Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dog Blog

Henry with Stella 2004

“The dog ate my driver’s license,” I said at Motor Vehicles. I had to show her the half chewed card before she believed me. Then I had to wait for her to stop laughing.

We shouldn’t have gotten Stella in the first place. My husband, Henry, was having heart problems, but the children had already picked a puppy on Cape Cod. I called the breeder to explain. Before I could say anything, she told me we could have our first choice. My daughter hadn’t gotten over losing our first dog the year before, and my son wanted to know if his father would die too.

I agreed to drive into Boston to pick up the puppy, even though Henry was in no shape to travel. My friend Elizabeth drove down with me instead. She was one of the few people who didn’t think I was making a huge mistake, and she was right. We needed that crazy puppy for comic relief.

It wasn’t always funny. Stella ate herself sick on mushrooms and tried to commit suicide by chewing through a safety bottle of Advil. She left tooth marks on my father’s slipper when my parents came up so I could be with Henry in the hospital. My friend Mark Wild and his family offered to look after Stella on those days.

Other friends brought meals or took the kids overnight. When an ambulance arrived at our door, my retired neighbor crossed the street to watch the kids. Al didn’t even call first. Henry was turning blue, but I didn’t panic. I knew the paramedic; he was my friend’s brother, Peter Wild. A small town is special.

On and off through his recovery, I was still working, and Henry needed to rest in a quiet house. One weekend I loaded up the kids and the puppy to drive to Georgetown Island for a painting sale. During the week Stella yipped in her crate when I tried to write. She made me get out and walk in the sunlight and the kids giggle with delight.

My work and that needy puppy kept me sane as the months dragged into two years. I also learned from the experience to include comedy even when writing tragedy. Shakespeare figured that out before me.

For a year now Henry has been healthy. He’s finally on just the right medication with a pacemaker, and the puppy had grown into a somewhat more obedient dog. Still, today Stella brought me a chewed pencil in two parts as if she wanted to help me write. She’s good company even with the trouble.

MA2 Shaun Hogan with MWD Paco, bomb dog 2006

Researching Moose Crossing, I met the world’s most obedient dog. I imagined a scene with a police dog tracking a missing child through the woods, but was my vision accurate? In a classic small town moment, I discovered that my daughter’s soccer coach, Shaun Hogan, commanded the bomb dogs at Brunswick Naval Air Station. He’d trained his partner dog, Paco, to track humans as well and offered to stage a re-enactment from my book at the base. Paco was one of the dogs that sniffed out the 9/11 site before the presidential visit last fall.

Running behind Shaun as Paco tracked the scent, my fiction came to life. The passage is only a couple of pages, but it is true. Shaun, a former elementary school teacher, even checked the language for me. I spoke to a judge, police detectives, computer scientists, cyber-crime experts, missing children organizations, historians and a state wildlife ecologist about moose. It’s fiction, but I still like to get it right.

Sloppy facts and grammatical mistakes irritate me. That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken. Natural dialogue is not always grammatically correct, and there is always room for poetic license. The trick is to create an imaginary world that sounds both plausible and appealing. The research is fun and takes me out of my office into the real world. Writers need more than dogs for company.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Irony in the Closet

Kennebunk Beach

Just my luck to have a big snowstorm on the day my parents were due to drive from NYC to Maine. Undaunted, they followed the storm all the way up the coast. My mother said it was fitting since I was born in a freak two-foot snowstorm in NYC forty years ago. She’s always loved storms.

We met my parents for dinner at the best restaurant in Portland. My favorite dish at Fore Street is the wood oven-roasted mussels, and the quail is always fabulous too. Outside the snow swirled in dizzying circles, but the open-fire kitchen and raw brick walls lent a warm atmosphere.

After dinner my parents drove our kids home while Henry and I headed south to Kennebunkport. The White Barn Inn houses a gourmet restaurant, a spa and luxurious accommodations. It felt like a European four-star hotel right down to the courteous foreign staff. A young man pointed out that there was “irony in the closet.” He meant an ironing board. I’ve made more than a few similar mistakes in French so I didn’t laugh.

Meals were served in the old barn with an eclectic mix of fine oil paintings, life size cows, stained glass and table ornament animals forged out of cutlery. The eight-course dinner by the English chef transported us to gourmet London. I especially enjoyed the palate cleanser of beet sorbet in balsamic vinegar. The accompanying wines were perfect as was the raspberry soufflé. It was hard to chose among all the cheeses, both local and European.

Add to the experience a massage in a fire-lit couples room followed by an English high tea, and I realized turning forty wasn’t half bad. They even dug our car out of the snow.

We had a simple lunch at Alisson's in Kennebunkport. The cute little bungalows stilted over a canal made me think of a European hamlet, but the wild, marshy expanse of river feeding into the ocean was pure Maine.

We spent a good hour browsing at the Kennebunk Book Port. If anyone has a dream of owning a quaint bookstore, it’s for sale. There wasn’t a huge selection, but it had been carefully chosen and housed in the loft of a 1775 rum warehouse overlooking the water.

Even though I travel with a bag full of books, I picked up Alice Hoffman’s Blue Diary. It’s a book somewhat similar to mine: a well-written page-turner about a family in jeopardy set in a quiet New England town. It explores relationships and betrayal. I’m halfway through and enjoying it.

Back at the inn by our fire, Henry read aloud Pierre Daninos’s Major Thompson and I (1957.) It reminded us of P.G. Wodehouse with amusing tales of the English upper class. The passage tying English temperament to the erratic plumbing was hilarious.

I know England well thanks to my British husband. Henry and I met at Harvard 19 years ago in off-campus housing. My phone wasn’t working so I went down the hall to try it at a friend’s, but she wasn’t in. I randomly knocked on another door, and there was Henry with his gorgeous green eyes and charming accent. He was flipping pancakes with a room full of Brits for Shrove Tuesday. He listened to my explanation and then said, “Get rid of the phone and have a beer.”

Henry said that it was love at first sight. On our first date we saw the movie of James Joyce’s The Dead and ate sushi. Henry brought me daisies and chocolates the next day and was nonplussed to find me with another man – he didn’t know my handsome friend was gay. When I caught the flu, Henry looked after me, cooking a delicious chicken tarragon stew. He could recite Monty Python and Shakespeare.

Three and a half weeks after we met, Henry proposed. Four months later, I accepted. We were living together that summer in London. He kept trying to trick me with the triple negative: “Is it not true that you would not consent to refuse to marry me?” Other times he’d conjure a double rainbow over the Thames. I didn’t stand a chance. I’m still crazy in love with him now. There’s nothing like a romantic weekend away to bring it all back.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Turning Forty

Popham Beach this past weekend in forty degree weather.

My twelve-year-old son asked, “Mommy, what do you want for your birthday?”

“I don’t really need anything. Maybe a nice card.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“More specific than a card?”

“A card? I thought you said ‘a nice car.’ Some people need a new car to help themselves through a midlife crisis.”

“What?! That’s exactly what I do not need: absolutely no mention of midlife crises. Forty isn’t that old.” We both doubled over in laughter, which was exactly what I did need.

I’m not too happy about turning 40 this month. There’s nothing wrong with my life: great kids, happy marriage, good friends, nice home and I love my work. That’s the key: work. Big birthdays are benchmarks, and my book isn’t in print yet. No “young writer” awards for me, but I have at least written a good book. It just took longer than I had anticipated to reach this point in my profession.

I don’t regret the time I took off from career to raise my young children and to care for my husband during a two-year health crisis. Those were really important times for my family and for me. I grew a lot and gained appreciation for what I have. My writing voice matured through the experiences.

I didn’t even realize I was a writer until I had something to write, and now that I’ve started, I have so much more to say. There are decades to write all the other books in my head, and my kids only get easier and more independent every year. My husband is in good health again too.

I woke the morning I turned 40 with a sense of relief that nothing bad had happened despite my dread, like looking out the window after a storm or down to find my toes for the first time in weeks after giving birth. There's a sense of accepting who I am rather than of being what someone else expects. As a writer, my identity is inside not on the surface. And yet I still feel just a little sad as if I've lost something, despite Henry's poached eggs and our daughter's sweet card.

Why is 40 so hard? I spoke to a good friend who had just done it last year. She’s a successful doctor with two healthy kids and a strong marriage. They live in the most beautiful home, but even she was not satisfied. She wished she had time to pursue her creative side and publish children’s poetry. Knowing her, she probably will, but she hadn’t by 40.

Most women make trade-offs between career and family, and those who do it all are inundated. Then along comes the big birthday. Even with the balls juggled competently in the air, we only see the one ball that dropped and rolled away.

What’s the solution to the doldrums? Another friend, home with her kids, turned 40 last month. Her advice was to celebrate. She had a party for friends and family, was going away to Mexico with her husband and then off for a spa weekend with a girlfriend. I’m not making this any easier on myself by saying I’d rather have a book party.

I am going away with Henry this weekend and met him for lunch on my birthday. I chose Sweet Leaves Teahouse where we had planned to go on that stormy Valentine’s Day. It’s sunny and warm, just like its owner, Jessica Gorton. She moved here from NYC to enjoy the wilderness. The ingredients are local, wholesome and original. Like Frontier, it’s new this past fall to Brunswick and sponsors cultural events. There are open mike nights and jazz Sundays. It cheers me to find that my little northern town is becoming a hip place to settle for the next generation.

Jessica is stepping up a decade this month too, and shared her thoughts on turning thirty: "Most of me doesn't care at all, doesn't really think about age in that way. Part of me is sad about the end of my twenties (which, for all their drama, were a lot of fun). Another part of me is glad to be going into a new decade, and also to be of an age that (in theory) engenders more I'm an adult, and maybe will be seen as one."

Henry teaches at Bowdoin College so we are always surrounded by younger twenty-somethings. Some come to me to talk about alternative careers. All this free choice and opportunity and instead of feeling overjoyed, they’re overwhelmed. I remember feeling that way too. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

As we age, it’s easier to see what it is we want and hopefully to master the skills to achieve it. In our twenties we didn’t know where to start. Then in our thirties the ticking biological clock added complications. By forty we women should be happy and proud of what we have accomplished even if it wasn’t as much as we had dreamed. Isn’t it part of still being young to keep on dreaming and wanting more?

Bailey Island Photo by Catherine Ferdinand

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Next Meal

My family has a rule (too often broken) that if you’re still eating one meal, you can’t talk about the next meal. We’ve planned entire vacations around fine dining. Depressed in Switzerland, we once drove across the Alps to Italy just for lunch on Lake Cuomo, and it was worth it. In the 1970’s, before Zagat’s and food bloggers, my dad got written up in The New Yorker for his personal computer program allowing you to pick a NYC restaurant by cuisine, quality, atmosphere, price and location. When I visit my parents in Manhattan, I’m going to eat well both in the home and out most of the time.

I flew in a day early to avoid Friday’s big storm that flooded New York and dumped a wintery mix in Maine. My mother prepared sole in capered tomato sauce from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. My father broke out the last Mondavi Blanc, which had aged since 1978 in his self-made wine cellar (an insulated closet with an AC.) My dad’s a venture capitalist so the conversation is often interesting. That night we discussed funding a proposed expedition for sunken treasure.

For lunch on Friday my mother and I crossed Central Park to the West Side for Vietnamese food. The Saigon Grill at 90th and Amsterdam has a sister restaurant on the East Side, but it’s closed for renovation. To call Pho Bo an oxtail noodle soup does not capture the subtle flavors of the paper thin sliced beef in the piquant broth. Fresh Oriental basil, sprouts and hoisin sauce come as condiments. You can easily eat lunch for $6 a person, but you won’t be alone. The cavernous restaurant was packed, but the service was prompt.

We met my father for dinner at Maya (1st Ave at 65th), a gourmet Mexican restaurant with high ratings in Zagat’s and even a mention in the Michelin guide. I don’t know if the chef just quit or what, but the food was disappointing. The special ceviche tasted like rubber in ketchup. My father ordered his favorite chicken mole, but it was no better than my special tuna nor my mother’s red snapper. At least the margaritas and mojitos were good enough to drown our sorrows.

Saturday night I went out with my old Dalton School friends. Deb drove us downtown to 20th and Broadway for Abigail’s and Andy’s joint 40th birthday party. Deb can find a parking spot anywhere, which is quite a skill in Manhattan, especially given the size of her Range Rover. In the city if you see a parking spot you take it, even if you don’t need it.

Craftbar is known for its excellent food and cool décor. The two-story open space dining room was all black, white and red transected by what looked like a fire escape. Abigail had booked the private dining room below, which was perfect for 30 guests. Remember the banker who was reading War and Peace on his Blackberry at the last NYC party? Well, he’s quit, but only because he didn’t like the book. Everyone laughed to hear that I too had quit after 150 pages.

On my recommendation, my friend is now reading and enjoying Lewis Robinson’s Officer Friendly. Robinson is a young Maine author who has an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He also apprenticed with John Irving. A gifted and original storyteller, Robinson writes in a very male voice, which is, perhaps, part of his appeal. His perfectly crafted stories are about sensitive but manly men set in small town Maine under extenuating circumstances. I hear he has a novel coming out soon – I’m awaiting it eagerly.

On Sunday I met my cousin for lunch. I don’t have a sister, but Gabrielle has been like one to me. Our lives have intersected and reversed over the years. She grew up in a southern college town with an academic father while I grew up in NYC with an investment banker father. At my wedding, Gabrielle met our best man Fabio, a banker, and they fell in love. Now they live in NYC, and I’m married to a college professor in small town Maine.

The lunch at Boucheron Bakery was very good, but the setting was even better. It was worth the ridiculous price and long wait for a table. Suspended on the third floor balcony, the view over Columbus Circle to Central Park is spectacular. The AOL/Time Warner building is an oddity in the city – it’s really a mall if an upscale one at that.

After lunch we scanned the new titles at Borders, and then walked up Broadway towards Gabrielle’s home. We stopped into her local grocery store, crossing a picket line against (I kid you not) foie gras. I agree it’s too cruel to force feed geese, but only in NYC would it be worth a demonstration. Gabrielle abandoned me at yet another bookstore (I admit to being a junky.) I resisted the urge to buy since I was half way through a library book (Debra Ginsberg’s Blind Submission – very funny parody of the literary world.) I walked home through Central Park in time for a fine dinner of spit-roasted chicken stuffed with cellery and ginger crafted by my dad.

Before I flew back to Maine, my mother and I visited the Neue Galerie and had lunch overlooking Central Park. Café Sabarsky is known for its Viennese desserts – an excellent place for tea in an Old World setting. Most of the museum was shut in preparation for the Van Gogh and Expressionism exhibit (3/22-7/2,) but we could still admire the golden Klimt’s on display.

The first day back home in Brunswick, I was afraid to go outside even to walk the dog. I woke up to minus two and high winds. Stella popped out her dog flap and then promptly went back to bed, hiding her ice-cube nose in her paws. The temperature never made it into double digits. Still, it’s great to be back home with my family and time to write.