Category Archives: Travel

My family used to have a great-aunt Helen, who was – and is – a sort of legend. She died when she was 102, never married, swore, was an incredible racist, drove from Albany to Boston on the regular until she was 98, drank straight scotch, and travelled all over the world. It came as no surprise when we cleaned out her home (that she hadn’t been in for seven years) that we found all sorts of gems – like grocery receipts, still in the drawer since 1941.

She also kept track of her travels in mini-diaries – there are about two dozen of these things. I have one of them.

This one kicks off just days after she turned 29, aboard her first cruise.

The SS Munargo ship: Helen’s first entry

Upon further research , the S.S. Munargo later become a WWII-era hospital ship named Thistle , and was soon “scrapped” after the war. This is interesting, because the love of Helen’s life (who sent her boxes of love letters, all of which she kept) returned from the war as an insane man.

So now, while we’re in the middle of moving, I’ve come across all of MY old diaries and journals. They are hilarious, über-revealing, and embarrassing. I also have all of my old junior high notes, so if you ever sent me one, I’m lookin’ at you.

My first one is that unlocked ballet diary; the most recent, the purple one beneath all the others.

Memory gold.

I apparently began journaling at age 8, as you can see below.

Just turned 8. Jen and I were already hounding you then, brother.

I have no idea how I’ve kept all of these. Spoiler alert: they actually have been in a sealed bag underneath our bed for the last 4 years. I’ve re-hidden them, though, so don’t go snooping like I apparently did way back in ’93.

Someday, I hope to assemble all of Helen’s diaries, and create either a biography or a fictional story about her. I use my own to jog my memory of being a kid. What about you? Did you keep a diary when you were younger? Apparently, even then, I was already a writer.

caffeine, and other addictions

A year ago, my lovely doc told me to quit drinking caffeine because it can affect Crohn’s disease (which I have). “I don’t drink coffee, tea, or soda, and I don’t like hot drinks,” I replied, my smug and near-snobby tone a well-honed product of my years spent as a teenage girl.

Then, three things happened. These three things intermingled with my sporadic insomnia and genetically addictive personality . (Which can be both good and bad, for the record: it’s easy for me to develop a habit, like setting alarms for writing and drinking spinach smoothies every morning, but then I also panic when I A) don’t go to the gym, B) open a new container of Nutella, or C) accidentally overindulge on French wines or vodka.)

A portion of my daily breakfast – a blend of spinach, water, 5 frozen strawberries, and 1/2 cup of frozen blueberries. This was my St. Patrick’s edition.

The three things that damned my caffeine intake:

  1. I quit – ok, cut back – on my 5 Hour Energy dependency.
  2. I increased the hours I spend working at home.
  3. I went to Europe.

“We won’t be able to sit in cafés in Paris and drink coffee together,” my new husband says to me while we’re boarding the flight to go to on our honeymoon. He actually sighed after saying that and looked away.

Me, grumpy and trying not to act cranky at 8 a.m. Paris time. Attempting to last a full day without sleeping after a redeye from Boston. (I do not know the woman in the background.)

My trainer says that you can do anything you don’t like for 15 seconds. I like this philosophy a lot. You say to yourself, “I can do anything for 15 seconds,” latch on to the mental state, and stay there. Then, you can get blood drawn, fit in a couple of push-ups while your arms are burning, pretend to act interested in a boring conversation, sprint at the end of your run, and even touch raw chicken… only for 15 seconds. Then you’re done.

Which is how I came to drink espresso. It’s so little that my hot drink distaste is over, with about 15 seconds of discomfort.

Back in the States, I decided to apply my newfound dependency to cold beverages. I read this article about the benefits of green tea, which is mild enough for me to drink. Coupled with my insane jealousy of people who cart Starbucks around like second cell phones (which has been developing for approximately 10 years), I settled on the Tazo Zen brand of tea, which basically tastes like mildly minty water. I believe I am very lucky I’m not a decade older, because then I’d definitely have a cigarette habit. The D.A.R.E. program must have diminished the sexy “cigarettes are cool” vibe effectively enough.

And then, like a true addict, I needed more.

Single shot of espresso, trente iced green tea.

For the last month, I’ve found myself holding my nose and chugging three cups (!) of hot coffee per day , before brewing two to four mugs of tea that I ice down and consume over the next several hours, while writing and working. And I have no idea . Is this a lot? A little? Aren’t I supposed to get a headache at some point? Is it magically helping me get more work done, or is this my imagination? I’d drink espresso, but I’m pretty sure those machines are expensive, right?

Thought I might get some responses after @BostonMo threw me an RT. Maybe they thought I was joking.

an evening with john irving.

I have unbelievable news.

I’m pretty sure John Irving has read my writing.

That’s because I wrote a question on an index card for him to consider answering at a recent at the J.F.K. Presidential Library in Boston. That has to count for something. Right?

My parents did not regulate my reading when I was a child, nor do I think that they coached me well on appropriate reactions to the things that I was reading. I wildly and uncontrollably sobbed in their bed after reading Cheaper By the Dozen (fair warning: the book is not the Steve Martin movie). They explained that bad things happen. I then read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and held all of my feelings inside, subsequently developing a lifetime of insomnia.

Consider where you’re at in your career, or you passions, even. How did you get there? What drew you to what you do (or to what you like)? Forum moderator Tom Perrotta commented that “Garp was the first writer I ever really knew.” I had a similar experience when I read A Widow for One Year at age 12. (Like I said: not so much parental supervision when it came to reading.) This book is tied with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as the two most important pieces of literature I’ve ever read, because they are what compelled me to become a writer. I felt like I knew the characters on a personal level. The gardener who was afraid of small women because of their disproportionate anger; the poor, bumbling Eddie, the sassy, yet sad and promiscuous Hannah… and even the “sound like someone trying not to make a sound” that becomes a character in and of itself. I learned that, like Ruth, child characters in adult novels can only have a partial understanding of the world, and that they’re about to learn more; they will not learn this in a good way.

A friend of a friend actually works at this library, and was able to seat me in the “reserved” section, next to friends and journalists. I landed two seats over from Tom Perrotta’s wife, Mary Granfield. I know this because I am insane, and I Googled every name around me. (I was 90 minutes early – and thus, I was front row, dead center.)

I can’t quite describe my starstruck behavior when it comes to John Irving. I once walked, head-on collision style, into Stephen Tyler at a local Apple store. I apologized to him like he was a regular person. NKOTB superstar Jordan Knight sat next to me at a bar a couple of weeks ago. Nada.

The only other comparison I can make to my John Irving excitement is as follows: While on our honeymoon, my husband and I saw Elton John eating at La Petite Maison in Nice. I was so distressed that I broke my no-media rule and, roaming charges aside, internationally texted my family and close friends immediately. I also took pictures of him that I did not publish via social media so as to not “betray” Elton John.

I was so discombobulated that I missed the fact that Madonna was there, too. In fact, my husband and I directly witnessed this moment . (Madonna has fabulous in-person arms, which is what I noticed about her before I noticed that she was Madonna.) She brushed by our table when she left and sort of “twinkled” her fingers at us.

This is what we looked like immediately after Madonna waved at us.

The wave was not as exciting as John Irving’s forum, especially when we made eye contact.

Here is what I learned about John Irving:

  • He always has 3-4 novel ideas in his head at a time.
  • He keeps an idea in his head for an average of 8-9 years.
  • Writer’s block doesn’t exist, in his mind. That’s because he never stops writing.
  • In his mind, A Prayer for Owen Meany’s beloved narrator Johnny Wheelwright is “probably a non-practicing homosexual,” with his love for Owen Meany evident on the page. (I believe this to be akin to the moment when J. K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is gay : unsurprising but unsaid.)

Irving knows the first and last sentence of all of his novels. His next novel focuses on a Mexican-American character, who intends to take one particular journey, messes up his medications on the way, and winds up taking a very different trip than he ever thought he might (which, because it’s a John Irving novel, was the intention the whole time).

He quoted the last line to this next novel, which is currently:

“Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

“I like obsessions, and characters who are obsessed,” says John Irving. Me too.

a story about stories… and a book bite about a story about stories.

This post contains my first “book bite,” which is a blurb I’ll briefly review and potentially recommend a book. In this post, I’ll address Jodi Picoult’s new novel, The Storyteller.

Recently, I attended a forum at the J.F.K. Presidential Library in Boston. At that forum, John Irving, who is my all-time-favorite author , discussed his most recent novel, In One Person , with Boston author Tom Perrotta. (

I’m not ashamed to admit how starstruck I was – but then I got distracted because I thought I saw Jodi Picoult. And then I thought I saw Jodi Picoult leave early.

So of course, I Tweeted her.

There’s probably some kind of scientific study behind this, but if there isn’t, I’m going to say it’s true anyway. My guess is that authors are, first and foremost, the people who are more likely to respond to others via social media. Their medium is, after all, words and language – and thus, computers.

Nonetheless, coming down off of my manic John Irving high and getting a reply from bestselling empress Jodi Picoult will make it to my top-ten favorite parts of my 2013. This is what transpired:

I believe in a balanced education when it comes to books, so I read pretty much everything I can get my hands on. I will read bestsellers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl , go on to a Stephen King kick (read 11/22/63 – just do it), explore young adult dystopias ( Lauren Oliver and Veronica Roth : I’m looking at you), circle back to Betty Smith and Harper Lee, and then read every memoir ever written by hilarious gay men, because I firmly believe that Augusten Burroughs and I are friend soul mates. Last summer, I went on a kick where I read The Paris Wife WHILE IN PARIS, and then subsequently limited myself to nonfiction and fiction books that mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s band of buddies in the Lost Generation. (My husband and I went to Harry’s Bar, and then traveled in style on a train through the French countryside to Nice – with the combination of reading and doing, it was a religious experience.)

Above: On the train from Paris to Nice.
Left: My husband Kevin in front of Harry’s Bar, Paris

So, after Jodi Picoult replied to me, I checked on her expansive list of publications and found that there would be a new one coming: The Storyteller .

Photo Credit:

Jodi Picoult has a pretty tried-and-true formula. She explores her plot through a variety of viewpoints (and fonts) and then finishes it up with a twist (and, usually, a courtroom scene and/or some kind of arrest). This concept works very well in The Tenth Circle and in The Pact . When I read Picoult’s work, I try to guess the twist. I am very good at guessing plot twists in most mediums – my husband has more than once scowled at me for guessing a line in a show or a movie. I guessed right in this one – I won’t reveal it here, though.

There are really four storytellers here: Sage, a twenty-five-year-old baker who pursues Nazi-turned-beloved-nonagenarian Josef Weber with the help of government official Leo Stein; a flashback series narrated by Sage’s grandmother, Minka, who endures the heartbreaking tribulations of the Holocaust; a more brief history of Josef Weber’s early years in Germany; and finally, an allegorical story written by Minka that is dispersed in italics throughout the book.

By far and away, Minka’s account that paints a grim picture of the horrors of life in Europe nearly seventy years ago is the strongest writing here. Picoult definitely did her research. Minka’s point of view is raw, honest, thoughtful, poignant, and smart. In an interview, Picoult recounts some of her research; the details which she later incorporated into Minka’s story in a very natural way.

In contrast, Sage – her granddaughter – is puzzling. She has a scar on her eye, but as a reader, I can’t bring myself to care about it (or how it contributes to her desire to be alone). Some things in her story are linked very well, including the theme of baking that transpires throughout the piece. Sage is a baker and Minka’s father was a baker, which becomes a model for the allegorical scenes. I appreciate well-done themes.

Ultimately, I’d give this one a B, and call it worth reading. It contains a number of hefty moral dilemmas. Namely: Can you ever forgive someone for unspeakable crimes against humanity? How does one atone for a sin? And, perhaps most importantly… if someone asked you to help him or her die, what would you do?