found himself with the chance of a lifetime to buy a younger, faster model — a Beneteau 10R — he found it hard to resist, particularly when the former owner declared his willingness to show my husband how to race to Mackinac Island. Never in my life have I seen such a complicated plan come together in such short order (such is the way of the obsessed). In a matter of months, our boat was sold and the new boat was acquired and outfitted for the race. Crew was secured and trained, provisions were loaded, and the boys (including our teenage son) set sail on a 333 mile voyage to the other side of Lake Michigan. I knew their trip would be memorable, and I was decidedly envious. I drove a chase car with our two younger children to meet the boat at the finish line and kept my fingers crossed.

Their journey was life changing, to say the least. A squall claimed the lives of two sailors during the race. I will never know the fear and worry my husband carried in his heart that night, but when I greeted the sailors as they stepped off the boat, I’ve never seen more tears, relief and humility as I did that day. Every crew member, including my son, has told me how brave my husband was, how safe he made them feel, and what a tremendous sailor he is.

Upon our return home, we unpacked the bags and talked about the race. As a race participant, sponsors provided an array of promotional items like keychains, deodorant…and sleeping masks for crew to use during the 3-day race. We joked that a mask might help him get through my late night channel surfing, then went back to unpacking.

I recently moved the oil painting to a spot above our bed. I thought it fitting, as our schedules and our circadian rhythms often leave us feeling like the proverbial ships passing in the night. I also love the gentle reminder of the grandparents every time I look at it. I think of our carefree days on a crystal lake, getting to know one another before we even knew ourselves.

And now, that eye mask finds its way over my husband’s tired eyes every night. I never requested he wear it, and he makes no bones about doing so. The eye mask, like the race, has been life-changing. He now sleeps soundly through the glow of my laptop and the flicker of the Kardashians’ endless 15 minutes and the bedside light left on all night. No judging. The eye mask is physical proof of his tolerance for my nocturnal energy, not to mention a silky reminder of his first Race to Mackinac.

Trying Not To Cry

I’m sitting in a hotel from a gilded era, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, awaiting my husband and son as they sail the 333 mile Race to Mackinac.  The boys and six other men left two days ago, and I’ve just learned that two members of another boat died in a violent storm last night. I do not believe anyone’s ever died in the Mac before this.  I’m in a state of suspended disbelief.

My husband and I are scheduled to sail to a nearby island for our 20th wedding anniversary, which is in two days from now.  I cannot even let myself think about that journey.  I am entirely focused on my boys’ safe return.  My other two kids are running around the hotel…which is as Grand as promised, and I am fighting tears.  The flag at the top of the hotel has been lowered to half staff.

I am trying my best not to cry, but I am failing.

I received a voicemail from my husband this morning, very brief, letting me know that they dropped their sails in anticipation of the storm and that they’re all fine.  The call was quick and to the point, but it said exactly what we needed to hear.

“Hey, uh, it’s us. I know you called a couple of times, uh, but we were, uh, preoccupied with, uh, incoming storms.  I just wanted to let you know that, uh, it hit, uh, but we got the sails down and we’re fine…but anyway, it’s uh late, um, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to talk at some point tomorrow.  Love you and we’ll talk to you soon. Bye.”