Wednesday, October 22, 2014



The other day I was looking for a receipt on our breakfast room table.  I dug around a bit—among travel articles, prescription warnings, university health letters, family clips—and realized it was hopeless. How deep should I dig, anyway? . . . if , in fact, the thing was even there. Who knew?

Among those who have seen that stack (the table equivalent of a five-car freeway pile-up) are friends who draw benign comfort.  Gee, this looks like one of my tables. And others, like my daughter, who say nothing but think, Thank God this isn’t mine.

That day something snapped.  I can’t stand this any longer. With that, I moved pile after pile to the family room couch, and from there I began sorting. As I dug deeper, strata lines appeared, like those in old, sliced-away mountains. One layer had been dunked in spilled coffee. Another was sprinkled with sugar. At the bottom were papers dating back  to 2007, replete with invitations to events long over. The process resembled an archaeological dig.  

Today our table is so clean that one of our grandkids actually gasped, and now my husband won’t let me set down the slightest thing, even a book. 

Which reminds me of other spots in our house . . . the den where Rob stores calendars from 2012 and piles of National Geographics (which even our library won’t accept). When do we ever look at any of them?  After last-year’s scary backyard fire when we nearly lost the house, the thought occurred to me: if the place burned, how much would I miss?  The answer was obvious—not the clothes we never wear, nor the stones we’ve collected in little dishes, nor the closet with too many towels. We wouldn’t care about the old Reader’s Digests piled in a bathroom drawer. All these are replaceable.

We’d mourn only our writings. And the pictures: our mothers as girls, our children as babies. And maybe some of our clothes, and a few gifts and notes from each other. We might have problems with recent tax records. 

But my drawer full of good, useable purses?  Hey, I keep forgetting I even have them.  

Which is why, when we go on trips, we donate newspapers to schools. If there’s anything I’ve learned about life, it’s that you live it forwards, not backwards. You simply never re-read that article too good to throw away. As many times as you promise yourself, I’ll look at this stuff when I’m old, the truth is plain: you never get that old.     

And now we’re heading for a river trip—Budapest to Amsterdam, cruising three classic rivers. In a few weeks I’ll doubtless have something new to blog about. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014



            While I was overcome, at first, by the circumstances of my son-in-law’s death (so recent and so raw), the important message was left unsaid: What about his life? 

            His dying may be over, but in strange ways, maybe not so strange, Brad Hagen’s life soldiers on. As Tracy says, “He was a powerful presence.” 

Brad was the ultimate foodie. “You’ll be in Minneapolis?” he’d say, (or Detroit, or Boston, or Dallas or even Nowheresville), “I know this little restaurant, off the main drag, hard to find, only the locals know about it, but the food is extraordinary.” And you’d go there and the sausages, or pancakes, or soups or whatever would be delicious . . .

The best thing Brad’s mother did for him was to cook good meals. She turned her cooking into love, and love in turn became food. In the best sense, Brad became a gourmet. But he was always an appreciator.  “Hey, Tracy, you’ve done a great job with this squash, it’s good!”  While he never ate too much, Brad tasted everything, and you had to get used to seeing his fork in your plate. With him, you never went to chain restaurants; he found all the odd little Mom and Pops hiding next to hardware stores—and if he didn’t exactly dictate what you ordered, he tried to, and if you defied him, he’d turn resigned, even crestfallen—but then you’d see his fork creeping your way. 

            In his work as a videographer, Brad was world class. To see him behind a camera was to appreciate what it means to take the ultimate photos, to capture the best images that perfect lighting, exact camera angles, and well-considered background can produce. His clients, among them CEOs of major companies, understood how good he was. And the topper was always the restaurant that came later.   

            It was extraordinary the way Brad always welcomed Bob and me to come over for meals, graciously and without question; in my heart I never stopped thanking him--or Tracy, either. After dinner we played games, and never mind that we two wordsmiths taught him our best word game, Boggle, fully expecting to win. Within a month he was beating us, figuring out ways to extend simple words into long, point-winning words, and I was sputtering, “Can you believe this, Bob? He’s won again!” Brad didn’t gloat. He just smiled.

Nothing reveals character and skills more than a family trip. Alone among us, Brad was a miracle packer, able to fit too much luggage into too little taxi space . . . like Houdini.  The rest of us didn’t help, we just stood around and gaped.   

The most important statement about Brad comes last. When he married Tracy, he also married her two young children, Dane, 13, and Jamie,16. Within a few years both of them, by their own choice, were calling him Dad. You can’t say more about a man than that.

Clearly, Brad has left a big hole in all our lives.   

Saturday, October 11, 2014



            The Los Angeles Times headline came out one day before it happened to us: “Making a date with death.”

Everybody heard about it—the 29-year-old woman who moved to Oregon so she could choose her own death. Brittany Maynard has stage-four brain cancer and wants to die in her own way on a date of her own choosing. A group called Compassion and Choices supports her—and even more, advocates for this right in other states.

There was no choice in my daughter’s house. For a year, almost to the day, Brad’s brain tumor had its way in his life and in Tracy’s, dictating that he would never again drive a car, that an eleven-hour surgery would cost him significant loss of eyesight and speech, and that Tracy would be his full-time nurse—with yes, some amazing help from an angel, Lorena, whom she found in the last month. A multitude of friends also helped—with more dinners and visits and outpourings of love than any of us could have imagined.  Tracy’s friends and family and Lorena literally sustained her.   

Still, the year was Tracy’s to live through, and neither Brad nor Tracy could dictate any of it—how long he’d be able to walk, when speech would utterly desert him,  whether he would end up spending nearly two months in bed, unable to leave, and mostly unable to eat or move.

            One day after the headline, last night in fact, our family’s agony ended. And in her own way, Tracy brought Brad the best death possible—with a young man, an intern from Brad’s company, playing a guitar and singing the kind of music Brad loved—for a solid two hours, until Brad took the last of several deep breaths. Some of this was accidental—until the last part of the day nobody even knew that Anthony played the guitar, or that, like James Taylor, he had such a sweet singing voice. Once we discovered his talents, Tracy begged him to keep playing, and he did.    

            Everybody has his own opinion of Brittany Maynard’s decision—and even now, I’m not sure I would have chosen such an abrupt ending for Brad. During that year he had a few relatively decent months—able to walk his daughter down the aisle, even take two family trips.  But the last few months . . . those were a lifetime that were better cut short. Hospice helped—but not enough.  Brad sometimes held a finger to his head—playfully?—indicating he would shoot himself.

            California has no answers, at least none that are legal. Perhaps we need a few.

Monday, October 6, 2014



Nobody imagined we’d ever see this: at 3:00 in the afternoon, a wolf-size coyote standing on a backyard wall.

Our daughter, Tracy, lives in a nice neighborhood with yards enclosed in high block walls. Tracy’s niece, Christy, happened to be sitting in the family room when she glanced out the window. “There’s a coyote up on your wall,” she said calmly.

“What!” Tracy shouted and ran for the door leading to the outside. Her small dog was out in the yard, barking furiously and running toward the wall.  Not away from it, toward it--as though this tiny snack on legs could scare away the intruder.

Running like the athlete she is, Tracy screamed, threw up her arms, and continued shrieking as she raced toward the wall. Beside her was Ollie, a black-and-white Cavashon, a virtual movie star of a dog. Clearly, the coyote had a choice between jumping down to grab the movie star, or jumping off in another direction. With Tracy in full-ferocity mode, he chose to leap in in the other direction, and disappeared into a neighbor’s yard.

With that, Tracy’s life changed. Coyote stories poured in—about two coyotes on a remote ranch who grabbed two small dogs and ran off with them.  Reacting fast, the rancher shot one of the coyotes, who then dropped his prey. But the other beast, with the pup in his jaws, kept running. They never saw their pet again.

Meanwhile, the ranch owner nursed the injured dog back to life. Once more able to run outside, he was still in danger. A month later, the second coyote came back and got him.

About a year ago, at dusk, I was driving down the largest street near our home when I spotted two huge coyotes trotting along the road ahead of me. I followed them into a cul-de-sac and honked, and the two darted into a neighbor’s yard. I’d forgotten all about them until the disaster on our own street. At dawn, two weeks ago, our neighbor let her dog outside on her driveway to do his morning business. Even as the neighbor watched, a coyote swooped in and grabbed the dog in his teeth. She was devastated.

Now that we know coyotes have a memory, that they operate in pairs and are willing to stalk their prey for however long it takes, that they are not averse to appearing in the daytime, or even with people nearby, Tracy no longer lets Ollie come and go in his own yard. Every two hours she takes her pet outside—on a leash—and she’s closed her doggie door for all time.

           In one terrible moment, Ollie became a house-bound prisoner. But Tracy is determined to keep him alive. To those who know her current situation, it’s clear that losing Ollie would be another disaster, more than she could endure.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014



            A couple of weeks ago, one of my blog readers remarked--in response to my piece about disappointment --“It isn’t over until you quit.”  A simple enough idea and probably not original, yet with profound implications. Think about it:

That must have been the attitude of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini during his agonizing hours (months), of survival on a raft at sea. And later when he was tortured endlessly by the Japanese. Because of the account in “Unbroken” we know Zamparini made it back to the United States—only to face a new enemy: alcoholism. Yet he lived to be 97 . . . and when he was well into his nineties, one of my friends heard him give a speech.  

Examples of not giving up keep coming to me. Three days ago I spent hours (in Boston) talking to my 55-year-old nephew, Jim Klumpp, who had just returned from a hike of 2,200 miles. For nearly five months he walked over 20 miles a day, the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. He wore out six pairs of shoes and could only take in enough calories by eating two Snicker bars before “dinner.” (The only part I would have liked.)  One day he was so exhausted he consumed 10 Snickers in two days. And still he lost 20 pounds. And hey, he’s not a kid.  Clearly I’m not the only one impressed. Jim’s daily blogs ended up with over 100,000 hits.   

            I have my own story of survival: at age 12, during a visit to Jones Beach in Long Island, I was swept into the ocean by a Sea Puss.  The thing carried me so far out I could barely see any figures on the beach. With no idea what had happened, I believed I was going to die. Yet somehow, with zero hope, I kept swimming.  After what seemed hours, the Coast Guard appeared with a 12-man rowboat. And even then, the boat came within inches of crashing into a rock jetty.

This event is described in my latest memoir, “The Tail on my Mother’s Kite.” Somehow the battle to find a publisher now looms large, though by comparison with the above stories it’s trivial. As I finished writing 263 letters to agents (16 different versions without getting an agent), I kept thinking about the lady who said it would be over only when I quit.    

Which means I’ve decided not to quit. But how far should I go?  Five hundred agent letters? (But no—not that many are left.)  Direct queries to small publishers? Well, I’ve done it . . . but only a few take memoirs. And only one of those few answered my query—first with great praise for the manuscript, but ultimately a rejection.  (Hence, the Blog: “Disappointment isn’t Defeat.”)

Here’s where you have to focus on tiny specks of good news: every agent who read the manuscript said great things about the writing. A few even offered hints about its failings—giving me the chance to make corrections. All the dozen friends who’ve read the manuscript loved it, showering me with hope (even knowing friends are supposed to love you). 

Well, I’ve been through this before—the same scenario occurred with my memoir, “Higher Than Eagles.” After 14 years and three top-notch agents who couldn’t convince an editor, I finally found my own traditional publisher. Once published, the book acquired 5 movie options, including from Disney.

But hey, things change. If this book takes as long as “Higher Than Eagles,” I’ll be older than Zamparini. 

So guess what?  I’m trying unconventional stuff. With every New Yorker I meet I say, “In case you know an editor . . . ”  I talk about the project to strangers, hoping I’ll meet somebody who knows somebody. I follow every lead . . . and sometimes imagine myself resorting to tricks and lies—which I might do, except I’m no good at lying.

 Okay, there’s always self-publishing. But as a writing friend said, “Self-publishing will always be there. You’ve gotta keep trying.”  Well, I am. I am. I am. I’m Mining for Miracles.