On a recent vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho, I stumbled upon Alexander Maksik’s debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, in a local bookstore, Iconoclast, read the first page and fell in love. This is going to be great, I said. This guy knows what he’s doing. The previous summer, I taught a class at Stanford, Making the Great Debut, and wish I could have taught this book as an example of how great a debut novel should be: composed of an engaging world, compelling characters and stunning writing. Not easy, folks. This writer is a gifted artist.
I read the book in two days (it’s like a Camus-esque Catcher in the Rye meets “Dead Poets Society,” and I apologize if the hybridization offends the author or others, but I mean it as the highest compliment). The writing is exquisite and minimalist. The tension acute. You can’t help but fly through the book then want to read it again; that is if you can appreciate the author’s courage to explore some risqué territory. Some reviews have scoffed at this blend, deeming the plot derivative; but it’s hard work to make any character multi-dimensional—and memorable, long after the story ends. In this case, the author excels at telling the same story through three distinct and compelling view points, a teacher, his lover and his student.
I had the fortuitous experience of meeting the author at a reading in the public library later that week. I can tell you Alexander Maksik is a man blessed with eloquence on and off the page. He’s one of the rare authors who can read with the panache of an actor. He’s charming, self-effacing, and will make you laugh. But what I love most? Maksik is as real and authentic in person as the stories he writes. We can admire this debut novelist for his courage to stay true to himself and his work.
Maksik’s candid talk in Ketchum could inspire many writers to keep going despite the often harrowing road to publishing. His personal story around his first novel is one that reminds us that getting our books out there requires as much pavement pounding as it does faith. You have to believe in your work, despite the rejections.
Maksik was unavailable for a Q&A so I am cobbling together the story here with only the recollection of what he said at the Sun Valley library the evening of August 25, 2011. I will paraphrase and summarize to the best of my ability, and apologize to my readers for not having direct quotes. To read formal press coverage, click here.
Want to get published? Persevere.
Maksik, 38, the recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching/Writing fellowship from the Iowa Writers Workshop, clearly knows that the path to publishing takes perseverance. He mentioned enduring seventy-something rejections while he searched for an agent and a publisher. Most people would have given up much earlier. I don’t know what kept him going, but I suspect Maksik draws from some deep reservoir of faith in his work and refuses to allow the word ‘submission’ to have too much power over his process or his psyche.
Rejection after rejection, he continued to submit the manuscript, then just when he was riding a wave of depression, he received an email at the 11th hour. The kind of email that makes you blink and rub your eyes. Eric Simonoff, the highly respected literary agent with Pulitzer Prize winning clients, wanted to represent him.
He recalled the excitement and sheer disbelief of reading Simonoff’s offer. After all those rejections, he lands one of the most legendary agents in the industry. That was a good day. “I thought I was going to be the next Jonathan Franzen,” he said to an audience of adoring fans in his native Sun Valley, many of whom were friends with his parents, the co-founders of the annual Sun Valley Writers Conference. He then went on to joke how he imagined “buying an apartment in Paris” with the publishing advance; however, the advance did not come quickly. Maksik endured yet another round of rejections until he was discovered by Europa editions.
Unlike the fictional Parisian apartment depicted in his novel, he might just have the real deal some day. Last week, his book was favorably reviewed in the New York Times (9/13). A herculean feat for a debut novel first released in paperback. His publisher Tonga Books, curated by Alice Sebold, is part of Europa editions and what appears to be a wise team who are changing the game in publishing. Europa clearly made a wise decision to release this in paperback—no way around it, it’s a book club book and most book clubs don’t purchase hardcover books. Even more are buying e-books, which makes Maksik’s first book, as a paperback, the new norm.
It’s exciting. I wish I had been able to hear more about working with an author-curated publisher. Maksik did say, and has said in other interviews, how much he appreciated Alice Sebold’s (author of The Lovely Bones) encouragement. Apparently, she was adamant about keeping the ending of You Deserve Nothing. It’s not happy. It’s not sad. It’s the rare, real bittersweet ending that is so reflective of every day life. Even though the story is considered morally ambiguous by some critics, Maksik deftly manages to answer the bigger narrative questions he raises about the fate of each character. Each has a full and complete arc, which is perhaps more satisfying to most readers than pronouncing a judgement on the characters’ actions and behavior.
The book is about many things, but shaped around depression. Maksik remarked how he, too, suffered a bout of depression while he was immersed in the world of his novel and writing it in Paris. I wanted to ask him if he believed writing was a way to heal, but I don’t have to ask. He manages to weave a narrative of three separate view points, all of which allude to varying degrees of depression, or simply the disappointments with what is expected and what is found in life. You can’t do that without understanding those disappointments first-hand. They are not imagined. They are deeply felt and the emotional intensity he creates is one of the experiences I loved about the book.
I wasn’t just reading internal monologues. I could feel the pain and longing of each character, which I imagine springs, in part, from the author’s own experience and keen observations about the human condition. Maksik has made it his business to expose the light and the dark. The good and bad. The complexities of being human and the consequence of power. He has a wonderful gift to share with us. May there be more. Much more, Mr. Maksik. And may it stay edgy and honest and beautiful.
Perhaps in the end, the teacher character, Will, would have responded less to Camus and more to Rumi who said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” For any writer who’s been in the trenches of publishing a first novel, I hope you recall Alexander Maksik’s story and remember that like him, if you stay true to your story, and true to yourself, you deserve everything that comes to support you.
Cariwyl Hebert is putting the cool back into classical music and is changing the way people listen to it. If you’re lucky enough to attend Salon97, her monthly listening parties in San Francisco, she’ll give you a cupcake and a glass of wine. This month, she offered hot dogs and root beer floats, instead, for a special program dedicated to celebrating American composers.
Root beer floats and classical music? Yes. Salon97 is serious only in that it is seriously fun. Cariwyl encouraged “incessant flag-waving” for this particular event. I took her word and wore my most comfortable pair of blue jeans, frayed Lucky’s, and flip-flops. I could do patriotic. I like good hot dogs. I love root beer floats. But could I do classical music and stay comfortable?
One Rule: Fun beats Formality
“Wine helps,” Cariwyl said about how she’s been helping to make this approachable to people like me, those of us intimidated by anything “classic” that isn’t referring to a John Hughes film.
I’d never been to a listening salon and found myself both nervous and eager to attend last week’s annual party in July. Why the focus on American composers? “Because American composers are amazing and too many people don’t know it yet,” Cariwyl explained.As much as Cariwyl assured me I didn’t need to know a thing about classical music to enjoy myself at Salon97, I wondered about the crowd and worried.
My mind ran amok. Do 97ers stand around stiffly discussing the choices of musical symbolism? Was it like a wine tasting where I’d be encouraged to identify Chopin-inspired ditties? Could I even use a word like ditty around classical music aficionados? Whoa, was all I could think.
Discussions Made Easy
So yes, of course, I was intimidated, even though I can honestly say I’m not the 97 percent of people who don’t yet listen to classical music. I actually love it. I listen to it a lot, most often in the car. It keeps me calm on the road, helps me focus when I’m cooking. I played it all the time when I was pregnant with the hope that my baby might be better than me at math, as if classical music has the power to trip genetics. Who knows? It ignited a love affair with Einaudi recently.
Though I like classical music, I have zero confidence in my ability to discuss what I’m hearing. The closest articulation is about classical film soundtracks that actually help when I write, and I’ve looped a song for as long as eight hours to work on a particular scene. Surely I had the stamina to last through Cariwyl’s three selections—and stay through dessert.
The fact that I found parking across the street of the venue was an omen of good things. Cariwyl scored with her host, Murrey, a friend who generously offered her classic Victorian house to 26 strangers, all for the benefit of spreading the love of music neglected and misunderstood by the general population for too long. It was time to join Cariwyl’s mission, to listen up and take heart.
Diverse Audience & Musical Tastes
We crowded the chairs and floor of Murrey’s front parlor, an antique showcase, perfect for listening to the works of American composers John Adams, Virgil Thomson, and George Gershwin. The format was simple and straightforward: introduction, listening, discussion. Coughing was encouraged along with flag waving and breaks for more wine and cheese.
Cariwyl started the salon with “Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra” performed by: San Francisco Symphony, directed by Edo de Waart, composed by John Adams, a Berkeley based musician. “John Adams gave me tendinitis!” Mike Williams confessed to the crowd. Apparently, he was a fabulous flutist who Cariwyl met at San Francisco Music Conservatory.
I was eager to hear John Adams’ piece, but terrified to discuss it now that someone among us was a professional musician. I cowered in the corner hoping nobody would call on me. I had mixed my patriotism with a big dose of paranoia. This was a party. Not a blue book exam. There would be no tests involved. Only taste tests.
I sat, listened and waited. Hands shot up. The crowd spoke. I took notes, astonished to hear words like “really fun” “amazing” “spectacular” “purely American” “classical and melodic at the same time, with a lush melodic middle.” I was relieved. Someone had spoken about John Adams’ piece as if it was an ice cream sandwich. I could relate to that. I was feeling warmed up. My own internal commentary had included some of the same words. Could I actually participate here?
Apparently Cariwyl had chosen the John Adams’ piece because she wanted to feature someone local. “It jumped out at me. I wanted someone who would grab your ear. This is sort of crowd-pleaser-ish,” she said and smiled with a glimmer in her eye that says, trust me, this is really fun.
Sharing the Love Nationwide
Cariwyl has brought Salon97 to backyard patios, museums and libraries in San Francisco, and July 26, she travels across the country to WQXR in New York City, the country’s largest classical music station. To say she is elated is a gross understatement. She knows what she’s doing. She knows how to please a crowd with classical music. Listen up South by Southwest. There’s room and reverence among the hip for classical music out there.
Adams grabbed my ear and pleased me. I was bouncing my flip flops along with the catchy music but the jury was out for my ability to articulate the experience. I’d get two more tries. Next up: “At the Beach” by Virgil Thomson performed by: Yvar Mikhashoff, piano; David Kuehn, trumpet.
Cariwyl’s introduction to Virgil Thomson peppered us with compelling trivia. Thomson’s film score for “Louisiana Story” was the only film score to win a Pulitzer Prize. “Makes you want to go out and see the film!” said someone sitting cross-legged on the floor. Yes, I was excited to update my Netflix queue, too, but my internal dialogue was processing the fact that there is a Pulitzer Prize for musical compositions. A Pulitzer? My God, was a complete rube or what?
Invitation to Discover
Apparently, Cariwyl was testing all of us and the discussion heated up. Some people laughed during Thomson’s piece. The music was funny and playful, but that’s about all I could safely say.
Some people found it odd that the piano and trumpet were paired together and not called jazz. A few zingers whizzed around the parlor, smacking us with sheer candidness. “Modern version of chamber music” “boring and weird” “simple piece—not a lot of virtuosity” “what about the high note at the end?” (laughter) “felt like an adolescent boy with his music teacher” (referring to the “antagonist” trumpet and “protagonist” piano part). This was no ice cream sandwich.
Even Cariwyl freely admitted, “Would I wake up and say I’d listen to “At the Beach”? No.” But in her admission, I felt strangely at ease, both inspired and humbled by the impassioned discussion.
Here I was with a group of people who had never heard this music. We were suddenly related, each of us willing to push our comfort zones, engage with strangers and expand our minds.
Simply put, we were learning something new. And we were having fun doing it, hot dog in hand.
Someone even mentioned “counterpoint,” referring to how two more lines of music relate when played together. Examples cited were Bach and Gregorian chants. Apparently there was a lot of counterpoint going in Virgil Thomson’s piece and it stirred up the ranters in the room. Fun.
The last piece trigged the most frequent flag waving, toe tapping and you-know-what kind of grins. Talk about a crowd pleaser. Cariwyl wisely chose George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” performed by: Jon Nakamatsu, piano; Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Jeff Tyzik.
Passion meets Purpose
I had no idea that George Gershwin died so young, at 38 from a brain tumor. He had just arrived in Hollywood with his brother to score films. His whole life was in front of him and he had so much more music inside him. We listened with awe, reverence and joy. Cariwyl took a seat on the floor, beaming, completely absorbed in her element and sharing her greatest love.
You can guess the reaction of the crowd to “Rhapsody in Blue.” Unanimously positive. “Yay” “Such an iconic cornerstone piece.” “Fantasia image struck in my head.” “Damn United.” (referring to the airline’s musical theme) “Embodies New York.” “Piano composer of all time.”
One person said it was the first time they had heard the piece in its entirety in years, as it was for most of the 97ers that night. He was visibly touched and that meant a lot to Cariwyl. “I love when I see the light bulb go off in listeners,” she told me weeks ago over lunch.
As we sat there and the music washed over us, as Gershwin’s pieces have the power to do, especially “Rhapsody in Blue,” it struck me how meditative listening to music can be, how much more I want to sit down and listen to music that I don’t normally put on my I-Pod. By the end of the night, I developed a relationship with each of these pieces and yes, I’d say it was intimate.
I swear my heart rate had dropped in the 90 minutes I’d been in that room. I felt calm, at ease, peaceful. Was this musical yoga? Something was happening at Salon97 to enrich the community. Cariwyl Hebert was bringing a little levity and happiness to others one classical piece at a time.
To learn more about Salon97 and maybe even participate, click here: Salon97.
I know a lot of fathers with special connections with their children and asked them if they would share a few words for Father’s Day. If you have a tradition you’d like me to add to this post, please let me know. If you’re dad out there, enjoy your special day.
I was the guy who waited forever to have a you.I was the guy who did whatever, whenever and however long he wanted to. I didn’t have a care in the world, but what I wanted. I thought that was really living. Almost three years ago, you changed all that—you ended the selfish. Now, you’re all I do—all the time. You are better than a lifetime of Christmases. It shouldn’t be called Father’s day, since I really don’t deserve anything. To me, it’s Cale Day since you warrant it all.
Happy Cale Day, Calebird!
Doug Heikkinen, Portland, OR
One tradition I have with my kids, nine-year-old boy/girl twins, Nico and Devi, is to tell stories during our 20-minute walk to school. We have about five or six sequel themes we draw from, all are made up, and any given story might last a couple weeks or a month. The kids love it. I love it. If I’m drawing a blank, I steal shamelessly from movies or books — because once 8 a.m. comes every morning when we hit the sidewalk, I need content!
I weave in life experiences I think are important for them to consider, classic good versus evil (they actually *insist* on having bad guys, and let me know when I’ve failed in the depth of his/her evil nature), our inner divinity (even the bad guys), and so on. Our most recent one was “Sarah The Squirrel.” Sarah has a ton of relatives. They live in our backyard (so we are sometimes in the story). The plot usually revolves around her younger brother Billy, who loves appliances — sneaks into homes, steals stuff (like one time, our green blender). The ‘bad guys’ featured foxes, Vinnie and Vito, but the last story involved a new neighbor animal-hating kid ‘Bozic’, who Billy tries to shoot with a stolen gun. Morris the Gopher (who lives four doors down from our house) saves the day and Bozic survives and turns good in the end. Telling these stories pushes me to be creative every day and together, we explore the vast domains of adventure, emotion, conflict and resolution. What’s great is that I see my kids do the same in their own art and fantasy.
At first, it was just fun but then there was the period where the storytelling felt like duty, “Shoot. They’re going to want a story in ten- minutes. I’m empty!” Now, it is totally blessing. We journey together, deeply, in these moments. Some days, even when we’ve maxed out the suspense and arrive at the playground, I finish a sentence and they want a little more.
Edward Garnero, Tuscon, AZ
As the father of two daughters,it is incumbent upon me to teach the girls how to (a) throw and catch properly (b) make a pizza and a salad dressing from scratch, and (c) be a good companion on a walk with your dad, all of which are evolving traditions in our house. The throwing and catching gets better each year as the girls develop a nice 3/4 delivery and are able to catch various types of balls. Pizza-making evolves and becomes more elaborate each year as we perfect our technique and make a bigger mess of the kitchen. The walks take place around the neighborhood and get more interesting as we go and the girls grow.
Jim Migdal, Palo Alto, CA
Each morning, I share a few rituals with my daughter Gracelyn Rose of 14 months, who loves to wake up early. Maybe a little too early for my wishes, but we make the best of it! If it’s a “Water the Plants Day”, I strap on the Bjorn, strap on Gracelyn and her fascination with plants, dirt, bugs, birdies and water begins. Excitation is generally signified by an outstretched hand coupled with a monkey like mew…eeeeEEERRHHH! After that it’s back inside and time for oatmeal, but my favorite part of the morning is dancing with her. We hook up the I-Pod and she bounces up and down with excitation and wildly pushes the buttons…and bits of Vivaldi, Afrobeat, Motown, and a podcast here and there randomly staccato out of the speakers. I scoop her into my arms, dial up some Motown, and start counting the beat while I dance around the living room with her in my arms. I remember when music filled our household growing up and I want my daughter to feel the joy and resonance of melody and rhythm, too. I think she’s slowly learning the subtle ‘head nod’ or that is my projection. You go, Gracelyn! I put her down, she holds up her arms for one more dance and every once in awhile, more often than not, tears well up in my eyes from the sweetness of it all.
Daniel Weaver, Mill Valley, CA
I love spending one-on-one time with the boys as ‘Pirate Tom’. One tradition we have is bed time stories. Not the kind you read, but making them up on the fly, like Captain Jack setting sail from San Francisco looking for treasure around the world. His sailboat crew includes his dog Lucy, Pete the Parrot, and in the water, his friends Willy the Whale and Monty the Manta Ray. Sharing these stories is a great way for us to connect and just be in the moment, while our imaginations run wild. The boys remember every word and even catch me when I retelling a story from a month old.
Tom Croley, Mill Valley, CA
My daughters, Madison (9) and Ava (5), and I enjoy riding our bikes after dinner or on weekend mornings. Ava rides tandem with me on a “trail-along” bike and she is able to pedal and thankfully contribute to climbing hills. We ride around five miles and usually stop halfway at our town park for some fun on the swings or slides. When it’s really hot, we will ride to a local ice cream shop for a treat or finish up at our neighborhood pool for a refreshing swim. When our timing is just right, we sometimes ride along the community green-path trails and catch the spray from water sprinklers to cool us off and leaving us laughing as we speed through the make-shift bike wash. The girls love the outdoor adventures on their bikes and I love combining quality time and exercise with them. And yes, I also like the occasional ice cream.
Mike Payne, Keller, TX
Meet The Moment
It takes a miracle to bring any baby into the world. Factor in the decision to conceive and give birth as a single mother and even the greatest skeptic might believe in magic. The birth of Catherine Kira Kearn*, who arrived April 11, 2011, is proof.
Eight weeks later, her mother, Dianna Kearn*, has emerged from the postpartum blur and is facing the reality of her situation. She is a mother. She has a daughter, and a sweet dog Cash. They are a family and she is their life-line, their everything.
And she is doing this alone. At 40. Statistics aside, this is remarkable. Log the sleep deprivation, the 1000 calorie burning days (from breastfeeding), the constant running on adrenaline and you’d think my friend is a professional Eco Challenge athlete. The comparison is not outrageous. A few years before Dianna chose the ultimate challenge of motherhood, she started to train for marathons. She traveled around the world solo. She moved from her comfort zone in LA to start a new job and a new life in Northern California. She wanted to challenge herself and change the focus of her life.
In the summer of 2009, one year before she turned 40, Dianna started to think about becoming a mother, though she told no one of her plan. “I knew 40 was a big birthday but it didn’t freak me out. It just made me take stock. I didn’t feel behind,” she said this week on a rare call between two hour feedings with baby Catherine. “But I knew it was time — even though the media tells us we can get pregnant at 57 these days. They’re not telling us that we’ll be spending tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments.”
While Dianna held an established career in the film industry, she wasn’t in the position to wait any longer. She wasn’t dating at the time or waiting for Mr. Right. Using IUI – Intrauterine Insemination was the most viable option for her when she moved forward with the plan to get pregnant in 2010.
“I was unbelievably grateful to have turned 40 in 2010 and be living in California where there are so many acceptable versions of what it means to be a family,” she said, even though the picture of her becoming a mother wasn’t exactly what she envisioned. “Is the way I wanted to do it? No. But I never imagined not becoming a mother.”
Anyone who knows Dianna knows motherhood is wired in her DNA. She made all her friend’s children the envy of each other – each vying to have ‘Dianna’ as their exclusive special friend, a role she created to nurture these children as they grew up. She even created a long-distance book club with her Goddaughter Molly on the East Coast.
She had no doubt she would find a supportive West Coast community; however, she was uncertain as to how her family would react. Her parents lived in South Carolina and came from very traditional East Coast roots. “There are born again Christians, Catholics and Conservative Republicans in my family. I was the outlier,” she said, “Living in LA and working in the film industry. It made me really empathize with my gay friends who came out because I had to say to my own family, look, this is who I am and I hope you are okay with it.”
Her family was the first to surprise her with their support. Her employer was second. Both wanted to help Dianna make this happen. She didn’t need to convince anyone that if there was a woman in the world who would make an outstanding mother it was her.
More proof of that: Dianna’s the only person I know who was given four baby showers – two on the East Coast and two on the West Coast. Her film industry colleagues put together a book called Eat Love Poop, the result of a friendly conspiracy where her friends contributed motherhood wisdom and photos with their own babies, in response to Dianna’s many questions that kept her awake at night during her pregnancy.
So how did this all happen? First Dianna, as usual, vetted the best fertility specialists. Her choices came down to Stanford and the Fertility Specialists of Northern California. She chose the later for their warm bedside manner and genuine, heartfelt interest in her story: why she wanted to become a mother, at 40, on her own. They listened fully and supported her.
Once she felt safe with the fertility specialists, she searched for a sperm donor. I won’t go into details here because it’s a separate story, too precious to share in public. But I will say when I heard about the match, I cried. It was so perfect, to the point you get chills thinking maybe there is more to all of this. Maybe, just maybe women like Dianna are not alone when thoughtful men help them realize their dream.
She waited until the spring of 2010 to get started, seeing no chance of a pregnancy during her sister’s upcoming wedding and her 40th birthday in July. She would either get lucky on the first try in May, or wait until later. But after the first IUI didn’t work, she realized how badly she wanted to have a baby. “I was desperate,” she recalls.
Panicked, she immediately scheduled another appointment with the fertility specialist the next week, begging for fertility drugs, anything that would make the pregnancy happen. The doctor gently advised against taking the fertility drugs, which increase the chance of multiples by 10 percent. “She told me, ‘You have to consider the reality of what multiples would mean, even for a couple. And it’s only you. That’s a lot of work.”
In the meanwhile, she was referred to group counseling for women also facing fertility issues. She went to three classes and quit. “It was too stressful. I couldn’t stay in a room and listen to all the reasons why it wasn’t going to work. I wouldn’t let my mind go there.”
Dianna had tested well for FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and tried again in July, without fertility drugs. It was a Saturday. She had a work conference Sunday in LA. She returned for three more days then flew back to LA for her sister’s wedding the next weekend. “After I talked myself off a ledge, I went the opposite way. I was certain it didn’t happen,” she said, but the day after her sister’s wedding, it was time to check.
She was insistent on buying a home pregnancy test that said pregnant or not pregnant. She didn’t want to decipher lines. She peed on the stick and called her sister from the hotel they were all staying at in Malibu. Her sister’s phone didn’t pick up. She called some friends on the East Coast. They didn’t pick up. She called her sister’s husband, Tucker*, who answered. She asked to speak with Michelle*. “Are you going to kill me because I left my cell phone in your room and it went off at 6 a.m.?”
Dianna said, “No. I’m pregnant.”
Magic and miracles continued for the nine months that followed – even though she was holding her breath until she reached six months. “I had a ridiculously easy pregnancy,” Dianna recalls, having suffered only the expected morning sickness and fatigue. She worked the whole way through her pregnancy up until the last month and fully pregnant, packed up and moved back to LA with the help of friends and family.
On Monday, April 11, three days prior to her due date, Dianna wrote an email to her friends telling us her baby had a time-line of its own. She had seen her doctor late that morning who assured her there was zero dilation. Six hours later she was timing five minutes between contractions, thinking they were Braxton Hicks. She called a good friend in Texas, who happened to be an OBGYN, who told her to take a bath and that while it was possible she was in labor, highly unlikely.
Less than two hours later, she was calling another friend in LA. “It’s time,” she said. “Get over here!” By 7:45 she was in a car, headed to Cedar’s Sinai hospital, hardly able to see the pain was so acute with three minutes between contractions. She wasn’t worried they wouldn’t make it to the hospital — it took 45 minutes to get across town; she was terrified she wouldn’t survive the contractions until she got an epidural.
By the time they arrived at the hospital, she was astounded to learn she had to re-register and answer questions such as, “What is your highest level of education?” She had already filled in the information required for admission weeks ago. She had no birth plan. “My birth plan was this: you went to medical school, I didn’t. Give me drugs.”
But there was no time for drugs. No sooner could she offer her name, she blurted out, “I have to push!” to which every nurse within earshot said, “Oh, no you don’t.” Sorry folks. They haven’t worked with Dianna who even without a baby torpedoing from her body is and will always be a force to reckon with. You don’t tell Dianna ‘no’ when she needs you to say ‘yes.’ Her baby was coming and she needed everyone to act.
The next thing she knew, she was in a birthing room with about fourteen wide-eyed staff people and a strapping young doctor who, according to her sister, looked like Doogie Howser between her legs. “You’re going to have this baby now,” he said, and she did at 8:22 p.m., less than 45 minutes after she arrived at the hospital. Remarkable? Miraculous? Without a doubt, magical.
Dianna Kearn met the moment she became a mother with as much grace and courage as anyone I’ve ever known. “I was suddenly so calm holding Catherine for the first time. It was the most peaceful I’d ever felt in my life. She was so alert. She had such bright eyes and I swear she was staring right into my soul.”
For eights weeks, she rode the postpartum waves, day by day, meeting herself and her baby moment to moment, fully present, not always happy, not always rested but without a doubt enriched, evolving and more resolved than ever this was the right choice.
The night we spoke, Monday June 6, was a significant day for Dianna. I will share an excerpt of the letter she sent to friends as testimony, that thanks to modern science and the support of steadfast friends and family, single women can choose motherhood:
Today was the start of a whole new chapter – we are on our own. As I mentioned today was a really good day and if you asked me what happened I wouldn’t tell you anything significant. Catherine slept for two 4 hour chunks of time last night and she maintained her every three hour eating schedule. We figured out the Ergo baby carrier and took Cash on two really good walks while Charlotte slept against my chest. I managed to do laundry and eat all three meals. I made a phone call or two and wrote two complete thank you notes. Yes, these are all major accomplishments in this new life of mine. However, what made the day really good is that we were completely on our own for over 24 hours without any visitors/helpers on the horizon. And for the first time, in my core, I am confident that we can do this. I am confident that I can do this. We felt like a team. We felt like a family – Catherine, Cash and me.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of my friend.
Bay Area musician Renee Harcout would not say she’s prone to premonitions. Chord changes and lyrics, yes, but not any portent of the future. Telling her band, Blame Sally, that she would have breast cancer was not what they were expecting to hear on a tour in 2006.
Five years later, Renee is rehearsing for Blame Sally’s show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco April 29 and 30 for their newest album, Speeding Ticket and A Valentine. The album, produced by Blame Sally and released on the Berkeley based record label, Opus Music Ventures, is the third in a half-million dollar record contract signed two years after Renee’s cancer diagnosis at age 50.
How does a middle-aged woman turn the worst news into the best life she’s ever lived?
Blame Sally was on the road in Colorado on their first out-of-state tour when Renee shared her premonition. She had just played to total strangers who, to her great surprise, loved them.
“That was a turning point for me,” Renee said last week at her Laurel Way Studio in Mill Valley. “Before the tour, I really believed that the only people who enjoyed our music were our friends. But people we don’t know are actually enjoying us. It’s not just our friends being nice. Strangers kept coming up to us telling us how much our music meant to them. That changed my life.”
So would the diagnosis. Her premonition was right. Renee had resisted a mammogram until she was 50. “I knew I had it,” she said, even though her family had no history of breast cancer. At the same time, she knew the events were conspiring at a deeper level to change her life.
Ever since the band formed in 2000 their motto was “if we’re not having fun we don’t do it.” But cancer made it real. They were no longer playing for fun. They were playing for life.
“I knew I needed to make Blame Sally professional,” Renee said. “I realized I had been holding the band back for a long time. And I was burnt out on graphic design. I wanted to do something that really mattered to me.”
Renee returned home after the tour to find a message on the answering machine, “We have the results of the mammogram and you need to come see us.” As if these words weren’t enough to put a buzz kill on their Rocky Mountain High, their refrigerator had died, too. “Everything was melting,” her partner, Jen Ryan of Mooloolaba Surf Wear, recalled with the kind of nervous laughter that comes after watching a loved one battle cancer and survive. “I was a mess.”
Renee recalls the next day and those that followed as surreal. “I sat on the couch for hours, stuck in this cone of strangeness. It was like a very bad dream. Then I was walking around the store looking for a new refrigerator and thinking, Oh my god. I have cancer and I could die.”
Two weeks later, one of the band’s partners was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
CHOICES – PLAY BIG
Renee considered her options and chose a slightly alternative treatment which included a lumpectomy and 7 weeks of radiation to both breast and lymph nodes. During that treatment she took time off from Blame Sally even though the band still had a few more shows booked. As the saying goes, the show must go on, and the band had to play without her — as spooky as it was. “They didn’t like it and said they would never do it again. Since then, we’ve all played shows with one Sally missing, and we all agree it just never feels right.”
The diagnosis compelled Renee and the other three members of Blame Sally – Monica Pasqual, Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones, to focus on their music as if their life depended on it. It’s not like they had a whole lot of time to decide. They were already in their mid-40s and mid-50s, and yet, because of that, established in their professions.
It was now or never. As a mother, Renee already knew about priorities by raising her daughter but she also faced a childhood fear. Her father was a musician and she watched him struggle to provide for his wife and four kids. As a result, Renee never considered the possibility of turning her love of music, even then, into something professional. Her father had her taking piano lesson since she was four even though she resisted learning to read music and “faked” her way around the keyboard completely by ear. She asked for a guitar on her 12th birthday after hearing a boy play “Magic Carpet Ride” and fell in love with the sound.
Renee didn’t even attempt to write any songs until she turned twenty, and even then, kept them locked away for another 15 years until she joined her first band. Diving into music full-time at the age of 50 was not an easy decision. She already had a ‘real job’ and was good at it.
Contrary to what most people would advise a women facing stage two breast cancer, slowing down wasn’t an option. During the months of treatment, Renee had a lot of time to reflect, inspiring her to write a whole lot of music.
By the end of December, 2006, Renee gathered with the band, friends and family at Muir Beach to celebrate her recovery from breast cancer. It was the first time we had met, and I was struck by how many people cherished Renee and whose love supported her recovery and her dream.
It was clear that music was the medicine Renee needed most at that time. She surrendered to it completely, refocusing the band’s objectives and attracting a manager, record label and tour support in the next six months. Cancer gave her no choice but to play big. Blame Sally has since released three records on Opus in two and a half years – obliterating every stereotype and statistic about becoming rock stars along the way. Wait. Rock stars at 50? Uh, yes. In Sally speak, “Hell, yes!”
PLAY AND THEY WILL LISTEN
After the 2009 release of Night of a 100o Stars, Blame Sally played to a sold-out audience at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and were named to Neil Young’s top 10 list on his website for the political hit, “If You Tell a Lie.” Later that year, in July 2009, they opened for Joan Baez at San Francisco’s summer concert series at Stern Grove, where Renee announced to 14,000 people that she was a third year cancer survivor. “People went berserk with support. That is such a beautiful thing. They were so compassionate,” Renee recalls, adding that at least a few people after every show come up and tell her that they are also breast cancer survivors.
Last year, they toured throughout Germany to adoring audiences and last weekend, they performed tracks from Speeding Ticket and a Valentine on the radio show “West Coast Live” where Joyce Carol Oats was the featured guest. It won’t be long before Renee Harcourt and Blame Sally are a household name. Bay Area rock critic Joel Selvin said about the band, “They have one of the most powerful world-of-mouth success stories I’ve heard in recent years.”
What do they sound like? It’s hard to say exactly because all four band members share the frontperson status. There is no ‘lead singer’ of Blame Sally, which makes them astonishingly one of the most functional democratic bands on the planet. Competing egos? Not a problem.
They’re like sisters, telling each other like it is. The result is authentic performances from mature yet spirited women who are comfortable in their own skin. The limelight is rightly finding them – not because they need it, but because they are more into giving joy to their audience than getting approval. Blame Sally plays what they love – everything from folky acoustic, blues, seductive ballads to bouncy pop songs, and we end up loving what they play.
PBS recently approached the band about doing a one-hour documentary. People obviously want to know who these women are. Their story is not only inspiring, it’s beguiling. Though they appear to have come out of “nowhere,” their 11-year history has depth. Their success did not come overnight. The didn’t just quit their day jobs on a whim. They paid their dues.
FOLLOW THE MUSIC
Renee recalls the early years. She’d been working as a graphic designer in LA and played part-time in the band No Strings Attached. At the advice of a former financial planner, Renee invested in a house in Van Nuys and commuted from ‘The Valley’ to her studio in Culver City’s famous Helms Bakery Building. After her car was broken into for the fifth time in Van Nuys, she decided it was time for a change. “I thought, this is not how I want to live my life.”
In October, 1990, Renee packed up and moved to Northern California, finding a sweet house with a view in Sausalito. “The first morning I woke up, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I kept thinking this is going to be taken from me any moment,” she said and laughed, flashing the smile and two huge dimples that have become endearing hallmarks to her audiences.
One week later, at the bequest of former band mate Nancy Felixson, (of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica) Renee entered the Napa Valley Song Writers Contest and won.
“The minute I moved up here, the music kept coming at me,” Renee said, relating how the contest lead her to meet Monica Pasqual, who was in the band Planet Ranch at the time. For the next several years, Renee’s band, Ruby’s Tattoo, would compete with Planet Ranch. “We were both very serious about trying to make it in the 90s. That was the big time to make a name for ourselves, but even then, people were telling us we were too old.” Monica was 24, Renee, 33.
Then in 2000, Monica had recorded a solo album and needed Renee’s help with the release performance. She also called established musicians Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones for a rehearsal, and according to the tale, they had so much fun they wanted to keep playing together – and Blame Sally was born.
A HAPPY BEGINNING
They would continue to meet at Monica’s San Francisco apartment where her boyfriend and their friend, Pepe, lavished the women with fine wine and meals. “Pepe kept telling us to come back and play. We had so much fun,” Renee recalls of those early years. “Pepe would make this fantastic food. We’d sing for two hours, eat, play some more music, drink. That was how we worked for a long time. Lots of food, wine and fun. That was the foundation of Blame Sally.”
Blame Sally would play some of their very first shows at the Bazaar Café in San Francisco, where Jen Ryan remembers “people spilling out of the café and lined-up down the sidewalk trying to listen.” The Sally’s were being followed whether or not they knew it at the time; the truth is they have always had a loyal following. And their friends are also true fans.
It will be exciting to watch Blame Sally perform Speeding Ticket and a Valentine, a lyric in the song “Living Without You” that Renee wrote prior to being pulled over by a cop for speeding while on tour in Oregon last year. According to the story, the cop was really cute and after he issued the ticket, Renee turned to her band mates and said, “Now that was a speeding ticket and a Valentine.” Not unlike the diagnosis that begged Renee to confront the one question that would change her life: Are you really doing what you love? She can honestly say yes now.
“You have to be clear about what you want, to get what you want. What changed was my heart,” she said. One year after she had the contract with Opus, she made the bold decision to sell her share of i4Design, the graphic design firm she had worked with for nearly twenty years.
“It was the scariest decision I had to make. Graphic design wasn’t filling my soul and I needed to do more music. So the choice was easy. I feel very grateful I never had to find ‘the thing’ that fills me up. I’m lucky. I wake up every day and feel grateful that I get to go to work.”
Hopefully Renee Harcourt knows now that the Sausalito morning she had so long ago is hers to keep. The dream didn’t die and heaven, she discovered, is anywhere she’s on stage singing.
I love a good old-fashioned card and I treasure those I receive these days, hoping to prove to my daughter that ‘once upon a time,’ we actual wrote letters to our friends. Imagine that? I will show her one card that sits on my desk that sums up the spirit of Aggie Hoff, a silver-haired, 74-year-old, woman I met a decade ago riding her bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge.
“These are the stages of life: You ride alone or with a dog in the basket (referring to the picture on the card). Then you ride with Gracelyn on the back of your bike. Next Gracelyn is on a trike. Then she’s loose in the world on two wheels going who knows where. Then you are riding alone again. Then comes my phase, back on a tricycle any day now. Meanwhile, I managed 35 miles yesterday,” she wrote in January, her code language telling me she’s back on her bike.
Aggie does not ride a tricycle. She rides a thirty-four speed titanium Seven and has probably put about 5000 miles per year on the bike since I’ve known her. She rides every week with a group of retired friends in Santa Rosa and crashed last fall, breaking her femur and ankle in four parts.
Despite the admonishment of her husband and family, she vowed to get back and ride. I applaud her but feel like I’m encouraging an addict. You see, Aggie actually needs to ride for ‘sanity’s sake’ she says, and I know I can always lure her to ride over the bridge to our house for waffles and stories. “Lots to tell you,” she writes in her card. I smile and fire up the waffle maker.
With Agatha Hoff, there is always lots to share. It seems like her whole life was meant to be a story and it is no surprise that Aggie herself has become quite a storyteller. Last summer, at the age of 73, she published her first book Burning Horses: A Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down (Sweet Earth Flying Press) a beautiful, hypnotic and haunting memoir told in her mother’s voice.
Aggie told me she was working on a book the morning we met on the Golden Gate Bridge where we learned we had more in common than a passion for bike riding: a love of writing and a history in Hungary. I spent a year teaching English in the country of her childhood.
I told her I would love to read her book someday and paused in the Presidio to exchange information then said good-bye. But like most friendships that begin on a bike, our conversation never ended. In November, 2001, after six months of editing, Aggie handed me her manuscript.
Aggie had been a retired attorney for years and was a stickler for details. She didn’t tell me much about the story other than it was true. I sat on my Clayton Street couch in a post 9-11 funk, read her words and wept. My bike-riding writer friend had a lot to share about courage.
Aggie had survived a war. She had escaped Nazi-Hungary as a child with a teddy bear stuffed with 10 gold Krugerrands that paid her family’s way to the United States in 1949. Along the journey, Aggie would lose her beloved family estate, her city, her father and her country; however, she would not lose her sense of humor, her belief in the goodness of people or her love for adventure.
Each year on her birthday, Aggie rides as many miles as her age. She’s the only 70-something person I know who rides ‘double metric centuries.’ Approximately 122 miles on her bicycle. Even if she wanted to tell tall tales about her bike rides, she can’t. They’re all true.
Unlike most storytellers, Aggie is not one to embellish. Her nature as a skeptic refuses to indulge exaggeration. She sticks to the facts, and yet in recreating the arc of her family – from aristocrats to refugees in Nazi-occupied Budapest, she masterfully expresses sentiment without risking sentimentality. In so doing, she captures the tenacity, courage and strength in her mother’s will to survive, traits she has inevitably inherited.
Like her mother, Eva, Aggie is a survivor. It takes the strength of a survivor to finish a book because writing one is like surviving another kind of war – waged in a writer’s head and heart. Am I good enough to write this book? Will anyone read this book? Is what I’m trying to say of value to anyone but myself? And the Devil’s favorite, Should I be writing another book instead?
Aggie never set out to write a book when she arrived in San Francisco at the age of 13 with her older sister and mother. She also never imagined she’d leave her country and become a refugee. The story; however, was always there, waiting for her to write it. She just needed time and perspective to do it right. So she lived her life, worked as an attorney, raised four children, and became the grandmother of three granddaughters, now juniors at UC Santa Cruz, Harvard and Yale. Between the days and seasons and years, she wrote and rode her bicycle thousands of miles, never forgetting the past and everything that had brought her here.
After her mother passed away in 1992, Aggie read through the hundred or so pages her mother had written over the years and realized she needed to finish her mother’s story. She wove together the events of her mother’s life, recreating Eva’s voice and her beauty. From the time Aggie handed me the manuscript, she would spend another nine years rewriting it through various workshops until she arrived at a draft that was ready for submission. Call it a lesson from a wartime childhood. Aggie had as much perseverance as her mother. Critical for the path of a writer.
It was during a bike ride, of course, that she shared the good news that she finally found a publisher after several rounds of rejections. That was the summer of 2007 when she was 70. Most people would have given up. Most people would have never even started down this path. Aggie started and finished, and when she told me about Sweet Earth Flying Press, her blue eyes lit up against the Pacific sun and we pedaled down the bike path saying, “Agatha Hoff, author.”
Two years later, her book remained in manuscript form on a desk in Texas. She kept getting the run-around from the publisher – talk of a review in the New York Times, a book tour, etc. But no set publication date. I started to worry. Aggie did too, but she didn’t let on that she was disappointed. Frustrated, yes. She dealt with it by riding her bicycle, rain or shine.
Then finally, last July, I joined Aggie, her family and two hundred of her friends at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco for her first book launch. I held Gracelyn in my arms and stood in awe listening to my bicycle-riding author friend, read from Burning Horses for the first time in public.
Gracelyn and I waited in line for her to sign a few books. On the title page, Aggie wrote, Minden Jol, looked up and smiled. I had come to learn a few phrases teaching in Hungary, minden jol was among them and meant ‘everything is fine. Everything works out.’ Indeed it had for Agatha Hoff who’s found a way to turn tragedy into triumph with the help of a book, and a bike.
Ten years ago on a school playground at the base of a mountain in Northern California, a kindergartner named Megan and her mother, Nicole, embarked on a project that would change their lives. Nicole, a native of Zimbabwe, poked around the playground discerning which girls seemed to have a good relationship with their moms. Nicole was no counselor or psychologist. She was a former reigning national tennis champion of her country and put her competitive streak to use for one more triumphant match. This one involved creating a book club for mothers and daughters.
Ten years later, 14-year-old Megan and Nicole are celebrating the 120th book they’ve read with the same Mother Daughter Book Club they started in September, 2000. Though the girls have gone on to other schools, they’ve remained loyal friends and dedicated readers, meeting once a month to share dinner and discuss the latest book they’ve read. They’ve even taken vacations together, shared many Girls Weekends, and rallied at each other’s sporting events – enjoying the kind of supportive friendships between women that become the bedrock of a life well-lived.
“Sometimes life really hands you something purely magical in the truest form,” Nicole wrote in an email to me. I would have to say the same about receiving the invitation to meet her group for their 10th anniversary last September. They had chosen my latest novel, Kingdom of Simplicity to mark the occasion and they wanted to know if I could meet on a school night.
Of course! A mother-daughter book club? I loved the idea. I had to check this out given I had just become a new mom and was already reading Brown Bear Brown Bear to my baby girl, Gracelyn.
I love book clubs and meeting my readers is one of the greatest rewards of my profession. I’m always excited to meet them, and a little nervous, too. Not everyone is going to love my work, but I can’t help but hope that the story will touch them in some way. In this case, I was asking a lot – for the reader to dive into the world of the Amish and entertain the idea of forgiveness.
How would 13 and14-year-old girls, my youngest readers to date, take the story of a 16- year-old Amish boy who struggles with forgiving the man who killed his five sisters? I mean these were hip California teenagers. Would they even be able to relate to a story set in Pennsylvania?
What I discovered that night blew my mind. Not only had they fully entered the story world in the novel, they had recreated it. I entered the home of Cathy Paterson and her daughter Lucy to find a long dining room table set for dinner with a dark green table cloth – the color of Amish window shades, and an African Violet, a big part of the novel, in front of every place setting.
I was honored and deeply touched. Being received by readers like this was a great gift.
Cathy had heard me speak almost a year earlier at Westminster Presbyterian in Tiburon and told me she’d like to choose my book for the 10th anniversary of the Mother Daughter Book Club. I emailed back immediately and said, “yes!” I looked forward to meeting her all year.
I was the first to arrive and stood awkwardly in her kitchen, suddenly aware that I wasn’t just meeting Cathy’s friends and the other mothers on this momentous occasion, but I was meeting their daughters, too. I was honored, nervous and excited all at once. I had big shoes to fill.
These girls and their moms had read Caldecott and Newbery Award winning books. Booker Prizes and my all time favorite, The Book Thief. They were smart: well-read, articulate, poised. Very fun. And cute! They flashed gorgeous smiles through braces, welcoming me to their table.
In my perpetual sleep-deprived state, Cathy would help me to remember each of them later. In an email she wrote: “Kelly and Britt Haegglund. Kelly is an architect. Britt’s smile lights up a room as if her twinkly eyes hadn’t already. Nicole and Megan Scholvinck. Nicole is the founder of the book club. Megan attends Hamlin and wants you to read at Hamlin’s book fair. Maryse and Camelia Varriale. Maryse is the pharmacist who arrived after work. Camilia has beautiful wavy hair and a beautiful smile (without braces). Jill and Eliza Mantz. Jill is the brain of the Mother Daughter Book Club book. Eliza shared her favorite sentence.”
Though I was prepared to engage in the topic of forgiveness, I was more interested in hearing their story and witnessing the loving dynamic between these mothers that began when their daughters were so young. They had a lot to teach me about what is possible as a parent.
“The brains,” Jill Mantz, is working on a book about the book club. While we ate, she shared a photo album of the girls over the years. One image struck me: six smiling faces laying on the ground in a circle holding up a ‘six’ – the ages of the girls at the time of the photo. There were several more like this marking the growth of this special group from childhood to young adults.
Jill also showed me photocopied book covers that she’s putting into her book – a wild goose chase to recreate a decade-long list of books. She said it’s impossible to recreate it entirely, but she’s done her best to remember most of the hundred and twenty titles they’ve read so far. Her goal with the book is to help other women start their own Mother Daughter Book Clubs.
Seeing the titles made me recall my own fond memories of reading some of these books. Here was evidence that no matter how precarious the publishing industry might become, one thing was certain. As long as there were people like this who devoted 10 years to making a ritual out of reading with their children, my books, and many others, would have a purpose and be loved. Even better, books would continue to sweeten the bond between mothers and daughters.