In Honor of Oliver Sacks: “Home School” Day

Yesterday the little one felt sick-ish. The kind of sick that comes from school starting in August, and it being so hot, and yes maybe there is a little tummy virus going around. The kind of sick that let him swim in the ocean with his brother at sunset last night.

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The kind of sick that inclines his mother to let him sleep past the time he’d have to wake up and rush to get ready for school this morning. The kind of sick that prompts her to declare this Monday a “home school” day, because where his mind travels when unencumbered is vastly more interesting than what happens in any one day of school.

To wit: He enters the dining room this morning, where I am reading Oliver Sacks’ obituary, one of this era’s most unique life stories: sent at six years old to an English boarding school with an abusive headmaster at the onset of World War II; returned home at ten years old, to fall in love with the periodic table of elements and its unchanging, unemotional constancy; taught at eleven years old by his surgeon mother to dissect humans; and growing to become the unconventional, compassionate scientist and humanist we came to know through his words.

It is into this mindset my boy presents himself for evaluation. He holds his stomach with both hands, a low grown emanating from his lips. (And to think he says he doesn’t like acting…).

I look up from the newspaper and feel his forehead, kiss his cheeks.

“I don’t think I have a fever,” he preemptively says. “I feel a little cold.” This spoken observation turns his gears. He sits down next to me and thinks. “You know what’s weird,” he continues. “When it’s 80 degrees outside we feel so hot. But when we touch our skin and we are 98.6 degrees, we feel normal.”  And…I have made my decision. We have a question that will be more fascinating to him than fractions or long division or today’s grammar lesson. I declare today a “home school” day.

I should know better; experience teaches me that his spoken observation will probably be the length and breadth of his inquiry. That I have exaggerated ambitions for how a “home school day” will go. That he will spend his day not exploring human biology but playing Legos (okay, fine) and pleading to watch noxious cartoons (which will turn me into a white hot meanie). But it’s early yet, and my fantasies are not yet splattered.


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So we hope for a day that is not wasted. A day that would honor Sacks, who wrote after his diagnosis of metastasized cancer, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me….to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

I come to my blank page, the calming sound of Legos being sifted and rearranged in the room next to me, and begin a morning of writing. I pray for that unadulterated voice to play in my head, the one that must be captured in the moment I hear it, because it evaporates just as quickly. When it comes it is a flash of nirvana. It is finding true north.

When the words don’t come like that, which is most of the time, I must poke around for them, writing too much, sweeping away the excess. The goal in it all? To create characters that reveal the beauty and mystery of the human experience as richly as the character the world has known as Oliver Sacks — as intriguing, seductive, textured and fascinating a character as any that has ever been written.

The Legos still sift behind me. Questions are asked, prompting more questions — “Are sharks mammals? What makes a mammal? Is it hair? Why do our heads grow so much hair?” A day of inquiry and investigation is still possible. He has yet to sneak off with his iPod, and I have yet to have to snatch it from him, leading to the inevitable kerfuffle. There are books yet to write and to read. Discoveries yet to make. The day is young. Everything is possible.

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Doing Time: Starting School in August

I feel for the kid. It is still summer. Not only the technical “summer ends September 21st” definition of “still summer” but the crucial, cultural “there’s a full-bodied whopping week left in August” definition. High summer. The time to get in a few more days of boogie boarding or sand castle building or nerf wars in pajamas. The time to get bored and possibly even eager for the first day of school to finally arrive. So yes, I feel for the kid when he trudges downstairs this morning, three-quarters asleep with a tortured scowl on his face because today begins the second week of school.

“Yesterday felt like the last day of summer all over again.”

While I feel for all of the kids who headed back to school before the doldrums of summer could hit, I feel mostly for this one, who has proclaimed loudly and consistently his ahborrence of school. Even in the heady, loose days of pre-school, there was something about having to get dressed and leave home and do things all day that vexed his constitution. He does well in school, participates, gets good grades, etc. Maybe it’s all that behaving and rule-following that are the problem? (See, e.g., Calvin & Hobbes, our mutual favorite comic strip.) Elementary school can be a pressure cooker, even under the best circumstances (which, by the way, he has — good teachers, small classes, art and P.E. — The Works.)

He instigated a new tradition, he showed me last week on Day 1. On a blank white paper on his bookshelf, he scratched a tally mark in black ink, an inmate ticking off time served. That’s the spirit.

Off to school we trudged, the first homework project in his hands: a mobile made from a hanger, all about him, including a photo of his family (for love), his grandparents’ dogs (more love), a question mark (for curiosity), a quarter (for charity) (woot woot!), and a Lego figure (for play). It was impressive.

I gotta hand it to the kid, he makes the best of it. When you’re doing time, what choice is there?

The Keeper: An Anniversary Tale of Daring

Last week my husband and I celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary. I have often thought that one of the keys to our marriage has been our similarities, such as when one spouse suggested dumping our house to be nomads for several months and the other said, “I was thinking THE SAME THING!” See what I mean? You gotta be on the same page for that whack.

But there is a fundamental way in which we are not the same: one of us meets challenges head-on, sticks with projects that are difficult, and stays calm and patient throughout. The other one is easy to quit, throw in the towel, and call in the experts to do it for her. (I knew you knew which was which.)

Case in point: The anniversary grill.

This year we decided to get a grill as an anniversary present to ourselves. Somehow that icon of backyard suburbia had eluded us lo these many years. So my husband sprung into action, went to Home Depot and came home with a grill. One minor problem. A pre-assembled grill would not fit in our small trunk, especially not with two boogie boards left in the trunk. Oops.

That’s the point when I would have said “never mind, maybe we’ll grill next summer,” or “let’s pay for delivery.” But Christopher, undaunted, bought an unassembled grill, opened the box (because even that box didn’t fit in the car), put all the separate pieces in the trunk, and brought it all home.

He got home, we unloaded the parts, and everything was still hunky-dory.

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Until he took a look at the instructions.

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I left him to it. He had opened this Pandora’s box of grill himself, and I trusted he would see it through. That’s how he rolls. A lesser person (me) would have dragged it all to the curb with a sign that said “Free.”

When he finished he asked, “Are you done sitting outside?”

“For now I am,” I answered. “Why?”

“Because I’m going to go try the grill and I don’t want to kill both of us.”

“Please don’t die,” I said.

Bravely he went outside. I stayed close to the phone ready to dial 911. All was well.

The next night we ate burgers and hot dogs surrounded by the family that had raised me to call experts for engineering feats (like lightbulb replacement), and we basked in his glow of utter competence. A keeper, this one.

A Book Club Night to Remember

A couple of nights ago I spent an evening with a book club in Culver City. Let’s call them the Brilliant Educators Book Club. They would never be so presumptuous as to give themselves that name, but after one member introduced everyone in the room, with the name of the school(s) where they had taught or been principals, or the educational foundation they had headed or volunteered for, or the school board they had presided over as president, I think it is an apt description.

Brilliant Educators Book Club

The Brilliant Educators lived up to the moniker. Not only were they warm, effusive and filled with great questions, they raised ideas and taught me things about my book that I hadn’t thought about before, such as parallels between Sarah and her father and how they parented. Of course, they also hit on what has become a popular topic of lively debate, whether Sarah’s actions in a certain part of the book had to happen. (Those of you who have read the book probably know what I’m talking about. Those of you who haven’t…well, that can be easily remedied.)

It was an honor to sit in the Author’s chair at their meeting, for my book to have been given their care and attention, and most of all, to hear that I had created a family about whom they cared deeply. Thank you, Brilliant Educators. I loved every minute, and hope you did, too.

Have a book club you’d like me to visit? I would be happy to hear from you!

Home!

“Three weeks is too long,” was the grumbled consensus as we began the final leg of the book tour/vacation last week. We all would have been happy to come home then. But we gallantly submitted to the extra days of recreation — water park and lobster rolls and beach and…bookstores.

The bookstores! They are thriving, people! From Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, I visited 23 bookstores in 21 days.

Book Culture, NYC

Book Culture, NYC

Words, Maplewood, NJ

Watchung, Montclair, NJ

Watchung, Montclair, NJ

Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT

Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT

Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Some were quiet, others were bustling with summer readers, but there seemed to be a consensus among booksellers that an equilibrium has been reached, that the slaughter of the indies has ended.

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY

Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY

Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY

Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY

Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY

Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY

Inquiring Minds, New Paltz, NY

Diane's Books, Greenwich, CT

Diane’s Books, Greenwich, CT

Main Street Books, Orleans, MA

Main Street Books, Orleans, MA

Booksmith, Orleans, MA

Booksmith, Orleans, MA

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

Brewster Books, Brewster,  MA

Brewster Books, Brewster, MA

This joyful news comes with some melancholy for me, because my local bookstore did not survive, a casualty of high rents and challenging times. I miss Village Books in Pacific Palisades. I miss the floor mural of authors. I miss the wall displaying what local book clubs were reading. I miss the chairs by the window, perfectly sunlit. I miss the children’s section. I miss the author readings, the folding chairs brought out for people packed in to hear writers — the famous, the local, and sometimes captured in one person. I miss having my favorite place in town, where some nights when I needed to leave the confines of my house I would walk just to look in its window.

I remember when I walked into the store in 2007, to deliver my pitch for a reading for Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, a collection of stories and poems by twenty writers I had edited and published. When I started this project, I had no intention of creating book. I simply needed a creative outlet, as my life was dedicated to the care and feeding of two little children. As the project grew, I realized I had a moving, lasting work, so I learned how to publish it. Walking into the store, I had barely uttered, “I have a book” when owner Katie O’Laughlin broke into a huge smile and said, “We’ll have a reading!” I wanted to kneel and kiss her shoes for her generosity.

Village Books' last evening.

Katie addressing the crowd at Village Books’ last evening.

The absence of Village Books is the only blot on the joy of coming home. After being away for three weeks, everything is one degree less familiar than when we left, everything is precious: the unadorned glory of one’s own bed, its worn sheets singing their softness, not their wear and tear. The 4th of July streamers left in one tree. The weeds displaying their power. My not-so-little-anymore little one singing, “Being at home feels so so good! Being at home feels so so good!” Indeed, it does. And although my bookstore-next-door lives only in the hearts and memories of its many loyal customers, I’m thrilled to know that so many other indies are still going strong.

And I’m setting out to visit as many as I can. California…here I come.

Last Day on the Cape: So Many Towns and Bookstores, So Little Time

I think of myself as at least a tad bit worldly and well-traveled. So it came as a surprise to learn that Cape Cod is not one town. It is many towns, separated at the farthest ends by a two-hour drive.

This would have been good to know, as I’d allotted one day to visit Cape Cod’s indie bookstores. I’d have to forgo Wellfleet and Provincetown, and stretch just as far as Chatham and Brewster.

In my defense, this was an easy mistake to make. I’m an L.A. kid, descended from Eastern European Jews who did not build houses on the Cape in the 1900’s to pass down to me. (And those Cape Cod t-shirts do give off the “it’s-one-place” impression.) For me, summer meant day camps called Cali Camp and Tumbleweeds, and sleep away camps were in Malibu and Big Bear. Family weekends might be on Catalina or Coronado Island, not Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard (yes, I’ve now learned the difference between them, too).

So we picked two stores, in Chatham and Brewster, and set out toward Chatham first. We missed a turn and ended up rerouted north. No problem! We’d go first to Brewster. Except we missed the road to Brewster, which forced us to backtrack through a town we hadn’t planned to visit, Orleans. Great news. Orleans has two bookstores.

Picture perfect Main Street Books in Orleans

Main Street Books in Orleans.

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Erin, Lady, and Matt at Booksmith Musicsmith in Orleans.

That was my favorite wrong turn of the trip. (The kids kept playing Go Fish in the minivan. Seen one indie bookstore, seen ’em all, I guess.)

Go Fish.

Go Fish.

We finally arrived at Brewster Bookstore. It was packed with customers, and its summer event schedule was packed, too, with 8 author events in July, and 7 in August, including Alice Hoffman.

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Books and your local lawyer all at one place.

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

Bookseller Maddie at Brewster Bookstore

After lunch, we headed to Chatham, whose Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore plans a drool-worthy summer of author literary events. Walking in, we were greeted by a vision fitting the final stop: on the front table of the store, Shelter Us shared space with Harper Lee and Anthony Doerr. Be still my heart.

This is a "pinch me" moment.

A “pinch me” moment at Where the Sidewalk Ends bookstore in Chatham, Mass.

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Nina and store owner Joanne took a moment away from helping their many customers to pose with Shelter Us.

My family left while I signed books (please go get one from this wonderful store, or order online if you want a signed copy) — and I found them at the ice cream store discussing the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. (True story.)

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We had completed the task. After another hour’s ride, back in our rented house, the kids wanted nothing more than to be left alone to (and with) their own devices. But it was our last night on Cape Cod, the sun had come out, and we were going to get some fresh air or else. We had to scream to get them out the door, and it was worth it.

We swam (even me). We played soccer (even me). We felt the delicious breath of salt air on our skin. We looked over a landscape so different from our California beaches, vibrant green marshes growing out of the sand, inlets of saltwater stretching toward scrub pines. I felt the tiniest bit more familiar with this place called Cape Cod, knowing well I had only scratched its surface.

(And still knowing nothing about that other exotic, mysterious-to-me place known as: The Hamptons.)

A Fleeting Glimpse of Martha’s Vineyard

The seagulls accompanied us to Martha’s Vineyard, flying alongside the ferry as it cut through waters like F-15’s guiding in Air Force One. (Or waiting for dropped potato chips.) Our children did not accompany us. They boycotted the Martha’s Vineyard excursion (and its miles of bike riding) in favor of “rest” at home today (aka watching a Harry Potter Marathon). Knowing they would be in J.K. Rowling’s good care, we acquiesced.

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The last time we left our kids alone watching Harry Potter was 4 years ago. We were at a rented cottage in New Hampshire, and we were only 20 yards away on the dock looking at stars. In the quiet night, we heard blood-curdling screams. We ran to the house, and through tears the kids explained that a giant snake in the movie had leaped out, causing them to jump and knock heads, the source of the screaming.

Much has changed since then. They are now old enough for us to say, “Yes, you may stay home. Here’s money, here’s a map of the 1-mile walk to get food and play mini-golf. We’ll see you in six hours.” This is a happy example of “time passing” — it can be a good thing, a fact I don’t admit to often enough.

In Martha’s Vineyard, we rode bikes six miles along an ocean trail to Edgartown, where we ate lobster and drank local blueberry beer.

There was also this

There was also this, the  “Best Bloody Mary Evah.” A meal in itself.

In addition to lovely food and views, Edgartown was charming, historic, high end, busy, and surprising — I never expected to see a Charles Bukowski poem welcoming shoppers into a preppy store.

Bukowski's reach is far.

Bukowski’s reach is far.

Another fun fact about Edgartown: When I first walked into Edgartown Books, a dozen people were lined up patiently waiting to buy their summer reading from booksellers May and Ann. This was a town to return to.

Busy busy Edgartown Books!

Busy busy Edgartown Books!

May (whose books I hope to be reading in the not-to-distant future) in front of the stairway to Edgartown Books' second story.

May (whose books I hope to be reading in the not-to-distant future) by the stairway to Edgartown Books’ second story.

Then it was time to return. We rode seven miles to the town of Vineyard Haven, and said hello to the good people of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore before rushing to the dock for the five o’clock ferry.

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Booksellers were so busy helping so many customers at Bunch of Grapes, it was impossible to take a photo with them. Good problem.

We queued up with the other cyclists, and sat on the top deck, accompanied back by the seagulls. This time they were hand fed by some passengers.

Made it in the nick of time!

Made it in the nick of time!

During our fleeting visit to Cape Cod, and today Martha’s Vineyard, I am trying to digest these places. I listen and watch, and fill in the blanks with conjecture: there are locals, there are summer people, there are regular weekenders, and there are folks like us — one-off visitors seeking a glimpse of the myth of The Cape, with less than a day to give the Vineyard.

After the ferry delivers us, we return to the rented house in New Seabury and all is well. Harry Potter has commanded the day. Mystery still abounds, there is much still unexplained, and that’s okay. The last installment is coming.

A Little California in Cape Cod

After a weekend of debauchery (the ice cream, carnival rides, birthday kind) in Ocean City, New Jersey, we hit the road for Cape Cod. We had five states to cover, and thought we could do it in about five hours.

First of all, ha. Our trip lasted 8 1/2 hours. (What’s with the traffic? I’m looking at you, New York and Connecticut.)

From the Washington Crossing bridge to the George Washington Bridge.

But what business does anyone have crossing 5 states in 5 hours anyway? After all these years, this state-to-state closeness remains an astonishing fact to a California girl, where five hours in any direction yields one border crossing max.

The traffic had one side benefit. We pulled off I-95 earlier than anticipated in Greenwich, CT, when hunger and other functions called. Lo and behold, another bookstore! I strolled over to Diane’s Books and gifted them a copy of Shelter Us. Hoping they’ll like it and order some.

Diane's Books in Greenwhich, CT was buzzing with readers.

Diane’s Books in Greenwich, CT was abuzz with customers!

Once we arrived on Cape Cod, we got busy. We have four days to see everything but everything. No problem.

Day 1: Bike riding.

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Corner Cycles in Falmouth had sweet bikes, and is only a block away from the converted railway bike trail.

A drawbridge.

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A short ride past ponds, beaches, and cranberry bogs, and is Woods Hole, complete with a drawbridge.

Lobster rolls.

Jimmy's in Woods Hole provided Lobster Roll #1 of the weekend.

Jimmy’s in Woods Hole provided Lobster Roll #1 of the weekend.

More bike riding.
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Verrrrry necessary complimentary coffee.

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Water Wizz Water Park (from The Way Way Back)

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And last but not least, in the town of East Sandwich, Titcomb’s Bookshop, which now has signed copies of Shelter Us joining  many beautiful Cape Cod and Nantucket-themed fiction. Thank you for welcoming this California girl and her California-set story to your unforgettable East Coast shores.
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Philadelphia, Stories

When I was a student at Penn, most of my activities were limited to a square 1/2 mile of its West Philly campus — classes, rehearsals, libraries, parties. Occasionally I ventured downtown. There was the (impressive but ineffective) rally for Michael Dukakis in front of City Hall. There was my weekly SEPTA ride to an internship at the Women’s Law Project. And there was lovely, leafy Rittenhouse Square, an area I had no particular business in, but which appealed to my west coast eyes and ears with its older, sophisticated sensibility.

Flash forward (ahem) years to 2015, and I walked up to the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square to see its window filled with my first novel. BN Window

It’s hard to put that feeling into words. I’ll try, and then I’ll let the pictures tell the tale.

When I graduated from Penn and returned home to Los Angeles, I could not have known that some day I would marry a boy from Pennsylvania, that his family would become my extended family, and that they would be some of my biggest supporters. Time passes so swiftly that I can sometimes forget I’m not a “newcomer” still, that I’ve known them nearly 19 years.

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My Philadelphia PR team (and cousins) extraordinare, Sharla Feldscher of SFPR…

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…and PR maven and super cousin Hope Horwitz of SFPR.

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Happy happy joy joy.

Philadelphia book signing!

Suzanne Myers from Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Philadelphia joined us, accepting a donation to the agency from book sales that evening.

Deborah Waxman

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College, was in attendance!

I talked about the connections between Shelter Us and the values Jewish Family & Children’s Services represents, helping others, welcoming the stranger. One woman pointed out that being “a stranger” does not always refer to the stereotypical outsider I’d referred to — a homeless person, an immigrant — and that money can mask stranger status. She choked up. I did, too.

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I kinda see my Dad’s face in my expression.

At Q&A time, my son asked: “Did you ever have doubts about some of the things you included in the book?”

Yes, I answered. Doubt abounds. But when the time came to finish, I had to let it be. I hope I modeled something for him and his brother. To follow elusive dreams. To celebrate achievements. And to be grateful for the people who celebrate with you.

My favorite readers.

My favorite readers.

Thank you, thank you, one and all.

Humbly yours,

Laura/Mom.