Distance and the evolution of friendships

A friend and I were chatting the other day when I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We’re not so close anymore, I said.
Not since I moved.
My friend’s reaction: So when you move, they’re not your close friends any more?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I are hoping to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn’t want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.
Not at all.
But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.
They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.
It is a lesson I have learned over the past 11 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cinncinati, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presense of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails and occassional visits.
I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.
But then something happened.
Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. Suddenly, I noticed that my old friends had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the emails less detailed.
The babies were one factor.
The other was simple logistics.
In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks–some more than others–but the rest remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.
I had left them with everything, but me.
But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperment of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to built a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.
It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.
In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.
Too easy.
But it wasn’t easy for my old friends and it wasn’t healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.
I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.
That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of “best” friendship can never be undone.
It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don’t call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don’t call her when my kids reach particular milestones, when I’m thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a particular situation in my life.
And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.
I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And I have no doubt I will remain connected with this newer friend for many years to come regardless of the miles between us. We met through a mutual passion for writing, something that can be nourished from afar, no matter how quickly our children grow.

I used to be a better mom

I used to be a better mom.
My first two kids had my constant attention except when I was cleaning.
I got online when they were asleep.
I worked on my novel when I had a sitter.
They had it good.
Then came light-weight laptops and wireless networking.
Now, I keep my laptop on the kitchen counter most of the day.
When it’s in the basement at my desk, I sneak down and check my email hoping my 3-year-old twins won’t notice.
I let them watch too much TV. I don’t read to them quite as much as I should. I let the older kids stay up an extra half an hour while I finish one last blog entry, a couple of emails and take a quick peek at my Web stats.
I have excuses.
_ I recently started working as a moderator for a popular online forum.
(I have to become more familiar with its culture–the posters, the topics and the general tone of the community. Right?)
_ My agent might email with an offer.
(Okay, so he’d probably call first. Enough already. These are excuses, remember?)
_ Some horrible ailment might befall a friend I haven’t seen in 20 years and the only way I will know is if I check Facebook. (How will it look if I miss the wall post and fail to send a “get well” card?)
Yes, I have excuses.
But today, it started to get to me.
I wondered whether I was cheating the twins.
(I rarely touch my computer from the time the older kids come home from school until just before they go to bed.)
I looked at them.
They were feeding each other pretzels.
Five books were scattered across the living room floor, books I had read to them earlier. Books they had pulled out again and flipped through, pretending to read them aloud.
In the midst of the books was a length of railroad track I had set up for them this morning. Thomas was towing Annie and Clarabel. Diesel pulled a Troublesome Truck. They had played with those off and on for hours.
The television was off .
And they weren’t bothered.
No, Matthew and Jonathan were happy.
And I was getting some work done on my laptop.
I had even cleaned the kitchen.
So maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, this portable, virtual world in my kitchen.
I am not glued to it.
I still get down on the floor with the boys several times a day, flipping them, lifting them and letting them climb on my back and shoulders. I still scoop them up and cuddle them individually for several minutes at a time. We do puzzles together. We count our fingers and toes. We color. We sing the alphabet song.
We dance.
We try to get out of the house for at least a few hours each day.
Perhaps the difference between the mom I was before wireless Internet and the mom I am now is that I am connected, connected with other adults and connected with my work. I am not going crazy for adult interaction or intellectual stimulation while I’m home with my children.
This time around, I have my laptop.
I have my email.
I have Microsoft Word.
I have it good.
But when I power down and take a look around, I realize this:
So do they.

I am a coffee addict, or am I?

Winds are gusting at about 50 miles-an-hour so far today and the weather folks are warning us to prepare for power outages. The last time we had gusts this strong–the effects of Hurricane Ike—we lost power for four days.
My first thought?
I’d better brew fresh coffee.
Quick.
Four kids, and that was my first thought.
I’m an addict.
It’s time I admitted it.
In my defense, we do have gas heat and a gas stove. Even without power we will be warm and I can cook. So really, all I can do to prepare is to stock up on batteries and candles and maybe get some ice to keep the milk cold. I could do that now. The twins are at the sitters’ house for another half hour.
But I don’t want to.
I just keep thinking about that coffee that will done brewing any minute.
Coffee with milk and one Splenda.
Drinking it at the kitchen table with today’s newspaper spread out before me.
Maybe it’s not so much a caffeine addiction as it is an addiction to what that cup of coffee stands for. I rarely wrote on deadline without coffee beside me in my full-time journalism days. I walked to the cafeteria for coffee whenever I needed to think.
I met my friends in coffee shops.
I wrote good chunks of my novel in an Arizona Starbucks.
My husband and I often end date nights in coffee shops.
So maybe that’s it.
Maybe coffee stands for an identity that started to fade when I had my first two kids and that sometimes seems forever lost now that I have the twins.
But I don’t have time to think about that now.
The coffee is done.
The clock in ticking.
The newspaper is waiting.

Slump. Please help.

I am in a reading slump.
And it’s disappointing.
Until recently, I’d always had two or three books going at once. I kept one on my nightstand, one on the kitchen counter and one near the treadmill in the basement.
Now, only the nightstand holds a book and it’s gathering dust.
I just haven’t had time to pick it up.
Time.
Maybe that’s the problem.
I haven’t used the treadmill since summer.
I’m always on the defensive in the kitchen these days, trying to keep our very-independent twins from emptying the fridge, pretending to cook on the stove and pushing chairs up to cabinets to get the van keys out of my purse.
I never seem to sleep anymore.
I have too much to do.
But I love to read.
I crave a good novel.
I enjoy the escape.
This is a place where I cannot remain.
It is time to map a new course.
The trouble is that I don’t know where to begin.
Do I try to get more sleep, foregoing the measly hour a night I get to hang out with my husband, cuddle, watch silly sitcom reruns and talk uninterrupted?
Do I climb on the treadmill more often, ignoring the editing, writing, cleaning and cooking that tear me in other directions? And, oh yes, our four kids?
Do I remove all glass and hot sauces from the fridge, disconnect the gas from the stove and disable the horn button on my key chain so I can just set the twins loose in the kitchen while I read?
Or am I looking in the wrong direction entirely?
Is it the novels?
Is that the problem?
It seems that over the summer, the novels I picked up were impossible to put down. They pulled me out of my world with so much force that I couldn’t resist. Not even four kids, a messy house and a pile of unedited interviews could keep me in reality.
Nothing I’ve read lately has done that for me.
So, perhaps, it’s not the time constraints at all.
Maybe, what I really need is a good book.
Any suggestions?

Everybody’s dancing but me

This is the week of the happy dance in the Cincinnati area.
School starts Aug. 24 in our district. Some schools started last week. Others start this week.
Parents all over the region are clicking their heels high in the air.
They are doing jigs, popping their joints, sliding gracefully across the kitchen floor.
Not me.
I haven’t even bought school supplies yet.
I’ll be dancing away Sept. 9 when my twins start preschool. I adore those little guys and they are a blast, but I get nothing done when they are around. They will go for only four hours a day, two days a week.
We’ll all benefit from that.
But I’m finding it hard to let the older kids go this year.
I’ll be honest.
I have great kids.
My oldest son is nine and my daughter will be eight this month.
Eightty percent of the time, they get along beautifully. They are each other’s best friend. When they do argue, it’s never because one was intentionally cruel to the other.
They don’t do that kind of thing.
And they are really smart: book smart and people smart.
I can talk to them about grown-up stuff and they understand. I can explain the impact of their own behaviors and they understand. They are sensitive and empathetic, so much so that I often have to remind myself that they are children.
And when they are gone, I miss them.
Two weeks ago, they went to Pennsylvania for seven days with my husband for their grandfather’s funeral. I’d never been away from them for so long before and I quickly came to appreciate how much they help me around the house and with the twins.
Yes, they have their moments.
Sometimes, they are so whiny I just want to scream.
Sometimes they decide to do “experiments” and they destroy my kitchen.
Sometimes they find every reason possible to avoid going to bed and when 9 o’clock turns into 11 o’clock, I’m ready to tear my hair out.
But there is one other thing that tips the scale in their favor, no matter what else my older kids might do:
When their friends ask them what I do, they don’t say, “She makes us dinner.” They don’t say, “She drives us to school.” They don’t say, “She cleans the house, takes care of the twins or does the dishes.”
They say, “My mom writes books.”
My mom writes books.
That’s what they say.
Nope.
I just can’t feel the rhythm of that happy dance.

Message to Amazon: moms are Kindle people too

Hey you!
Amazon!
Kindle makers!
Over here!
Look at me!
Okay, so I’m not a business traveler looking for a good airplane read; I’m not a corporate something-or-another perusing stock quotes while racing to yoga class; and I’m not a techie who needs the latest gadget.
I’m a mom, a mom of four young kids.
And I am your market.
You just don’t know it yet.
Think about it.
I had a career once. I was a journalist. I was in the know all the time and it was great. I was childless too and, in my spare time, when I wasn’t running or hiking or barbecuing or taking classes, I was reading novels.
I miss it.
I still read the newspaper every day, or at least some of it.
I read magazines in the kitchen while I’m cooking, or in bed at night when I can’t fall asleep.
I still read novels.
I need novels.
Sometimes, I keep one on each floor of the house so I can pick up a book whenever I get a few minutes.
What I don’t have is something small and convenient that I can pull out of my purse (or diaper bag) on a rainy day while the twins are watching Blues Clues on the DVD player and I’m waiting behind the wheel for the school bus, which seems to always be late on rainy days.
I don’t have anything for traffic jams, or for Jump Joey’s when the twins are having so much fun on the play mats in the fully enclosed room that I actually find I have a few minutes or maybe even an hour to myself.
I don’t have anything for the doctor’s office (the grown-up kind) when I’m so engrossed in giving directions to the sitter as I slip out the door that I forget to bring a book. I don’t have anything for those days when I finish a novel and I can’t get to the library or the bookstore immediately to pick up another.
And I need another.
Now.
I don’t want to read news shorts on a Blackberry or check my email from my cell phone or sing along with Blues Clues.
I don’t want to chat on my cell phone with a friend.
I want to choose a novel, download it immediately and read it right away.
I want a Kindle.
Are you listening?
Are you looking?
Please?
Can I have a Kindle?

When kids are screaming and an editor calls

A fellow writer fretted loudly on an online forum the other day. She was a nervous wreck.
Her agent had just told her that an editor from a publishing house would be calling her within the next “few days.”
No specific day.
No set time.
Nothing.
She has children.
What should she do, she wondered, if the kids start acting up when the editor calls?
The tone of her post was apologetic, embarrassed, like she felt she should hide the fact of her motherhood from the editor and she didn’t know how. What she wanted, it seemed, was advice on how to pretend she is not something that she most definitely is.
But here’s the reality:
With the exception of John Grishman, Jodi Picoult, the “other” Lori Foster and a handful of other wildly successful authors, most writers either have day jobs or they are home taking care of children, writing on scraps of paper while cooking dinner, helping with homework or hiding in the bathroom.
Editors, if they are experienced and good at what they do, should know that. They should know that if they call unannounced, they are taking their chances. And the author should know that the editor knows he or she is taking a chance.
So why get the jitters?
Now, I have not had the good fortune of chatting with an editor from a publishing house just yet, but I have received important calls while caring for my four children. The older kids can usually be controlled with a stern look, but the twins, like most toddlers. tend to get in certain uncontrollable “moods.”
Sometimes, they want me to hand them the phone so they can say, “‘ello” about 50 times in a row. And they won’t let up. They follow me around, both of them together, tugging on my legs saying, “‘ello? Please?” and then screeching when I try to shoo them away.
Other times, they are in the fighting mood–cranky and tired, and tired of each other.
Still more often, they are in the “I want” mood. In this mood, they want something, I give it to them and then they want something else. It doesn’t end until either they nap, someone takes them outside or Diego comes on the TV.
So I’ve developed my own rules for handling such situations.
I start with a bribe–a movie, a Popsicle, a lollipop–artfully and quietly handed off or popped in the DVD player while still talking, uninterrupted, in an adult manner with the caller.
If that doesn’t work and I get the feeling that things will be okay if I just have a moment to get them under control, I ask the caller whether I can dial back in a few minutes. If he or she can’t agree to that, then why calling in the first place?
What’s two or three more minutes?
We could have killed that with awkward silence at some point in the conversation.
If I know it’s just going to be one of those days, I ask the person on the other end whether I can return the call at a later hour or on a later date, and I make arrangements for someone to help me with the kids.
Then, when I return the call, I hide in the garage or the basement.
I don’t mind chatting with the kids around if the caller doesn’t mind.
But there is one thing I will not do: I will not give into intimidation.
No call is important enough.
I have a passion for writing. I keep a notepad in the kitchen because I can’t help scribbling down my thoughts throughout the day. In fact, I wrote this post between 3 and 6 p.m. on an old steno pad and here I am typing it in at 12:39 a.m.
But my passion for my children is, and always will be, greater.

The karate scam

Originally posted March 11, 2009

My 7-year-old daughter became interested in karate through a short introductory course, which was promoted as a fundraiser for her school. She was hooked, so hooked that she quit dance and gymnastics to join.
I had the twins with me when I registered my daughter and they were screaming to get out of their stroller. So I didn’t pay much attention when one of the owners explained the six-month contract and the automatic deductions.
I just signed the papers.
Fine.
A six-month commitment was probably a good idea anyway. It would force her to stick with it long enough to know whether karate was really her thing.
And it is.
She loves it.
But now we must quit.
It’s a matter of principle.
It’s a scam.
For the past several months, the folks at the karate school have lured her deeper and deeper with tips on her belt, new belts, more tips, more belts and lots and lots of games. She has anxiety issues and she loves the fact that the instructors simply take control.
They tell her what to do and she does it.
They tell her not to cry and she doesn’t.
They tell her to be respectful and she is.
But two weeks ago, she received a letter. The letter informs me that she is nearing her testing for lime belt and that’s time to make a greater commitment. My daughter may continue only if I sign a three-year contract, agree to let some outside company continue to withdraw funds from my account, pay double the tuition I’m paying now and give 90 days notice for cancellation.
I’m not stupid.
This is about money.
This is about hoping that, if my daughter stops going, I won’t get around to cancelling for a month or two, and then I will still have to pay for another 90 days. This is about using outside companies who have can easily send those who oppose this system to collections, possibly ruining their credit.
This is not about karate.
One of my daughter’s best friends joined about the same time. Her mother, a single mom, recently lost her job. Two months remained in her six-month contract. She tried talking to the owners. They offered to let another family member fill the slot (She has no siblings), but they refused to cancel her automatic deductions.
I have left two messages, asking to talk about the 3-year contract. They have not called back.
Since then, I have learned from others that they will not call back and they will not budge if I approach then face-to-face (which I will do this week). Fortunately, my daughter is very bright. I explained the situation and she understood.
She’s going back to gymnastics, where I pay tuition every eight weeks by check.

Writing

Originally posted Nov. 8, 2008

I am a mom.
I am a wife.
I am a stepmother, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister, a sister-in-law, a niece, a cousin, an aunt, a great aunt, a friend. I’m sure I am even an enemy to a select few.
But no matter who I am to others, I am always a writer.
It is as a writer that I see the world even when I am too steeped in laundry and dishes to reach for a pencil and paper or to tap away on my laptop.
There was a time when I didn’t believe that, when I didn’t believe that writers perceived things all that differently than others and I didn’t believe in myself. Even during my years as a full-time journalist.
But I was over-thinking, and isn’t that what writing is all about?
Writing is about thinking. It’s about perception, analysis and vision. It’s a constant craving to understand the complexities of the world and of human nature and to convey that understanding through written words in a way that excites, energizes and entertains.
When I finally understood and accepted the distraction of that craving and the strength of that lure, when I finally caved in and called myself a writer, other things became clear to me and I began to accept them as well:
That’s why my house is a mess.
That’s why the walls need painting.
That’s why I have no garden and the flowers by the mailbox always die prematurely.
That’s why my older kids roll their eyes when I try to explain the dynamics of their friendships and the various points of view in their arguments.
That’s why my toddler twins grin, cackle and run when they see my laptop.
That’s why I can’t bake a decent cake, knit Christmas gifts, wrap a present with style or learn the art of scrapbooking.
That’s why I don’t get enough sleep.
So I’m sorry PTO.I’m sorry Dr. Sears, Martha Stewart, Suze Orman.
My house is a mess, my desk is a mess, my bills are a mess and I don’t dress well.
It’s not my fault.
I’m a writer.
I write to think; I think to write.