2016 Missouri Writers Guild Conference in Kansas City


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MWG logoThe Missouri Writers Guild annual conference hasn’t been in Kansas City for a number of years, so I was delighted to attend this past weekend. I hoped for inspiration to keep writing and for tips to help me improve my craft and market my work more effectively. The MWG conference wasn’t the best I have attended, but it was very good. And I couldn’t beat the location—a hotel fifteen minutes from my home!

In one session, two best-selling authors talked about their experiences with both self-publishing and publishing through big New York houses. While they acquired their best-seller” status through traditional publishing, they stated bluntly that self-publishing allows authors to make more money and retain more control of their work. Because I am self-published, this was good news to me.

I also attended two breakout sessions with Terry Allen, one on Dramatic Action and the other on Dramatic Dialogue. Mr. Allen has taught acting, directing, and playwriting, and he used examples from plays and movie scripts to show writers how to develop their characters by showing them in action and through effective dialogue. I’ve heard Mr. Allen speak before, and even though some of his material was a repeat for me, it was well worth hearing again. He’s an excellent presenter with interesting material.

And best of all—my novel, Lead Me Home, won second place in the Missouri Writers Guild “Show Me” Best Book contest!

LMH Show Me certificate

Here are a few of my main take-aways from the conference. I’m not attributing these to any particular speaker, because I’ve condensed many of these from points several speakers made.

On the craft of writing:

  • Plot is just a series of actions, but story has meaning—go beyond the action to show the reader through characters and metaphors what your story means. Write lives, not obituaries.
  • Every plot has been told before. Your story is unique because of the characters’ specific motivations and how they think and feel about what is happening to them.
  • From the very first page of your book, the setting should come alive. Use specific details to make this happen; you don’t have to have lengthy descriptions.
  • Dialogue is more than chit-chat; it is characters talking to get what they want. All characters need something in every scene, even if it isn’t expressed.
  • Don’t just describe your characters—show them in action. Your characters will understood more clearly through what they do than through descriptions of how they look or even through what they say. (Readers will believe your characters’ actions more than their words.)

On the business of publishing:

  • Remember that publishing is a business. You need to know your break-even point. How many copies do you need to sell for your publisher to break even? (And for you to break even, if you are self-publishing.)
  • Writers need to be involved in all stages of publishing their book—product development (editing), design and production (cover and internal design), marketing and promotion, and sales and distribution. You can’t stop with writing the book.

On staying motivated:

  • The universe wants us to succeed. We will receive help if we are willing to collaborate.
  • Writing takes commitment and time, but it can be fun.
  • If we are willing to not be perfect, we can improve.
  • Don’t give up when things get hard.

I’ve heard all these motivational points before. And I know I’ll hear them again. I will most likely need to hear them again. Because we all need help in staying motivated.

Writers, where do you find inspiration?

No More Libby Jacksons


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4 cousins Jul 87

Andy & Libby are the older two cousins. This picture is from the Libby Jackson days

My kids and their cousins often visited their mutual grandparents (my in-laws) when they were children. When it was time to leave, my father-in-law would call them aside and hand them each a $20 bill. I told my children not to expect Grandpa’s generosity and to thank him when it did occur. Nevertheless, Grandpa almost always did pass out the bills, and it became a regular part of their visits.

The oldest of the four cousins was Andrew. On one occasion, when Andrew was about seven or so, Grandpa called him over. “Here’s your Andrew Jackson,” Grandpa told him, as he gave him a $20 bill. (Andrew’s last name is not Jackson, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

Andy’s five-year-old sister Libby wasn’t around when her big brother got his gift. When she heard her big brother had received his Andrew Jackson, Libby went straight to Grandpa. “Where’s my Libby Jackson?” she asked.

Grandpa looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“You gave Andy an Andrew Jackson. I want my Libby Jackson.”

That set Grandpa to roaring with laughter. And, of course, he gave Libby her $20, no matter what she called it.

This story became one of Grandpa’s favorite family anecdotes, told many times over the years. Grandpa continued passing out his Andrew Jacksons until the kids were grown (and even after). In their teenage years, I think they relied on Grandpa to help with gas money. In their adult years, it was a fun (and practical) reminder of their childhood.

Libby is now married and about to have her fourth child. Her oldest two are almost of the age that Andy and Libby were when the Libby Jackson incident occurred.

I thought of our Libby Jackson family story when I learned that the Treasury Department is going to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. As they grow and are told our family’s stories, Libby’s children won’t understand the humor in this tale about their mother—Libby Jackson won’t mean anything to them.

And there’s no one in the family named Harriet to prompt a similar mistake.

As time passes, circumstances change, and history becomes history. What is relevant in one age is irrelevant in the next. That is as true in families as in nations and in the world.

When bad things happen, we frequently thinks “this too shall pass.” But we need to remember that the good things (and people) pass away also. Write down your family’s stories now, lest they be forgotten—but remember to explain their significance to keep your past alive.

Are there stories in your family that have lost their meaning over time?

How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?


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1850 California Gold Rush miners

In my research into the California Gold Rush, I’ve read about prospectors who struck it rich and returned to their homes wealthy men, about others who made a fortune and then spent it, and about still other men who never made a dime. And I started wondering how much it took to become wealthy in 1849-50.

One article I found, “The Financial Situations of Those Who Dug for Gold,”  indicates that $10,000 to $15,000 made a man successful, and some prospectors acquired as much as $60,000 to $75,000.

Consumer Price Index 1800-2005

Consumer Price Index 1800-2005

Keep in mind that $100 in 1849 would buy about $3,055 today—a more than 30-fold increase.  So $100,000 would give a man the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 today. It only took $33,000 to have the equivalent of $1,000,000 today. So a man making $60,000 in the gold fields would have around $2,000,000—success, yes, but many people have been more successful.

Then, as in any land-dependent activity today, the important thing is LOCATION.

One story tells of a man who made $83,500 in two hours time. An hourly wage of $43,250 is more than enough to match the income of most business tycoons today!

Another anecdote tells of one pan of dirt yielding $1400 in the spring of 1850.

And here’s a description of the gold finds around what is now Placerville, California:

. . . The first discovery was made in Hangtown Creek, near the mouth of Cedar Ravine, the latter being the first ravine worked, and found to be very rich, yielding upwards of $1,000,000. The next discovery was in Bedford Avenue, at that time called ‘Log Cabin Ravine,’ and a large amount of gold was taken from it . . . . [One man] took home with him about $25,000. From this ravine had been taken altogether, as near as can be determined, about $250,000. . . .


An early miner

And here is the tale of another ravine in the vacinity:

The very richest ravine that was discovered up to this time, the spring of ’51, around Hangtown, was the Oregon Ravine. This ravine was first discovered by two men from Oregon named Yocum. They first worked a narrow strip up through the ravine about three feet in width, . . . . Their method of working was of the most primitive kind. One would with pick and shovel remove the dirt from the surface to near the bed rock, which was about three feet in depth, and the other, with an old knife or a sharp stick in one hand, would stir up the dirt, and as the bright pieces of gold showed themselves, would pick them up and drop them into a tin cup, which he constantly carried in the other hand. This was their slow method of working, and although they realized a fortune by this process, they did not glean as much as they should have done. How much these two men realized was never known, for they were very cautious; but it was supposed that they took home with them about $100,000 each. Old man Harper, who also worked in this ravine, was said to have made out $60,000; several others also, have made large profits here. They all left for home in the fall of ’49. Soon after my arrival, there were at least 200 men at work in this ravine, and all doing well, for the ravine was wide and paid richly from bank to bank. Dr. Ober was very successful, and as he passed along down at night among the miners who were at work below him, with a smiling countenance showed his tin cup in which he carried his gold. I found that about $150 was his average day’s work. In my opinion, Oregon Ravine yielded at least $1,000,000 if not more, and considering its size was the richest one in this portion of the country.

As this description indicates, the early miners—some of whom left even before the Forty-Niners arrived—were more likely to strike it rich than those who came later. The most fortunate and the wisest made their bundle, then left California.

Other anecdotes tell us that men made fortunes from serving the prospectors also:

 . . . Fortunes were realized from Spanish, Murderer’, Big and Michigan Bars, where Ex-Governor Stanford had his little store in ’52, the germ from which sprang the Great Overland Railroad. . . .

Thus, the fortune that created the great Stanford University, where I went to law school, began in a store serving Gold Rush miners.

My current work-in-progress describes work in gold fields such as these. Some characters keep their fortunes and others never find their fortunes or lose them. Still other characters lose their lives.

Would you have been wise and left California, or would you have spent your fortune in the saloons?

My Grandfather’s Clock as a Metaphor for Grief


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grandfather's clock

My grandfather’s clock keeping time in my home

I’ve written before about my grandfather’s clock—how it formed a part of my childhood, first in my grandparents’ home and then in my parents’; how I deliberately let it wind down after my father died; how I shipped to to my house and got it working again. (see here and here) But even after I set it up in my house, it still felt like my grandfather’s—or at least my father’s—clock.

Over the past few months I have worked to make it my clock. I am less timid about winding it, no longer afraid it will fall apart as I turn the wrench that raises the weights. I decided earlier this year that I needed to help it keep better time. It was losing a few minutes a day, and I got tired of adjusting it every day. So I psyched myself up until I was brave enough to adjust the pendulum. After I made tiny adjustments every few days for several weeks, it now keeps pretty good time, losing a minute or less a week.

As I worked on the clock, it occurred to me that it has become my metaphor for my grief over my father’s passing. It wasn’t his clock to start with—it came from my mother’s family. But he had the care of the clock for so many years, probably from about 1967 until his death in January 2015. And now it has come to me.

Letting the clock wind down in the days immediately after his death was my initial letting go. Shipping the clock to my house was my attempt to hang on to the past. Overcoming my fear of winding it was my initial acknowledgment that I am now the senior generation in my family. And finally making the adjustments to get it keeping good time was my return to an even keel after losing my parents.

A friend told me after my father died that when our second parent dies, “we have only sky above us.” In other words, there is no one left who connects us to the past. I think that has been a large part of my grief. I lost my mother slowly to Alzheimer’s, but my father’s death was sudden and unexpected. I am the oldest child. The brother right behind me—the companion of my childhood—is estranged from the family. My younger siblings are much younger, and don’t remember my first decade of life. There truly was only sky above me.

Last December a Jewish friend of mine lost her mother. I went to my first Jewish funeral, and then later in the week I visited my friend as she sat shiva. We have since talked about our feelings about losing our parents, managing their estates, and the Jewish custom of mourning the loss of a parent for a year.

In my experience, a year of mourning is about right. It was about a year from when my father died until I was brave enough to adjust his clock’s pendulum—to assume full responsibility for my role as the clock’s owner.

I know that my grief is not over. In fact, I’m not sure I ever fully processed my mother’s death, because my father’s came so soon after. Just as the clock will sometimes stop, and may break down, so will I. But I am no longer losing time every day. I am ticking along just fine.

Today, April 25, 2016, would have been my father’s 83rd birthday. We held his memorial Mass a year ago today. I miss him, but I am moving on. I’ll keep ticking.

What possessions of yours are symbols of the past or present for you?

Researching the Etymology of Words for Historical Fiction


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miners big_8543bc4ba3

Miners in the Gold Rush era

I try to keep the language I use in my historical novels true to the time period I’m writing about. This is particularly important in the dialogue between characters and in the thoughts of my point of view character. The accuracy of the language I use is as important to the verisimilitude of the novel as the settings I describe in my books.

But it is a constant battle. My current work-in-progress takes place between 1848 and 1850. I’ve caught myself using a lot of modern idioms as I’m writing, and my critique partners also help me find and eliminate these anachronisms.

For example, in a recent draft of the book, I wrote that my protagonist “tuned out” other characters who were squabbling in his presence. One of my critique partners told me that phrase didn’t sound appropriate for 1848. So I googled “tune out first use”. Merriam-Webster told me the first usage was in 1908. I rewrote that sentence.

On another occasion, I wrote that a character “updated” my protagonist about his family’s activities. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “update” was first used as a verb in 1944, and wasn’t used as a noun until 1967. Out it went.

In a recent submission to my partners, I had one character say he was not “suited” to another. My partners questioned this language, but this is an old usage. In fact, it “suits” my time period perfectly. I kept that—at least for this draft. Who knows what the final text will read?

In another chapter I wrote that one character “blasted” another (meaning he spoke angrily). When I was asked about this, I had to admit it sounded wrong, so I researched it. In fact, “blast” meaning “to belch forth” dates back to Old English, and has been used even to mean “to blow up by explosion” since the 1750s. (Though “blast off” dates only to 1950.) Still, I might change this in the final version.

A novelist friend and former newspaper writer swears by the Oxford English Dictionary.  I don’t have a subscription to the venerable OED, but I would never dispute its accuracy. I do use the free version sometimes.  But my favorite online resource for researching first uses of words and phrases is the Online Etymology Dictionary.  It doesn’t tell me everything, but it tells me a lot.

A writer friend recently told me about how to use Google Books to research the time periods in which words and phrases have most been used most frequently. Pull up the Google Ngram Viewer in your browser and type in the word or phrase you’re curious about. You’ll see in an instant how often your term has appeared in books over time.

ngram blast

Google Ngram Viewer

Making sure my language can be understood by modern readers, yet evokes the era I’m writing about, is a difficult task. Almost every page in my manuscript presents a challenge. People may not have changed much in 160 years, but our language has changed a lot.

Writers, when have you been caught using an anachronism?

Da Vinci: Renaissance Man and Inspiration for the 21st Century


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da Vinci Mona Lisa cropped 20160413_132044

Mona Lisa, showing da Vinci’s principles of design

I’ve always wanted to be a renaissance woman—to be like the educated class of the Renaissance, free to pursue a variety of interests, not as a dabbler, but as an expert in each area I explored. The only drawback I could see to such a life was the lack of indoor plumbing. (Well, antibiotics and painkillers are also useful additions to modern life.)

Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two museum exhibits on da Vinci’s work—one in San Diego, and the other back home in Kansas City. I knew, of course, that da Vinci had been interested in many areas—art, anatomy, and flight to name a few. But I hadn’t known the extent of his study of military equipment, architecture, and urban planning.

da Vinci cannon model 20160413_131156

Model of da Vinci’s cannon

Born in the mid-1400s, the illegitimate son of a wealthy notary and a peasant woman, da Vinci began his career as apprentice to a famous painter and sculptor. But he became a self-taught man in many fields. He developed the ball bearing into what we know it as today. He planned the “perfect city,” laid out with canals for sanitation to reduce the risk of illness and wide streets to improve transportation and military control. He designed forklifts, cranes, and drills. He studied hydraulics and ways to channel rivers to reduce flooding and harness the power of water to run machines. He devised buoys, double-hulled boats, hydraulic saws, and diving suits.

da Vinci diving suit 20160413_130657

Model of da Vinci’s diving suit

In the military arena, da Vinci designed catapults, tanks, portable bridges, and cannons. A practical man, da Vinci sold some of these military inventions to finance his art work.

Although dissection of the human body was illegal in his day, da Vinci learned human anatomy through sketches made of dissected limbs and organs. He studied the human body throughout the aging process. His research was both visual and scientific, showing his ability to work in both his left brain and right brain (as we would say today). His careful analysis of the human form contributed both to the realism of the characters he drew and also to the compelling composition of the scenes and the stories his paintings told.

Both the San Diego and the Kansas City exhibits appear to stem from the same source—a group in Florence, Italy, that has worked for many years to construct models of the drawings in da Vinci’s notebooks. Some of these models were duplicated in the San Diego and Kansas City exhibits. But each museum focused on different aspects of the Renaissance Man’s work.

The exhibit I saw at the San Diego Air and Space Museum was called Da Vinci: The Ultimate Innovator and it emphasized da Vinci’s work in the areas of transportation, military, and mechanical—all natural fits for the focus of this museum on air and space. Models of da Vinci’s inventions depicted in this display included a bicycle, a hang glider, and a helicopter. Each model was shown along with da Vinci’s drawing.

The da Vinci exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City, called simply Da Vinci: The Exhibition, was broader and made use of the wonderful exhibit space at this beautiful old train station. (If you go, take time to stare at the ceiling above the main hall.) Many of the machines displayed were similar (if not the same) as what I’d seen in San Diego. But this exhibit also included an underwater suit and images of what da Vinci thought a modern city should look like.

da Vinci Last Supper cropped 20160413_131643

The Last Supper, showing da Vinci’s principles of design

In addition to the focus on da Vinci as an innovator, both exhibits also displayed replicas of his most famous paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. We know da Vinci best today because his art has endured through the ages, but his art has been successful because of the breadth of his knowledge in so many scientific fields.

The Kansas City da Vinci exhibit ended with a quote from General Louis H. Wilson, Jr., “True genius lies not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” But in my opinion, da Vinci did extraordinary things extraordinarily well. There was nothing ordinary about this Renaissance Man.

I came away from these exhibits even more impressed by da Vinci than I had been. His conceptual powers let him imagine things far beyond the limits of his age. He envisioned inventions that man would not realize for centuries after his death. And his artistic talent created works that have awed viewers through those same centuries.

I can never hope to be a renaissance woman, nor are my talents anywhere near the caliber that da Vinci had in any field. But I am grateful for the freedom I have had to explore my own more modest variety of interests—from law to business to writing to music. And I’m grateful for indoor plumbing.

If you have a chance, go see a da Vinci exhibit for yourself. The San Diego display is open through January 3, 2017, so Californians and visitors to San Diego have many months yet to see it. But the Kansas City exhibit is only open a few more days—it closes May 1, 2016, so get there soon!

What earlier era of history appeals to you?

I Almost Lived in San Diego


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La Jolla shore 20160404_145616When my husband and I were in our third year of law school, we had to decide where to settle after we graduated. We’d spent the summer after our second year in Los Angeles, each clerking for a different law firm. Neither of us liked Los Angeles—we’d worked there primarily because that was the city where we both had summer job offers. In our first year as a married couple, we wanted to be together.

We talked about where we wanted to live. Many of our Stanford classmates planned to stay around San Francisco, but the Bay area was very expensive even in 1978. The Seattle job market was tough that year—Boeing wasn’t doing well, and in the pre-tech era, as Boeing went, so went Seattle. Plus, I had no real family ties to Seattle then (my parents moved there in 1980, but in the fall of 1978, I had no premonition they would relocate.)

We had spent the 1978 Fourth of July weekend in San Diego, and I fell in love with the city. During that weekend, we spent a day on a rented catamaran in Mission Bay. We drove inland to the desert. We tooled around Balboa Park. We were on vacation—of course, we loved it. What’s not to love when the weather is perfect, there’s a beach, and you’re sailing?

“How about San Diego?” I asked my husband during our discussion of where to settle. He had spent time there in the Navy, and was more than willing to consider moving there.

We agreed to look at both San Diego and Kansas City, which was near where his parents lived. There were good reasons to settle in Kansas City—his parents, the farmland his family owned, and a low cost of living compared to California. But it wasn’t San Diego!

As we interviewed that fall, the realities of the job market hit. Lots of law students liked San Diego. Even in 1978, when San Diego was smaller than today, everyone loved the location. It was Southern California without the smog, and in those days the traffic wasn’t too bad.

In addition to the stiff competition, I had to contend with my lack of connection to the city. My husband could trade on his Navy experience, but all I had was a vacation weekend. I got no job offers from law firms in San Diego. One firm was willing to take me on along with my husband while I searched further, but that didn’t sound like a good option.

Meanwhile, we both had several offers in Kansas City. So Kansas City became our destination. In fact, our big decision was which of us would take the job offered by Hallmark Cards. (One opening, either of us could take it—but that is a story for another post.)

Kansas City has been a wonderful place to live and work and raise a family. It’s a good town with great people.

But it doesn’t have a beach.

I’ve visited San Diego a few times since 1978. We spent a spring break there when our kids were in grade school, visiting Sea World, the Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park. In recent years we’ve gone to watch our daughter row in the San Diego Crew Classic. Each time I’ve been there, I’ve loved it. The weather hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s always been pretty nice—and definitely nicer than the Midwest we left.


San Diego Harbor

Every time I go to San Diego (and we just returned from a trip there), I think about what might have been. What job might I have found? How different would our children have turned out? How much time would I actually have spent on the beach? I don’t regret settling in Kansas City, but I can’t help wondering about the other path we might have taken.

Where might you have lived, other than where you do? Do you have any regrets?

La Jolla, California—A Jewel of a City


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Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial 20160404_133915My husband and I were fortunate to spend a recent weekend in San Diego, California. One afternoon we drove through La Jolla, a suburb to the north of the city. According to the La Jolla visitor’s website, the origin of La Jolla’s name is not clear. It either derives from the Spanish “la joya”, which means “the jewel” or from the Native American “woholle” meaning “hole in the mountains”. It is a jewel, so I prefer the Spanish interpretation.

Our first stop was the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial, a monument to veterans from all branches of the military over the last several decades. The monument is owned by the nonprofit Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. Over 4000 families have honored their veterans with black granite plaques on walls around the memorial. I was moved by the sight of these plaques, each of which is a story in miniature—a picture and an epitaph describing the sacrifice of the veteran and the love motivating each family to so honor their veteran.

As I walked around the memorial, a group of teenagers got out of their car and raced up the steps. “Where’s Grandpa?” they called out loudly. Perhaps they weren’t very reverent, but their desire to find their veteran was obvious and they soon were laughing and telling stories about their ancestor.

The views from Mt. Soledad were beautiful in all directions.

Downtown San Diego, where we were staying:

SD downtown view 20160404_133506

Mission Bay, where we watched our daughter row in the San Diego Crew Classic (a rowing regatta):

SD Mission Bay view 20160404_133511

Out to the canyons and valleys and hills behind the city:

SD Valley view 20160404_133609

And the Pacific Ocean:

SD Pacific view 20160404_133701

These veterans will be remembered in one of the loveliest settings in America.

From Mt. Soledad, we descended into La Jolla itself. We parked, then walked along the ocean front above the rocks and beaches.

I saw the ice plant that always reminds me of similar walks with my grandmother when I visited her in Pacific Grove:


A ground squirrel that I captured on my camera just before he darted away:

La Jolla ground squirrel 20160404_145337

The sea lions, basking in the sun without a care:

La Jolla sea lions 20160404_150213

And people, more daring than I, who shared a beach with the sea lions:

La Jolla sea lions on beach 20160404_150151

And once again, the Pacific Ocean, more beautiful around every curve, and more powerful and long-lasting than any of the flora or fauna that line its shores:


What memorable vacations have you been on?

Milestones: On Turning Sixty


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We have a tendency to mark milestone birthdays more than others. In my last post I described my twenty-first birthday.

I don’t remember my thirtieth birthday—I was too busy with work and child-rearing for the day to make much of an impression. In fact, I remember being bothered more when my husband turned thirty (the same day we moved into our first house) than when I attained that august age some years later.

I remember my fortieth birthday. I was relieved that I had made it into yet another protected class—I could then sue for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act if the occasion ever warranted. (Employment lawyers think that way.)

On my fiftieth birthday, my department at work held a “surprise” party for me. The party itself wasn’t much of a surprise. A colleague had scheduled a meeting with me in her office, and after a few minutes announced that she would escort me to a conference room a short distance away. I knew full well where the conference room was and needed no escort, nor had she had anything to talk to me about prior to our stroll down the hall.

But I was surprised by what I found in the conference room. Not only my co-workers, but my husband. And blown-up photographs of me as a child. My husband had been dragooned into the party preparations, and he, in turn, had talked to my mother about getting the pictures. In 2006, she was still capable of finding photographs that would embarrass me, organizing them, and shipping them halfway across the country. And she delighted in it, as I found out when she called me that evening.


Display of photographs my mother sent for my 50th birthday party

I probably didn’t enjoy my fiftieth birthday party as much as I might have, because I knew what the other attendees did not. Later that afternoon, my boss would announce that I was moving to a special project for several months. My boss hoped that working on the project would keep me from deciding to retire later that year. I thought the project would be a way for me to ease out of the company slowly.

And as I anticipated, I retired at the end of 2006. I wanted to write, and I couldn’t fulfill my dream while working in my corporate role.

A year later I became a part of a local writing group, and I met many wonderful writers in the Kansas City area. Most of them were older than I was.

“Oh, those fifties,” one woman in the group exclaimed in 2008 when we were discussing our ages. I had just told her I was fifty-two. She was in her mid-seventies. “The fifties are so wonderful,” she told me.

I couldn’t disagree with her at the time. Once I had extricated myself from my job, I had embraced the writing life. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I got trained as a mediator and began mediating cases. I found the local writing group and other critique groups and improved as a writer to the extent that I have now published two novels and won some writing contests. I traveled, including trips to visit my parents when they vacationed in Carmel, California. My children were independent and required only occasional hand-holding.

As my older friend predicted, many wonderful things happened in my fifties. In some ways, it has been the best decade of my life. I’ve been freer to do as I please than I ever have been. I haven’t missed the stress of work. I’ve felt financially secure (even though I retired just before the Great Recession).

And yet in many ways it has also been the hardest decade of my life. Even before I had been told that the fifties were so wonderful, I had begun to wonder if my mother was developing Alzheimer’s. A year later, she suffered a serious physical problem. In 2010, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and she went steadily downhill until early 2013, when my father moved her into assisted living. Just after that, my daughter broke her leg. In 2012 my father-in-law died, in 2014 my mother died, and in early 2015 my father died. Along the way, other family members have had health issues. So I have suffered as many losses in the last decade as I ever have.

Yesterday I turned sixty.

I think I’ve learned in the past ten years that every decade has its ups and downs. My fifties may have been wonderful, but they held tragedy as well as dreams fulfilled. As does any period in a human’s life.

So as I face my sixties, I am both optimistic and realistic. There will be great joys and achievements in the years ahead, I hope, and great losses and sorrows, I know.

Oh, those sixties! . . . What will they bring?

First Birthdays With My Husband


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flowers on T's 21st BD

Flowers on my 21st birthday

My husband-to-be and I started dating about a month before my twenty-first birthday. We were first-year law students at the time. When my big day rolled around, he gave me flowers and took me out for a really nice dinner in downtown Palo Alto, California. (We were law students. Any dinner in a restaurant with tablecloths was a nice dinner. But this was a REALLY nice dinner at an upscale restaurant—the kind of restaurant patronized by lawyers, not law students.) I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it was French and served the very best Strawberries Romanoff I have ever had. Mouth-wateringly delicious. Better-than-chocolate-delicious. (I’ve written about these strawberries before, but they are worthy of mentioning again.)

I’m sure we had wine with dinner, being that it was my twenty-first birthday. But having alcohol with dinner was no biggie for me, because I’d gone to college in Vermont when the drinking age there was eighteen. And restaurants in town didn’t card the college students. I’d been served drinks with dinner since I was a seventeen-year-old freshman. Indeed, California was a step backward for me, in terms of alcohol consumption.

We married just seven months later, in November 1977, during our second year of law school. So we were already married before my twenty-second birthday in April 1978, when he gave me the first birthday presents he had to purchase besides flowers and a meal—the first birthday presents that required real thought.

He gave me sandals and a raincoat.

I burst into tears when I opened the packages. I did not consider sandals and raincoat very romantic. I guess I expected wrapped birthday presents that could match the Strawberries Romanoff from the year before.

“But they’re Clarks,” he told me of the sandals. “They’re really good sandals.”

They were clunky, not sexy.

“And the coat is L.L. Bean. It’ll last forever.”

So it would. It was rubberized on the outside and made me sweat. (These were the pre-Goretex days.)

Both were very functional gifts. I wore the sandals for years, until their pebbly soles started pebbling off. I wore the raincoat from 1978 until 1998, when I bought a new coat because the rubber on the L.L. Bean coat had begun to crack.

I suppose what’s more important is that our marriage has been even more durable than these early functional gifts. After thirty-eight years of marriage, I now expect presents that have been given a lot of thought and little romance—presents that will serve me well and for a long time, just like the man has. I am rarely disappointed.

And on my fiftieth birthday, he did give me lovely black pearl earrings. Occasionally, there’s a spark.

Happy Birthday to me (tomorrow)! I wonder what I’ll get this year.


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