Friday, June 24, 2016


My husband and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We spent the evening at home over a simple meal of cheese, meat, fruit and crackers and an inexpensive bottle of champagne. We had cheesecake for dessert and watched the 1961 film The Hustler starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason on Netflix.

I was glad to be at home, but it wasn't what I thought I had wanted.

After arranging for a babysitter, I spent the days leading up to our anniversary trying to find the perfect date at the perfect location. It wasn't enough to go out for a nice dinner; what on earth would we talk about that we didn't already discuss at home? Seeing a movie was so ordinary. No, this was our 15th, and I wanted  an exciting celebration. I wanted to dance the night away. Unfortunately, the usual place wasn't open on Thursdays.

I tried to find another, even better location: a place not entirely patronized by single twenty-somethings or by pretentious party-goers who cared only about fashion and status; a venue not too dark, claustrophobic, or bizarre in its design; a DJ who would play music we might actually care to dance to. 

My husband, meanwhile, was researching other options in case dancing didn't work out. He and I got into little arguments as we searched for our celebratory place, growing more frustrated the harder we looked. It seemed neither of us really cared too much for the other's suggestions.

Slowly, as irritation mounted, I began to realize my priorities were all in the wrong place. Because it was our 15th, I didn't believe we could just dress up and have a few drinks and a steak dinner. It wasn't enough to simply be in each other's company. I wanted excitement, motion, electricity, a unique night to remember.

What snapped me out of it? The fact that my youngest daughter passed her stomach bug on to her little brother. As the day drew closer, it began to look less and less likely that the date night would happen.

Instead of feeling disappointed, I was relieved. My expectations had gotten out of hand. I was glad to be free of them, brought back to earth by children clutching their bellies and complaining of cramps. 

Ah, this is what it is all about, I thought. It wasn't about what dress I would wear with what heels, or which venue would cater to our kind of crowd, or whether or not we would eat a fancy dinner and pick up a bottle of Dom Perignon. It was about the family we had made together, and the fact that comforting our sick kiddos was more important than any night out - even on our 15th. 

I thought about my own parents and how outrageous my expectations had become in light of many of their anniversaries.

How many times as a child did I see my parents walk wearily in the front door on the summer evening of their anniversary, hot and tired from a long day working in the humid Tennessee woods! They sat in their old chairs in the living room eating a very ordinary meal, holding hands. Many years, we kids performed a sort of play or sang cute songs while wearing costumes for their amusement beneath a homemade sign that cried, "Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!"

They never complained about the meal or the entertainment all those simple years.

15 is just a number, I realized; a nice rounder one, sure - but just another step on the journey of love. Thankfully, love's journey doesn't require glitz and glamour and expensive treats. The journey is not about increasing expectations year by year. It's about recognizing and appreciating simple pleasures and blessings in your life, holding your children close while they cry or laugh, learning to place the good of those you love above your own good, and about gratitude for the years you've spent together building a family and being in community.

Just being together, it turns out, is more than enough. 

Nerdy girl and her man

Friday, May 20, 2016

Love and Oldies

Oldies music reminds me of my first true love.

My first love is also my latest love: Matthew.

We used to listen to "oldies" all the time while dating: The Guess Who, Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Mamas and the Papas, Chicago, Elvis. The oldies are even older now these more than 15 years later.

I used to sing These Eyes to him in his car or room after we got together...perhaps not the most appropriate song for a budding relationship...and he used to sing The Glory of Love to me over the phone as we managed being more than a thousand miles apart.

Maybe I find myself frequently listening to oldies again because summer is approaching, and that season most of all embodies the tone of music from a bygone, seemingly more carefree age. I associate it with our June wedding and our first months of marriage. But all this nostalgia with its back beats, harmonies, peppy tempos and teenage love homages has me thinking not just about the beginnings of love but about its evolution.

The honeymoon is never over, I believe. Rather, it's seasonal, too - a surprise vacation from the mundane, but one very hard to conjure or manipulate to your desired schedule. When it shows up fickle paradise must be recognized and embraced, clung to. You have to abandon all your hang ups and relinquish them to joy.

This bliss can be recaptured for a few moments when you spy your spouse being adorable, looking cute in his new Adidas soccer gear or realize anew that his smile as it ignites his large eyes is truly winning; it won you. Sometimes if you're lucky it shows up on your anniversary over a bottle of fine champagne. It can even show up when the kids are around, playful but skittish.

Fear never leaves love completely. It sneaks around at its vulnerable borders, a mischievous stalker ready to throw cold water over any situation. It will ruin these little returns of paradise, steal them away greedily, and chip away at trust. Fear would like you to keep your protective distance from your spouse, terrified of being hurt or lied to someday, scared stiff by stories of betrayal from friends and associates. It paints with messy, garish and broad strokes to highlight every imperfection, change and unknown variable as the years progress, as love progresses.

What, after all, is this mature love they speak of?

Sometimes you think Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' song If You Don't Know Me By Now is the most appropriate theme for your 15th anniversary... or 10th...or 20th.

Yet true love is still worth the risk and occasional heartache and irrationality. These eyes of mine still see my man and love him.

All this oldies music for me recalls an era of first dates, first kisses, first sparks, the first time we held hands while on the way to gamble at a horse racing track, and that's a bit of honeymoon recaptured.

That's the glory of love.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Know Thyself

I don't know myself at all. Not one bit. Could somebody introduce us? I'm so elusive, so capricious.

This is a cruel discovery to be made in the middle of my life. I wish I had known it from the beginning. Not sure what I would have done with that knowledge....can be so indecisive.

It took all my precious children abandoning the home front for school and bigger adventures to wake me up in order to recognize the stranger in the mirror.

How do I not know myself? Let me count the ways.

1. I thought I wanted an immaculate house.


Turns out, no. No, I don't. Not nearly bad enough, anyway. I have more time now to pursue and maintain a well-organized and spotless home, but cleaning a house isn't fulfilling in the least. It doesn't bring joy, and, trust me, it never stays that way.

Don't get me wrong. I work hard around here. I do most of the menial jobs including taking out trash, but as my son Berto told me not long ago, "Get a life, Mom." He meant it kindly, but he most certainly did not mean that I should clean more. He was encouraging me to pursue other things entirely, because it already seems to my kids that all I do is clean, clear out and straighten up.

2. I thought I wanted peace and quiet.

Somebody rescue me....from ME!

Turns out that peace and quiet are unsuitable companions if one has a rebellious, disgruntled mind well-endowed with imagination. Peace has left the building. Quiet is a vicious, gnawing rat.

3. I thought I wanted to write a lot more.

Guess what? Shhhhhh. Come closer. Writing is work, too. And it requires you to wear your happy, industrious pants. Well, I blame peace and quiet for stealing my happy pants, so I was too petulant to write much. I barely wrote more this year at all when I think of all the opportunities I should have had if not for my bad temper.

Writing - writing anything as well as I can - gives me a high not unlike a mother feels after giving birth naturally. If I could have just pushed through, ordered my bad moods out of the way, I would have felt much better most of the time.

Will and I need to have a talk about teamwork.

But, hey, I'm writing now.

4. I thought all I wanted to do was stay home.

I have always been a homebody. I remember my sister Vinca visiting me just after I had my oldest daughter Ana. We only had one vehicle then, and if I didn't walk someplace pushing babies in a double stroller, home was sweet. Vinca asked me how I could stand it, but I had never minded.

Even while growing up, my older siblings were out working in the woods with my parents rolling grapevine wreaths, and I was home cleaning. Of course, home back then was on 98 acres of green, rolling land with woods and a creek, so it was greatly prized and smelled like honeysuckle and rich earth.

Home now is a great little place in the city with a fair backyard in which my family plays baseball and soccer games on weekends, but it is not enough anymore when my husband and children are away so much.

I am craving adventure for myself or at least new friends and more exercise. I feel left behind in a special cocoon I have made, and I want to struggle out of it. That means I have to abandon the fear that I will be spending too much money, time, or pleasure on myself. I have to convince myself that I am worth it.

But am I? Yes? Shesh, I sound like such a baby, already so blessed! Perhaps I'll just go and watch It's A Wonderful Life again.

5. I thought I wanted to pluck my eyebrows and dye my hair.

Okay, this one is trivial, but it shows I don't know my own mind even where it comes to my appearance.

I began to "shape" the eyebrows  when I was thirty-five. Now, I'm approaching thirty-seven, and I don't want to anymore. My eyebrows are somewhat unruly, artfully imperfect, but I have decided that each hair is precious. And anyhow, I hate false eyelashes and fake nails, have never yet dyed my hair - though I was tempted not long ago to abandon my lovely chestnut color to go blonde - so why train naturally errant brows?


My children have just two weeks left of school, and now that I have finally realized how aloof I am, I have so little time to try and forge an acquaintance with me. Perhaps I should make a bucket list of sorts: 10 team-building activities Hillary wants to do with herself before her children get out of school. There's still time for adventure surely.

Next year, believe me, I am going to have a game plan. I'm not going to enter into blind solitude again. I'm going to learn to flamenco dance or take guitar lessons so I can play in local coffee shops. I'm going to get involved with some creative group of people, find my fellow crazies.

And I am - I truly am - going to write a lot more. This I know for sure about myself: it would do my heart good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Berto, soccer star and writer

I have felt sad now for a while and for many different reasons, some profound and some illusory.

Yes, I know that's a brilliant beginning.

At any rate last week was a rough week and so I didn't write one bit. A successful writer once said that a writer can't help but write - especially when depressed. But I find that is not so with me. I avoid it, in a slump. Perhaps the fact that I didn't have a play date with words made me sadder than I had to be, though. I think it very probable.

The definite highlight of that week was an evening spent with my son Berto, watching his school soccer game during which he scored his first goal of the season with an assist from his friend Danny. Danny was taking a penalty shot, and Berto saw an opportunity and begged, whispering and gesturing, for Danny to pass it back to him. Being a good friend and teammate, Danny did, and Berto made a beautiful shot high in the goal over the wall of opposing players.

We went out to dinner afterwards, just my son and I. Of course, it was semi-fast food, but what a treat for us to spend an evening together.

Then I had the honor of taking him to an awards ceremony for narrative, poetry and essay writing in his school district. Berto won first prize for essay in 7th grade. I was so thrilled to see his name on the first line in the program that I kept grinning and embracing him until he whispered, "Mom, I have friends here."

When he was called up to receive his ribbon, certificate, and the commemorative anthology of featured writing, I could have kicked myself for forgetting to bring a camera. (Only for the thousandth time in my life, such is my technology handicap and prejudice that I cannot even recall it's there for my use!) I hadn't even thought to ask for his Dad's smartphone, so like an un-evolved ape, I held up my son's simple phone but couldn't figure out how to snap a shot, and so had to nod my head stupidly to imply I captured the moment when in fact I caught it with nothing but my poor faulty eyes and brain. Only later did Berto explain that his basic phone was not a touchscreen.

We were going to sneak out after the essay portion since it was a school night, but I decided against it and explained to Berto that I thought we should stay to support and applaud all the writers. It gave me a thrill to see these young writers walk across the stage, to see the expression of their different personalities - some in heels with coiffed hair, some in bow ties and dress slacks, some still supporting the grunge scene, it seemed - and to hear their different writing voices.

The parents were asked to stand up at the end, so that their support and nurturing of these young creative people could be recognized. I shook my fists in the air like a prize fighter until Berto knocked them down. But, hey, even in his Mother's Day card he recognized me as his editor.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Family Reunion

We took a trip to Dallas in March, because my brother Nate was coming from England. I had yet to meet his twin baby boys, so I told my husband how strongly I felt about our family spending time with Nate's family, my sister Annie's family and my parents. I wanted Matthew to get to know Natie better, and I wanted my children to finally meet some of their cousins and to get to know cousins whom they had not seen in years.

Any time we travel to see family, I come home and mean to write about it, but then I don't. I feel incapable of writing down these memories well, and so the weeks go by.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I want to capture a portion of what our reunion meant to me, so I'm letting go of the pressure to be perfect and elegant while reminiscing.

Though we spent practically the whole time in my parents' small apartment - our whole big family packed in, drinking and eating together - very special moments happened.

* I heard Mom telling my sister-in-law Natalie about her childhood, sharing stories of time on her grandmother's farm peeling potatoes and feeding chickens, and Natalie was sitting by my mother's chair, wine glass in hand, listening intently.

* I got to change poopy diapers, rock babies to sleep, and feed them cereal for the first time in years. My brother Nate's twin boys Daniel and Antony were magnetic, sources of pretty much constant joy, entertainment, and challenges. Daniel seemed like the calmer one, but my kids swear that he stole toys and flayed his limbs just to rile his brother. Antony was a passionate and energetic little fellar who made us feel important when he begged for exercise, entertainment or consolation. My children volunteered eagerly to hold their cousins, passing them around with pride, kissing and smelling their heads (fountains of youth, Berto said). My mom soothed her grandbabies to sleep several times with a magic touch.

* My sister Annie spoiled everyone with bagels each morning like a bagel Santa Claus in scrubs, dropping boxes of exotic flavors off before beginning her busy days as an in-home-care nurse. Then most evenings ended with Annie, her husband Keith, Matthew and me sitting on her patio, laughing and sharing stories and exchanging advice.

* My brother Nate played soccer with my husband and kids on the apartment complex's tennis court. Needless to say, there were bloody injuries, and I wasn't allowed to play in my heels though I wanted to, but it was a joy to watch my husband and kids playing a competitive game with my big brother, laughing and talking smack. (Did I mention Nate lives in England? I don't get to see these games just any old year. It was like the World Cup)

* My nephew Andy and my daughter Gabriella hung out for the first time since they were babies, playing video games and eating regular meals on the patio.

* My nephew James, who has autism, sat down with and hugged my son Berto.

* My little golden-haired niece Nina played for the very first time with my own children: giggling, running and crawling on their backs, especially Berto's, and speaking with her absolutely charming British accent that my children tried in vain to imitate. Even simple phrases were special when Nina pronounced them with posh delivery!

* The grownups took turns making big family meals: delectable roast chicken, spicy, satisfying gumbo, spaghetti with meat sauce. My brother Natie was the chef more than anyone, including providing the last breakfast together before my family had to catch our flight. The prawns he sauteed one afternoon are something I won't soon forget.

* My son Berto went golfing with his dad and Uncle Nate. The pride on his face while listening to Matthew and Nate tell of how well he did as a first-time golfer, and his excitement while telling his own stories of the green, warmed my mother's heart. I saw him stow away the scorecard for a souvenir.

* Dad, aka Paca, cheered on his grandchildren as they played polar bear bowling on his computer. I'm not a fan of video games, but I was a fan of the time, guidance and regular encouragement my dad gave to his grandkids as he watched them play, showering accolades on them for guiding a chubby polar bear on an inner tube into pins. It was awesome.

* Dad gave me a few chapters of his new fantasy book to read ( send me more, please!) and discussed ideas for my own book. He also invited me with him to the store, and on the way there we had a conversation about some challenges I've been facing recently. It was a good conversation, and I have a sneaking suspicion Dad invited me to come with him just so we could have it.

* On our last day Dad played tennis with Daniel and Gabriella even though he wasn't feeling well, and the cousins blew bubbles on the court - even Berto - while Annie, Natalie and I talked one last time.

At the Dallas airport waiting for our flight later that afternoon, my oldest daughter Ana and I were bereft. I missed my brother and sisters, Mom, Dad, niece and all my nephews, but I really, really wanted more time with the babies. When we get to see my brother's twin boys again, they will probably be far from babyhood.

So Ana and I wandered around arm in arm, talking about "da Babies" as we called them. Ana said she missed her "fussy Antony". I had no favorites; I just wanted to hold each of them again!

Men can easily get over the absence of babies' company, apparently. Even though Matthew and especially Berto had held them a lot, they seemed to be alright after being torn from their presence. But our hearts were broken.

A couple of women heard Ana and I talking about the twins and caught Ana saying, "Mama, it's time to ask Papa to adopt a baby."

"Get a puppy," one of the women, dressed nicely in business attire, said to us.

"We have one!" I replied, laughing.

Much later my littlest, Daniel, told me he was praying for me to have another baby. He also had been delighted by the company of his baby cousins.

But another little one in our family? "It would be a miracle," I told him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mid-thirties crisis

I’m going through a mid-thirties crisis.

My youngest child left me for kindergarten, my oldest started middle school, and my husband got two promotions in as many years.

I’ve been left behind, in a special limbo that belongs to stay-at-home mothers. Here I am with only the dog, the insuperable laundry and my confused thoughts for company, my ambitions littered about the floor with the dirty socks and the junk mail.

When my son bravely left home for the tot lot, he took my excuses and, it would seem, my purpose in life with him. Since that sad day I’ve been contemplating all the basic skills I haven’t yet mastered at thirty-six years of age.

Take cooking, for instance. My family has eaten the same rotating meals for the last decade, supplemented with five-dollar pizzas and frozen chicken nuggets. If they’re lucky, I introduce a new meal (usually featuring ground beef and starch) once a year.  

As if I didn’t have enough guilt over this, my husband has taken to watching Master Chef Junior, causing me to be depressed because I can’t smoke mussels, flambĂ© a dessert or infuse poultry like nine-year-olds. I probably couldn’t win Master Chef Baby against a bunch of cranky infants throwing pureed vegetables and cheerios together on a high chair before naptime.

And my home? It still looks like Vikings attacked and pillaged; wild animals reclaimed the land; and I hired preschoolers with ADD to decorate. 

There are more modern skills I lack, too. I don’t know how to “pin”. When I take a selfie, I look like I have a horse face: prominent nose, wide jaw, tiny ears. I can’t express myself well in 140 characters, and while on Facebook I’m overwhelmed with regrets that I didn’t take cuter pictures of my kids to garner the  likes they deserve.

Perhaps most tragic of all, I don’t even know how to zumba like all my friends. I’m not even totally clear on what “Zumba” is. Spell check seems to think it’s a cross between the rumba and a zombie, or perhaps a zombie doing the samba…

And I’d really like to say that this crisis is not one bit about aging, but more and more these past few years I’m coming face to face in the mirror with my nemesis:  unsightly girl. She shows up whenever I am sleep-deprived or having a messy cry or experiencing bad lighting. I’ve had to invest in expensive makeup, face creams, vitamins and quality shampoos just to bribe her to stay away. What’s next? Monthly manicures?  Botox? Laser vein treatment? I’m like the two-faced girl in that Seinfield episode “The Strike” who appears pretty or hideous depending on the shadows.

I mean if I could at least look like I have it together! Alas, my slender brows refuse to be groomed into lush perfection, and I can’t put my hair up without the aid of a scrunchy. I also blithely wasted years of my life not realizing that there were proper techniques for applying makeup, including such a thing as blending. Instead of a chic smoky eye with vintage red lip, I’m the wrinkly raccoon with two lazy eyes that got into the Kool-Aid.

Thankfully, my husband and four kids have been very supportive in my crisis. They assure me that I’m youngish, pretty and successful with coupons. That I might be a famous writer before I die. That I could join Pinterest and actually learn how to make Fettuccine Alfredo or smoke mussels.
I think I’ll listen to them while there’s still time.

My mid-life crisis could be just around the corner. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop

Hello, strangers.

I say strangers, because I took an unplanned sabbatical last week while working through a little depression. 

Actually, it was more like a sharp descent into a steep, lonely canyon where I tended sheep and sang plaintive cowboy songs to myself in order to retain sanity, because the sheep weren't talking.

That whole steep-walled canyon wandering began when I returned from the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop all high on inspiration and then looked at this blog the next day and saw how few people actually read my stuff. 


Stats are the devil.

I was so exhausted the Sunday I flew home that I didn't discover I was truly home until the next day when I realized I had no clue whether the kids had food for lunch, clothes to wear to school, or where my own comfy sandals could be found. I had to wear high heels to drop them off.

My intention was to write about the conference right away, believe me. And I would like to say that I learned a lot while there, and I did - if one is talking about learning to laugh continuously for three straight days. There were so many stand-up comedians and humor writers leading the sessions - Alan Zweibel (an original Saturday Night Live writer), Wendy Liebman, Kathy Kinney (Mimi from The Drew Carey Show), Gina Barreca, Elaine Ambrose - that I only got a break from working out my abs through laughter when it was time to eat. I laughed and then ate to build up strength for more hilarity, laughed and ate. By Saturday night, the last of the conference, I was clutching my belly during Leighann Lord's brilliant keynote and exclaiming to my new friends Jeanine and Lou, "I can't laugh anymore! It hurts!"

You know I must have had a great time watching and listening to all those comedy pros, because when my husband came to bed Sunday night, startling me awake, I sat up and demanded, "Who's on stage?"

Like every message in life, what I heard at this workshop about the creative process, particularly the comic creative process, was not new, but it was said in an engaging and often hilarious way. It was, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert points out in her book Big Magic, authentic. So what did I hear? Important stuff. How do I know? Because I have heard it from many successful and diligent people before.

Just write - every day. A writer writes! "If you're a writer, you can't help writing - especially when you're depressed!" - Amy Ephron 

Writing is a lonely process. Collaborate when you can. Get together with other writers.

Success is in creating what wasn't there before, in the completion of the work. "As a writer what you remember is not the product but the process." - Alan Zweibel. Once your work leaves you, "it's in the hands of other gods", as Zweibel said. You can't predict the response once you put it out there. As Wendy Liebman said, all you can control is the jokes, how you present yourself, how you feel and how prepared you are.

Persevere, follow your passion, be prepared for your big break. Have whatever your 1100 jokes are. (When Lorne Michaels asked Zweibel for an example of his work, Zweibel handed him a book of 1100 jokes.)

Books are written a sentence at a time. According to Zweibel who wrote a book with Dave Barry, by the 20th page your characters will start telling you what they want to do and say.

"Comedy comes from the same place as pain, touch your soul," says Zweibel. Pain breeds humor. "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt." - Erma Bombeck.  Humor is redemptive, makes stories ours, something we can control, Gina Barreca pointed out.

Be specific.

"Every story you tell has the same message." - Judy Carter, author of The Comedy Bible. You're saying it the way only you can say it.

Connect with others to get feedback and support. Have "agenda-free" friends. Friendships are work, too. Work at them; it's worth it.

How would I sum up what I took from the conference? Joy, the kind you find in a community, your tribe. Sure, there were some moments when I took risks that didn't work out, like reading one of my pieces in front of a workshop and hearing crickets instead of laughter, then sitting there with a dumb smile on my face while others found kind things to say about my story. Or telling Judy Carter, who has had a very successful career in comedy and has written several successful books on the subject, on the shuttle back to the hotel that she has "a gift". Well, I never have been intimidated by fame or felt that my lack of it should keep me from complimenting a talented speaker!

At any rate, I learned from this grand experience at Erma Bombeck's alma mater, The University of Dayton, that I need to find a tribe of creative types here at home in Arizona, because the energy I feel and absorb while around other writers is powerful and fortifying. With all my heart I thank every speaker, presenter, faculty member, comedian and fellow attendee who made the 2016 workshop so magical. A special thank you to Teri Rizvi who founded it and who supports many writers' efforts through its website,

And thank you to my husband Matthew who at this juncture in my journey is the one who pays me to write and who paid my way to this amazing conference without complaining even once about the cost or inconvenience.

I can't wait for Erma 2018!