Last Conversations Ever.


My mother lost her father this summer. He was 90, frail in body and mind, and by all accounts, probably ready to go. In the end, he didn’t suffer. He died peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him.

But it’s still sad. It’s always sad to say goodbye to those we love, especially when we have years of long and complicated relationships to sift through in the wake of their passing. For me, it’s sad to think that the sweet, little, Irish-accented man who told me the legend of donut-trees is now no more than legend himself. He was a good grandpa, always ready with a joke and a hug, impossibly cheerful, a talented artist, an amazing athlete, a devoted husband, and a world-class whistler. I will miss him.

But mostly it’s sad for me to think of my mom who has lost her dad. Her mom died a few years ago and so she is now, along with her brother and sister, an orphan of sorts. And it makes me sad for her – for them.

Even the best relationships between parents and their children are complicated – some more than others- and my mom’s relationship with her dad was no different. But she loved him. She loved him the way daughters love their fathers – with a combination of respect and affection, pride and fear, ferocity and deference. And always with a longing for approval and acceptance. That is just how it is for girls and their dads.

In the days preceding my grandpa’s death, the hospice nurse called and suggested that my mom say goodbye to her dad over the phone, as no one was sure if he would last the hours needed for her to reach his hospital bed. She was caught off guard. She knew he was sick and that he “had started down a path” as the nurse had gently put it, but she hadn’t thought about what she wanted the last words she’d say to her father to be. He had been slipping in and out of consciousness, mostly out, but before my mom could react the nurse had put the phone to his ear and she was up.

Perhaps it was better that she didn’t have hours or even minutes to toil over these words. The pressure of the Last Words Ever would have been crushing. But in the abrupt moment that she was faced with she simply told him she loved him and that it was okay for him to go. She told him she’d miss him. And she told him she loved him again.

After the call, my mom worried that maybe she should have said more. She wondered should she have said all those things we don’t say in the course of normal conversation: final absolutions, forgiveness for all the ways – little and big – that we’ve hurt each other over the years, thanks for the sacrifice our parents made for us that we can’t understand until we’ve become parents ourselves, gratitude for loving us, permission to leave, reassurance that we’ll be okay without them. These are not things we say when we talk to our parents. We talk about the weather. The kids. The job. The house. The traffic. The game. The damned politicians. We don’t talk about goodbye. We don’t talk about the Last Words Ever.

If the rightful order of the universe holds true, then most of us will outlive our parents. We know this. We grow up believing this. Our parents hope and pray for this. So why is there a question of things left unsaid at all? In a perfect world we would all make sure that we say how we feel while we still have time. But we don’t live in a perfect world. And we don’t always do the things we should – even when we know we should.

I guess we don’t do this because it’s hard. It’s hard and awkward and uncomfortable for most of us to even think about The End, let alone dredge up all those feelings we’ve had throughout our lives towards our parents. There are just so many of them… and they’re not all warm and fuzzy.

But I think the ones that matter are. I think the component of the Last Conversation Ever ought to be as warm and fuzzy as our selective memory will allow. We should use that last conversation for expressions of gratitude. For reassurance’s that even though they may not have been perfect, we know they did the best they could. For appreciation. For kindness. For love. For forgiveness.  For approval and acceptance. For permission to go on.

I want my parents to know all of the above – and more. I want them to know that I forgive their shortcomings, I appreciate their sacrifices, I admire their strength, I know how hard they tried to do the very best for us even when it was hard. And I’m sure if I asked them, they would have a list of warm and fuzzy things they’d want to be sure I knew too. But chances are the next time I talk to them, we won’t talk about those things. We’ll talk about the debates, the price of gas, what a nice Fall we’re having, how the car is running, etc.

Maybe what we need is a code. Like, when I call to talk about my air conditioner that needs replacing, what I’m really saying is – “Thank you for all the ways you’ve been there for me.” Or when my Dad complains how expensive his medication is getting, what he really means is, “You’ve been a good daughter.” Or when my Mom talks about her Pilates class, what she means to say is, “You may not be perfect, but I love you anyway.” Maybe if we could do that – there would be no need for Last Conversations Ever, because everything we needed to say would be said – over and over, buried in the mundane details of our lives.

So, on that note – I’ll end my more-maudlin-than-most post with a simple message to all of my lovely readers out there: I need to clean the lint out of my dryer vent.*


*Code for “Thanks for reading – I appreciate you taking the time!”


Bad Narcissist, Bad Narcissist!

Dear Readers:

In a decidedly un-narcissitic gesture (if I do say so myself), I am going to share with you something written by someone else that made me laugh out loud this morning. Those of you who know me, know that I do not laugh out loud often -so, even though I am scared that you will all stop reading my blog in favor of her blog I’m posting a link to a hilarious post entitled, Peter Pan Moms: We Won’t Grow Up. I found it on Ann’s Rants, a consistently funny blog about all things motherhood and womanhood. I hope you like it. But not so much that you will forget about me.

Narcissist Out.

Don’t Hate the Playa; Hate the Game: A Series in Three Parts

This is the first in my three-part series, Don’t Hate the Playa; Hate the Game (alternatively titled, What’s With All the Judgy-Judgy?). In this series I will explore the many ways that narrow-minded people try to make others feel small so they can feel superior.

Specifically, I will examine the self-righteous judgments some people make based on three factors: the books you read; whether or not you stay home with your kids; and finally, the amount of food you choose to snarf down on any given day. I have found people to be especially judgmental of others where these three things are concerned.

Today’s installment is about the odious practice of book snobbery.

I think there is a special place in hell for book snobs. I don’t mean people who happen to enjoy well-written, thoughtful, literary fiction. That is fine. Great. Good for them. I’m talking about people who make judgments about what sort of person you are based on what you read. For instance, there are those who assume if you read Jackie Collins, or Stephanie Meyer, or John Grisham, that you are somehow intellectually inferior to people who read Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, or Michael Chabon. Or worse yet, that Jackie Collins, or Stephanie Meyer, or John Grisham themselves are intellectually inferior to the Dave Eggers, Joan Didions, or Michael Chabons of the world. Which they may be. Or they may not be. But the fact that they choose to write plot-driven books about sexy vampires or lawyers, as opposed to the rich interior life of tortured souls, does not reflect on their intellectual status.

Some people read to learn more about the world around them; others read to escape it. Most of us like the advantages that both literary and commercial fiction have to offer. Neither has the moral high ground. The people who read nothing but gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, soul-crushing stories about genocide are no deeper, no more cerebral, no smarter than those who read about shoe sales. Reading is, like any other art form, completely subjective and should remain in a judgment-free zone.

Even more upsetting is when people inside the publishing industry proliferate these kind of snarky attitudes. As an aspiring author, I read a lot about the world of publishing and frankly, I am shocked that an industry faced with such an uncertain vicissitude would engage in such petty in-fighting. I read articles everyday about how this author or that book critic discounts the efforts of writers who choose to write “chick lit” or “mommy lit.” (The genre titles themselves are misogynistic and patronizing, but that is another post.) Critics say the same about  people who write mystery, horror, sci-fi, YA, etc. These critics suggest that authors who write books to entertain, and who are perhaps less focused on craft, are somehow “less than” those who write to enlighten the human condition with a precise and stalwart dedication to language. This kind of blatant snobbism is gross. It diminishes peoples experience of books – which is something the publishing industry can scarcely afford right now.

It would seem that people in the business of writing and selling books ought to stick together during this tumultuous time in the industry’s long history. It would seem that We, the Book People, in order to form a more perfect union between those of us who write books and those of us who read them, should establish literary justice, insure bookish tranquility, provide for the common imagination, promote the generally well-read, and secure the literary blessings of freedom to ourselves and our book-choices.

Reading is reading, folks. No matter what book you choose to pick up, it beats the hell out of playing Super Mario Bros. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…


Next post on 5/15: Working Moms vs. Moms Who Say at Home: You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Chances.




The Fine Line Between Being Helpful & Being a Douchebag.

For my birthday one year, a friend gave me a card that had a picture of two women sitting in a diner talking. One woman says to the other, “Where’s your birthday party at?” The second woman says, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” You open the card and the first woman replies, “Sorry. Where’s your birthday party at, bitch.” My friend and I both thought this was hilarious, as we had found ourselves in similar conversations many times throughout our long friendship. We’ve managed to stay friends for so long because she ignores my corrections and I ignore her dangling participles.

And while my friend and I have an understanding, I often wonder what the larger implications are of correcting someone when they mispronounce, use incorrect syntax, or just plain say something wrong – not inaccurate, but literally say something the wrong way. Is it helpful or is it douchebaggery?

Personally, I like to be corrected. As long as it’s done nicely. I feel like mispronouncing words and/or using incorrect grammar, is the intellectual equivalent of having spinach in your teeth. You want someone to kindly and discreetly let you know. If not, you end up walking around all night smiling at people (or ordering ex-presso), looking like a fool.

For example, the other night I attempted to sing the first line from the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and I belted out – a capella nonetheless – “Just a small town boy!” It took me a few seconds to realize I had gotten it wrong (she’s just a small town girl), and I immediately corrected myself. My sister-in-law who was sitting next to me, laughed – obviously embarrassed for me and said, “Yeah, I didn’t want to correct you.”

But what if I hadn’t caught myself and she didn’t correct me? I would be doomed to live the rest of my days singing the wrong words to that song. That would be tragic, right? Think of the embarrassment at karaoke night. Or at the piano bar. Or in my car driving my kids home from school. (That song comes on a lot, no?)

On the other hand, there are certain times when you should not attempt to correct someone – even if you think you’re being helpful. Your boss, your in-laws, your parole officer, the large dude in line in front of you –  they all get a free pass. I don’t care if they order the Poe-low chimey-chaaaangas with a side of tor-till-la chips and then say they are chomping at the bit to eat it. You keep your mouth shut. In order to correct someone, there has to be a certain relationship in place. Otherwise, you’re just looking for an ass-kicking.

But even among friends, correcting someone can get sticky. After all, some people feel chastened or embarrassed when they get something wrong. And sometimes people’s mistakes are so bad that you can’t really correct them without looking like a total snob. Gaffs like saying supposably, acrost, heighth, drownd, irregardless, and orientate – to name a few – cannot be corrected unless the person you are correcting A.) asks you directly if they said it right, B.) Is your student, or C.) Is your kid. Otherwise, you will look like a big ol’ D-bag. And nobody wants to do that.

I was recently reminded of a story about the Queen of England who noticed one of her foreign guests at a formal State dinner sip from the finger bowl, believing it was soup. So rather than correct him, she drank from her finger bowl as well – so as not to make her guest feel embarrassed. Now that is gracious. I guess they teach you things like that at Queen school.

But for the rest of us, the lesson here (if there is any lesson here) is if you choose to correct -and some of us are genetically incapable of stopping ourselves from it – pick your time and place. And be nice about it. Otherwise, just keep your big mouth shut.

Or, if you want to be classy like the Queen, drink from the finger bowl before you eat your case-a-dill-a.

The Heir & the Spare In a State of Disrepair


Sibling rivalry. This term gets tossed around like it’s no big deal -just another one of life’s rites of passage, like puberty or being forced to wear a hideous bridesmaid dress. And maybe the experience can be reduced to that kind of banal platitude for the siblings involved– but let’s consider sibling rivalry from the perspective of its real victims: The parents of the rivals.

There are days when my house is like the arena in The Hunger Games. My two competitors stalk each other in a kill-or-be-killed, all-out battle to the death – usually spurred on by some unconscionable sin like the taking of the last Slim Jim. (Seriously, my kids love those things.) So one kid hits/kicks/punches/scratches/bites/trips/pinches/flicks/smashes/swats/socks/karate chops/whammies/belts/tags or otherwise hurts the other kid… and the games begin!

Clearly, I didn’t see who hit whom first. I never see who hit whom first. I was in the other room checking Facebook working my fingers to the bone when the offense occurred, so I have no idea who is to blame. So now, I am left with Sophie’s Choice.  Obviously I must respond in some way, lest I give up my scepter that grants me power as the reigning overlord (which, FYI, they will have to pry from my dead, cold hands).  The choice before me is which of my darling children I will throw under the bus and make pay for the crime I am not even sure s/he committed. I am not proud to say, I have one kid I usually pick over the other.

Let me be clear: I do not have a favorite child. What I do have, however, is one child who tends to hit/kick/punch/scratch/bite/trip/pinch/flick/smash/swat/sock/karate chop/ whammy/belt/tag or otherwise hurt my other child just a bit more frequently. So, this is the kid I usually end up punishing, even when I have no idea whose fault it actually was.

The problem here is not the unfair punishment (frankly, it’s probably a well-need change from all the incessant compliments they get) but rather, that I think my method may actually be contributing to the rivalry itself, pitting my children against each other and creating an environment where when one kid misbehaves, the other kid wins.

But what are we to do as parents? If we opt out of the role of judge/jury/executioner and take a passive stance, Darwinian law would kick in and the strongest kid would always prevail. That doesn’t seem fair. But if we intervene, we end up singling out one of our children (fairly or unfairly) for “being bad,” thus ratcheting up the very conflict we seek to dispatch.

It really is a lose-lose situation for parents. Perhaps the solution is to blame both/all of the kids whenever there is any conflict at all. Any and all transgressions resulting in violence or extreme rudeness will result in swift and severe punishment of each involved party.  Maybe that would deter conflict and result in things being All Quiet on The Western Front.

Or maybe it’d just end with both my little cherubs turning into Monsters, Inc.

And leave me Dazed and Confused.


*Thanks to The Flying Chalupa for inspiring me with her post you can read here. Seriously, she is hilarious.

I Can Bring Home the Bacon, but the Rest Is On You.

One of the most iconic TV commercials I remember seeing as a kid was that one in which the blonde lady sings about how she can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever, ever let you forget you’re a man. Seriously. Those are the actual lyrics. The year was 1980. And I still remember the commercial all these years later, not because it was such a great ad (truthfully, I needed a quick Google search to remind me it was for Enjoli perfume), but because even at seven years old, I think I knew the whole thing was a total crockpot of shit.

Obviously this ad wasn’t just selling perfume. It was selling the You-Can-Have-It-All lifestyle to a new generation of women who had previously been shut out of serious positions within corporate America and who were largely relegated to the domestic realm. But thanks to the Women’s Lib movement of the 1970s, now BOTH realms were open to women. At the same time. This commercial was more than just a commercial; it was a sign of the times.

The fine folks at the now defunct Charles of the Ritz company were trying to attach their product to the now defunct idea that it’s a breeze for any woman to be a successful professional, a doting wife, an attentive mother, a gourmet cook, a meticulous homemaker, and a satin gown wearing sex kitten – all at the same time.

Here is what the ad was really saying:

I can bring home the bacon.

(Nice double entendre, Enjoli.) The first meaning of the word bacon in this line is obviously money. But perhaps, this line would have been more accurate had it said, “I can bring home 73% of the same bacon you can bring home – even though I worked just as hard for my bacon as you did for yours.”

The second ‘entendre’ of the word bacon here is actual bacon. The message being, “Yes, dear, I’ll stop at the market on my way home from work and pick you up some bacon.”

Fry it Up in a Pan.

The point here is clear: That bacon ain’t going to cook itself.

And never, ever, ever let you forget you’re a man.

“After I’ve worked all day, shopped, cooked, cleaned up, and read the kids a bedtime story, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spray on some atomized pheromones (aka, Enjoli), slip into that Some Like It Hot white satin number I have lying around and rock your world.”

Enjoli. The 8 hour perfume for the 24 hour woman.  

This is the official tagline of the commercial. Maybe it’s just me, but the subtext here seems to be something more subversive. There seems to be an implied threat here: You wanted it all, sweetheart? Well, here it all is. Be careful what you wish for.

If this commercial were to be update for today’s world, I think it would go something more like this.

Same jazzy woman’s voice singing:

You can bring home the bacon (but don’t forget to grab a gallon of milk and some greek yogurt on your way home).

Fry it up in a pan (or microwave it, I don’t care –I’m not eating that shit. I’m ordering sushi.).

And I’ll never, ever, ever let you forget that you’re a man… with a pre-disposition for arterial sclerosis, so slow down on that bacon. And for the love of pete, would you do some crunches once in a while?

The tagline would also need to be changed because clearly this is now an ad for bacon. Or The American Heart Association. Or perhaps sushi. But in any case, it is no longer an ad promoting the idea that women can Have it All. And thank goodness for that. We all know that while women CAN have it all, we really don’t WANT it all. We want to split it. We’ll cook. You clean. We’ll fold. You put away. We won’t let you forget you’re a man, if you get up with the kids in the morning. Our trail-blazing, bacon-frying, Enjoli-wearing mothers taught us that while having it all is a nice idea, the reality is fraught with boobie traps. (Oh, yes. Pun intended.) And the load is lighter when shared.

Of course, TV ads today don’t really have the influence they once did anyway. Thanks to DVRs, most seven year old children, rather than ponder the sociological implications of a quasi-feminist-while-being-actually-misogynistic perfume ad, are more likely to ask the far more concrete question, “Mommy, what’s a commercial?”

For a more serious analysis of the Enjoli commercial, check out Jennifer Ludden’s piece on NPR.

Book Review: A Good American

For this week’s entry, I am posting my review of Alex George’s new novel, A Good American. Alex is a friend and a fellow-Columbian (Missouri not South America) and has hit it out of the park with this book. Released just two weeks ago, A Good American has already garnered a lot of attention. It was chosen by Barnes & Noble and as a Best Book of the Month for February 2012, #1 Indiebound pick for February, and the No.1 Read to Pick Up for February by O Magazine. After reading the book, it is easy to see why. Alex was gracious enough to sit down with me for a short author Q & A which follows the review below. I hope you enjoy!

Book Review: A Good American by Alex George

Alex George has lived in Columbia, MO, for the past nine years. Born and raised in England, George moved to the States with his family in 2003 and worked as an attorney by day, and a writer by earlier-in-the-day. The result is his U.S. debut novel, A Good American. Like the characters in his book, George simultaneously feels great love and respect for his new country (he recently became a naturalized citizen) and a profound longing for the place he has always called home. It is this internal struggle, along with George’s enormous talent for lush, evocative prose that makes him the perfect person to tell this story of the Meisenheimer family; a story of how people become family and places become home.

A Good American begins in 1904 with the journey of Frederick and Jette, a young couple desperately in love and pregnant-out-wedlock, as they leave their homeland of Germany to start a new life in America. The couple leaves secretly aboard a ship that takes them across the Atlantic to New Orleans. (Jette says of their destination, “New York, New Orleans, what’s the difference? They’re both New.”) Upon arrival, Frederick is instantly bewitched by the strange, avant-garde sounds he hears coming out of a small Jazz club he wanders past. Already a music lover, Frederick immediately attaches to this new music, with all of its soulful, syncopated wonder, and it becomes the first of many things he loves about his new country.

Jette, who is by now Frederick’s wife, is not quite as keen to immerse herself in American culture as is her husband. When the couple eventually ends up in the fictional town of Beatrice, MO, she is relieved to be in a place populated largely with German immigrants. It is here that the Meisenheimer’s family plants its roots and here that the first of many generations grows and blooms.

The story is told by James, Frederick’s grandson, who proves a reliable narrator, guiding us through the family’s history – from long before he was born until present day when we learn (at the same time he does) that his family conspired for decades to keep a dark secret from him. Heartbroken and shaken, James must integrate this new information into what he has always believed about his family, forcing him to see everything -including himself- in an entirely new light.

George’s A Good American ambles through the 20th century in a melodious, mellifluent way – much like the Jazz music Frederick so loves. It draws readers in with the unique, funny, and sometimes tragic experiences of this family. At times, the story was reminiscent to me of Forrest Gump in the charming way it sets the fictional lives of his characters against real life events like World Wars I and II, The Vietnam War, the assignation of JFK, and the ubiquitous racial tensions present in so much of this time period.

Themes of complex familial relationships, duty, honor, resiliency, and love repeatedly emerge throughout the book, new and fresh with each generation’s story. It is impossible not to feel connected to this family and be invested in their outcome. In a way, their story is the story of all American families. If most of us were to search our family trees, we would surely find our own Fredericks and Jettes; people who came to this country in search of a new home, a better life. No family’s history is without moments of unadulterated happiness or soul-shattering despair, so it is for the Meisenheimers, but George’s story – beautifully written and deftly told, is sure to strike a familiar chord with many readers who will relate to the epic tale of family and their journey to become good Americans.


Author Q & A With Alex George:

JO: Is there any one thing you hope people will take away from reading your book?


AG: What I wanted to do with this book was tell a really good story – a big, complex story people could get lost in. I wanted to pull the reader in and make a connection with them. I think that is what good story telling is all about.

JO: Was writing this book based on your own experiences as an immigrant?

AG: In a way. I think everybody who moves to another country experiences a certain degree of ambivalence. The way I processed that in my head, I suppose, was to embody those feeling within these characters. Frederick is the part of me that wholly embraced America, and Jette is the part of me that was more cautious and homesick.

JO: You weave in real historical events into the fictional lives of your characters. Why did you choose to do that? 

AG: I found you couldn’t really tell a story that spans a century of American history and pretend that the real world wan’t going on. Plus, it was fun. I enjoyed including Harry Truman – obviously he was from Missouri and he did play the piano, so it was a natural fit.

JO: How has living in Columbia affected your experience as an author?

AG: This is an amazing town. We have lots and lots of talented writers here – and it is great. The biggest support for me is to live in place where this stuff is valued and appreciated.

JO: What are you working on now?

AG: I’m working on a new novel set in Maine in the 1970’s and 80’s. It is inspired very obliquely by the book Man on a Wire by Philippe Petit. It’s about friendship, gravity, punk, and the power of dreams.

And The Award For Best Dramatic Performance by an Abandoned 8 year-old Girl Goes to…

Today the Oscar nominations were announced. It was pretty much a roundup of the usual suspects: Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Woody Allen, etc. An impressive and deserving lot. But every year certain people get overlooked. I’ve recently seen a performance that would rival any of those that were nominated today. It was a performance so penetrating, so nuanced, so expert – that I can hardly believe it wasn’t in contention for the industry’s top honor. And it was carried out by my own flesh and blood, the fruit of my loins, the apple of my eye… my daughter Ellie, 8.  She wrote, directed and starred in this performance of a young girl’s struggle after being cruelly abandoned by her parents. For 7 days.

I know it’s tacky when parents take credit for their kids success, but in this case I believe we truly were her inspiration. You see, each year my husband and I go on a week’s vacation sans kids. And it was this event that proved the catalyst for her performance, so wounded was she by the betrayal.

It is a tale as old as time: Parents go away for a little R&R, kids are sad, parents come back, kids are happy. But to a dramatic genius (as she is being called by some industry insiders), this tired plotline was elevated and imbued with new life! Armed with nothing more than an iPod Touch and a free text messaging app, the young Miss Orr delivered a visceral, haunting portrait of a girl left behind by her parents with nothing but the love of her grandparents, her house, all her clothes & toys, more than enough food to eat, at least one shopping trip to Toys r Us, and more than one outing to McDonald’s. It’s a wonder she survived.

Here is a look (actual transcript):

i am crying i miss u. when I hear your voice it makes me eve sadder i am crying in bed and nobody knows it i am crying and i don’t want anybody to know and i am under my covers I really miss u and wish u would come back soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo badly. i am so upset i could scream out Loud in tears. and its not funny. fletcher is not showering and papa says its ok. i am not having a good time. i having a horrible terrible time and i will the whole week. i wish you never left.

And that was not even the highlight of the performance. Realizing her pleas were not having the desired effect of us hoping on the next flight home, she dug down deeper to produce an even more compelling portrait of a girl slowly unraveling:

Nobody knows i am crying but tears are dripping down my face and i feel soooooooo sad i love you ☹ ☹ ☹ My hair is wet from tears i’m so sad. WHY DID YOU LEVE. What time is it? sniff. It is 9:24 here. Bye i will cry to fall asleep Oh i wish you were here. i can’t fall asleep. Me and flootch are both crying waaaaaaaaaa. Wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwyyyyyyyyyyyy????????????? Still sad…… u said u would call us No Please Answer the phone i am waiting for u to call. Ddaad. i am so sad your having a good time and we are having a horrid time

And my favorite part, was toward the end of the performance, when – spurred on by our claims that maybe talking to us on the phone was making things worse, her desperation reaches frenzied heights and she responds with:

i am as sad as a hippo that stayed awake for 70 years. can you answer your face time. Please. i am calling you. i am in your bed and i don’t smell anything that smells like you and. i’m sooooooo sad . can’t you just come back

i miss u so much

i am balling

It is poring

Now if that isn’t an Oscar worthy performance, I don’t know what is…

Book Review: The Ruins of Us

When I’m not driving the kids around in my sweet minivan or trying to get “that smell” out of the carpet, I freelance for a local magazine called, Columbia Home. For the upcoming issue, the magazine asked if I would write a book review of The Ruins of Us , by Keija Parssinen. I enjoyed the book so much, I wanted to share my review here in case you, like me, love nothing more than plopping down on the couch and losing yourself in a good story.

The author, Keija Parssinen, is a lovely young woman of enormous talent and was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of her time for a short interview. I think you will find the story of her background and how it gave way to her book is nearly as interesting as the book itself. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe National Geographic. They just chose The Ruins of Us as their January book of the month.

Book Review: The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen. Harper Perennial.

Keija Parssinen’s captivating debut novel, The Ruins of Us, explores the universal themes of love, betrayal, and resiliency set against the backdrop of modern Saudi Arabian culture.

American-born Rosalie Al-Baylani lives a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia. She loves her husband, adores her children, and has grown accustomed to being a wife and a mother in the country she has been fascinated with since she was a girl. But Rosalie’s life is shattered when she learns that her husband of 25 years, the wealthy and powerful Saudi, Abdullah Al-Baylani, has taken a second wife and kept it secret from her for the past two years.

A heavy curtain of heartbreak, bitterness, and isolation falls over the Al-Baylani family as they struggle to make sense of their new reality. Taking a second wife is a man’s legal right in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but Rosalie always thought her Abdullah far too modern and far too devoted to do such a thing. While Rosalie is incapacitated from grief, and Abdullah from denial, the couple’s 16 year old son, Faisal, seeks comfort in a Muslim fundamentalist group with controversial, even violent, ideologies. This gripping story follows Rosalie as she struggles with fear, country, and conscience to make the heart-wrenching choices that will determine her fate and that of her family.

Parssinen, who grew up as a third generation expatriate in Saudi Arabia, deftly reveals the intricate, and at times messy, emotional lives of her characters, while providing an education on the culture and mores of contemporary Saudi life. Her rich, evocative prose is part love-letter to the land where she was born, and part critical study of its complexities. Through Parssinen’s skillful exposition, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with the character’s most profound and visceral desires, particularly in the case of Rosalie, Faisal, and the finely drawn Dan. However, as the story rises to its harrowing climax – and readers turn pages faster and faster -they might just find that, much like the characters themselves, they are unsure of what they want to happen next.

There is so much to love about this book. There is the intriguing story, the graceful language, the authentically flawed characters – but one fact stands out among the rest: the only thing black and white about this novel is the ink and paper upon which it’s printed. You will find yourself thinking about The Ruins of Us long after you put it down. So be sure to pick it up. (It comes out today and you can find it in your local bookstore or online at,, or

Author Q&A with Keija Parssinen

Q: You, like Rosalie, spent much of your childhood living in Saudi Arabia while your father worked for an oil company. How did your background influence this novel?

A: When I started writing the book, it was a way to travel back to Saudi in my mind. I left when my parents moved us back to the US when I was 12. When you leave Saudi Arabia, they take your visa and you are not allowed to go back. So, in a way, it’s really like your home is taken away from you, physically anyway. I think I felt I was being robed of memories. But in writing the book, I did a ton of research and in 2008 since my Dad was living there again, I was allowed to travel back. I stayed with Saudi friends in Khobar and got to experience life with Saudi family and really study the city – what it looked like, the colors, the sound of the traffic. It was fantastic.

Q: What were you hoping readers would gain from reading this book?

A: I hope they enjoy it, first and foremost. But also, I think the book is an honest look at how cultures clash and why. At its heart, I hope it does convey my belief that the human emotional makeup is universal. Our cultural elements may influence and get in the way of our relationships, but we all experience the same emotions regardless of where we come from.

Q: Faisal, Rosalie and Abdullah’s teenage son, becomes involved in a jihadist group. How did you decide to write this plotline into the story of this family?

A: The reality is I couldn’t write about Saudi Arabia in 2005 (when I began writing the book) without addressing the radical mindset of some Saudis. The anger and confusion of 9/11 was still very fresh in my mind, and I was trying to puzzle through why someone would think that way. I learned from Sam Chang, the director of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that the purpose of fiction is to ask, not answer, questions. So in writing this book I was asking, ‘How would a group of young men who believe America is occupying and in some cases ruining their country act and react in certain situations? And also, ‘What if a man takes a second wife? Is it OK? Is it ever justifiable?’ I read a lot of materials by Arab writers and Saudi writers offering opinions. I learned a lot. In some ways, it destroyed the warm-fuzzy memories I had from my childhood. But I gained so much insight as well.

Keija Parssinen earned a degree in English literature from Princeton University and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. For The Ruins of Us, her first novel, she received a Michener-Copernicus Award.


(F)Lying the Friendly Skies

Like many quasi-neurotic people, I don’t really like to fly. But not for the reason you think. My aversion to flying isn’t so much the risk of plummeting to certain death in a large, metal coffin – it’s more that I can’t shake the feeling that I’m constantly being lied to. It’s just a “minor” maintenance issue that’s delayed us for three hours. No, you can’t listen to that iPod during take off, it might interfere with the planes electrical system.  Sorry, we’re “out of” diet coke. Like anyone believes that. They treat us like we are  children. And the bottom line is that once you’ve boarded the plane, they’ve got you. You belong to them and they can tell you anything and you have no choice but to go along with it.

Here are my top picks for most egregious airline lies:

1. I’ll be right back with that for you.

Right. I’ve been waiting on a diet coke since 1998.

2. If there is anything we can do to make your flight more comfortable, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Your lips say one thing; but your eyes say another.

3. Use of cellular phones may interfere with the planes navigational systems.

If a cell phone can bring down a planeload of people – then why would the FAA let 300 people get on a plane holding one? No one’s buying it; they should stop selling it.

4. We’ll be on our way soon.

 ‘Soon’ is a hoax. Don’t be fooled by ‘soon.’ The runways are controlled by very precise people who are required to time events down to the millisecond. They don’t deal in generalities like ‘soon.’ Air traffic control tells the pilots exactly when they will be cleared for takeoff. If they say something like soon, chances are you’re screwed.

5. In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.

I call bullshit. I can’t say that I’ve tested the theory, but there is no way that nasty, polyester, piece of crap is going to keep anyone afloat in the middle of the ocean after it’s been squashed a thousand times over by America’s obesity epidemic. Then again, the whole idea of a water landing where people are alive enough to need a flotation device may be the biggest lie of all. 

Maybe they think that the general population just can’t handle the truth. But they’re wrong. We can. Don’t tell us in your cool, polished, pilot-voice that you’re going to have the flight attendants sit down “out of abundance of caution” because we’ve just hit some bumpy air. For God’s sake, man! Tell us that the flight attendants are tired and they just want a freaking break from the annoying ingrates that keep ringing that humiliating call button and summoning them for more peanuts. Or tell us that we’ve lost the left engine and the flight attendants deserve to spend their final moments guzzling tiny bottles of vodka and texting their loved ones. Either way, don’t patronize us. Just give it to us straight. (Preferably with a side of peanuts and that diet coke that we know you stashed somewhere for later.)