Saturday, November 26, 2011

SampleSunday: One Hundred Open Houses: "Whatever you have done, just let it go."

Given my present thought process, something really strange happened in church on Sunday. Father O’Connell is on vacation and this other priest said mass. He was old and we could hardly hear him.
We were prepared to just sit through it, the way we did when we had a substitute teacher. Almost in a whisper, he began talking about reconciliation – that’s what they call confession now. He said, “Whatever you have done, let it go. You aren’t children anymore with a laundry list of sins to confess – I hit my brother, I told a lie, I stole some candy - in order to be okay with God. Just get rid of everything. Let it go and you will be closer to Jesus. If you’ve had an abortion, if you’ve been abusive to your family – let it go. Let it all go. It’s all right. One of you,“ he emphasized, “sitting here today, will be transformed.”
The entire congregation remained still. Dumbstruck. We weren’t prepared to actually hear something we could use never mind being transformed. After church, I saw this young handsome man – not your typical devoted Catholic - go up to the priest and say – “I’m not from this parish but that is the best homily I have ever heard.” There was a long line of people and they were all saying much the same thing. They had been longing to find a way to get rid of all the things they were ashamed of doing and this brilliant old priest had told them it was okay to let it all go. He was telling us that he was certain – without a doubt – that this was not only okay, but also necessary.
After mass, I did something I seldom do - something all of us seldom do – I sat in the living room. I sat on the couch I had bought at the Bloomingdale’s outlet store. There was nothing to do in the living room except look around. You couldn’t cook there or eat or watch television. The living room, I have to tell you, is a useless room that we have been told is necessary. I felt as if I was visiting and all the stuff in there was new to me. After the “letting go” talk, if you take it seriously, you have a lot of space in your head to think about other things.
It had resulted in putting me in a strange state of lethargy. I felt all dry and papery. I was made of parchment paper. I kept thinking that contrary to my current fervor for staying alive, there might be something to dying. No more humidifying and dehumidifying. No more coughing at night or worrying about anything. If nothing else, the weight issue would be moot.
When you send the e-mail down to your psyche saying, “hey, it’s time to open up, we want some life changing moves up here,” it reacts. I had stated a purpose and begun a plan and although it wasn’t frontal lobotomy or entering a non-speaking religious order, it was change and there’s nothing like change to make the psyche squeeze out a miserly bit of self-revelation.
What was revealed to me on that chilly for June Sunday morning was that no matter what I did or where I lived or if I chose to pitch a tent in the Mojave dessert there was a fist sized hunk of worry smack in the center of my chest and if I didn’t address it, I was not going to really move.
There was no media noise so I was aware of the silence in the house. In my Sunday morning clarity, I knew that it was a hunk of heaviness that had been sitting in my chest for a very long time. I went into my default site of things to worry about, the kids’ safety, my health, mental illness and plumbing problems in a town where plumbers are rock stars. If you’re not going to follow the blueprint for the American Dream, you have to fight hard not to think ill of yourself.
This wasn’t about the kids or the house. This hard impenetrable thing was a hunk of worry about me, Rebecca, and what had happened to her. I bypassed my instinct to find some quick answer and thought about what my life was like from moment to moment. What I said to certain people and what I said to others. Was I authentic with anyone? Did I have enough friends? What mattered to me? Did anyone really love me? Was there anyone who couldn’t live without me? Do you even want someone who can’t live without you? No, you don’t! I’ll give you a profile of that man without even meeting him. Needy, needy, needy. And possibly in need of long-term therapy. You want someone who can live without you but would like to spend some time with you.
I had an m.o. As long as I could find the irony in everything that happened, I could make a case for an existence that resided on the sidelines while everyone else was actually living. Being ironic was no substitute for living but so help me I thought it was. Louise was living all of the time. She knew at least a dozen couples that she and her husband saw on a regular un-ironic basis. She had friends she had known for forty years. She played tennis with her friends and went to baby showers. She had a sequential life. She definitely did not start over every morning.
I thought about my premise that a move outside my comfort zone would jump-start a new life, a new routine, new connections and a new me. I was definitely ready to re-define myself. As what? A spunky middle-aged woman? This British guy had been on Oprah and he wrote a book on happiness and he said you would never be happy if you had a destination addiction. Why anyone would listen to a Brit talk on the psychology of happiness is beyond me. But I did take a little interest in his “destination addiction” theory. He was saying that as long as you thought that your happiness depended on something that was going to happen in the future, you were a dead duck. Or an unhappy duck. What I got from that Brit was that if I thought I was going to jump start my stalled writing career by moving to a monastic cell in New York City, I was stupid, stupid, stupid. And misguided. And delusional. I had to start being happy right here in Huffy The House. And while moving was a good idea, I would already be the committed reclaimed writer when I arrived.
So there was no avoiding it then. I had to begin thinking of the story I wanted to tell. What story was I just bursting to tell? No writer is bursting to write anything. Most are bursting to keep from writing. Writing is incredibly hard and beside it everything else appears incredibly easy. But this particular moment, I kept still and continued thinking until I had an “aha” moment that sounded so simple, I didn’t trust it but since I had nothing else, I went with it. Maybe the story was me! The routines, the bad habits, the small pleasures, the calls to the utility companies, the yanking of weeds, the phantom tandem life that I was going to live one day. Not this life but something better. Maybe this was the better life – maybe what I was writing down in my journal would make a fabulous story. Maybe my life was the story of the century. Every single day of it – Louise and Shana and the rep for the Dubai place and Itzonlyphil were what was in my life and if I shaped what I was writing in my journal into the odyssey it had become, I could make sense of it for myself and maybe for others, too. Maybe what was in my head was not the jumbled thoughts of a textbook AADD but LIFE.
I had just read an article in the New Yorker about the dictionary of mental disorders (I’m thinking someone is sitting around saying: there’s stealing and let’s call that kleptomania and there’s unsubstantiated euphoria and let’s call that manic behavior) There was a phrase in the article that I liked. It said someone had an unruly inner life. That’s what I had to document! My unruly inner life. I would shape what I had been writing in the journal into a book.
It was Sunday morning and my instinct was to turn on the television and watch Meet The Press. Anything not to test my new theory that, at best, seemed weak. I went to the computer instead. I wrote the date and Chapter One – 9-G I wasn’t looking for an apartment…
I started and before I knew it, Meet The Press was over and so were the McLaughlin Report and even Lydia’s Family Table. I had just plunged into the story in an unruly way. I introduced the old priest and what he told us and Ms. DuBois at the bank and KooKoofor$ and also Ben and Harry and even my mother and my fear of the voodoo she might be doing on my life. When I was done for the day I felt spaced out the way you do when you spend a day at the beach and the bright sun glinting off the water makes you feel surreal. And the salt air makes the indoors feel too quiet and unfamiliar. And your eyes can’t adjust. I turned off the computer and had a cup of coffee. There was no milk so I put some Turkey Hill vanilla Ice Cream in it. I drank it slowly, in the living room. Just me sitting there.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Real estate is the new Hollywood

The New York Times has an entire magazine devoted to real estate. It’s called Key and on one of the early covers was a stylized picture of a key with red lines radiating from it that looked like the vein and capillary system inside your body. That’s about right. Real Estate has become the substance of our dream life.

When I read Key magazine, I feel as if all the information has segregated me and shut me out. One of the articles tells you how much house one and a half million dollars can buy today. If you want to move to Szigetkoz, Hungary (no, I didn’t misspell it) you get a 30-acre, ten-bedroom castle. In New York City, you get a one-bedroom apartment with lava-stone kitchen countertops and the noise of the West Side Highway at your doorstep.

The best real estate news is not about absurdly low mortgage rates, it is the public gossip about who bought what. It doesn’t even have to be gossip about rich people. ‘The Hunt’ in the Sunday New York Times tracks the search by ordinary citizens who need to find four big rooms to rent for under twelve hundred dollars a month and everything they see is one and a half rooms for thirty-five hundred. There was this woman and her mother who wanted a one-bedroom close to the daughter’s work. Brokers took their fee but never delivered and didn’t return phone calls. I always think, maybe Oprah will read this and send them some money. The women finally ended up living in one place and breaking the lease and then living in another place for about twice what they could afford. The sad thing about this story is not the strained finances, it’s the set-up: a woman and her adult daughter, forced together, trying to make life work

These stories have the same two or three general plot lines, and one motivating factor. If you are hunting for a new place to live, you are also hunting for a new life. A newly married human resources executive wanted to buy a larger apartment but only if it had value and she could repeat the appreciation of her one-bedroom in Long Island City. After months of searching in Brooklyn and Queens, she and her new husband capitulated to - The Bronx! Ooooh, the Bronx. I’m scared for them. He’s from Norway and has no prejudice about the location or the drive-by shootings. The Bronx, we learn, has some wide thoroughfares (the Grand Concourse) and cheap multi-room apartments where a lot of famous people grew up. I once dated a boy from the Bronx. His name was Spencer and I met him at a summer job in the Catskills. I probably would have married Spencer if I had been Jewish and his parents hadn’t hired a hit man to off me.

Frequently, married doctors with foreign hyphenated names pop up in The Hunt. They usually settle for the outer boroughs - Kew Gardens, Astoria or Jackson Heights. At the top of their wish list is a place to park or an extra room for their hobbies although I don’t know when they have time for hobbies with tiny children and long clinic hours, etc. The foreign doctors are happy with good space, good schools, convenient food shopping and washer/dryer close by as opposed to the glam location value of Manhattan. The defining factor of “The Hunt” is that all of the stories end in success. Nobody leaves town, depressed and beaten.

Whoever invented the "Open House" maneuver, is my hero. I love Open Houses so much I wrote an entire book about them.

Once I was at an open house in the Flatiron district. It was a one bedroom overlooking the big clock at Met Life. The apartment had a mirror tile wall and swooping metallic lamps and glass tables and really no place you could sit and not be gouged by the unyielding materials. It was brittle in the way Bette Davis could be brittle. This man looked around and said, “If this apartment were a relationship, my verdict is, okay to date but would never marry.” When I think about that I’m wondering why I married my house.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Giving it away - a marketing experiment.

I used a marketing trick that had such amazing results I have to share.
I let a book go “free” on Amazon. This is harder than it sounds because Amazon won’t let you place a price of less than 0.99 for an e-book. The route to “riding the free-way” as Dee Dee Scott puts it, is by going free on Smashwords (the distributor that sells our books to all the other e-reader outlets) and have it filter through. Once the book appears free on Barnes & Noble and Kobo, Amazon will price match.

A week ago Sunday, I made Best Friends free on Smashwords. By Tuesday night the Amazon bots had noticed and it went free on Amazon. The first 12 hours I had 2,000 downloads. In 24 hours I had 5,000 downloads and hit #8 on the Free 100 list, #1 on the Free Suspense list and #3 on the Free Contemporary Romance list. The deluge of downloads continued for an entire week reaching over 30,000 by Wednesday morning.

The trick to the “free” ride is to un-free the book on Smashwords early on so that Amazon will restore the price after a week (or however long you wish). I un-freed Best Friends the day after Amazon picked it up and as the action filtered through to the various retailers, Amazon finally put the book back into un-free mode.

I thought that would be the end of the experiment. 30,000 exposures was pretty good advertising and sure to get me a few new readers who would buy my other titles. The loss of income was minimal because I was only making .35 cents per book and wasn’t selling that many. But here comes the good part: After the “free” ride ended, the book continued to sell briskly and ended up #2 on the Movers & Shakers list and went as high as #194 on the Kindle 100 in one day.

• #199 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
• #15 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Genre Fiction > Romance > Contemporary
• #19 in Books > Romance > Contemporary
• #29 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Thrillers > Suspense

How long will this last? Probably not that long. I’ve noticed that rankings change dramatically both up and down. However, the “free” experiment was a success. Considering how scattershot I am about my marketing, I’m lucky I hit on the “free way”

To those who don’t care a whit about my e business, I’m reading the biography of Steve Jobs and will do a book report in the next blog.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hi, I'm Huffy The House

I don’t know why but I never matured. I’m still a big fat baby and I react with big fat baby emotions. I don’t like to talk on the phone even when it’s somebody good. I leave the phone dangling sometimes without saying goodbye like a two year old. I still lick food when it’s dripping on the side of a dish or doing other things. When one of my children disciplines one of my grandchildren, I want to punch them and leave with their child even though the wee one was about to set the house on fire.

Once I rented a small cottage to a young man who came into my house and then into my bedroom at one in the morning and asked me to pray with him and I asked him what prayers he knew. When we finished I told him to go back to the cottage. Instead of calling the police, I went to sleep. (To my credit, in the morning, I made him leave.)

I still eat standing up. I don’t clean the house but sometimes I will manually pick the leaves off my front yard and then clip the edges with small scissors. I'm told I go off topic in most conversations. I’d rather not listen to anyone else talk. I don’t want to know another person’s point of view. If someone saw a good show or a good movie or read a good book, I don’t want them to describe it to me. I don’t like advice. I hate advice. The other day this nice doctor told me what to eat and I almost told him to shut up. Sometimes I think I’m by myself when I’m with someone. Sometimes when I’m driving I think, “Is this driving or am I doing something else that I think is driving?” I never balance my bank account and never know how much money I have in the bank. I stand on the ladder where it says “never stand here.”

I don’t dress like a grown up. The last time I looked put together with pantyhose, closed toe pumps and a bra, etc. was when I wanted a zoning favor from a bunch of pale Episcopalians. I looked pretty good even though the skirt was unbuttoned because I was five months pregnant and they gave me the variance. I dream about looking like that again but that’s immature, too. I should not be dreaming about things like that. Getting back to the bra, today I noticed on CNBC that Maidenform stock was way down because of earnings. We know that means women aren’t wearing enough underwear. I know I don’t wear enough bras and slips and half-slips and camisoles Where did they go?

The only time I felt mature (to me this is feeling like a school teacher who wears lace up shoes or maybe like Carley Fiorina who was once the CEO of Hewlett Packard. Also immature.) was when I took the kids to the orthodontist. There was something about driving, stern faced, to Dr. Norman’s office that made me feel officious - hey I’m taking the children to get their teeth straightened. Only a grown up would do that. I would have felt the same if I took them to Saks or Lord and Taylor every spring to get those double breasted light blue wool coats with the half belt in the back like Jackie used to buy for John John.

When the kids were little and I was at my least mature, I would affect being British and say “mind your head” instead of “hey, don’t hit your head” I was enamored of those diplomatic letters where they sign off as “Your Devoted Servant” when they really want to say, “I wish I had been assigned to Bermuda instead of this sucky place.”

Where my lack of maturity has been most evident is in my life choices. Like the baby that I am, I let choices pick me. I let a house choose me that looks like the place where Hansel and Gretel were incarcerated. It looks like it will start wiggling and talking any time: Hi, I’m Huffy The House. If I initiate anything that moves me along in my life’s journey, I dream walk through it and have no memory of a moment of decision.

My immaturity allows me to engage with my grandchildren with total commitment: When one of them says, “Play with me.” I say, “Ok. You be Thomas and I’ll be Toby.” If you don’t know what that means, be glad.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tabouli smackdown

There have been two great Middle Eastern restaurants in my family both in Washington, D.C. and both run by my favorite Uncle Charlie. Everyone in that huge family was a great cook, even the men. I am not talented in that department but I did learn to make, better than average hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouli that kicks you know what.

Good tabouli is almost impossible to buy although the gross, soggy almost fermented kind sold in plastic cups is easily had.

Fresh ingredients are important for good tabouli but technique is crucial.

What you will need:
A big bunch of fresh perky curly parsley
4 thin kirby cucumbers
four or five firm plum tomatoes
3/4 cup of medium coarse bulgur wheat.
half a bunch of scallions (optional)

If you’ve seen recipes on the internet, a word of caution.
Does my list include mint? NO! So don’t put mint in it. Ever!
Does this recipe talk about regular onions? NO. So don’t put regular onions in it.
I’ve even seen soy sauce in an internet recipe. This would destroy the tabouli; it’s the opposite of the crisp, tangy, chewy, mélange that we are trying to achieve. My Aunt Mary (the best cook in the world) who would feed anyone who wandered into her house, would be disappointed.

Juice of one and a half lemons
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
(no pepper, no garlic, no additional herbs.)
Let me say this again: lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and salt.

The technique needed with all of the vegetables is to dice them by hand into infinitesimally small pieces. You can’t use machines for this because you will get watery mush instead of recognizable tiny cubes. The parsley is the only ingredient that can be processed in a machine and the only machine that has worked to my satisfaction is the Oskar. Unfortunately, they don’t make the Oskar anymore, possibly because it is a great little workhorse. Whenever something is good, they stop making it. St. Ives stopped making cucumber elastin. (it really tightened your skin), Kiehl’s stopped making their great A and D cream and Sunbeam stopped making the Oskar. My friend Naomi wrote a prize-winning poem about this. It’s called “The Item You Ordered Is No Longer Being Produced.” It’s one of my favorite poems.

The secret at the core of great tabouli is to have all of the ingredients as fresh as possible and more important as dry as possible. If the parsley has been washed put it through a spinner before chopping. For the tomatoes, scoop out the watery part. I choose Kirby cucumbers because their seeds are tiny and their cores have less gelatinous flesh. Remember, we are going for dry.

Place the bulgur wheat in a bowl and cover with tap water. Let stand for about an hour, drain the water. Take small portions of the wheat into the palm of your hand and squeeze the remaining water out then place it in a bowl. Do this until all of the wheat has been “wrung” out. Add the minced parsley, the cubed tomatoes and cucumbers and (optional) add a few stalks of minced scallions (use both the bulb and the green) Mix gently.

The wheat will continue to expand siphoning off any liquid from the vegetables. Because the tabouli is dry, you can store part of it in an airtight plastic container for up to four days.

The dressing: Do not be tempted to put anything but lemon, olive oil and salt in your dressing. The reason we wrung out that wheat and dried the vegetables was so they could soak up the lemon and oil and salt which creates an incredibly fresh tangy taste. The wheat especially will continue to expand getting fatter with the lemon and oil. The vegetables will also rehydrate and glisten with the dressing.

This tabouli is addictively good but it is also good for you. If you pair it with a few home made grape leaves or a sandwich of baba ghanoush in fresh hot artisan pita bread Yum.
**I’ve seen recipes that call for putting fine bulgur and soaking in boiling water. You want medium coarse so it soaks up more dressing. If you use boiling water, the wheat will expand too much and again, won’t siphon off some of the moisture of the veggies and the dressing.

I hope you like this.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

“It’s your thyroid” and other important phrases.

The three most palliative (look it up) words in the English language: "It’s your thyroid.” When the doctor says this, jump for joy. First, you’re going to stop feeling tired, second you’re going to want to do things, third you’re going to want to fix things that are wrong with your house, fourth you’re going to (dare I say it?) lose weight.

The 5 most chilling words in the English language: “Let’s have a little talk.” It’s the adjective in that sentence that sends the chill factor into Antarctica. “Let’s have a talk,” means a warning as in, “I’ve noticed such and such is not going smoothly, what can we do to turn that around?” Add the word ‘little’ and talking time is over. You are out.

The six most - “Aw, no. I’m not the right person for this” words are “I’ve never told this to anyone.” If you don’t want this to happen, stop being nice. Niceness invites the crazy secret holders to target you. If you are already a victim do not let the conversation proceed. Say something definitive like “Aw gosh, I have internal bleeding, I’ve got to get it checked out immediately.”

“Are you sitting down?” or “I have big news.” imply success and are good unless you are human and hate to see your friends and dear ones surpass your achievements.

“While you were away your cat died.” This is never good not only because your cat died but because this is a well known opening salvo for sequentially-delivered even worse news. The house sitter begins with ‘your cat died’ to get you prepared and then they segue into worse news, i.e. ‘and your house burned down.’

The ne plus ultra of language: “You have a famous, wealthy relative who wants to get in touch with you.” Those are the words a lawyer spoke to then struggling writer Mona Simpson when she was about to meet a lost brother named Steve Jobs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

72 days is plenty of time to be married

This is a nonsense post on some of the crazy news stories from my favorite news provider: Yahoo.

1. Kim Kardashian is divorcing her husband of 72 days citing irreconcilable differences. I’m thrilled for them. The irreconcilable difference in height kept me up at night. Remember that little dustup when People chose not to include the groom in the wedding cover photo - he was too tall to fit in the same frame. I’m a short woman and I know all about trying to hold a conversation never mind kiss a man who is a foot and a half taller. It’s called craner’s remorse. You can’t crane 24/7 and not get a little annoyed. Eva Longoria/Tony Parker (similar situation). Jessica Simpson/Tony Romo (the same). Besides giving Kim a colossal neck knot Kris was permanently churlish (a word not used nearly often enough).
Was the marriage too short? Tosh bosh. Kim got a couple of epi$odes for the reality show out of her drive-by marriage and a bundle of magazine money for exclusive wedding photos. There was little else to sell short of getting pregnant. Besides, Kim pumped $10 million dollars into the economy and created a busload of jobs. Maybe President Obama doesn't like his girls watching the Kardashians but Kim knows how to generate some bucks.

2. Mother jailed, loses custody of her daughter over stolen sandwiches. I’m always interested when the government takes children from their parents. If the parenting police had been around when I was a young mother, they would have taken my children on a regular basis. In this case a mother, Nicole, was 30 weeks pregnant and feeling faint while at the supermarket. She took a sandwich and ate it as she shopped for her groceries. When she arrived at the cashier, she paid for $50. worth of groceries but forgot to include the sandwich. The police met her at the door.

I’ve been around a lot of pregnant women in the last few years and I can tell you when they get hungry, it’s like having a bear loose in a residential neighborhood. Didn’t anyone tell Safeway that “it takes a village” to raise a child. Safeway is part of Nicole’s village. The least they could do is give the mother a sandwich. Instead they sent her to jail. Besides, who hasn’t eaten a grape or two while cruising the produce aisle?

3. Drunk, naked driver smashes 12 cars in Moscow.
If we didn’t think there was a little craziness afoot in Russia from watching Putin go topless, this story will seal the deal. I love it when people act as crazy as possible. First, this man, the perpetrator, came from Moldova - a landlocked state between Romania and Ukraine. Second, he was in distress over an unhappy relationship. Translated this means he lived in a sucky place and his girlfriend had dumped him. So he got drunk and ignored a no left turn sign (who hasn’t done that?) This act provoked a police chase. The drunk, jilted, sucky hometown lover decided he was already in trouble why not have the best time. He continued speeding away from the po po smashing several cars en route and shedding his clothes as he went. “Don’t cover me,” he shouted when the police tried to put clothes on him for the television cameras.

That’s the best of the Yahoo news folks, see you later.