Sunday, September 21, 2014


                           THE ATTACK OF THE DRAPERIES

            It happened yesterday at a writer’s conference. Just as I was finishing a lecture and starting a drawing to give away a few books, a participant stood up unexpectedly and began describing her reactions to the last chapter in my memoir, A Circus Without Elephants.  She was pretty animated, and of course I loved it. I won’t repeat what she said, but at the end I asked, “Can I take you everywhere?”

            Here is the chapter she was talking about: 


NOBODY COULD UNDERSTAND WHY we were adding on to the house.  “Your children are pretty much grown,” a friend pointed out reasonably enough.  “Why do you need more space?”  

Rob answered with a grin, “We always add a room whenever a kid leaves.  Makes perfect sense to us.  When all the kids are gone, we’ll build a castle.”  

I nodded.  “Well actually, I got tired of eating breakfast on top of yesterday’s mail. I know it’s ridiculous--spending all this money for a place to put the mail.  But we don’t pretend to be rational.”

The question of whose idea it was to expand the whole rear of the house and add a breakfast room shifted from week to week.  In Rob’s mind “our idea” became “her idea” as the kitchen began to resemble a hobo’s digs, with appliances missing everywhere, like a mouth with half its teeth, and exposed water pipes staring at us from the sub flooring, and the walls sporting nail holes but no cabinets. It continued to be “her idea” as I hauled buckets of dirty dishes to the bathtub and the temperature in the open part of the house dropped below forty and a raccoon came in, and I do mean IN.  There he was one night in the family room, standing his ground defiantly, eyeing us through his mask. 

It became “our” project once more as the kitchen and family room began to look sleek and modern, twice as nice as before.

“This has been an unbearable year,” Rob declared, and vowed he would absolutely never do anything major to the house again, come hell or high water . . .. and high water was what we seemed in danger of getting, because the toilets in two mostly unused bathrooms had developed small leaks, and water began seeping onto the floors when we weren’t looking, and the bathroom floors were slowly rotting into mush. I expected to go back there one day and step right through the sub floor onto the dirt.   

And sure enough, it wasn’t long before we had to tear up the bathrooms, too.  

The house renovations began to consume all aspects of my life.  One morning, for instance, I had to go to Ralph’s Market to load up on empty cardboard boxes so I could pack up and move everything out of our many bathroom cupboards. While I was adding rolls of paper towels to my cart, I managed to topple about seven huge boxes out the cart right into the path of an aristocratic-looking lady who, nonplussed, smiled and said, “Looks like you’ve hit the Mother Lode of Boxes.”

I laughed.  “You must be a writer,” I said, hoping she was and we might get acquainted.  But she merely smiled again and moved on. 

Then for some reason I kept crossing paths with the same lady throughout the store, privately amused that she gave me and my overloaded cart wider and wider berth.

But she was nowhere around when I became truly reckless and gave my cart an excessive push--and sent it crashing into someone’s untended grocery basket. Down in my duck blind of boxes I honestly hadn’t seen the other wagon--and now I quickly backed off before the noise collected a crowd.

Well, I didn’t collect a crowd, I collected “her.”

Out from behind the bread she came, eyeing me in disbelief. 
As she retrieved her cart from its bashing, she gave me a last, funny little look and said, more to herself than me, “I knew I should have come in the afternoon.”   

She sent me out of the store laughing, but also full of regret I would never get to know this witty lady better.  Whereas I could envision us becoming friends, she would make certain the two of us were never in the same store again. 

AS PART OF OUR house renovation, Rob and I eventually acquired a cavalier spirit, a “What the hell” attitude which spread like recklessly sown seeds over the entire house and meant we bought things we didn’t necessarily need, like new living room drapes.

The old drapes might never have become part of the family history had Rob’s car not failed just then, forcing him to borrow our son’s disreputable Cutlass. Finding the driver’s seat literally agape at the seams, Rob searched for something to throw over it—the closest thing at hand being one of the discarded draperies.  Rob tossed the drape over the seat, letting the hooks dangle free in back. Since the car was, as usual, out of fuel, he headed for the nearest gas station.

As Rob drove, he felt the drape slipping, working its way down the seat.  When he got out of the car to pump gas he knew at once he wasn’t alone; the drape had come with him. 

It took only seconds to grasp the situation: the hooks had managed to embed themselves in the back of his bulky-knit Scottish sweater, and now here he was, standing in the gas station with a ten-foot-long, open-weave, gold-threaded cape flowing from his shoulders . . . and not only that, it was pleated!

Rob realized immediately he had a serious personal appearance problem. He glanced around, all-too-aware that he bore a remarkable similarity to King Henry the Eighth.  Reaching around to disentangle himself, he quickly found that the hooks had dug in with fiendish cunning, just at that point in his back where he couldn’t reach.  He twirled and squirmed and shimmied, but all his efforts to free himself merely drew attention to his bizarre predicament.    

As he spun around in his dangling cape, other customers began reacting with startled double-takes, then fast aversions of the eyes. The man fueling the nearest car stood at an odd angle, trying to keep one eye on the gas nozzle and the other on Rob. Rob knew all too well what the man was thinking.  I’ve gotta get away from this nut case. 

There are times when Rob’s sense of humor utterly fails him, and this was one of them.  Ever more exasperated, he clawed at his shoulders like a demented Shakespearian monarch.  But the more frantic he became, the more the hooks behaved like porcupine quills, tightening their grip, until it appeared Rob might be wearing the living-room drapes for the rest of the day.     

By now a few customers were quietly leaving the gas station, some without filling their tanks, and Rob was truly desperate.  He considered disrobing right there among the gas pumps, pulling sweater and drape up over his head and ridding himself of both.  But the sweater was tight and hard to remove under normal conditions, and the drape was so long it dragged the sweater down in back, and he couldn’t begin to shed the two without scissors or a chain saw.  Besides, he didn’t like the idea of adding a strip tease to the rest of his already-underappreciated performance.              

Feeling anything but regal, he kept his head down and filled his tank.  Finished, he gathered his remaining dignity, strode purposefully across the station, paid the bill to a clerk who refused to look him in the eye, and sauntered back, trailing his cape as if it were his normal attire.     

Once at home he walked into the house muttering, “Here, Babe, get me out of this damn thing!”

I took one look at his drifting, open-weave raiment and burst out laughing.  I was laughing so hard it was difficult to make my fingers do what they had to do.  “How did you happen to acquire this lovely garment?” I asked.  

“Well, it certainly wasn’t deliberate!”

The next time I saw the draperies they were heaped in a trash barrel near the curb, which, considering who put them there, was an act of wanton recklessness.  For the man who never throws out anything, trashing those drapes indicated profound disgust, and meant he never, ever, wanted to see them again. 

There’s a bit more to the chapter.  But it was nice to have someone speak up and give me this wonderful moment . . . and also remind me of a chapter that embodies a spirit our family needs right now.



Monday, September 15, 2014



            When they moved into their condo, the young newlyweds were perfectly healthy. Lucky enough to have a tennis court mere yards away, Jamie and Mike, both athletes, took frequent advantage of the lighted courts and played singles after work and doubles with friends on weekends.

But then something began going wrong. Both Mike and Jamie started having allergy-like symptoms: stuffy noses, sneezing, itchy eyes and trouble sleeping. In spite of a regular bedtime routine—in bed at 10:30, up at 7:30--every day they woke up exhausted.

Mike’s symptoms got worse. His ears were dripping liquid, staining their new pillows. His eyes were so dry and itchy he began to suffer migraines. After one severe bout with migraine that included tingling in his face, he ended up in the emergency room. Yet the doctors could find nothing wrong.  

“This isn’t normal,” said Jamie’s mother, and she suggested the two get a new mattress, which they did. Nothing changed. Then the couple discovered mold in their bathroom, and at great expense had the shower removed and replaced. But still their symptoms persisted. If anything, both of them were worse.

One day a desperate Mike, with a degree in microbiology, stalked into their bathroom and said, “Maybe this sea fan has something to do with it.” The purple sea fan sat on a specially-designed stand right next to the shower. It was so beautiful Jamie had decorated the bathroom around it. Her towels were purple and the walls were painted a lighter hue. Everyone agreed--the bathroom was lovely.

With her own degree as a landscape architect, Jamie said immediately, “Mike, the sea fan is dead. That can’t possibly be a problem.” The issue was shaping up as a battle between college degrees. She added, “But if you’d like to do an experiment, that’s okay with me.” So Mike moved the plant to the garage.  

Four days later, for the first time, Jamie and Mike got a good night’s sleep; they woke up with cleared sinuses and new energy.

Jamie immediately googled the Gorgonia Sea Fan and the truth came out; the purple variety was prone to acquiring a fungus, Aspergillus. The high incidence of Aspergillus on sea fans was linked to a 17% increase of asthma in Caribbean children. For anyone with a compromised immune system, Aspergillus could be a deadly fungus.

Now, with their own ornament positioned so that warm shower vapors washed over it constantly, sending toxins into their adjoining bedroom, the pair were slowly being poisoned. Mike’s sister, a doctor, declared, “The reason you kids survived as well as you did is that you were both basically healthy. That sea fan could have killed someone in poor health.” 

When I suggested to Jamie that she ought to stuff it so deep in the trash that nobody could resurrect it, she said, “One of our quick-witted friends said, “Don’t throw it away. Don’t you have an enemy?” Then she laughed. “And to think I rescued that thing off a beach in the Caribbean. We’d gone to a deserted island in Virgin Gorda, and the fan had washed up on shore.” She threw me a look. “How was I to know?” 

She added, “After we learned the truth, Mike was so annoyed that for several days he was anything but loving. Finally he brought up our long-ago Caribbean trip. In a voice I hear only rarely, he said, ‘I told you not to take that damn Sea Fan.’”

Friday, September 5, 2014



I shouldn’t have checked my e-mail.  Labor Day night, after a warm and often funny  family dinner, I should have stayed away from my upstairs office; I should have kept hope alive for another day.

But no, I had to go look.

And there it was—what felt like a fatal blow, a final rejection for my latest book, “The Tail on my Mother’s Kite.” This one caught me like a timber falling on my head. After reading the first ten chapters, the publisher had said, “We’ve enjoyed your manuscript so far, and we’d love to read the rest of it  . . . We look forward to hearing from you and reading your wonderful manuscript.”  Of course I sent it off immediately.  

I tried not to hope too much. For a month I mentioned it to friends only vaguely, kept my expectations low. In this business, soaring hope must be tempered with diminished expectations, or your pyche would perish under the onslaught. You’d give up.  You’d go kill yourself.

I could have given up years ago. Sometimes, during the 14 years it took me to polish and re-polish and finally sell “Higher Than Eagles  I thought, What’s the use? Why am I still trying?  The book gathered hundreds of rejections . . . I never counted them all, there were too many.  Yet after it was published it attracted awards—and five movie options, including from Disney and the producers of Northern Exposure. Even now people sometimes tell me, “I never read a book twice, but now I’m reading “Higher Than Eagles” again.”

For a few days after Labor Day I had this big lump in my stomach—but hey, I lost three pounds! I fought back the impulse to go wailing to family and friends.  People have their own problems.

Never a moaner himself, my husband Rob jumped in to find a new name for the book so I could re-pitch the agents who’ve already rejected me. Yesterday he suddenly sat up in bed and proclaimed, “I’ve got the title, Babe! “Heiress on the Prowl.”  He was serious.

Thanks to Rob and something in me that doesn’t give up, I’m back working again, trying to figure out what killed the second half of my book . . . trying to devise a new title that uhm . . . rises above prowling heiresses. For no good reason my optimism is back. 

It must help that I’m half German, and you know how Germans are—you can corner them and show them no mercy, but they never quit. I guess most of you don’t know this, what with my being disguised as a Wills . . . but my maiden name is Klumpp.