The New Normal

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020.

Three weeks ago, I danced in a crowded club while a DJ spun songs from The Cure and The Smiths, two of my all-time favorite bands. I hung out with the mom who would be chaperoning my oldest son on his class trip to Washington DC, and we laughed about how crazy she was to spend the long weekend with 20 teenagers. We were all acutely aware of a virus that had been spreading through other parts of the world. I washed my hands several times during the night, as I always do. I drank from glasses that other people had touched, shook hands with strangers, breathed in communal air.

We had no idea what was coming.

Two weeks ago, my family went to two plays; Friday night at our local high school and Saturday afternoon at a community theater. People’s behavior had started to change. Restrictions against large gatherings. Hand sanitizer everywhere (but not a bottle to be found on store shelves). Ushers wearing gloves. When we went to the theater on Saturday, I washed my hands before and after the show, and then again before we ate poutine at a local restaurant across the street. I made sure my family followed suit. “This may be the last time we’re out in public for a while,” I said. And it was.

On Sunday of that week, the first case of COVID-19 hit our county, and a few hours later the schools were closed down for five weeks. My youngest was due to participate in his crossing over ceremony for scouts, an event we’d been planning for months. With a heavy heart, I sent out the cancellation notice.

“Crisis school” began Monday. (It is not homeschooling. Homeschooling is a choice.) Oldest had a meltdown the first day. Youngest on day two. Mom nearly every day. I went into work on Tuesday, where the air buzzed with fear, despite the industrial sized bottle of New York made hand sanitizer. I worried that I would be sent home without pay, or worse, lose my position entirely. I worried about our office plants and packed them into my van to bring home. I worried about my mother-in-law, who was recovering from pneumonia and refusing to stay home. I worried about my parents down in Florida, especially my mom, who has a heart condition and recently had her spleen removed after a terrible car accident.

I am an anxious person by nature, a worst-case scenario person, the sort of person who was already wiping down grocery carts and door handles, washing her hands frequently, and being leery of strangers. Who imagines her spouse in a ditch on the side of the road when he doesn’t return from work on time. Who can’t stop thinking about all the people in the world who are suffering and how we need to save the planet before it destroys us. That’s me on a normal day. Before I began to consume far too many news reports and articles on social media.

Late Tuesday night we got word that our jobs were deemed “non-essential”, which seems like it would be a disappointment but meant that we could work from home. I struggled the first few days to balance work with home/kids/school. School was slow to send over plans (understandably so seeing how quickly they were forced to improvise), and the boys balked at my attempts to teach them. There were fights and meltdowns as we adjusted to life together 24-7. My husband works for a plant that manufactures pumps for power generation, so he was deemed “essential”. Classifications became important as each day more and more businesses shut down. By the end of the week, the state declared only essential employees could go to work. (He is now working from home two days a week to minimize the number of employees on site.)

One week ago, oldest would have been on his DC trip, experiencing our nation’s capital for the first time. Instead we stayed home, played games, ate takeout, and watched movies. We tried to make the best of our new found family time, as weekends are typically spent running around to practices and other events. Now, the calendar is completely empty. It is a blessing and a curse, but it is a necessity for survival.

The only public place I have been in the past two weeks is a single trip to the grocery store on March 19. I wiped down the cart, as always, and washed my hands when I got home, as always, but in the store my behavior had changed. I avoided aisles with people in them, waited for the person before me at the register to clear before proceeding, and anything I picked up to examine went into the cart because I could be an unknowing carrier. I tried to be extra nice to the cashier, a high school senior who said she was bored because she was only allowed to go to work and nowhere else. My heart broke for her and all the other seniors missing out on their final year of high school.

Last week I consumed more and more media, the daily updates my safety net in these uncertain times. My anxiety continued to rise, and with it sleepless nights and a lack of desire to start each day. There were pockets of joy – virtual chats with my writing friends and my parents/siblings/nephews, laughing with my family as we invented new games to entertain ourselves, lots of extra cat snuggles. And I guess at the end of each day, I need to concentrate on the joyful moments and pray they will help me get through the anxious ones. Every time I reached out to a friend, they too expressed anxiety, worry, fear. We are all united in the unknown of what lies ahead. People have become more paranoid, yes, but also friendlier, at least from afar. We all want to get through this, to get to the other side and return to normal. We all want to survive.

Today is Saturday, March 28, 2020. It is raining outside. I am still wearing the same clothes I put on yesterday morning. It is almost noon. I am worrying about the doctors, the nurses, the patients who are dying. I am worrying about friends and family members who are struggling, emotionally and financially.

But my husband and children are here, and they are safe and healthy, and today we will play board games and make brownies. And maybe I’ll chat with a friend or two. And I will try to focus on those moments instead.

Launch party love

I feel incredibly blessed. Last night was the launch party for Second in Command. Friends, family, and coworkers came out to help celebrate and many others shared their well wishes throughout the day. I even met a few new people who heard about the event and wanted to check out my book.

I wanted to share my speech here for anyone who missed it because I think so much of writing is about the journeys we take and the people who help us along the way.

Thank you, Gina for that perfect introduction, and a huge thank you to Mary and the Burchfield Penney Art Center for hosting this event. Mary runs a book club here on the first Thursday of every month – it celebrates local Buffalo authors and it’s a wonderful way to learn about the history and culture of Buffalo and be exposed to some of our amazing talent. *(Note: the next book club is March 7)

At the risk of sounding like I’m at the Oscars (if I go too long feel free to cue the obnoxious music), there are a bunch of people I need to thank for getting me up here. My parents, for believing in me and traveling back from Florida into the icy grips of Buffalo to help celebrate and bake cookies. My mother in law, and my sister and her family for their support and encouragement, my kiddos for inspiration – this is the first thing I’ve written they could actually read (usually there’s a tiny bit of swearing in my books). And that handsome man in uniform who endures endless rounds of brainstorming, as well as my fits of jealously and self-doubt and all the other demons we writers face. He’s always there with practical advice like, “Just sit down and write.” As many of you know, he was active duty Navy for five years and now serves as a Reservist. We were apart for most of 2003 and I pulled on some of those memories when writing the book. But more about that in a bit.

I want to thank my friends and family – coworkers, both past and present, scout friends and writer friends – especially my Wednesday night and sometimes Sunday afternoon clan, members of our local children’s writers and illustrators (we’re known as BNCWI), Kristy my cheerleader, Jenn for our writing slash counseling sessions, Dee for introducing me to this crazy world of children’s books, my beta readers – CJ, Claudia, Carla, Gina, and Lilly. Sam, who designed this beautiful cover. Caitie, and everyone at West 44 who took a chance on my idea and helped make a lifelong dream come true. Everyone here today for coming out and supporting me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Okay, cue the music. Onto the juicy part. How did I get here? No wait, that’s a Talking Heads song. Here’s the condensed version. When I was 16, I wrote a lot of angsty poetry. Like Leo, the main character in Second in Command, I was trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in the world. That’s the great thing about young adult literature. We can all relate to those feelings of identity and fitting in – they’re universal. And writing, for me, as a far from 16-year-old who still carries a few wounds on her heart, is a form of therapy. You present readers with a character who has a goal, give him/her obstacles, and then here’s the fun part – you help them figure out how to solve their problems. And unlike real life, there are revisions – you can change the course of events and your characters’ reactions, you get to be in control of their fate.

I get the YA part, you say, but what is a verse novel? A verse novel is a story told entirely through poetry. Poetry is beautiful because it strips everything down to raw emotion – much like the teenage experience. When Caitie told our critique group about her new imprint that would feature verse novels for struggling readers I thought, YES! Brilliant! I used to teach high school students with learning disabilities, and I remember how some of them struggled to find accessible literature that spoke to their experiences in a way that didn’t feel dumbed down. Poetry can be intimidating to some, yes, but it can also be freeing in a way because there’s all this white space on the page and the sentences are bare, the emotion is right there for the reader to see and feel.

I was excited to be part of something like that – and to be able to write poetry again. While that might frighten some writers, I immediately started to think about the different types of poems I could use and how I’d be able to play with language and structure. The clincher? One of the possible topics was deployed parents. Poetry, young adult book for struggling readers, about a military family. Around our house we call that the Trifecta.

So I created Leo, and I gave him a goal – he wants to earn Eagle Scout and become a police officer, and I gave him conflicts – Mom, who he admires and depends on to a degree, gets deployed and younger brother Jack quickly takes advantage of the situation by getting into trouble. It’s clear the brothers are close, but they fight – in the way brothers do. Not that I have any experience with that or anything. And Leo feels this strong sense of responsibility, especially when it comes to his siblings, but he’s also freaking out a little. And when I sat down to write I had to dredge up some difficult memories of my husband’s deployment. I wanted the story to be real for my readers. I had to tap into those feelings and remember the other families from that time. It was 2003 and everyone in our little military town knew someone who was deployed. Leo’s family was inspired by our next door neighbors. Mom left with the hospital ship. Dad commuted over an hour to work each day. The kids looked out for each other. It was sweet and heartbreaking, and they stayed with me for a long time.

I pitched my idea, and they liked it. Then came drafting, deadlines, revisions – all that good stuff.

Writing isn’t easy. It’s lonely. Sometimes it feels like I cut up my heart and put it onto the page. And when you’ve got a world of other things on your plate – work, family, volunteering – you squeeze it in whenever and wherever you can. I wrote most of the book on a picnic table inside Epic Sports Center while my kids were at soccer practice. But then there was a book. With my name on it. And that was pretty awesome. The most rewarding thing for me is the opportunity to tell a story people connect to. When someone reads a poem and thinks, yes, this speaks to how I’m feeling. That is really powerful.

There are moments in my life when I felt so, so lonely and I would turn to my journal, or I’d turn to a book and get lost in the story. Words have a weird way of healing. My hope is that you pick up this book and whether you’re part of a military family or you had someone in your life that you depended on and now they’re gone and you’ve gotta figure it out on your own – of if you’ve ever had to decide where your loyalty lies, you’ll pick up this book and you’ll feel a connection to the characters, you’ll feel understood, you’ll feel a little less alone.


me, being authorly

Time for an upgrade?

Twenty years.

That’s how long it’s been since I graduated from college. My reunion was this past weekend, and I decided to skip all the formal stuff and attend the free, kid-friendly Fall Fest with my boys. Last year we went with my sister (graduate school, class of ’08) but she had a race this year and couldn’t make it. The boys and I still had fun playing games and winning swag. I ran into one person I knew from school, someone who I had, ironically, ran into for the first time since Rhetoric I this past summer. “Two times in one year,” she said laughing, and then went off to deal with her kiddos while I chased after mine.

Later, the boys and I went on a tour of the campus, which has changed dramatically in the past twenty years thanks to a large land purchase from neighboring nuns, an even larger pile of donation money from a local billionaire, and a dramatic increase in tuition rates. “Sorry, boys,” I said when our tour guide told us the current cost of attendance. “This is a great school, but you’d be in debt forever.” I spent the rest of the tour jealous of the amazing new dorms and apartments, the shiny new academic buildings, and the general youthfulness that surrounded us.

I felt old.

Youngest proudly announced that I hadn’t been there in twenty years, and I started far too many sentences with, “I remember when…” Yep. I have officially hit the stage of my life when sentences begin with a wistful phrase of nostalgia.

My favorite library turned 50 this year. I remember what it looked like in its infancy. Checkout table near the door where the librarian would stamp your due date cards; I would dutifully open all the books up to the back and stack them neatly on top of one another. Card catalog that took up most of the center area, an area now occupied by computers. Colorful rugs in the children’s section where I sat curled up with a tower of picture books way, way, way back when in the early 80’s.

Really old.

Today I reached the pinnacle of feeling like a curmudgeon. Sadly, my one and only smart phone that I have had since 2014 is starting to, for lack of a better word, decompose. The battery drains rapidly, and just yesterday I discovered that all of my photos disappeared. I try to dump pictures onto my laptop every few months, but it had been a while. And no, I didn’t back them up on the cloud. They are gone. Poof. Depressed but mildly hopeful, I went to the phone store that shall not be named and prayed that someone would be able to help me recover my pictures.

It went down a bit like this:

Me: So my phone battery has been draining quickly and I’ve been trying to fix it and somehow now my SD card is messed up and all my pictures are gone.

Much younger worker guy: What is this? An S7? (scoff)

Me: Haha, no it’s an S4.

Guy: (not even trying to hide the scornful look on his face) Did you back them up with Google photo? (rapidly flips through screens to try and locate my missing memories)

Me: Uh, no.

Guy: Well, your phone is old. This kind of stuff happens. (secretly cackling at the prospect of his upcoming commission upon new phone sale)

This kind of stuff happens to old things. I am an old thing. My battery life is draining and sometimes the memories in my gallery fade and may eventually disappear if I don’t back them up. (THIS IS WHY I BLOG, PEOPLE)

My alma mater and favorite library have experienced a lot of upgrades over the years, and it’s only a matter of time before I have to give in and buy a new phone. And I suppose I’ve tried to upgrade myself too, albeit kicking and screaming. Friends and family know how obsessed I am with the 80’s, particularly 80’s music. And my boys know how much I love to talk about the “good ol days”. (insert eye roll) They patiently followed me around campus as I swooned in waves of nostalgia.

The thing is, I like it that way. I live in the now because I’m forced to, but if I could trade streaming music for mixed tapes, I would. If I could throw away my phone and not be connected 24-7, I would. Every generation has something they long to hold onto, and us Gen X-ers are no exception. (Why else would so many modern TV shows and movies pay homage to the best decade ever?)

So, no, Mr. Young Hip Phone Guy, I won’t be helping you earn a big commission today. I’ll figure out a way to make my sad 2014 phone work for a bit longer, thank you.

Then and now

My high school reunion is this weekend. 25 years. A quarter of a century. A long, long time ago in a place right around the corner from where I now live. (Apparently you CAN go home again.)

Hubs and I had fun at my 20th. We drank, we mingled, some pranksters switched their senior photo name tags, and I had no idea who they were. It felt like high school 2.0. Not in the improved sense, more in the “everyone is behaving the way they did back then but now we’re in our 30’s” sense.

I’m no longer really friends with any of the people I hung out with in high school. My then-bestie graduated a year ahead of me and lives down in North Carolina. Several of my good friends were also in her class, and we’ve lost touch over the years. Others have either fallen off the grid or drifted into new adult circles. It’s strange how many people from our high school are still friends with each other. Not me. I shed that skin like a snake in spring and am happy to have a fresh set of friends who can’t tell embarrassing stories about me. Okay, they CAN tell them, but at least the stories happened recently and not before my prefrontal cortex had fully developed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about THEN VS. NOW. How much do we change, really? When are we our most authentic selves?

Last night our friends were over, and we sat out on the deck, listened to Barenaked Ladies, and laughed about the ridiculous things our children do. One friend and I reminisced about CFNY, a radio station out of Toronto that was THE radio station of my teen years. Back then I made a mix tape by listening patiently, pressing record when my favorite songs came on, and inevitably catching the DJ promo over the first few bars. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I do still own that mix tape and all my other mix tapes despite the fact that I no longer have the ability to listen to them thanks to my new tapedeck-less minivan. Pardon me while I weep a little.) Now, I can go to YouTube or library streaming and cue up my faves. I’m listening to The Lightening Seeds while I type this and feel transported to my angsty sixteen-year old self. “Don’t sell the dreams you should be keeping.” Yup.


circa 1992

There are days when I miss that version of myself. Young and free of wrinkles and adult responsibilities. Look at this girl. She is happy, in her element, ready to take on the world. I didn’t give a crap about what people thought about me. Okay, maybe I did. But I was in theater (this photo was taken backstage during our performance of The Crucible — I may have let being the lead get to my head) and loved being on stage. Loved the attention as long as it meant I got to be someone else.

I still do. Our babysitter came to expect strange costumes and makeup whenever she came over as we’ve been known to attend a themed event or two. Or ten.

What else has changed/not changed? Then: the majority of my wardrobe came from my brother’s closet (see jeans above) and the thrift store. Now: everything I’m wearing today came from a second hand clothing store and my shoes and purse were my mom’s. I’m not cheap (okay, maybe a little), but I’ve never put value in things. I’d rather spend my money on experiences and my time doing anything but shopping.

Then: I loved playing soccer. Now: I watch it. Tried to coach it. Desperately miss the days when I could run without my knees aching. Practice yoga instead.

Then: I felt safe with my group of friends, but never really fit the suburban mold. Now: Same. We came back here to raise our boys; it’s a great little town and I have good friends who I adore, but in my soul I know this is not where I belong. Where that is exactly, I’m not sure. Hopefully I have a few more decades to figure that out. In the meantime I try to take advantage of every opportunity to be my authentic self. The one who makes crude jokes and laughs too loud, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or dance alone on the dance floor while singing off-key, who is fiercely loyal to the point of getting burned.

Then: I may have appeared confident on the surface, but I worried all the time. Still do. Only now I have the courage to push past the fear and anxiety and go after the things I want. 25 years has at least given me that, along with gray hairs I will be dyeing tomorrow just in time for the reunion. Hey, it’s still my authentic self. Just a bit more improved. Version 2.0.