Erma Bombeck: No Ordinary Woman

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Forgive me for what I am about to write, because, in the wake and afterglow of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, I risk sacrilege: Erma Bombeck was not what she portrayed herself to be. I submit, for proof, this statement, in the humorist’s own words:

OrdinaryErmapsd

From Suzette Martinez Standring’s PowerPoint presentation at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference: “Staying Power Advice from Top Opinion Columnists.”

 I wondered what I had that was unique and ironically enough, I discovered something. I was ordinary, painfully middle of the road, bare boned Ohio Midwest beige, Our Town ordinary…

While it is true that Erma Bombeck wrote about the ordinary, mundane details and events of her life, only an extraordinary writer and person could have taken that ordinary turf and seeded it into fertile mountains of gold. By keeping her ear to the common ground—daily life and love in the realm of domesticity—Bombeck harvested an astonishing legacy as a humorist, writer, columnist, journalist, and television personality. Her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, celebrates her legacy every two years on the campus of the University of Dayton, at the writer’s conference and festival that bears her name. I was lucky; I was one of the 350 attendees from across the U.S. and Canada smart enough to register before the event sold out. In 12 hours.

It takes an extraordinary woman to remain married to the same man for decades, raise three children (all of whom were present at the festival), walk the walk of feminism (she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment), write and publish, and keep her voice pure and true. No. Erma Bombeck, taken from us much too soon at the age of 69, was as far from ordinary as Dubai is from Dayton.

According to the Bombeck workshop website, http://www.humorwriters.org, Bombeck’s syndicated column, “At Wit’s End,” appeared in more than 900 newspapers. She wrote twelve books, nine of which were on the The New York Times’ bestseller list. She appeared regularly ABC-TV’s Good Morning America for 11 years. She was still writing her column for Universal Press Syndicate and developing a new book for Harper Collins Publishers when she died from complications of a kidney transplant on April 22, 1996.

I believe Erma Bombeck deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as another Ohio-born humorist—James Thurber.

When I was entering adulthood in the 1970s, I read and treasured two of her most famous books: If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits? and The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank. Her writing, while hilarious, also made me feel as though I were reading the work of a good friend. That was her special gift, I think. Everyone felt that they knew Erma, and at the conference, everyone did. Her spirit was everywhere, most especially during Phil Donahue’s first-night keynote address. Donahue and Erma lived on the same street in the Dayton suburb of Kettering when both were just starting their careers. Bombeck, then a journalist for the Kettering-Oakwood Times, interviewed Donahue, then an announcer at radio station WHIO in Dayton. A lifelong friendship developed, and the moving eulogy that Donahue delivered at Bombeck’s funeral, which he shared with the audience, encapsulates the honesty, humor, and utter lack of pretense that was Erma Bombeck.

I had an opportunity after dinner to tell Donahue that I loved what he said about Erma, and to present him with two original photographs from the days when his father-in-law, entertainer Danny Thomas, was raising funds for what would eventually become St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. My father was a local fundraiser from Elyria, Ohio, and a huge benefit was held at a Cleveland hotel ballroom in April 1961.

MarciRichwithPhilDonahue

There’s so much more that I want to share with you about the conference—what I learned, who I saw, how I managed to navigate the campus with my knee-scooter and the help of the incredibly supportive staff at the University of Dayton—that I’ll likely have to write another post or two. For now, to keep up with all the conference news, I invite you to go on Twitter and follow hashtag #EBWW2014. You can also follow me there—here’s my handle: @midlife2wife. I’m still tweeting about the conference, so you won’t miss a thing!

I’d write more now, but I have some chores to do around the house. You do know what Erma said about housework, don’t you?

Housework, if done right, can kill you.

So please check up on me via Twitter and here at the blog to make sure that I survived my to-do list.

On the Road to Dayton for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

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Image courtesy of the University of Dayton. Used with permission.

If you’ve been wondering why you haven’t seen more posts from me here, it’s because I’ve been preoccupied with work on a book project. I’m not abandoning the blog, mind you, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing to you now! But because there are just so many hours in a day and days in a week, I’ve had to redirect my energies a bit. I’m stopping by now to tell you that I’m attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, this weekend. I’m looking forward to two-and-a-half days of workshop sessions and making connections with other writers, and I’m especially happy to have been one of approximately scribes who managed to book her registration on opening day, since the workshop sold out in a record 12 hours.

Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know about Erma Bombeck? I grew up reading her warm, funny essays about domestic life, never dreaming that one day I’d attend a workshop held in her honor on the campus of her alma mater, the University of Dayton. A recent article in Parade magazine by Dr. Nancy Berk features interviews with several of the workshop faculty I’ll be meeting this weekend, who explain just what it was about the legendary humorist that continues to resonate with readers and writers of all ages, and from all walks of life.

I’ll try to keep you updated about my experience at the conference on Twitter, using the hashtag #EBWW2014. You can look for me at https://www.twitter.com/midlife2wife.

Gotta run—I’ve still got packing to do!

 

 

 

 

What’s Their Secret? How to Have a Happy Relationship

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"The Midlife Second Wife" "weddings" "relationships" "ceremonies"

Marci, aka The Midlife Second Wife, with John on their wedding day. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

 

The single most important thing to making a marriage work is the ability of each party to tolerate the neuroses of the other. If you’re going to make it for the long haul, you’re going to have to learn to live with those neuroses. In fact, you’re going to have to learn to embrace them.

—Wendy Swallow
The Triumph of Love Over Experience

Marci Rich: What’s the secret to … a long, happy marriage?

Sissy Spacek: Marryin’ the right guy!

—from “Sissy Spacek’s Wonderful Life,” by Marci Rich in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Don’t think the worst of your spouse.… I think we go to war not for what is true, but for what we think is true.…Don’t go to war for what you think your spouse is going to do.

—Phil Donahue

I can’t and won’t speak for my wife, but I can tell you my secret to a happy marriage: I just try to out-love her.

—John, by way of a wise elder

From TMSW readers:

Our favorite is “the bed fairy.” Confession. We don’t make our bed in the morning, since we’re often getting out of it at different times. So at night as bedtime nears, one of us sneaks in and straightens the bedclothes. Some nights it’s me, other nights it’s him. And then we joke about the “anonymous” bed fairy who came to do the deed.

—Karen P. Schaefer
11/07/2011

My hubby and I never say anything to intentionally hurt each other. Even when we’re angry and it would be so easy to say something like “you’re such a moron”, “you’re a slob”, etc., we both button our lips. Once something is out there, you can never take it back.

— Barb Disterhof
11/07/2011

Laugh, talk and listen. There will always be hard times but with someone you love and trust by your side, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel.
******
My husband has just given me his thought: Marriage is a game of give and take; if you both give more than you take, you’re in for a happy partnership.

Aw bless, I am one lucky gal.

—roseshadows
roseshadows.wordpress.com
11/07/2011

Great question. I’ve written about this, so … to choose just one, I would say “keep an open heart at all times.” This seems to facilitate all the things we should do: have compassion, forgive, be kind, remove judgement, etc.
Nice to meet your blog!

—Kris
lifelearningtoday.com
11/08/2011

Try new things together! My husband and I are taking a Latin Dance class, it allows us once a week to focus on each other, learning a new skill, and having fun! We plan on taking an Italian class next! :)

— Jenn
sothisisloveinmaine.blogspot.com/
11/08/2011

Assume nothing. That’s the single best tip I live by and shout from the rooftops.

—Just Jane
janesinfinitewisdom.com
11/11/2011

the secrets of a happy relationship are simple:

1. you must never intentionally do or say anything designed to make your partner feel bad.

2. you must recognize that being the one who is “right” is not as important as both of you being happy.

3. you can be “right” without stressing that your partner is “wrong.”

4. if you truly “love” your partner, you will never call him/her “stupid” or other similar words, nor will you use phrases like “shut up.”

5. you will recognize the difference between a negative intent and a negative outcome. for example, if i attempt to help you carry something but end up breaking it, the fact that i was trying to help carry is more important than the result of it being broken.

6. you will never assume that your partner knows what you are thinking.

there are more, i’m sure.

RMV
11/29/11

My Turn as Station Agent on the “My Writing Process” Blog Tour

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MorgueFile Image

MorgueFile Image

When we writers aren’t writing, you can often find us thinking (and reading, and … okay, writing) about the writing process. The craft of writing is one that, at least for me, inspires endless and usually pleasurable study. We are, after all, self-reflective creatures; it makes sense that we think about how and why we do what we do—as long as it’s not at the expense of actually working on whatever writing project has embraced us. So when Stephanie Friedman, program director of the Writer’s Studio program at the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Chicago, invited me to hitch my car onto the “My Writing Process” whistle-stop blog tour train, I couldn’t say no. Stephanie and I were English majors together at Oberlin, and I’ve long admired her thinking and her writing. Besides, the exercise gives me a chance to further develop my thoughts about the creative process, and how it intertwines with my own work. If you aren’t familiar with Stephanie’s blog, “The Winding Stitch,” it’s well worth a visit. I encourage you to stop over there when you have a chance.

In addition to asking me questions about my writing process, Stephanie asked me to select three writers to carry on this blog tour’s tradition. At the end of my post, I’ll introduce you to the astonishingly gifted young adult novelist—and my good friend— A.B. Westrick; the diversely talented novelist and book critic Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski; and the intrepid and sage blogger and writing coach Jane Gassner.

These are the aspects of writing Stephanie has asked me to explore:

1. What am I working on?

I tend to plead the Margaret Atwood Fifth Amendment on this question, believing, as Atwood does (and here I paraphrase), that to talk too much about one’s writing while in the midst of it is bad luck—like naming your gods. But I don’t think it gives too much away to tell you that since starting The Midlife Second Wife (after spending two decades at a career that had me writing all day, although not for my own purposes) I’ve rediscovered my love for story telling and for creative expression. Besides which, the older I get the more I’m aware that my time here is finite. I have stories to tell, and I feel an urgency to tell them before it’s too late. So in addition to writing this blog, I’ve begun working on a memoir. There. I’ve said it. No mirrors cracked, so I think I’m okay.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I love that Stephanie answered this question by bringing George Saunders into the conversation: “Originality in art means settling into who you actually are.”

Think about that for a moment: settling into who you actually are. Think about the demands of that statement. Here are just a few of them:

  • to acknowledge painful truths;
  • to reflect back what the mirror sees, faithfully;
  • to accept that you are who you are—as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, as a friend, as a writer, and to accept that you have unique limitations, gifts, and dreams;
  • to respect those gifts and dreams, and to strive, in the most honest way possible, to dig with your bare hands against the rough surface of those limitations until—scratched and raw and possibly bleeding—you discover something that looks like a vein of gold; and
  • to do this repeatedly every time you sit down to write.

So, applying Saunders’ dictum to the memoir genre, the answer is pretty straightforward: my work differs from the work of other memoirists because each life is unique. My work is exactly that: my work. There are as many different memoirs out there as there are coffee blends—the aroma and flavor of each is like no other. In the case of fiction, which I expect to be writing at some point, I have to turn again to Atwood. Asked how autobiographical her novels and stories were, she gave what I thought at the time was the most wonderfully cagey answer, and this, too, is a paraphrase: Everything a writer writes is autobiographical in the sense that it has gone through her own head.

So take that, biographical critics!

3. Why do I write what I do?

The short answer: because I can’t help it. I began my writing life as a poet. That’s how I trained at Oberlin. And while I will always love poetry, and still write it from time to time, it’s become clear to me that I need a bigger canvas for my stories. I should add that studying the craft of poetry has influenced my prose tremendously. (My professor, Stuart Friebert, used to quote Grace Paley to our poetry workshop: “A poem a day keeps the prose doctor away.”)

I’m not sure I do this consciously, but I seem to seek music in a certain combination of words … to find rhythm in a certain sentence. I can’t play an instrument to save my life, but I’ve always had an ear for the English language. It’s a good thing, too, because my math skills are horrible. What I’m learning now, as I write longform narrative, is that although I might have the nouns right, and the flow of a sentence, and the visual image, the proof will be in the pudding’s structure. How do I stitch paragraph to paragraph, section to section, chapter to chapter, to form an artful, pleasing whole?

As for subject matter, nearly all of the early poems I wrote at Oberlin dealt with loss in some way or other; I need to write the book I’m working on now because I clearly have not found resolution for the losses in my life. A host of questions prick at me,  sticking like burrs to a sweater. I have to pick them off, one by one, and try to answer them.

I mentioned Grace Paley. In August 2014, I’ll be taking Dani Shapiro’s “Transforming Chaos Into Art: A Workshop in Fiction and Memoir” at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Shapiro studied with Paley at Sarah Lawrence, so there’s a bit of nice, footnoted symmetry in my desire to study with her. In Shapiro’s own beautiful memoir, Slow Motion, she offers the best definition of why we write that I’ve come across in a long while:

I see that there might be some way I can take the raw material of my life and transform it into something that transcends my own experience. I can organize the noise in my head into something that has order and structure. I can make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.

There’s a lot of chaos from my childhood that I need to make sense of. In telling part of my story (and it is only a part) I’m also trying to reconstruct a life that’s not my own. As I work and research (I’m reading my father’s World War II letters to his parents), I’m finding that the story I’m striving to tell could be, possibly, more his than mine. I think that’s why some memoirists tend to write more than one memoir in a lifetime. As Shapiro has noted:

The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell.

4. How does my writing process work?

Soon after waking in the morning, I’ll have a mug of hot lemon water and my first cup of coffee, thanks to my endlessly supportive husband. Sitting up in bed, still in a hazy sort of dream state, I’ll begin reading something inspirational to my writing. For example, I’ve just finished Shapiro’s exquisite Still Writing, in which she quotes from the late poet Jane Kenyon’s advice for writers. I think this is important, because a writer who isn’t reading is like a person who isn’t breathing:

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. [emphasis added].

So I’ll read a bit of something for which I have a strong affinity. I think we all need literary mentors, and right now, Dani Shapiro is mine. It’s not long before what I’ve read will snag a loose thread of something in my memory, or inspire an idea that I feel compelled to pursue.

I’ll put the book aside, pull out my iPad, and begin following my idea, pulling at the thread, writing while it unravels into something that ends up, newly-fashioned, in my Evernote app. I keep at this as long as I can … as long as I feel I’ve pulled and stitched as much as I can … as long as my energy lasts. I then email the note to myself so it’s on my computer, waiting for me when I settle at my desk, with my third cup of coffee, to begin work.

This is how I’m working these days, and it seems to be a good method for me.

I don’t want to say much more than this right now…time to invoke the Atwood Fifth Amendment, because once started, I could truly go on and on. And that’s not good for the work.

It’s time for the train to pull out of the station, so I’ll announce, in my best conductor’s voice, the three writers you’ll want to look for at the next stop:

A.B. Westrick
A.B. Westrick
is the author of Brotherhood (Viking/Penguin 2013), an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and winner of the National Council for the Social Studies Notable Trade Book Award. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, Westrick earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She and her family live near Richmond, Virginia.
http://abwestrick.com/

Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski
Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski
has completed a novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, which was one of 50 semi-finalists (out of 5,000 entrants) in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. She writes book reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books and belongs to James River Writers, Backspace, the Virginia Writers Club, and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She was a judge in the 2012 Maryland Writers’ Association “Great Beginnings” novel contest.

Ellen loves to tell stories that communicate the deepest human emotions while never drowning the reader in them. What interests her most is the tension between the uncertainty and pain of life and its everyday pleasures, triumphs, and absurdity. She enjoys exploring the intersection of the visual arts and literature, often drawing inspiration from Washington’s trove of museums, galleries, and gardens. She blogs about art, design, natural wonders, and dance.
http://ellenkwatnoski.com/blog/

Jane Gassner
The founder and editor of MidLifeBloggers, one of the first sites to focus on the midlife/boomer cohort, Jane Gassner has plied her craft as a writer in just about every situation that calls for putting words on paper or screen. She has earned her living as a magazine feature writer, a documentary producer, a scholarly writer, a business writer, a print editor, a radio reporter, and a non-fiction book writer. She has not earned a penny for it, but she is also experienced at film and television scriptwriting. (She lives in Los Angeles, and that’s what you do when you’re a writer in LA).

Jane has taught writing in both college classrooms and independent writing groups to writers of every level, from beginning to published. That experience, along with her graduate-level education in English literature and psychology, provide the basis for the client-oriented coaching and editing service she offers as part of the MidLifeBloggers Writers’ Workshop. She is currently at work on a book focusing on that service, entitled Writing As Process & The Process of Writing: The Psychodynamics of Writing for Writers.
http://midlifebloggers.com

Look for their thoughts on the writing process on Monday, March 31st.

Now go and write something.

A Short History of Connecting the Dots

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“Only Connect.”
                 —E.M. Forster

One of my favorite childhood pastimes was playing connect-the-dots. I took great pleasure in guiding my pencil from one numbered dot to the next to find out what would reveal itself to me on the page.

Writing is like that. So is life.

And this is a true story.

About two years ago, I was in Manhattan for a conference. It was Sunday, the last day, my travel day home, but after 72 hours in the airless rooms of the New York Hilton, my friend Nancy and I decided we’d escape and treat ourselves to brunch at Sarabeth’s. Being outside felt wonderful, despite the sticky August humidity. As we walked along Avenue of the Americas to the restaurant on Central Park South, I felt the exhilaration I always feel whenever I’m in the city: the rush of traffic, the clusters of strangers moving with and against me on the broad sidewalks, the glint of granite and marble and glass in the summer sunlight. All of this combines to make me feel as though I’m part of something important and larger than myself. The experience also, strangely, makes me feel grounded and secure; at the same time, I’m aware that at any moment, something unusual might happen that could change my course.

That morning, something did.

Nancy and I reached the restaurant and positioned ourselves to join the short queue that had formed outside the door. Out of the corner of my eye, two people emerged, one of them familiar to me. “Linda Lavin,” I said softly to Nancy. And then, for emphasis, to register my out-of-towner’s surprise at seeing a Famous Person, and to make sure Nancy heard me, I repeated, a bit loudly: “It’s Linda Lavin!” Not only Nancy heard me; so did Ms. Lavin, who looked over at me, probably thinking, tourists!

Thus engaged, I said the only thing I could say to justify my rube-like behavior: “We love you!” Linda Lavin smiled. She was wearing a baseball cap, which looked adorable on her, and she continued on her way.

You might think the story ends there, but it doesn’t.

Nancy and I enjoyed a delicious brunch, walked back to our hotel, picked up our baggage from the concierge and parted amidst the foot traffic of a sweltering day—she to hail a taxi for the airport, me to catch a cab to Penn Station.

Settled in Amtrak’s Quiet Car, heading south to Virginia on the Northeast Regional Line, I picked up my iPhone and sent out a tweet that went something like this:

“Spotted Linda Lavin outside Sarabeth’s in NYC…don’t you just love her?”

A moment passed, possibly two, and then, to my surprise, someone with the handle “mmaren” retweeted my tweet.

“Why would somone retweet this?” I wondered. And “who is “mmaren?” I clicked on his Twitter profile, and then on the hyperlink to his website.

A journalist. A filmmaker—something about a film in production. Husband of writer Dani Shapiro. I filed all this away, and tweeted out my thanks to him for the retweet. (For those who might be reading this hundreds of years into the future, tweeting is how people met one another in the early 21st century, without really meeting each other.)

Back and forth we tweeted, during which Mr. Maren followed me. Here’s a brief exchange:

Marci Rich@Midlife2Wife 5 Aug 2012
To @mmaren. Thanks for the lovely follow. Eager to learn more about your film.

Michael Maren@mmaren 5 Aug 2012
@Midlife2Wife Well, it stars the lovely and insanely talented Linda Lavin… info here on FB http://on.fb.me/HI3pY7 

Marci Rich@Midlife2Wife 5 Aug 2012
@mmaren thanks for the link. I’ll definitely take a look. My mom had Alzheimer’s. Part I of her story is on my blog. Will share w/u soon.

I have since followed the development of Maren’s film, A Short History of Decay, with great interest, and I’m eager to see it. Throughout the past year, select film festivals have screened it, and Paladin is releasing it in April 2014. If you’d like to know more about it, here’s an interview, from the Hamptons International Film Festival, with Maren and two of the film’s actors:

I wrote at the beginning of this essay that my Linda Lavin sighting on that humid Sunday morning in 2012 set me on a different course; it was, in fact, a course strewn with dots that I connected, one after the other: my tweet about seeing her led to Michael Maren’s retweet, and my awareness of his film about Alzheimer’s—a topic of great interest to me. Our resulting exchanges led me to seek out more information about the writings of his wife, Dani Shapiro, whom at the time I had not read.

Now, after reading two of her novels; one of her memoirs, Slow Motion; and having nearly finished her newest book, the astonishing Still Writing (which I’m recommending to every writer I know), I have made a discovery. In Shapiro’s work I have found a kindred spirit and a literary soul-mate—as I read her I feel as though I’m filling pages of connect-the-dot workbooks, each one studded with epiphanies.

Here’s one of them: I would like to study with her. I’m at work on a manuscript, and in need of a mentor and guide. I find myself at the end of that long cluster of dots that emerged in Manhattan nearly two years ago, to this spot: I am first on the wait-list for Shapiro’s workshop in fiction and memoir at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

I hope and pray I get in. Maybe, if I happen to see Linda Lavin somewhere in the Cleveland area, where I’m living now, I can take that as a good sign.

The Seven Senses of Writing

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©iStock.com/Franck-Boston

©iStock.com/Franck-Boston

Sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. I counted five, right? Five senses which govern our experience of the world, and lead us—luxuriously, deliciously, gloriously—through life.

We often talk of a sixth sense, the guide that alerts us to danger or deception, leads us to opportunity or outcome. This intuition of ours is also a governor, every bit as vital as our biological sensors.

Each of these six senses is essential to the writing process. But I suggest that a seventh sense is required for any sort of sustained activity which would yield a viable, worthy result—whether a sonata, a sonnet, or a work of sculpture. I’m talking about the sense of discipline. And because I’m not a composer or a musician but an artist of a different sort—a writer—this essay is about the seven senses of writing.

One could argue that honesty is a sense, but it’s not. It’s a virtue. And since honesty is important in one’s writing I must admit to stumbling upon this theory by accident, and by extension, through my sense of intuition. Yes, Freud. I know. There are no accidents.

Here’s my non-accident: I was commenting on a Facebook post about ways to overcome writer’s’ block, quoting a friend’s advice to burrow deeply into each of the five senses to get out of a jam. In the aptly titled (for me) “7 Things I’ve Learned so Far,” A.B. Westrick offers this help in an essay on WritersDigest.com:

When I’m stuck, instead of walking away from a manuscript, I’ll try to move more deeply into it. I’ll identify the odors in my character’s life… the textures… the sounds… air stirring in an overhead duct… a mosquito feasting on an ankle… dogs barking in the distance… etc. I’ll give my character something to eat, then I’ll savor the taste. I’ll notice the angle of light, the quality of air, the temperature of skin. I’ll write down everything my character experiences through the five senses. Then I’ll consider my character’s desires in that particular moment… and I’ll relish them… and see what emerges. I don’t necessarily insert all of those details into the scene, but the exercise of identifying them loosens me up, getting me unstuck. Sometimes insights emerge. Sometimes the character takes the story in a new direction.

Great stuff, right? Except, when I hastily offered my comment, I referred to “the seven senses,” a mistake that would embarrass any fourth-grader. But I’m trusting my instincts here, because there are no accidents. Here’s another way of looking at it: Years ago, when I was in college, the poet Dennis Schmitz, whose work I had been studying in a Guest Writer course, visited our campus and spoke to us about stream of consciousness, using an anecdote to illustrate his point. A student, addressing a class about the topic, wrote this on the board by mistake:

STEAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

The bonus lesson? Trust the mistakes you make. As a journalist ought to “follow the money,” creative writers ought to follow the accidents. You never know where they will lead. Power your writing by the steam of your own consciousness, or—if you’re a stickler for precision, by the steam of your subconscious. I think you get the idea.

Contemplating my steam-of-consciousness counting error led me to conclude that there really must be seven senses to engage in the pursuit of art, or else why would I have said so? There are no accidents.

The common core of five senses is a given, the kernels within the writer’s golden rule. “Show, don’t tell.”

In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro’s elegant primer/memoir, she reminds us that in order to feel the “essential humanness” of a character,

we must have access to his body. This is one of the simplest ways to bring a character to life on the page, and yet we so easily forget. If we inhabit his body as he walks down the path, things will happen in the writing: the bumblebee, the honeysuckle, the fortune cookie. His musings will be associated, connected to the corporeal present. After all, what else is there? We see, smell, taste, hear, and touch. The senses are gateways to our inner lives. [Emphasis added.]

This common core of five senses is, therefore, critical to generating the steam we need to keep writing, the steam to find our way deep into the story.

Our sixth sense, intuition, is closely linked to our sense of sound. We must listen to the whispering, often unintelligible sounds of our instincts—in life and on the page. We think we want to write one thing, but a force keeps nudging us away in another direction, towards what we must write, until we find ourselves lost in an idea that demands exploration, a plot twist that takes our character to a place not mapped on any outline.

“Something told you to do as I say, didn’t it?” That’s the stunningly misanthropic and arrogant theater critic Addison DeWitt talking to the young actress Eve Carrington in the classic film that is all about her. He’s teaching her about the value of her own intuition, right before exposing her deceptions. Here’s more of the scene from Joseph Mankiewicz’s brilliant screenplay, All About Eve:

EVE

Then if you won’t get out, I’ll
have you thrown out.

She goes to the phone.

ADDISON

Don’t pick it up! Don’t even put your hand on it…

She doesn’t. Her back is to him. Addison smiles.

ADDISON

Something told you to do as I say,
didn’t it? That instinct is worth
millions, you can’t buy it, cherish it,
Eve. When that alarm goes off,
go to your battle stations…

The sixth sense, the intuitive sense, is as important to actors and liars as it is to writers.

And what of the seventh sense—discipline—that I identified at the start of this essay?  You can have instincts as sharply honed as your sensory equipment, but without discipline, nothing gets done.

I know this all too well. I’ve wanted to write ever since I was a child and set up a TV tray as a desk, with a rose in a bud vase for inspiration. (I wish I could remember where I ever got that clichéd notion!) But a lack of discipline has kept me from achieving the career I could have had. It’s true in my daily life, as well. For example, I dislike exercise, dislike anything that demands I get up out of the cozy bed at an ungodly hour and move around. (I’m always pleased, and a little smug, on those mornings when I get over myself and just get out there and walk the three miles.) And about that cake: It’s so delicious. I shouldn’t have any more, but I’ll just cut this little corner. And all the while my lack of physical discipline is evident when I look into the mirror.

And so it is with writing. I should get started, but first I’ll just read the headlines in the Times, or check my email or Facebook. As soon as I do any of these things, I’m a goner. There’s no chance of getting back to that hazy state of awakening, that anteroom where what you’ve dreamed the night before is within reach, and you can unlock its logic in the early light of day and create something, seemingly, out of thin air.

Dani Shapiro calls this “riding the wave … learning to withstand those wild surges [of energy] because everything we need to know, everything valuable, is contained within them.” Her book shamed me into my relatively new habit of not looking at e-mail or checking the Internet before sitting down to write, and of staying put in my chair once I’ve started. Performing any of the tasks of daily life—and there are so many of them—before you’ve put the time in at your desk will send you tumbling down the rabbit hole. These things are important and must get done, but not at the expense of writing. Put in the writing time first. The laundry and the marketing and the errands will be your reward. That, and finished work.

Take this essay you’re reading. This morning, as soon as I woke up, I opened the Evernote app on my iPad. I’ve taken to writing first thing, in bed, in this manner. My husband brings me my hot lemon water and my first cup of coffee, otherwise I’d never be able to lift my head, and then I begin writing. When I feel as though I’ve gotten down what I have to get down, I e-mail the “note” to myself so it’s waiting on my computer when I’m ready to work at my desk, after breakfast.

I did not suddenly cultivate this type of discipline by looking up at the calendar and realizing I turn 58 this year with a scant body of work to show for it. No, enforced immobility is what brought me this far. I broke my foot in November, and I’m still in a cast. The days and weeks and months in which I could not easily move about to dodge the writing—walk the dog! do the laundry! drive to Blackbird Bakery for some chocolate chip cookies!—have been a gift. I’ve formed reading and writing habits these last few months that I suspect will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Not that it would have been easy to do this before. From the time I was 16 and for most of my adult life, I’ve worked, and I spent most of my working life at a job where I had to write every day. I’ll never forget telling the writer Diane Vreuls about the new job I got in Oberlin’s Office of Communications so many years ago. “It’s important to pay the bills,” she said, “but a writer should really avoid having a job writing.”

It wasn’t long before I realized what she was talking about.

You’d think that writing daily—and getting paid for it!—would be a good thing, but it’s not the same kind of writing that requires you to be solitary and dig deeply until the words come, to create something that approximates art. Not to mention the fact that writing for pay can leave you exhausted, with little energy to switch gears and face the blank computer screen at home.

No, it’s taken a couple of major life changes for me to get to the place I’m at today, a place where I can go into my writing office and work. For more than two years, I’ve written a blog—a kind of exploratory enterprise that has led me to realize that I can do the sort of writing I need and want to do. And I’ve slouched toward some sort of discipline in doing it. After the foot fracture, the slouching became hobbling, but I’m getting there.

I’ve spent most of the day on this essay—from the moment I awakened until now, as I type this, 2:53 PM. That’s what discipline is. I might stumble here and there, but I’m here now, and like the title of Shapiro’s book, I’m “still writing.”

(One more thing. When I took a short break earlier, I found a video by Ira Glass that speaks beautifully to the idea of discipline, of “doing one thing over and over and over.” I think you’ll love it.)

Reflections (with Feathers) on my Valentine’s 60th Birthday

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©iStock.com/studioimagen

©iStock.com/studioimagen

When my husband and I were falling in love and committing ourselves to coupledom, I said to him, in all seriousness, “I want decades with you.” That was more than four years ago, when he was 55, and I was 53. It felt like a tall order; his mother died at 62, my father at 47. Then there was the fact that I’d had “a mild case of cancer,” undergoing surgery and radioactive iodine treatment for thyroid cancer. At the time of our courtship, however, I was in fine health, and so was John. (As of this writing we still are, knock wood.) This being the case, I am as hopeful for our future now as I was when we were betrothed. (Great word, isn’t it?) I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s great poetic line: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” My husband and I have been flying together for half a decade. I want to soar many more miles with him.

John turns 60 on Thursday, February 13. There’s something about crossing the threshold into a new decade that gives one pause; mid-lifers especially, I think, tend toward reflection here, especially if they’re in a second relationship. We have fewer mile markers in front of us, and we know that one of them will be fateful. All John or I can do is live each day with love—as if every day is Valentine’s Day, as, indeed, it will be the morning after his birthday.

Besides hosting Valentine’s Day, the 14th is a significant date for us because we met on the 14th of June. For that reason, when we decided to marry, we chose August 14 as our wedding day. The middle of February is, you might say, a peak time on our calendar, what with his birthday, V-Day, and, this year, our 56-month anniversary. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s black-tie-and-gown party time. Last year, for example, movers in Richmond were loading a truck with our belongings. This year, as I write this, I’m still in a leg cast.

As Connie Schultz says, life happens. John and I might not be able to go out and paint the town Cupid red, but by spreading out the significance of our love over 365 days—that is, by not taking one another for granted—each day feels more valuable, more treasured. Being mindful of our love each day helps us stack the deck. We might have only half a decade on our scorecard, but if we care for each other, are kind to each other, and express our love in ways minuscule as well as magnificent—every single day—it will seem as though we really are getting more decades than the calendar suggests. Some might call this magical thinking. I call it hoping, with feathers.

Happy 60th birthday, my love. And Happy Valentine’s Day, too. I wish you (and me, for you) good health. Decades of it.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)

By Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Why Does the Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman Sadden Us?

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MorgueFile image

MorgueFile image

The news alert that came through my smart phone on Sunday shocked me, as it did innumerable others: Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died. And like innumerable others, I scoured the Internet for a news source, posted a link on Facebook, and expressed my disbelief and sadness on social networks. The New York Times published a series of Twitter encomiums by fellow actors. Anna Kendrick’s (@AnnaKendrick47) was particularly poignant: “Philip Seymour Hoffman. Unbearably, shockingly, deeply sad. Words fail to describe his life and our loss.”

My own reaction barely warrants a ripple in this tide. Still, I felt compelled to express my sadness, as I feel moved to write this essay. Why? Did I know the man? No.

Or did I?

Bruce Weber, writing in the Times, called Hoffman “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation,” a correct assessment, I’d say. He also zeroed in on one of Hoffman’s ineffable gifts as an actor—“his Everyman mien.” In a wildly diverse array of roles, Hoffman embodied each character so completely as to suggest he could be anyone we knew—either in real life, or, in the case of Truman Capote, someone from the pantheon of culture.

As for Hoffman’s complete submersion in the complex soul of that astonishing writer? Who other than he—and this is to take nothing away from Toby Jones’s own splendid performance in the Capote role— could have accomplished that? The voice, the accent, the demeanor, the neurosis.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Take a look at this brief compilation showing some of the characters memorably brought to life by this singular actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in a Greenwich Village apartment on Sunday, Feb. 2, a syringe in his arm. Reports indicate he died of an apparent drug overdose.

I cannot speak to the destructive force of drug addiction. No one I have ever known has suffered under that particular curse, and minds more learned than mine will have to weigh in on its insidious power to invade a person’s soul, and the tragic role it played in Hoffman’s life and death. All I know is this: extraordinarily gifted and utterly ordinary people—too many in our society—have been lost to the disease. If Hoffman’s death sparks a meaningful, productive, dialog in our country about drug addiction, then perhaps that’s something. But in the meantime, his family, friends, and colleagues grieve.

His family’s loss is something I can relate to; my father died when I was 13. Is this why I’m so deeply saddened by Hoffman’s sudden, untimely death? Did losing a parent at a vulnerable age condition me to feel losses such as Hoffman’s more deeply?

Or is it the nature of celebrity itself? A movie screen—a thin membrane, really—separates an audience from the larger-than-life inhabitants on the other side. But such is the power of a performer as profoundly talented as Hoffman that he can pierce that barrier, touch our souls, and sear an image into our memory.

And then there’s the fact that film lives forever. Hoffman cannot really be gone, can he? Not when we can log into Netflix, select The Talented Mr. Ripley, and see him right there on the screen of a device we hold in our hands? The intimacy of film, and our ready access to it, is such that we literally carry these performances with us. This is such a gift, and possibly a comfort, but it nevertheless renders an actor as vivid as Hoffman with a familiar quality.

How must that false sense of intimacy feel for a celebrated actor? To know that wherever he goes, whatever he does in his off-screen, off-stage life, he is recognized. Known, but not known. How much of a burden was fame for Hoffman? How much of a burden is it for anyone living a public life?

In trying to answer one question—why am I so saddened by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman?—I only seem to come up with more questions.

Do we grieve the loss of a man we’ve never met because, like us, he was once anonymous? And, like many of us, he had a dream? And, unlike most of us, he saw that dream realized? Is he our proxy? Those of us who deferred our own dreams, or are waiting to see them come true, feel the icy slap of reality: If we get our heart’s desire, someday it will go away. None of us lives forever. How long, really, might we have to enjoy our dreams made manifest?

The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman—of anyone in the public eye—is a reminder of our own mortality, writ large.

Or maybe it’s not quite as cosmic as all that. Maybe, for those of us who appreciate art and hold artists in high esteem, it means the end of something great. At the time of his death, Hoffman had three films in varying stages of production—the two-part Mockingjay films from the Hunger Games franchise, and a documentary about autism. It is unclear what his death will mean for their respective releases, but suffice to say that after any of these films come out, we will never again see a new performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

There will be no more, and we will want more.

A Simple Dream about Walking and Singing, with Linda Ronstadt

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MorgueFile image

MorgueFile image

One of the first things a creative writing instructor will advise is to keep a journal and pen on your nightstand, so that when you awake in the morning, you can record any interesting dreams—the imaginative fuel that can kindle a story or poem. I’m a lazy morning person—reluctant to emerge from slumber and slow to light the day’s fire, so I’ve done this on fewer occasions than I care to admit. It’s a shame, because I have amassed a prolific catalog of dreams (most dissipated into an irretrievable haze) that are nothing short of cinematic: almost always in color, with vivid actions and characters, and a discernible narrative arc. Last night I had such a dream, and was so in awe of its qualities that I picked up my iPad and recorded all I could remember in my Evernote APP.

A bit of prologue for those who haven’t followed my blog lately. On November 10 last year, I took a nasty fall and fractured my left foot. As I write this, it’s January 19 and I remain in a plaster cast, unable to walk. Since the accident, I’ve had several dreams in which I’m walking, but last night’s was so detailed and astonishing that I’m going to recount it here. This is nearly verbatim as I recorded it when I awoke this morning.

Last night, another dream where I was walking.

I was taking a class at Oberlin, and for one of our assignments we had to look at a catalog of album covers, pick one, and record the words on the cover, singing in the manner of the artist. I chose an album by Linda Ronstadt. I practiced at home, home being my mother’s house. She’s been dead for 14 years. I sounded really great. Next, I had to decide what I would wear for the recording. I looked through the closet in my old bedroom at my mother’s house, and pulled out a skirt that I actually own—a pretty, ankle-length, multicolored gypsy-looking skirt I purchased years ago from the Soft Surroundings catalog. I picked another skirt from the closet, one I didn’t recognize, and held both up so my mother could choose which one she thought would be best for the recording. She selected my favorite skirt, and this pleased me. I then rummaged around in the bottom of my closet to find shoes I could wear that would be safe and comfortable, but still look nice for the recording. I chose some flat, strappy sandals in black—again, a pair I actually own. Perfect. My hair looked great, too—I was wearing it kind of mid-length but layered, the way Linda Ronstadt once wore hers. I looked exactly the way I wanted to look.

Unfortunately, I had taken so long choosing my wardrobe and getting ready that I didn’t notice class was about to start in just a few minutes. In typical dream-logic fashion, I decided to walk the 15 miles to Oberlin. I looked down, and could see my feet moving, one foot in front of the other, in my pretty sandals, working just the way feet are supposed to work. I wisely kept off any uneven grass so I wouldn’t fall again, sticking to the streets and sidewalks.

I finally reached the King Building on campus, where my class was going to record the album covers, and where I actually did meet for most of my classes when I was a student. For some reason that defies even dream logic, I kept walking in a loop around the building—perhaps it was the thrill of walking that kept me going. Finally I decided it was time to enter the building and go to class.

Since I was so late, the halls were nearly empty. And, echoing a recurring dream of mine, I couldn’t figure out which was the correct staircase to get me to my room. After some trial and error, I ended up on the right floor, but a granite barricade blocked the glass doors leading to the hallway I needed to access. I saw a couple of students, and asked if they could help me move the barricade.

One of them questioned me. “Do you have a hall pass?”

“I don’t believe in hall passes,” I said, struggling—successfully—to move the barricade, then squeezing myself through the glass doors.

I made it to the room. The instructor wasn’t there, but recording equipment, unopened and still in its black cases, was on the floor in the front of the room. My classmates sat in a couple of rows towards the back.

I realized that I had left the house without my purse, or any of the things I normally carry with me. All I had in my hand was a pair of black gloves, which I decided would be a perfect addition to my costume.

I also realized that I didn’t give much thought to the top I’d wear with the skirt. I had slipped on a black sleeveless tank, something I’d normally hesitate wearing because I’m self-conscious about my arms. To my surprise, when I looked down, the top looked flattering; apparently hoisting myself up and down the stairs on my bottom, since I can’t walk, had left my arms looking toned. (But let’s not get carried away. They still weren’t Michelle Obama arms.)

You know how they say that at the point in a dream where you die you wake up? I opened my mouth, and that’s when the dream ended. But I woke up singing “Best of my Love,” an old Eagles song. As far as Google and I can tell, Linda Ronstadt never recorded a cover of this, although who’s to say she never sang it? Anyone familiar with her complete discography is invited to correct me if I’m wrong on this.

Here are the themes of my dream as I see them: Album covers and song covers. Singing. Walking. Dressing and appearance. Needing to meet an assignment on deadline. Being blocked, but successfully freeing myself on my own.

Here’s how I interpret the dream. I’m currently working on a full-length book project, which is why I haven’t blogged quite as regularly as I do. For the past week I’ve felt blocked. Writers will understand this: You get so far along in a manuscript, leave it for even a day too long, and find it difficult to clamber back into the world you’ve created. The way I see the dream, I’m hindered in my writing by my fascination with walking after not walking for nearly three months, and by my preoccupation with outward appearances, making me late for an important class. Nevertheless, I persevere and achieve my objective. In the dream, it’s to sing. In real life, it’s to write, which is, let’s face it, a kind of singing.

Why Linda Ronstandt? Well, she’s always been one of my favorite singers, and she’s from my era. Maybe it’s because we share the same coloring. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about her recently released memoir, Simple Dreams, which I’ve added to my wishlist. Ronstadt has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and she’ll eventually be facing mobility issues of her own. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the fact that she can no longer sing. Thank God we have her recordings, but how devastating it must be for her, losing such an enormous, beautiful gift! My inability to walk is temporary. Her inability to sing is permanent.

Before I stop playing the role of Jung in this little game of pop psychology, I want to explore one more thing. Why was “Best of my Love” the song I was supposed to sing in my dream?

I see two meanings here.

First, in order to write you have to give it your all, the best of yourself. Your best self, powered by your love of what you do.

Second, my husband has taken on nearly every household duty since my injury: marketing, errands, cooking, laundry, and seeing that I’m fed and cared for. I get the best of his love every day. (I always have, but these are trying times, and he still comes up loving me.)

For my part, I hope he gets the best of my love, although my physical challenges right now limit the small, domestic actions I perform that show him how much I love him. And then there’s this: Since I’ve been forced to be still for so many weeks, I’ve focused far more on my writing than I have in years. Is there a danger in giving writing the best of my love, when what I want is to give it to him?

I think my dream is telling me that one shouldn’t have to exclude the other. I can give the best of my love to my craft, and to my life partner. It’s all about finding the right balance.

Which, if you think about it, is what’s required in walking.

Good Day, Sunshine!

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Sunshine-AwardAs a writer and blogger living in Northeast Ohio, where the skies are, shall we say, quite frequently sun-challenged, I was gobsmacked to receive a Sunshine Award from one of my favorite bloggers, Lois Alter Mark over at Midlife at the Oasis. Aside from being a terrific writer, Lois has won some impressive awards—she’s this year’s Blogger Idol, don’cha know?—contributes, like me, to the Huffington Post, and (unlike me) went to Australia with Oprah. She’s also one of the nicest, friendliest, funnest bloggers I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. We crossed paths in real life at BlogHer12, where we both won Voice of the Year awards, and took each other’s photo standing next to our names on the big sign.

I’m honored to accept the Sunshine Award from Lois, and not just because I think she’s all that and a bag of chips. I’m in some pretty august company here; several of the bloggers Lois selected are among my favorites, and I hope you’ll visit her page to discover some excellent new blogs to add to your reader.

A few responsibilities go along with accepting this award. (Thank God walking a red carpet isn’t one of them, since I’m still in a plaster cast.) First, I must reveal seven random facts about myself. I can’t imagine what you don’t already know about me after more than two years of blogging, but here, in no particular order, goes:

  1. I must start each morning with a mug of hot lemon water, otherwise I get cranky.
  2. I was the Lebanese-Syrian princess in the International Festival Princess Pageant in Lorain, Ohio, in 1974, the year I graduated from high school.
  3. I performed in plays in high school and, after graduating, in local community theater productions. I wore a blond Gibson Girl wig in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, but made do with my own hair as Babe in Crimes of the Heart.
  4. I know how to twirl a baton.
  5. I’ve tap-danced on stage. I’ve also sung on stage.
  6. I tried to make roasted chestnuts one Christmas and vowed never to do so again. Have you ever tried to peel a chestnut?
  7. I’m happiest when I’m looking into my husband’s eyes.*

MarciRich_LebanesePrincess*Okay. You have to allow me one gushy item—this did start out as a relationship blog, after all.

But wait. There’s more. I have to answer these seven questions:

If you could go back in time ten years and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

You have no idea how happy you’re going to be in ten years.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

Rocky Road, but only if it’s from Mitchell’s in Rocky River, Ohio.

If you were to take me on a date, where would we go and why?


I assume by “you” you mean my husband. (See what I did there?) We would travel to Ireland for him, and Sicily for me, because those are places that hold great meaning for us.

Above all else, what are you afraid of?

Loss.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Speak, read, and write French fluently, play the cello, and spend at least five hours each day writing.

What has been your favorite age to be and why?

Every year since turning 50, because in spite of cancer and fractures and surgeries, that’s when I really came into my own…and when I found the love of my life.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee.

We’re almost done, dear reader. In fact, I think this is the best part. I get to choose 11 blogs that bring sunshine into my life (but I’m going to take a page out of Lois’s playbook and round it up to an even dozen). Suffice to say that many of the blogs on Lois’s list are among my faves, too, and I’m glad to discover some that I somehow missed before. I hope you’ll take my own list, then, in that spirit. Here, in alphabetical order, we go:

A Boomer’s Life After 50

Alexandra Wrote

Ann’s Rants

Dame Nation

Darryle Pollack: I Never Signed up for This

Dating Dementia

Empty House Full Mind

Grown and Flown

Lavender Luz

Midlife Mixtape

The Boomer Rants

Witty Woman Writing

I could go on and on, but since I can’t, please allow me to tell you that there are many other fine writers and bloggers whose work I admire, and you can catch them at three of my favorite sites: Midlife Boulevard, edited by Sharon Hodor Greenthal and Anne Jenkins Parris, the dynamic WHOA! Network, curated by Darryle Pollack and Lynn Forbes, and last but not least, Huff/Post50, edited by Shelley Emling. It’s been my honor to have appeared on their respective bandwidths, and I look forward to many more collaborations in the years to come.

Now go forth and spread some sunshine of your own. And Lois, thanks again!